Robert Manne’s self-important puffery

At the risk of making him sound more interesting than he is, emeritus professor Robert Manne reminds me of one of Dostoyevsky’s liberals. 

In the distant past, he wrote something (who can remember what) which won him a literary reputation. Then, in the 1980s, Manne found it necessary to demonstrate that this reputation was deserved. He displayed the fearless independence of his thought by defecting from the left to the anti-communist right. With just as much fanfare, he defected back in the 1990s.

He has shown a willingness to slaughter every sacred cow. And the years have not diminished his eagerness. Manne has a comment in the Guardian titled “This pains me, but it’s time to compromise on Australia’s cruel asylum seeker policy”.

Bravery such as this – which always finds its way back to the status quo – impresses neither authority nor opposition. But this isn’t its aim. Such courage has itself as its only object. As much is indicated by the self-indulgent reference to the anguish Manne feels in making his argument. As Hegel wrote: 

“The individual who pretends to act for such noble ends and who masters such admirable oratory counts in his own eyes as an excellent creature – he gives himself and others a swelled head, although the swelling is only due to self-important puffery.”

This was how the Manne’s argument struck me in the 2000s when, as an undergraduate, I saw him make it at La Trobe University. He urged then, as he does now, that the left end its opposition to turning back boats for fear of provoking a backlash and worsening the situation for refugees. Dostoyevsky aptly describes liberals like Manne as running with the hares and hunting with the hounds.

Today the good emeritus professor, in keeping with form, makes his argument by way of biographical anecdote. Manne explains that he bears two souls in his conflicted breast. (His choice of such a self-infatuated rhetorical strategy within a month of the publication of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains should not escape comment.)

The first soul – that of the “social scientist” – draws on an appropriate albeit predictable intellectual tradition, including Vaclav Havel and Hannah Arendt, to diagnose the cruelty and evil in Australia’s immigration detention regime. This soul (the beautiful one) pays its rent in kind, by guaranteeing Manne’s line of moral credit. We aren’t dealing with Peter Dutton here, but a human who feels.

The second soul – that of the “public intellectual” – is the landlord of the first. This much more pragmatic soul differentiates between “Canberra” and “the opposition”. Canberra is caught in the grips of a groupthink that will admit no humane solution to the problem of asylum boat arrivals, and which has evolved to such a point that the most cursory and minimal human kindness is something to be outlawed. 

Given this, you would think “the opposition” preferable. However, Manne’s considerable life experience has taught him well: “Having written regularly on refugee matters since the 1970s and on the particular question of the boat arrivals from Central Asia and the Middle East since 1999, I was once a member of ‘the opposition’. I broke ranks, however, for two reasons”. 

The first reason he gives for his defection is that “the opposition” never acknowledged the success of former prime minister John Howard’s policies in stopping the boats. Implicitly, Manne endorses a utilitarianism that reduces ethics to a calculation. This is the moral logic of a businessman who believes that he has struck a great bargain when the torture and murder of a few is traded against the drowning of more. Utilitarianism is the ethical logic that defends bombing Hiroshima to save lives.

I have matched Manne’s Havel and Arendt with Hegel and Dostoyevsky. Now, I raise him Simone Weil. In place of utilitarianism, better that we say: “No reason whatever which anyone could produce to compensate for a child’s tear would make me consent to that tear”.

Explaining the second reason for his defection, Manne writes: “By ignoring the political dimension, the stale truism that politics is the art of the possible, ‘the opposition’ has failed even to search for a politically feasible solution to the tragedy of the people who have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for the past five years or more”.

Canberra is not to blame, but defenders of refugees because we have failed to speak to Canberra in a language it can understand. In fleeing from the moral consequences of the position he endorses, Manne puts the sin on the left. Behind these contrivances, one senses resentment.

So speaks a man who runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds. If only the hares would speak to the hounds in their own language, and master the art of the possible, they might shorten their suffering. It is not hard to come up with historical parallels for this kind of thing.

What, then, is the alternative? As Simone Weil argues, one must endure the void to grasp the true and the good. This holds on both a subjective and objective level. 

Subjectively, it is more laudable to keep one’s mind in the hell of overseas detention than it is to delight in a worldly sophistication that justifies sin while assuaging guilt with unconvincing rear-guard manoeuvres of conscience.

Or, let me put it this way: it is a painful realisation that we inhabit a country that allows a man to die from an infected cut and pushes a child to catatonic despair. Better to fully encounter the emptiness of spirit that this knowledge produces than to flee from the void under the cover of realism, foisting blame on the only group that has demonstrated any decency, no matter how ineffectual. Such a hardening of the heart makes redemption impossible. 

Instead, as Weil writes: “Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void”. Such a grace, in this context, is the knowledge that we live in a state whose essence is a denial of the personhood of the other. This – and not the genealogy of contemporary policy – is the correct conceptual link between the current border protection regime, White Australia and the Aboriginal genocide. In knowing this, we may overcome it.

This understanding is the key to overcoming the antinomy between the beautiful soul, whose moral excellence conceals powerless egotism, and the morally compromised actor, willing to dirty his hands, but unwilling to face his crime. Manne’s life has been a series of flips from one to the other. Instead of this, the left must learn to preserve its abhorrence for Australia’s mandatory detention regime while also thinking strategically. 

Such a project has no home in Canberra and will tolerate no vain advice from Robert Manne.

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