The politics of pop culture

This piece appeared in the Guardian on 16 January 2014 (links in original):

During a recent panel discussion a reporter asked Lena Dunham of Girls to explain the show’s nudity (something he apparently found baffling). This event has quickly crystallised into something of a notable feminist incident, which in turn illuminates something so pervasive in our society as to be almost unnoticeable: the elevation of pop and celebrity culture to a site for political debate.

Sites such as Jezebel have paved the way for a successful, though arguably problematic, blend of frivolity and progressive commentary: the bitter political pill is coated in sugary celebrity gossip. It has been suggested (somewhat patronisingly) that this is the best way to introduce young people to progressivism: consciousness-raising made clickworthy, fun and profitable.

Indeed, a newly arrived extraterrestrial visitor could be forgiven for concluding that the key preoccupations of left wing political movements were debating the feminist credentials and outfits of pop stars, dissecting song lyrics; condemning (forgive the turgid phrase) the post-baby-body-shaming of the Duchess of Cambridge; and calling out racism and homophobia within the celebrity arena. While none of these are necessarily unimportant in and of themselves, the general impression given is that progressive politics centres on one’s intellectual and emotional responses to movies, music and the doings of famous people, rather than on proposals for transformative change.

In some ways, this approach is an obvious development. We live in a market capitalist society saturated with things to be bought and sold, and the celebrity world becomes part of our shared background noise. Pop culture is by no means so trivial as to be unworthy of analysis: critically examining what we consume each day is preferable to absorbing it unthinkingly or pretending it doesn’t exist. Such endeavours are nothing new either – to give one example, in 1940 George Orwell wrote an essay exploring schoolboys’ comic books, concluding:

“In England, popular imaginative literature is a field that left-wing thought has never begun to enter…boys’ fiction above all, the blood-and-thunder stuff which nearly every boy devours at some time or other, is sodden in the worst illusions of 1910. The fact is only unimportant if one believes that what is read in childhood leaves no impression behind”.

Nevertheless, at several points last year it seemed that the world would end not only ravaged by climate change but deluged beneath a flood of Miley Cyrus thinkpieces. This is not to suggest all such articles were without merit – some (particularly those which focused on the troubling racial implications of Cyrus’ performances) were excellent. The thought reoccurs, though: regardless of how well they are written, do we really need so many in-depth analyses of the political implications of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, the lyrics of Taylor Swift, or occasional ridiculous Hollywood happenings?

Late last year, Benjamin Pearson wrote a provocative piece damning “offense criticism”, in which he posited that he, and many others, had spent 2013 not “worrying about the state of the real world” but “obsessed with online debates about the media’s representations of it”. What are the consequences of making the doings of celebrities a major terrain for our ideological arguments? Does the sugar coating fundamentally change the nature of the pill?

Something vital is arguably lost in the focus on a parallel celebrity world that exists at some distance from our own. In her sharp, perceptive book No Logo (first published in 1999), Naomi Klein argued that “the slogan ‘the personal is political’ [had come] to replace the economic as political and, in the end, the political as political as well”. I’ve also previously criticised this slogan on the basis that the left should leave the cult of the individual to libertarians and focus on the collective as well as the self. However, at least a concern with the personal is rooted in the reality of everyday life, concerning experiences largely absent from our popular culture: work, scarcity, stress, illness, poverty.

In other words, politics-as-the-personal at least stands a chance of reflecting the texture of ordinary people’s lives; politics-as-entertainment is for instance unlikely (other than via criticism of Honey Boo-Boo et al) to consider issues of class and material inequality, which intersect with race and gender and which have long been the central focus of left wing political movements. Viewing politics through the prism of celebrity is inevitably distorting.

It is easy to forget that politics is about power, not just performance; it’s about who exercises power, over whom and to what ends. The pop culture analyses will continue to flow; at their best they make us to re-evaluate our assumptions or introduce us to new ideas.

Let’s not forget, though, that the realm of the political extends far beyond both the personal and the popular.

Tampons, clicktivism and despair

This piece appeared in Overland on 15 January 2014 (links in original):

It is a common lament that the internet is devouring our civic institutions whole, that the apathetic inhabitants of wealthy nations have largely deserted the real world, instead immersing ourselves in isolated online domains to pass our time fruitlessly liking, clicking and sharing. These grim verdicts have spawned their own subgenre of despairing op-eds: we (particularly the young) are apparently a people addicted to Facebook, stewing in our own narcissism and moral vanity, and capable of no more than a self-referential clicktivism.

As usual, this conclusion contains some grains of truth amidst the hyperbole. Clicktivism is indeed problematic. Some research indicates that awareness-raising campaigns can be directly counter-productive, and it has been persuasively argued that the online model of activism ‘uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing’ and that the consequential exchange of the ‘substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests’ damages political movements. Clicktivism, then, can be read as the result of people acting as consumers, rather than citizens.

Nonetheless, many of the articles decrying what is seen as self-indulgent quasi-activism lack an exploration of the broader context from which such gestures emerge. Consider Helen Razer’s article in last week’s Crikey, in which she critiqued a call from Destroy the Joint to send unused tampons to Immigration Minister Scott Morrison to protest the treatment of asylum seekers following the allegation that women and girls in detention must queue for what are euphemistically known as ‘feminine hygiene products’.

It is certainly worth observing that the protest does not centre on the dreadful fact of indefinite detention itself but simply about access to necessities within detention centres. One might also wonder why Amnesty International’s revelation that asylum seekers on Manus Island have severely limited amounts of drinking water did not spark a campaign to inundate the Department of Immigration and Border Protection with empty water bottles.

For her part, Razer argued that the tampon protest was ‘so extraordinarily intimate that it cannot signal beyond the range of its own embrace … its effectiveness is doomed to the personal, emotional feminine sphere whose language it uses’. She concluded, therefore, that its major achievement would be making those involved ‘feel good’.

There is much to unpack here about the division of private and public spheres and the effectiveness or otherwise of ‘emotional’ activism (how many protests are purely legal, economic or otherwise technocratic?), but these are not my focus.

Instead, let’s explore the backdrop to this scene of women mailing tampons to a minister and think about what ‘feeling good’ might mean.

Our society is becoming increasingly atomised; work-life balance is for many no more than a slogan; and depression and anxiety are prevalent. The domestic political sphere, usually distant from our everyday lives, is short on inspiration and ripe with banality. For the Left, each day brings fresh cause for dismay – the towing of asylum seeker boats back to Indonesian waters as well as Tony Abbott’s comparison of ‘border protection’ to a war and his suggestion that concerned inquiries about these matters spring merely from ‘idle curiosity’; the spectacle of a self-proclaimed ‘indigenous affairs Prime Minister’ cutting funds from the Aboriginal Legal Service; and the predictable re-launch of a mean-spirited attack on attempts to teach history as more than a banal recitation of national triumphs.

Attempts to build the good society meet with many obstacles, including rigid party systems, a parliament generally dominated by the executive, the influence of powerful lobbyists, a highly concentrated media landscape, and a seeming consensus between the two major parties on many issues of importance. In addition to systemic and structural problems, influencing our political masters is also difficult – as I’ve noted elsewhere, you can’t shame the shameless.

Well might we feel powerless faced with this impasse. There are excellent avenues to donate time and money to help mitigate the problems facing asylum seekers but shifting policy is a much more difficult proposition, particularly given that the major parties appear determined to outdo each other in unnecessary cruelty under the banner of ‘border protection’. There is a powerful feeling that something must be done, and few answers suggest themselves.

There might, in short, be a great deal more going on in the tampon protest and other such actions than a simple desire to feel good: what is taken for narcissism or exhibitionism may in truth reflect despair. Further, viewing the tampon missives against this broader context, we might observe that this is a protest rather different in character from the archetypes of ‘hashtag activism’. This is not a twibbon or a Fuck Abbott t-shirt. Instead, whatever one may think of the wisdom of the endeavour, it is an attempt to communicate directly with someone who wields actual power. The action is individual, yet is taken in concert with others: a kind of fragile collectiveness.

There is arguably among many Australians a strong wish to help improve our country and in so doing to be part of something bigger than the self. The question is how this desire can be harnessed, how we can work together to craft a politics rooted in solidarity and care. I certainly don’t pretend to any solutions, but I’d be interested in yours.

On politics and shamelessness

This piece appeared in New Matilda on 11 December 2013 (links in original):

Yesterday the Assistant Minister for Education, Sussan Ley, called upon childcare operators to “do the right thing”.

“Do the right thing” is a subjective term, but what Ley meant in this instance was that childcare providers — who had already signed funding agreements under the previous government’s early years quality fund — should refrain from increasing their low-paid staff members’ wages. Instead they should divert the funds to professional development instead, as per the new government’s policy.

Novelist Joyce Cary coined the term “tumbrel remark” to characterise revealing statements by the upper classes which were liable to provoke revolutionary sentiments. The late Christopher Hitchens pronounced himself “something of an expert” on such statements, providing examples including:

“The late queen mother, being driven in a Rolls-Royce through a stricken district of Manchester, England, said as she winced at the view, ‘I see no point at all in being poor’ … The Duke of Devonshire, having been criticized in the London Times, announced in an annoyed and plaintive tone that he would no longer have the newspaper ‘in any of my houses.'”

Political doublespeak is nothing new, and is rarely as entertaining as the clueless utterances of early 20th century English toffs. It does seems though that our journalists need a similarly evocative descriptor for remarks that reveal the Abbott government’s low regard for the electorate in general and lower earners in particular.

Consider Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos’ remarks last month regarding the government’s decision to get rid of both Labor’s low-income super contribution (which provides up to $500 a year to help those earning $37,000 or less) and a proposed tax on earnings of superannuation pensions above $100,000.

Responding to criticisms of these decisions (which are usefully discussed here), Sinodinos stated:

“We’ve always been on the side of those who are aspirational … the superannuation measure … would not have just captured people whose earnings from super in retirement were above $100,000, it would also capture people with much lower amounts who, for whatever reason a particular year had their income from super bumped above the $100,000.”

Sinodinos’ statement demonstrates both that the government’s empathy is concentrated with these workers (not those earning under $37,000), and that the word “aspirational” has become a pox on our political culture, carrying the risible implication that a desire to improve one’s situation in life invariably correlates with higher earnings.

The aspirations of childcare workers, however, apparently ought to be collective rather than individual: Ley stated disapprovingly that Labor’s scheme created distortions between “the haves” and “the have-nots” and pleaded for providers to “think about the greater good of the sector” rather than the financial position of their workers.

Beyond these examples, a certain contempt for the electorate shines through in the government’s brazen inconsistencies, such the Coalition’s about-face from hysterically harping on every boat arrival while in opposition to cloaking them in silence and its cynical flip-floppery on education funding, about which Katharine Murphy wrote that the “Gonski imbroglio underscores one of the most profound problems currently afflicting Australian politics: the too-easy resort to the fudge, the bald-faced chutzpah after the fudge…”

Murphy asked whether Abbott would, “despite all the howling hysterics about the importance of morality and character in politics over the last three years … turn out to be a politician just like every other, who says one thing before an election and another thing after”.

Pointing out instances of governmental hypocrisy is so easy it seems to bring us into the realm of banal high school debates. What is interesting is what the gap between the rules the Coalition sets for its opponents and for itself reveals about our new political masters’ bare-faced bravado: they are apparently impervious to shame (an emotion which, Alan Jones infamously suggested, had brought about the death of Julia Gillard’s father).

“Shame” is a word that resonates in our politics, whether called out in parliament or echoing through protest marches. This concept has also been much in vogue more broadly, and in a recent article in Slate, Mark Peters relegated “shame” and “shaming” to the “Overused Buzzword Club”.

He also proffered some exaggerated examples of how far the tendency to abuse these words might go (such as ignorance-shaming and crime-shaming) and in our political context one might imagine parliamentarians complaining of being incompetence-shamed or mining billionaires bemoaning the emotional scars left by greed-shaming.

Writing on the politics of the “culture wars”, Raimond Gaita draws a distinction between shame and guilt. In his excellent 2004 Quarterly Essay the moral philosopher noted:

“National shame and national pride … are two sides of the same coin, having the same conceptual structure. They are two ways of acknowledging that we are sometimes collectively responsible for the deeds of others … In the debate over the apology and much else that came under the derogatory heading of “symbolic” reconciliation, it is national shame that has come under attack in the name of national pride. The wish to be proud without sometimes acknowledging the need to be ashamed is that corrupt attachment to country — I will not call it love — that we call jingoism.”

One can feel genuine shame at one’s government, or for one’s country; this emotion is often expressed in the context of Australia’s increasingly cruel asylum seeker policy. The accusation such expressions of mortification generally attracted from right-wing columnists during the Howard years was that of moral vanity. That is, the individual is accused of perversely being proud of his or her embarrassment.

The term “moral vanity” is often profoundly unfair, a lazy response to problems we don’t want to deal with and a simple way of rhetorically shooting the messenger. There are nevertheless problems with shame as a political response: one can wallow ineffectually in personal angst about the state of the nation just as one can marinate in political despair. Both these emotions can take an inward turn, leaving an individual helpless under the weight of his or her own rage.

This is not to say we shouldn’t feel bad about the direction our country is heading; the real problem in this context is not with shame but with shaming: it simply doesn’t work if your opponents don’t have a conscience. The story of the Australian political left over the past few decades has in part been one of fruitlessly calling “shame” at opponents who are shameless.

Malcolm Fraser and his colleagues were largely unrepentant at having ridden roughshod over constitutional convention in order to gain power in 1975; John Howard and his ministers expressed no guilt for their mendacity during the “children overboard” affair; and the Abbott administration shows little shame arising from the gulfs between its “principled” attacks on the Rudd and Gillard governments and its own mode of governing.

In the interests of fairness, successive Labor administrations also appear to have experienced negligible remorse for reducing their party to the Least Worst Government Option rather than a choice for which social democrats might be proud to vote.

Calls of outrage will fall on deaf ears, and cries of “shame” will simply meet with puzzlement; our new government will shrug and continue exercising power. Know your enemies, lefties, and remember that they simply don’t care.

Clickbait, outrage and the op-ed industrial complex

This piece appeared in New Matilda on 18 November 2013 (links in original):

In recent weeks, clickbait and linkbait have been on many people’s minds, due largely to a combination of that Mia Freedman Article on sexual assault, that Mark Latham Article on the Bachelor, and Buzzfeed’s Australian launch. Clickbait pieces have eye-catching headlines that lure readers in order to increase pageviews and garner advertising revenue and linkbait is written so as to encourage people to share it on social media. The headlines don’t emerge by accident; their formulation is akin to a science. Neither are they dreamed up just for fun.

Clickbait is commonly mocked and derided. It has come to represent the enemy of quality media, the death of nuance, and surrender to the lowest common denominator. I have considerable sympathy with this reaction, but it often seems adrift from economic reality. Capitalism exists, sites have to make money (certainly they must if they are to have any hope of paying writers) and so readers must be enticed somehow. Steve Hind argued recently in the Guardian:

“We live in a media environment where online eyeballs, in sufficient quantities, are still more valuable than paid subscribers … Clickbaiting is, at its core, about presenting a piece of content in the way that the media outlet thinks will maximise the number of people who see it … The giants of the industry are under serious threat and have to adapt quickly in the face of threats from more nimble rivals. Let’s give them a pass on the clickbait, and keep the focus on the quality of the content.”

Unfortunately, this argument misses that the concerns about clickbait largely relate to the nature of the content and its impact on our public conversation. Not all clickbait is amusing or laudable; as Liam Pieper notes over at The Lifted Brow, online editors have “realised that if they could cause offence to a group of people, those people were going to visit their site”. Pieper continues:

“News sites understand that the internet has allowed political and social movement to be commodified; that if you can get someone outraged about your story then you get free publicity. How many editors, working in a 24-hour news cycle with no resources, can resist the spike in hits that a good shitfight over cheap ideas will provoke? … picture an olde-timey editor in a press hat chomping on a cigar as he reads a writer’s copy and barking ‘This is fucking garbage! Let’s lead with it’.”

The cycle is fairly straightforward – publish something certain to upset, hurt or offend, and wait for people to denounce it. If you’re lucky, several articles will be written to refute the piece, to which the original author can in turn respond, and third parties can write additional screeds bemoaning our society’s “outrage addiction” and calling for more civility in our online discourse, to which pleas there will be further responses: this is the “op-ed industrial complex” at work.

Pieper concludes by arguing that we should disrupt this cycle by refusing to feed the trolls: “Every time you marshal your 140 characters and go to war on something asinine on [Mia] Freedman’s website, you make her richer. When you write a scathing reaction piece dissecting her latest war-crime…your readers idly click through to her site, the money tinkles into her accounts…”

He has a point – we’ve all done it, but funding the publication of ideas with which you vehemently disagree is certainly a strange activity. The sharing of offensive linkbait (“I can’t believe they published this racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist drivel!”) also leaves a bitter aftertaste, a sense that one is simply performing one’s own niceness and political identity: “See how appalled I am by bigotry; like me; agree with me; validate me!”

At the same time, of course, the outraged sharer actively circulates material which they are aware may hurt the very people with whom they express solidarity. As one commenter, “Maxine”, wrote underneath a piece on hipster racism:

“This article made me feel uncomfortable … I have now experienced yet another horrific act of racism I didn’t really have to experience today. And why? So that a bunch of middle class white hipsters, who likely won’t be enlightened anyway, get told off? This is a ‘see how racist people are’ post. It is not enough to justify reproducing and widely disseminating an act of racism.”

There are, then, good reasons to refrain from participating in the outrage economy: to help stop the already wealthy accruing ill-gotten advertising revenue, and to halt the spread of material that may humiliate or upset people.

However, Just Say No solutions have limitations. Firstly, clickbait can be seen as a collective action problem which an individual cannot solve as it requires action on a broader scale; by acting alone he or she will forego (admittedly dubious) benefits enjoyed by others.

If one person refrains from reading particular websites and denies themselves the attendant waves of invigorating rage, this will not stop you or me from clicking, reading and sharing. Andrew Bolt would not give up writing and become a management consultant tomorrow simply because outraged lefties stopped hate-reading him and retweeting “Bolt Comments”. Can we imagine a successful consumer boycott? Could we all agree not to reward cynical trolling, and hold each other accountable?

Secondly, advice not to give the trollumnists what they want recalls ineffectual parental advice to bullied children to “just ignore them”. It would be great if this always worked but, as many a nerd can attest, it doesn’t.

Further, smugly dismissing all expressions of “outrage” at nasty articles as superficial is unhelpful and unfair. If a writer denigrates an entire ethnic group, encourages contempt or hatred of a gender or sexuality, or wilfully spreads harmful myths, is fury such a disproportionate reaction? Anger is a visceral emotion unlikely to be contained by admonishments not to feed the trolls, particularly when such advice issues from a place of bemused detachment à la Statler and Waldorf. The question is how we can best channel anger to achieve tangible outcomes: snarky hashtags might not be the answer, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.

As banal issues go, clickbait is right up there – it certainly wouldn’t be number one on any sensible left-wing agenda. Yet it speaks to deeper things: the need for collective action, the duties humans owe to each other and the problems that market capitalism creates for us.

As with our age’s more important problems, the answer is complex: we need a progressive politics that transcends individualism and embraces solidarity. As our new federal government’s nature becomes clear, this need grows increasingly pressing. I don’t know what such a politics would look like (and I’d be interested in your thoughts on the matter), but it’s definitely something worth thinking about during our daily engagement with our “real” and virtual world.

Gen Y and the belief in belief

This piece appeared in The Age on 7 November 2013 (links in original):

Well might one ask “what’s wrong with Gen Y?” because there are many who are keen to answer. As Derek Thompson noted recently in The Atlantic, “anxious and hand-wringing newspaper column[s] about the State of Millennials” constitute “a highly competitive sub-industry of journalism”. One of the tropes of such articles is the assumption that people now in their teens and twenties are uniquely bereft of beliefs and ideals; that their wallets are full and their egos well-nourished while their hearts and minds are empty.

For instance, this week on Q&A’s “dangerous ideas” episode, the obligatory As A Young Person Question™ was delivered by twentysomething Emilia Terzon, who posited:

“I’ve grown up with iconic images of protest, rebellion and flower power from the ’60s, ’70s and even the early ’80s, yet I don’t feel that I’ve experienced any of this ideology in my lifetime. Most people my age seem much more interested in buying the new iPhone 5 than they do about protesting against unjust wars or the corrupt global financial system. Am I correct to feel, as I do, that I’ve been born into a particularly conservative generation?”

Terzon subsequently clarified that she felt “that compared to my parents, who challenge things so much . . . most of all of the people around me don’t really challenge things that much . . . They don’t even challenge the idea that we live in this completely consumer society”.

In using Terzon’s question to illustrate the trend referred to above, I don’t want to be unfair to her, or to build a straw man out of her utterances. The sentiments she expresses are understandable and her statements speak to the despair now felt by many on the political left in Australia, particularly in the context of the Coalition’s recent election victory.

There is also an increasing and not ill-founded scepticism about politics more generally, giving rise to inner conflicts between the desire for belief and fear of the vulnerability belief entails. In a thoughtful essay on John McCain’s campaign for the Republican primaries in 2000, the late writer David Foster Wallace noted that the US senator’s promise that he would “Always. Tell you. The truth” garnered wild applause, and explained:

“When McCain says it, the people are cheering not for him so much as for how good it feels to believe him. They’re cheering the loosening of a weird sort of knot in the electoral tummy . . . Because we’ve been lied to and lied to, and it hurts to be lied to . . . getting lied to sucks . . . diminishes you, denies you respect for yourself, for the liar, for the world . . . So who wouldn’t yawn and turn away, trade apathy and cynicism for the hurt of getting treated with contempt?”

Terzon’s words also implicitly demonstrate the barriers faced by those who wish our world were otherwise: she seems to understate the difficulty of challenging the consumer society, which is less idea than hegemony, part of the reality of post-industrial late capitalism.

It is, however, rather odd to subsume decades that encompassed the American civil rights movement, campaigns for Indigenous land rights in Australia, second-wave feminism and a wave of decolonisation throughout the globe under the vague heading “protest, rebellion and flower power”. This vagueness seems to reflect the sense noted above that young people today generally eschew ideals in favour of objects; they’d embrace complete apathy if only they could be bothered and there wasn’t a new consumer good to purchase. There are many problems with this sort of diagnosis, but I’d like to focus simply on the tendency to view belief as a self-evident good. Flower power, socialism, feminism, whatever: “just believe” we intone, echoing E.M Forster’s “Only connect!”

Late last year in The New York Times, Christy Wampole wrote on the much-discussed phenomenon of the hipster, lamented that “irony is the ethos of our age” and called for “the cultivation of sincerity, humility and self-effacement”. The latter two qualities are certainly appealing in the age of the self-esteem mantra, yet can sincerity be celebrated as innately desirable?

Bigots are earnest: misogynists are no doubt sincere in their beliefs, and white supremacists rarely hide behind a veil of irony. Belief and sincerity, then, are not enough – what matters is what one believes in, or the causes about which one is earnest. Similarly, scepticism – even cynicism – is not in and of itself a cause for concern; it is a tool to navigate a landscape of wall-to-wall advertising, where political parties are packaged and sold to us like so many brands of shampoo and “the narrative” frequently takes precedence over a search for truth. Swallowing whole all the messages with which we are presented would lead to more than mere indigestion.

Constant questioning might be less satisfying than an all-encompassing belief, and less likely to keep one warm at night, but it’s a necessary precondition to engaging with our world. To return to the matter at hand: we need not only to be sceptical of generalisations about “millennials”, but also to credit those youths with critical thinking abilities of their own.

Class, gender and the Melbourne Cup

This piece appeared in The Guardian on 5 November 2013 (links in original):

Just like countries in the northern hemisphere are blessed with very dramatic seasonal changes – the crimson leaves of autumn, the snow storms, the emergence of spring flowers – Australia has a soothing, predictable commentary cycle rhythm.

We are inundated with op-eds about the meaning of patriotism each ANZAC day, about nationalism each Australia day, and early November – year after year after year – heralds a slew of articles bemoaning young women’s attire and behaviour at the races.

Consider the recent article which asked “when is short simply too short and how much skin is appropriate to show?” Amid headless photographs of women in outfits the author deemed unacceptable, the article asked incredulously “don’t racegoers read fashion form guides of any kind?” Fake tans, backless dresses and exposed midriffs are apparently ruining the hallowed traditions of a notably cruel horse race.

So far, so predictable: moral panic about girls in sexy outfits is hardly novel. There is arguably more to such articles, though, than just the usual prurient (and quasi-anthropological) interest in young women behaving badly.

Australia has long been shaped by a narrative of egalitarianism. Our national self-image centres on a uniquely classless society, unencumbered by the stratification and snobbery of the Old World. Acknowledging that divisions exist and that we do not in fact inhabit a unicorn-filled meritocracy is impossible within this framework. For those who wish to maintain the comforting fiction of a nation where Jack is as good as his master, the resulting sense of denial creates strange outcomes. As Guy Rundle noted recently, Australia is a topsy-turvy place where “billionaires lecture us about elitism”.

We have a class-shaped gap in much of our national conversation, and this void is filled by coded, euphemistic language, including mockery of “bogans” and, relevantly, the lamentation that young women attending a horse race fail to conform to dress codes. Thus we have “leading stylist and Westfield ambassador Donny Gallela” advising:

“When dressing for the races, women should dress like a lady and adhere to basic racing style rules such as not flashing too much flesh and always wearing headwear”.

This, we are repeatedly told, is the point of the Cup for women: it gives us a chance to “dress like a real lady”. We are attuned to sexism, but classism also lurks in this sort of advice. The term “lady” is used to denote a division between different types of women (recall also that class is inextricably linked to race), and it circulates in modern times despite the equivalent descriptor “gentleman” (to separate male plebs from their betters) having largely fallen into disuse.

Consider the UK-produced Ladette to Lady television show that appeared during the 2000s, teaching boisterous young women to enunciate their vowels, dress demurely, and sublimate their personalities. For added colonial cringe, there were versions of the show featuring all Australian contestants. A century after George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion, the urge to remould young Eliza Doolittles has not yet evaporated.

In 2013, it is no longer acceptable publicly to fulminate about the failings of the “lower orders”, but this sentiment has not disappeared: could it lie beneath the horror expressed each November at the spectre of fake-tanned, miniskirted young women?

Parallels may be drawn with the phenomena English writer Owen Jones interrogated in his 2011 polemic Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Classes; the author argued that hostility towards an “underclass” represented in caricatures such as Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard masked contempt for the working classes (a term rarely used in Australia’s mainstream media, except when politicians claim membership). For Jones, demonization was “the ideological backbone of an unequal society”.

Let’s return to the Cup and the scandalised commentary surrounding its dress codes, which raises some questions. What does a lady look like? Who determines what behaviour is deemed ladylike? Is a lady simply a woman who conforms to antiquated assumptions rooted in a moribund yet strangely durable English class system?

To ask these kinds of questions in the context of the Melbourne Cup is not to romanticise binge-drinking, which poses a danger to both men and women (although enthusiastic boozing attracts less concern when embraced by the male of the species). Neither is fashionably scanty clothing, at the races or otherwise, necessarily a symbol of empowerment; it’s as well to be sceptical of versions of feminism that coincide with the dictates of consumer capitalism. It is simply to suggest that lamentations about the failure of young women to act “like ladies” need to be read with a critical eye.

One thing is more or less certain: the day after the Cup, the papers will be replete with gleefully prurient pictures of bedraggled young women carrying their shoes. Our leaves don’t fall in dramatic fashion, we don’t have many snow storms, but here in this wide brown land the seasonal cycle continues.

Tme, money and makeup

This piece was published in Overland on 1 November 2013 (links in original):

The mantra of self-esteem is everywhere these days. So Helen Razer’s recent diagnosis of a widespread tendency to write ‘as though the “right” to “feel beautiful” were something endorsed by John Locke and on a par with reproductive autonomy’ has real force.

Consider Target’s current marketing slogan, ‘Every Australian has the right to look good and feel good about the way they dress and live’, which debases the language of human rights by commoditising it. Well might the sceptical conclude that ‘self-esteem’ often has more to do with consumer capitalism than it does with any genuine improvement in the lot of human beings of any gender.

Razer is correct that articles about body image attract clicks and revenue, so there is more behind their publication than a benevolent concern with female wellbeing: ‘Write about The Pressure to Look Good, and you’ll find a wide and uncritical audience. Hold forth with any degree of earnestness about ‘body image’, and your thoughts will ricochet around the internet …You might even profit’. This statement of the shallowness of much contemporary commentary rings true, and the point extends further. Mark Fletcher suggested recently that owing to the touch of the ‘invisible hand … opinion writers (by and large) are not necessarily successful if they are clever or insightful’ but if ‘they generate a lot of traffic, either in the form of newspapers sold or views of their website’. It’s a dynamic that underlies the ‘Outrage Economy’.

There is much, then, in Razer’s article with which one might agree – the packaging of the personal problem into the sellable screed is near-omnipresent. She takes a peculiar turn, though, when she floats the concept of a boycott: ‘What we might think about doing instead of writing horrible op-eds … is taking a literal pause in buying beauty. Don’t buy it.’

This statement, and Razer’s article more generally, seems irrelevant to Annabel Crabb’s column to which Razer was responding. Crabb’s piece concerned the obligations imposed on women who appear on television, noting that in order to do so
‘without attracting howls, boos and vicious letters from members of the viewing audience with internet connections and superfluous time on their hands, a lady must first be coated thoroughly in the facial region with costly creams …’

Crabb may well be criticised for focusing on a problem generally experienced only by women in elite professions, and indeed liberal feminism more broadly suffers from a limited perspective. As bell hooks noted recently: the dominant definition of feminism ‘begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system … the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged.’ The desire to succeed within a flawed system seems, at best, an unambitious goal for a liberation movement. At worst, it’s a privileging of individualism over the collective and a dismal failure to engage with class, race, and sexuality as well as gender.

However, Razer does not focus on these concerns. Instead, she expresses disappointment that a writer she respects would write ‘a piece on an idea so hackneyed’ as body-image woes. This conclusion overlooks what appears to be Crabb’s central point, which was not about how ‘a lady’ might feel about being made up or how it might affect her sense of self-worth, but the sheer amount of time and energy poured into presentation for women in certain professions. Crabb applied her experiences to former PM Julia Gillard, hypothesising:

‘assuming she had to spend an hour a day being made up, let’s say five days a week, that’s 750 hours over the course of her prime ministership that the most powerful woman in Australia spent having someone colour in her face. How much is 750 hours of PM time worth, anyway?’

This question goes to the material (as distinct from emotional) impact beauty standards have on women’s lived reality. This is because time is a valuable and limited resource – hours consumed by the application of cosmetics cannot be devoted to other pursuits. In his paper ‘Tertiary Time: The Precariat’s Dilemma’, Guy Standing argued that:

‘time is a basic asset. Throughout history, class struggle has been about the redistribution of the assets that are vital to the good life of the era, largely defined in terms set by the dominant social formation. Like any other asset, time is distributed unequally and inequitably. Some individuals and groups have more control over how they allocate their time and have more ‘free time.’ The way the maldistribution occurs is not mainly the outcome of merit or hard work. But however it comes, it is unequal. Consider the everyday life of a single mother and observe the time squeeze’.

Standing regretted that ‘we have no politics of time’. The absence is an ongoing problem, and it’s notable that our last Labor government glorified ‘the dignity of work’ rather than emphasising the interests workers might have – as parents, friends and members of communities – in spending less rather than more time in paid employment. Gillard again invoked the concept to justify cutting welfare payments to single parents, as though caring for children innately lacked dignity.

But back to Razer’s article: it is also too pat a response to state simply that women ought to stop consuming beauty products, as though notions of ‘professional attire’ did not dovetail so neatly with indicia of conventional attractiveness. Razer argues that although choice is ‘largely illusory’, one can ‘choose not to buy things’. Yet if there is a correlation between one’s chances of career advancement and financial reward and one’s physical appearance, ‘choice’ become markedly less clear-cut.

Of course, feminism must not limit itself to outrage on behalf of professional women seeking to ‘lean in’, and the oppressiveness of makeup is hardly a first order priority. It is worth recalling, though, that notions of beauty have real-world impacts and that truth lurks behind the old saying that ‘time is money’.

Workers’ rights and ‘reform’

This piece appeared in The Guardian on 17 October 2013 (links in original) and contains a terrible dad joke at the end (as told by my actual dad):

During the lull between an election and the first sitting of parliament it is easy to sink into a kind of political hibernation, but this is no time to hit the snooze button: changes are afoot. The restoration of the Australian Building and Construction Committee’s draconian powers apparently not being sufficient to mollify it, the business sector is leaning on the new government to “reform” the industrial relations system.

Shortly after the election, Minerals Council chief executive Mitch Hooke stated that there was “scope for significant change to the Fair Work Act to boost Australia’s productivity and cost competitiveness”. More recently, Lend Lease chairman David Crawford said it was “absolute madness” to defer reforms until 2016, describing prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision to do so “extremely disappointing”. Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout also expressed disappointment that the issue was “off the agenda for three years when we all want it on the agenda”, and blamed the “overreach in workplace relations” under the Howard government.

Indeed, it was the lingering stench of Howard’s punitive Work Choices policy that forced Abbott to promise only “modest” reform in his government’s first term, with no changes to unfair dismissal laws or measures to set penalty rates. We now have, effectively, a lobby group pressuring a government to break an election promise in a way which aligns with the lobbyists’ self-interest, although the above statements are not reported as such. Over the weekend, the Australian Financial Review’s front page announced that “workplace politics hurt jobs”, lamenting that the government was “hamstrung by political promises”. Given the opprobrium heaped on the Gillard government for, in Abbott’s words, its “massive breach of faith” in introducing a carbon tax, this casual, somewhat resentful attitude to election promises is startling.

The language used also merits some analysis. In The Drum, former Howard government minister Peter Reith used the word “reform” 13 times in an attempt to convince readers that urgent action was required to “move [the economy] up a gear or two” without ever stating what he meant by it, other than that “Abbott needs to make a start to bring the labour market framework back to the ‘sensible centre’”. This is as previously noted a meaningless phrase, and “reform” is similar: it vaguely denotes a self-evident good as unchallengeable as “progress”, concealing these concepts’ highly subjective natures. Indeed, arguments for lower wages and watered-down unfair dismissal laws are often uncritically reported as though they can be motivated only by a benevolent concern for the good of the economy. The Mandy Rice-Davies-esque response of “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they” rarely appears.

Reasons advanced to explain the “need” for change are also, as Matt Cowgill points out, often dubious and ever-changing, and John Quiggin recently argued that the longstanding “idea of a productivity-based microeconomic reform agenda is a zombie that needs to be killed … if we are to achieve sustained improvements in living standards for all Australians”. Both major parties have been bitten by this zombie, but the government maintains it will keep its promise: treasurer Joe Hockey states that although he considers there is a “need to look at broader structural reform … we gave commitments during the course of the election and we are not going to renege on those commitments”. Abbott reiterates that his will be “a government of no surprises”.

Under ordinary circumstances, it would of course be most unsurprising for this government to crack down on unions and workers’ rights, for the Liberal party’s historical raison d’être is its opposition to the labour movement. Hobbled by its pre-election stance, the party seems hollow, adrift from its roots and unsure of what it stands for – a criticism more commonly made of the ALP. Abbott will face pressure from within his own party as well as the commentariat to break his promise.

There are also other parties to contend with. South Australian Family First senator-elect Bob Day has argued that employers should be able to pay less than the minimum wage and that unfair dismissal laws should be relaxed. David Leyonhjelm, the New South Wales Liberal Democrat senator-elect, is known largely for his views on firearms, but his party’s policies include the abolition of the minimum wage and minimum employment conditions (other than health and safety rules) and the removal of unfair dismissal “restrictions”. The Palmer United party’s industrial relations policies are currently unclear but it is not unheard of for mining magnates to elevate “workplace flexibility” over employees’ rights.

We need to keep an eye on horse-trading in the Senate, read the newspapers with a critical eye, and be ready to hold our government “ferociously to account”, as an opposition leader once said. As the old joke goes, be alert: the country needs more Lerts.

On ‘F*ck Abbott’ t-shirts

This piece appeared in New Matilda on 20 September 2013 (links in original):

A number of memes of varying wit and originality have been circulating since last Saturday’s election to express the despair and foreboding of non-Coalition voters. One of these is simply the recurring phrase “fuck Abbott”, which can now be purchased in t-shirt form.

These symbols of youthful rebellion are available from various outlets. For instance, writer Clementine Ford is selling a selection on a temporary basis, with a portion of the profits to go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Council for Single Mothers and Their Children. There has, predictably, been some disapproval at the slogan. Some speculate that “fuck Gillard” shirts would have been deemed sexist and unacceptable.

Some on the left will disagree with the shirts on a tactical basis. These garments, with all the swagger of a raised middle finger, are obviously unlikely to win people to a cause and will tend to elicit a hostile response. Like a placard reading “Howard is a fascist” at a protest rally in the late 1990s, the t-shirts appeal exclusively to the converted: those for whom a Coalition government is self-evidently bad. They speak to our inner, angry adolescent – the kid who has no truck with nuance or subtlety but deals in pure emotion.

Marriage equality campaigner Rodney Croome recently wrote an open letter to protesters requesting that the phrase “fuck Abbott” not be used on posters, asking, “How can we expect Australia to take marriage equality seriously when some proponents of reform base their case on insults rather than reason?”. Some activists will agree with Croome and others will not: where politics is deeply felt, language will often express rage as well as reason, whether constructive or otherwise.

There is nothing inherently wrong with political conflict and there is, certainly, a great deal in Abbott’s mean-spirited platform about which to be angry – for instance, deep cuts to foreign aid and to the Aboriginal Legal Service (which Warren Mundine now suggests may be reversed), the withdrawal of publicly funded legal representation from asylum seekers, the demolition of Australia’s climate change infrastructure, the rumblings about “wasteful” academic research and the arbitrary sacking of 12,000 public servants.

In 1973, historian Manning Clark characterised the Menzies era as a time “of unleavened bread”, and with an anti-Labor backlash to deliver, the Abbott years promise even less wholesome sustenance for the nation.

Still, the Coalition won decisively, and those of us who wish it hadn’t have to accept the result rather than indulging in the kinds of tantrums the conservative parties threw after failing to form government in 2010. To return to the t-shirts, the criticisms about their anger or aggressiveness — and their use of the f-bomb — tend to overlook a bigger problem.

Arguably the most problematic shirt is the one boasting no foul language at all. It proclaims simply: “Abbott is not my Prime Minister”. Unless you’re living in an alternative reality, yes he is. Those of us ideologically opposed to this government need to digest this truth, face the challenges before us, and hold our leaders to account — not close our eyes and believe in fairies.

The sentiment on that shirt also speaks to something more abstract, a kind of progressive individualism. Ideology-as-accessory is nothing new, and it is always dubious to use social media as evidence to support a proposition (there is, for instance, a Facebook group for pretty much every sentiment imaginable) but some themes have been recurring in recent weeks. Consider the slogans “Not in my name”; “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him”; and “Abbott doesn’t speak for me”. There is a palpable desire to extract the disappointed, grieving self from the messiness of political reality.

Beneath these slogans lurks, perhaps, weariness with democracy and an attempt to disassociate oneself from the broader populace and “their” government. On her shopify site Ford implicitly explains the Coalition’s victory as no more than the outcome of her compatriots’ racial prejudice, writing that the Prime Minister is a “buffoon whose greatest contribution during the election campaign was to just yell STOP THE BOATS whenever a racist was in earshot”. This conclusion overlooks Labor’s own appalling asylum seeker policy, painting a rather simplistic narrative of the kind for which Abbott is pilloried (you can also buy a t-shirt from the site with a picture of Abbott’s face above the word “baddie”, referencing his comments on Syria).

In somewhat similar vein, Ford recently pronounced herself “baffled” by the Coalition’s victory, writing: “the electorate has evidently overlooked the clear discomfort he has with women”. Here the writer seems to stand above the voters, looking down critically and with little attempt to understand — a dynamic thoughtfully critiqued in Jeff Sparrow’s recent analysis of Abbott’s tactical victory over a particular strand of liberal feminism.

These sorts of conclusions present the Coalition’s victory as an inexplicable mystery and necessarily imply a certain disrespect for voters, calling to mind former Liberal Senate Leader Reg Withers dismissing the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 as no more than the result of “temporary electoral insanity of the two most populous Australian States”.

The desire to parade one’s despair and anger with our new government is civic engagement of a rather narrow kind. The sphere of the political seems to shrink; instead of a concern with the wider world and the clashing ideologies and the power relations that shape our society, politics is a matter of individual performance. The personal is political, the political personal, and the snake devours its tail until nothing is left. As writer Rebecca Giggs argued shortly before the election: “Despair, being personal and self-regarding, atomizes us, turning individuals inwards, turning our shamed faces away from one another. To that extent as a political emotion despair is a conservative one”.

We are citizens, not consumers. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, even if our nation state is set to swerve rightwards. A retreat into our own anger and grief is in some ways a surrender, an embrace of individualism rather than empathy, as though Margaret Thatcher was correct after all and there is truly no such thing as society. To make a real and radical change in our politics, we need something less stylish than belligerent despair: a commitment to the unfashionable notion of the collective good.

Let’s take Clive Palmer seriously

This piece appeared in The Guardian on 5 September 2013 (links in original):

He sometimes makes it difficult, but let’s try to take Clive Palmer seriously.

Australians have a weakness for “colourful characters”, and such figures are increasingly indispensable in the political sphere. In his 2011 book Sideshow: Dumbing down Democracy, former Labor minister Lindsay Tanner argued that politics is now reported largely as entertainment. Within this rubric, politicians are accorded particular adjectives: “charismatic” means “sells newspapers”, and “maverick” means “delivers good copy” (Tanner noted that he himself was generally described as “thoughtful”, meaning “boring”).

Palmer is far from boring; he delivers colour in spades. He’s strong on hyperbole, declaring that there “has never been in Australia’s history a more discriminatory policy than [Tony] Abbott’s policy on paid parental leave” (which would certainly be news to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and anyone excluded from entering the country under the White Australia Policy). He lists “litigation” as a hobby in his Who’s Who entry, is building a replica Titanic and a dinosaur park, and is a reliable source of quotable quotes.

Palmer has not escaped serious scrutiny, and his companies have also been criticised on environmental grounds and for their interactions with native title claim groups and approach towards heritage laws.

His manifold shiny distractions, though, tend to obscure his eponymous party’s policies. Their major focus is tax. In addition to his promise to scrap the carbon tax and change the way company tax is paid, Palmer has pledged to cut income tax by 15%. He argues that as the money circulates in the economy, “the government will get back the same amount of tax anyway” due to the GST, a claim PolitiFact assessed as false.

The Palmer United Party (PUP) also promises to abolish fringe benefits tax because “it is a negative tax” which “stops Australians doing things, stifles demand and growth and kills employment”. Palmer calculates that this change will “release over $4bn into the economy”. Fringe benefits tax (FBT) is levelled on most benefits provided by employers to employees. It was introduced in 1986 to reduce the amount of “perks” offered as part of salary packages, such as children’s private education fees or payment of rent. Such benefits (unlike salaries) had previously been untaxed: what FBT “stops Australians doing” is avoiding tax by receiving benefits of equivalent value to a tax-free income.

The PUP’s platform is predicated on the twin assumptions that our economy is in a uniquely parlous state (most economists disagree) and that Australians pay excessively high rates of tax, which is demonstrably untrue. As the Treasury’s handy pocket guide notes, our tax-to-GDP ratio is low by international standards: in 2010, Australia had the fifth lowest tax of the OECD countries. Our tax-to-GDP ratio was 25.6%, while the OECD average was 33.8% Nevertheless, the argument that we are paying too much is often an easy sell.

Policies of the kind described so far are fairly standard libertarianism-lite, the sort of thing that appeals to economic rationalist ideologues and the very wealthy. The party’s platform then deviates sharply from this path, though, swerving headway into benevolent state paternalism. As well as nods to economic nationalism and support for regional areas, Palmer proposes to increase the old age pension by 20%, and “inject” both “$80bn into the health budget”, and “$20bn into the education system”. Clichés about “magic puddings” seem inadequate to describe this strange don’t-tax-just-spend concoction.

Palmer is a former life member of the National Party (he broke with the Queensland Liberal-Nationals in dramatic fashion last year), and the internal inconsistencies in his proposals may reflect the old tussle between agrarian socialism and economic rationalism within the Coalition.

Alternatively, the cynical observer may conclude that these spending promises are merely sweeteners designed to render a radical anti-tax platform more palatable for the Australian electorate, given that this agenda suits the interests of a wealthy minority. An individual’s own position in life will naturally colour their view of the world and their policy prescriptions for it, although pointing out this obvious fact generally elicits cries of “envy politics” and “class warfare”. This isn’t to say that sinister motives necessarily lurk behind the PUP’s bright yellow leaflets; just that a healthy scepticism is appropriate when the super-rich propose policies that would lower their own tax burdens.

As with the Wizard of Oz, it’s important to look past the charm, bluster and razzle-dazzle and focus attention on the man (and the plan) behind the curtain.