There have been three stages of engaging with the ideological right over recent years.
In the first, one replied to their arguments as equal and worthy of consideration. That was followed by the anthropological process of defusing their increasingly irrational myths.
We are now at stage three, which is akin to hospital visiting for those whose minds are slipping from us. You engage with their dialogue and put up some basic challenges to stories of giant penguins walking through the hallways, etc, in order to prolong such rational relationship to the world as remains.
We would appear to be somewhere between stages two and three when dealing with the locked ward commonly known as The Australian. In the last week or so, they have gathered their forces for yet another assault on t.e.h Leftz, who apparently are t.e.h fascistz.
Planet Janet Albrechtsen leads the charge this morning, with a, well, I’ll get to that morass in a moment, two days after the little bird Jennifer Oriel — Planet’s car esky-size mini-me — described opposition to the same-sex marriage plebiscite as the worst attack on Western democracy by the left in history, which was itself two days after Peter Baldwin’s compendium of anti-left cliches in the weekend edition.
What’s going on? Well, demented hysteria mostly. Planet’s “argument” has all the usual false premises and category errors: because people on the progressive side of politics sometimes describe opponents as “racist”, “sexist”, etc, they are practicing censorship; some anonymous people made threatening phone calls to a hotel hosting a conservative Christian conference, and progressive and LGBT organisation leaders did not feel it was their responsibility to condemn it; opposition to 18C was war against the people, etc, echoing the Little Bird; Baldwin did not leave out one tired moment — from t.e.h Leftz being insufficiently adulatory to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to a stray, and silly, remark by queer theorist Judith Butler that Hezbollah were “part of the global left” — in his jeremiad against things as they were.
Lord knows there is enough to criticise about aspects of progressivist discourse without some of this really silly stuff. No, Planet, it is not censorship to use vigorous language against your opponents, including labelling them. That’s debate, that’s the public sphere.
The sheer hypocrisy of the right’s position on this is now as knotted as a cat’s cradle. They want to remove sanctions against insulting and offending people from 18C/18D, yet they have a sook if they get called the “r” word; they ferry over and fete my old Spiked/Revolutionary Communist Party mucker Brendan O’Neill to say “I love hate speech”, yet reach for the smelling salts if anyone calls them sexist. Planet bridles at her co-inmates being called names, yet labels t.e.h. Leftz “neo-fascists”. And on we go.
Oriel is apparently unable to remember any worse hit on democracy than people opposing a spurious plebiscite. No, Jennifer? Not Franco’s destruction of the Spanish Republic? The Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia 1948? The German unpleasantness of 1933-1945? Is it hyperbole, or genuine historical ignorance?
Baldwin is another example of the Oz‘s ability to tempt left/bohemian types of a certain simple-mindedness (such as onetime boho/ex-ABCista Bill Leak or long-time Communist David Burchell) with the “zombie cucumber” of a column. He is a typical figure of the century — a member of the ALP socialist left in the 1970s (when parts of it were very left), he has little ability to understand the manner in which that left congealed and something else took its place.
There is a sincerity there — hopelessly unreflective, even dimwitted — but it’s also very convenient and a touch hypocritical. To suddenly discover the “threat to Israel” is a bit rich when the socialist left’s 1970s support of the Palestinian cause meant not condemning some very violent acts and nasty organisations, indeed.
When you see columns like these, retreading the grapes of wrath so often that they have become raisins (or a bunch of dates), you’re faced with two choices: either this is an enormous put-on, or they really believe this stuff — really believe that removing any sanction against gratuitous insult and offence is the most important thing you can do for free speech, but that calling Andrew Bolt a Dutch neo-Calvinist purveyor of racist thinking is an at of censorship. The latter suggests a ludicrous and narcissistic hypersensitivity; the former — that it’s all a put-on — suggests a Stakhanovite commitment to grinding out propaganda.
But quite possibly it’s both. What remains of the coherent formation of the neocon right has been battered and bewildered by defeat across the world over the past years. Here, they failed in elevating Tony Abbott because the man himself was a failure, unable to embody the now obviously contradictory impulses of free market economics, the small state and “traditional” values.
They have failed twice in toppling 18C/18D, and the most recent failure has come about because the Jewish peak bodies (as represented by cold warrior Colin Rubenstein) cleared their throats and once again said they would stand with other multicultural and indigenous groups against any change to the law. Notice how quiet the talk about 18C/18D became after Rubenstein’s article? The right simply haven’t had the guts to tackle him, even though his arguments had all the same content as the worst of the “cultural left” — the notion of words as acts, of psychological harm, and spurious comparisons to Hitler — so they must displace their rage onto t.e.h.Leftz. The two people who’ve killed 18C/18D reform were liberal PMs. Deal with it.
On the plebiscite, the argument is, if possible, even less rational. I’ve made the argument about why the pro-SSM movement should have taken no position on it, simply advocated their cause — on the old civil rights grounds that you don’t get involved in debates about the institutional form change will take, you just demand it; Martin Luther King didn’t concern himself how LBJ was going to get the Civil Rights Act through the Senate — but there’s also a very good argument against the plebiscite. And it’s a conservative Burkean one.
The whole point of a representative democracy and a public sphere is to have a forum in which debate can be had in a way that tilts the balance from emotion to reason, and avoids turning social life into a group of armed camps, incapable of reconstitution. Both Planet and her Monday morning Mini-Me are Americophiles, yet they seem unaware that it was exactly the sort of public passions a plebiscite stirs up, that a republican system was designed to avoid (with the electoral college for example).
That core fact — that opposition to a plebiscite has not leftist, but conservative roots — is a clue to the fundamental mirror-vision confusion the right has about where we are now. It’s not “the left” arguing against a plebiscite, or for 18C/18D — it’s a prosperous progressivist middle class, with high incomes, substantial social power, and a great investment in society changing in an orderly fashion. They are now a class of sufficient size and heft to have created a new situation — a split mainstream.
Planet and others rely on a fantasy “silent majority” — dutifully Thatcherite, privatising and church-going. They don’t exist anymore. The social power of those with traditional values is diminishing fast, centred on rural and industrial classes who are being displaced to the periphery of the new economy. Increasingly, they are not free market, but nationalist and protectionist. Increasingly, the progressive class is leaning towards borderless economies and cultures. The entire set of political ensembles is being recomposed.
So, too, is the right. In the UK, the Tories have gone with the progressive class — free-market, but passing same-sex marriage in a single parliamentary session. Only Brexit has thrown a Spaniard in the works. In the US, the right has gone with the excluded class, selecting Trump, a nationalist, protectionist, corporatist as their representative.
In Australia, the fight continues within the Liberal Party, which is why Planet and others are so deranged. They deserve all they get. The utter absence of anything resembling genuine reflection on their own politics and its contradictions has turned their positions into a set of mythologies, impervious to reason. And that myth-making is what has made Trump possible, the strongman who stands in contradiction to just about every values that classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism holds. Their politics is in intensive care, and all one can do is sit by the bed and say “yes, yes, neo-fascist left, yes, yes of course they are …”. Not for nothing is the adjectival form of pity, pathetic.