The lumbering bandwagon the Right is pushing on the Andrew Bolt Racial Discrimination Act case got an unexpected shove today — no, not Planet Janet’s piece of old flannel in The Australian, which was lame. Instead, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and campaigning lawyer Jennifer Robinson made an unequivocal argument against the law that Bolt was found to be in breach of. The piece will leave the Right in deep confusion, since it has spent a year or more consoling itself with the idea that Assange is some sort of crypto-Marxist anti-American, rather than a more free-floating libertarian — and the fact that it was published in Fairfax will fry their circuits.
But the piece points to an interesting occurrence: the Right has sought to portray Bolt’s support as coming solely from its own side — thus Planet Janet could find only a piece by Jonathan Holmes on The Drum in support. Yet this is the opposite of the truth. In fact, criticism of the Bolt case and the ultimate decision came first in a piece from Bernard Keane, and also Margaret Simons (both of whom don’t really identify as Left, but it usually gets lumped in there) in these pages. Ditto with Spencer Zifcak, of Liberty Victoria, who said the RDA provisions were too broad — who, for his pains, got short shrift from Bolt himself.
After the judgment, your correspondent noted here, and on the Overland blog, that the Left — that is, not the Liberal-left — had to make clear its opposition to such state control of speech. At Left Flank Tad Tietze made a similiar case. So did Antony Loewenstein, who the Right usually reads with a fine-tooth comb. As did Michael Brull on The Drum, against which the Right wages a relentless campaign, with a view to having it closed down.
We also noted the idea that the omnipresent Bolt had been silenced was as risible as the notion that the privatised public media sphere was one of “free speech”, and strongly intimated that it wouldn’t matter to us if Bolt was indecently assaulted by bears — but a criticism of the Bolt judgment, or the law, it nevertheless was. Even David Marr — the left-liberal I thought the Left needed to most clearly distinguish ourselves from on this issue — gave a complex criticism of the “insult” provisions of section 18c of the RDA.
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That’s a considerable roll-call criticising the legal judgement on a man who has been happy to concur in any amount of archaic red-baiting — and far more support than you saw from the Right for Assange, when the Australian government was fossicking around trying to find things to charge him with after “Cablegate”. Why pretend the Left has been silent? Because the pathetic notion the Right is some sort of iconoclastic minority — the Peter Coleman via Willi Münzenberg formula — has to be applied at all costs.
It’s a rather debasing act, the perpetual pretence of being the underdog, but vital to the culture war that the Right is using the judgement to try and mount — as Paul Kelly rather gave the game away on, urging Tony Abbott to seize on the Bolt judgement as an election issue.
Kelly’s case was tendentious and the plea a little desperate, and the reason why underlines a difficulty faced by the Right in this matter: outside of Bolt’s 100,000 or so addled fanbase, no one gives a rat’s. No one else believes the judgement per se is a disaster for free speech, and the Australia the Right wanted — comfortable, relaxed, manifesting their citizenship through consumption, fleeting mild interest in the Queen, Anzac Day and sports victories — is also comfortable and relaxed about the state adjudicating on speech.
After all, hasn’t the Right spent a decade reassuring the public there was a need for the government to ban “sedition”, to investigate “extreme” speech, to monitor substantial groups of people? Haven’t they been comfortable and relaxed about an internet “firewall”, blocking any number of sites, the list of which would not be publicly available (and was subsequently leaked by WikiLeaks)? Or that police could raid a gallery and remove dozens of pictures because of the opinion of one prominent self-appointed representative of the innocent, and a couple of dubious complaints?*
Ironically, even the campaign against Bolt-case complainant Larissa Behrendt, in which a bad-taste joke she tweeted gave everyone a fake case of the screaming ab-dabs, serves to blunt the outrage. For if such microspeech is allegedly so offensive that it deserves dozens of articles and mentions in a national broadsheet, surely there must be some speech that is simply, well, wrong and indefensible? And if that’s the case, shouldn’t the state step in, in such cases?I don’t believe so, but then I don’t read Bolt, Devine, Albrechtsen, Akerman, Sheridan and all the other “decline of the West” eeyores for anything other than shits and giggles. Many of those who take them seriously are likely to harrumph about “political correctness gone mad” — but also to remain undisturbed by it, at a deeper level. For the western civ eeyores, the great disinterest in the fate of Bolt reminds them they are more accurately grouped in the entertainment, rather than commentary, business than they would like to believe.
The 2007 Howard defeat is a lesson they haven’t learnt yet — Bolt’s (and Devine’s and Akermans’) readership is enormous, their actual following considerably smaller. Their readership will take a hundred articles about the virtues of WorkChoices — and then go and vote the sucker down. The public’s comfortable and relaxed attitude to statism is easily rolled over into other areas.
In the meantime the only honest campaigning on the issue has come from the Left (and I suggest those Left groups who support the Bromberg decision have made an error of judgement). If the Right acknowledged it, the guts of its campaign around the Bolt decision would fall apart — because it is about everything but the Bolt bandwagon and, ultimately, they would be more than happy to throw the Dutch boy under the wheels.
*Your correspondent also expressed some qualms about the arty defence of Bill Henson’s work during the furore, since it appeared to ignore a key issue of the debate — whether a 13-year-old child, even with her parents’ permission, should be allowed to consent to nude commercial photographic modelling, or whether — as with drinking alcohol or having sex — this option should be denied to them, until adulthood. However, as I also noted, Henson should not have been threatened with any sort of prosecution.