Witches and demonisation: from The Scarlet Letter to Julia Gillard

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The demonisation of Julia Gillard is ideological outrage about a “shameless woman” — who seems to be wearing her scarlet letter with increasing conviction, says Graham Jackson.

THE SCARLET LETTER is the letter A, worn for life by an adulteress in seventeenth century Boston. Her story is fictional. Julia Gillard’s story is real. Her scarlet letter, the media informs us, is T — T for trust. Her more rabid media critics, like Alan Jones, say the scarlet letter is L – L for liar – and even ironic observers like Mr First Dog perpetuate the foxy Juliar.

Murdoch’s News Ltd invented the ‘issue of trust’ for Gillard, and it has been taken up by Fairfax journalists like Shaun Carney and Michelle Grattan. There was never an ‘issue of trust’ for John Howard over the introduction of the GST, or for other political leaders who changed their mind. These leaders did back flips. But Julia Gillard is a woman and women can be, you know, a bit unpredictable. I mean, look at the way the Prime Minister lives. She has no children. Some mothers find this offensive. From her column in The Australian, Janet Albrechtsen points her finger in Gillard’s direction just as the good wives and mothers of seventeenth century Boston pointed at the woman with the scarlet letter.

I don’t listen to Alan Jones and only hear about his tirades when they become an issue for tribunals and courts. Then, when Julia Gillard is put in a bag and dumped in the ocean, I hear the distant echoes of trials by ordeal and witch hunts again.

Controversial English historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a book called ‘The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’ that has remained in my mind since I first read it in 1970. By then I’d already read ‘The Scarlet Letter’. Another of Trevor-Roper’s areas of historical interest, as a period he lived through and participated in, is Hitler’s Nazi Germany. So that as I read his books I find it easy to jumble the images of women being dragged to the stake to be burnt with women crammed into cattle trains en route to extermination camps.

I also recently heard an echo of Alan Jones in the anxious voice of an uncle, well into his eighties. We were at the funeral of one of his sisters-in-law. We hadn’t seen each other for some time and the first thing he said, after shaking hands, was “what are we going to do about her?” I thought he must have meant “without her” — our deceased relative. But no, he knew what he was talking about, and he was talking about Julia Gillard — drawing me into his conspiracy of revenge against the witch who was ruining our lives. Never mind we were middle class and comfortable, Australia was going to hell, he fretted. Never mind we were better off than everyone else in the world and, as a commentator like Ross Gittins might say, experiencing transitional economic change — no, we were living in the end times, and it was all the Prime Minister’s fault.

But my uncle didn’t read Ross Gittins. He took the Murdoch paper every morning and read Andrew Bolt. He was being persuaded that Tony Abbott, as unlikable as he was (he was Catholic, wasn’t he?), had the right vision [sic] for the country. So, I shouldn’t blame Alan Jones for my uncle’s fears, alarms and quavering voice, but the Murdoch conservative apologist.

A key word here is blame. We all like to point the finger, to apportion blame in order to explain our personal fears. Politicians stroke our fears, the media fans them into flame. Much has been written, all true, about John Howard demonising asylum-seekers and winning the 2001 election on a wave of hysteria following Tampa, September 11, and the concocted  ‘children overboard’ affair. Possibly even more has been written over the years about Lindy Chamberlain, demonised then by the same Fairfax and News Ltd newspapers now fearful for their own existence and asking us to share their worry about editorial independence, about having independent eyes overseeing their performance, and about the challenge to their proud history of investigative journalism – which was once true, but then turned into speculation about strange cults and the meaning of ‘Azaria’, and is now all opinion and commentary without any genuine enquiry whatever.

Here and there, the tradition of investigative journalism is carried on unexpectedly by the citizenry — like the somewhat startled Peter Wicks. He now carries the burden of being balanced, and those of us reading his articles have to remain balanced lest we all go off on a witch hunt of our own. The temptation is obvious. Here is a story that begins with Rupert Murdoch endorsing Tony Abbott as the next Australian Prime Minister. His newspapers promote his view, spruiking for Abbott and demonising Gillard, branding her with the scarlet letter, in column after column by Bolt, Kelly, Shanahan, Akerman, Albrechtsen. Milne goes completely over the top and, surprisingly, has to be dumped. The IPA joins in the chorus. Then the super confident Abbott makes a few endorsements of his own, including Kathy Jackson and James Ashby. So that when the spotlight is turned on these individuals and they turn out to be as fragile as everyone else a strange (dis)quiet descends on Abbott and his media supporters.

It seems at the end of the day a dingo took Azaria Chamberlain after all. A couple of honest journalists make their mea culpas and we can admire them. Who knows what lies ahead for Craig Thomson, or Kathy Jackson, Ashby or Slipper?

Making my own confession, I see that I’ve demonised people like Rinehart and Palmer. I give a quiet cheer when Wayne Swan harangues them. I think of them as bloated billionaires and have a bit of a chuckle when someone calls Jon Faine to talk about the fat lady singing. Faine is appalled. To call someone fat is sooo wrong. Sometimes, I wonder if Jon Faine believes anything he says. I once heard him say he wasn’t convinced Bolt believed everything that came out of Bolt’s mouth. Bolt was a humorous, cosmopolitan sort of fellow.

The last time I saw or heard Bolt was a year or two back. The issue was ‘welcome to country’, whether it was necessary, and, if it was, if it had to be done quite so often. Bolt rather thought not, and he unctuously wrung his hands as he explained. It made him feel left out. Here was Indigenous Australia claiming the country as theirs. Surely it was also his, Andrew Bolt’s? In fact he was not convinced many of these indigenous folk were all they claimed to be, perhaps he might be permitted to set the record straight and call one or two of them out? …

Like those Andrew Bolt tried to demonise, the woman who wore the scarlet letter knew exactly who she was and why the scarlet A had to stay pinned to her dress. The novel is a complex psychological study well worth reading. Without retelling it here, it seems to me to be about a woman who transcends public vilification to accept her own view of the world and develop confidence in her convictions.

Literary critics generally approved of the book when it came out in 1850, which is to say they approved of the way the woman with the scarlet letter survived and, in her way, prevailed. Similarly, many give Julia Gillard grudging respect for her capacity to survive and prevail in today’s parliament, where a reformist agenda is being steadily pursued against outraged vested interests. But that’s the beginning and end of good feeling. Religious leaders in 1850 took issue with the book’s promotion of “bad morals,” just as we have ideological outrage now about a “shameless woman”, who actually seems to be wearing her scarlet letter with increasing conviction.

Long may she wear it.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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