Students are taking to the streets with home-made signs and jostling former politicians at uni like it's 1969. Someone has to let these kids know that the old forms of protest have been kaput for some time.
Writer Annabel Crabb has enjoyed freedom from misunderstanding for too long, and so her bollocking by social media this week was as long-overdue as it was (more or less) undeserved. The former press gallery wunderkind dared venture Sunday in her Fairfax column that “the last few decades have turned our world upside down” and that protest had not turned with it.
She was subject to the form and the volume of critique familiar to any writer imprudent enough to suggest the Left is not doing a bang-up job of efficient social change and might want to try something different. She is old, they said; she is irrelevant; she thinks she knows everything; how dare she be so negative; and why doesn’t she just marry Marine Le Pen if she loves hating freedom so much.
After a storm of tweets doused her in enough scorn to wash all the Rosie the Riveter do-rags from The Guardian’s comment pages clean, Crabb was a good enough sport to say she had been wrong. She linked to a blog post Senator Scott Ludlum had already tweeted with all the reasonable humility for which he has become lately known. “PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR DESIGNATED PROTEST ZONES” he offered in majuscule, the official case of easy snark.
The blog post by Alex McKinnon itself is quite funny, and the writer does make the very decent point that protest was never meant to look anything but, as Crabb has it, “dreadful”. I can think of no significant battle that was won by good manners, and thank goodness for Annabel that her foremothers were dreadful enough to throw themselves in front of horses.
I imagine those young, and now quite legitimately angry, people have lately had a gutful from an old media that thrives on easy censure. It must seem that when their protests are wholesome and internet-based, they’re slacktivists. When they’re unseemly and physically present, they’re missing all the marvelous strategic opportunities an online awareness ribbon presents.
It’s easy to understand this frustration, and in recent days John Birmingham has been so eager not to feed it he’s blown a little smoke both ways. On his Fairfax blog, Birmo affirms the might of street protest. On his personal blog, he affirms the might of informal social media protest. It’s all good, apparently, and so say a number of other commentators who are giddy with hope for the future that has not, after all, been headed these past 40 years down a Too Big Too Fail late-capitalist lavatory direct to a feudal sewer. No. Things are on the up-and-up and the Left in buoying its old traditions of street protest, and its new tradition of publishing emotional things online is doing all it can. RETWEET IF U CRY.
I can take or leave online “protest”, myself. What Birmo sees as a gloriously compact J’Accuse, I see as a delusion of power and enlightenment. But I did love seeing the little blighters going politicians and revved up on ABC1’s Q&A. Frankly, those two minutes of screaming were the best I’ve seen amid a tedious hour of anti-intellectual ping pong in some time. Probably since Zizek talked about the death of the real with half a sandwich in his beard.
The re-emergence of Cold War-era tactics such as we saw deployed toward Julie Bishop make me feel young again. But they don’t make me feel particularly hopeful. I know participation in them feels good, but I am pretty sure that they achieve little beyond that. This is not for a minute to diminish the students’ motivations, which are noble and worthy and right. It is, however, to join Crabb is suggesting that a new era may demand a new form of protest.
It’s unfashionable to agree with Crabb this week; she’s even denounced herself. So I shan’t agree with her mild assertion that digital media channels will free us all, nor will I join her in denying students the same undergraduate pleasures I took in politician-jostling.
But I will say that the Left’s repertoire of contention could do with a little freshening.
And no. I really have no clear idea of how that might look but a solution has never been requisite to the identification of its need. Perhaps Crabb erred in suggesting that her solution would look more sober than recent protest scenes. She did not err, however, in identifying a problem.
And as much as the Micawbers of the new and sunny Left might see revolutionary riches ahead, there is a problem.
Someone has to let these kids know that the old forms of protest have been kaput for some time. The techniques my friends and I used to protest HECS produced fuck-all but an ALP that knew it could get away with neoliberal economic policies as long as it made the right emotional noises to its broader base. Someone needs to let these kids know that there is very little hope.
There is a good case to be made for pessimism and an even better one for devising new tactics for its public expression. There is, of course, a popular view that a positive outlook leads to positive change. But perhaps what we need now most of all is not the tenets of Personal Development but a dose of “This Isn’t Working” administered much more forcefully than Crabb could ever dare.
Birmingham and others are currently happy to give the Left its self-esteem. “You go!” they say. Good job and don’t go changing. You’re perfect as you are. Except, of course, that the world has turned without pause to shit for several decades and an eight-hour day and an early retirement is a dream as distant to the nation’s younger boomers as affordable housing and education are to its younger adults.
And I know this realisation fuels the anger that Crabb found so unseemly. It is not as though younger Australians are unaware that they’ve got a shitty deal. They’re certainly not stupid, but they are new here. For the sake of goodness, let them know that protest must evolve.
Helen Razer is a writer whose work appears in The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue, and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian and as a broadcaster for ABC radio.