It was Walter Benjamin — a German intellectual, who could never understand the delights of everyday Germans, in their cities, suburbs, towns and bush — who said that “every fascism is the index of a failed revolution”. Benjamin’s other famous reflection on fascism was that it was a way of aestheticising politics, turning it into an experience, rather than a movement or a set of ideas.

The specific form fascism took was kitsch. There’s always something mysterious about kitsch; every time you think you’ve defined it, it slips away. A set of plaster ducks flying up the wall used to express it; but those then became the last word in retro chic; now that’s become so cliched, they’ve turned into a sort of meta-kitsch.

Ken Done, Shannon Noll, John Howard’s proposed preamble to the Constitution, Australia the movie, Federation Square … the essence of kitsch is that the form falls so far short of the content that the reverse of the intended effect is achieved.

Political kitsch occurs when the imagery and appeal to values and sentiment becomes a substitute for ideas, rather than an expression of them. You know it when you see it, and the parade of kitsch in Australian politics over the past week suggests an exhaustion of ideas so comprehensive.

Perhaps that is more noticeable all at once. Your correspondent spent most of the last week in the wilds of Iceland, blissfully out of Wi-Fi range; as soon as you come back into town, and catch up with the news, you wonder what sort of madhouse your country has become. Kristallnacht in Marrickville? People’s cultural identity being assessed by holding up a bunch of swatches to their skin, to see if they match the décor? And the Prime Minister gives an address named after the most unlikely, un-Australian Labor leader in history to damn a whole political party for not sharing in the “delight of family and nation”?

These three events — Andrew Bolt’s appearance on accusations of racial vilification, the revival of attacks on the Greens as some sort of Nazi party, and Julia Gillard’s strange, strange Whitlam Oration — have all been discussed at length in the past week, but not as the expression of a single process, which they are.

Each in their own way represent a desperate desire not to acknowledge a profoundly changed world, retreating into past fantasy as a substitute for a vision of the future. Throw in Greg Sheridan’s bandwagon-jumping mea culpa on multiculturalism, and you have a picture of a carping and negative political culture, structured that way for obvious reasons.

Perhaps the most bizarre eruption of all was the manner in which the contents of Bolt’s blog came into the light. There’s plenty to debate about the whys and wherefores of racial vilification laws, but what is so striking to the majority of people who don’t read Bolt or his blog is this sudden return of ideas and obsessions last seen in the 1930s.

One of the reasons that Bolt’s obsessive focus on actual skin tone is so stunning is the manner in which it turns a whole group of people into objects, not subjects. To measure skin tone is pretty much the same as measuring cranial capacity, or checking a slave’s teeth. How much Bolt’s focus on making a physical distinction between races comes from his Dutch neo-Calvinist heritage is difficult to know, but something gives him a focus that other conservatives lack. Quite likely, many conservatives who otherwise agree with Bolt on many issues find his skin-tone focus disquieting, if not mildly repellent — but they know that this is the price of the ticket.

Bolt’s role is to sell the usual fantasy — that the lives of hard-working white people have been sidelined by a band of sinister elites. The story is bunkum of course — Liberal and Labor governments have continued a shared policy of creating a globalised, polycultural, polyethnic society in which older notions of Australia were pushed mercilessly to one side, creating great confusions of identity and meaning.

Bolt represents an Australia, a West that is gone, ceaselessly representing it to a people who need it. Israel serves the same purpose — the country that is invariably referred to as the “plucky little nation” who remembers the martial and national values a decadent west has long since lost.

This too is a past portrait — its political elite is now rife with corruption, its national vision is being eaten away by ressentiment and victimhood, and so any attack on it has to be met with the same rhetoric as deployed by the most fundamentalist of settlers — that all criticism or opposition is the Holocaust redux.

The worst thing about the NSW Greens adoption of the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) campaign against Israel is that it simply mirrors the right’s obsession with the country, making it a shared focus for a politics (old new leftism in this case) that is feeling pretty exhausted itself. But they were saved from looking bad by the hysterical right looking worse — with David Penberthy comparing the campaign to Kristallnacht, a simple and effective demonstration that a) he’d seen Schindler’s List, and not much else, and b) he had no real moral understanding of the events he was referring back to.

Gillard’s Whitlam Oration capped it off, because it committed the party to trying to win favour by sleazing back into political kitsch — in an oration named after the man who decisively rejected that strategy in the 1960s, and modernised and complexified the party against tremendous odds, not the least of them being the sheer improbability of being the party’s leader.

There were plenty of people, during Labor’s mid-’60s doldrums willing to say that Whitlam — ex-literary editor, playboy, son-of-a-mandarin — was someone who could:

“… never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation …”

Had they prospered, Labor would never have become the natural home of the rising “new class” sector of the population, and, for better or worse, the political history of our country might have been different, as they split off to from their own group.

Now they have. They’re called the Greens, and Gillard’s inauguaral “Joe Chamberlain” oration is a coward’s way of dealing with the new challenge, a testament to lack of imagination, lack of projection, lack of ideas. In a far more conservative Australia, Whitlam and others managed to hold together two groups with different life-ways, and thus dominated Australian politics from 1967 to 1996, even from Opposition.

Once you retreat to the desperate measure of defining yourself by impugning a whole class of people, kitsch becomes inevitable — and it then does not seem absurd that a childless spinster, ex of the Eurocommunist group “Socialist Forum”, should claim that others lack a commitment to “family and nation”.

As m’colleague Keane noted, you will never win against the Coalition in such a contest, and you stand to lose far more than mere self-respect. You’re liable to become as fixed and inexpressive as those plaster ducks on the wall, fading endlessly into the wallpaper, and taking a lot more with you.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey