The most significant comment to occur in the Yassmin Abdel-Magied “lest we forget” saga was probably the one with least content: Lisa Oldfield’s description of Abdel-Magied as a “bitch” on breakfast TV. Oldfield gained her media perch by appearing in a Real Housewives program, a genre in which powerless women married to powerful men play power games about restaurant seating and who’s wearing what hat at the Cup. The object is maximum conflict among infantilised women, so Oldfield was doing no more than her training.
But the abuse has a chill about it, precisely because Oldfield is so vacuous. She’s being a good soldier, allegedly voicing the public mood, and a hint at how one of these culture-war monsterings will eventually break out of the bounds set for it and result in real violence. Hate and a violent impulse is part of it, of course; the journalists and editors who pursue people like Abdel-Magied or Larissa Behrendt — indigenous and women of colour are the preferred targets — are either after, or indifferent to the occurrence of, a complete psychic collapse on the part of their victim.
Practically no one, no matter how strong, can go through being on the front page, day after day, as a hate figure, and come through unscathed. We are social creatures, the nation is an ersatz community, and so the front page is like being shamed in the village. Doesn’t matter how spurious what you’re accused of is, you feel the concentrated fury, and that is what is intended.
In News Corp, there are the sort of journalists one finds everywhere, who are, or would be, actual fascists. They would be indifferent to or positively welcoming of the suicide of one of their targets. Sooner or later, they will swarm on someone at a low point in their life, and they will have achieved the media execution that they implicitly seek (Fairfax has got into the act with a Latika Bourke non-story about a senator wot did a Facebook post. Given today’s sad announcement, the most charitable way to assess it would be pure desperation).
The question for the further future is what sort of “carrying capacity” for political hysteria the nation possesses, especially if underlying economic circumstances were to change and a more intense hostility released. Quite possibly, it is nothing; breakfast TV is, after all, the home of Oldfield, Joe Hildebrand and Richard Wilkins. But maybe because of that, it acts as an early-warning system. Canaries are pretty and stupid, and they’re useful in coalmines.
In the past decade or so, Anzac Day has gone from being a pumped-up ceremony, stripped of all its complexity, to, in the hands of the right, an expression of the totalitarian mind. The insistence that not only must there only be one view of Anzac, but that one cannot use the term “lest we forget” about others, has a touch of North Korea about it. Totalitarian, and hysterical in the sense that’s essential to hysteria: that any questioning of a simplistic fantasy of self is tantamount to annihilation. Such conduct, especially by journalists and editors, is obviously inimical to a free society, and a pluralist public sphere. The more they do it, in the pursuit of individual political vendettas, the weaker they leave the country overall.
The chorus of silence from the pale riders of the IPA about this idea of authorised meanings of a war is far more eloquent than their usual pfaff. That is not just a measure of their innate conformism and cowardice; it is a sign that the right is abandoning any commitment to genuine pluralism, free speech and free markets, in favour of a highly concrete nationalism, in which a series of values are dictated by the state.
This is an abandonment of the difficult double act of free markets and social repression that they’ve tried to enforce since the Thatcher era. It shows how little commitment they have to the notion of “freedom” they bang on about. Witness John Roskam’s pretzel twists around the issue in this week’s AFR piece, one in which he voices support for the founder of the Breitbart website, a swamp of white supremacists, Big State nationalists and conspiratorialists.
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Because campaigns such as those against Abdel-Magied stay at the level of the media and are so confected, many are wont to write them off. The trouble is that these contentless outrages are lit up in a society whose main problem now is a lack of shared meaning, or of much collective meaning at all. There is something entirely autonomous about the way that the totalitarian version of the Anzac myth rolls on, and that is a bad sign. If people are desperate for anything, anything that will give them a feeling of being connected, if they decide, or are convinced that, such feeling remains intact by virtue of being uncriticised, then events are capable of jumping the media/real-life barrier. That is, sadly, reinforced by the insistence by those on the cultural left for ever-expanding state controls on speech.
In the current climate, those on either side who believe that a free and pluralist society is made up of many parts — including a refrain from spruiking unitary “national” values, or demanding that all public broadcasters pledge an agreed interpretation of World War I — need to criticise those on their own side who don’t hold those beliefs, unsparingly. It will be interesting to see if anyone on the right, other than Helen Dale, can find enough courage to speak up for the things they keep telling us they believe.