October 2006



By Don Watson

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Imagine for a moment that George Orwell was right when he said that words have precise and specific meanings and we should do our best to stick to them when we speak or write. Orwell argued that "slovenly" language made it harder to think clearly, and as clear thinking is a precondition of enlightened and functional democracy, language is not a frivolous concern. Let's say we took Orwell seriously for a moment - only for a moment, because the time we spend on taking language seriously is time we cannot spend on taking "real issues" such as "Aussie values" seriously. It "mitigates against" them, as they say sometimes on the ABC. But spare a non-frivolous moment for the language and think about the way we use "icon".

Two or three days after Steve Irwin died, I heard a man behind me in an airport queue say to his companion that Germaine Greer had "tried to gut an Aussie icon". His companion was astounded to hear that anyone should be so insensitive. "I mean," said the man, "I wasn't a big rap for the bloke, but he was an icon and you have to respect that. You don't go gutting an Aussie icon."

Language proceeds by imitation and it's a safe guess the traveller thought of Irwin as an icon because that is the cliché everyone in the media had chosen. They did not call him a naturalist or a blowhard, and he had got beyond "celebrity". Some stressed he was a "family man". But above all he was an "Aussie icon".

Back in 1946, when Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, icons did not wrestle with crocodiles and pythons. Icons were still, as they had been for the previous two millennia: sacred images, usually of saints, venerated by Christians, especially in the Eastern Church. They were mute and inanimate representations, though granted they spoke plainly to the faithful.

The sorts of people who are now called icons in Orwell's day were called national heroes or stalwarts or giants or lions, or citizens much loved and looked up to. Explorers, soldiers, political leaders, entertainers, scientists, sportsmen: the world was not short of what are now called "icons" just because that was not then the word for them. Take Field Marshal Montgomery, for instance, or Edmund Hilary, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Douglas Bader, Don Bradman, Gary Cooper, John Landy, Jane Russell, the Queen and Rising Fast. For some people, Orwell was one. Stalin was another, for some people. It was more than admiration. They were people who represented to us something elevated, if not perfect; people in whom we saw ourselves as we would like to be. They embodied our personal or national ideals.

We went some way to making icons of them if we had a photo or poster above our beds, or a little bust on the mantelpiece; but the person and the representation were kept distinct. A pepper shaker was not Winston Churchill, nor had it any of his powers, just because it was in his likeness. This was for the same reason that Winston Churchill was not a pepper shaker, and had none of a pepper shaker's powers. There must have been some general intimation that there was peril - and possibly madness - in failing to distinguish between the reality and the representation. Some people might hold that a little gilt-framed, hand-painted image of St Anthony and a photo of Stalin are both icons, but even if we accept that questionable proposition, we are not therefore obliged to believe that St Anthony was in his own person an icon of Christianity and Stalin an icon of Communism. Andy Warhol knew that he was making icons of Marilyn Monroe and Campbell's soup, not making Marilyn and the soup icons.

There is another reason for taking Orwell's advice and reserving "icon" for its original and accepted meaning: this was that the photos of Hitler and Stalin and the badges of Mao were created in imitation of icons to encourage quasi-religious veneration. They were mass-produced facsimiles designed to invest the Führer, the Great Leader and the Great Helmsman with perfect wisdom and seeming divine powers. This was Orwell's very point: slovenly language and slovenly thought live in permanent and dangerous embrace.

The American Heritage Dictionary of twenty years ago defined "icon" as a representation or symbol. The latest one includes two new meanings: the picture representing a file or program on a computer screen and "One who is the object of great attention and devotion; an idol." Most, though not all, other dictionaries have done something similar. The English language is forever changing, of course, often for the better and just as often for the worse. In both cases, as followers of Orwell know better than most, it is all but futile to resist.

Yet we might as well mark the changes. Before those popular heroes became icons we had, in addition to a language with more variety and life in it, a more general freedom to dissent. One did not have to like Don Bradman or Winston Churchill in the way it seems one has to like these modern "icons". They were legends in their ways and it was common for bits of myth to attach to them. But our attitude was not religious. In the end they were what they were, and if they were transcendent it was only as a cricketer transcends the demands of that game, or a general an enemy with the high ground, or a nurse septicaemia, or a horse the limitations of most horses. There was no heresy or threat of damnation in ignoring them.

Still, it is hard to put a finger firmly on the difference. Three-quarters of a century ago almost a quarter of Melbourne's population turned out for the funeral of Sir John Monash. No one called him an Aussie icon. Or even a war icon; or an engineering icon; or a Jewish icon. Is it possible that they mourned him as an icon while thinking him a mere national hero, or a good man who had served his country very well?

It is more likely that our democracy had not evolved to the point where, for want of a local Monarch, Messiah or Patron Saint, by means of these icons the people had taken to granting themselves the same sovereignty. What are "Aussie icons" if not likenesses of the people at large? And from what do they derive their authority - not to say, majesty - if not from "Aussie values"? The very alert will notice the switcheroo: where the old icons reminded the faithful of their relative weaknesses, in the new Aussie icon Aussies see confirmation of their strengths. The Aussie icon is, as one would expect, an enhanced icon.

Let no one - no one who does not wish to be nailed by the ears to a gum tree - suggest that this phenomenon runs in any way parallel to one observed in the US by HL Mencken: "As democracy is perfected," he said in 1920, "the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts' desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." We can ignore Mencken, like any other bitter old curmudgeon. He was a notorious elitist, blind to democratic progress and could not tell an Aussie icon from a catfish.

But we are trying to honour Orwell here, and all the others, including Mencken and William F Buckley Jr, who say that although language is by nature inexact, we should strive for exactitude. With "icon", the heart of the difficulty is the matter of representation. Even computer science keeps the original sense of "icon" as an image or symbol of something else. But the Crocodile Man, though an idol, remains himself and not a symbol in the sense that an icon is. It was the same with St Anthony. That is, we do not make the saint an icon; we make icons of the saint.

And here is the opportunity for Kim Beazley. The following proposal could in a single stroke do a service to plain English, make a lasting contribution to Australia's national security and dig him out of a hole. Let us make a real icon of Steve Irwin, a framed engraving or photograph with a crocodile, much as St Patrick is with a snake and St Agnes with a lamb. Make another of John Howard and of a random third, and let our customs officers show them to all visitors and intending immigrants. Demand either that they name all three or, by some non-verbal means such as kissing or weeping or pressing to their brows, prove their respect for the Aussie values these icons symbolise. A simple test and those who pass it will enter with our blessing. Those with whom it draws a blank shall be turned away.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

Cover: October 2006

October 2006

From the front page

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The many faces of David Gulpilil

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