You may have missed it, if you’re not a Sunshine Coast self-funded retiree and thus The Australian‘s core readership, but that newspaper recently ran an article, presumably seriously, accusing the Human Rights Commission of “failing older white men”. The content of the piece — by Hedley Lamarr of MH370 fame — or the dramatis wingnutae populating it isn’t particularly important, so much as the sentiment behind it: the desperate longing by angry white men for the status of victims.

Victimhood is the one thing that white males have never been able to have, because the privilege that we have enjoyed for most of the last millennium, and which to a large degree we still enjoy — the privilege means that economically, socially, culturally, being a white male gives you an advantage over everyone else, that means that society, even in 2016, is still structured to meet your desires — has precluded us from it. We’re at the top of the privilege hierarchy, but suddenly many of us are coveting the bottom, craving victimhood, anxious to possess the one thing that the less privileged have always had a more authentic claim to.

This sense of victimhood has, of course, been absorbed by the broader right, even if much of the grievance that fuels working-class white anger — for example, that society no longer props up male-dominated sectors like heavy manufacturing and agriculture like it used to — is at odds with the laissez faire economics espoused by many on the right. But it fits the culture wars the right enjoys pursuing perfectly — to portray themselves as targets of progressive persecution. In the culture wars mindset, gender or racial equality, non-discrimination toward LGBTI people, efforts to prevent domestic violence, exercising basic civility or having regard to actual evidence are forms of “elite” warfare on ordinary, authentic, commonsense, hardworking white males.

A Chanticleer column today by the usually reliable Tony Boyd illustrates how pervasive this martyrdom mindset is: Liberal Party think tank analyst Andrew Bragg — formerly of the big bank front group the Financial Services Council (FSC) — seriously claims that business is being outgunned in policy debate by anti-business think tanks and groups. Who is in this vast army of “anti-business” groups on the march across the land? Unions, for one — OK, fair enough. The Australia Institute. Left-wing, yes — but anti-business? OK, a matter for debate. Greenpeace, GetUp — OK, we can see where he’s coming from. The Grattan Institute, Labor think tanks, the ACTU — wait, go back a second, so the resolutely centrist advocate of economic reform, the Grattan Institute, is “anti-business”? Apparently.

And, unsurprisingly for a former FSC hack, Bragg thinks Industry Super Australia is “anti-business” as well. That’s despite industry super being half controlled by, um, business — and industry super funds being far bigger investors in Australian infrastructure than the retail super funds Bragg used to spruik for at the FSC — indeed, who purchased Ausgrid from the NSW government after Treasurer Scott Morrison blocked private foreign bids? Industry super funds … I guess there’s no better way to show you’re anti-business than to buy privatised assets, right?

Oh, and maybe Boyd verballed him, but Bragg also throws in “international campaigns against business by Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz”, whatever they are. In the “pro-business” camp, Bragg places just his own outfit, the IPA and the Centre for Independent Studies, made to look like Custer and his men fighting a desperate battle against the Sioux.

Let’s leave aside that this skips the relentless advocacy for business by News Corp and The Australian Financial Review itself, and the tens of millions of dollars spent (wasted) every year by business buying “independent modelling” from economic consulting firms confecting arguments for self-interested policies; here’s the policy arm of the party in power in Canberra portraying itself as the hapless victim of “anti-business” warfare. The only thing missing was the portrayal of union officials and the ferals at Greenpeace as “elite”.

The utter stupidity of Bragg’s claim isn’t really the point — it’s how it reveals the desperate search for victimhood that now preoccupies the right, even when they’re in power. This might merely be a diversionary tactic, of course — what better way to delegitimise your enemies than to co-opt a worldview that portrays them as elites determined to crush common sense — but it’s deeper than this. Because, yes, there has been mild readjustment in society and the economy that means white males are a little less privileged than we were before, that curbs reflexive discrimination against women and non-white and non-heterosexual people, that applies to us — albeit only a little more — the basic standards that we purport to apply to everyone else.

And as it turns out, despite portraying ourselves as thick-skinned, rugged individualists, as the action heroes of human civilisation, many of us are a bunch of whining sooks furious our massive advantage has been reduced by 10%. As it turns out, to aptly borrow from Dad’s Army, we don’t like it up us. We’re sore losers when we’ve barely lost anything — in fact, society is richer, more prosperous, safer and, damn it, simply more enjoyable for everyone, without old white males dominating everything. We still have no idea, not the faintest clue, what it’s like to be a real victim, to be someone on the receiving end of discrimination, injustice, abuse, violence, harassment — all of which we’re often the ones dishing out.

The only reasonable response to this desperate search for victimhood is exactly what white men have long been advising everyone else who ever complained: harden the fuck up and show a small fraction of the resilience that generations of women, indigenous people, non-white people, the disabled, and LGBTI people have needed because of us.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey