I’d always had time for Chris Uhlmann. Not for those minutes he now spends on TV bathed in the unsurprising light of an ageing liberalism, mind, but time for Chris the bloke.
About 10 years ago I worked in the same office as Uhlmann, and we’d see each other once or twice a week. In the lunch room, we’d developed what I saw as a mild affinity based on shared distaste for the staid conventions of ABC presenting. Chris, then a producer, would say that it was all so middle-brow and unsurprising. I’d make a crack about how the afternoon segment on ancient grain breads and gifted children had been more politically engaged than that morning’s interview with the PM. He was kind enough to laugh at my jokes. I was dim and vain enough to think that I was funny.
Chris left, I think, to briefly pursue a well-paid job in “comms” — which I believe is Canberran for spin. I left pursued by the human resources department, who were very keen not to ever have me back. Then, when I saw Chris pop up a few years later as a correspondent on telly, my dreams of re-employment sparked. I never really listened to what he was saying on TV, but I selfishly understood his appearance as my flicker of personal hope. The corporation was accepting expressions of interest from difficult people again! Reignite my staff number!
Others had remarked poorly about the guy with whom I had giggled by the microwave. I, for reasons of entire self-interest, didn’t believe them. Chris and I had talked so openly about the broadcaster’s meek service to the lowest urges of the highest-income quintile — falsely intellectual chat with figures like Alain de Botton, segments about the need for more “empathy”, and not more actual policy, in policymaking, etc. Chris wasn’t the old and sober ABC. No! He was part of its giddy future committed to all stakeholders, not just the posh ones — as I would be.
Then, in 2012, I was forced to concede that those others had a point. And, no, this wasn’t just because the ABC had failed to call and offer me a cushy gig. Perhaps Uhlmann had become another broadcaster skilled in the art of communicating nothing but the big bland national brand he represented. Paul Keating was a persuasive critic when he wrote:
“His technique is to have the pap set question to hand. And as the interviewee responds, he speaks over the top of them to demonstrate an aggressive credential. This is broadly to conceal the fact that he is unable to follow an answer in a discursive way — to grow the conversation in a manner that is both informative and elucidatory.”
A long editor’s note is appended to Keating’s opinion piece, making the redundant case that his was only an opinion. Keating, it is declared, speaks from a position of biased indignation only to defend a Labor colleague. This was, writes the editor, “a personal and unreasonable assault on one of this country’s best political journalists and interviewers”.
Even setting aside some incidents that have come since, such as last year’s anti-renewable jeremiad or his embarrassing piece on “free speech” in the Oz, Keating had a point. And it was one that could have been made of Uhlmann in any interview with a politician of any party — save, of course, for Tony Abbott, to whom the journalist, in my view, showed a reliable and curious deference.
It is quite possible, of course, that Uhlmann’s will to disrupt the prim and counterfeit intellectualism of the ABC was real in the lunch room and is real now. He’d hardly be the only person at the ABC sick of servility to a tired and colonial bourgeois aesthetic first described by A.A. Phillips in 1950. But the way he fights this battle, as Keating describes, is not through investigating the truth, but in appearing to investigate the truth.
There are times when his maverick stylings inspire loathing, or even, as they should, pity in his uneducated account of the influence of the “cultural Marxists” of the Frankfurt School. Theorists like Max Horkheimer or Theodor Adorno who fled Nazi Germany because they were Jewish and/or communist intellectuals are hardly the origin, as Uhlmann claims, of the decline of US freedom of speech, but surely evidence that this nation occasionally puts its money where its free-speaking mouth is.
In this tirade, whose proximity to anti-Semitism may be accidental but is repugnant nonetheless, Uhlmann misuses the term “deconstruction” — a serious oversight in a piece that sets out to deflate 20th century intellectual traditions — before describing the work of the Frankfurt School as, “systematically destroying the culture of the society that gave them sanctuary”. According to Uhlmann, who takes the fifth in his “essay” when it comes to the McCarthyism that ruined the lives of so many Jews, this cosmopolitan ideology spread like an “intellectual virus to the US”.
And today, Uhlmann himself is spreading like a virus. Everywhere! But, you know, one of the good ones. Forgotten are his dizzy critiques of wind farms or his failure to read books before burning them. He is today celebrated for having thoughts before thinking them in a global online “sensation”, in which he says some stuff about Trump that has been better written in the lower half of the very low publication Vox.
Yes, yes. Trump is bad. This just in: water is wet; heat is hot; urban intellectuals are very easy to poke fun at. We all hate a smart-arse, right? But we all appear to love a “mic drop” by a purported journalist who offers insights like the President’s tweets are “a window to his soul” or that US power is in decline. Oh. He also adds that Trump should have really ended the G20 with some stern words for North Korea. Not, you know, some stuff about the purported intention of the summit, which has been, since its inception in 2008, to address crushing global income inequality.
Yes, US power is in decline, but that has been the case since the end of Bretton Woods. Yes, Trump is a twit, but he is also a symptom. If the US eagle has crash landed and been reborn as a squawking bantam, then perhaps what we require of our journalists is not flashy “mic drops” — something with about as much intellectual heft and use as telling someone on Facebook to “check your privilege” — but some fucking historical context.
Look. It’s easy to say terrible things about Trump. Let me try: the man is to narcissistic personality disorder as cultured Danish butter is to cut-price margarine. He has a gold elevator. He does funny handshakes. I personally don’t think his glamorous wife likes him very much. Are we done yet, or do we need to try on a few more phrases from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders before we blame Russia for everything we can’t blame on Trump?
The world is at a point of crisis. It has been led there in great part by decades of US imperialism. Things for the majority of the planet’s population have become far worse, not better. This is not a state of affairs that occurred in electoral weeks, and it’s not something for which we can really blame the Frankfurt School. I’d say their neighbours at the Austrian School had a bit more to do with it, but let’s not do as Chris does and sacrifice real investigation for the sake of a name and a mic drop. Let’s look at the world, and the history that produced it, head on and ask it some serious questions.
For a guy who claims to be so perturbed by the intellectually empty claims of social media, he has sure delivered some shareable content this week. For Uhlmann, critic of both the intellectual and the elite whom he sees, I now know, as indistinct, the quick click is the answer to everything.
He speaks over the top of history to demonstrate an aggressive credential. Keating was right. This mic drop says nothing about our political present, save for the fact that Uhlmann seeks to retain his job not reporting on it at all.