Defending Greer

Germaine Greer is a polarising figure – love her or hate her it seems to go. In a post on Saturday, I wrote about how I pretty much agreed with everything that she says (very unusual for me), and reported what she had to say about the recent Victorian Bushfires. A couple of commenters revealed a dislike of Germaine Greer that I think is common across Australian society, and I promised that I would work on a defence.

In terms of what she said about the bushfires, I’m going to let her words speak for her, (and so I’ll apologise in advance for this post’s length). Greer has commented twice on the issue. The first was on February 9 in The Times Newspaper in the UK, and the purpose seems likely to educate a foreign audience:

Fire is an essential element in the life cycle of Australian forests. Season by season sclerophyll or “hard-leaved” woodlands build up huge amounts of detritus, shed leaves, bark and twiggery, which must burn if there is to be new growth. Many Australian species, including most of the eucalypts, need fire if they are to complete their reproductive cycle. Seeds encased in woody receptacles need their capsules to be split by fire before they can be released to germinate.

For 40 or maybe 60 millennia, Aboriginal peoples managed fire proactively, setting alight woodland, scrubland and grassland, so that they could pass freely, so that game was driven towards them, so that fresh green herbage was available. Aboriginal languages have dozens of words for fire. As the Endeavour sailed up the eastern coast, Captain Cook noted that the skies were darkened with smoke by day and lit up by fire at night.

In the national parks of Australia, the importance of regular burning is well understood. Elsewhere the emphasis has been on prevention. Attempting to prevent fire in most of Australia is simply postponing the inevitable. Bushland that is not burnt regularly turns into a powder keg, as the fuel load inexorably increases. When dry eucalypt woodland goes up, it explodes, turning into a veritable firestorm. If no wind is blowing, it creates its own wind.

The Australian governments, state and federal, are well aware of the cost of fire to the economy. People who want to build houses in sclerophyll woodland will be told that any space between the floor of the house and the ground must be sealed, and even that they have to clear the native vegetation for a radius of as much as 50 metres from the house walls. At the same time people in the most desirable seaside suburbs will be prevented by law from clearing native vegetation. Some of the most valuable real estate in Victoria is bordered by beachfront reserves that are an endless succession of thickets choked with tinder-dry dead wood.

The most disheartening aspect of the Kinglake disaster is that since its foundation in the 1880s the township has suffered regular bushfires, in 1926, in 1939, in the 1960s, in the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983; two years ago almost to the day 1,500 hectares were destroyed by fire, but nothing was learnt. The cause of these disasters is not global warming; still less is it arson. It is the failure to recognise that fire is an intrinsic feature of eucalypt bushland. It cannot be prevented but it can and should be managed. Unless there is a fundamental change of policy across all levels of government in Australia, there will be more and worse fires and more deaths.

The second was when she was approached by journalists and asked for her opinion. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Speaking with journalists at a function hosted by Prince Charles to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the UK friends of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, Professor Greer said the notion of great swathes of rural Victoria – including Marysville where she spent childhood holidays – being transformed into an enormous sepulchre was “just too terrible” to contemplate.

And then from the Australian (because the Herald paraphrases a lot – too much perhaps):

“I was born in 1939 and Melbourne was under black clouds of smoke with cinders sifting down everywhere and we were already there on Black Friday,” she said in London. “We get taught the same lesson again and again and we just think: `Oh no, that’s a bit drastic’. No, it’s not a bit drastic, we have to do it. It’s the same old story.

“We need to educate people, we need to also have a bit of courage and we probably need somebody to direct the operation. It’s useless running around looking for arsonists. The arsonists are us. They are our government and our administrators. We have been stupid.”

She said authorities should learn from how Aborigines used fire hundreds of years ago to remove the build-up of undergrowth and dead branches from bushland areas. And, she added, if housing subdivisions continued to be built in the bush, fire management regimes should be considered vital to prevent bushfires destroying them.

I fail to see where the problem with what she’s saying. Germaine Greer is an opinion writer and she wrote and gave her opinion. She is saying nothing in terms of what we can learn from this event which other people aren’t already saying: the government has already said it will be “removing bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented the creation of a nationwide fire alert system;” there is going to be a Royal Commission into the bushfires; debate has already begun about controlled burning; people in the areas who took measures to protect their homes, often in spite of council regulations, were rewarded by not losing their properties as others did. That all houses in these areas do not have to comply with similar building practices is a failure in regulation.

But I think the problem people have with Germaine Greer is more about what is said about her than what she says. In terms of the most recent example, let’s remember that she was writing the article for a newspaper in the UK, and her opinions were asked for at the charity event. Now, consider the headlines which accompanied the reporting of her opinions in the Australian media:

The Australian (including the tagline):

Germaine Greer blames fires on lack of burn-offs – Outspoken academic Germaine Greer has branded Australian authorities arsonists for failing to carry out regular burn-offs, which she says could have prevented the deadly Victorian bushfires.

The Sydney Morning Herald:

Australian authorities arsonists: Germaine Greer

Both are misleading, painting her in a negative light. I’ve found that the majority of press she gets in Australia is along these lines. Yes, she lives in London – plenty of Australian’s do – does that mean she has no right to make any comment about Australia? It doesn’t mean she doesn’t spend time here, or that she isn’t well-informed. We’re quick enough to voice our opinions about what goes on internationally, often without anything near the level of research or experience that she has.

Yes, she is often critical about Australia and Australians. What is the problem with that? Are we perfect and without flaw? Far from it I would say. At least she makes her points eloquently and from a strong point of reference. I think that often the only criticisms we lay against her are that she’s an academic, an expatriate, a member of the urban intelligentsia – as if those are reasons someone cannot have a valid opinion. If she makes us talk about what it means to be Australian, I think that’s a wonderful thing, because I don’t think Australia has a cohesive national identity at all.

I don’t know why the Australian media (and in turn the public) are so hostile towards Germaine Greer. It might be because she chooses not to write for them. Sometimes I think we react against people when they tell us a truth we don’t want/aren’t ready to hear. Perhaps it’s a backlash against her early writings on feminism by the big boy’s club. Also, Australians generally have a distrust and dislike for academic intelligence – it rubs against the image of the laid-back ocker/bogan. All I can say is that personally I try to look at what she says, rather than what other people say about her.

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2 thoughts on “Defending Greer”

  1. A couple of commenters revealed a dislike of Germaine Greer

    Huh? Taking it a bit personally on her behalf aren’t you? As I see it couple of commenters revealed they disagreed with her opinion on this subject.

    Both are misleading, painting her in a negative light. I’ve found that the majority of press she gets in Australia is along these lines. Yes, she lives in London – plenty of Australian’s do – does that mean she has no right to make any comment about Australia? It doesn’t mean she doesn’t spend time here, or that she isn’t well-informed. We’re quick enough to voice our opinions about what goes on internationally, often without anything near the level of research or experience that she has.

    Of course, it doesn’t mean she has no right to make any comment. But if you’re choosing between conflicting opinions about a localised Australian event, and the choices are someone commenting from London (New York, Sydney, wherever) who went to Marysville on holidays when she was five, or an adult first hand witness with experience (CFA) or specific eduction and training (CSIRO), who are you going to take more seriously? It’s nothing to do with any like or dislike or tall poppy syndrome or personality issues.

    Yes, she is often critical about Australia and Australians. What is the problem with that?

    No problem, who said there was?

    Are we perfect and without flaw? Far from it I would say.

    Obviously

    At least she makes her points eloquently and from a strong point of reference.

    Good for her

    I think that often the only criticisms we lay against her are that she’s an academic, an expatriate, a member of the urban intelligentsia – as if those are reasons someone cannot have a valid opinion.

    Those are not criticisms or reasons that she cannot have a valid opinion. Those are descriptions of who she is. If you’re sick and you can base a course of action on the opinion of a doctor or the opinion of a signwriter, who are you going to choose? A person’s occupation, training and background are relevant when assessing the likely worth of their opinions.

    If she makes us talk about what it means to be Australian, I think that’s a wonderful thing, because I don’t think Australia has a cohesive national identity at all.

    I don’t know why the Australian media (and in turn the public) are so hostile towards Germaine Greer.

    I’m not somehow personally hostile towards her because the Australian media told me I should be, but I do think she’s wrong and that her attempts at logic are laughable. I’m thinking of a) Aboriginal people used fire as a form of farming therefore 21st Century Australians should continue to build houses wherever they want and use fire to protect their homes from fire. b) When a crime (arson) is a fait accompli, there is no point trying to find the perpetrator, because it will not, in this case, bring the victims back to life. And it’s disingenuous, unhelpful and impractical to say that neither global warming nor arsonists caused the fires. We all heard that one years ago, but back then it was “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.

    It might be because she chooses not to write for them. Sometimes I think we react against people when they tell us a truth we don’t want/aren’t ready to hear. Perhaps it’s a backlash against her early writings on feminism by the big boy’s club. Also, Australians generally have a distrust and dislike for academic intelligence – it rubs against the image of the laid-back ocker/bogan.

    That’s a bit of a stretch isn’t it? Why is disagreeing with her academic intelligence any worse than disagreeing with the academic intelligence of Matt Plucinski from the CSIRO? Or is it that no matter which side we take, we’re all bogans? And if that’s true how is it a defence?

    All I can say is that personally I try to look at what she says, rather than what other people say about her.

    Yep, me too. And in this case, it’s poorly thought through, there are helicopter-sized holes in the logic and the conflicting opinions are overwhelmingly more likely to be based on better information.

  2. Apologies for insinuating you didn’t like her, Captain. I was wrong. But the other reader didn’t appear to be on your wavelength. And my defense was intended to be against the general dislike of her rather than yours specifically. Though I must say ‘a member of the urban intelligentsia at a charity event in London’ does sound a little like a pot shot at her.

    I’m not saying that her opinions are worth more consideration than those of experts, or that we should base our course of action on what she says, only that she has a valid opinion. As I see it, her opinion agrees with that of some experts. Other experts disagree. The government will take a look at all the things presented to them and make a decision. This is the way of things.

    I didn’t disagree with the guy from the CSIRO. But I think his words were used as a weak arguement. Not necessarily his arguement, mind you. I think it’s worth inconveniencing people a little for the greater good.

    Academic, expatriate, and member of the urban intelligentsia might be descriptions of who she is, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be used negatively. I think they often are. Germaine Greer is also a best-selling author widely regarded as one of the most significant feminist voices of the later 20th century, but they don’t use that in the descriptions, do they? Does the urban intelligentsia have membership cards?

    In terms of her logic, I can see what you’re saying. She does generalise, and she is insensitive. But it’s true that if people are going to live in the bush they need to take more precautions than they have been, both in terms of how they build and maintain their properties and also insuring those properties against damage such as this. On Lateline last night they estimated that only 30% of people whose homes were destroyed were properly covered by insurance. Houses built to withstand bushfires withstood the bushfires.

    Her ‘arson’ quote is harsh, but it’s designed to make us look at ourselves. The reactive approach to crime and disaster is to look for the perpetrator and punish them. A proactive approach is to look at the causes and put measures in place so it doesn’t happen again. Governments are usually quite light on the proactive end of things, because it’s harder to sell someone on something that might happen rather than something that already has.

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