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Posts Tagged ‘Winston Churchill’

BOOK REVIEW – JAMES CURRAN: ‘CURTIN’S EMPIRE’

In Book Review on March 25, 2011 at 4:45 am

Below my recent review of James Curran’s book Curtin’s Empire, published in the Canberra Times.

Curtin’s Empire. By James Curran. Cambridge University Press.

If there is one thing the Labor Party constantly excels at, it is attributing hero status to its former leaders who served as prime minister. Few have been venerated more than our 14th Prime Minister.

To this day, Labor leaders continue to evoke the wartime legacy of John Curtin in the hope that any association with a great leader will rub off. The problem many of them face, including the incumbent, is that Curtin, like Churchill and Roosevelt, was a great man. For the recent crop of Labor leaders, the bestowing of greatness may take a little longer.

Curtin was a complicated character. A journalist before entering parliament for the Perth seat of Fremantle, he drank too much, suffered from depression and during the war he treated every soldier’s death like he would have his own son’s. And yet, at a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, Curtin charted a new foreign policy course that would change Australia forever.

Curtin’s famous statement, published in Melbourne’s The Herald on 27 December 1941, is taught in high school history classes. He wrote, “Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”

In his excellent book, Curtin’s Empire, James Curran suggests that Curtin’s words were less an “epiphany of Australian independence and a rejection of the nation’s Britishness” and more a cry for help. It’s a compelling argument.

We know from David Day’s outstanding biography of Curtin that the Labor leader would often spend hours on end during the night pacing the lawns of The Lodge worrying about the war effort. I read Curtin’s words as a reflection of the overwhelming stress he was under during an unprecedented national security crisis. It’s little wonder he paced around unable to sleep. I wonder if the current or recent past prime ministers have found themselves in the same situation?

Today, stark competition for cricket’s ultimate prize informs Australia’s relationship with Britain. It’s easy to forget, particularly for those of us who weren’t alive at the time, the solidarity and closeness between our two countries.

Recently my mother-in-law showed me her old passport from 1966. The familiar blue cover announced her as an Australian citizen bearing a British passport, even though she is actually of Swedish heritage. On the inside cover is printed, “Australian Citizen and British Subject”. No such words appear anywhere in my own passport, although I probably have a stronger claim to British ancestry than she does.

It is often assumed Curtin’s statement was the first time in our history that Australia had made an appeal to America to come to our defence. As Curran notes, Alfred Deakin, Joseph Lyons and Robert Menzies each made such an appeal to America and Curtin’s ‘look to America’, “although pronounced in far more dramatic circumstances, was entirely consistent with the orthodox Australian foreign policy doctrine of searching for security in the Pacific.”

Curtin’s Empire is not a new biography of John Curtin and it holds no such pretentions. It is the latest publication in Cambridge University Press’s Australian Encounters series, which aims to bring new ideas and perspectives to issues that are important to Australian society. To that end, it has achieved its goal.

Curran has scoured the archives in Canberra, Washington and London to reveal new material, including some of Curtin’s private correspondence, to cast a new light on Curtin’s vision for Australia’s place in the British Empire.

Although at times Curran writes like the academic he is, Curtin’s Empire is an elegant mix of scholarly research and accessible prose. This short book works both as an academic monograph and an important addition to Australia’s history.

By my reading, there are two valuable lessons in Curtin’s Empire. First, Australia’s relationship with Britain is, as it always has been, complicated and any future national discussion regarding independence will be unavoidably emotional.

And second, John Curtin shows us what it is to be a conviction politician. Future Labor leaders who aspire to The Lodge could do worse than read Curtin’s Empire in order to study a leader who knew what he stood for, knew how to articulate a vision and trusted in the Australian people.

If John Curtin is the benchmark for great Labor prime ministers, I can’t help but imagine it might take Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard some time yet to reach the revered status of legend, even amongst their party’s faithful.

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BOOK REVIEW – HARRY KREISLER: ‘POLITICAL AWAKENINGS. CONVERSATIONS WITH HISTORY’

In Book Review on March 19, 2011 at 4:38 am

Below my recent review of Political Awakenings. Conversations with History by Harry Kreisler. UWA Publishing. 286pp. $29.95.

LIFE’S DELICATE BALANCE

Winston Churchill once said, “Politics is not a game. It is earnest business.” If the collection of twenty interviews in Political Awakenings is an indication, he was spot on.

The University of California’s Harry Kreisler hit on a great idea over a quarter of a century ago. Since the university has long been visited by some of the greatest minds on the planet, he decided to sit them down and conduct a one hour interview. He called the collection of interviews, Conversations with History, the subtitle of this book which highlights twenty of the more than five hundred interviews he has conducted to date.

Some of our greatest thinkers and intellects have been interviewed by Kreisler over the years and I can’t imagine the difficulty he had in choosing a mere twenty for this book. I suspect we may see a second book in the series, if not more.

Political Awakenings is structured into eight themes, with two or three interviews in each. This book could just as easily be subtitled, Snapshots of History, given how little time we get to spend with each interviewee. So eminent in their chosen fields are each of these people that entire books could be written about each. Nonetheless, that each interview is presented in a question-and-answer style engenders a sense of proximity. Reading Noam Chomsky’s responses, for example, I felt like an audience member at the taping of the interview.

Kreisler asks Chomsky, “What is your advice for people who have the same concerns, who identify with the tradition that you come out of, and who want to be engaged in opposition?”

Chomsky’s verbose answer is pure Chomsky. He advises, “The same as the factory girls in the Lowell textile plant 150 years ago: they joined with others. To do these things alone is extremely hard, especially when you’re working fifty hours a week to put the food on the table. Join with others, and you can do a lot of things. It’s got a big multiplier effect.” And so his answer goes on. But anyone who has seen Chomsky be interviewed can’t avoid the mental image that accompanies the interview transcript. The way he slouches in his seat. The intensity of his eyes. His East Coast drawl. The beauty of this style of presentation is that the reader is a part of the interview. I’m not just lying on the lounge reading a book. I’m also engaging in an intellectual process. Not a bad thing in this day-and-age in which readers seem to prefer Dan Brown to serious books about serious people.

I was particularly fascinated and entertained by the three interviewees in the chapter Resistance Through Art: Iranian-American writer and documentary filmmaker, Roya Hakakian, American screenwriter and director, Oliver Stone, and Japanese Nobel Laureate, Kenzaburo Oe.

These three, in particular, have powerful tales to tell of their political awakening as young people. Each was affected and influenced politically by war, violence and the disturbing ability of humans to inflict physical and emotion pain on others. For Hakakian, it was her childhood in Iran as the Revolution failed to live up to its promises of freedom. For Stone, it was his experiences as a marine in the bloody quagmire that was Vietnam. And for Oe, it was his first visit to Hiroshima and his conversations with some of the victims of America’s atomic bomb.

Each of the interviewees in Political Awakenings has, in their own way and through individual experiences, gained a greater understanding of the human condition and an appreciation of the nature of existence. Oliver Stone says, “I don’t believe in left or right. I don’t believe in liberal or conservative. I believe in both.” Which is to say, life is a delicate balance.

Political Awakenings is more than a collection of interviews with great thinkers. Collectively, these interviews are a study in human experience and wisdom. There are some who will choose not to read this important book because of the reference to politics. That would be a great shame. Politics, at its basest level, is what makes the world go around. Its influence extends into both public and private life and, in as much as we may frequently try to avoid it, it is impossible to do so.

Political Awakenings takes giant strides towards answering Machiavelli’s 500-year-old political question: whether it is better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? The 20 interviewees in this book show that the world is in dire need of a little bit of thoughtfulness and a little bit of inspiration and a great deal of wisdom.