In the 1990s Paul Sheehan wrote a tendentious, sensationalist and superficially rational heap of shit called Among the Barbarians. It was very successful. Now I knew it was a heap of shit at the time, cashing in on our thing then about being “swamped by Asians”, because I was working with such Chinese students as the ones Sheehan gave the treatment to, had met the author of the book Sheehan selectively quoted, and was living with a Shanghainese. I really despised that book and, at the time, its author.
Even Anne Henderson at The Sydney Institute in 1998 rather despised the book too.
My first remembered encounter with Paul Sheehan was at a function in Sydney. Without introduction he approached and criticised my short haircut. The longer version was more flattering. His comments were dogmatic and overly familiar, but when I observed that my hair was my business and his taste somewhat old fashioned, Sheehan seemed affronted. Understanding the prickly Sheehan helps when reading Among The Barbarians.
This is a book with axes to grind and scores to settle. It’s lucidly written and has a clever style. It is also a confusing mix of overstatement and understatement, a tract rather than a considered thesis; much preaching and not too much research.
And it’s already a best-seller. In two weeks, Random sold 20,000 copies, by mid-June 55,000, echoing that right-wing best-seller of 1992 – Brian Wilshire’s The Fine Print (self-published).
Paul Sheehan is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist who returned to Australia in 1996 after a decade in the US and, according to his book he liked what he found: “The overt culture of the nation – its language, cuisine, music, writings, film, dance, architecture, design, sport – all, at their highest expression.” Australia, Sheehan believed, had triumphed from a cultural revolution…
What makes Among The Barbarians a disturbing book is Sheehan’s defensiveness and obsessive selectivity, matched with conspiracy theories. Despite years of key conservatives as regular commentators in Australian newspapers, more than a decade of Hanson-style voices filling talkback radio on race, immigration and indigenous issues, saturation propagandising by top rating radio presenters like Alan Jones and Stan Zemanek, Sheehan earnestly believes that, under Labor, “so strong and so ruthlessly imposed were the protocols constraining discussion of racism, discrimination, affirmative action and immigration, it would be a foolish move to smash through and express, with undisguised resentment, the unpleasant fears felt in much of the electorate”.
Among The Barbarians is a skewed Australian canvass, self-justified as setting the record straight. Just one side of the debate on the grounds that it’s never been heard. Sheehan picks at topics rather than digests them, often relying on a handful of opinions to support his…
Well, he’s back.
Riding his hobby-horse:
Grinding his favourite axe:
And, just as he did in 1998, channelling xenophobia, whatever the superficial meaning of what he says:
And of course the message is that those evil so-called asylum seeker illegal bastards with funny coloured skin and unAustralian cultural traits are playing us for suckers, and even if it has been comprehensively shown that the email purporting to show that asylum seekers in Australia are living like Lotto winners is a hoax yet, according to Sheehan, it is still true! As that woman said on QandA…
Sheehan’s remarkable logic – and not the first time he has employed such mental gymnastics as Marcellous once noted – may be read in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. I am not going to quote it: go there and make up your own mind.
See also the very funny Among the barbarians: Nick Possum and the Victims of Political Correctness Inc. (1998) and among my posts Pub talk, reality TV, reality and “Go Back to Where You Came From” (2011), About last night’s “Send them back…” and Paul Sheehan (2011), A rather odd argument? (2009).
Kind of related: John Menadue — Updating the Malaysia solution. And click on the cartoon above.
How to read Paul Sheehan
1. Realise as fifteen years and more of reading him has taught me that his “objectivity” is a pose. I formed this impression from his shit book because I knew the people who he was hurting then and I knew who thought he was “wonderful” and why – and that has not changed.
2. In reality he is Pauline Hanson in male drag with polish, and he without fail will demonise, often on the basis of highly tendentious selection of evidence, whichever Other it is currently fashionable to decry. And never underestimate how much I deplored/continue to deplore Pauline Hanson.
3, There is nothing about today’s article – which I have indeed read as steam from my ears built to higher and higher pressure – that is inconsistent with the character who wrote the shit book.
4. That said, I acknowledge the difficulty of coming to a reasonable and equitable policy on asylum seekers who get on boats. Hence my link to Menadue, and a number of things I have written lately.
5. Taking Sheehan at face value, however, is a big mistake. He is an absolute master of the dog whistle. He is a polemicist NOT an objective commentator.
And this is something related to look forward to: