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amoral tail

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 22-Jul-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 728

Where the Dickens is our lost morality?



Competing for viewers last Sunday were Dickens’s Little Dorrit, skeined through with exquisite moral twists, and Hawke the telemovie, which all agreed was adequate but unengaging. The essential difference, apart from outbreaks of pustulent advertising, was morality. Dickens makes moral choice his narrative spindle, as well as his thread, while the Bob Hawke story centres on narcissism. Has to, really, since that’s all there is.

This is why the Dorrit scene where broken-hearted, jug-eared John Chivery knowingly hands the baton to his unknowing rival, or where evil old Mrs Clennam finally hands Amy the letter, will take you to the edge of tears, while Hawke is historically interesting but, well, you watch it, darling, I’ll make tea.

Dorrit is a moral tale. Yet whenever I write about morality, someone responds that the whole idea of goodness is not just lofty to the point of academic-interest-only but, actually, obsolete. As though the very idea of good and evil were some hairy corset that we postmodern primates have outgrown and, much to our betterment, tossed.

Dickens, in this view, is just another moralising 19th century novelist, preaching a top-down moral code we no longer need. Sophisticates all, we now prefer the anti-hero; the crim, the thug, the pragmatist.

I say phooey. Morality is core. It’s Everyman. There’s nothing remotely elitist about it, and nothing remotely old-fashioned. Morality makes us human, and makes us care. Stories that move us tell not of doing the right thing, but of the difficulty of doing it, the difficulty even of seeing it in a world that seems otherwise bent.

Why are crime stories and westerns the most popular fiction genres of all time? Because they dramatise and even (like Dickens) melodramatise the implacable necessity of doing what is right. The characters we love are those who will not and cannot abandon this struggle, even when the odds are against it, the cost high and the chips down.

Even MasterChef, the moral equivalent of fast food, all sugar and salt with no nutritional content, retrofits its dull footage with the morality-lite feel of Big Brother or Biggest Loser.

Cut into the action, like transfat into dumplings, are the ticking clock, the pseudo-intimate self-talk, the nail-biting omigodism of sudden-death judgment and the Hitchcockian suspense score telling us when to switch from excitement to fear to triumph; all meant to make the show less Nigella Sucks and more The Seventh Seal.

News the election debate has been rescheduled to avoid competing with MasterChef should therefore be no surprise. Politics, too, is a narrative game. We see it and respond to it as a story, with its stabbings and arrases, its plots and punishments, its unexpected heroes and smiling villains.

It’s just a shame that right now every hero – every player who took a stand, who refused to roll – has been roundly vanquished, leaving us a choice between two gangs that came to power not by cleaving to principle but by knifing someone who did, because they did.

Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott may exhibit the odd policy difference but both count on our failure to demand moral backbone from our leaders. Both need us to swallow the ludicrous ideas that morality is elitist and a principled stance will prove a liability. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd might now agree.

But if it’s ratings they’re after, our leaders should beware. Few stories, despite a century of anti-heroes, successfully take the viewpoint of the amoral – the unrepentant serial killer, the whatever-it-takes politician. Such a story needs the unsurpassed style and smarts of a Tarantino even to hold our attention, and still teaches us nothing.

I like to think we’re too smart for this stuff. Too adult, too insightful and too moral. That we demand more to our judgments than just the red hair, the baby-kissing, the budgie smugglers.

Taste-test the Gillard and Abbott show – bite right in, checking not just for flavour but for substance, texture and food value – and you might be surprised by just how hollow the experience is.

Two career politicians whose main life-experience is doing the numbers, whose main skill is the stealthy backroom backstab, whose main principle is survival.

Abbott knifed Turnbull for his stand on climate change; Gillard knifed Rudd’s huge climate-change mandate first, then disposed of the body. All that’s left is salt, sugar and fat.


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