Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.
I learned yesterday that these were Steve Jobs’ last words but I want to use them for something closer to home: a conference entitled ‘Thinking for Yourself’ held at La Trobe Uni on Thursday and Friday to honour Robert Manne, who has resigned from La Trobe University where he has been since 1975. Strictly speaking, I guess that it was a Festschrift but I don’t know that we’re particularly good at this sort of lionization in Australia. It paid tribute to a man who has made a broad contribution to public discourse in Australia. As the publicity blurb for the conference notes, he has been at the heart of many of the large debates in Australian public discourse:
During his almost four decades as a university researcher and teacher and public intellectual he has been involved in a series of bitterly contested controversies concerning the interpretation of the Holocaust, the nature of Communism, the Cold War, social democracy and its neo-liberal critics, the dispossession of the indigenous population of Australia, multiculturalism, the state’s responsibility for asylum seekers and, most recently, the politics of climate change.
He’s a man who has moved from the left to the right, and to the left again. I don’t see this as indecision or wishy-washiness: instead I see it as the use of intellect and information in action.
Robert Manne has been closely associated with Morry Schwartz, who publishes The Monthly and the Quarterly Essay. The lineup of people who paid tribute to and reflected on Robert’s interests was almost like a roll-call of regular contributors to these publications. Hugh White, Mark McKenna, David Corlett, Clive Hamilton, Anne Manne. But wait- there’s more: John Hirst, Dennis Altman, Tim Soutphommossane, David Ritter, Patrick McGorry, Raimond Gaita, Pat Dodson, Mick Dodson, Ramona Koval, Ghassan Hage …. it just went on- top-flight commentators and academics (albeit of a largely but not exclusively) left-ish persuasion. Each of the speakers was introduced by a short paragraph that Robert Manne himself had written about them, and they of course reciprocated with comments about him. There were participants from all over the globe, on a wide range of topics.
The presentations were grouped around a number of themes that reflect Manne’s work: The Cold War and Intellectuals; Australian Political History and Culture; The Public Sphere; Universities; Multiculturalism and the Republic; European History and Politics; Asylum Seekers and the Rule of Law: Contemporary Social Democracy/Left and Right, and Culture and Politics. Several references were made in passing to George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Tony Judt- writers and thinkers who have had a deep influence on Robert Manne and in whose tradition he himself fits.
There was just so much to think about that I really can’t do it justice. Have you ever been in the audience of something and thought “How lucky am I to be hearing this?!” It was like watching a particularly good edition of The Monthly played out live in front of you, and I could have listened to nearly all of them for hours. Oh wow.