Some may be born great. Some may achieve greatness. Certain others can just take a flight to Australia, where the benchmark for “greatness” has long been drastically dropped for touring Britons and Americans. My dad, who would rather quit Shiraz for a full calendar month than ever attend another dinner party where Hot August Night is played all night to uncritical boomers, identifies this national shame as Neil Diamond Syndrome. Here, the merely decent may become virtuosic, so long as they (a) speak the English of that other hemisphere and (b) take care to flatter local press.

Last Saturday, US journalist Bret Stephens brought his blandishments to local media in a nice American accent. The ideas that he offered in a widely celebrated speech — Peter Greste called it “brilliant”; Mike Carlton felt the urge to punctuate his esteem — were just those that you might hear at any one of our frequent and terrifically unambitious writers’ festivals. You know the sort of thing: the greatest menace to our liberal democracies are spoiled kids at expensive universities who don’t want to hear Milo Yiannopoulos talk shit. If only we could speak with each other nicely, as we always did in olden times. (This call for civility from a guy who once publicly diagnosed “the disease of the Arab mind” after watching a judo match on telly.)

Stephens, a foreign policy writer who has tended to think of his nation as one that wins purely by democratic example when there’s a Republican in the White House, one that loses by not dropping enough bombs when there’s a Dem, went a little beyond the usual press flattery. He didn’t just say, “Hey. What you Australians are doing with your reporting is great!”, as most tourists learned to do post-Sinatra. He implicitly addressed all those journalists assembled as part of a global community of liberal defenders. Those who provided the “only way by which our democracies can remain rational, reasonable, and free”.

If we don’t count free five-star hotel rooms with full breakfast, Australian journalists love little more than being told that they’re the only thing standing between democracy and barbarism; that what they do is not only important, but crucial. At a time when press influence is waning and redundancies loom, it’s nice to have a night out at The Lowy Institute in a good frock to hear that your profession is the noblest and your work is that on which the “freedoms” of all people depend.

[Bret Stephens to deliver Colvin Lecture]

Honestly, I’ve heard Chris Berg speak about the traditions of liberty more persuasively. In fact, I have seen several works published by the IPA that show greater cunning in concealing their deregulation agenda. That any person who claims to be critical of market-friendly policy — and there must have been at least a dozen journalists present who have publicly used the word “neoliberal” as a smear — could have heard this guy clearly connect “free speech” to the “unfettered capitalism” he advances, and not felt moved to examine those contradictions, is curious.

I am yet to see anything but praise for Stephens, a man whose recent comments on climate change (it’s only happening in the northern hemisphere, and we shouldn’t be that worried by a teensy rise in temperature) The New York Times quietly amended. While his critique of post-materialist US students and their new habit of speaking not as scholars but “as a woman” or “as a gay man”, etc, is valid, his view that identity politics — practised, by his own admission, largely by young liberal arts undergrads in the best and most expensive US universities — is the real threat to democracy is as ludicrous as his view that democracy’s true saviour will be journalists bold enough to say factually incorrect things about climate change.

Such is the vanity of the Western press, though. Its members — even those who claim to be leftist — will swallow any ultra-free-market malarkey so long as it is tied up in adulation for Our Essential Work. And, yes, of course a free press is vital to democracy. But so, says Stephens, is the free market. Even if you believe this logic and see no incongruity in the classical liberal view that the accumulation of wealth by the deserving few is no barrier at all to a “reasoned” conversation by the many, you’ll hear him point it out. (Just how an individual engages in respectful Enlightenment debate without the tools of technology, functional literacy or a living wage is not explained; the Stephens assumption is that we all just live in a nice debate club.)

[Razer: how mainstream media became a clearing house for simplistic opinions]

The fact is, there is no market for what he recommends. “Reasoned disagreement of the kind that could serve democracy well fails the market test.” He is opposed to organisations like the BBC or ABC, which are permitted to fail the market test and appears to suggest instead that private companies should pick up the slack. Just to get this straight: we consider a free press as part of the commons, a human right. We should not fund it publicly, however. We should entrust its management to the same firms that found that reasoned disagreement — you know, stuff about the “diseased Arab mind” — didn’t sell well. Fix the mistakes of capitalism with more capitalism.

Some of what Stephens had to offer about identity politics, the failure to think, the refusal to understand the basic tenets of Western thought in analysis, etc, cannot be disputed. All of what he had to offer, however, was implicitly bound in the faith of the market. The problem is the market. The solution, on which I do not care to expand, is the market. Either way, we shouldn’t worry. Let’s just get rid of those annoying students with their fluid pronouns, which are the true barrier to the wisdom of the market.

I enjoin you to read or view this flimsy and flattering speech and tell me if you can find within it any hint of reasoned debate. If you can, I will reconsider my position on the detrimental effects to democracy of a few annoying cultural studies students. If you can’t, you would do well to ask of the Australian mainstream press, many of whom were present for this “brilliant” speech, where their powers of reasoned disagreement went on that night.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey