The first book I ever read was May Gibbs' Australian bush tale Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. I loved it unconditionally. It showed me a safe little world divided neatly in two. On one side were the Gumnut Babies, all innocent and pink and girly. On the other were the scary Banksia Men. Dark, hairy and rapacious.
That particular childhood narrative seems to have embedded itself in the psychology of many little Australians. The Border Protection section of Phillip Ruddock's website, for example, contains a photo gallery from the Port Hedland camp including "Snugglepot and Cuddlepie performance by ACM officers and detainees". But the Us vs Them thing no longer works for me. Not even in the realms of fiction and fantasy. Especially not now, as a citizen standing in the shadow of the first big war of the twenty-first century. If the 9/11 and Bali bombings truly stole our innocence, now we need something more than fairytales to guide us.
Yet the spindoctors and scriptwriters for the surreal telebombing that's shaping up to be bigger than The Simpsons keep grinding out versions of the same, tired old dichotomies. 'Axis of Evil vs Coalition of the Willing.' 'Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus.' 'Me George/Tony/John, Shining Ray of Democratic Light - You Saddam, Prince of Darkness.' All this would be funny, maybe even funnier than South Park, if it wasn't such a serious and dangerous business, and obscuring important and complex truths.
We need some gods in this machine, and quickly. Our politicians mainly aren't willing or able to fill that role. They're pinned between two competing versions of real politik - the push of their domestic populism (most Australians still don't want this war) and the gravity pull of the demands of the hyperpower (the Bush Administration still does). Our church leaders have done better, but their influence still isn't what it used to be. So enter the artists - not for the first time in history - stage left.
I've never thought of Les Murray as a culture jammer, more as a reactionary bard-for-hire, but suddenly he's in bed with all those women stripped in protest on Leichhardt oval. And Kerry Armstrong's anti-war wonderbras have been getting Gerard Henderson's knickers in a knot. Along with Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Gibney, Armstrong is on the bannerhead of onevoiceforpeace.org, joined by high-profile Australian artists like Vince Colosimo, Fred Schepisi, Michael Leunig and Patricia Piccinini. Then there's Judy Davis, in her new starring role as peace diva. She delivered the Manning Clark lecture in Canberra this week, and to no-one's surprise used that stage to rehearse her arguments against bombing Iraq, and threw some bombs of her own against the Us vs Them mentality warping Australian discussions about race and culture. All those arguments have been better put elsewhere - personally I prefer her doing Woody Allen - but often by people without the vernacular pull of stardom. And it's a gutsy chick who dares to step from a brilliant career in movieland into the serious public space so recently filled by the likes of Paul Keating and Michael Kirby.
In her own Question Time, Davis answered a query about the role of artists in Australian political life. With no small twitching of that famous, fabulous mouth, she observed that lots of punters don't seem to like people like her speaking out about this kind of thing but agree they have an obligation to do so.
Who else, at the end of the day, is better placed to spot the difference between real live terrorists and Banksia Men, between the B52s as killing machines and as a rock band, and between John Howard and Luke Skywalker?
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