The Lot in Words finds Michael Leunig out of his element, and only occasionally in full possession of a reasoning mind. As a study of how debased a person’s opinions can become when cultural and ethical relativism run rampant it has significant value, but as a collection of prose writings it has no value at all.
There must have been a time in my life when I didn’t know who Michael Leunig was, but I can’t remember it. In The Age and in Penguin collections of his cartoons owned by my parents I learned first to love and then gradually, oh so gradually to understand the world of Mr Curly and his duck, Goatperson and the myriad confused and lost figures wandering through a world of sublime madness and absurdity.
Before the Howard years, before September the 11th, before the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Leunig looked on the world with a puzzled but essentially forgiving eye. He doesn’t do that anymore. Puzzlement has given way to perilous certainties, and forgiveness to fatuous cant.
It’s possible that Leunig is more to be pitied than to be censured for the change that has overtaken him – he’s old now, and the old seldom embrace the present with the enthusiasm of the young. And the world often presents itself as an ugly and frightening place. I’d like to be forgiving about him because his work has meant a lot to me all my life.
But there are times when it’s very hard to forgive, and best not to forget. And it’s very hard, sometimes, to let Leunig off the hook when he uses a pen to write, rather than to draw.
How about this for a classic Leunig clanger:
‘Might we, can we, find a place in our heart for the humanity of Osama bin Laden and those others? On Christmas Day can we consider their suffering, their children and the possibility that they too have their goodness? It is a family day, and Osama is our relative.’
Enough has been written on this dangerous bit of nonsense already (have a look at what Clive James has to say just for starters), and I don’t intend to add to it. I include the quote as an example of what Leunig is capable of when the bleeding heart and not the brain does the talking.
The Lot in Words is a collection of Leunig’s writings stretching from about 1982 to 2008, all of which first appeared in The Age. The pieces collected are not in chronological (much less thematic) order, and boast neither an index nor an introduction. The book is as disordered as the mind that produced it.
Two pieces in particular stand out, and they stand as exemplars of the two chief poles of Leunig’s thought: spineless relativism and wilful retreat from reality.
The first piece is called ‘The Message of the Mufti’, and here’s a sample of it:
‘Sometimes a religious figure, such as a mufti, gives a sermon about human nature, rape and the general sexual madness, a bit like what parents say to their children in private. “Look after yourself, take responsibility, there are some dark forces and crazy people out there who will destroy you if you’re not careful.” But the mufti uses ripe, rustic language, earthy metaphors and unpleasant ideas.’
He uses ‘ripe, rustic language’? Do you mean this kind of ‘ripe, rustic language’ Michael?
‘But when it comes to adultery, it’s 90 per cent the women’s responsibility. Why? Because a woman possesses the weapon of seduction. It is she who takes off her clothes, shortens them, flirts, puts on make-up and powder and takes to the streets, God protect us, dallying. It’s she who shortens, raises and lowers. Then it’s a look, then a smile, then a conversation, a greeting, then a conversation, then a date, then a meeting, then a crime, then Long Bay jail.’
Or this perhaps?
‘In his literature, the scholar al-Rafihi says: “If I came across a rape crime – kidnap and violation of honour – I would discipline the man and order that the woman be arrested and jailed for life.” Why would you do this, Rafihi? He says because if she had not left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn’t have snatched it.’
Because that’s what the mufti in question, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, said. And I don’t think it’s even a bit like what parents do (or ought to) tell their children.
And then, as if he hadn’t been feckless enough already, Leunig tries to turn the reaction against al-Hilali’s appalling comments into an excuse to deliver a homily on Australia’s intolerance of migrants, an intolerance which Leunig, naturally, does not share: ‘I like my immigrants with a lot of terroir, as they say in winegrowing circles, and displaying the idiosyncratic flavours and characteristics of where they have grown up’.
It’s barely a half-formed thought, and a classic example of why multiculturalism, when taken as a doctrine rather than a fact, is so manifestly unfit to shape our ethics. Already sinking like a scuppered submarine, Leunig hasn’t got to the bottom yet – but it doesn’t take him long.
‘The famous politician, culture warrior and pre-emptive war person Adolf Hitler… cleverly adapted the technical word Gleichshaltung to describe an ideal state of personal, cultural, political and economic alignment. Gleichshaltung: everything switching to the same direction, purpose and taste… “Fascism” is the stronger word but Gleichshaltung seems more appropriate to describe the thing we have come to know as the globalised, homogenised, new Australian value system. When you greet a fellow aspirational Australian, you might salute by raising your right hand with open palm and proudly shouting, ‘G’day mate. Gleichshaltung!’
How dare he write that? How dare he?
But he isn’t being daring, the dummkopf, he just isn’t thinking.
We all know (don’t we?) that someone who alludes to Hitler when Nazi Germany is not the topic under discussion has declared the argument over – because such an allusion proves beyond doubt that whoever made it is a cretin, and therefore someone not worth talking to.
And we all know that al-Hilali’s witless rant was disgusting for two reasons: first because it shifted the responsibility for sexual assault from the perpetrator to his female victim (not just an unforgivable utterance, but an utterly disgusting one) and secondly because it worked from the assumption that men cannot help but fall like satyrs upon any woman not swaddled in a burqa and locked in a darkened room.
And here’s a simple question: our various imperfections notwithstanding, can anyone tell me of a more successful multicultural experiment than the Australian nation? Where is it easier to get by without speaking the official language? Where is it easier to find an established community that hails from your home country? Do get in touch if you know of one, and if you could, include information about flights and naturalisation procedures. I’ll be there in a flash.
Martin Amis said that when multiculturalism is accorded the status of an ideology, the only culture which a person can criticise is their own. This is not a favourable state of affairs, but luckily Leunig is there to prove that point for us.
I’m in a state of hissing rage just writing about this nonsense – but thankfully we can now move from Leunig’s contemptible relativism to the purely mad bits.
You see, Leunig has the rest cure for a world in which misogynists aren’t allowed to ply their trade in peace, the land that is so intolerant of those who seek to undermine democratic values. It’s all there, in a piece called ‘Mania Posing as Passion’.
Once, someone mistook Leunig’s shed for a church. Having cleared up the difficulty, St. Michael went to pray.
‘I went into the church and stood in the silence. There was the altar, strewn with bolts, an angle grinder, bits of wood, wire and a chainsaw – all glowing in a shaft of light which descended gently from a translucent roof panel. The welder, the air compressor, the ancient cans of paint and jars of nails spoke of prayer, lust and liturgy. It certainly had the feel of a church, and I was able – thanks to the blessing of the stranger – to see it now as a serene chapel, a place of deep meditation where I might solve many problems in perfect peace.’
There you have it.
When the real world gets to be too much, just retreat into cliché, sentimentality and vacuity. That’s all it takes. But whatever you do, don’t see things as they are. That’s fatal. It leads to realism. And that’s never been any good to anybody, has it?
At his best, Leunig writes like a man utterly divorced from reality. At his worst, he sniggers like a man who got reality to sign a pre-nup. He’s a living national treasure, and a living national liability.
So lucky for him, then, that he lives in a country that tolerates that sort of thing. Perhaps one day he’ll grow up enough to realise it.