It was Dame Edna Everage who said: “I’m not racist. I love all races, particularly white people. You know, I even like Roman Catholics.”
Vintage Edna, it was her response to the howls of protest that followed a satirical advice column she wrote for Vanity Fair in 2003, in which she counselled a reader not to bother learning Spanish. “Who speaks it that you are really desperate to talk to? The help? Your leaf blower?”
The magazine printed a full-page apology but Dame Edna’s creator, Barry Humphries, despaired: “If you have to explain satire to someone, you might as well give up.”
Humphries despaired publicly once again this week, not in defence of himself but Barry Spurr, professor of poetry and poetics at the University of Sydney. The university has suspended Spurr after the online journal New Matilda exposed the content of emails he sent to friends and university colleagues, in which he said “Mussies and chinky-poos” would take over the world and he called Prime Minister Tony Abbott an “Abo lover”, Nelson Mandela a “darkie”, Desmond Tutu a “witch doctor” and the university’s chancellor, Belinda Hutchinson, an “appalling minx”.
Spurr claimed the emails were largely to one friend, with whom he had played a “whimsical linguistic game” of one-upmanship in extreme statements, so they were not his serious opinions.
Humphries was so incensed by the treatment of the “poor professor” that he wrote from London to The Australian’s letters page: “Has Australia gone slightly mad?” Spurr’s outrageous epithets, he said, would be offensive “if they were not so clearly jocular”.
Humphries derided a “new puritanism” and cultural fascism. “How could anyone take such deliberate touretting seriously?” Humphries asked.
But many did. Whatever people thought of Dame Edna’s Spanish crack, it was clearly intended as jocular. A deeper reading of the Spurr email trail, on the other hand, suggested a pattern of opinions that – while brimming with racist bile and misogyny – might be read as extreme extensions of some of his publicly stated positions.
The emails might never have emerged had Spurr not been among experts appointed to the National Curriculum Review, which released its report this month. It contained Spurr’s recommendation for a greater emphasis on the Western literary canon, his repeated complaint of an over-emphasis on indigenous culture and his assertion that “the impact of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on literature in English in Australia has been minimal”.
The Federal Government needs to assure Australians that the curriculum will not be “infected” by the toxic views expressed in Spurr’s emails, says Kirstie Parker, co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
“I’m horrified that anyone could have found those emails funny,” says Parker. She found them “gut-churning” and “frightening”. She cannot “fathom the kind of individual who draws satisfaction from such a macabre form of one-upmanship”.
In fact, it was not a playful linguistic duel with a single pen pal. To challenge this “fiction”, New Matilda’s owner and editor, Chris Graham, released more of the emails, which had been sent over almost two years to about a dozen recipients. They included colleagues and even senior academics at the university.
We do not know their names. New Matilda has redacted them, at least for now. We do not know if Spurr’s colleagues found the emails funny. We do not know if any of them rebuked him or asked him to desist. Apparently, though, he was not dissuaded, at least not until the last of these published emails in mid-2014.
It moves Parker to quote Edmund Burke: “All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
At a student protest following the Spurr revelations, it moved Patrick Massarani, the undergraduate representative on the university senate, to quote Chief of Army David Morrison. When telling his ranks they must not tolerate degrading behaviour by fellow soldiers, Morrison said: “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
Stepan Kerkyasharian, president of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board, agrees: “One would have expected Spurr’s colleagues not only to dissuade him but to chastise him. They may just be words, but if they go unchallenged, they can create a suggestion of legitimacy.”
Since he came to Australia in 1967, Kerkyasharian has made a career of fostering racial harmony. “While 47 years ago one might have heard this kind of language occasionally, I would never have heard it from positions of authority, from someone who could influence people’s thinking. I can confidently discount the suggestion that these are one-off attempts at levity. They are consistent and they reflect a mindset.”
A mindset clearly prevails in the wider community. A survey of 1000 non-indigenous Australians this year for beyondblue found one in five would move away if an indigenous person sat nearby, more than a third believed indigenous Australians could be “a bit lazy” and almost third believed they should behave more like “other Australians”.
It is the perpetuation of those prejudices that most worries Aboriginal academic John Evans, director of undergraduate indigenous programs at Sydney University, about the Spurr case. “The fact he’s a racist and a bigot, that’s for his own conscience to ultimately reconcile. He’s outed himself now.
“My major concern is how this affects the curriculum in our schools and the messages it sends to students and teachers in the future about the place of Aboriginal literature and Aboriginal perspectives on literature.”
Universities aqre seen as leaders in breaking those mindsets, says another indigenous academic at Sydney University, Victoria Grieves. “But they may be the last bastions of institutionalised racism.”
Grieves, an Australian Research Council indigenous research fellow, says while she has extremely productive work relationships across the university, she has long endured “all-knowing white academics” disregarding or shutting down her ideas. At least Spurr’s views are out in the open, she says.
Barry Humphries has not responded to Fairfax Media’s questions, so it is unclear whether he has read the most shocking of Spurr’s emails since he penned his letter to the editor, or whether he still regards them as attempts at jocularity.
One contact emailed Spurr with news that a “harlot” had fallen asleep at a party and a man had “put his penis in her mouth, as you do, and she called the police”. The email said the “worthless slut” would cause “this poor chap … years of imprisonment with big black chaps”. Spurr replied that the woman “needs a lot put in her mouth, permanently, and then stitched up”.
“I think there is an irony in all this,” says Catharine Lumby, a former acting head of school at Sydney University, now professor of media at Macquarie University. “Both Professor Spurr and Kevin Donnelly [heading the National Curriculum Review] are on the record strongly advocating the western literary canon on the basis it has a civilising influence on us. That may be the case. However, I don’t see the evidence of that in Professor Spurr’s emails.”
That Spurr was prepared to send them to his colleagues, Lumby says, raises questions about his judgment, an important consideration given his role on the curriculum review.
Spurr is not responding to media. He is unable to comment while he is under investigation, but he is attempting to force New Matilda to take down his emails and he will have his three days in the Federal Court in December.
The university will decide his professional fate. Its policy clearly states staff emails are not private and may not be used to be obscene or to defame, discriminate, abuse, insult or vilify any person.
The court of public opinion will decide whether Spurr’s emails were written in jest. If they really were his attempt at satire, Spurr could take a lesson from Barry Humphries, who once said: “There is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.