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Sep 26, 2017


A while ago, I was asked to write paid opinion in support of more women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The money was quite tempting, and the cause, I’m sure, is noble. However, I refused the work. I said that I did so on ethical grounds: a C-minus for maths in year 10; objections to championing improved labour conditions for the few, not the many, etc. These claims were true, but not nearly as true as my inability to give the shits required to produce such a work. I found myself vaguely supportive of lady engineers and scientists, etc, but largely unmoved. In other words, I did not have much of an opinion.

It can be inconvenient to lack strong opinions in the present. This is true not only for a person paid to have opinions, but anyone who now wishes to engage in what we call, ahem, “respectful debate”. The language of the era is strong and the tone uncompromised. To speak and, especially, to be heard in not only online forums but everyday exchange, we must increasingly trade in the coin of hyperbole.

It’s not just progressive, it’s Stalinist. It’s not just nativism, it’s fascism. Etc. etc. We must not only supersize the root of inequality to that of full-blown evil — in arguing for more women in STEM, use of the term “misogyny” would gain a far larger audience than the more accurate “institutionalised sexism” — but we must make like experts on all matters.

We’re committed! Committed generally to the appearance of expertise in argument and committed in specific cases quite utterly to that argument’s central importance. It’s exhausting and fruitless. And I say this even as a person whose premier hobbies have long been (a) showing off and (b) argy-bargy.

To call for a return to a time of genuinely “respectful debate” is, of course, deluded. There never was such a general Western era. True argument is bound to unfold only briefly in lab conditions: bohemian cafes of the 1930s, universities of the 1960s, among religious intellectuals of the Middle Ages, etc. This is no plea for excellence in argument. We don’t have to do our impossible best. It might be nice, however, if those of us who argue in public did not continue to do our worst.

[Razer: we need sound arguments, not ‘respectful debate’ (whatever the shit that is)]

Or, it might be nice if we were not coerced into producing our worst. Our worst is now perceived as the most dependably profitable in ailing media corporations. You don’t employ a Bolt or a Panahi, for example, because you admire their arguments — which are now given over to the search for “the REAL bigots”; currently people who vote yes, but may be Muslim feminists tomorrow, or all Chinese people next year. (It all depends on what the IPA has elected as their Demon of the Month.) You employ them because they’re low-risk.

But, as mentioned, it is not just in the conspicuously hyperbolic media work of the cultural right we see such commercial risk aversion. Outside of specialty academic papers, you will rarely find an argument, for example, that causes for the disproportionate number of male STEM employees are several. What you will find provided — and what I find myself now unmoved to produce — is a bunch of singular and simple claims.

You will read about the “misogyny” of “tech bros”, etc, and how this makes for a “hostile” environment. It’s far safer in a business sense for media to relay individual cases of sexual harassment than to talk about the duller systemic discrimination that no single man enacted, but every woman faces. It may be quite true that poor access to childcare services, packed universities, inflexible work hours and the unfortunate expression of Richard Dawkins all serve equally as hurdles to women in this sector. It is likely true that mining jobs, which are counted as part of the STEM total, are, being so often remote, incompatible with the unpaid hours of intimate household labour women are largely consigned to do.

Such a description is not perceived as a profitable take, and not without reason. The sociological approach required to explain a thing like work in a relatively small sector is basically boring to just about everyone but potential STEM workers and other sociologists. But, in the present, there is a largely unexamined consensus that STEM is the magic future of all Western labour and hope, so a reporter is required to argue for that importance in a very broad way. Go get me some tales of misogyny. End with an uplifting paragraph, set to the tune of I’m Every Woman.

So, certain matters are falsely elevated to central importance: women in STEM, “the REAL bigots”, the personal moral failures of white men. These matters are also universalised, as though their remediation will be the remediation of all people. Of course, we in media are busy, contingent on our outlet, revealing overlooked female tech geniuses, “REAL bigots” and problematic “white men”. We feel satisfied with ourselves, and a certain part of the audience is comforted that things are on the up-and-up as well.

[Razer on Greenwald: journalism should be incisive, not amiable]

But what truly occurs is the aggrandisement of certain problems, and of their suggested antidotes. I think former footballer Heritier Lumumba put it well when he recently wrote that bromides like “love, care, and understanding” recommended by our public intellectuals — in this case, Waleed Aly — were falling a little short of saving the world.

Saving the world is, in my view, not going to be easy. But one is compelled to argue that it is. Even in this principled piece from yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald, we see another small solution up-sized. The problem, as the author sees it, is that the “Australian Parliament should reflect and represent the whole community”. Good. The route to this is, apparently, the elimination of the Lord’s Prayer. Even if we agree — and I mildly do, just as I mildly agree with the inclusion of more women in STEM — that the Lord’s Prayer speaks only to a minority of Australians, we are not led to conclude that another reading (maybe the lyrics to a Chisel song?) would transform a parliament that has never reflected the whole community and has so rarely been in the business of serving the whole community.

Actually, I would propose that to accurately reflect Parliament, which does not reflect us at all, the Lord’s Prayer should be recited in Latin. This will solve everything!

I’m off to pitch to the mainstream press.


Sep 21, 2017


The non-binding mail survey a nation should never have endured has given rise in recent weeks to “argument” that should never have been made. Ugh. There’s the argument implicitly made by News Corp that former prime minister John Howard retains his value as an expert speaker on topics other than the Biggles series of adventure books. There are cruder, more explicit arguments made from within that same empire that no decent person should repeat.

Then, there’s the effing argument, from both Yes and No advocates, against “bullying” behaviour among the general population, which leads us to no useful end, save for proving beyond doubt that safe-space seeking is a bipartisan pursuit. Miranda Devine and all her spiritual children are now, in fact, the flakiest snowflakes, regularly demanding refuge from the heat.

Yes, Miranda, this just in: some people are not very nice. This has likely been true for some years and is possibly why policymakers have been drawn, at times, to build niceness into law. We have, for example, harsh penalties to deter those who would physically harm others. For a few decades, we had decent legal protection, hard won by trade unions, against rough treatment at work.

Curiously, the single argument of value provoked by our dreadful time of Brexit-lite may turn out to be for the Australian worker’s diminished rights. When a young Canberra woman found herself without work due to expressing support on social media for the “No” vote, some useful discussion emerged.

Not to polish the masthead, but Crikey was the first to consider the worker identified as “Madeline” not as homophobe or hero, but as a test of current employment conditions. As much as I like to give it to The Guardian, that title, too, deserves praise for considering factually what it now means to be “sacked”.

The short answer is: less and less. How can it mean anything when you don’t really have a job from the start? While older workers may preserve some part of their old-timey conditions — super, weekends, the right to shoot off at the mouth about whatever they please during weekends or other leisure hours — younger workers like Madeline must be as “agile” as Malcolm Turnbull demands. She, like her entire generation, is stuffed. Around 40% of Australians are now engaged in “alternative work”; that is, they are casual, self-employed or, like Madeline, “independent contractors”.

Contractors and the self-employed have no protection under the Fair Work Act. Which wasn’t something that seemed to trouble Guardian economics writer Greg Jericho a few years back. Jericho made the case in 2014 that we shouldn’t worry about a rise in freelance work, because a freelance agency had provided him with survey data that suggested many “choose” precisely the kind of “flexible” work that agency had as its revenue model.

Now, the guy has moved a little to the left of classical liberal economic thought, and has found that a “hands-off approach to IR” — you know, the sort of rule that deems “flexibility” and “choice” to be more important to workers than the knowledge they can pay the rent next month — might not be such a good national plan.

The Madeline freelance case may be an unfortunate event, but it sure is a good brainteaser. This fate of this No voter has highlighted a pro-market hypocrisy so stark, it was impossible even for outlets openly committed to ignore No voters, formerly quite fond of deregulation, to ignore.

Of course, over on the dependable right, Andrew Bolt finds as little trouble in ignoring hypocrisy as he does in stippling his short columns with rhetorical questions, such as yesterday’s “who are the real bigots?”, or that from a decade ago which dares us to imagine who we “really, truly would want at the top in a crisis. Howard or lip-licking Kevin Rudd?”

As things turned out, the lip-licker was chosen by Australians, many of whom found themselves facing a crisis Howard accelerated and Rudd had sworn (but failed) to address. WorkChoices, legislation piped in at the prelude of a GFC, itself caused by deregulation, had such impact on workers, they chucked the crisis-maker out. But there’s no chance that a brain like Bolt’s could be publicly teased into conceding that Madeline’s true enemy is not “political correctness gone mad”, but classical economics, AKA neoliberalism, gone mad in politics.

Bolt championed Howard, a man who believed it was up to the market to decide our fate. The market decided Madeline’s fate. Madeline’s boss reasoned that an events company would lose profit if word got out that one of its staff had urged for “No” on social media. Maybe not a commercially irrational decision in a small, progressive city, and the single state or territory where same-sex wedding ceremonies had been, however briefly, performed.

It’s not an unusual decision in the market-friendly present for a company to end a contract based on its social media policy. Actually, it’s a decision of which Bolt may, in other circumstances, approve. In one post, he listed several of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s professional appointments, and made some argument for their cessation, partly on the basis of her seven-word Facebook post.

“Where is the government?” Bolt asks for Madeline, dismissed worker, on Sky News. Exactly where you wanted them to be, son: right out of the way of business.

Yes, I know. The search for consistency in Bolt might be compared, by disrespectful others, to the search for a single crap in a shit stack. But it must a brainteaser for others on the right, those who have also fought for the market to be master but, in the Madeline case, might not like its rule.

When the right to be a bigot, or a communist or a Known Homosexual, is no longer a guaranteed right at work, perhaps Senator George Brandis’ head starts spinning. I wonder if Tim Wilson, who has written that the “human right most being neglected is free speech”, now finds that his classical liberalism holds within it a deep contradiction. He might realise that his beloved free market inevitably curtails his beloved free speech — again. The most neglected of all the human rights in Australia, ranking well above the right to asylum, the right to freedom of association, or the right to protection against unemployment for Madeline.

Who knows what Tim is truly thinking. If The Guardian is able to shift in its views on true freedom for workers, a topic set aside for so long, perhaps he is, at least, a little confused by liberalism. The liberal-left may be less confused after Madeline, and resume its interest in labour conditions.

Save for the topic of workplace bullying — again with the surprise that some people are not nice, and can be particularly nasty in an insecure labour market — these conditions have been largely undiscussed by the nation’s left-liberal thinkers since the time of Howard. There were, at the time, centrist commentators like David Marr pointing out basic incompatibilities in conservative liberal thought.

Howard claimed to be in favour of family, but compromised that institution by extending working hours. Howard claimed to be a proud Australian, but was a humble servant to US foreign policy and US-led financialisation. Howard claimed to have traditional moral values, but kept pace with the very latest old practice exhumed by Washington DC. You don’t get to put your foot hard on the economic pedal then act surprised when cultural values start racing too. Howard invited the market to decide. The market then made its decisions.

Howard had lived long enough and read widely enough to know that big economic decisions create cultural changes and divisions. Still, he made the public case that it was always the other way around. If only we were more moral, more traditional and harder working, the health of the economy and all else would follow. It’s up to you the individual, he said. And after he had gone, the liberal-left plumb forgot they disagreed with that fib.

Madeline is their reminder. She’s not an individual to despise, but a young worker whose rights might be worth protecting. Heck. If she had these rights, maybe she’d become a person so nice, she’d change her preference to “Yes”.

This Madeline moment contains within it the potential for some old-timey solidarity. We don’t have to personally like the people with which we stand shoulder-to-shoulder. We just have to fight for our rights.

Spiteful and thin argument has been suffered as the result of this absurd survey. Pain has been felt in the LGBTI community and anger, so easily aroused in times of economic insecurity, is widespread. If there’s one good outcome (save for this rather good typo on the slip) it is a re-emerged interest in the life of the worker. All thanks to a “No” voter feted by Andrew Bolt.



Sep 19, 2017


Apparently, you can tell someone is homosexual just by looking at them! A recent single study using facial recognition software has had its research importance amplified by press in the past week. Just as every crackpot scientistic fragment that “proves” homosexuality is “natural” now does. No matter that many large-scale social surveys conducted over time demonstrate that human desire tends, for most, to wander in its object, even just a bit. The search for proof of the natural and pure homosexual continues.

The claim that there are those born homosexual is often made by those who support the passage of same-sex marriage into law. However, such ideas of “naturalness” may be, and have been, ultimately inimical to truly progressive politics.

In the marriage equality debate, this urge to depict gay as genetic, even evolutionary, is elevated. No matter that the power to predict or detect a “natural” tendency may, in a different time, also became the power to eliminate. I mean, who knows? Perhaps it’s partly true that there are those with a strong and inflexible preference for a particular route to climax. It’s certainly true that there are times when we humans are especially eager to prove the “naturalness” of all our human behaviour — usually times when the social and the economic impacts us most. “Naturalness” was a big deal during the Great Depression, a time that is of great current interest to the dismal science.

Some of those dismal scientists handy with a graph now make the point that income distribution in the West is approaching, or in some nation states, has approached, disparity unseen since that time. Some of those handy with a critique of the nature of unemployment measurement — not so much “fake” as fundamentally unsound — show, per ABS figures, that underemployment continues to trend up, also in the 1930s style. Some of my associates who like to yell during mealtimes see further similarities between that immiserated age and the present. We have now, before us, vulgar populists, a culture full of “reality”-based aspirational competitions and a bunch of loonies who believe that biology — whether of race, gender or physical strength — is social destiny.

Even leaving aside the psychotic racism of the Third Reich, we had in more “moderate” quarters a strong belief that a “good” human body was the only sure route to a good political one. Margaret Sanger, founder of the US organisation Planned Parenthood, firmly believed that birth control was a marvellous way to ensure that fewer undesirable babies would be born. Former presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has had perplexingly mild things to say about this woman who urged for a “race of thoroughbreds”. After all, Sanger founded an organisation that permitted poor women to terminate pregnancies whose endpoint they could not financially sustain.

Oh, but Helen. Don’t get into a whole thing about today’s short-sighted Pro-Choice movement that overlooks that current economic conditions do not permit many women to make a choice other than termination — a little like Andrew Denton’s views on assisted killing that, as Shakira Hussein has pointed out often in Crikey, do not take into account that some people will top themselves for socioeconomic reasons if permitted to do so. Let’s get back to the eugenicists of the 1930s who may not have shown the extreme and brutal hostilities that played out across Europe, but were fairly committed to a “natural” view nonetheless.

In his US history of eugenics, the writer Harry Bruinius reminds his audience that the ideas of “purity” and in-born goodness was not a little fad, like phrenology, but a widespread belief among intellectuals, moreover one ardently advanced by progressives and liberals. According to some of our local scholars, the story was even worse throughout the Great Depression here. Not only did it give life, in part, to the White Australia Policy, but was even enacted on “undesirable” British people, who were thrown out of Australia House if they’d ever spent time in an asylum. We never invited the “huddled masses” here, with exceptions in times of labour shortage.

This 2012 panel on Radio National, featuring the views of two historians and a curator of a current exhibition on the 1930s at a major Victorian gallery, serves as a good Australian introduction to the “natural is best” fervour felt even among progressives of the Depression-era.

Such beliefs among progressives are not so easily explained away as “that’s what everyone thought in the olden times”. For a start, socialist texts of the time and those that had come so recently before were pretty clear about the whole “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” deal. Such a view does not weigh the biological merits of an individual, but urges society to build virtue into itself so that all, no matter their natural gifts or shortcomings, can flourish. Socialism, widely read at the time, was opposed to a “natural” view of anything, save for the human right to a decent life. In other words, no intellectual excuses.

But, as curator Isobel Crombie notes in the Radio National panel, there are particular conditions when people rest on such biological “truths’. To wit: when people are worried about a nation’s direction.

This, as I have yelled and had yelled back to me at mealtimes, is such an era. People are worried about the “national direction”, which is another way of saying that they are very worried about how much wealth they may or may not have in the future. This uncertainty gives rise to extreme nature-based bigotry, like racism or the view, now expressed very often in the press, that homosexuality is “unnatural”. Let’s not bother with those No-voting zealots, though, as these ideas are too thin for weighing.

Let’s look instead at how the intellectual descendant of eugenics can still take root in the “progressive” movements of today.

Perhaps you know the Lady Gaga hit Born This Way. If you do not, make no attempt to remedy your ignorance, as it certainly isn’t her best song. It is, however, a popular and progressive expression of the view that homosexuality is natural. Or, more precisely, that the naturalness of homosexuality is its truest defence.

It is not just prominent pop allies of same-sex marriage — the impetus for Gaga’s song — who say that homosexual people are nature’s gift. It’s academics as well. Here, in a pro-Safe Schools piece, Australian Professor Catharine Lumby makes the claim not only that people attracted to others of their biological sex were “born that way”, but they came out of the womb with an entire identity. In other words, social organisation should always be organised according to biological “law”, and cultural identity is “natural”.

Advocates for same-sex marriage, both same and opposite-sex attracted, have made claims for their “naturalness” that are too numerous to list. For me, it’s hard to read this as terribly different from, “the poor things can’t help it”.

Just as neuroscience may be used perversely as a biological proof of racism by progressives opposed to racism, or Pete Evans “Paleo” shtick serves to apparently (and ineffectively) criticise agribusiness, the natural law of homosexuality is used in the fight for changes to law. For mine, this is the most static and conservative form of progressivism.

John Locke insisted that good men were acting both naturally and divinely when they sought to amass as much property as possible. Pro-Zionist anti-Semites argue that Jews are better off away from “us” due to their imagined natural difference. I mean, for heaven’s sake, there are even neuro nuts who say that the tendency to engage in suicide bombing can be clearly seen in scans. While these “scientists” — who did not lug their MRI machines to terror sites, I checked — concede that certain psychological experiences changed the “biology” of predicted criminals, they still make the error of erasing the social world from study of a social fact.

Are some people naturally homosexual, heterosexual, avaricious, violent, compassionate, racist, anti-racist or stupid? While the answers — if they ever come — may be interesting (and in the exceptional case of mental ill health, actually useful) the question itself is deluded about liberty.

We do not need “naturalness” as a basis for justice and freedom. We have relied upon it many times in the past, however, as a basis for injustice and enslavement. When any movement prefers natural entitlement to social good, we should worry, and not cheer.


Sep 14, 2017


Hillary Clinton’s best-selling What Happened is alleged to be the inside account of losing the unloseable election. This book, released two days ago, might have provided valuable insights not only to future students of political history, but a divided Democratic Party of the present. In fact, the author declares these as her intentions.

Within these 500 pages, and between some, frankly, riveting passages on the minutiae of campaign life (debate prep with an aide accessorised and trained to speak exactly like Trump, workout routines, morning devotionals, FaceTime with much-loved grandkids) there was surely scope to provide good interpretation of a landmark loss to a general audience, a scholarly audience and those within the party.

There are some illuminating moments for all. Or, at least, there’s one. You might not want to read a full and fairly savvy chapter on the email “scandal”, but you’ll detect its value nonetheless. Here, Clinton provides an object lesson for a currently abject press. She fesses up to her small, then common, mistake of staying within the law by holding her unclassified emails privately, and, we should note, in a home server under constant protection by Secret Service agents. She regrets not having future-proofed her tech habits, even if she does blame Bill a bit. She is, however, right to remain hopping mad at the level of scrutiny broadcasters such as Matt Lauer afforded this baloney at the cost of talking policy. When journalists have opportunity to talk international relations and choose instead to bang on about Blackberries, democracy is imperilled. And, as we now know, the FBI can be persuaded into squandering its resources, and its reputation.

Honestly, though. That’s it for disclosure of worth for posterity, or even into next week. While the author promises early on that she is “letting down my guard” and will describe in candid detail just how she managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory, she comes across as either profoundly deluded or profoundly dishonest.

[Who killed the liberal dream? (Spoiler: it wasn’t ‘fake news’)]

I suspect it is the former. Clinton may, in the view of some, be “crooked”. I believe that this book — which, even if it were ghost-written or generously edited, does convey a very Clintonian voice — is the work of a truly honest woman. She genuinely trusts in American liberalism, and has a word or two to say about de Tocqueville whose flattering 19th-century account of her nation is one she feels needs little revision. She genuinely believes she is doing the right thing. Which, of course, is a common affliction among the political class. But the Clintons, who saved their party from history’s remainder bin by adopting a Third Way view — Clinton also has kind words for Robert Putnam and seems still to take the sappy sociology of the ’90s as gospel — have a level of belief in their own political purity that could put a Bolshevik to shame.

If this were intended as a legacy-preserving document, it has failed. This is a person who failed not only to future-proof her home office from needless attention, but to update her political understanding.

Clinton is unable to let go of her love for the dubious and aging expertise of Third Wayers and of her love for expertise in general. She still believes that financialised capitalism can be civilised, and that a moment in time like the New Deal (which she doesn’t fancy quite as much as the other Roosevelt’s Square Deal) can be replicated. She still believes that brilliant, qualified people, such as those we might see in The West Wing, are able, as she puts it, “to save capitalism from itself”.  

Clinton believes, not unlike our own Treasurer Scott Morrison, that one need not engage with the idea of “Revolution”, a concept she capitalises to deride candidate Bernie Sanders, but just with a scalpel. A few adjustments here and there. No turnabout in economic policy to address what she perplexingly calls “the Financial Crisis of 2008-09”. Nearly every economist, heterodox or mainstream, refers to the crisis as occurring in 2007-08. I guess it makes her look more instantly responsive to the matter in retrospect if she moves the date forward in time.

None of this is to suggest that Clinton is either thick or was under-qualified for the office she seemed certain to get. It is, however, to suggest that she — and, by extension, her campaign staff and the DNC — was critically unable to sense how the nation had changed from de Tocqueville’s descriptions of it. Although she professes to love people — and I believe she does; not only does she emerge from these pages as a genuinely compassionate person, but the accounts of her individual acts of kindness to others are too numerous to ignore — she doesn’t understand them outside of the context of an idealised USA. She is frustrated, for example, by the electorate’s refusal to acknowledge the growth in GDP under Obama. Why couldn’t they see what a great job he was doing? She does acknowledge that many US voters — more than 50% of the working population has income of less than $30,000 p.a. — are not feeling the growth. But, she remains frustrated with their short-term vision.

This is, by two counts, a grave mistake. First, reputable economists, such as Joe Stiglitz, now publicly decry GDP as a present or a future measure of increase in living standards. Second, if you’re living in crap, then you’re living in crap, and who cares if experts say that the economy is up. Wages for the many in the USA have stagnated or declined since the Clinton era, just as welfare has evaporated and incarceration rates have increased. She concedes, even celebrates, the very active role she played as First Lady in promoting and formulating those bills and deals that triggered these problems. But, she does not say “I was wrong”. She chooses instead to blame Republican interference. Which may be a little true, but no Republican racialised the debate on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 so effectively as Clinton, who called the people, largely of colour, who would be sent to prison “super-predators”.

In fact, Clinton is sorry for very little at all. She mock-apologises for the talks she gave to Wall Street, where she assured bankers that she had both a “private and public position” on economic matters. She is not sorry for speaking with them so intimately or accepting their generous fees, but she is sorry only for “bad optics”. Her deepest regret is not reserved for herself, but for the American people, some of whom, she still insists, are “deplorable”.

[Welcome to Planet Disneyland, where even the ‘real’ news is fake]

Clinton’s remarks on Sanders have already been well-canvassed by press, and even if you haven’t seen these accounts, you’ll be able to guess what she said. He was a quixotic vessel for national outrage, and a catalyst for much of the sexism she encountered, etc. He didn’t know how to cost. He promised, she says, America a “pony”. America, a nation of deplorable children, was upset that they didn’t get a pony.

Her criticism of Trump is largely untroubling — but really, anybody’s is. Her downfall was failing to see that Sanders gave to millions of people exactly what they craved — a true account of the movement of capital. She does regret not talking about policy as much as she might have, and says that the advice to point out Trump’s weaknesses more often than she described her own strengths came from her campaign staff. Which may be true. But, jeez, still. How one might expect a comfortable win without truly acknowledging the discomfort with which people live — she is surprisingly surprised on some of her visits to flyover states by the extreme poverty — is anybody’s guess, and her error.

Clinton says that she has written this work to engage people with a political process in which she still believes. Sanders, whom, inter alia, she outright blames for her loss, said throughout his campaign that he wanted to rebuild a political process with the participation of the people. These are two distinct messages, but Clinton cannot tell them apart. It is her belief that Sanders stole all her policy prescriptions and just added more “insurgent” leftism to them.

Clinton commences the book with quotes from letters of support she has received from women. Honestly, it’s like reading the auto-cue from a Martha Stewart special on holiday cooking. One woman advises her to relax and listen “to the wind or maybe Chopin”. There are plenty of other Hallmark moments.

Clinton ends the book with a speech at her alma mater, Wellesley. It is in these young graduates, who are able to pay upwards of $40,000 in tuition each year, she sees hope. I believe she is loving and compassionate. I also believe after reading this book that she cannot see beyond her own class or de Tocqueville’s imagination. What Happened did have much to do with sexism, racism, accidents of time, failures of the press and an economic ball that started rolling globally before her husband ever took office. What also happened was a profound failure of self-awareness.



Sep 12, 2017


Not a few Australians are in the habit of moralising about advertisements. Our journalists are encouraged by their outlets to imagine the harm or good that can be done in under thirty seconds; our citizens turn to an organisation where they might more privately do the same. Complaint to the Advertising Standards Bureau is frequent enough that you and I could dispose of an afternoon wondering about those critics troubled, for example, by an ad that corrupts with its “sexualized food” and “erection of bacon”. We love to whine about this stuff, or hear accounts of others’ whining. Press articles about the moral victory or failure from the famous series of lamb ads are surely served up more often than our roasts.

Such discussion is public and ordinary. Or, it is until an actor perceived as unAustralian passes judgement on the lamb. When the Indian High Commission this week issued a demarche — a written diplomatic rebuke — to the Departments of Communications, Agriculture, and Foreign Affairs and Trade regarding the most recent lamb ad, we had headline news.

Look. I imagine that if I were Hindu, I would not be very pleased with this depiction of Ganesha, a known vegetarian, tucking into a springtime shoulder. Just as I imagine that if I were the sort of feminist who believed in the power of “media effects”, I would write, as somebody did, to the bureau that I found “the comparison between your double breast chicken burger and women’s breasts to be offensive”. As it is, I think of advertising as both fundamentally offensive and socially uninfluential. Further, I watch almost everything ad-free and on-demand. So, I don’t worry. Still, a lot of people do, and in a bowdlerising nation where it was long ago decided that cultural “vice” could undo all our virtue, we should hardly give our front pages to the possibility that many Hindus feel precisely about the corrupting potential of ads as many non-Hindu Australians do.

[How did more than three-quarters of the cash in India become worthless overnight?]

I’m not a gambling man, but if I were, I’d lay an exotic for tomorrow. Let’s put a few bucks down on the simultaneous appearance of a Bolt-type gripe about humourless foreigners and a Guardian-type carnival of cultural sensitivity. Let’s add to the bet the complete absence of any journalistic curiosity about India, and why that nation may, at this particular time, be moved to make official protest about an ad for meat, notwithstanding the High Commission’s claim that the demarche was made on behalf of ordinary Australian Hindus.

The easy answer is that the world has gone potty. We have entered an era so rich in disaster, those institutions we hope will contain it have fallen into a very deep state of denial. Rather than address the now palpable effects of climate change and failing economic structures, governments and their ambassadors would often prefer to yell at the telly.

This is true for many stupid politicians, but unlikely to be so in the case of consummate politician, Narendra Modi. Now, I’m not saying that the Hindu nationalist himself oversaw the complaint to three of our Departments, nor do I suppose he has direct knowledge of it. But the Indian Prime Minister has certainly managed Hindu nationalism itself. This man, once barred from entry to the US for his failure to intervene in a massacre of Muslim Indians, has, perhaps, created the conditions in which such a presentation may be made.

These days, Modi presents to the West very well. All traces of the murders in Gujarat, which some say he endorsed, are forgotten, and Mark Zuckerberg — you know, that Facebook guy who says he wants to stamp out “fake news” — is happy not only to meet with Modi, but claim the role his company played in the leader’s election. Our own Prime Minister speaks of the “tremendous opportunity” this leader, India’s first true neoliberal, affords — it’s really only non-Western commentators who criticise Modi’s programs of demonetisation, GST and financialisaton. Even as we in the West come to acknowledge that these techniques have begun to compromise the function of our own economies, we say that it’s just great that this “post-colonial” guy is dragging his nation into contemporary ruin.

Even after he was embraced by Trump, Modi was still perceived in the West as fairly liberal — which is odd when one considers that the frequently illiberal German Chancellor was heralded as a truly liberal goddess for her unsuccessful handshake with Trump at the White House. Modi may be perfectly liberal in an economic sense. The way in which he imposes these policies, however, may seem to your fan of basic liberty to be scandalously illiberal.

The writer Arundhati Roy has been a bit busy of late, finishing her second novel 20 years after winning the Booker with a first. For a year or so, we’ve not had her accounts of Indian power — a kind of power now given to encouraging such violent fear of Muslims. Muslims are slaughtered by citizens while their leaders “publicly unveil an unconscionable bigotry against Muslims, which even George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld would be embarrassed to own up to”. Roy was an early critic heard in the West of Modi’s BJP. She’s picked up the habit again in the middle of her book tour, telling Democracy Now all about this modern leader’s expedient fundamentalism.

Islamophobia, in the view of many Indian commentators, was manufactured by leaders as a fast route to hardline policy. (Sound familiar?) In Modi’s India, this loathing is informed less by Western “clash of civilisations” foreign policy bollocks than it is by Hindu nationalism — an odd combo in this once proudly secular state. For Modi, Hinduism is a vehicle for aggressive reform and a rationale for state violence. Which, of course, is not to imply at all that this is the function of that faith as it is widely experienced.

[Indian dissident journo slain]

Which is to say, Hindus, and members or leaders of any religious group, should be allowed, in my view, to complain about shitty ads as much as any other Australian. Heck. Even if they’re not Australian residents, bring it on. Reporters, on the other hand, are required to ask questions of the nation that offers us “tremendous opportunity”. A nation that did not issue, despite pleas by Indian press, a demarche to the US following the shooting in February of this year of two Indian nationals, resulting in the death of one. The accused, now charged with murder, had, according to witness statements, presumed the victims to be “Middle Eastern” and “illegal”, which we know so often means “Muslim”.

Perhaps there is force behind India’s diplomatic manoeuvre more complex than a mind like the late Bill Leak’s could grasp. This powerful nation is not led by a dummy. It may be led, however, by an illiberal fan of Mussolini — or, fascist if you prefer.

But, you know. There are much more important things to discuss than our economic co-operation with a possible tyrant. Such as TV ads, and how we must, or we must not, take them very seriously, contingent on which outlet is paying us.  



Sep 7, 2017


This, as I am certain you have noticed, is an era of great vulgarity in communication. Our most popular television programs include Embarrassing Bodies, a low documentary which regularly exposes the prolapsed anuses of Britain, and perhaps our best-known local lifestyle celebrity is Pete Evans, a man who has also lately turned public attention to the fundament. When local commentators of note are not literally focused on the latrine, they flush away all the restraint of a previous age via their social media accounts, and we see the stars of Fairfax or of News Corp openly call each other some of the worst words in English, and even occasionally wish the other dead.

It would, of course, be true hypocrisy for a vulgarian like me to urge for a new civility. I acquired the habit of filth at an early age, and there is no Finishing School so firm that it could cleanse me. Further, we know that obscene speech is hardly new and has, at times, like the French Revolution, proved politically effective. Even if there were no moral case to make for jokes about the genitals of leaders, though, the case for greater civility in speech would remain a pointless one to make. You can’t tell entire populations, individuals or groups to speak well and expect them to answer with anything but “fuck off”. When such moral injunctions are made, they are only likely to produce more cursing.

This is an age when the world’s most powerful political figure uses his Twitter account to call the leaders of other states schoolyard names, where terms like “fascist” or “Nazi” are wielded by his opponents so often and uncritically that they no longer signify the horror that they should, and one in which a man can easily stand before a sign that names the prime minister of Australia a “bitch” and himself become a prime minister.

Let’s agree, then, that the hope for civil Western speech is dead, perhaps even agree that the kind of “respectful debate” or tasteful wit for which so many publicly long, never really lived anywhere much outside the work of philosophy, or the novels of Nancy Mitford. To hope for mass culture to reflect the sort of nice speech that was only ever uttered by those who acquired it in elite conditions is futile. For centuries in the West, the overwhelming majority could not read, let alone speak politely to the thoughts of Jeremy Bentham, or whoever.

We may have historical record of great men writing graciously about urgent moral questions. What we have scant record of is those millions enslaved in mines and factories and fields who were, I’ll bet, not speaking often in the minutes between hard labour and sleep of whether the ends were justified by the means, or the other way ‘round.

You want liberal democracy? You got it. Its speech must engage most, and most are either working long hours, or worrying for long hours about how to find work. Paid labour and underemployment are difficult and time-consuming. Higher education is expensive and time-consuming. Between the search for work, the grind of work or the increasingly vocational nature of study — I have met very few commerce graduates who show any signs at all of training in “respectful debate” — the speech for which we long but rarely utter cannot take root.

This is not, for a minute, to say that most people are stupid. Most people simply have time to interact with nothing but stupid speech. I am of the optimistic view that it takes just one or two deep interactions with true argument for the nature of thought to reveal itself. If you are fortunate enough to be exposed to it, philosophy can easily, and very naturally, become a compulsion for anyone. We are not exposed to it. Which doesn’t stop politicians — who, if they were ever themselves exposed to the elegant shape of argument, have clearly forgotten what they learned — from urging for “respectful debate”.

It doesn’t stop media commentators either. From Andrew Bolt to the most earnest writers at The Guardian, we read about the need for elevated speech, considered argument, etc. In both cases, and we see this so keenly on the “respectful debate” around the same-sex marriage survey, the assumption of the commentator is always that they are engaged in good speech, and if they are not, well, it was the bad behaviour of the other side that made them lose their temper. If only you would talk to me in the way I would talk to you if you weren’t such an idiot/snowflake/Nazi, then we could have a “respectful debate”.

Politicians show us very little respect. They have created or permitted precisely the conditions — wage stagnation, long work hours, mortgage stress, the alienation of underemployment, unaffordable education — in which the tools or the hope for “respectful debate” are unavailable to most. And most media commentators simply start from a foundation not of thought, but of antagonism. They rarely even “debate” matters of grave importance, but simply “debate” the way they are spoken about. And so, we have this peculiar set of local commentators who offer little but vulgarity, and explain their vulgarity as necessary, because the other side made them do it. I mean, please, could someone point me to that foundational text by either Chris Kenny or Clementine Ford that was not written only in the terms of obscene opposition, and shows any sign whatsoever of wishing to engage in reason?

Rage and vulgarity have their place, of course. Showing a middle finger to the other side is sometimes very necessary. But, hey, now in our purportedly democratic institutions of government and press, that’s all we’ve got. Most everyone with a public platform or policy role is making like they are the true voice of the resistance, the opponent of the marginalised or the warrior against the purported menace of the “politically correct”, and so few have legitimate belief in the power of sound argument.

Still. Most everyone seems to want it. Most everyone appears to believe that a nation full of Respectful Debaters is somehow possible, even under the harshest everyday conditions that Australian workers have encountered in many decades. These arguments we read so often about the necessity of free speech, the need for respectful speech, the need to control speech by law or not to control it, etc, have begun to seem almost religious to me. We have faith in a thing that does not take place, and cannot take place without a radical re-organisation of the way this nation is governed. And this faith is itself evangelically declared by hypocritical preachers who show no talent or interest whatsoever in the beautiful speech for which they hope.

In this moment, this hypocrisy is so evident. We have a Prime Minister who urges for “respectful debate” around a mail survey that he knew very well could only produce its opposite. He was warned, very explicitly by qualified advocates for mental health, that this would happen, that he was creating conditions hostile to many Australians.

In my view, this is a very low point for “respectful debate”. Not only will many LGBTIQ Australians suffer badly from all this “respect”. The institutions of press and of politics have suffered a loss as well. They do not seem to know that we are watching them talk among themselves about who is the least and most “respectful”, so utterly separated in their reflections from the real-life consequences of this, or any other, debate. These appalling cultural warriors who dispose of any regard for the LGBTIQ community. These shallow “allies” who assume a posture of great compassion far less to advance the life of the nation, much more to mark themselves as desirable commodities for future sale to purportedly “respectful” publications.

A few years ago, I would have implored all policymakers and commentators to learn the skill of true argument, which is, by its very nature, respectful. I have lost hope for these zealots, so sure that their own speech is transformative. My hope is for others. Those who are sick of the emptiness of speech about speech. Those who crave a better nation where we each have the time and the means to argue meaningfully and democratically about many matters, and so to truly progress as individuals and as a society.

The World

Sep 5, 2017


Last week, publisher WikiLeaks released the latest batch of documents in its Vault 7 series. Those few reporters and readers not captivated by the open hostility of US President Donald Trump found, again, within the set of hitherto closed files, the true and current record of warfare. As the President scours what remains of his mind for new names to call Kim Jong-un, the Central Intelligence Agency continues its systematic work of developing electronic weapons to point at the people.

Private companies, private individuals, essential state services and all entities reliant on the internet become more vulnerable to attack by the agency’s arsenal. Even if you’re the sort who has been, to date, fairly comfortable with the appointment of the USA as World Sheriff, you may not feel so easy knowing that any organisation, no matter its provenance, has the capacity to turn all parts of the planet into a battlefield — one over which that obscene tweeting President currently has ultimate command.

As individuals have discovered, and as documents made available by WikiLeaks continue to attest, the great threat of so-called “cyberwarfare” is not that someone at the NSA can now giggle through their tea-break at that picture I took of my junk. It is not that your “smart” phone or TV is a convenience that now comes at the cost of unguarded human intimacy.

The threat posed by organisations, including the CIA and National Security Agency, extends far beyond a cherished thing like privacy and directly into, for example, nuclear enrichment facilities. This is an arms race, the terms of which are set and currently won by the US hegemon. To think of it not as asymmetric Cold War but a sensible set of protocols with amusing sci-fi titles dreamt up by lovable nerds is to permit our scrutiny of true power to disappear as absolutely as the departing Tardis.

The private citizen, of course, is under no obligation to grasp the totality of this emerging arsenal, or even concede its existence. The active reader or true reporter, however has a duty to recognise Vault 7 as a source for significant and broad debate, and all verified documents published by WikiLeaks as credible, not “hostile”.

Since March 2017, the latest WikiLeaks project has offered the record of an ongoing war. Traditional media organisations have not demonstrated great curiosity for this matter, and the last time they had broad interest in WikiLeaks was with the sensational Collateral Murder video. Press focus on WikiLeaks, no matter how outsized and troubling its leaks, has closed in on one (mal)function of the organisation. The dumb shit that its founder tweets or mumbles between posting links to the certified documents of ongoing horror.

Revelations about the nature of power unfold on WikiLeaks regularly. There is just one revelation, however, that regularly gains broad attention, and that, told over and again, is that Julian Assange is a sexist creep.

Yes. It does seem likely, as you will read elsewhere in Crikey today, that Assange’s grasp of feminist principles is about as steady as mine on the mechanism of DKIM verification. Had I an audience with Assange, I would attempt to make a deal: let me write the criticism of neoliberal feminism, and you keep to your accounts of digital certification and/or the disappearance of democracy as we know it. The man has posted links to some wildly “unverified” propagandist rot regarding the Magical Biological Differences Between Men and Women, and has, deservedly, received critique.

It is not that Assange does not deserve the ire of feminists. It is more that he has not earned it. Like the man I presume to be his friend, John Pilger, his area of expertise does not extend to gender theory. To critique, and this is done so frequently, Assange on this matter is akin to critiquing a toddler for not yet having attained full control of his central nervous system.

To listen to Pilger the matter of women — and I recommend this practice only to intellectual masochists — is to receive musty and recycled Christian ideals. He appears to believe, as does Assange, that the “pure” political function of women, ergo feminism, is to oppose war. He also appears to believe that feminism, ergo women, was once itself a pure and undifferentiated political movement that arose only to cry against the futility of killing. It was corrupted, you see, by the neoliberal age in which women became as hungry as men for power, quit having babies and thereby compromised what, we must presume, is our “natural” human will.

It is true that Assange has lately shown himself to be an unscholarly, unverified baby about the matter of my sex. He has offered the Silicon Valley author of a deluded crapifesto, which contains no reliable reference to support its central claim that “chicks can’t code”, a job at WikiLeaks. In doing so, he supported not only scientifically unsupported claims about “brain sex”, but, by extension — and I found this very odd — the “right” of Google to select those employees who would most effectively help the company to profit. Heavens, Julian. Here I was thinking that you sought not to encourage the tech monolith, but to undermine its primacy. And, here you are, encouraging its productivity, albeit based on your assumption, that hardly comes with its own digital signature, that the true and inevitable role of ladies is never to take up arms in a struggle, but to sit at home, reproduce and, if barren, perhaps form an auxiliary to assist coding warriors like yourself.

I can excuse sexism of the type no more than I can sloppy “state of nature” fundamentalism. No more than I can excuse Assange’s recent, and unintended, project of encouraging tech giants to do bigger and better business by not indulging in the “identity politics” he has recently, perhaps via Pilger, learned to limply loathe.  I truly have no interest, not being a Girl Who Codes and not caring about the fortunes of Google and its brethren, in arguing about how to organise Silicon Valley more justly. I believe Silicon Valley, as I believe the CIA, to be fundamentally unjust.

I also believe that Vault 7 is valuable. I am resentful that many of my peers do not recognise this value. I am surprised, and a little peeved, that Assange has offered them further opportunity for their ignorance.


Aug 31, 2017


There is a complaint, made periodically by more thoughtful pundits, that we, if we are honest, cannot easily dismiss. That is: politics is now reported and thereby greatly understood as something not very different from the world of entertainment — as something rather a lot like sport. To be considered a “wonk”, one need not — preferably does not — attempt to make sense of the social outcomes of policy, but only of the politicians who make it.

Despite the now well-known failures of both commentators and pollsters to predict big switches in Western mass political consciousness — Clinton would win easily, Brexit was a niche choice, Macron would long continue to heroically reunite the French people — many in media cling to a purported psephology that now amounts to little more than divination. Commentators of all hues say that “facts” are always facts, never “alternative” ones, and that if we all just agreed to what this chart or that graph said, we would see the truth of the game.

The most extreme and famous illustration of this divine faith in “fact” was brought to us by the ridiculous Michele Bachmann in the US on the evening of November 8: this chart proves the power of prayer. But it’s not just inanely conservative Republicans whose public appearances show us nothing more than advances in cosmetic dentistry that talk about politics as Australian breakfast TV hosts might talk about tips for the Melbourne Cup. Even serious commentators now pick a horse and allow themselves to remain oblivious to both the result and the broad social consequences of the race. We read political analysis as we might read the sporting pages, because the people producing it really don’t give us any other choice.

Recently, I had dinner with a betting man keen to share his views on political reporting. His contention was that punters and sports fans had never really taken football or racing columnists seriously and were always aware of a particular analyst’s personal bias. “You know that this person is a rusted-on Collingwood fan; that this broadcaster will never say a positive thing about a Gai Waterhouse-trained horse.” In short, he says, people aren’t that stupid, they can recognise vested interests, even if the reporter who has them genuinely believes themselves to be objective. Punters have long read the sporting pages largely for the thrill of disagreement, and to laugh at the selected odds and statistics which are so clearly offered less as “facts” but faith. He concluded — and by this point, I was finding a counter-argument difficult to produce — that the closer political reporting came to resemble sport, the more the usefulness of it receded.

His comparison has challenged me every day now for two weeks. The techniques of sport reporting and analysis are — gambling industry notwithstanding — appropriate to their object. So long as no one loses more than their shirt, it’s a laugh and a way to pass one’s leisure. Consumers and commentators have an implicit pact that disagreement, however furious, is all part of the fun.

Political commentators can make no such pact with the rest of us. They behave like sports reporters nonetheless. It’s so often a case of barracking influentially for one’s own team or horse, so rarely a case of considering the match outcome.

We have seen this sporting spirit emerge very clearly in Australia in leadership challenges. “Wonks” and their fans get a sniff of spill and suggest for days on both social and traditional media forms that “It’s on!”, until such time as it is, actually, on.

Abbott v Turnbull has played out in media as a match for so long, an actually meaningful thing — the “soul” of the Liberal Party — becomes only as meaningful as who wins the flag or the race. And now we see evidence of an emerging fight between Shorten and Albanese, the latter combatant, it seems, certainly doing his best to find media barrackers. Currently, this stoush, which resumed last May when Albanese publicly criticised a pretty awful ad in which his leader had appeared, is a pale shadow of the Malcolm and Tony cage-fight. But as of yesterday, it’s hotting up, this time, over the issue of statues.

If you missed the dispute, here’s a replay: Shorten had stated that the Hyde Park statue of Captain Cook, now hotly discussed in the wake of a mild Stan Grant commentary, might be improved with an additional plaque. Albanese, claiming on Adelaide radio that he was not fully aware of these comments, said that statues should not matter as much as the issues they represent — a cultural position slightly at odds with his criticism in May of the importance of another artefact, being Shorten’s ad.

Of course, we cannot ignore potential leadership challenges if we have genuine interest in politics. But the way politicians and media collude to provide us with a sporting blow-by-blow diminishes politics — actually achieving what Albanese has warned against, despite his possible complicity in the act. Politicians themselves become moving statues who matter much more that the issues they represent.

It’s quite possible, of course, that Albanese would make a better opposition leader. He may be prepared to go further than Shorten in the crucial matter of finance sector regulation. He may even be good to his newer word — oddly, very well received in Murdoch press — that radical and true reform to policies that have long disadvantaged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is urgently needed — however much I personally doubt it. Maybe Albanese has been born-again. Maybe he has had his Come to Jeremy moment and seeks fundamental changes to the way we structure our economy — although, again, this is hard for me to buy after his months of support for the micro-solution of micro-brewed beer.  

The point is, however, we cannot know if he is genuine. For as long as our local media prefers to recount the thrills of a spill and match injuries to investigating policy outcomes for us — people not considered as players in the game, but mere onlookers — we’ll never know. All we’ll see are club colours.


Aug 25, 2017


You could, if you liked, call journalist Glenn Greenwald a “muckraker”. When I sat down with him in Sydney last Sunday, I didn’t — largely because I was too full of questions about the future of journalism and the present of Trump. But I feel sure that the co-founder of The Intercept — in my view, one of the West’s most vital news publications — wouldn’t have minded at all. It’s an old-fashioned term and he is a powerfully old-fashioned journalist.  

Crikey’s Guy Rundle wrote a shrewd piece last June about the dominant new-fashioned journalism; the sort of enterprise where stories are not offered to explain the current movement of the world, as once they were and still stubbornly are by Greenwald. What we have now are single-serve sensations and “nuanced” takes that so rarely place events within historical context. You read these things by people who no longer seem able to unite, say, politics and the economy. Or society and social services.

Greenwald is, it seems, clinically unable to divide the world. Over an hour, his old-fashioned conviction that complexes of power work together to produce broad social and political results appears consistently:

“A fascinating, and under-reported, part of the French election was that Melenchon almost made the run-off, and equally fascinating is that the centre-left Socialist party all but disappeared. And you see the same disappearance with the Blairites in the UK and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party in the US has lost its popular support.”

[Razer on Greenwald: journalism should be incisive, not amiable]

He continues in this panoramic mode, “If you don’t provide a genuine alternative to the right, the people have no reason to vote for you. Your own Labor Party, I think, is an example of this refusal to provide. So-called centre-left parties can no longer be just a lighter version of the right and expect electoral success. If your policies are geared chiefly to the benefit of capitalism, globalism and neoliberalism, then what will the base, experiencing economic hardship, do but abandon you?”

“And, we can’t see the rise of populist right and materially left politicians in Europe, to some extent in the US, as unconnected phenomena. They’re arising from the same economic conditions.”

When Greenwald offers historical and economic context — and it was quite a lot of fun to watch him do this on the context-averse 7.30 Report this week — it is not a matter of prescription. It’s one of pure description. He is one of a very few journalists committed to the attempt to explain — especially in this age full of centrist commentators saying there’s just no sense in saying “left and right” anymore — why the concepts of left and right are fast becoming more evident to a mass of voters. He’s a reporter.

But, while other reporters offer discrete accounts of single events, they no longer write the chapters of a grander narrative. It’s so often a case of “This One Story Will Change Your Life” and it’s so rarely a case of acknowledging the changes to twenty-first century life itself.

We can see this, for example, in the work of Chris Uhlmann, who explains Trump as nothing but a historical aberration unconnected to the past and then calls — as though this were not a reckless act — for the President to take a tougher stance on North Korea during the G20 summit. This is the new-fashioned-journalism: respond only to the last event, ignore even the most fatal foreign policy implications for the sake of short-term audience satisfaction.

The term “muckraker”, with us now for more than a century, has undergone two shifts since a US President first uttered it in 1906. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t really intend this description of journalism to be uncritical, but used it largely to discredit adversarial men like Upton Sinclair, whom he suspected of socialism and once called a “crackpot”. Still, Roosevelt, the first Commander-in-Chief to really tussle with the press, found occasional use for the muckraker, and used their published accounts of industrial corruption, even crackpot Sinclair’s, to justify reform.

Over the years, the word lost all the ambivalence intended by its inventor. By the time Woodward and Bernstein had brought down another president, the muckraker had become an American hero; a fearless and unscrupulous guardian of the people whose investigations kept liberal democracy in check. Watergate was a watershed moment which buoyed the confidence of the people that government corruption could be sought and efficiently destroyed.

Now, the word has changed again — and before you post-modern linguists come over all “don’t you understand that language is fluid, Helen?” Yes, I ruddy do. But, I also understand that our traditions of exposure are “fluid”, and not always for the better. That “muckraking” has now come to mean, not only in popular discussion but by dictionary definition, cheap entertainment is instructive.

Greenwald is rarely called cheap, but he is deemed by those who prefer the new-fashioned journalism naïve, a hypocrite or a liar. He is also often deemed a Russian “sympathiser”, and, the most interesting charge, a “conspiracy theorist”. Which is a pretty funny thing to call a guy who likely still holds the largest trove of NSA documents in his possession. What the NSA does is not a conspiracy theory but now, thanks to Greenwald and Snowden, conspiracy fact.

[Greenwald: Trump black hole distorts the politics that surround him]

More than this, though, there is a gulf of difference between the serious journalistic attempt to explain, over a series of interconnected articles, the current Western political landscape and David Icke.

I listen as Greenwald, who tends to speak in paragraphs, gives a brief account of the 2016 US election.

“The Democratic response to the slogan Make America Great Again was to insist that American was already great. This was a great misstep. It reinforced the idea, the legitimate idea, that many people had that the Washington elite was indifferent to their suffering. But there is a realisation that ongoing policies on free trade and globalism, which resulted in labour being moved overseas, were very deliberately cultivated. Yet the people being harmed were being clearly told that they were expendable, irrelevant.”

That the NSA is watching us is now a widely known fact. Voters in the US 2016 election also knew as fact that a series of deals has resulted in their unemployment, underemployment or wage decline. Yet, the new-fashioned journalism overlooks such factors and so rarely offers explanation of Clinton’s defeat other than, “Well, people are stupid and believe conspiracy theories”.

Honestly, I could not guess at Greenwald’s personal politics. I can recognise the theoretical and professional framework on which he bases his journalism, but his personal views are a mystery. If I were forced to guess, I’d say that he retains, albeit critically, a strong American liberal impulse. He wants the US to act as the nation-state it proclaims to be.

Later that afternoon, I watch Greenwald speak. He is asked about meeting Snowden for the first time, and he recalls being curious about why this successful man, not yet 30, is prepared to risk his life to reveal conspiracy as fact. Snowden mentions the moment in which he saw James Clapper, former US director of national intelligence, testify before a Senate Select Committee. Clapper is asked  “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?” He first responds, “No, sir”. When asked again, he says: “Not wittingly.”

It was Snowden the patriot who found this answer unconscionable. Perhaps, it was Greenwald the patriot who found Snowden, not just his revelations, such a valuable source for understanding. It is entirely possible that this old-fashioned muckraker may have no wish at all to tear the system down. I suspect him of wishing to repair it by interrogating it so fearlessly as part of an ongoing, old-fashioned process.


Aug 21, 2017


“You have to be adversarial,” Glenn Greenwald tells me yesterday in a George St basement food hall. “You don’t get into this business to be liked.”

For what little the detail may be worth, Greenwald, the journalist who earned a Pulitzer for the pivotal part he played in the Snowden revelations — the latest of which fuelled a joint investigation into Pine Gap by the ABC and The Intercept, published and broadcast this past weekend — is himself tremendously likeable. He is, unlike the Democratic National Committee, respectful to basement baristas, he is very fond of a joke and will even agree to pose for selfies with mildly starstruck Crikey reporters.

But, forget all this. Greenwald is chary of being uncritically liked, even by the vast, sometimes devout, readership he’s accumulated through his work at Salon, The Guardian and, now, The Intercept. “Any profession that does not question its pieties, that doesn’t interrogate itself cannot advance.” Any journalist, he says, that does not return, post by post, to the assumptions that underscore their work will not offer true analysis of a world that, it is largely agreed, in a state of transformation. Just more reasons to be liked by those who already find you adorable.

“I was liked by many readers when I was critical of the Bush administration,” he says. But when Greenwald began to apply the same tools of critique to the Obama administration, his efforts resulted in tangled ripostes like this one.

Just days before I meet Greenwald in Australia this past weekend to address a sell-out crowd at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, he posted an Intercept piece that exemplified what we might call his methodical antagonism.  Following the tragedy in Charlottesville, he wrote from a standpoint that even his left-liberal devotees were bound to find despicable. Currently, the American Civil Liberties Union is under widespread liberal media attack for its decision to offer the cultural horror Milo Yiannopoulos legal support when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority refused to allow ads for his book on public transport. Greenwald’s argument is plain in the piece, but he draws his thinking out again for me.

If we defend, which the ACLU has and does, the right to free expression for the US Muslim community and we argue, very rationally, that the violent actions of ostensibly Muslim terrorists have no direct connection to the texts of Islam, then this logic must hold true for the writing of the so-called alt-right. A figure like Yiannopoulos is said by some to bear partial responsibility for the deaths in Charlottesville; for legitimising the brute ugliness felt in the lives of those in Virginia and broadcast across the world.

“The left will say that Muslim terrorists are a tiny faction. That free religious speech should not be curtailed because of the very minimal risk this poses.” We will not, however, think of the so-called alt-right as a tiny faction. The liberal-left exaggerates the importance of a minority — even in the face of growing and widespread Western support for material left politics — and demands that the state be the arbiter of liberty.

Greenwald is, both in this piece and elsewhere, eager to look at the ethical laboratory of the liberal-left that seek support from the state to codify hate-speech. How, he wants to know, does applying law or sanction to speech that many of us would agree is vile actually function? First, as we can see in the Yiannopoulos example, attempts to “no-platform” his speech have simply amplified it. A fool like Milo who trades in poor logic and copious hate may never have been so popular were it not for his moments of media-enabled martyrdom. Second, to relinquish to the state the power to control speech is no guarantee that speech you dislike will be controlled. Born, as he was, in a nation that actively suppressed the speech of communists, civil rights and Black Power activists, Greenwald makes a good, but a difficult, case.

“It wasn’t an easy thing to write. I could have been silent about it and I felt a temptation to do so. But it’s not,”  he tells me, “a popularity contest.”

Journalism of the sort that Greenwald offers is not about popularity, but nor is it sheer contrarianism. It is an effort to develop intellectually, along with one’s audience, and “identify centres of power”. Most especially those less immediately visible, such as the state itself, which left-liberals continue to look to as the means, and not the target, of resistance.

“I try and self-consciously poke at the ideas that are most dearly held. It’s my role.”

To give graceless voice to the bleeding obvious: the state of journalism is one of decay. And, no, it’s not just that so-called listicles — you know, those widespread curiosities made by quasi-advertising companies for a “youth” that truly exists nowhere outside of market research — have come to dominate as a form of news. It’s not that large media companies behave precisely like the finance industry and reward CEOs while reducing services to the millions they claim to publicly serve. With global giants like Facebook and Google providing no original content yet devising algorithms that are precisely tailored to individual users, most of us will never see a challenge to our world view, only a powerful restatement of it.  

None of these things help, at all, to advance an era of news some of us naively suspected long ago would be boosted and not shackled by the technological freedoms of the internet. These market conditions described do give us “left-wing” newspapers that prefer personality profiles to grand narratives. These market conditions give us right-wing newspapers and their partner think-tanks that would prefer to talk about minor matters of civil law than to rigorously defend their grand economic agenda. These market conditions give us personalities like Tracy Spicer, a broadcaster hardly notable for her unorthodox or even mildly surprising contributions to TV journalism throughout her career, who become known as “brave” purely on the basis of her twilight realisation that women are expected to wear a lot of makeup.  

Yes, market conditions and market decisions largely determine the shape of any commodity, including journalism. But, we must also lay some blame with labourers in this industry who largely and outright refuse to resist. Greenwald, a likeable man who refuses to be liked, has the disposition and the carefully built means to resist these fatal conventions. He is one of a very few.

Tomorrow: Razer with Greenwald on Donald Trump.