Australian culture is traditionally hostile to its intellectuals. But some of them are responding with a disturbing quietude in order to keep their opinion spots and sinecures.
Has the Australian media ever been a more challenging place for the country's intelligentsia? We have a television program, Q&A, whose stated aim is to ‘bring Australia's egalitarian and larrikin spirit into the studio’ and yet, as I complained in a previous post, it’s been hijacked by 'right-wing think-tanks, Murdoch trolls, front bench politicians ..., former politicians suffering relevance deprivation, professional stirrers, and ... ill-informed celebrities'.
Our government falsely accused Julian Assange of acting illegally, has ignored his pleas for help, probably lied about its knowledge of the US's intentions towards him, and recently passed draconian legislation making it easier for the US to extradite Australian citizens, and harder for organisations such as Wikileaks to operate within the law.
ABC news and currrent affairs is gradually turning into a personal fiefdom of the Institute of Public Affairs, a sinister organisation funded by large multinational corporations that peddles loony right policies whose main aim is to make the Australian economy serve the interests of those corporations at the expense of everyone else.
When they do attack the status quo effectively, our intellectuals experience the full wrath of the corporate machine and its foot soldiers. The hapless head of the Australia Institute, Clive Hamilton, is widely reviled by the right for little more than a refusal to be optimistic (in his opinions on climate change, for instance) and a lack of commonsense (his ridiculous support of internet censorship while a Greens candidate in the 2010 Higgins byelection). He's not evil in the manner of Andrew Bolt, say, yet he's the recipient of a sometimes murderous level of hatred from the right-wingers.
In September 2011 Robert Manne published, as part of the Quarterly Essay series, Bad News: Murdoch's Australian and the Shaping of the Nation, a damning critique of the Australian newspaper. When the ABC published on its Drum website an article by Manne about the tactics that The Australian was employing as payback for the essay, the paper's then-editor, Chris Mitchell, threatened to sue the ABC for publishing the article (thus helping to prove Manne's point that the paper behaved like a hypocritical bully in its treatment of critics).
In the midst of this, it seems that Australia's intelligentsia are in a curious position. They're both subtly sidelined yet, courtesy of programs and websites such as The Drum, still part of the national debate. In an age when ABC news and current affairs has largely become the PR arm of big and small business, their muted, reasoned voices must compete with the strident fake-opinion machine of corporate Australia and, increasingly, the vacuous yet overly confident ravings of admen like Todd Sampson (who is fine within his sphere, but too often called upon to comment upon complex issues he knows little about).
Yet are our current crop of intellectuals actually conspiring to make themselves irrelevant? Are they too complacent about the state of Australian democracy, too focused on selling their books and maintaining their media profiles? (Note: I use the terms intellectual and intelligentsia interchangeably, broadly and somewhat arbitrarily to include articulate writers of literary fiction and non-fiction, academics (including scientists) with a media presence, journalists who attempt to find and speak the truth rather than being functionaries, and satirists. I also assume that intellectuals are progressives with very few exceptions, for reasons I'll outline in a future post.)
A beleagured bunch
Some of our brightest intellectuals live overseas, and who can blame them? Anna Funder's acuity, historical reach and narrative skill were partially foretold in her non-fiction debut Stasiland, but became fully apparent only in her brilliant first novel about the plight of anti-Nazi activists before the Second World War, All That I Am. The book is being published in 16 countries, and in February she left Australia to live in New York, albeit at least partly because of her husband’s work.
Guy Rundle, who is left-wing in the classic sense, has gained some mainstream legitimacy because of his mordant tone and wide knowledge of political theory, world history and current events, being a regular contributor to Crikey. Yet he evidently likes us so much he’d rather be based in the depression-plagued UK. John Pilger found his career niche in London reporting on world events while being periodically attacked in his home country.
Germaine Greer is perhaps the only true mainstream intellectual who does have a consistently prominent place in the media sphere, and her semi-expatriate status boosts her stature. It's good for Australia that she apparently spends four months of the year here now, but while this enables her to critique us close-up, it gives her a prominence that obscures other voices.
But many of the intellectuals who stay in Australia don't get a decent run in the mainstream media, especially if they're female. Remember Emily Maguire? She was that precocious young woman who wrote two novels and a work of feminist non-fiction, something of an antipodean Naomi Wolf. Her novels have been translated into ten languages, and she would probably be celebrated if she lived in the US, but we don’t see or hear much of her these days. Chloe Hooper is another angry young woman who in a more progressive media landscape would have a more prominent voice. And in a logical universe feminist commentator Anne Summers would be appearing regularly on Q&A instead of the journalistically, intellectually and empathy challenged Janet Albrechtsen, whose all-too-regular appearances on the show are a sad travesty.
And when do we hear of the likes of female intellectual elders like historian and anthropologist Inga Clendinnen or brilliant journalist Elizabeth Wynhausen? Why aren’t they revered and their opinions sought more often? Is it because they’re post-menopausal and therefore deemed irrelevant?
Of course, such writers don’t disappear altogether. They are safely siloed in the pages of The Monthly (not altogether safely, in that it jettisoned journalistic standards altogether, including an embarrassingly personal attack on Germaine Greer, during Ben Naperstek's reign as editor).
Fighting for a place
Other intellectuals do manage to maintain niches and media profiles. They have occasional gigs on ABC TV and radio, where in situations both farcical and absurd they face off against the bizarre opinions of the IPA, an organisation that seems to be sponsoring the ABC these days, so frequently do its handful of spokespeople appear on ABC programs. Antony Loewenstein is an Australian of Jewish ancestry who is highly critical of Israel and thus sidelined by the Jewish community. As his bio shows, he’s hardly locked up in some gulag, but is very much a part of this country’s intellectual life. Yet given his knowledge and prowess, his profile is lower than it should be.
Through doggedness, sheer force of personality, intellectual cheek and an ability to write short pithy articles for The Drum, Jeff Sparrow has carved out a place for himself in the mainstream despite being a strong shade of pink.
And once older feminist Eva Cox had appeared on Q&A a couple of times she became something of a star, everyone’s idea of the perfect eccentric aunty. Then there's Lesley Cannold, who continues to maintain a high profile because she's consistently, well-researched, articulate and interesting.
But these people are hardly household names, and are regularly denigrated.
Part of the system
It’s not simply that our intellectuals get sidelined by corporate stooges. Sometimes they themselves are the problem.
Satirist Julian Morrow and politics lecturer Waleed Aly have both been lured into the Orwellian intellectual sinkhole of the ABC, having co-hosted Radio National’s Drive program since the beginning of this year. Aly has previously done plenty of guest hosting on local radio 774 where his politics, given his general perspicacity, have always been unforgivably middle of the road. Morrow is a different matter. He's gone from satirising Australian culture as a member of the Chaser team to making amusing remarks about the week's parliamentary shenanigans and public perceptions of politicians and their policies (as opposed to the policies themselves) in the best tradition of Michelle Grattan and the odious Annabel Crabb. Like them, he now encourages his listeners to view the political process as an unending football match with winners and losers. On 9 March, for example, he discussed Joe Hockey’s media image. His satirical skills are now being used to encourage complacency and disengagement.
In other cases, our intellectuals are guilty of a form of thinking so lazy and deluded that it beggars belief. The main symptom is a repeated call for the ALP to adopt policies that its frontbenchers wouldn’t advocate in a pink fit. These commentators live in a fantasy world in which the ALP is still the progressive party, some no doubt because of a personal history of party membership combined with memories of the Whitlam period. At the same time they wilfully ignore the fact that most of the policies they call for are already held by the Greens. Some of them go so far as pretending that the Greens don’t actually exist.
Thus, when asked to provide an opinion on the latest ALP travesty, they will urge the government to adopt a sensible course – this time. They are blissfully unaware that the sole aim of ALP frontbenchers these days is to stay in power, and that these people will do anything policy-wise to do so. And that this is a structural issue – the whole set-up makes sure that Machiavellians and right-wing ideologues are the only ones who will get a guernsey, because those are the types who cooperate best with the real power wielders in this country – big business.
But even the more pink-tinged of our intellectuals aren't concerned, angry or loud enough about what’s in front of their eyes: a democracy in the process of being destroyed by the Murdoch press, the values vacuum of the main parties, corporate aggression, and slavish obedience to every wish of the US. Just as the mainstream media is failing to tell us the truth, our intelligentsia, whatever their stripes, are failing to sound the alarm. And they are failing to draw the attention of the electorate to the fact that the Greens represent a viable alternative.
The bizarre apotheosis of this tendency could be seen on the Q&A program broadcast in August 2011, in which Anna Funder made her extraordinary call for a new progressive party ‘that’s not controlled by the unions, or for the Labor Party to come to its senses’.
Earth to Anna: the Labor Party is never going to come to its senses, and we’ve already got a genuinely progressive party in Australia. They’re called the Greens. What makes this lapse even more egregious is that in the Germany with which Funder is so familiar, the Greens are a far more established force than they are here, a Green governor having been elected in the country’s third largest state in 2011.
The program on which Funder appeared, held live as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival, was one of the few Q&As with a full complement of genuine intellectuals as guests. Instead of the usual suspects, we had actual thinkers – or so I hoped. As well as Anna Funder, the panel consisted of Don Watson, Kate Grenville, Malalai Joya and Omar Musa – a stellar line-up by any reckoning. Yet it ended up being one of the most disturbing I’ve ever watched.
Despite the fact that 15 per cent of the audience were Greens voters, most of the discussion proceeded as if the Australian Greens didn’t actually exist.
Grenville’s contribution was almost as woeful as Funder’s. She began by asserting that there were indeed ‘substantial differences’ between the policies of the ALP and Coalition respectively (‘someone’s got to stick up for the Labor Party’, she opined. I'd ask: why?). Then she used as an example of the ALP’s progressive bent the policy that it was forced to adopt because of its dependence on Greens support: the carbon tax (admittedly she acknowledged the Greens’ role in bringing this policy to fruition). And Don Watson, who has his own intellectual heritage to protect as Keating’s former speechwriter? He was a model of complacency, decrying the management speak of the politicians but failing to present voters with an alternative.
Grenville, Funder and Watson all defended Craig Thomson’s right to stay in parliament and Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan. They seemed to be operating from a fear that criticising anyone slightly to the left of George Bush or Tony Abbott might mean a return to conservative rule – a pathetically compromised stance that potentially enables the ALP to get away with just about anything simply because they're not the Coalition.
The slavish adherence to the idea of the ALP as a progressive party extends to the nation’s political journalists. Thus, on The Drum recently, Mungo MacCallum desperately pleaded with the ALP to 'Forget about the polls, the focus groups and the media: just determine to act as much like a real Labor government as the Greens and independents will allow you to’. David Marr is another example of an intellectual who clings desperately to the idea of a progressive ALP.
So what should our intellectuals be doing? How could they start contributing something worthwhile to the national debate?
A sense of crisis
Australia's brainiest need to start warning us about the factors now at play in the political system that make it systemically impossible for progressive, evidence-based policies to be enacted. They must not only face the following facts but be prepared to consistently and boldly speak out about them:
- Corporate Australia and Coalition state governments are on a concerted drive to bring down the rights and wages of Australian workers. It will be all systems if the Coalition gets into power in 2013, with retail, banking and hospitality workers penalty rates and rights under threat.
- Corporate America has been emboldened by the GFC and continues to use its increased power in state legislatures to impose draconian labor conditions on working and middle classes alike under the sinister right to work legislation and lack of union power generally. We must look to this country as a warning of what happens to the rights of citizens when naked corporate power is unleashed. The Satanic mills have returned to the US and there is no reason to assume Australia will be unaffected by this trend.
- Corporations in the US have corrupted and damaged the food chain to a far greater extent than they have here, to the extent that the organic food industry is under serious threat from genetically engineered crops. We are not at that stage yet, but the situation is worsening in Australia and must be acted on now.
- There is a push to reduce privacy and democracy in the US and UK as well as Australia. That this is happening in a concerted fashion in these three countries, and is being enacted by supposedly non-conservative governments in the US and Australia should disturb anyone who is concerned about democratic and human rights.
- Australia has one of the highest media concentrations in the world, and this has had massive detrimental effects on the ability of those with an average education to form accurate views about what's going on. For this reason Australians will almost certainly vote in an incompetent, economically illiterate religious fundamentalist at the next election, despite the fact that our economy is in good shape compared with much of the rest of the world. This means that many people will be voting against their wage and welfare interests at the next election, an extremely curious situation that begs to be explained.
- The mainstream media is obfuscating the truth about the crisis outlined in the previous points. Instead, there’s a consensus among the Murdoch press and the increasingly conservative Fairfax and ABC that the status quo is actually a good thing, and democracy is in good shape, when neither is the case.
- The Greens are universally reviled and sidelined in the mainstream media, yet their policies are frequently touted as the solution - a convenient way for the media and individuals to claim they are progressive while ensuring that the status quo is maintained.
... in our shrinking broadsheet market, it would be good if the healthiest specimen, and the only truly national one, recognised that we need more mutual respect in public debate if we are ever going to sort through the complex problems and opportunities that confront us.It would also be good if Santa Claus, the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy existed. And elsewhere:
We should not be overly paranoid about the influence of The Australian and News Corporation. A concerted campaign from them can wreck anything they dislike, but the evidence for their capacity to achieve a positive agenda is much more slender.
I beg to differ. Is it really possible to be too paranoid about a paper that declared its intention to 'destroy' Australia's third party 'at the ballot box'? Isn't 70 per cent print concentration enough to at least place Australian democracy in jeopardy? This level of complacency is simply inexcusable, and a recipe for doing nothing and an endorsement of the status quo.It’s not that I think our intelligentsia should drop whatever projects they’re focused on and become spokespeople for the Greens. I’m talking about a change of emphasis here, an acceptance that there is a crisis and that when a crisis is taking place, business as usual is not appropriate. I’m calling for speaking out as a way of life, not something you do once in a blue moon or when you’re asked for a quote on the subject. I'm asking for our intelligentsia to continually remind people at every chance possible that things are not okay here, that it’s not just the rest of the world that’s in trouble – it’s us.
Of course, if our intellectuals do speak out they risk not being taken seriously by the ABC functionaries who interview them on its opinion shows, their book sales may suffer and they’ll open themselves to widespread criticism. But the alternative – an even worse version of the Murdocracy we’re already suffering under – is unthinkable. In the Coalition's version of Murdocracy, no one with half a brain will be safe in terms of job, voice or reputation.