Gloria Steinem, who recently appeared at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is a noble person. Particularly if considered in relation to say, I don’t know, me. She has endured 35 more years and one more marriage than I have, but she gives her days to battle with legislators, despots, television hosts and assorted other monsters, all for the common good.

I give my days to battle with internet comments and Words With Friends. There can be no crumb of doubt that this “hopeless hopeaholic, always on the move” is morally better than most — and me, in particular. There’s a little doubt, though, that she has much that is surprising to say.

But, like many people who say nothing surprising, Steinem now plays very well to packed houses. With Malcolm Gladwell, Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Sam Harris, she interrogates the obvious to an audience eager to have its biases extrapolated and reconfirmed.

There’s a real knack to success in the Inspiration Industry of the present: repackage old and meek ideas in a novel and courageous tone. Just as Harris finds apparently new and bold ways to defend the Western revulsion for Islam, or just as life coach Tony Robbins once so powerfully justified entrepreneurial greed, Steinem rebrands essentialism. There is a way of doing things, says Steinem the lay anthropologist, which we can see in the “original cultures”.

Sheesh. This stuff isn’t really too removed from the idea of the “noble savage”. Valourising small-scale social organisation (“Oh. These peoples are so wise and mystical!”) is really just as bad as demonising it and, besides which, how the eff you upsize the Trobriand Island gift economy, or whatever it is she’s suggesting, to a world of 7 billion is unclear. Still. People love this get-back-to-the-real-and-honest-way-of-doing-things conservatism, particularly when it’s offered up as “revolution”.

That Steinem has been active and selfless in her commitment to her project of gender equality is not a matter for argument. That she is working in a worthwhile intellectual tradition really is. Her thinking is a bit like feminism’s Paleo diet with a side order of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and she is given to pronouncements about an imagined prehistory full of strong, self-actualised women who had full control of their reproduction and access to herbal abortifacients galore.

“Some original cultures have no word for he or she,” she says, failing to name those noble and “original” cultures, just like I did when I said the same shit at university before my gender studies teacher told me to go to the library and stop banging on like a hippie.

On a recent visit to Australia, Steinem was feted as an inspiring intellectual. As I am not a hopeless hopeaholic, I don’t know if it’s possible to be both inspiring and intellectual. But let’s pretend for a minute that the very best of Western thought has always led us to happiness instead of deep despair and consider what she is saying.

Steinem urges a dialogic project for feminism. In her most recent book, My Life On The Road, and in her public presentations, she says it is just as important to listen as it is to talk. This is a nice and instructive guidance and one that an arsehole like me would do very well to heed, but there is no evidence that Steinem has herself “listened” to any of the central feminist arguments of the past 40 years. She has, however, listened to hocus-pocus neuroscience and some of the most dubious herstorians of ’70s feminism, such as Mary Daly and Adrienne Rich.

There’s a lot of quasi-historical and pseudo-scientific stuff about the need to get back to, if not nature, then these “original cultures”, which, apparently, give away free herbal abortions and never have a word for “he” or “she”. Allegedly. She also says some weird Malthusian stuff about how the feminine lack of birth control led to over-population in the global south and therefore to racism and environmental catastrophe. This is a catastrophic argument that few seem inclined to contradict. Because she’s so inspiring!

Steinem, who has long criticised feminist academics for being inaccessible, has never been much one for facts and fancy book-learning. Why bother researching glorious ancient matriarchy when you can just say it is a thing that definitely happened and have, as was the recent case in Australia, uncritical media call you an icon in any case?

Again, this is not to underplay Steinem’s real-world achievements — one of which is not her quite recent snafu in which she publicly dismissed young female supporters of Bernie Sanders. “These women are — well, you’re not very political when you’re young, and the boys like Bernie, and the girls go where the boys are,” is what she said. On TV. With her actual mouth. (It’s worth re-reading Guy Rundle’s shock at her claim that these little strumpets were really just out to get a New Deal boyfriend, just for the fun.)

Still. She started a significant magazine, campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and urged her many fans to read that important work of feminist theory Lean In. What, after all, is equality if it does not lead a very small number of women to helm enormous corporations that dodge their tax and spread the ideological venom of Silicon Valley?

Steinem has nothing to say that has not already been amply said. She offers no program for genuine social re-organisation and, despite the fact that she seems a very decent person who is genuinely engaged in a trans-national and cross-cultural dialogue with many women — so long as they’re not too fancy — she gives us nothing. Just the sense of an exciting something. And this sensation of newness without any of the bother of actual newness is what feeds the present day Inspiration Industry.

For much of yesterday, I watched similar industrial inspiration unfold at TEDx Sydney. Here again, I compare unfavourably to the participants. Many of them spoke more freely and persuasively than I do, and all of them were plainly better people than I am. But nearly all of them were “hopeless hopeaholics” who see nothing but a bright future, even when they exhume the oldest ideas to describe it.

“Hack” the planet. Trust your instinct. Know that people are basically good.

This is inspiring stuff, if you’re a hopeless hopeaholic like Steinem. If you’re a pessimist, though, it just seems like palliative care for the planet.

The Inspiration Industry is a mug of warm morphine rebranded with a Fair Trade logo. It thanks its sponsors and offers us a bedtime fiction of inspiring individuals who can save the world with inspiring ingenuity. Then, we sleep forever!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey