The World

Dec 22, 2016

Who killed the liberal dream? (Spoiler: it wasn’t ‘fake news’)

At what fucking point are we going to concede that “people just need to be better and read less fake news” is an irrational centrist dream, and no kind of solution at all? Helen Razer asks the question.

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

Women For Trump sign
“The centre is not holding,” wrote Ross Douthat in the New York Times in July. He is one of thousands of commentators who have lived since the time of Yeats to pillage a famous poem, and one of millions to notice this year that faith in the centre of politics had evaporated. That vote shares for centrist parties in the West are diminishing as fast as ultra-nationalists can claim them is a terrible fact. Douthat’s solution to this state -- wait and say “may this cup of crisis pass from us, and soon” -- is a terrible, and terribly common, fantasy. Douthat offers a “reality check” to readers and reminds them that things aren’t that bad. Certainly, not so bad as to warrant the mainstreaming of radical, racist isolationism. Very concisely, he expresses a centrist frustration with the rise that buoys Trump, Le Pen, Hanson, etc. In short, these people are maniacs, and if we wait long enough, quote enough Joan Didion and remind people that things aren’t bad enough to justify their bad electoral behaviour, the maniacs will be returned to the asylum. This plea for the balm of reason was restated for the cause of journalism in the same month by editor of The Guardian, Kathrine Viner. She chided commentators and other outlets for their “brazen disregard for facts” and popularised the phrase “post-truth era”. Viner, more erudite than Douthat, was careful to offer an account of “truth” that conceded its terminally subjective, always material nature. But in this much-shared piece, written to launch the paper’s funding campaign, Viner’s faith in a rational centre was equally clear. We cannot concede that a politics of centrism has failed the people. The people, misled by irresponsible speech, have permitted their own failure of reason. However you church it up, and Waleed Aly is one local commentator who regularly tries to, the centre has lost its hold far less because voters are now particularly irrational, but more due to the rational failure of centrism itself. You can keep saying until George Orwell rises from the dead that “discourse” is the problem, and you probably will keep saying that if the creation of discourse is your actual job. But this does not change the preference of the people for radical political alternatives, any more than it matches positive-sounding pronouncements on GDP to the way that most people live. By several measures -- real wage growth, longevity, mental health, social services, job security, housing affordability, main street prosperity -- things are now much more shit than they have been in some shitty time. When you live in this shit and a Viner or a Douthat tells you, ultimately, that your susceptibility to shit-thinking is the true problem, you might start believing that the centre cannot hold even a bake sale to save itself from irrelevance. [Razer: why I have not received a single Christmas card this year] Inequality is on the rise. So is racist isolationism. The solution of the centrists to this pair of facts is to not pay any attention at all to the first. The ugly virtuosity of the right, even the centre-right, has been to make the two facts indivisible. “Brown people are stealing our wealth” is, and always has been, “post-truth”. But then again, so is “No one is stealing your wealth. What are you complaining about? Everything is fine.” From the centre, no one remains to concede the rise of inequality. Terrifying, extreme parties can arise to claim the territory of their centrist opponents in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, the US, Australia and still, the centre says that the decision of voters is “post-truth”. It is, of course, a decision, chiefly by voters of European heritage, that is based on the non-truth of racism. But when the only other truth in town is “you just need to be more calm and reasonable about this government and/or market-enforced austerity”, you can perhaps see, if not forgive, the political re-activation of the racist impulse. It’s not a brave or noble response. It is, or it should be to any casual student of 20th-century history, a predictable one. “May this cup of crisis pass from us, and soon.” There was a time this rot would barely be tolerated in a self-help book. Now it’s in the Times. As though bad people just eventually stop being bad, and the Nazis were defeated not by air raids, but platitudes. I’m not certain how many centrist, or centre-left, governments must fall before nice, rational journalists give up on the idea that “post-truth” or “fake news” or bad morals is the problem, and acknowledge that the problem is precisely the centrist view they uphold. To be gracelessly clear. No. I am not suggesting that pleasant, intelligent people like Viner or Aly are to blame for the stink of racism. What they purvey instead is the deodorant of centrist liberal hope. But at some point, surely, popular intellectuals like these must quit telling people to be better and perhaps agree that people might expect better things from a centre that has failed them, or looks like it will any day now. Underemployment is not a little problem. Racism is not a little problem. But to suppose that one is not buoying the other, or that the two things don’t impact many of the same people, is a monumental problem, maintained by the good of the rational centre. Clinton, the ur-centrist, said that she’d do something about racism, without once addressing the way this is permitted to play out mechanically in labour, prison, foreign policy and other complexes. Trump pretended he’d do something to shift (white) people away from the possibility of poverty. These were the sour promises offered to US voters in the presidential election: naked neoliberalism with concealed racism, or naked racism with concealed neoliberalism. They’re both variations on the centre. One just looks more radical. In France -- lovely, liberal, philosophising France -- the centrist Hollande faces 4% approval and near certain defeat by a dribbling racist twit. In Victoria -- home to the experimental arts, host of the nation’s most culturally unifying football code -- One Nation is polling at 10%. In Germany -- a nation whose identity will be forever inseparable from the profound guilt of Nazism -- the execrable racists of Alternative fur Deutschland were polling at 13%, and that was before the Berlin bombing. [The top 5 most off-message idiots of 2016 (feat. Dutton)] At what fucking point are we going to concede that “people just need to be better and read less fake news” is an irrational centrist dream, and no kind of solution at all? Yes. Some people are shit, or at least place their voting faith in abundantly shitty people. What is your plan to forestall this? Tell them some bullshit about a cup of crisis and write, in the spare and tasteful fashion of Didion, from your Manhattan apartment? Will we be so inspired by the objective and universalising power of art, we will rise from our savagery and start attending the symphony? One strategy to overcome both the irrational violence of racism and the rational fear of diminished purchasing power could be a public conversation about the totalising force of capital, to admit that it is capital, not gentle human hope, that touches us all. But the centre will not brook it. Instead, it frets humanistically about its “cup of crisis”, and offers up a fair-trade ceramic with hopeful bits of pillaged Yeats hand-painted on the side. It maintains its minimal Didion aesthetic, chides racists as tasteless and demands the return of “reasonable” speech, while considering talk about money to be both unreasonable and tasteless. If centrism’s most notable proponents did dare talk about a dirty thing like wealth, they may be forced not only to examine how much of it they have, but forgo their status as “reasonable”. We all enjoy the delusion that we are reasonable. Even a commie nutter like me. This was the disastrous year when the centre would not fold, would not concede that only a leftist origami could restore its foundational texts. But. You know. Keep saying that the problem is shit people and their bad taste and their fake news. Hold on to that cup of hope. Hold on to it while the racists drink like ecstatic pigs from the trough of power.

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25 thoughts on “Who killed the liberal dream? (Spoiler: it wasn’t ‘fake news’)

  1. Robert Ollington

    I can’t say that I disagree with anything in this article, but neither can I work out what your actual point was. Was it that the centre needs to be more to the right? You have a lot of advice for what the centre should stop doing, but not a lot of constructive advice.

    1. Helen Razer

      My point is that the focus must shift to equal distribution of material wealth. That the centre is done.That radical alternatives are now seen by many people as viable ones, given the diminished or dangerous circumstances in which they live, and the rational fear of greater unemployment.
      I thought that I was clear that the centre is dead, and that the radical alternative that people will accept, the one that is not racist, is leftism. I apologise if this was not clear.

      1. David

        Equal distribution of material wealth sounds like a terrible idea. Why shouldn’t some people have more wealth than others? How could equal distribution of material wealth ever be successfully implemented in practice? Sounds like a scary communist idea. And the idea of leftism brings to mind some awful Marxist ideas, identity politics and the left’s ridiculously flawed social justice agenda and their over emphasis on racism. Seems as though everything is racist these days, even facts. Surely we don’t need more of that? It’s divisive.

        1. Helen Razer

          Marxism is the opposite of identity politics.

          1. AR

            … possibly, but mendacious morons are always mendacious morons, looking for the easy option.

      2. Susan Anderson

        But the centre is not centre, perhaps they never were but their representatives in the media are, if not members of the 1%, then definitely members of the 3%, they are hopelessly compromised and wouldn’t know a low income earner if they pushed a whole family of them aside to get to the fucking Prada sale. They come from upper middle class families and a lovely activist free uni education and got into media via family connections. And so they preach shit to the great unwashed about what a tower if moral virtue Turnbull is and defend to the death his right to those millions he inherited because its so crass to be jealous of the uber successful. They push the shit lie that the fascist faction in the Liberal party are only 30% of the parliamentary party even though time and time again the fascists win the party room vote, the only party in the world where the minority always wins. These so called centrists better watch out because if the social contract in this country completely fails the mobs will not be able to distinguish them as centrists and they will be strung up alongside the right wing arseholes they have assiduously promoted all of their lives.

  2. Paul Townsend

    Helen, you are one of the rare voices making any sense these days.

    1. Helen Razer

      Goodness, that’s a worry 🙂

  3. Dred Layfet

    The problem is that we have not had real political leaders since Whitlam, Hawke and Keating. For all their faults they had big visions and knew how to communicate them.
    These days politicians seem small minded and often have both eyes on benefiting themselves.

    1. Draco Houston

      Those people founded the world that is falling apart and rotting before our very eyes. Big visions my arse.

  4. Darryl Coulthard

    Pretty much spot on I think.

  5. James O'Neill

    There is another insidious factor at work here. Those shouting loudest about “fake news” are themselves the biggest purveyors of that news; the mainstream media. For so long they have used their enormous power to influence public opinion by peddling BS (Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction anyone) or equally as common, refusing to report what actually happened. Of the latter there are countless examples but one I have been reminded of is the assassination of Martin Luther King by agencies of the state (Pepper, 2016) which in its details is a classic illustration of what is wrong with the msm.
    Thankfully there has been an alternative media developing (and yes I know it has more than its share of BS) and it is this phenomenon that has led to the attacks on “fake news”. Be warned people, those attacks are a prelude to censorship of the alternative media. The media oligarchs and their big capital owners do not take kindly to their influence being diminished.

      1. Nudiefish

        How did this piece escape my attention when it first came out? It is absolutely smack on. Everybody walking around scratching their arse in puzzlement about the way politics is heading. It is not a puzzle; it is the inevitable conclusion of treating voters like a dumb commodity. “Exclusively looking after your base” means that whoever isn’t your base gets shafted.

  6. Peter Hannigan

    Great article. I suspect getting all the various varieties of pigs (insert name of privileged elites of choice here) to remove their snouts from the trough (access to wealth through distorted and corrupt markets) enough so that others (say the bottom 60% of society) can share (have a decent standard of living and a meaningful life) may be the ongoing theme for the next 50 years.

    1. Draco Houston

      An easy way to remove snouts from the trough is the kick the trough over and let the slop fall to the ground.

      1. John Hall

        Very sharp Helen. We just need someone to lead from Canberra – we only have fake politicians at the moment. Turnball is more of a puppet than a leader being manipulated by the hard right of the party. Heil H (anson).

  7. Dog's Breakfast

    An insightful analysis of a year that saw the west, at least, turn a nasty corner.
    Sure, this too shall pass, (he said, knowingly gratingly) but perhaps only after the revolution.

    Capital is the problem, not the solution. A desperate man clinging to a vine to stop himself going over a cliff will quite reasonably grab anything.

    At least I can no longer look at my fellow (wo)man as deluded, just beaten senseless.

    Thanks Helen, wonderful write up.

  8. Viki Wright Rivett

    Helen, you are a wonderfully brilliant commie nutter. Consider yourself sent a Christmas card.
    It seeme to me that if the ownership of money were to be levelled out a bit, if competition were not seen as a virtue, and if civility were to be taught at schools from age 5 that an authentic centre may form again, and hold.


    1. Frank Dennis

      This article has an optimistic outlook unlike others I have read, at least of those I can remember from the last few weeks. There are many articles which are essentially asking the same question “WTF is happening ??? This one I think is at least offering a way forward following one of my most liked maxims- “a problem well defined is a problem solved” – A variation of Just Follow the money ! Who is getting it and who isn’t!!
      Aggressively and resolutely attack neo liberalism and its failed ideology – Support the State and redefine public good as for the people by the people and restore appropriate levels of state owned and run services. Distribute wealth more fairly following democratic socialist principles supporting diversity and community/cooperative based solutions, with equitable progressive taxation and social/environmental policies funded and directed by representative government, with open and transparent processes designed to ensure just distribution of the wealth being generated. Offer people hope of a better life – and not just empty platitudes as they get now!!
      Let’s hope for a better New Year. The inequality in the world is palpable and undeniable by any objective measure – the effects of poverty are almost certainly relative to where you live but it is there in all countries. There is an increasing callousness towards our fellow humans and a lack of willingness to share – an insatiable greed by the 1% moneyed class and their surrogates, who foster fear and blame and violence as distracters from what they are doing. It is causing increasing disillusionment and alienation for significant and growing numbers of people who feel left behind.

      There are two fairly well defined paths to barbarism – on the extreme right and the extreme left – those on the right (they like to say righteous) path are seemingly in the ascendency, feeding from a deep, dark space and finding a receptive audience –It is hard to identify extreme left any more. This pathway is best illustrated in Europe in the 1930’s and the parallels seem to me to be undeniable- weak centrists positions such as those in the Weimar Republic in the 30’s in Germany in response to growing inequality in economic outcomes fed extremism. Today this weakness in centrist politics (exemplified by Clinton, Turnbull and Shorten types) – is having the same chilling effect.

      Kevin Rudd in an interview on the ABC 7.30 Report this week when asked to sum up what is going on and what was there to worry about said, amongst other things, “when people were polled recently on what is their preferred form of government, 25% rejected democracy in favour of some form of dictatorship!” This is in Australia 2016! Merry Xmas

  9. Frank Chalmers

    Brilliant. If there were worthwhile arguments about ‘enforced’ silences due to political correctness, though there aren’t, it’d be about what isn’t said about inequality and maiming, murderous capitalism. Maybe our looming polarisations – oh no, really? – can flush (!) the ugly Bernardi-style solutions as well as better explanations out into the open. Which leaves open whether enough humans are capable of responding to that, in a constructive enough way, for that to matter. And Xmas is the last time of year I’d want to ponder that.

    1. Northy

      ‘If there were worthwhile arguments about ‘enforced’ silences due to political correctness, though there aren’t, it’d be about what isn’t said about inequality and maiming, murderous capitalism’.

      Well said, Frank! So we have racists and homophobes screaming that they can’t be racist or homophobic without being called racist or homophobic, but it’s quite OK to rip someone down and call them a dirty socialist/commie for suggesting capitalism and the unequal distribution of wealth is not ideal.

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