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The dawning of the Age of Unpleasantness


Poster from Hair the MusicalThe age of entitlement idea is shallow and facile not only because it is apparently selective about those who are entitled and those who must relinquish whatever entitlement they have managed to lay claim to, but also because the 'end of an age' is such a venerable and much resurrected image which historians, writers, politicians in particular, and others turn to their various purposes at different times.

In the last couple of decades we have lived through the age of endings. The 'end' of the communist regimes, the fall of the wall, the 'end of history', the end of nature, the death of God, the death of the novel, the bonfire of the vanities, the end of ideology, the demise of the book culture, the age of anxiety, and so on and on and on ... until we reach the end of entitlement which — set against its family background of this or that conclusion, this or that 'dying fall', this or that last gasp — looks feeble and derivative. And it is.

Announcing the end of an 'age' is just another way of obscuring the truth that you're not quite sure, or perhaps haven't the faintest idea what the hell is going on; or that you suspect what's going on but not how to influence, redirect or stop it. So you fall back on this persuasive notion of a great shift in the times, you claim to have detected that one sweep of history is mysteriously running out of puff and another — of an as yet unknown type or tendency — is about to supervene.

Joe Hockey, the Federal Treasurer, is just such a detector, but there is one difference: he claims to know what the next 'age' will be like. In a word, it will be — for those whose entitlement is disappearing — unpleasant.

Those who announce a new age, or the death of the old one, seem to be ahead of the game, but are of course always a step or two behind it. Before he could make his tendentious pronouncement about the 'end of history', Francis Fukuyama had to observe and, so to speak, accredit the end of the Cold War. One of the more famous and well-known 'ages' was 'The Age of Aquarius' ('When the moon is in the seventh house ... And love will guide the stars ... Aquariuuuuus!'). But though the song proclaimed an age, it was actually memorialising one: the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury was already finished by the time Hair hit the boards in October 1967.

Closer to home, when Marcus Clarke was researching and writing His Natural Life — one of the great Australian novels of the 19th century — he visited Port Arthur, the most evil of the convict system's prisons. His description of his first sight of the settlement is eerily familiar to us in 'The Age of the Turned-back Boats'. From his approaching boat he saw Port Arthur 'beneath a leaden and sullen sky' and 'beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Isle of the Dead'. The dreary prospect convinced him 'that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature ... Everybody ... begged that the loathly corpse of this dead wickedness called Transportation might be comfortably buried away and ignored of men and journalists'.

Indeed. Boat loathsomeness, in its contemporary manifestations, is something many of us would like to see not buried and ignored but, like the various 'ages', summarily discredited and forever ended.

Nevertheless, like Hockey and other wranglers with the 'ages', Clarke was behind the curve. Vestiges of convictism were still visible in the 1870s when he visited Port Arthur and Hobart and saw there the last living convicts. The actual convict system, however, and organised transportation, were gone, abolished on the east coast ten years before Clarke's arrival in the country in 1863. Clarke wrote about 'Van Diemen's Land', but the place he visited had officially been called Tasmania since 1854.

Convictism lingered only in the stones, shattered historic remains and grim buildings dotted around the landscape at Port Arthur and other infamous sites, mute evidence of a repressed and melancholy past. But Clarke needed to prolong the age of the convict system for his own purposes just as Hockey needs to invent the death of an 'age' for his.

So, all things considered, we know the age we don't live in — not entitlement, that seems to be over for most of us, though quite a few, including Hockey himself, won't notice — but where, or rather when, do we live? Is the moon in the seventh house? Is Jupiter aligning with Mars? Is peace guiding the planets? Is love steering the stars? Well, not bloody likely. If there's a dawning to be glimpsed in all this it is the dawning of The Age of Scott Morrison/Scott Morrisooooooon/Scott Morrisooooooon ...

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer. He is February's Australian Book Review Critic of the Month.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Scott Morrison, Joe Hockey, Francis Fukuyama



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Existing comments

I once attended a seminar where a speaker was asked to define, as used to happen often, postmodernism. We were told that we no longer live in the Age of Modernism, so can speak with candour and ease about being in the Age of Postmodernism. One thing was certain in a world full of uncertainty, we were now in the Postmodern Age. This was declared with the kind of deadly earnestness that one imagines people in 1815 would have said, Oui, it is the end of the Age of Napoleon. Brian has not, that I can see, mentioned Postmodernism once here, leading one to think that we have moved on from the Age of Postmodernism. When exactly this occurred is not obvious to the naked eye. My impression is that the Age of Postmodernism was not particularly pleasant, and yet not particularly unpleasant.

CLOSE READING | 27 February 2014  

Here baby,there mama, everywhere, daddy,daddy. I've noticed Scott Morrisooooon is a serious chap - tough and decent according to our PM. Maybe it's the Age of Tough Decentism. Why can't I be who I wanna be?

Pam | 27 February 2014  

Beautifully put as only Brian Matthews can put it. The Age of Scott Morrison (and Tony Abbott) indeed. Something to look forward to with cold dread.

Alan Slatyer | 28 February 2014  

Joe Hockey's sententious pronouncement of the death of the Age of Entitlement is perhaps premature. Many entitlements will continue, such as the vastly inflated parliamentary salaries and allowances, as well as the bloated remuneration packages of the heads of large corporations. It is a question of whose trough is going to be empty. Sadly, I think it will be that of the less fortunate and less powerful.

Edward F | 28 February 2014  

Hilarious, cutting and to the point! Thanks for so consummately articulating the unease that comes from enduring the spin of overly confident snake handlers and prognosticators.

Barry G | 28 February 2014  

TV author David Simon made an intereresting point at the Opera House in the fest of dangerous ideas last year during the Obama healthcare drama - what's the difference between a publicly funded healthcare system and an ordinary private insurance scheme? One way or another - if you're not making insurance claims (which ideally you'd prefer not to) then you are funding befits for other people with the hope they will fund you when you are in need. Simple.

AURELIUS | 28 February 2014  

Joe Hockey is a Commentator on a relay race. His "End to the Age of Entitlement" merely hands the baton of 'Entitlement' to the middle class, through Tony Abbot's proposed $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme.

Bob | 28 February 2014  

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