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Posted on 11 Dec 2015 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 1 comment

The Godfather: Peter Corris on contemptible people

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peternewpicI was watching a History Channel documentary on notable crimes. This one dealt with the murder of Sir Harry Oakes in Nassau, capital of the Bahamas, in the early 1940s when the Duke of Windsor was Governor of the colony, an appointment made to keep the former king, suspect in his loyalties, out of the way during the war. It appears that the Duke was party to a conspiracy to cover up the crime, involving shonky financial dealings in which he might have been implicated.

The program documented the Duke’s flirtation with Hitler in the 1930s and his and the Duchess’s essentially frivolous, snobbish, expensive lifestyle since the abdication which, to do him justice, was not without its dignity at the time.

Contemptible people, I thought to myself, and then I began to wonder who else that word could appropriately be applied to and what it actually meant. For deeply flawed individuals of the past like Savonarola, Thomas More and Charles I, it didn’t seem to fit. They were possessed by delusions beyond their control. Nor did it suit cruel ancient monsters like Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun or Julius Caesar – they viewed life and death in ways virtually incomprehensible to us. Similarly, Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung facilitated atrocities on a scale that renders the word ‘contemptible’ woefully inadequate.

In an uncharacteristically judgemental mood, I decided to consider a few English-speaking individuals (people more or less subject to the manners and mores operating in our own time) from the 20th century, using the no doubt psychologically inadequate measure of they should have known better.

Field Marshall Douglas Haig is a definite candidate. Stubborn, obtuse, callous and self-serving, ignoring advice to pursue different tactics, he was responsible in World War I for the death of millions of men. The award to him of honours and a large gratuity was a travesty.

Mercifully unable to cause similar casualties but similarly blind, lacking in compassion and judgement was Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes. A witness to the slaughter in the war, he twice attempted to enforce conscription on Australia. Happily the country resisted. A traitor to his class and his original political affiliation, Hughes was known in ALP families like mine as ‘that little rat’ and I’ve never been able accord him a modicum to of respect.

Two Americans, J Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy, men without redeeming features to my mind, deserve the label. Hoover was a racist, right-wing bigot and homophobe, although probably a closet homosexual himself. He was also a hypocrite – supposedly a crime fighter as head of the FBI, Hoover associated with criminals and wielded considerable political and bureaucratic power for four decades.

Equally unsavoury was Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose ranting insistence that the US State Department housed communist subversives fuelled the anti-communist witch-hunt period of the 1950s known as McCarthyism. The spirit of persecution engendered by McCarthy and others ruined hundreds of careers and cost some people their lives. Another homophobe, McCarthy was also active in attempting to brand loyal homosexual public servants as traitors.

Others will have different candidates, but of these four men (and the Windsors), each fully exposed to sounder ideas and principles, it can safely be said that they should have known and acted better.


1 Comment

  1. William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart deals with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Oakes’ murder in the Bahamas very well. Better than some of the non-fiction versions. In Port Melbourne we are trying to get the name of a Pier named after the Duke changed. Sadly the local historical society is less than keen on then grounds that ‘history is history’. If only. He was, of course, a Nazi sympathiser and that’s why he got banished.