On Borrowed Time: a book review by Geoffrey Zygier

March 9, 2018 by Geoffrey Zygier
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Morry Schwartz’s Black Inc recently published On Borrowed Time, the latest work by Robert Manne, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.

This is Manne’s first book since his recent battle with throat cancer and his introductory essay examines his traumatic experience. Its very personal and emotional tone is in marked contrast to the rest of his book, which compiles previously published material on various political and social matters.

Robert Manne

Which of Manne’s concerns are expressed in On Borrowed Time? They cover a range of 21st Century issues, most relating to Australia. These include climate change, asylum seekers, local politics and politicians, Rupert Murdoch, Islamism, Julian Assange, Manne’s disputes with those holding more conservative views and the state of our Indigenous peoples, amongst other subjects.

Manne has been a prolific writer throughout his academic career. His opinions have changed more than once over time and currently might be characterised as belonging to the ‘soft’ left. Critics have often used the word ‘moral’ to describe his opinions. On Borrowed Time confirms this perception. His writing is thoughtful and readable, suggestive of a liberal, intelligent and decent person.

I believe many readers would appreciate Manne’s attributes. However while I find them worthy of respect, I personally find his work lacking the passion, outrage and fire that I consider certain of his subjects warrant. Manne’s is the well-modulated voice of reason, one that I might gently nod or shake my head to, but never make me jump from my seat either in excitement or despair. Simply, reading On Borrowed Time doesn’t make me care enough to act.

Manne’s natural audience is the older “… inner-city Carlton-Balmain type” he mentions in his first article. Presumably such people already have read these essays in The Guardian, The Monthly, Quarterly Essay or elsewhere. They certainly may wish to read them again. However (and certainly no pun intended) it is likely that the new generation of activists, more occupied with concerns such as identity politics, may find Robert Manne’s voice a little tired and dated. The matters that concern him have become mainstream in 2018, already intensively and perhaps exhaustively discussed by so many fine writers around the world and, dare I say it, in more striking and original ways. It’s a matter of taste, but I prefer my politics more singular and animated.

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