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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

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September 18, 2008

In the interests of raising the quality of public debate in this country, Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson have thoughtfully provided the public with a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of public intellectual exchange. We don't often get to witness great thoughts in the process of formulation, or sharp minds honing their arguments.

Jack Marx spotted the publication of a previously private email exchange between the two at The Sydney Institute and Monthly websites. Manne's is the longer, uncut version. Henderson's is published in two parts, and if there are prizes for comprehension-considerate layout and design, Henderson's wins.

Henderson is upset that Manne published an article in The Monthly suggesting that Henderson is one of a group of politicians and commentators who calculate the appropriate degree of horror at human slaughter on a basis which values political ideology over human life. Henderson is also cross at the suggestion that his only right of reply option is the online-only Letters to the Editor at The Monthly website. It's just not the same if a tree doesn't have to die for it.

According to Marx' word count, the tiff has so far clocked up over 8,000 words. That's got to be approaching the total output of the 2020 Summit.

As Marx observes:

"Significantly (perhaps) occurring just before the recent crash on Wall Street, the ancient feud between Gerard Henderson and Robert Manne has flared up again, a state of high emergency being thrust upon their reader, with at least two publications plunged into so much chaos...It might be important, when trying to understand a enmity of this nature, to look back of over the history of the disagreement, but sucks to that - that Henderson and Manne don’t like each other is all you really need to know."

That much is now abundantly clear, if it was ever in doubt. Hopefully somebody, somewhere, whose job is to document significant events in Australian intellectual history, is busily preserving these precious documents for posterity, even if they are only published on the crummy, not-the-real-thing internet.

| Posted by Lyn at 6:12 PM | | Comments (17)


Jack Marx's anti-intellectual pose does him no credit. It is an important issue in Australian political history. Both Henderson and Manne belonged to the anticommunist camp that smashed the left over the support of the totalitarianism and the gulag in Soviet Russia--the end justified the means etc etc

What Manne is arguing is that the Australian anticommunist camp supported, in one way or another, one of the great political crimes of the twentieth century, the Indonesian mass murder of 1965-6.This is:

where approximately as many died as in the Armenian genocide of 1915 or in the Rwanda genocide of 1994-has never before been discussed by anyone associated with the anticommunist camp. As readers of this exchange will see, Australian anticommunists supported one of the great crimes of the twentieth century in a variety of ways-by turning a blind eye to the horror of what had occurred; by openly applauding the consequence of the crime; by failing to discuss the atrocity in an appropriate moral register; by supporting in words and deeds those who helped unleash the mass murder; by denying publicly that these people had been involved, and so on.

The Australian anticommunist movement also has blood on its hands in its support of Indonesian fascism.

Gary I see where you're coming from, truly, but this decrepit jockeying between Manne and Henderson is far more about their egos than Indonesia, communism or justice, and you'd have to be blind not to see that (for the record, I'm no fan of Marx, either).

If either of these two Baby Janes should be pilloried, there are more recent crimes on the ledger.

I am not trying to gloss over the past here, but Indonesia has moved on, Australia has moved on (both in a fashion), and communism has simply moved.

Whether two (fairly vapid) 'intellectuals' supported one thing or another, over forty years ago, when they were like, twenty is not really a pressing question for the Australian public, or anyone. And their support - however deplorable the actions were - is not akin to pulling the trigger.

isn't this part of the history wars that have been raging for the best part of a decade?

I didn't read Marx' piece as anti-intellectual at all. I read it as being anti-childishness.

I agree with Patrick that it's more to do with their egos than anything else. Australia and Indonesia may have moved on, who supported what may or may not be a matter of some moment. But it's a bit worrying when the best we can do in the public intellectuals market is a pair of blokes who are still carrying on a dust up that started when they were bickering over buckets and spades in the sandpit as kids.

I'd also argue that being a public intellectual is more than just being intellectual in public. It's also about being intellectual about public space itself, thinking about how that space should be treated, what's appropriate for that space if you deem it worthy of respect.

Manne would be among the first to agree that accusations of elitism have done our public thinking space a fair bit of damage in the past decade, but to my way of thinking, this tedious sniping is continuing that damage.

I do see the childishness of the exchange. But to simply concentrate on this as Marx does is to ignore the more substantive issues about our political culture and so contributes to, and reinforces, the childishness of the debate in our public culture. Marx is just saying that the silly tedious spat should be held in private not public.

Why isn't he helping things along---helping create a more substantive public culture--- by pulling out the substantive issues? Maybe he does not see them?

you would not know what the substantive issue(s) was (were) from reading Marx's interpretation of the spate between Manne and Henderson.

Though Marx, is against the childishness of the spate, he reinforces the childishness in his interpretation of it. He does not mention the context of the ongoing conflict over the interpretation of Australian history at all, despite the pages of the newspapers of the media company that hosts his musings being given over to conservative protagonists. As Nan pointed out context is important for imnterpretation.

Credit where credit is due. Manne, to his credit, argued for this spate to be put in the public sphere and online in the raw form for all to see. Most academics still spurn the internet and continue to hide behind the walls of academic denouncing the horrors of online existence. Manne has endeavoured to foster the public sphere of our political culture beyond the newspapers, and the little magazines that continue to hide behind subscription walls.

The results are pretty awful. But it is up to others to pick it up and sift the wheat from the chaff. The wheat is there in terms of the criticism of the anti-communist right's whitewashing of Australia's history. Even though Manne often comes across in public as a pompous twit, he has the political courage to question the assumptions and views of the political tradition he once belonged to. He is not trapped by it---as Henderson is.

Marx, in implying that this spate is much ado about nothing-- a non-issue apart from the childishness-- is being anti-intellectual in his public pose as the hard bitten, street smart journo who has seen it all. He does not even mention the whitewashing of history as something important as he is too concerned playing out his character in a dimestore detective novel from the 1940s.

Interestingly, Marx did respond to a comment indicating he thought Manne had the upper hand in the more substantive argument, but with that odd comment-on-comments facility they have over there it's now lost in translation. Marx isn't the most popular person in the world, I know. From reading the comments I'd say he was writing appropriately for his audience.

On the whitewashing of history though, Marx has been highly critical of the role white Australia has played in Aboriginal Australia. His writing style comes into its own when he's writing about stuff like Palm Island. The clinical, intellectual style doesn't do the topic justice.

Also, I don't know squat about Indonesia in '65-66, so wouldn't presume to write about it. I assume Marx is in the same boat.

I agree with you on most of the points on Manne, but when it comes to publishing the tiff for all to see, I'd argue that it would take more courage for him, in view of his history with Henderson, to have chosen the more mature option of refusing to participate in bickering. If Henderson really is a troll and Manne really is concerned with the welfare of the public sphere, why continue with nonsense that just gives Henderson oxygen?

If Marx is writing for his audience in The Australian then the audience is anti-intellectual and has little time for critiques of their conservative tradition. They do not want to know. Their response is whitewash, whitewash, whitewash.

On Manne you write:

I agree with you on most of the points on Manne, but when it comes to publishing the tiff for all to see, I'd argue that it would take more courage for him, in view of his history with Henderson, to have chosen the more mature option of refusing to participate in bickering.

So that means no public engagement. The conservatives have carved out a legitimate space for themselves in the public sphere and write about a lot of public issues but those left of centre mostly ignore them rather than engage. So no public debate. I'm with Manne here--you have to start somewhere, even if it is the gutter, and you get covered in filth.

Surely a real issue here is not just the low quality of public debate in Australia, but the almost non existence of public debate. Most people ignore one another. Manne is trying to keep it going despite the stoney ground, even if the results are terrible.

So much of what we call public debate is the same old bunch carrying on their personal dislike for one another it's not surprising people switch off. Not that this country has ever been famous for being switched on.

Where are the other voices on these issues? Or perhaps more to the point, where are the non-partisan or bi-partisan voices on these issues? Or the voices of people who don't have pre-existing, long standing grudges against one another?

To my mind, this kind of slanging match was a hallmark of the Howard era we'd be better off putting behind us. If they've come to the point where neither side is capable of conceding a point to the other, they're no longer doing anything constructive.


I find it strange that those who picked up on this debate---the other voices---have continued to go about two grumpy old guys rather than begin to explore the issues. They have turned their back on the issues to comment on the personal dislike of Henderson and Manne.

From my perspective that says a lot about the public sphere in Australia. The issues have been placed on the internet by Manne for others to pick up and run with, and to take the conversation in different issues. All the 'other voices' can do is to complain about Manne putting the spat with Henderson on the internet for others to pick up on.

The complaints of the 'other voices' cover up their own failure to nurture the public sphere.

For those who are interested (or care), there's a similar, and equally tedious, dispute between Manne and Windschuttle mainly carried on through the Letters pages of Quadrant. For what it's worth, Manne is merely defending his reputation against what he sees as Windschuttle's ... err ... economy with the truth, but I doubt if I'm alone in not caring much. After all, I said and did things forty years ago that were foolish, or that I wouldn't say with an extra forty years of experience, but I don't endlessly go over the rights and wrongs of it. I'd be too embarrassed, for a start.

That's true Gary. It's pretty much doing the same thing Manne and Henderson are doing. Which led me to wonder what we're talking about when we say Public Intellectual.

When I said 'other voices' I was thinking of established academics, professional thinking types, experts who would be in a position to argue the substantive issues. But you rightly point out that while they're intellectuals, they choose not to be public ones and instead hide behind paywalls.

We seem to be stuck with a model where expertise becomes debased the minute it becomes public, because of the way 'debate' is carried on. And you can't blame smart people for not wanting to get involved in that. Not while tabloid rules.

David makes another good point which applies in Manne's case. If you go public you're on the record as believing such and such. To my mind a true intellectual should be able to change their position if debate shows their old position is weak. Manne did that and has been criticised for it ever since.

Then there's Helen Dale who was wilfully misunderstood, hasn't changed her position, and is still copping crap for it.

What is the actual problem here? Is it the politically partisan nature of the forums that host 'public debate', is it the way those 'debates' are conducted, or is it something about the personalities that dominate those?

Whatever the problem, you're right about the public sphere. If it ever did resemble the ideal, it's well and truly broken.

why is it that academic voice you often give expression to here continually views the internet (Web 2.0) in such negative terms?

This time round it is 'tabloid rules' in the public sphere. Really? Isn't it more complex than that? Other times the academic voice deems the internet to be a world of opinion and full of bigoted and prejudiced trolls. Surely, the academic voice being expressed--or referred to--- is the conservative academic voice; one that often sounds like the old mainstream journalist decrying Web 2.0

I appreciate that blogging is not popular amongst academics-(1) it does not help with the publish or perish research syndrome;
(2)academics must protect their intellectual property--no one can see what I read, think or write because I will be ripped off;
(3) the internet is not respectable--despite Wikipedia.

However, those concerns are largely about the state of academia in a digital world. Though is well known that academia has been slow to embrace the internet--- even though scientists invented it---there is no reason why blogging cannot become a respectable (read serious) academic or scientific publishing medium for the smart people and thinking types. It is academia that has a problem about Web 2.0 and its user generated content.

The reality is that a digital public sphere continues to develop outside of the porous walls of academia. The digital conversations that are taking place in this sphere may be low grade, but they have little need of academia's creditionaling or its authority. Nor do the particpants have much time for the elitism, or the disdain, of a bunch of academic teachers towards what they see as mere partisan rhetoric contaminated by nasty politics.

The model of the academic seminar as a form for the forum of public debate and discussion in the digital public sphere has long been bypasssed. Reason is not free from politics, and the expert monologue with a few questions at the end has been undercut by the technology of Web 2.

The old public sphere in the pre internet days was sustained by the small journals. Today it is the blogs and online journals doing it on a volunteer basis so as to sustain the public commons in liberal democracy.

I seem to remember that it was the old academic(Leavisite) voices that attacked Helen Dale in the 1990s as the author(Helen Demidenko) of The Hand That Signed The Paper and condemned her as anti-Semitic. It was Web 2.0 that gave her another voice as scepticlawyer.

When I said 'tabloid' and 'forums' I was talking about the small magazines, traditional news media, think tanks, talkback radio and so on which do still dominate the public sphere in Australia. I should have said that.

If I had a problem with the internet I wouldn't be here. You seem to have misunderstood my position on the whole mainstream vs the internet thing. I suspect that anyone who deals with any communicative form is going to have to deal with the free access internet sooner or later or risk redundancy. In my opinion that's a good thing.

no no it's not your voice. You've taken it the wrong way. It's about the way that you often talk about academia--- interpret academia's view of the internet. The picture created by that interpretation is academia's has a very negative view of the internet. it puzzles me as it stands in such contrast to Quiggin, Ken Parish, and Mark Bahnisch. That's my window or perspective onto academia as it were, and it is at right angles to the picture from your interpretation.

I'm not challenging the way you talk about academia. I'm just puzzled. Your interpretion is one dimensional--academia comes across as very conservative and as having an elitist view of the digital public sphere; even though academia has more more diverse voices on this issue than the conservative disdain for the digital public sphere.

Given the diversity why the conservative interpretation? Are things that bad there? Is it just your school? Or university? Or is it more general than that--eg., a characteristic of Australian academia?

I guess it is more a request to indicate the reasons behind your interpretation so that I can understand, since it seems to be so different from what is happening in the US.

The elephant in the room is the decline of mainstream media. Axel Bruns at Snurblog parphrases Margaret Simons at the Future of Journalism event in Brisbane.

Two key points Margaret made bear repeating, however. On the one hand, that the link between the business of media and the practice of journalism is gradually being severed - it is increasingly possible for some forms of journalism to take place outside of the business environment (indeed, the best future for investigative journalism may now lie in funding by taxpayers, NGOs, or philanthropists, while quality political commentary in Australia is now found in citizen journalism sites more so than newspapers), while there is also a chance for journalists to extract themselves from employment by mainstream media organisations and set up shop on their own

On the other hand, then, this also requires journalists (and especially journalism students), to develop skills well beyond the standard journalistic craft. Margaret stressed quite strongly that journalism students would be well advised to learn about business plans, and to seek a possible professional future in alternative ventures rather than relying on the availability of employment in the mainstream industry.

This change is caused by economics not technology.

Gary, they are very difficult questions to answer without generalising, and it is very complex.

Simply, you don't bring in grants or other funding, or get published in prestigious journals, hanging around on the internet all day. You can't keep up with developments in your field (published in journals) and you're not engaging with students. None of the 50 students I asked last week had heard of blogs outside MySpace. Since your colleagues are not involved with the internet, you're not being a good colleague either.

It's not necessarily individual academics' aversion, although there is that too. Communicating directly with the public is just not high on the priority list.

On publishing, I'd point out that the paywalls are there to protect publishers' copyright. Different publishers have different rules about these things, but academics are increasingly making their drafts available online.

In the current climate, it's a very brave junior academic who gets too involved. That's partly because it doesn't contribute to career building, partly because of conservatism, partly because so little of what goes on on the net counts as academic work or exchange, partly because of inadquate understanding, all sorts of reasons. It's seen as incredibly narcissistic.

I can understand why there's a reluctance to get involved when you look at the responses research gets when it is published somewhere that the public can comment. It's hardly what you'd call constructive criticism. My honours research was on popular perceptions of migrants and there's no way I'd want to deal with the responses I'd get at, say, OLO if it was published there.

The internet is mainly a new media form and, appropriately, most academic engagement with it is in areas associated with media studies.

It's no different in the US. It might seem that way from an Australian, and an online point of view, but it's not.

Something I've learned from having one foot in either space is that it's easy to get the impression that the online future is already here. It's not. The vast majority of everything still happens offline. While it's important to acknowledge that change is happening, it's also important to keep perspective.

Like I said, it's hard to answer your questions properly. Think of this though - if you were an academic, how comfortable would you feel about publishing online if your only experience of the internet was YouTube and Andrew Bolt's blog?