Marr investigates panic in Australia

February 19, 2012
David Marr.

By David Marr
Black Inc., 2011
262 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Panic. “It’s so Australian,” says the dejected journalist, David Marr in his book of essays on the rise, decline and rise again of political panics in Australia.

Panic over the Chinese was the “midwife of Federation”, and subsequent alarms about German spies in World War I, Wobblies and Reds in the 1920s, Communists in the Depression, and the Red Menace all over again after World War II have kept the scares coming.

Moral panics over drugs, crime, queers and dirty books have never gone away. Now, a new cast of startling threats has been coaxed into hysteria over Muslims, terrorists, refugees and demonstrators.

With his splendid mix of factual clarity, moral indignation and sly humour, this collection of Marr’s essays, Panic, covers the wrongful accusation of terrorism against Dr. Mohamed Haneef (Muslim terrorists loose in our hospitals!), the Bill Henson child pornography scare (lock up your daughters!), the Wik and Mabo High Court rulings on native title (Blacks will steal your backyard!), gay marriage (the end of the family!), the Cronulla race riots (Middle Eastern types raping our women!) and the “security hoo-ha” over world leaders gathering at an APEC do (roll out the water cannon, snipers and Darth Vader cops to protect us from protesters!).

There are many things these panics have in common, says Marr. “Reasonable fears”, based on ignorance, are “twisted out of all recognition” by unscrupulous political, religious and media powers to promote a conservative political agenda in a climate of fear.

When the panics die down, they look “unconvincing and even comic” ― except for “this country’s intractable problems with race” which ensure bigotry-based panics a bright future.

Assaults on democratic rights are part of the scare package, aimed at not just the vulnerable minorities at the pointy end of the panic but at everyone ― “what is done to box in terrorists, defeat paedophiles and save us from invading hordes in little boats sailing down from the north is done to us all”.

In the name of protecting kids from artist-pornographers, the government censor flexes renewed muscle (mandatory internet filtering). Discrimination is legitimised (against gays and others who ‘deviate’ from the norm). Police power to subjugate dissent is expanded.

It is illustrative of the power of the panic that a principled liberal like Marr, in standing up for basic human rights, complains about being portrayed as a “notorious leftie” by the panic promoters when his stance is that “the fundamental contest in Australian politics is not so much between right and left as between panic and calm”.

Pure reason, alone, however, needs to ask one more question about the panic - ‘who benefits?’.

Those who benefit from panics based on racial, sexuality and religious prejudice are from one particular minority whose power against the 99% is reinforced by setting them at each other’s throats rather than seeing them united and storming the capitalist McMansions.

Marr, with marvellous verve and logic, blunts this divide-and-rule tool of the ruling class. But those who wield it need to be disarmed to spell the end of the panic. That is something only notorious lefties can do.

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