Keith Windschuttle

“Big government means small citizens: it corrodes the integrity of a people, catastrophically,” writes Mark Steyn in his remarkable new book After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. This edition of Quadrant devotes two articles to it, one by Daryl McCann, the other by Greg Melleuish, a degree of focus we have recently given to two other equally notable books on much the same theme: The World Turned Upside Down by Melanie Phillips (October 2010) and The Servile Mind by Kenneth Minogue (October and November 2010).

Big government, or “statism” as Steyn also calls it, is the cause of the major crises of our time in the economy and social cohesion. Steyn links it to the decline of America as the world’s superpower and draws pessimistic conclusions: the USA is going the way of Europe, with massive indebtedness fuelling the inexorable growth of the state, bureaucracy overpowering democracy, “sustainability” prevailing over economic growth, multiculturalism and political correctness embedding cultural relativism in morals and values, and state-funded institutions in education, media and the arts cheer-leading it all from the front.

This is a combination of social forces that conservatives in Australia need to articulate more clearly. Steyn’s book is a valuable primer on the topic. He writes:

Conservatives often talk about “small government,” which, in a sense, is framing the issue in leftist terms: they’re for Big Government—and when you’re arguing for the small alternative, it’s easy to sound pinched and mean and grudging. But small government gives you big freedoms—and Big Government leaves you with very little freedom. The opposite of Big Government is not small government, but Big Liberty.

A number of other articles in this edition, especially those by James Paterson on the culture wars, Kevin Andrews on the Rudd–Gillard government, David Henderson on climate change, Kevin Donnelly on the Gonski report into education, Peter Barclay on contemporary ideas about equality, and Michael Connor’s report on the Federal Court’s finding that journalist Andrew Bolt is guilty of racial vilification, explore particular issues that fit within this framework. It deserves to be the major intellectual talking point of our time. 

When former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paola Totaro e-mailed me in September asking for comments on the recent writings of Clive James for an article she was preparing for the Monthly, I got back to her straight away. Clive had written two pieces for Quadrant this year, both under difficult conditions, and I was glad to talk about them. However, I warned Paola that quoting me was probably a waste of time. Given Robert Manne’s obsessive, decade-long campaign to destroy my name, the Monthly was unlikely to mention me in any but derogatory terms. In 2009, when the publication’s previous editor, Sally Warhaft, exercised her own judgment in defiance of Manne, the then editorial board chairman, she was sacked. I told Paola the current editor, Ben Naparstek, was unlikely to risk the same fate, but nonetheless sent her three paragraphs to choose from.

It turns out the October edition of the Monthly reveals I was quite wrong. It publishes Paola’s perceptive piece on Clive’s recent writings and his struggle with leukaemia. To my surprise, it includes the second of the paragraphs I sent her. So, my misgivings were unwarranted and, accordingly, I disavow any thoughts I had about Naparstek not being his own man.

Because few Quadrant readers will bother to read the Monthly, and since there were two paragraphs of mine it did not use, for the record here is the full text: 

Clive James’s Australian Accent

If you did a blindfold test on a random passage from Jane Austen you could tell straight away it was written by a woman from Georgian England, and you could almost certainly name the author. It is the same with Clive James. His writing comes across immediately as the work of an Australian of our time. Yet it is also distinctively his own. Despite living most of his adult life in England, he has kept his Australian accent in both speech and prose. His two essays for Quadrant this year, on poet James McAuley and artist Margaret Olley, dwell on their Australian tone of voice. Clive knows this topic well since he has long been master of the art.

His tone of voice comes from the 1950s state high school systemnot from the teachers but the other boys, mostly from battler families. The prevailing ethos was egalitarianism, though not the chip on the shoulder kind. At the time, you admired people of obvious abilityClive has written memorably about rugby league centre Reg Gasnierbut you developed a sharp eye for poseurs, self-promoters, time servers and salesmen, and had fun sending them up and putting them down. These were the essential skills for literary criticism and Clive made the most of them when he went to London. They still serve him well today.

Indeed, he gets better as he gets older. In August, when I asked him to write about Margaret Olley, I received a great piece of 2500 words just three days later, composed under chemotherapy and sent from his bed in a Cambridge hospital. What a trouper!

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