(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

Well, OK, boy oh boy, are you ready for this? Are you ready?! Ready for the great culture war square dance?! 

God knows we need the entertainment. Well, better than Tiger King is going to be the great “grab your partners, swing them round” switcheroo of the George Pell acquittal on appeal. 

Yes, you may have heard from progressives that the sword of justice had been wielded on behalf of victims decades late! You may have heard from the right that the whole justice system was an elite progressive machine to railroad right-wing cultural figures!

Well now it’s going to be the same sentiments, except expressed by the exact opposite people!

Can you hear the fiddle play? Actually, probably not the best instrument, in this case. Can you hear the mandolin play? Dosey-doe. Andrew Bolt grabs Alison Croggon’s hand and they swing to opposite sides of the debate! David Marr crooks his arm with Keith Windschuttle and they waltz each other around! Laissez-les merde temps roulez!

For all concerned at the centre of it, the George Pell case has been utterly ghastly — and I’d remind you that in the eyes of the law Cardinal George Pell is now an innocent man, who has spent 15 months in prison in the final years of his life.

It’s ghastly for his accuser, the sole witness testifying to the alleged events; to whom, we presume, something hideous happened, perpetrated by someone.

But who can we now say did that?

When Pell was convicted in the county court, progressives rushed to equate the legal-justice system with a truth system. There was no “convicted” or “found to be” about it. Pell had done it, and the justice system — which anyone from the left should regard with a degree of critical suspicion — had vindicated the public and victims.

Well Cardinal George Pell isn’t — and now never was — a convicted paedophile. The right will be able to suspend its deeply contradictory war on our inherited British adversarial justice system. They’re shameless and will do that easily. 

Left progressives will have a little more trouble. They abandoned what remained of the new left’s suspicion not merely of the particular injustices of the legal-justice system — its classism, racism, sexism — but the general critique of juridical truth.

Critical response to the legal system argued that to make its judgement the voice of truth was to give the state the say in what was true or not, to inhabit certain voices — a policeman giving evidence from his notebook for example — to elide the gap between state and society, to let power inhabit life.

That discourse weakened as the law changed, as other voices began to get heard, and as notions of social oppression entered its considerations.

And, as the Pell case demonstrated, it reversed entirely as violence against women became a vast social campaign and activists (rightly) sought to change rules of evidence regarding single witness statements, credibility and corroboration, in favour of accusers and alleged victims.

But that has had a contrary effect. Strengthening single-witness credibility — to the point where a single accuser/witness can be regarded as beyond reasonable doubt in sex crime cases — weakens the general attack on how the state uses it.

It presumes we have a justice system, when it isn’t a justice system of course. It is, for the most part, a conveyor belt for the conviction of young people from oppressed groups for the purpose of controlling young people with few good education or employment options, and with substandard housing. 

It’s not as bad here as the US, but that’s saying not much at all. Single witness testimony of police and the underfunding of legal aid is essential to the conveyer belt, and having too much of a go at it threatens to bring the whole edifice down.

Now the right no longer has to do that. It will snap back into a firm defence of the golden thread of our Anglo-Christian this other Eden blah blah blah.

Why were progressives and so many on the left eager to identify truth with law? Because they were desperate for a win. They were so beaten down that they abandoned their principles about the state because one particular political enemy had been got. It was too good to pass up. 

They will now return to a conventional leftist critique of justice as a state institution, projecting power — but that critique has been substantially blunted in the pathetic opportunism they displayed.

I’ll leave my colleagues to pick over the actual legal details of this judgement. But as for the politics, all one can say is that I never expected anything resembling honesty from the right (including their attempt to enrol me in the “Pell is innocent” campaign).

But this marks a stupid, self-inflicted blow for progressives.

Some of them deserve it. The campaign to identify a racist justice system embedded in a capitalist state didn’t need that blow to its credibility. There’s no shortage of victims in this case, and it is one of them. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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