The perfect is the enemy of the good, wrote Voltaire. Voltaire, however, was a cut-price thinker who, when not busy loathing Jews, occupied himself scribbling things far less helpful to Western philosophy than they were to the greeting card industry. More useful, perhaps, than “the perfect is the enemy of the good” would be the formulation “the perfect enemy must never have a trace of the good”. The perfect enemy, as political and military leaders have known for millennia, is as bad as bad can be.
The perfect enemy, which never truly exists, must be invented and carefully maintained. You don’t expand empire and riches through reason, but by the brutal deception of those who fight or bear your battles. You tell your Christian soldiers to slay “base and bastard Turks”. You identify the enemy in an “axis of evil”, or you call it “worse than the Nazis”.
Of course, Western crusaders don’t really send their men to war these days — another job opportunity lost to automation. The machines now mutilate the bodies on foreign soil, but leaders continue to mutilate the domestic truth. The perfect enemy is no longer really needed to make a war waged by the West seem just — we all know they’ll deploy their death robots whatever we have to say about it. The perfect enemy exists largely to sustain a leader who is sinking. Demonisation can mean political buoyancy.
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Not even Malcolm Turnbull, a man who began his term as prime minister offering friendly halal dinners and warning against “machismo” in the approach to national security, is above a little enemy-perfecting these days. The images of Turnbull yesterday standing right beside military “machismo” were odd. He may have learned from his fave teacher of statecraft Thucydides to appear as though he were bravely facing a menace. But, gee, he looked like a bit of a dill. Honestly. Malcolm seemed about at home between chaps in counterterrorist kit as he would in a cheap suit. The guy is cut out for Hugo Boss, not posing with trained assassins.
Still. Elevating oneself by elevating the threat one faces, or is prepared to face, is a great temptation. It can prove in some cases a great success. Without the invention of his many enemies — the mainstream media, the politically correct, the Mexican, the Muslim, the swamp, the menstruating woman — Donald Trump may not have expanded his fan base beyond a reality TV timeslot. He took the formless dissatisfaction many white US voters felt and made like he felt it too. He gave the loathing many had for their lot a demonic shape. He continues to make the register of his success this invented and demonic opposition.
The press appears largely oblivious to the assistance they offer him. They continue to play the role of perfect enemy. Rather than investigate his maintenance of unjust US policy — whose maintenance was accidentally articulated by Trump himself in a foreign policy discussion with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly when he said “You think our country’s so innocent?” — they treat him as a historical aberration. Trump just arrived and ruined everything. The demonised press has itself come to crudely demonise.
The media have, in my view, adopted the techniques of even the leaders they most abhor. Not just when reporting on the grotesque Trump, but in many other matters. Increasingly, if a commentator is to make a raise some significant issue — free speech, masculine violence, housing prices — they prefer a Trump-style negation to making an affirmative, and a very career-affirming, case. And it doesn’t matter one bit if they are Trump-positive or Trump-opposed.
Think first of Chris Kenny, a man who has elevated himself through the power of negation. I would never have heard of a guy who hosts a late-night subscription telly show with a reported 14,000 viewers were it not for his big talk on a small medium. I mean, all us writers think about recounting things that gave us the shits on Twitter when we’re hard up for an idea, but Kenny seems to source a very good portion of his observations about “political correctness on steroids” from that social platform rarely visited by anyone but journalists. “Where’s the outrage?” is a question he often asks when someone has tweeted something he finds hypocritical, perhaps genuinely unaware that many more Australians are busy posting restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor than they are roasting Yassmin Abdel-Magied or whoever is that hour’s appointed demonic “snowflake” on Twitter.
On this platform and a little less frequently in his professional presentations, Kenny will complain not only about the lazy leftist preoccupations of Twitter, but the way that Twitter treats him. And here, we begin to see how media commentators have largely come to think of themselves not just as commentators but as “thought leaders” indivisible from the issues to which they are drawn.
Several avowedly conservative commentators went so far as to link the unfortunate end of Bill Leak to the unfortunate rise of the “enforced dogma of ever-blameless victimhood”. A critique, in my view, that kind of loses its force when it casts a critic of “victimhood” as a victim.
When one defines ideas entirely through opposition, though, such lapses in logic are bound to occur. And they occur throughout the political “spectrum”, which, as we know, is not so much in mainstream Australian media a spectrum, but a sliver.
The “I am right because they tell me I am wrong” ploy doesn’t just attract Malcolm selling his latest counterterrorism push or Quadrant railing against a “left” defined, both by itself and its opponents, largely by the decision not to join the crude cultural right. Just how many times One Brave Clementine can speak out about the online abuse she receives and claim that this assault on her is an assault on all noble beliefs is anybody’s guess. I’d suppose about as many times as Chris Kenny.
Of course, Ford is hardly without a point when she describes the harassment to which women are subject. And the writers of Quadrant are not entirely deluded when they make the case that the “left” — again, the thing happy to be defined only by its marginal distance from the right — forms fatal hegemony more easily than it creates political ideas. But, jeez. There are other ways to make these important cases than through describing one’s own trauma. Talk about an enforced dogma of victimhood. Between Trump supporters, Trump opponents and liberal feminists, each of them eager to make the amplified case that they are the ones being truly “silenced”, I really have no clue why anyone would dare leave TripAdvisor these days. It’s peaceful there, without all the squealing about silence.
Then again, I occasionally wonder if I should not myself offer snapshots of the critique I receive to improve my public profile. After writing last week in Crikey about Chris Uhlmann’s lazy demonisation of Trump, I became a demon. “Old”, “fat”, “irrelevant”, “dumb”, “jealous” and “who hurt you and broke your heart?” were some of the nicer social media analyses — and these are not uncommon for me. But if I were to understand these responses as anything much beyond a way people have lately found to pass the time, I might start thinking of myself as someone who no longer needs to think.
The emergence of a critic, or even a bully, is not evidence that what one has said is correct. The reliance on the existence of that perfect enemy is, almost always, evidence that one is wrong.
Malcolm looked very out-of-sorts with his military accessories, ready to fight his bullies like a man. It is my ardent hope that consumers of mainstream media will soon see those popular columnists in their similarly impotent posture. The perfect enemy is just no damn good for anything, save for killing people and ideas.