"It's all in the optics"
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Many a reader has wondered about my linking of the world of politics to Grand Slam tennis. Well, more often than not, there are many important connections between the two. The forthcoming Australian Open may be the most conspicuous example yet. Yesterday’s announcement- made ironically on the day that this year’s Australian Open was scheduled to start- by the Victorian Premier that many of the Victorians stranded in New South Wales may now return is overdue and sensible. However, one wonders whether the decision was motivated to mollify growing public concern about a government choosing to subsidise the entry to Melbourne of international tennis players, but at the same time allowing their own citizens to be stranded at their own expense across an interstate border.
Contemporary Western politics is too often a facile contest dominated by “the optics” of policies and politicians. In Australia, we prefer to call “the optics” the “pub test”. The two criteria are synonymous. The optics of Scott Morrison holidaying in Hawaii during last year’s bushfires failed the pub test. Ditto Boris Johnson recently, sans mask, riding his pushbike through the streets of London when he is asking the nation to endure its toughest lockdown yet. Ditto Hot Cross Buns being available for purchase in supermarkets the week after Christmas.
We may now have to add social media messages from quarantined tennis players complaining about the quality of their food. The concerns of Bernard Tomic’s girlfriend that she is unable to have someone wash her hair twice a week, because that “is something I just don’t do”, is one of the most vain and vacuous utterances we are likely to hear this year. We certainly must add Novak Djokovic’s gratuitous advice on how players should be allowed to quarantine prior to the Australian Open. Another public inquiry would be needed if the government acted on the suggestions of the world’s top-ranked male player. After all it was Djokovic who organised a tournament last year that created a pandemic cluster, culminating in a Djokovic-led frenzy at a disco that broke every known convention about social distancing. Djokovic clearly lacks the ability to display a self-reflective viewpoint. Novak desperately needs some inward-looking optics.
The word optic refers to the eyes and the faculty and process of vision. Our eyes are drawn to pleasing vistas and visions of our environment and man-made beauty, be it artistic or architectural. After all, “a thing of beauty is a joy that lasts forever.”
Notwithstanding my bias as a native, few could argue against the contention that per square metre Tasmania contains the most compelling visions in the Commonwealth: dramatic coastlines, rolling and fertile pastures with chocolatey loam soil, towering highlands, exquisite Georgian buildings, meandering rivers and spectacular harbours combine to provide the visitor with a visual feast.
Over the last twelve days, my family were fortunate to be able to leave Victoria to tour the southernmost state. After filling out more declarations about our recent whereabouts, health and permits giving us permission to enter different States than defecting spies in the Cold War, we crossed Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania, docking in Devonport and then drove to Tasmania’s justly famous Freycinet Peninsula on its eastern coast. Photographic evidence of its beauty is provided at the end of my article.
Home to just over 500,000 people Tasmania IS different to the mainland in many ways. For many an urbanised mainlander, the bucolic folksiness of Tasmanians is not easy to assimilate at times. After a few days touring the island, my wife asked, “so just what is the purpose of Tasmania?” In the early 2000s it was estimated that 60% of Tasmanians either worked for the government or relied on government income support. I well remember the former member for the Western Australian federal electorate of Tangney, Dennis Jensen, describing Tasmania to me as the “mendicant State.” Many Western Australians were appalled by the generous distribution of GST funds to my state of origin.
Tasmania’s initial purpose was to be a hellish penitentiary at the end of the world: Hobart is closer to the Antarctic than Perth. The arrival of the English was far more hellish for its indigenous people than for most of the convicts. Tasmania’s last full-blood aborigine, Truganini, died in 1876. Her death came after decades of conflict, cruel policies of forced movement, and the ruinous effect of foreign illnesses and a clash of values that condemned the island’s indigenous population to their tragic fate.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Tasmania served the purpose of being a genteel farming community. Many of the world’s finest clothes and fabrics were woven from Tasmanian merino wool.
Following World War 2, Tasmania’s natural geographic advantages that allow it to be the only state that can generate its electricity solely from hydro-power saw many companies including Comalco, Temco, E-Z Zinc, paper manufacturer APPM, and wood chipping companies establish factories underwritten by cheap supplies of power. The expansion of hydro-power supplies required the damming of many of Tasmania’s wild West Coast rivers. In the 1980s, debate about a proposal to dam the Franklin River led to a seminal debate about ‘development vs conservation’. The High Court’s 4-3 decision on 1 July, 1983 (which, for the record, was Wimbledon men’s semi-final night: top seed, John McEnroe defeated Ivan Lendl in straight sets and unseeded New Zealander, Chris Lewis defeated South Africa’s Kevin Curren in a five-set epic) that Federal government legislation to list the Franklin River as a World Heritage area was constitutionally valid transformed Tasmania’s purpose.
In subsequent years Tasmania has become an environmental haven for people all around the world attracted to its cool and clean airs and varied regions and climates. Complementing this ‘greening’ has been the development of its natural food resources. Tasmania has become a gourmet delicatessen for hundreds of thousands of visitors.
People now come to Tasmania to be purified by its environment. It is a natural lung where visitors can abandon stresses, decompress, and sense the purity of its landscapes and wrestle with its blighted history. Its air was especially pure during this visit as not a Covid-preventing mask was in sight. We may have been travelling through one of the least Covid affected atmospheres in the world!
In two days, America will seek to purify its political environment with the inauguration of Joe Biden as its 46th President and Kamala Harris as its first female Vice-President.
On 5th January, I wrote, “Will there ever be a more disorderly transfer of power from one President to another?” No-one, however, could have imagined how disorderly and disruptive the process has become following the armed and violent attacks on America’s Capitol on 6th January. On 23rd November 2020 I predicted that “Trump will huff and puff until the end, but he will not be able to blow the constitutional rule of law away”. Never did I think that Trump and his supporters would literally try to “blow the house down” through armed insurrection. For many hours America, the self-proclaimed paragon of democratic values amongst nations, resembled a banana republic trapped in internecine warfare. Washington DC, far from being a city on the cusp of celebrating Biden’s inauguration is a cautious capital preparing for a muted transfer of power and understandably anxious about further eruptions of violence.
Trump now faces a second impeachment trial, this one objectively more defensible than his first. The reasonable person on the Washington Metro can fairly conclude that the outgoing President was consistent and calculated in his comments about the result of the Presidential election. He incited his supporters to believe that he had been cheated of victory and the obligation of his supporters was to usurp the system. Trump expressed his love for the dissenters. For these reasons, some Republicans have indicated that they will vote in the Senate with the Democrats to endorse his impeachment. Whether the required two-thirds majority vote to convict will be obtained is unclear as is whether an impeachment trial is technically possible once Trump has left office. If convicted, Trump cannot be removed from office as his term will have expired; however, a conviction may result in him being declared ineligible to run for public office.
Impeachment will lead to personal ignominy and political banishment for the President. Trump’s refusal to attend his successor’s inauguration is further proof of his contempt for democratic processes when they do not support his narcissism.
In my lifetime, America has had three significant political convulsions.
The first was 1968 when dissent over America’s involvement in the Vietnam War combined with race riots and the trauma of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Alistair Cooke, the celebrated BBC journalist, who presented a weekly Letter from America, once commented that these events almost led him to return to his native England.
The second was the Watergate scandal that led to Richard Nixon, under threat of impeachment, becoming the first President to resign from office in August 1974.
The Capitol riots are the third, coming as they did after months of national economic and social trauma as America failed to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and the social upheaval that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
Amidst the consternation and confusion of the last fortnight, it is important to remember that although it was taken to the precipice, America’s political system prevailed to preserve the ethos of democracy. Nixon’s resignation was a painful and traumatic outcome; however, it confirmed that no citizen even the nation’s most powerful was above the law and that democratic accountability must be upheld, no matter what the cost.
The Capitol riots once again tested the strength of America’s democratic sinews. They were, ultimately, resilient enough. Montesquieu’s magnificent theory of the separation of powers, embedded in America’s Constitution ensured that Trump’s Executive power could not defy or overthrow either the Legislature or the Judiciary. Vice-President Pence, when confronted by a test of allegiance between his President and the upholding of democracy, recognised his greater duty. He presided over a Senate sitting until 3.00 a.m. to certify Biden’s electoral victory. Pence’s poise and determination to effect the will of the people should not be forgotten.
What other potential victories for democracy? The decision of Facebook, Twitter, and other media organisations to delete President Trump’s accounts following the riots may well come to be regarded as a turning point in the self-regulation of social media behemoths. Recognising the contaminating and inflammatory power of these mediums may well be an important step towards more civilised and less rancorous political debates and processes.
Trump’s ignoble behaviour and decisions have and will continue to be catalogued. For me, the most contemptible aspect of Trump’s behaviour has been his inability to understand the essence of democracy. In democratic countries, people accept the outcomes of elections, recognising that there is a common good that must be advanced. At the heart of this common good is a respect for the wishes of the people, knowing that democratic governments have an obligation to consider the welfare of all.
By contrast, Trump was prepared to place his extraordinary vanity, which borders on clinical delusion, above the health of his nation’s democracy. His behaviour teetered on the tyrannical. Four years ago, Trump came to Washington promising to “drain the swamp”. Chaotically and calamitously, Trump has created a cesspit. For this reason, the incoming President will have the goodwill of millions as he seeks to reassure, revitalise and, yes, purify America’s democracy.
Towards the end of last year a colleague reminded his fellow workers of the observation that the value of life should not be measured in the number of breaths one has, but in the number of times one’s breath is taken away by moments when the soul is astonished, amazed, restored, and inspired by the pure joy of living. Personal purification if you will.
As 2021 begins I offer 21 of the many moments that my breath was taken away by places, people, and events. In no order of either importance or chronology, they are the optical impressions that, paradoxically, come before me with a simple closing of my eyes:
1. Discovering an exhibition of Faberge eggs in Rome in January 2001 that were made for the Romanov dynasty. As well as being a reminder of the social divisions of pre-Soviet Russia they were the most exquisite jewellery I have ever seen;
2. An architectural dead-heat: Walking into the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and St. Peter’s in the Vatican City;
3. Seeing a platypus walk across my path on the Overland Track in Tasmania near Cradle Mountain;
4. Shimmering Indian Ocean sunsets in Perth;
5. Cruising Tasmania’s Franklin River for the first time on a day where everything was a mirror reflection;
6. Seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas) for the first time;
7. Sleeping under the stars on the Exmouth Range-sleeping was impossible as the night sky was mesmerising, luminous and tantalising- one felt you could pluck the shooting stars from the air;
8. Horseracing- it is a triple dead heat, just like the 1956 Hotham Handicap: Winx winning the 2018 Turnbull Stakes, Kingston Town winning the 1982 Cox Plate and Better Loosen Up winning the 1991 Australian Cup;
9. The 1980 Wimbledon Men’s final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe; there has never been a more riveting tie-break ever played than the 18-16 decider in the fourth set of that match;
10. John McEnroe’s win over Jimmy Connors in the 1984 Wimbledon Men’s Final; if you wish to see three flawless sets of grass court tennis watch the replay;
11. Rafael Nadal’s win over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon Men’s final of 2008; Nadal should have never been able to beat Federer on grass, but through sheer persistence and resolve Nadal triumphed in the twilight after having lost the previous two finals to the Swiss maestro. Truly, you did not know who was going to win the match until the final point. Nadal has recently celebrated an unsurpassable 800 successive weeks ranked in the top 10 tennis players;
12. Martina Navratilova’s win over Steffi Graf in the US Open semi-final of 1986; in a clash of the established and rising superstars, Martina prevailed in a thrilling third set tiebreak 10-8, saving match points to win;
13. The Van Gogh exhibition room at the Chicago Art Institute;
14. Seeing Danny Clark win the 1977 Burnie Wheel cycling race from scratch from the edge of the West Park velodrome- he was 150 metres behind with two laps left;
15. Michael Phelps’ win in the 100 metres Butterfly final at the Beijing Olympics. His goggles became dislodged at the end of the first lap, so Phelps swam the second lap without optics by counting strokes and wins by one 100th of a second! Watch the replay – it still seems improbable that he won;
16. Standing of top of the Rockies on the border between British Columbia and Alberta knee deep in snow underneath a crystalline sky;
17. Snorkelling at Ningaloo Reef and having to give way to schools of fish;
18. Watching the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on New Year’s Eve and walking home as snow fell over the Austrian capital;
19. An Ornithological octet: first sighting of the violet eye of a Satin Bowerbird, the cinnamon of the Shining Flycatcher in the Daintree, the luminescence of a Golden Whistler on Woody’s Island in the Esperance archipelago, the explosion of fireball orange of a Flame Robin at Cape Schanck, waking up crossing the Nullarbor on the Indian Pacific to see Wedge-tailed Eagles glide and swoop, a flock of Rainbow Bee-Eaters-sitting on my domestic power line in Perth; spotting the Western Bowerbird in the Exmouth Gorge and hosting the Spotted Pardalote on my side driving mirror on my recent tour of Tasmania;
20. Seeing the footprints of dinosaurs at Nature’s Window at Kalbarri and the next day seeing whales breach in the ocean flying back from Monkey Mia after flying over ancient stromatolites in Hamelin Bay; and
21. Flying into Broome over the ochre red desert sands and out across the pellucid turquoise seas of the Indian Ocean coastline. The two collars of colour presented themselves like a vivid Rothko painting.
William Blake’s lines about the power of human optics are some of the most beautiful ever written:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wildflower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
What Blake knew was that the most powerful visions are those that remain within our hearts, the generator and supporter of life.
As the year begins with no evidence that it will be less tumultuous than the last-we learn today that international travel is unlikely from Australia until next year-it seems that heartfelt visions will be as essential as ever to navigate unfolding events. Scientists who developed Covid vaccines in record time are likely to have been driven by the heartfelt hope of eliminating the scourge from the world as much as they were by the purely intellectual challenge of creating an antidote.
For it is in not liking what we see-those starving in Sudan, those affected by earthquakes in Indonesia, desperate refugees fleeing Honduras-that our optics remind us of what it is to be human and struggle to defeat what President Kennedy in his famous inaugural address delivered sixty years ago on 20th January, 1961 called the “common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”
How ironic to consider Kennedy’s most famous refrain- “Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country”- in light of events of the last fortnight. Could Kennedy and the rest of us have ever predicted that it would be an incumbent President that would so wilfully shatter the sacred democratic bond between the governed and their government? Not even the most generous of optical hindsight will be able to exonerate Trump’s shameful assault on the priceless principles of democracy.
A collection of Tasmanian images:
Mures Beach, Coles Bay
The Hazards, Freycinet Peninsula
Wineglass Bay Lookout