July 2, 2021

COVID-19

Dear Jon

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Dear Jon
An open letter to Jon Faine: esteemed commentator, vintage car lover and schadenfreude enthusiast

Dear Jon,

I get it. That Melbourne lockdown was bad. Bruisingly bad. 112 days, baby, and I don’t know when you lost your will to live, but for me it was around day 80 when my daughter discovered Thomas the Tank Engine musicals, and could not be dissuaded from binging on them. Captive to that particular funk of depression and claustrophobia that Melburnians know too well, I began writing dark and threatening letters to the estate of Thomas’s creator – the late Reverend W. Awdry – while melting my daughter’s plastic train set in the oven. It had taken a brutally sustained lockdown, but I realised – in one hell-flash of revelation – that my whole vibe of educated civility was in fact just gift-wrapping around a primal core of anarchic violence.  

Reading your column this week, I wondered if that lockdown wasn’t similarly chastening for you, Jon, or otherwise emotionally harmful in strange and indelible ways. How else to explain you kind of wishing a COVID outbreak upon New South Wales?

You wrote: “I sincerely hope no one gets sick and no one dies, but gee their two-week lockdown, as opposed to the stay-at-home rules, will prick their self-righteous balloon and put an end to the partisan, condescending and patronising nonsense that has been raining down on Victorians for months … It will do Sydney some good to be knocked off their high perch.”

Gee, that “but” is doing a lot of work there, and what’s remarkable to me is that it’s you who wrote it, and not @Dan4PM_62 in the comments.

Sure, our second wave was glibly politicised. And yes, there was some rabidly bad faith in its reporting (mixed with necessary, and substantive, examinations of the government’s failures). And you bet that I read Amanda Vanstone’s nakedly partisan column this week, which was so comprehensively lazy, reductive and contradictory that it resists selective quotation and obliges a quick summary: Victoria’s government is uniquely awful and its citizens masochistic fools for maintaining faith in it; the NSW government is blameless and excellent; simultaneously, the wild infectiousness of the virus means that managing it has a lot do with luck; and, finally, the federal government is doing just fine with the vaccine rollout – it’s the states (especially Victoria) that are fucking it up. (This last bit is mostly by implication, but in a column obsessed with blame it is scandalously silent on federal responsibility.)

I can only assume, Jon, that this is the kind of breezy condescension that moved you to wish a plague upon Sydney – you’re only human. But can I counsel you against publishing such things in the future? It’s a weird and divisive indulgence.

You seem to have taken all of this very personally, and it’s produced a pious sense of victimhood that, in my amateur appraisal, is a cousin to Vanstone’s insensitive prattling.

I don’t want to be alarmist, but it seems as if the pandemic is making opinion writers much sicker than they already were. As soon as I finish this letter, I’ll write another alerting the World Health Organization to my suspicion. In the meantime, it’s probably worth getting yourself tested by a psychoanalyst and quarantining yourself from Twitter.  

Now, I concede that I might have confused your intentions. You’re a smart man, Jon, and perhaps your column was meant as a sacrificial lesson for us. Too many columns are like little paper kites sent up to declare the writer’s virtue, and here you are boldly exposing your pettiness. Perhaps we should celebrate your candour, and how it reminds us that all of us – even esteemed commentators – are just shifting compounds of generosity and selfishness, compassion and contempt, charm and acid.

Was this your intention? A sort of meta-commentary on the fictitious moral poses of opinion writers? If so, perhaps this lesson is too subtle for an unsubtle culture? And regardless, is the value of you trumpeting schadenfreude in an age of mass exhaustion greater than the value of you, say, not doing that?

Alas, Jon, I must say “Hell no”.

The sad and frightening truth is that, with desperately low vaccination rates, we’re all doomed to indefinitely cycle in and out of lockdowns. Doomed to suffer frequent estrangements from interstate loved ones, and doomed to be largely prohibited from leaving the country. I confess, Jon, that this truth has settled pretty heavily upon me. And I’m not alone. It’s a grim but unifying fact – and a more important one than your disunifying psycho-dramas, honest though they may be.  

Stay safe,

Marty  

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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