IT IS not an expression much used these days, “born to the purple”, but it seems the moment is ripe to bring that ancient signifier up to date. Quite a few years before Alice Walker collected a Pulitzer for her tick-the-boxes chic-lit tale of a young black woman’s oppression by sexism and racism (always a winning double), the colour purple was a very special thing indeed. Extracted with great effort from a Mediterranean mollusk, the resulting dye was restricted to trimming the togas and tunics of Roman and Byzantine emperors and their heirs. If you were born to the purple, you were special – starting with the flunkies and flatterers who played midwife to that sense of presumptive entitlement and extending to lesser mortals’ endurance of the most bizarre behaviour. Appoint a horse pro-consul, knock up your sister or send legions to spear the waves in a war on King Neptune and the common folk would know and understand how the purple flash authorized the beneficiary to be as weird, arrogant and contemptuous of reason as the imperial fancy of the moment dictated. Generations of consanguineous mating did nothing to promote sanity as a palace trait, but it certainly conferred an expectation of unquestioned indulgence.
Little people need no longer defer to imperial lunatics, but there can be no doubt of the pressing need to see the re-introduction of some purple-trimmed truth-in-labelling. Once again it would alert observers that nurture, rather than nature, has produced an individual whose access to nice jobs and the opinionisers’ pulpit is owed to pedigree, rather than cogency. There are many potential case studies. Dan Cass, who swans sometimes at The Drum, where Jonathan Green plays court eunuch to many royal pains, is one example.
Andrew Bolt dealt some months ago with one of Gibbering Dan’s errors of fact, in that instance his assertion that the loony who shot US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (and many others, including a conservative judge) was “a right wing assassin”, rather than a dope-addled conspiracist with a bee in his bonnet about, of all things, the abuse of grammar. The Drum’s stable of writers produces a daily and endless ker-plopping of taxpayer-funded muck, so there seems little point in taking a further look at yet another specific example of its output. Much more interesting is Cass’ personal history, for it may help to explain one of the mysteries of the age: why those of so few gifts occupy such a secure place in the small, tight and forever incestuous world of the New Establishment.
It’s the purple, you see. Or rather, in this case, the green.
Start with young Adam’s paternal bloodline. He is, first of all, the son of Moss Cass, whom older readers will recall as the designated tree fancier in the Whitlam cabinet. Other clowns in Gough’s circus came to grief and saw their reputations suffer, but Cass the Elder was blessed with a kind portfolio, one that offered no temptations to confer with confidence tricksters in pursuit of Arab loans or, given that his personal secretary was not a Filpina hottie, for seeding the jojoba beans in another hubby’s paddock.
All Moss had to do was express his admiration for trees and tolerate being ignored by Tasmania, which kept right on flooding Lake Pedder no matter how hard he tried to pull the plug. Ineffectual and politically impotent, the then-Member for Maribyrnong’s only lasting achievement was to crank up the thermostat of alarm, which your proto-catastropharians and green fund-raisers found most congenial. Today, with the environmental movement so hot and bothered that a tax on exhaled breath is a pitched as essential to national survival, the current mood of righteous panic is Cass the Elder’s most enduring legacy.
All that tree talk and frustrated righteousness around the family table gave the adolescent Adam very little chance of growing up to be anything other than a scold. But the job opportunities, they were bonza. Who wouldn’t want Moss’ little boy on the payroll? All those family connections and political links! The kid’s swaddling clothes came hemmed with purple and a very royal green.
Barely in his twenties, he was, as the Drum thumbnail says, “the Australian Conservation Foundation’s official observer at the Earth Summit (UNCED) in Rio in 1992.” The bio doesn’t relate the rest of the story, that Brazilian authorities locked him up for being a pest – an option unavailable, sadly, to opponents of tortured writing. Still, it must have been a nice trip, and that jailhouse glamour can only have added lustre to his CV when dad’s great mate and ally Lee Rhiannon – yes, that Lee Rhiannon, then of NSW’s upper house – had a staff vacancy to fill.
So did Melbourne Museum, where the newly minted Melbourne Uni grad became, as Adam crows, “the youngest curator in Museum Victoria in 1996-7, appointed as Curator of Science and Society.”
Onward and upward on the purple carpet our ardent Adam rose, perhaps never noticing that he was being borne on a billow of irony – the proletarian advocate who has nestled all his life in the bosom of the elite.
Not that Cass floats alone in that purpled firmament. Very often on Q&A, for example, there will be at least one panelist whose seat has earlier been warmed by a family connection. ABC and SBS favourite Waleed Ali shares his insights on one matter; his wife, Susan Carland, subsequently is invited to share hers on another. GetUp’s Simon Sheikh bangs the climate gong on Q&A; so does his shiksa, Children’s Climate Crusade careerist Anna Rose. The New Establishment, it’s quite the purple thing. Whether born into it or adopted, the happy few can rest assured that the stewards will never entertain an inquiry into the factors that grant so many of their favourites a rails run to microphone and bank.
It never ends. Indeed, the Drum, which often seems a crèche for kids of the well connected, is today helping another purple baby tap her birthright. This example is particularly arresting, not least because Parkville Asylum PhD candidate Mira Adler-Gillies’ reflections on the Arab Spring is a compendium of the empty clichés that rattle around university common rooms and empty heads. (“structural challenge to a global dynamic” … “imperial crusades by the US” … “irreversibly altered the status quo”, “worship at the altar of the free market” … “neo-cons steering the Bush crusade” … “the cult of the unfettered market” … “Cowboy intervention” … “the economic and political hegemony of the US” … “post-colonial imperialist interventions” … “there has been a paradigm shift” … “the future in the hands of the people”) Mira has youth’s excuse for scooping her thoughts from such a font of tosh. After all, uttering sacred mantras is a standard element of tribal initiations, and the delight with which she has assembled them speaks of a pride and eagerness to carry her spear in the Great Push Forward.
But how to explain The Drum’s decision to publish? Mark Scott’s bid to snaffle the Crikey demographic is, or alleged to be, run by adults. Upon receiving such a submission, did they not notice its hackneyed vacuity? What they must surely have noticed, could not by any stretch have missed, was young Mira’s entry in the purple stud book.
The Adler part of her surname, well that is her mum, Melbourne University Press publisher Louise. The Gillies bit, that is the gift of none-too-funny John Howard impersonator Max. Well that is a prime purple pair right there, and their progeny’s intention to gain attention cannot have been hurt by a link that stands outside straight bloodlines. Ms. Adler’s deputy at MUP is Jonathan Green’s wife. Who knows, perhaps the Adler/Gillies and Greens chatted about their kids' hopes and opportunities at that "kill the pig" pinata-whacking on election night in 2007.
Some years ago, when the war in Afghanistan had a definite sense of mission and was going well, US intelligence experts rounded up many Taliban suspects and sympathizers by tapping sociology’s expertise to map networks of friends and family, clans and likely conspirators. Perhaps it is time for a similar to project to chart the links that bind the New Establishment – the former Labor flacks who preen on the ABC, the politicians’ partners (or siblings) who purport to provide unbiased commentary (or comedy), the sympathies that blind watchdogs to their cobbers’ errors.
It would make for quite a graphic, that finished chart – almost all the New Establisment’s purple arrows pointing very firmly to the left.