sound and fury

This ran in Crikey a few days ago (would link to it but can’t figure out where their new site puts content):

Clare Werbeloff is Australian for Sarah Palin.

Well, not quite. Palin’s still talked about as a Republican candidate for the next presidential poll whereas the Werbeloff express will probably come to a screeching stop at a station called Celebrity Big Brother or Ralph magazine.

But there are definite parallels. Contemporary conservatism demands only two things from its heroes: they must be photogenic and they must enrage liberals.

Think back to how right-wing pundits reacted to Sarah Palin’s initial speech at the Republican National Convention, and compare to the conservative blogs that launched the Werbeloff clip.

“A star is born,” wrote Greg Sheridan. “Palin is such an electrifying figure in part because she reignites the culture wars in a way that Republicans could well win.”

Janet Albrechtsen agreed. “Win or lose, Palin has scruffed up the Left. And that is always entertaining.”

Once upon a time, the Right recognized the Culture Wars as a more-or-less cynical tactic. The Republicans, a party based upon sophisticated urban businessmen, turned to evangelists like Pat Robertson in the hope that his “Jebus-rode-a-dinosaur” schtick could pull blue-collar votes from the Democrats. But their plan was always to keep the God botherers in their place — corporate Republicans might rub shoulders with gap-toothed snake handlers if it meant an election victory but they never yearned to pick up a serpent themselves.

Over the years, however, the lunatics grew proprietary about their asylum. A key moment came with the brouhaha over the clinically brain-dead Terri Schiavo, with scripture-quoting evangelists denouncing medical science and staging a grisly jamboree around her still-animated corpse.

Today, the modern Republicans can no longer talk about evolution, much less climate change, and the key right-wing blogs occupy an entire alternative universe, in which Barack Obama’s request for Dijon mustard constitutes a major scandal.

Culture war tropes now so dominate the discourse of the Republican base that, unless you’re a true believer, it’s hard to even follow what they’re talking about. Case in point: the major conservative publication WorldNetDaily plans to erect signs all over the country reading simply, “Where’s the birth certificate?”, even though most people outside the wingnutsphere neither know nor care what the slogan actually means.

We’re not quite there yet in Australia. No elected politicians wanted anything to do with Werbeloff, and that wasn’t just because her 15 minutes came and went so fast. Anyone who depends upon real votes in real polls probably realises that racist jokes about the shooting of minorities isn’t going to help. Jeff Kennett built his mandate by wooing the Greek community, not by calling them wogs.

But for the right-wing blogs that didn’t matter. Ms Chk-Chk Boom had good cheekbones; she lapsed unselfconsciously into racism. Cue the Beavis and Butthead snickering.

Obviously, the mainstreaming of old school bigotry is a bad thing. (One wonders whether the News Ltd hacks who so gleefully reclaim the word “wog” will soon regale their readers with tales of “fat Yids” or “skinny Pakis”.)

But there is a flipside. The more that Australian conservatives embrace that culture war logic of anti-PC provocations, the more problems they create for the Liberal party, which, like the Republicans, increasingly finds its local branches dominated by the Kool Aid drinkers.

“Palin is the perfect VP choice for McCain,” said Albrechtsen last year, and doubtless many local right-wingers nodded their agreement. So how’d that work out then?

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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