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United States

Nov 19, 2012

Welcome to Schadenfreude Files Volume II

Watching the conservative commentators in the US as they struggle to explain Barack Obama's win is a gleeful time for Guy Rundle, who writes on the rise of the Left.

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“President Obama did not lose, he won … Mitt Romney’s assumed base did not fully emerge … The last rallies of his campaign neither signaled nor reflected a Republican resurgence … While GOP voters … with lawn signs … Democrats … organising, data mining and turning out the vote … Obama was perhaps not joyless but dogged, determined …

“Apart from that everything I wrote in my blog post of November 5 [‘I think Mitt Romney will win, I think he is sneaking in … like a thief in the night with good tools’] still stands.”  — Peggy Noonan, Wall Street Journal, post-election

You’ve got to give it to Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter who has now taken on an empyrean persona that makes Katharine Hepburn look like Gina Rinehart pumicing her corns in a heatwave. Noonan had loftily disregarded the dull machinations of Nate Silver for her superior knowledge of the American mood, and while she was willing to admit the occasional inconvenient fact — such as the result — that changed nothing.

America was an unchanging eternal being, a centre-right nation, and so the only task of conservatives was to find the accidental features of this result, and reveal the essence beneath. It’s a measure of how crazy the Right is, that Noonan was one of the saner voices in the mix. Karl Rove, recovering from the wave of loathing directed at him from the Right, told Fox News that Obama had won by “voter suppression”, by which he meant the ads that had convinced working-class Right-leaning voters to stay home because Romney hated them.

Charles Krauthammer urged change on immigration policy — and nothing else. People would return to Republican ideals, he said, because “European social democracy is imploding before our eyes” — presumably referring to the riots and grievous poverty we hear about in Sweden and Germany every day. George Will, having urged the GOP to admit defeat during the primaries, and then forecasting an easy Romney win, now tried to cheer the faithful up about modernising the party by quoting a 1936 song: “I pick myself up/Dust myself off/Start all over again”.

On it went, and any doubts I had of compiling volume two of the Schadenfreude Files was swept away — leaving only the concern that I alone would be so obsessive to see it as worthwhile. (Volumes three, four and beyond — and oh yes, there will be more — will most likely be consigned to blog row, by the eds).

Fortunately, the Right came to my rescue in, well, everywhere. In Australia, Tony Abbott put out the call for an “authentic” aborigine, while George Pell and other Catholic grandees once more played the victim card with regard to child s-xual abuse, and the “war against religion”. This was — tragically, heartbreakingly — added to when a young pregnant woman died of septicemia in Ireland, after the hospital staff stuck to the most rigid interpretation of Ireland’s anti-abortion law.

In the UK, the Tory Party, reeling from a 15%, seat-taking swing to Labour in the Corby by-election — after the sudden departure of alleged ex-nightclub drug dabbler and chick-lit novelist Louise Mensch — hired Lynton Crosby. He’d been responsible for the 2005 Tory campaign widely seen as the nastiest, and utterly unsuccessful, campaign in recent history, with its “are you thinking what we’re thinking?” anti-immigration ads. And coming back to the US, there was of course Mormon Mitt, telling a phone hook post-mortem for his campaign managers that Obama had won by giving “gifts” to people, simply reiterating his earlier disdain for half the population. (He also suggested that the group stay in touch, with regular catch-ups and perhaps a newsletter and then said hello, hello, is this thing on?). Continent by continent, the Right was curling into itself, doing the Mobius strip thing, where “having a rethink” really means redoubling your efforts to project a neat political fantasy onto real-life.

One hesitated to quote the old line about the Bourbons, “forgotten nothing because learnt nothing”, save for the fact that the Right don’t read books anymore, and wouldn’t have heard it. Yet it can’t be ignored — the same thing is happening throughout the Anglosphere. Huge swathes of the electorate are desperate to vote against centre-left parties, whom they see as distant and self-perpetuating elites, technocrats without skills — and the Right will not, cannot offer them a sane centre-right alternative. When it does, as per David Cameron, the rewards are substantial; but when that falters, they retreat once again to the old well-defended battlements.

The process drives modernising conservatives mad, but they lack the tools to really understand why it happens. For thirty years, since the dawn of Thatcher-Reagan, the Right has lived off the particular mix of “social conservatism” — enforcing a free-market economy, while using the state to shore up aspects of life that are held to be traditional and inviolate. Those two ideas could be held together for a while, but they are not identical process.

State-conservatism, from Thatcher’s homophobic “clause 28” laws, to the batty abortion-limiting laws of US states, is static by nature; the uncontrolled market is dynamic, chaotic, undermining, transforming, for better and worse. The more it spreads to every aspect of life, the more state-enforced conservatism must be enforced — and the more a reductive and crude idea of the eternal and sacred must be.

Thus, most Republicans cannot escape the specific gravity of their own political fantasy; as soon as they start to think about Latinos, it ruins their implicit idea of America as a white, mostly Protestant order. As soon as someone like Sandra Fluke appears, making the obvious point that birth control is a necessity, not a luxury, an essential idea of patriachy, family and control of fertility becomes inflamed, manifested as a virulent misogyny. Part of the victory of team Obama lay in their ability to call those attitudes out, and expose their contradictions — for freedom and choice, unless it had anything to do with a woman’s own body, and so on.

In Australia, similar confusions are demonstrated not merely by some of Abbott’s comportment to women, which may or may not be misogynist— but more starkly by his “authentic” aborigines remark. Abbott tried to clarify what he had said, and to remove some of the more abhorrent/bizarre aspects of the idea, and so too did many sympathetic commentators. But the offensiveness is less significant, than the utter knots in which conservatism is tied on the matter.Consider this. For a decade or so, the Right have argued that the great disaster in indigenous life and policy over the past forty-plus years has been the idea that indigenous people are in some sense different from post-1788 groups, and that their distinct cultural patterns should be recognised as they came out of unpersonhood to citizenship and modernity. Such thoughts were part of a “noble savage” idea, borne of the counter-culture, and made progress impossible. For a decade or so, such forces were willing to support Noel Pearson, who had a “two worlds” idea of Aboriginal futures — one which definitely emphasised difference, and dare one say it, authenticity as part of the full complement of being indigenous. Pearson shifted increasingly to the modern and individualist side of the idea — but not enough for the Right, who threw him over for outright neo-assimilationists such as Gary Johns and Keith Windschuttle, who essentially invited rural and remote aborigines to dissolve their communities and enter urban and regional life as individuals and families.

Trouble was, all the indigenous people who embodied those modern qualities — individual ambition, success, mobility, cosmopolitanism — were firmly of the Left, and upheld that notion of “difference”. Rather than embrace such dissent from the very people they sought out, the Right sought out a vanishingly small group of people — individualist indigenous people who would nevertheless take on the ersatz conservatism that was the Right’s stock-in-trade. Aborigines that were not defined by their origins — i.e with two Aboriginal parents — but by their life path, drove them particularly mad. Indeed, they stir up ancient fears of miscegenation, and the Andrew Bolt Section 18c of the Racial Descrimination Act decision sent everything into orbit. This contradiction — wanting a “real” aborigine who thinks like an op-ed writer for The Australian — culminated in the attack on Larissa Behrendt, which was directed not merely at her politics, but at her identity, and whose ultimate aim was her psychological destruction.

So when one asks whether Tony Abbott could find a better way to express what he means than looking for an “authentic” aborigine, the answer is “no”, because that is exactly what he means — even if the phrase itself is an unstable and self-contradictory mix of “noble savageism”, assimilation and white cultural supremacism. The very fact that it never stabilises is the whole point of it. If it did, conservatism would collapse, because it is large parts sustaining fantasy.

Ditto with attitudes to women, to GLBT people, and ultimately to whole swathes of the “mooching” poor. As society changes in one direction, they go in the other, and the Left will prosper — as team Gillard have surely realised — by drawing out these moments and exposing, not their offensiveness, but their strangeness. For conservatives, apart from the fact that the world has changed beyond measure, everything they ever believed still stands.

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