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Newsletter 371

Published December 28, 2020
Ho, ho, ho.. cough, cough!

“So this is Christmas,” as John Lennon sang, “and what have you done?” A good question, as the year seems to have passed in a blur. When you’re at home day after day the weeks and months get melded into a continuum.

To tell the truth I’ve actually enjoyed this year. I managed to maintain my weekly schedule of art and film columns and got a lot of reading done. I was also able to write essays rather than reviews, and that’s a rare pleasure. The lockdown exacerbated my librarian-like tendencies, providing a good excuse to read books on the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and other crises. My book purchasing expanded as my travel options diminished. The big problem now is shelf space.

The pandemic has been a real test of character. Many of the artists I know have had productive years as they were able to spend more uninterrupted time in the studio. Those who were not comfortable with a little solitude went stir crazy. Almost everyone became an expert on American politics, watching in horrified fascination while the Trump Show plumbed ever lower depths culminating in a final flourish of spiteful madness that has yet to end. Will Joe Biden provide as much distraction? Hopefully not.

If anyone ever entertained any suspicions that Trump was really a tactical genius the way he handled the COVID-19 outbreak should put paid to that thought. Every other politician leapt on the virus as an opportunity to appear thoughtful, caring, respectful but strong. Trump simply lost interest because it didn’t fit his preferred version of reality, revealing his utter indifference as to whether Americans lived or died. With the smallest show of concern he could have ridden the pandemic to re-election, but he couldn’t be strategic for a second.

In Australia our leaders have been a lot cannier. They have played tough when necessary, been concerned when appropriate, and even apologised from time to time. The result is that Scummo has seen his popularity increase (although not with me), and Gladys has won accolades for her handling of the crisis – even as her government staggers from one scandal to another. We should all remember her statement about “pork barrelling”, which went like this: “Everyone does it so why shoudn’t we?”

One can see that Gladys’s parents never said to her: “If everyone else jumped off The Gap would you do it too? That’s not a good reason to do anything!”

It is, in fact, an apologia for amorality and corruption. For her next fashion statement Gladys should get hold of Melania Trump’s jacket with “I really don’t care. Do U?” written on the back.

And where is the Labor Party in all this? It has not been a good time to be in Opposition but Labor has been unable to make any worthwhile impact. Albo comes across as a perfectly nice but ineffectual character. Scandals have not been pursued with any vigour, issues have been allowed to fester. Internal divisions on topics such as climate change have been ruinous. Labor needs to find some personality and a bit of mongrel if it is to wrest back the spotlight from the Coalition.

It’s also a measure of a shallow and ineffective media that Scummo, Gladys and co. have been able to get away with so much and control the conversation even when they are up to their eyeballs in dubious deeds. It’s as if the media attention span has shrunk to the size of a tweet, with no resources or will to pursue stories to the bitter end. Newspapers might boast about a particular investigation or an investigative reporter, but not so long ago all reporters were investigative. Nowadays, most of them seem to spend their lives recycling press releases.

Let’s hope 2021 – post-pandemic and post-Trump – provides more opportunities for some more engaged journalism. The world may not have got stupider over the past year, it’s just that really stupid and evil people have found a greater means of expression that ever before. 2020 has been a year in which the most vile human impulses took on a militant dimension. If this tendency is not reined in we’re on a one-way trip down the plug hole.

The art column is officially on holidays for a fortnight, so I’m finishing off the year with two films columns: looking back on 2020, and looking forward to 2021. “Let’s hope it’s a good one,” to continue the song, “without any fear.”