Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Book review: The Great Seesaw, Geoffrey Blainey (1988)

This is a silly book in retrospect partly because its central claim is so ludicrous. Geoffrey Blainey was already notorious for saying controversial things that fell on the conservative side of public debates when the book came out. In 1984, for example, when Bob Hawke was PM Blainey made some comments at a public event in a town in Victoria about Asian immigration, stirring up the pot in a way that we are now used to hearing from people like Mark Latham and Pauline Hanson. In fact, I saw this morning that Blainey has been invited onto Andrew Bolt’s TV show. I wasn’t surprised.

Blainey is a devotee of a school of historiography that entrusted its followers with the task of finding the larger-term trends underpinning otherwise apparently random changes taking place in the fabric of societies being studied. The technique is called the longue duree. It’s a French term whose meaning should be obvious, and it was first used by writers of the Annales School in the 20th century’s interwar years.

What Blainey tries to do in his book is to apply the things he learned at university to the wider society, position the post-war counterculture of the 60s and 70s relative to larger historical processes, and thereby challenge their exceptionalism. It is a desperate attempt to try and discredit a major cultural shift that he personally resented. He invents the term “the great seesaw” and tracks back to the 18th century to look there for protests against technology in the writings of people living at the time. Blainey also says portentously on the first page of the book that the seesaw he has discerned at work in the West is “powerful” but “rarely noticed”, as though he alone had the learning and intellectual capacity needed to see it at work. Thrilling stuff! His vacuous hubris might sound familiar to those who have heard Donald Trump telling the American people that they were privileged to have the opportunity to vote for him.

Nevertheless, Blainey’s glance back to an earlier time is in itself interesting and if you choose to press ahead past infrequent desultory references to his precious seesaw you can profitably learn something about people living in earlier times. However, just because the book is interesting from time to time doesn’t mean that the thesis that justifies its existence stands up to scrutiny. I suspect Blainey was just upset that cherished notions of technological progress had been so elaborately and roundly condemned by so many intelligent people he knew. When the book was published these debates were still playing themselves out, and public protest anyway never ended, with, for example, the founding of the Australian Greens in 1992.

This book hasn’t aged well, it should be obvious by now. The counterculture went mainstream and so people like Blainey and Latham are rolled out into the public sphere by Murdoch because it suits the octogenarian patriarch’s extreme ideological positions to see their retrogressive views broadcast. Regrettably, he got rich because there are so many people living in the communities his media companies serve that subscribe to such views.

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