You’re a journalist working on a gotcha story and flicking through someone’s Facebook page, when you come across what you really need. It’s a picture of a six-year-old girl at a birthday party, in a princess dress. At that point, most people would feel a brake clamp on, a residual morality and decency. To override that brake, or to never feel it in the first place, you either have to be a special type of person — a sort of scurrilous rogue, who doesn’t get all this morality stuff — or be in a state such as overweening hatred. At that point, the emotions one would normally feel for other people’s children are reversed, from love to hate, from protection to persecution, from commonality to exclusion and a primal emotion kicks in. What will most hurt the other, what will really give them night terrors? Their child on the front page, like a photo found on a predator’s hard drive.
The wonder about Christian Kerr’s use of a birthday photo of the daughter of Senator Larissa Waters is not that Kerr did it, or wanted to do it — his decline into a bitter politics of spite is now well established. The true measure of a degenerate organisation is that no one in the chain of production managed to stop it, even if they tried — neither page editor nor news editor nor layout artist. Didn’t some sort of bell ring when the story was proposed? What about when the decision was made to put a black square over the eyes of a six-year old in a pink tutu, like she was Abe Saffron facing trial again? Was there anyone in the entire organisation who thought that was not merely a bit off, but something very, very wrong? Apparently not. In its desperation and spite, The Australian and News Corp explore ever lower depths of political action.
The Australian’s use of that photo should be a final lesson, if it were needed, about dialogue and the consensual public sphere and the illusion of both. For decades, Australia did have such a consensual political culture (if you think 1975 wasn’t consensual, imagine how it might have played out elsewhere), but this began to fray in the 1990s. That was partly a product of Paul Keating’s combativeness and John Howard’s importation of a culture war, but it was principally a product of the full transition to globalisation and the shift in class and cultural allegiances created by such. These shifts were initially to the benefit of those on the Right, but as the process continued it began to undermine them. The attempt to push a traditional morality and an ethnocentric nationalism failed as increased flows of immigration and a culture reshaped by the market created the very opposite — a multicultural society in which the least vibrant section was the white Anglo one everyone was meant to be assimilating to, and a society where no consensual desire was abhorrent. Twenty-five years ago — as Jeff Sparrow noted — Geoffrey Blainey was writing about Cabramatta as if it were some sinister open-air opium den. Ten years ago, same-sex marriage was an exotic dream. Now the latter is, to many people, a self-evident right, and the east coast cities have become Pacific-rim Eurasian metropolises. The social whole on which the Right wanted to rebuild traditional society is gone, partly due to the neoliberal economics they introduced.
Now that is gone too — or at least, it has lost its legitimacy. The glorious Thatcher/Reagan era was a one-time thing, a reorganisation of post-war capital and state relations. The more procedural neoliberal era that followed was capped by the signing of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the creation of the WTO in 1995. From that year, capitalism as a total world system had its head. And in 13 years — the time between Guns n’ Roses albums — it wrecked the joint and destroyed its own legitimacy as a global system of governance. However hard it might be to spot, 2008 marked the beginning of a (long) transition to a post-capitalist era. In the interim, there is no heroic role for the Right to take. Income inequality has become so obviously absurd and deflationary that no one can trumpet the gospel of self-enrichment. Decades of treating poor public health as an externality has produced such huge costs that every government, Right or Left, resorts to social behavioural management in an effort to stave off future fiscal crisis. Market-dominated cultures have produced such a collapse of solidarity and a rise of atomisation that every government, Left or Right, responds to falling crime rates and rising fears with ever more surveillance and control. All societies become so evacuated of routine collective meaning and value that the freak, unfortunate death of a cricketer becomes a fulcrum on which to balance all society’s needs to come together for a moment or two.
That is simply our current condition, one that is beyond the capacity of parliamentary/electoral politics to solve. Politics is now the management of these diverse forces to a viable level of functioning and piecemeal improvement or efficiency. This is a territory to which the centre-Left progressive formation is more suited, since it is overwhelmingly a task of complex systems management. The Right know this at some level, which is why both David Cameron’s Tories and Tony Abbott’s Coalition campaigned as a sort of centre-Right-opposition to the dominant and consensual progressivist narrative — eschewing culture politics, consenting to a whole series of Labo(u)r initiatives as givens. That both then returned to an attempt at a heroic Thatcherism on all fronts not only showed their true colours, but also their unquenchable desires. Even though they know these simple morality tales no longer fit the social whole, they need to advance them, because their identity is bound up in them. Nothing else can explain the comical disarray of both Cameron and Abbott governments and the opening they have given to equally comic lacklustre Labo(u)r oppositions.
“Make no mistake, the publication of the picture is exactly what it looks like: not sledging, not ridicule, but hatred pure and simple. These people hate us.”
But if right-wing parties manage a degree of strategic rationality, the same cannot be said of the punditry that surround them. The Right commentariat, across the English-speaking world, are a self-selecting club of bitter neurotics, channelling all their frustrations into the endless page space they are offered by their angry neurotic proprietors and editors, whether it be old man Murdoch, the shadowy Barclay Brothers behind the UK Telegraph, or the perpetually enraged Paul Dacre of The Daily Mail. The 9/11 attack and the subsequent bold assertion of “Western civilisation” had given them a fillip; Western civ hasn’t recovered from the failure in Iraq and the 2008 collapse, and neither has the Right. From the Bolter through Nosey Piers Akerman, Paul Sheehan to the veritable Angostura bitters of Gerard Henderson, their tirades are joyless, obsessive and unbalanced in a manner beyond any political calculus. They struck this attitude years ago and then the winds of change changed, and now they’re stuck that way. Nothing like the world they wanted is eventuating, their chosen political representatives are breathtakingly incompetent, and the remorseless drift of society is towards the progressivist melange that they see as the end of civilisation. They can’t even take unleavened comfort in the creation of a surveillance-and-control state because it is big government of a sort they feel conflicted about (cracking down on dissent is good, but warships, bombers and whumping brown people would be better). No wonder they’re pissed.
And no wonder, the further you widen the circle, the madder they get. The more they need Right politics to be true, the more detached from reality they become. Of course Christopher Pyne would choose a T.S. Eliot aficionado to redesign the curriculum. And of course the man would turn out to be a prissy old crank. Of course Paul Sheehan would spend a whole rambling, incomprehensible column featuring a letter from the estranged father of a Greens staffer. Of course Gerard Henderson would spend a day on holiday with his grandchildren listening to Fran Kelly on ABC radio — not despite the knowledge that he would be irritated, but because of it. Of course Alan Moran of the IPA would damage his own and the institute’s reputation with an uncontrollable Twitter stream of Islamophobic bile.
Of course Nick Cater — Essex University, sociology, decade-plus at BBC, News Corp executive editor — will denounce the humanities, public broadcasting and the “gatekeepers” and be surprised at the howls of laughter. Of course Miranda Devine — a News Corp columnist who is the daughter of a News Corp lifer — would denounce the “elites”. Of course a sometimes reasonable figure like Senator David Leyonhjelm cannot, being a Montgomery Burns lookalike, stop talking about “manning up” and “Chopper Read” and, well, dicks in general, just a lot of talk about dicks. The whole big tent of them is barking mad, and columnists who are economically on the Right — such as John Hewson — have long since distanced themselves from this decayed cult.
And of course Christian Kerr would cast a predatory eye over party pictures of a six-year-old to “get” a Greens Senator with. The gotcha was asinine in any case — Waters had simply suggested that the repertoire of toys that kids play with be widened — which merely shows Kerr’s desperate need to run it. He had previously damaged his own and The Australian’s credibility with a misconstructed and multiply inaccurate story on plain packaging and smoking rates, and ramped up some protests against military actions by Israel into a non-story on alleged anti-Semitism that even its principal subject said was a beat-up. Getting under Waters’ skin was a necessary corollary, so the slenderest pretext to publish her daughter’s photo was acceptable.
Make no mistake, the publication of the picture is exactly what it looks like: not sledging, not ridicule, but hatred pure and simple. These people hate us. The predatory eye that selects the picture is constrained by the political context, not by any internal morality. The act is so desperate, because the actor is. Kerr was a failing political adviser when Stephen Mayne gave him a column in Crikey Mark I, which turned out to be a lifeline. The chosen pseudonym — “Hilary Bray” from the James Bond series — perfectly illustrates the fantastical half-world Kerr inhabits, late imperial splendour, where the wops and the women know their place. Sadly, it hasn’t been enough to keep the fantasy intact, and nor has the obsessive whining about the nanny state, the Israelotry that’s native to the Right (when the West has become a multicultural fleshpot, where else to turn but plucky little Israel, successively purifying itself of “others”?) or this latest depredation. Kerr was once, by his own account, a serious alcoholic and cocaine user, and was last seen by many in a state of, shall we say, disarray.
Sorry, is that irrelevant? Intrusive? Haven’t you heard that people’s personal lives are fair game? Their children too. We have this on the authority of Sharri Markson, official News Corp ethicist. Which presumably means that the following would be fair game too: the News Corp columnist who — having had to move his mixed-race family out of western Sydney due to racist bullying during the 2001 Tampa crisis — wrote an impassioned, angry column labelling John Howard a racist for his asylum seeker policy, and then 10 years later wrote an attack on anyone who had attacked John Howard, demanding that “they” apologise. The News Corp columnist who spent years telling other people to follow him in a return to a traditional religious life, before committing suicide out of sheer despair. The News Corp writer who has had two children in a lesbian relationship, something that conservative News Corp columnists have howled about as the end of civilisation, lesbians on Play School blah blah blah.
No, they’re not, for us at least, which is why I haven’t named them. The plain fact is that we are better than the Right. Haven’t always been, but we are now. But it’s not that difficult to be, because the politics are so asymmetrical. The Right, like the American Right, is drifting out of rational politics altogether and into a weird cult-like status that begins with the rejection of objective science and ends by dispensing with reasoning altogether. A sort of low-key progressivism/statism becomes the default setting of rational politics — a “progressivism” that has provided much of the seed material for the surveillance and control that accompanies it — and we wait for a rational Right to eventually re-emerge, its politics adjusted to the multicultural, polymorphous society that is now nothing other than established fact. If we published the photos of the Right as it stands, a tea party it would be, but the Mad Hatter’s.