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Critics' Corner
15 June, 2009  
The privilege is all ours ...

What got the privileged Julian Burnside hooked on the underprivileged? He explains in his essay On Privilege, reviewed here by The Worm

imageThere’s no doubt Louise Adler at Melbourne University Press is “on” to something with her series of smart little books by big-name Australians – or as the marketing blurb puts it, “little books on big themes”.

It’s cutting the intellectual cloth to fit meaner times, with the added discipline that the notables asked to write “on” a subject close to their hearts simply can’t go “on and on”.

In the case of Julian Burnside QC, commercial lawyer turned humanist hero, this is a shame.

He is a man of some depth and breadth, as his Wikipedia entry shows.

His crisply written musings on the origins, nature and responsibilities of privilege deserve a better brief.

Nevertheless Julian Burnside on privilege is a pithy read – if you enjoy reading about human rights and their abuses.

The Worm came to this little tome with a burning question: can a real, lean, keen sense of social injustice be borne out of the flabby world of privilege?


Burnside begins his discussion of privilege with a description of his own – wealthy professional parents, Toorak mansion, Melbourne Grammar, commercial law; the complete catastrophe.

After slaving away for the big end of town, yearning all the while for something more, Burnside experienced a kind of epiphany – perhaps a privilege in itself.

The world of the underprivileged suddenly appeared in the headlights and it’s been glaring at him ever since.

Clearly this essay is not an apologia for the first half of his blue-veined existence.

The successful barrister and author looks at life from both sides now, starting with the rather trite observation that privilege is most obvious to those who don’t have it.

He notes that privilege, in the dictionary definition at least, is derived from the Latin privi-legium or “private law … a special law having reference to an individual”.

The best early example was the divine right of kings.

Burnside smartly links the historical with the present to create his political points.

First up he aligns the divine right of the Stuart kings to the untrammelled power of American presidents in general, and George Dubya Bush in particular.

Dubya’s moral and legal abuses in the name of privilege are many and varied and Burnside notes them all with marvellously restrained contempt.

They range from the horrors of Guantánamo Bay and Bush’s authorisation of torture to the Military Commissions Act of 2006, designed to put prisoners beyond the protection of the Bill of Rights.

Australia is not exempt. Burnside argues that in this privileged country privilege extends to “me and mine” but not to others – what he calls “the privilege of selective blindness”.

Hence the human rights not afforded Aboriginal Australians, refugees or those suspected of terrorism.

imageHe cites the Stolen Generation, Mabo and ASIO’s terrifying War on Terror laws in unsettling detail.

Burnside calls for an Australian Bill of Rights, so that “the privilege of the democratic majority should not be unbounded”.

He points out that those (Cardinal George Pell, for instance, snap) who noisily oppose such a Bill are “always people who occupy positions of privilege”.

Consummate lawyer that he is, Burnside argues that barristers’ immunity (a special kind of privilege whereby a brief cannot be sued for performing badly in court) has a principled foundation.

He lost The Worm at that point.

Recovery came soon enough with Burnside’s defence of art as privileged.

“Because it plays an important role in exposing truths we might prefer not to see, or that politicians may prefer us not to see.”

Burnside is at his most interesting here, possibly because he’s most interested in the world of the arts.

Politicians and their privileges come last, as they should. John Howard’s “elites” get a mention, with Burnside asking what The Worm has oft pondered:

“Why the eclipse of intellectual pursuits should be celebrated is not explained.”

In the end, Burnside’s most powerful understanding of privilege comes from Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom he quotes at the beginning of his essay.

“The discussion of any subject is a right that you have brought into the world with your heart and tongue. Resign your heart’s blood before you part with this inestimable privilege of man.”

imageBurnside’s thoughts may not be entirely original, but they’re a privilege to read.

The Worm

On Privilege by Julian Burnside, MUP, 96 pages, $19.99