If, through omission or commission, I have inadvertently displayed any sexist, racist, culturalist, nationalist, regionalist, ageist, lookist, ableist, sizeist, speciesist, intellectualist, socioeconomicist, ethnocentrist, phallocentrist, heteropatriarchalist, or other type of bias as yet unnamed, I apologize … —James Finn Garner
James Finn Garner’s 1994 satirical children’s book Politically Correct Bedtime Stories: Modern Tales for Our Life and Times has aged very well, albeit ironically. What was once a farcical parody of the trend towards political correctness and an incisive comment on the censorship of children’s literature could now be mistaken for one of the many earnest attempts to “clean up” the canon. The depiction of the woodsmen in “Little Red Riding Hood” as “sexist’, “species-ist” bigots and Garner’s reimagination of Cinderella’s fairy godmother as a male “Fairy Godperson” is now perversely de rigueur. Indeed, it would have Helen Adam of Edith Cowan University—one of the most recent Australian academics to call for traditional children’s books to be cancelled—very pleased indeed. Adam has highlighted ten classic children’s books that fail to showcase “diverse characters” and “perpetuate gender stereotypes” and she wants them scrapped.
Apparently, “children need to experience affirmation of their identities and respect and understanding for those who may be different to themselves”. That sounds quite reasonable until we delve further into Adam’s article and discover that it is built on the philosophies of critical theory and identity politics: the idea that power shapes all social relationships. She writes that educators’ “unconscious attitudes, practices and expectations” of children in class may “negatively impact self-confidence” and “reinforce gender stereotypes”. Further, these unconscious attitudes are so deeply ingrained they impact teachers’ selection of children’s books, causing further potential harm. Her solution? Read her instructional woke pamphlet (“Gender Equity in Early Childhood Picture Books”, Australian Educational Researcher) and follow! It even has references to the United Nations so it must be right.
What the terribly serious Adam and her ilk fail to recognise is that while unconscious attitudes undoubtedly exist, and may cause harm, like anything else, her iconoclastic position is a conscious, and very loud, assault on individual identity itself. Identity politics reduces individuals to mere mouthpieces of the collective that defines them, and so dialogues between individuals are reduced to power struggles between groups they belong to. You don’t engage with your opponents because there is no “you”—only your group exercising power in the interest of the group’s identity. By this logic it follows that the woodsmen in “Little Red Riding Hood” cannot be read as individual men, and certainly not heroic ones, but must be read as “sexist” and “species-ist” products of a human-centric patriarchal society that must be overthrown. The result? Silence instead of discussion: the bones of cancel culture.
How did such jargon-laden critical theory—once almost exclusively espoused by university students on a diet of nouvelle vague films and Mao’s Little Red Book—come to the children’s section of our local public libraries? To kindergarten classes? And to our primary and secondary schools? Helen Adam is not an obscure academic but sits on the Australian Association for Research in Education, the Australian Literacy Educators Association, the Children’s Book Council of Australia, West Australian Branch, and perhaps most worryingly, the Primary English Teachers Association of Australia (PETAA).
Since the 1970s radical theories of education have generated a rainbow alliance of theoretical sects: neo-Marxism, postmodernism, deconstruction, post-colonialism, environmentalism, feminist, gender, queer theory, the list goes on. While these various critical theories tend to focus on their particular “oppressed” group and are sometimes in conflict with one another, there is one underlying tenet that binds them all unequivocally: a deep-seeded hostility and aversion to the liberal ideas of freedom, democracy, reason, debate, objectivity and truth. Consequently, the very existence of individuals (as separate from a groupthink identity) and even facts is dismissed in terms of false consciousness and unconscious bias. Everything must be deconstructed and critiqued in terms of power relationships. There are no Socratic debates to be had, no room for a “veil of ignorance” or an “impartial spectator”—and certainly no irony.
This is of course deeply worrying, most of all when we look to what is happening in our primary and secondary schools in Australia. The Australian state-mandated curriculum now resembles that of Czechoslovakian or Hungarian schools in the 1980s, the only caveat being the inclusion of hip, woke content such as environmentalism and queer theory, which is haunted, predictably, by the spectre of Marx. The three current cross-curriculum priorities in the F-10 Australian curriculum are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and Sustainability.
In order to achieve the outcomes outlined in the government-approved document—such as “promote reflective thinking processes in young people and empower them to design action that will lead to a more equitable and sustainable future”—education departments backed by teachers’ unions have farmed out schooling to Green-Left lobby groups. The largest and most influential is Cool Australia, whose teaching templates were used in 8400 of 9500 schools in 2020: almost 89 per cent of Australia’s schools. Over 1.6 million lessons were downloaded and used in 2020, and considering Cool Australia’s history of exponential uptake and our current Labor government this figure is almost certainly now much higher.
Cool Australia’s teaching templates read like Soviet-era propaganda instruction manuals. One activity aimed at Year 7 students is “Persuasive advertising about climate change” where “students analyse and explain how texts are specifically and deliberately structured to persuade audiences when it comes to authoritative and reassuring messages about renewable energy and fossil fuels”. Students are told, over and over, that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. Teachers are advised to keep in mind students’ “psychological safety” when preaching this apocalyptic message and are instructed to approach this “truth” with optimism, defined by Cool Australia as “looking objectively at a situation and making a conscious decision to focus on the good, and the hope is the belief that you can make an impact”. Here, making an impact involves students analysing a pro-Green advertisement and then using it as a template to create their own ad that furthers the Green cause. It is recommended that Cool’s Guide to Being Persuasive is used, where only one side is presented. An example given of a persuasive (read: correct) way to write is: “It is obvious that we should switch to electric vehicles (EVs). This is because not only are fossil fuel powered cars a leading cause of carbon emissions, resulting in destructive climate change, but EVs also save drivers money in the long run. Based on these points, you simply have to agree that we should switch to electric vehicles.”
We see ideologically identical “activities” when we turn to any other year level. In Years 9 and 10 students read the book and watch the film adaptation of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein—an anti-capitalist manifesto (her “most provocative yet”) that blames the economy for global warming. One case study is an Indian village’s protests against a coal-fired power station. In response, students are required to “explore alternatives to economic growth that serve human needs and minimise the impact on the environment”. Klein herself advocates the “transfer of resources and green technology to developing countries” but fails to mention that the lack of cheap, reliable energy is the main force consigning the Third World’s poor to destitution. In another exercise, students are required to propose a plan for wealthy countries to pay Ecuador not to sell its oil and write arguments in favour of the strategy of having wealthy countries compensate poorer countries for not exploiting their oil reserves.
Across the board, students are presented with one side of a contemporary issue as fact (in this case impending environmental ruin), the question of debate is omitted entirely, and teaching becomes an exercise in propaganda. Significantly, students are not only indoctrinated but instructed how to keep the propaganda machine going (it is almost as if they are training the next generation to produce the teaching templates for Green Australia 2.0). Deviate from this line and your marks will suffer, and your writing, too, if you choose to use Cool’s Guide to Being Persuasive. According to the handbook: “no matter what you are saying present your argument as the truth, and a point of view that it would be ridiculous for the audience to disagree with”. Language to use includes “It is certain that”, “You would have to be pretty silly to believe”, “We all know that”; while language to avoid includes any hint of critical thinking. On the no-no list are expressions like “Maybe”, “I believe that”, “It is my opinion that”, and “We could”. Not only would the Orwell of Nineteen Eighty-Four be spinning in his grave, but the Orwell of “Politics and the English Language”, too.
This brings me to the sheer amount of time spent on the propaganda machine at the expense of teaching our students how to read and write. The most recent Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO) report assessing NAPLAN writing results found that 85 per cent of Year 9 students are constructing sentences below the level expected of students two years below them, and most were using punctuation to a Year 3 standard. AERO chief executive Jenny Donovan noted diminishing higher marks in vocabulary, paragraphing, text structure, ideas, persuasive devices and cohesion. Significantly, her major concern was the overall lack of quality persuasive texts:
You need to be able to write persuasively throughout your life, you need to be able to write a persuasive job application … you might need to write a letter to get yourself out of a parking fine. [The students] can’t convey a complexity of ideas, and we need to be worried.
I cannot see one getting out of a parking fine using the infantile rhetoric advised by the Cool Australia writing gurus. But then again, by the time these students are old enough to drive, the idea is that cars will no longer exist.
In the utopian one-sided eco-program dressed up as the innocuous-sounding “sustainability” unit, teaching extends to bizarre mantras to be memorised. In Teaching the Language of Climate Change Science—another handbook endorsed by the PETAA and the winner of the Education Publishing Australia’s 2021 “Educational Resource Award”—pedagogical activists Julie Hayes and Bronwyn Parkin urge teachers to get children chanting “an Earth-focused school or class ‘anthem’ at assemblies”, in order to build “emotional attachment” to the planet. They suggest lyrics such as:
Earth is getting warmer, oceans rising higher
Storms are growing stronger, floods and fire
We know about the dangers, know there must be changes
The future is in our hands
This sounds bonkers, and it is, but it fits with the mission statement of the book:
This is a call to action. Without students taking personal action to mitigate climate change there is no point in this book … Actions that begin in the Early Years as socially motivated become increasingly backed by scientific understanding. Students deepen their sense of responsibility to influence others, and the spheres of influence become wider as the year levels progress, moving from the personal to the political … Each generation needs to become better equipped and coordinated, more focused and dogged than the last. In democracies, policy initiatives grip only with the support of the electorate, so the work of schooling is deeply implicated here. [Emphasis added]
The perceived limitation of democracy is no mistake, nor is the collapse of the personal into the political. Both recall rallying student activist slogans from the 1960s and 1970s. Nominally originating in second-wave feminist movements, the idea was that women’s problems were caused by an oppressive system and should be treated as such, even though they may appear purely personal. Following the success of this structuralist ideology for feminism it was weaponised in one way or another by all critical theorists for their particular causes and has now found its way into our schools, with the Marxist critique preserved.
Compare Hayes and Parkin’s “call to action” with Hungary’s 1951 National Core Curriculum, based on Soviet pedagogy. Its aim was:
to raise awareness of the fact that school is an important means of class struggle and a strong weapon of cultural revolution … Nursery and primary teacher training should become workshops of communist pedagogy. A dialectical materialist world view must be established there. Simultaneously, students must be taught how to behave themselves in a manner prescribed by the communist ethic and to adopt Bolshevik mentality and characteristics.
The only real difference between the Soviet approach and that of the pedagogues in Australia is rather than have students singing “Felszabadulás dala” or “Kupředu levá, zpátky ni krok!” we now have “Earth-focused school anthems”.
I choose the example of Hungary and Czechoslovakia for two reasons. First, to expose the wolf in sheep’s clothing that is at the centre of Australia’s education crisis, and second to hint at a potential way out of this increasingly pervasive dogma. When we look to the Visegrad countries we find that compared with the West they have not jumped on board the Green-Left train. We find little by way of “critical theory”, much less an embrace of all things “woke”. The most obvious reason for this is the stark difference in the intellectual development of Western and Visegrad countries after the Second World War. Put simply, the 1960s and 1970s were different. Compare the political turmoil in the West (feminism, the burgeoning environmental movement, protests against the Vietnam War) with the concurrent movements in the Eastern Bloc. Rather than emphasising individual freedom by way of emancipation from patriarchy, capitalism and American imperialism, the events of the Prague Spring and protests in Czechoslovakia and Poland were primarily concerned with national sovereignty. Behind the Iron Curtain—which lagged on in Hungary in the form of Goulash Communism and in Czechoslovakia under Adamec—any attempt at revolution was national first, and cultural second. The oppressed in the Eastern Bloc wanted their nation-states and religion back, after which came the possibility of democracy, basic freedoms, and higher living standards. The Central Europeans behind the Iron Curtain from the 1950s to the 1970s looked to the West and America as “the land of Elvis Presley”—a place of freedom and opportunity where dreams could come true, envisioning such luxuries for themselves under their own regained nation-states. Why then are the Visegrad four, now emancipated from totalitarian rule, so different from the West? We find the answer in what lies underneath contemporary critical theory (or what Derrida, the father of deconstruction, called the “philosophy of responsibility”): the dismantling of the Western nation-state, and any national identity, itself.
In a recent interview with the Hungarian magazine Mandiner, Richard Samuelson, an Associate Professor of Government at the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan, identifies in America’s outdated “civil rights culture” a form of critical theory working not to safeguard minorities through a “philosophy of responsibility” but the undermining of the fundamental social fabric of the United States itself. He argues that before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Americans had a robust notion of “public” and “private” as separate things: “To be private meant the right to decide whom one associated with, and to decide what to say and do. In the name of civil rights … we suspended that separation.” Samuelson argues that in the Jim Crow era, this was a necessary and just suspension, but now, under the auspices of deconstruction, that suspension is threatening to become all-pervasive and permanent. He shows how the addition of sex discrimination (from the start) to the Civil Rights Act has expanded to include sexuality (added since). However, the trouble is that “the regulation of sex and sexuality are, unlike race, inherently religious by their nature”. The result is that the Civil Rights Act and the “civil rights culture” that follows from it are:
fostering a set of governing doctrines that are hostile to the basic teachings of sexuality that have historically been part of Western culture, not to mention Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Hence many Americans today, unlike in 1964, believe that when a Christian baker refuses to bake a cake for two men who are getting married under local law, he is no different from Bull Connor, who infamously attacked peaceful civil rights protestors in 1963.
This undermining of freedom of religion in the name of a minority group shows where we are at: America once had a broadening of civil liberties (the inclusion of black citizens who had been oppressed, the legalisation of homosexuality) but now has a large bureaucracy dedicated to the idea that American culture itself is the problem. As Samuelson states:
Ironically, that is an attack on the civilisation that fought and won the American Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War, and that passed the Civil Rights Act, too. The reason why securing rights for black Americans took so long is not that cultural change is difficult, but, according to the woke movement, that America is, at its heart, irredeemably racist.
To use David Goodhart’s terms, the “Anywheres” have usurped the “Somewheres”—a coherent understanding of both the nation-state and Western culture ceases to exist. Samuelson finishes, importantly for us, with an emphasis on education: an education that inspires young citizens to love their country is the most important characteristic of a free and democratic republic.
While we have seen that the Green-Left dogma taught in our schools undermines the Socratic values of truth and debate in the name of a “philosophy of responsibility”, when we look to the other dominant cross-curriculum priority in the Australian F-10 curriculum—Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures—we find the deconstruction of Australian identity, and Western civilisation in general, writ large.
This is most obvious in the subjects of History and English Literature. In Year 10, under the “differing perspectives” module, students explore two statements by Australian Prime Ministers: Paul Keating’s “Redfern Speech” in 1992 and Kevin Rudd’s “Apology” in 2008. In this task—taking up six fifty-minute lessons as well as homework—students are asked to “explain the significance of events and developments from a range of perspectives” and present “different interpretations of the past”. So far, so good. When we look at the example of both a “satisfactory” and an “above satisfactory” annotation assignment that is supposed to “create multiple perspectives to present a balanced view on a past event”, however, we find no such thing. Both examples lavishly praise the respective statements, the only difference between a satisfactory and above-satisfactory outcome being the level of enthusiasm for Keating’s and Rudd’s speeches.
This is not surprising when we turn from the government’s official website to the Narragunnawali program website in order to find out what teachers are really following. Like Cool Australia, Narragunnawali is a substratum of a union-backed “independent” activist organisation, in this case, Reconciliation Australia. Education departments rely almost exclusively on Narragunnawali resources and lesson plans, as well as following their “Reconciliation Action Plan” (RAP) which is a formal commitment to reconciliation that supports the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Over 10,000 schools and early learning services in Australia have adopted a Narragunnawali RAP, which also extends its reach to the pre-service context, offering resources for tertiary institutions. Narragunnawali is overwhelmingly the dominant source used for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Culture education.
When we apply the teachings of Narragunnawali to the analysis of Keating’s and Rudd’s speeches under the “differing perspectives” module we actually find only one perspective: the speeches are necessary goods because they further the ideals of the RAP. Narragunnawali dictates that students’ learning outcomes must entail a reflection on “what it means to say ‘sorry’, and how this word can be appropriately translated into action in the context of Australia’s reconciliation journey”. There is no room for a “differing perspective” on Rudd’s speech—the argument that it was glib and empty for example, or any acknowledgment of Howard’s criticism—because that might interrupt Narragunnawali’s “reconciliation journey”. Being on the right side of history and ticking political boxes triumph over a rigorous interrogation of a text and any discussion of differing viewpoints.
This politicisation at the expense of the proper study of literary devices and context worsens when we turn to the study of English literature. Apart from Shakespeare—who is discussed anachronistically: “Othello: Was Shakespeare a feminist?”; “The Taming of the Shrew: Discuss Sexism”, “Drop the Mic: Hip Hop and Shakespeare”—almost all the novels and poems studied are contemporary works that fit nicely into the “reconciliation journey” theme. Many of these texts listed under “English literature” are confused with history, and the two disciplines collapse into one another.
An example of this is the study of Kate Grenville’s historical novel The Secret River. Grenville began the book as a history, however after being widely criticised by historians such as Mark McKenna and Inga Clendinnen, re-dressed it as a “historical novel”. While this is a legitimate genre, when we look at the reading of the text students are given, and the tasks they are given to complete (“task” here implies a correct answer rather than critical analysis and individual interpretation) we see that the novel is presented as historical fact. The title of the book is taken from anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner’s statement that there is “a secret river of blood flowing through Australia’s history” and it is this that students are invited to uncover.
Further, the only two essay questions on the novel are explicitly didactic: “What is it that makes this novel so compelling and troubling for its many Australian readers?” and “Consider how this book encourages readers to re-evaluate their beliefs and values”. This type of questioning takes the text as gospel, or more generously, it invites the reader to describe how Grenville constructs her opinion using literary devices; it does not allow any space to criticise that opinion. We should interpret the phrase “re-evaluate their beliefs and values” as “adjust their beliefs so that they align with the politics espoused in the author’s thinly veiled story understood as the real history of Australia”. It looks as if the genre “historical novel” was chosen over the novel itself as it more easily allows the space for a political opinion of history to be blurred with simple historical facts.
We find that this is the case, whether by accident or (more likely) convenience, when we look at the postmodern underpinnings of the curriculum’s over-arching module used in both English and History: “Differing Perspectives”. According to the New South Wales curriculum website, the definition of a perspective is “a person’s point of view”, and “people, groups and historians can disagree markedly about past events, their causes and effects”. In the Australian context, “quite often we are presented with the European perspective of events as there we can access written and recorded evidence of these events. Aboriginal perspectives are less familiar, partly as a result of the oral nature of their records. Nonetheless, both perspectives are of equal importance” (emphasis mine).
At first glance this might seem balanced enough, until it becomes clear that any idea of objective truth—here historical fact—has been erased in favour of one “perspective”. The perspective chosen is again informed by the capacious concept of “reconciliation”: “Studying historical differences in perspective, and consequent conflict, can help us understand the roots of conflict in the past and offer signposts towards possible resolution of that conflict.” Put simply, this is a postmodernist interpretation of history whereby it is posited that all “perspectives” are equal but incommensurable. It then follows that because we must work towards reconciliation, we have what Derrida would identify as a “philosophy of responsibility” to give voice to the minorities or victims of colonisation and “read against the grain”. This is a moral judgment derived from the premise that all historical accounts are equally valid. As with all moral instruction an outcome is expected—and in the case of the New South Wales Education Department we find that this involves students “setting the story straight” on Captain Cook.
In the activity “Who was Captain Cook?”, under the “historical empathy” module, students are required to read two articles: “What Australians often get wrong about our most (in)famous explorer, Captain Cook” and “How Captain Cook became a contested national symbol”. They are then required to “discover the answers” to rhetorical questions such as “Did Cook steal Australia from its traditional owners?” and “Should Captain Cook be a national symbol of Australia?” These exercises in comprehension do not allow for any “differing perspectives” from those outlined in the articles. Once students have considered the information, they are required to prepare a two-minute talk for their family on “The truth about James Cook”. Like the Green-Left exercises where impending environmental ruin is presented as fact, Captain Cook is considered a “pale, stale, male” figure associated with colonialism and slavery whose voyages should not be commemorated. Moreover, students are instructed to take their revised perspective on Australian identity home—an exercise straight out of Hayes and Parkin’s activist handbook. Under the heading “Spheres of influence” they write:
In the middle and upper years of primary school, the spheres of influence widen … Older students can influence others in the school, from younger students, to staff and the governing council. They can also involve parents and family in their actions. The highest year levels extend their spheres of influence to the wider community, to local shopping centres and the local council.
Again, the pedagogical theory that informs and instructs teachers makes the curriculum’s bias very clear. Regarding race, it unashamedly states that Western classrooms are ticking time bombs of racial oppression waiting to go off. A 2015 academic article, used in Australian tertiary education classes, alerts future teachers to the ideological term “tools of whiteness”, coined by Montclair State University academic Bree Picower. “Tools of whiteness” are “ways in which white people maintain racial hierarchies. They’re used to derail conversations on race, to avoid talking about race. They’re used in all the different ways in which we maintain racial hierarchies by obscuring the way race operates.” This extends to “curricular tools of whiteness” whereby the curriculum “functions to maintain white supremacy and teach the next generation of students racial stereotypes”.
Greg Vass from Griffith University employs such terminology in his widely disseminated article “Putting Critical Race Theory to Work in Australian Education Research” published in the Australian Educational Researcher. Vass recounts a story in which he observes a “White female peer” use “tools of Whiteness” in a “racialised” classroom “encounter”. Her specific crime? Correcting grammar. This has to be read to be believed:
“Aboriginals are people that experience racism in Australia every day!” The indignant comment came from Joey, an Indigenous student in the Year 12 Information Communication and Technology class I was observing. He was explaining this to a White female peer on the other side of the room. She claimed that a comedy program screened the night before was an acceptable “funny” sort of racism. In response to Joey she eventually called on “tools of Whiteness” (Picower 2009) to deflect attention from defending her position by correcting his grammar. The teacher and myself watched on wide-eyed without intervening. The other students remained equally quiet. It is now nearly five years later, yet the exchange continues to return to my thoughts because it succinctly speaks to the point that race remains central to relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians; concerns with race continue to imbue the experiences of young people in schooling; and educators (and education researchers) tend to continue watching rather than intervening in racialised encounters such as this.
The only legitimate point that one might take from Vass’s story is that it was perhaps remiss not to open up a discussion on questions such as “What constitutes racism?” “Are some forms of humour not OK?” “When does a joke become racist?” Instead, the absurd accusation that correcting another’s grammar is “racist” (presumably because English grammar is logocentric and oppressive) is what stands out. These structuralist philosophical theories are visible in Reconciliation Australia’s instruction manuals where we find absurd definitions of terms such as “Indirect Racism: when someone is being treated differently, but it is not clear that it is because of their race” and equally incoherent lesson plans.
On the New South Wales Department of Education’s website a proposed lesson plan involves the study of the rap song “I Can’t Breathe” by indigenous Illawarra rapper Dobby which demands “so called Australia gets their knees off our necks!” and asserts “They said Australia and America’s not the same / That’s bullshit! write to your member tell ’em what’s happening / You gotta challenge the white settler narrative”. They are then required to answer questions such as “Who is referred to in the collective pronoun ‘they’ in the statement, ‘they want me to hate myself’?” and to explain “fed up to the neck with … right-wing fascists”.
Exercises in self-flagellation and the deconstruction of “the West” continue in activities such as “Privilege for Sale”. Here Year 9 and 10 students are divided into groups and given different amounts of fake money to purchase privileges including: “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my race made it what it is”, “When I pay for goods or services, my skin colour won’t make me appear financially unreliable”, “Being able to feel safe in my interactions with police officers”, “My intelligence is not questioned because of the way I speak”. Another worksheet claims governments want to “subvert the true history of Australia” and that the “stereotype Australia is the Lucky Country” is not true as it’s only lucky for a select (white) few.
We should not be surprised, then, by a 2022 Lowy Institute poll that 20 per cent of eighteen-to-twenty-nine-year-olds believe a non-democratic government would be acceptable. The new postmodern liberalism, haunted by the spectre of Marx, eschews all discussion of facts, does not allow for debate, deems Australia and Western civilisation racist, wrong and obsolete, and is articulated in nonsensical language.
In August 1968, W.H. Auden wrote these eight lines in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring:
The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for Man,
But one prize is beyond his reach,
The Ogre cannot master Speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips
While drivel gushes from his lips.
The poem didn’t change the course of the invasion; however it did register a kind of moral dissent against the jargon and claptrap of a totalitarian regime. The end of the occupation in 1989 was remembered by Christopher Hitchens:
The system farcically evaporated in the face of a wave of literate and humorous and ironic and defiant words, uttered by novelists like Milan Kundera [and] playwrights like Vaclav Havel … Velvet has always struck me as a vapid word for this cultural revolution. If we must have a V, then verbal would be preferable.
Now, on to teaching our children how to read and write.
Lana Starkey is a PhD candidate in seventeenth-century literature at the University of Queensland, a freelance writer and classical musician from Brisbane.