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Newsletter 407

Published September 20, 2021
Where is the Daumier of Oz?

Having looked at portraits as kitsch flattery last week, this time I’m turning it around with a piece on ugly portraits. I suppose it’s an obvious ploy but during these locked-down days one has to take whatever can be gleaned from the home library and the Web. The frustrating thing is that every topic is potentially a book once you start doing a little research. The tough bit is deciding what’s necessary and what’s not, then squeezing it into a weekly column. At least it stops me pining for lost travel opportunities.

The film column is just as tricky, as new cinema releases are few and far between and the newspaper is not keen on them anyway, so long as Sydney and Melbourne audiences can’t attend. This throws me back onto on-line services, and that in turn makes me realise what a lot of junk is being screened on these carriers. Most of the new series don’t interest me at all, and the ones that do – such as The Chair – prove to be a disappointment. Like Mr. Micawber I keep assuming that something will turn up, and it usually does. This week it’s the Netflix documentary, BloodBrothers: Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

Although some might feel we’re suffering from an overdose of black American politics over the past year or so, one would have to be completely obtuse – or a Republican voter – to not recognise the dominant role race has played in American politics and society. It’s hardly diminished since the Civil War! The segregation of the southern states, the voting restrictions (historically by Democrats and now by Republicans), the police brutality, the shameless false convictions in court, etc, etc. African-Americans have plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved.

Many of the things Malcolm X was talking about in the 1960s are just as relevant today – and that’s a terrible indictment of American culture. Put Malcolm X alongside Muhammad Ali and you’ve got an explosive combination but it was a combo that quickly came undone. How this happened is the fascinating part of Blood Brothers – which provides a lesson in the way radical movements are so often brought down by their own internal pressures and contradictions (with a little help from J.Edgar Hoover).

Back in Sydney I’m looking forward to hearing what Gladys has to say to the ICAC when she has to explain why she supported a $5 million hand-out to the Clay Pigeon Shooters of Wagga Wagga, against departmental advice. The fact that this would provide a political benefit – and maybe a little commission? – to then-boyfriend, Dagwood, is apparently not relevant according to the Premier.

The other great accountability issue this week is the mysterious blind trust that has generously paid Christian Porter’s legal bill after his scrappy attempt to sue the ABC – which resulted in a memorable victory for the lawyers on both sides, and large bills for the defendant and plaintiff. Personally, although I don’t have much time for Christian Porter, I can understand why he might have been upset by reports that painted him as a Hooray Henry at university, a teenage rapist and a playboy Minister. Even if it were the unvarnished truth it looks suspiciously like a premeditated campagn to scupper Porter’s reputation and political ambitions.

Whether a government minister should have privately sued the government-supported broadcaster is another matter altogether, as whatever damages were awarded would have come from the ABC’s skimpy budget. It also had the inevitable result of keeping the story in the headlines when it might have been expected to die down, given the short attention spans of the media and the public.

And now – lo and behold – an anonymous benefactor would like to pick up Mr. Porter’s costs. If a lawyer, and former Attorney General, can’t see why this is a bad look, it shows how far gone we are down the path of high political entitlement. It’s another sign, as if one were required, that Scummo is willing to excuse every blunder, every misdeed, every act of incompetence or alleged corruption, until it lands on his own doorstep. Then, of course, it’s a matter of choosing a scapegoat to be dumped under the nearest bus.

If I were looking for really ugly portraits there are plenty of candidates in Parliament House. Rather than another Four Corners exposé, what we need is someone like Daumier, who made a memorable series of clay caricatures of the politicians of his day, The Celebrities of the Juste Milieu (1832-35), giving each figure a nickname that indicated his true character. With some of our leaders it might be wiser to produce a few different maquettes each, as there are so many alternative faces from which to choose.