Tuesday 1 June 2010

Gerard Henderson - self styled working class hero?

Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine poured the acid on Peter Carey, one of the country's most successful authors, in their respective Sydney Morning Herald columns last week. Things must be pretty good if Carey is their greatest irritant.

I’d read Gerard Henderson (Disdain from a lofty height, but funded by the masses) and Miranda Devine’s (A convert to the preaching will have no power to change) tag team canings of Peter Carey in last week’s Sydney Morning Herald before I had a chance to listen to what the man had said to provoke such rabid scorn. So on the weekend, I listened to his Sydney Writers’ Festival speech and watched his performance on QandA.

Carey is far more compelling with a pen than a microphone - but neither Henderson nor Devine are in any position to condemn on those grounds. And they don’t have Carey’s literary CV either.

So what was it that so riled GH and MD?

There were two points to Carey’s speech. One was that the decreasing exposure of young people to great literary traditions deprives them of something especially enriching and valuable. The second was that our schools cannot afford to be churning out people with nothing more than a basic reading competency. A functional democracy he argued, required something more of its citizens - a capacity to analyse and critique.

These are hardly radical propositions. They'd sit very nicely with many conservative thinkers. Carey was  well clear of the lunatic left or right.

Henderson’s gratuitous character assassination was based on his view that  Carey is “full of contempt for his fellow men and women”. Henderson, implying something sinister, writes “Carey has not released the text of his address but, according to a Herald report, he complained: "We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy."

Not sure whether Carey has released his speech but it is available along with most other Writer’s Festival material online. That's how I found it. A Google search is all that’s needed Gerard. As for the claim about cultural junk and democracy? Well, what about it? Surely it could have come from the mouths of Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey or Philipp Ruddock? Perhaps even John Howard?

At the heart of Henderson’s rant is a claim about elitism and Carey’s alleged contempt for the tastes of the suburban masses. Carey’s speech (but you will need to hear it to know this Gerard) is a plea for a higher standard of literacy in our culture. And a higher aspiration for the literary potential of all students. He gives an example, and there are many of these out there, including here in Australia, of a group of disadvantaged students in New York who have developed a great passion for Shakespeare through the dedication of a special teacher and a special teaching programme. Rather than being contemptuous of the suburban dwellers, Carey looks at the possibilities for greater enrichment that are so often missed.

It’s a little bit like the doctor that looks at the young obese with early onset diabetes (yes Gerard, they also congregate disproportionately in the suburbs you so admire) and extols the virtues of a more healthy diet. Is he also contemptuous of the suburban dwellers? Is the champion of the Coca Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s diet - Gerard’s culinary equivalent - the real champion of the masses?

Anyone who lives in the suburbs knows that there’s plenty of texture out there. But scanning the ranks of Henderson’s Sydney Institute Annual Dinner, or the regular talks it hosts, I have not noted too many folk from his much beloved suburbs either at the lectern or in the audience. A level of functional and analytical literacy is the key to Gerard’s kingdom and the key to power and success here and everywhere. Gerard clearly likes his kingdom just the way it is. He’d prefer those outside continue consuming cultural “junk” and stay right where they are. Gerard doesn't really cut it as a working class hero.

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