It was very odd that last week, when all the nightclubs and gin palaces of Melbourne were closed, a new dance was being invented and released on an unsuspecting public. Christened the Burnside two-step, it has so many intricate moves that it could be mistaken for a stately 18th century minuet. But it also has so many crude kicks and bumps that it could only have come from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Either way, it has taken off like a house on fire, but if you are quick there is still time to be first on your block to take up the new craze. You’ll thrill to its weird manoeuvres! And, seriously, you will wonder why you persevered through all those years of patient discussion and argument when, right at hand, there was a sure-fire method of dancing your way to fame, abusing and smearing whoever you wanted, walking away from the furore you created, getting off scot-free and yet (this is the best part) leaving the destructive effect of your original remarks to fester away, just as you intended in the first place and before you concocted your phony defence and apology. Here’s how it works.
First step in this intricate dance is to get onto the record whatever calumny you want to promote, which in the eponymous Julian Burnside’s case, was an unsolicited observation that Israel’s ‘treatment of the Palestinians looks horribly like the German treatment of the Jews during World War II’. You could not claim that this astounding proposition admitted to any meaning other than its clear and simple one: that the real measure of barbarity is the German wartime treatment of Jews, which included murdering millions of them; Israel is a Jewish state with a Jewish government and population; so the involvement of Israel in Palestine is said to be so bad that it is perpetrating on the Palestinians the same barbarity as the Germans inflicted on the Jews and therefore the Israelis are just as bad as the Nazis. Moreover, the statement was disseminated by tweet, which even I know is designed to give it maximum coverage and keep it on the record, even after it is nominally deleted. So, not only is the allegation factually incorrect, but it is racist and anti-Semitic, simple, deliberate and widespread.
The second step comes when the public realises that the debate has degenerated and does not reflect our values and it demands that the perpetrator should apologise, especially to those he has just accused of acting like wartime Germans in their treatment of the Jews. This is where fast footwork is called for, because the rules say you must apologise, but at the same time not apologise. You have to say something you can claim is your apology, but at the same time you have to keep something in reserve for future use. However, the seasoned Burnsider is ready for this delicate balancing act. The rules even say you can use the word ‘apology’ and still not mean it! Or you can use the ABC variant, which is ‘we regret’, but using those smart-aleck words runs the risk that everyone will know you are guilty. Once the ABC uttered those immortal words in the Christian Porter case, we knew it had lost and so did the woebegone organisation itself. And you have to hand it to Burnside; his apology was one of the best non-apologies I can remember. He simply said he agreed that his statement was offensive, deleted the post and walked away unscathed. So far.
The third step is vital and has ruled a lot of would-be Burnsiders out of contention in any serious contest. If you want a future as a real Burnsider you have to make sure your original attack remains smouldering away, ready to be re-activated into burrowing its way to success. So you cannot leave a Burnside dance floor without reminding your supporters that you still believe in your opening remarks. Thus, when Burnside says his criticism of Israel is still intact, they know, and we know, exactly what he means.
Advanced Burnsideism is also the dance to which the whole family can gyrate and, again, its founder has shown the way. The dutiful partner Kate Durham jumped into the fray immediately and rejoiced in her role as a Burnside groupie. However, she made it worse for her master and also the cause of harmony in our multicultural society by unfathomably opening a new front with an attack on Josh Frydenberg and wiping him off as ‘just a Hungarian’. Context is everything and it helps us to conclude that she meant, coming as this discussion did in an exchange on the Holocaust, that Frydenberg was ‘just a Hungarian’ and what would he know about the Holocaust anyway, even if his mother had escaped from Hungary after the war? What else could Ms Durham have meant? It is also right up there on the scale of mega-offensive remarks and should be condemned and not wriggled out from. Of course, you can always apologise, an apology being the last refuge of the smearer. But she also needs brushing up on the formulation of an effective Burnside apology. The give-away was her fatal use of the word ‘if’, as in she was sorry ‘even for Josh if I have hurt him.’ In other words, the victim should not have felt hurt, but ‘if’ in the unlikely event he was entitled to be hurt, you are sorry. And what a contrast to Ms Durham’s other apology, the unequivocal one for the Greens, for whom Burnside stood as a candidate in the House and for Senate pre-selection; naturally the Greens were ‘blameless’. With their well-documented anti-Semitism, no further explanation is needed.
What a pity that the Olympic Games are over. Burnsiding could have been such a mesmerising new sport, combining the artistic veneer of coordinated water ballet and the labyrinthine intricacies of greco-roman wrestling.
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