Nearly all columnists and commentators are cursed. That is, most will be visited at some stage by Cassandra. They will predict the future accurately – but their prediction will be disbelieved, and they will be disparaged.

Almost five years ago, I had a Cassandra moment when I wrote, in the conclusion to a book about our retreat from commonsense, that “Extremism breeds intolerance; it pushes people to polarise so the moderate looks extreme.”

I asked: “Do we always have to choose our politics, economics and behaviour from one of two extremes?”

In rich, complacent, pre-GFC, 2006 Australia, with the Pauline Hanson One Nation years well in the past, a prediction of polarisation in the community probably seemed extreme itself. Yet, here we are, in mid-2011 and the Australian Federal Police is having to assess two apparent public calls for the assassination of the Prime Minister and other Government politicians: one was heard on commercial radio; one was posted on a newspaper website.

In a report in Wednesday’s Sydney Morning Herald, the Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens commented that consumer confidence, according to some, was being affected by “increasingly bitter political debates over various issues”.

The Herald news story about the AFP investigation mentioned in its second par, “a rising concern about the increasingly spiteful nature of the public discourse”.

Australia has always loved its image as the country of the fair go, where people don’t get rattled and the world’s problems can be solved over a drink or three at sunset.

How things have changed. Now conversations with strangers and new friends have to be negotiated with the delicacy of a Metternich as you pace out the ground. The trigger topics are the carbon tax, refugees and which media you prefer. Then there’s gay marriage, workplace law … Dear God, let’s not go any further for fear I’ll give myself away and get into a messy argument right now.

Polarisation fractures a country and a society. It’s not just the big, all-out rows either. It’s in the tiniest of nuances that then shape our thinking. When the ABC’s Four Corners this week showed a public meeting of anti-wind farm protestors being addressed by Dr Sarah Laurie, who believes wind turbines can affect health, the reporter’s voiceover commented that her assertion ”plays to the mood of the crowd”.


Have I ever heard anyone on the ABC use the same kind of phrase to describe a speaker talking to the audience at, say, a GetUp! meeting? No.

The worst thing polarisation does is that it closes us down: we shut off from alternative viewpoints.

The federal government has The Australian in its sights and has done an extremely good job of persuading its supporters that the newspaper’s tough and questioning coverage of its decisions, policies and implementation has only ever been the result of bias and a desire for “regime change”. Bob Brown calls it “hate media”. That exaggeration tells you a lot about what’s going on inside that man’s head.

Last Saturday, the paper’s political editor Dennis Shanahan  wrote a careful piece in the Focus section pulling this apart. The cover of the section featured four front pages that contrasted the way The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald had handled coverage of Prime Minister Gillard’s first year and her bad poll results. The latter had made much more of a meal of it all.

It was a clever, arresting graphic that made nonsense of the claims of Gillard and Bob Brown. The trouble is though that only The Australian’s readers will have seen it.

Regular readers of The Sydney Institute blogs will be aware of the dispute Gerard Henderson has been having with the authors of All That’s Left, Tim Soutphommasane and Nick Dyrenfurth. In one par, the authors refer to four prominent commentators – Henderson, Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen and Christopher Pearson – and then, in the next sentence, give a list of beliefs that people on the Right now, according to them, have.

What struck me about the paragraph was the way in which the four were used like cartoon pop-ups. The authors apparently felt they could simply name them and ascribe thoughts to them and their readers would just nod knowingly.

Not questioningly.

Good on Henderson for objecting.

Have the two authors been able to substantiate their allegation about him? Not so far. Instead, in the classic move of a polarised society, they have first, ignored his complaint, and then insulted him and tried to turn him into a joke.

(In certain circles, just mentioning names like Bolt’s and Henderson’s is used as a shorthand, wink-wink joke to get a laugh out of audiences.)

The conduct is even more surprising when you know that Soutphommasane writes a regular column – “Ask The Philosopher” – for The Australian.

What does all this say about this country? Are we truly unable to understand that few issues are so black and white? When I moved to London in the Eighties and started reading the huge spread of newspapers there the first thing I noticed was how textured the reporting and writing was. I had been used to the starker reports of my homeland. Now I learned that to see things in different shades of grey was not to be a piker; it was to understand that few things in life are simple and that to reach decisions, you need to be across all the pros and cons and ins and outs.

It takes listening time but most of all it takes reading time. Except we now live in an age where even university students act up if their lecturers expect them to read intensively.

An Australian recently returned from America tells me she is astonished at how often people here seem to demand that answers on crucial questions – climate change, refugees – be spoon-fed to them. “Can’t they do the reading and think it through for themselves?” she asked.

If you’re not prepared to do the hard yards and understand exactly why you hold the beliefs you do, then you probably won’t feel comfortable listening to an opponent’s views either or engaging with them.

If we have fulfilled Ray Bradbury’s argument in Fahrenheit 451, that “You don’t have to burn books, do you, if the world starts to fill up with non-readers, non-learners, non-knowers?” then ignorance – and the inevitable polarisation between opposing camps – is the result.

Funnily, the more black and white we are becoming in our thinking, the more self-righteous we get about it. Moral vanity is the name of that game but too often it can disguise  something that could almost be called moral vapidity.

A couple of weeks ago, on Ten’s new show Can of Worms, the panel of celebrities – TV gardener Don Burke, TV news journalist Jessica Rowe and radio presenter/comedian Tom Ballard – was asked if the burqa, which is the full covering worn by a woman and, strictly speaking, even has mesh over the eyes, was out of place in Australia. They all agreed: NO. (Poll figures provided by the show revealed that 59 per cent of Australians disagreed with them.)

Rowe, for whom I usually have a lot of time, argued that Australians should be willing to embrace difference. Hello? Of course we should but did Rowe really not get the fact that burqas strip women of the ability to publicly display their differences?

Or was her real problem that to be seen questioning the burqa is now considered such bad form in certain polarised circles that those words fell dutifully out of her mouth without too much scrutiny from her brain cells?

If that’s the way we’re heading, then yes, I was right back in 2006. To be moderate – ie to say, question the burqa on various grounds from what it’s doing to the health of the wearer to what it’s doing to her human rights – now looks extreme.

We are worse off for the shift.


While on the burqa, here’s a brain game. Just imagine for a second that burqas were worn by Muslim men instead of women. Yes, yes, yes, don’t bark or laugh hysterically: I know it’s a mode of dress only adopted by women but go along with me here. Just try and imagine Sydney’s Pitt Street mall on a busy Saturday, thronging with large numbers of men in garb that covers everything except their eyes.

Now, how do you feel? How many people do you reckon would then be tolerant? I bet most people would feel just a tad unsettled; some would feel threatened or suspicious.

That’s because we associate men with power, with action. A  covered-up man, or group of covered-up men, is scary.

Yet large chunks of the progressive population are happy to allow women to be covered up. Is that because they still – deep down and instinctively – see women as docile, unthreatening, unimportant? (God forbid it’s meek agreement about the importance of covering up the curvy bits.)

When we tolerate the burqa, maybe what we’re really saying is: actually, women don’t matter that much.


Late next month, Anna Funder, who wrote the best-selling non-fiction account of life under the Stasi in East Germany, Stasiland, will see her first novel published, by Penguin: All That I Am. I’m looking forward to it. What I’m also noticing is how crowded bookshop shelves are with new books – fiction and non-fiction – based on events in Nazi Germany. If I wanted, I could read nothing but such titles for the rest of my life and my bedside table would always have new supplies. I’m currently reading In the Garden of Beasts – about the low-key history professor, William E. Dodd, who was sent by Franklin D. Roosevelt to Berlin in 1933 to be the new United States ambassador. (His daughter was soon dating the head of the Gestapo and a spy for Soviet Russia.)

I could just as easily be reading Sarah’s Key, The Death of the Adversary or End of the Night Girl and there are many, many more, including the new English edition of Alone In Berlin (fiction) which, like The Death of the Adversary, was first published in Germany after that war ended.

How come all this focus? I’m guessing our escape instinct is on high alert. Many of us are feeling uneasy, as if black clouds are gathering. Should I stay or should I go? (But where?) We want to imagine what it’s like to face the most important question: would you acquiesce to evil or would you rebel?

I can’t speak for your bravery in the face of piano wire or my own. I’d like to think the rise in Nazi-focussed books speaks of a growing audience somewhere testing, at least in the imagination, its moral courage.


I don’t have a car and, as I live so close to the CBD, I mostly walk everywhere. As a result, I am often late; I keep forgetting to factor in the ridiculous lengths of time pedestrians in the CBD and very inner city areas spend, waiting for the lights to change.

There are some intersections – the Bent Street/Macquarie Street one is a stand-out – where you can meet a man, get engaged and plan the wedding cake in the time it takes for the lights for pedestrians to turn green.

Various bodies – the City of Sydney, the now abolished Roads and Traffic Authority – have, in the past, wept and wailed about the numbers of pedestrian deaths. Hello? Why are they surprised? Do they ever try to walk anywhere?

Of course pedestrians get foolhardy. I walk like the cartoon road-runner bird but I cannot get more than two-thirds across the major intersection at College and Park before the little green man starts flashing. What hope for children, the less nimble and dawdlers?

At peak-hour in Market Street or Liverpool Street, with no-one in charge seeming to give a damn about cars queuing impatiently and illegally across intersections and cross-walks, pedestrians have to weave. If a vehicle suddenly reverses or goes forward, hey, there go your legs! Then there are lights that never give the go light to pedestrians unless you remember to press the button.

Alternative Media Group publisher Lawrence Gibbons once complained to me, “In most global cities, you don’t have to apply to the government for permission to get a green light.”

Says a lot about how much anyone in charge, at least in Sydney’s CBD, really gives a toss about carbon emissions.


As this month’s post has been about power and its abuses, why not some more Eddie Izzard on who is mightiest of all. Please enjoy “Death by tray”