Thursday, 23 October 2008

How on earth can you say that??

A few days ago the second issue of Red, a magazine published by the Office of External Relations, Griffith University, Nathan Campus, arrived on my desk. Throughout its elegantly designed pages it features contributions from the university’s academics. Griffith’s vice-chancellor, Professor Ian O’Connor, fills the editorial.
In it he speaks about the strong role universities must play in order to “develop students’ civic responsibility, engagement and contribution”; “build social cohesion through mutual understanding”; open “pathways some may have considered blocked”.
How wonderful it all sounds. How smoothly it nestles inside the artful layout, the subtle scent of rich paper which, we are assured, has been made from sustainable forests.
And what a world away it all is from the reality that has the same Professor call the police to have me removed from his campus because he didn’t want to talk to me; that caused records of examiners be destroyed to hide their identity lest their miscreant evaluation of a thesis may be examined in full light.
Words set in clean typeface against an aesthetic background can mean almost anything without loosing their gloss. The cocoon of luxury protects so well from the miasma beyond.
Here’s a contribution regarding the Iraq war. The costs of this calamity have surpassed the trillion mark as David Leonhardt writes, using some examples of what that sort of money could buy for his nation. Much harder to put into figures is the damage done to people’s lives, the suffering and the loss.
Politicians, like vice-chancellors, hardly get to touch what they speak of. That’s why presidential candidate John McCain suggested in June this year the US could be staying in Iraq for another hundred years. A hundred years!? Is there any concept of what an entire century of such a war means?
A cocoon comes in many guises. It can also shield from the deeper currents of one’s heritage. When our prime minister declared photos of naked juveniles by Bill Henson “disgusting” it was like a slap in the face for a European such as myself. I have walked ancient streets, touched centuries-old timber, and grown up with the gifts of great minds. The works of a Caravaggio, a Rodin, or a Klimt will not be relegated to shame and guilt just because a Queenslander cannot stomach certain art.
Cut off the roots and the trunk will succumb to every ripple. Daring to ask “what if”, surely the most powerful two words in any language, accompanied every celebrated human endeavour. Steven Berkoff so eloquently called on this courage to push the boundaries, but when Melissa Lucashenko presented us with the antithesis her audience had sunk into cultural amnesia. For 50,000 years, she told them, Aborigines did not change their life style. This is what a nation’s mindset should adopt? 50,000 years - another concept whose meaning could not pass through the wall of intellectual isolation.
Great civilisations need powerful minds to sustain them. But when those minds retreat into a vacuum, their words hollow shells without the substance that once shaped them, then the emptiness engulfs us all.

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