The most oppressed people since oppression began

At most it was a tasteless joke between two private individuals.’

That’s today’s editorial in the Australian, a piece responding to the sexist anti-Gillard menu produced for Mal Brough’s fundraising event. Our editorialist (anonymous, of course!) continues:

Instinctively, we want to believe that the rapid development in digital communication will improve the quality of civic debate, but weeks such as this one are hardly encouraging. The sight of politicians who should know better wallowing in the cesspit of social media is bad enough, but the complicity of journalists makes things worse. […]The tertiary-educated, Left-leaning young professionals who populate the political twittersphere are not the people Labor needs to impress. The voters who count are ordinary working people, who have their hands too full to tweet, have better things to do than blog and who regard the cheap symbolic politics of crypto-feminism and blue ties with the utmost contempt.

Got that? Tasteless jokes don’t matter, Twitter’s irrelevant, and it’s contemptible to focus on symbolic politics.

Now let’s jump in our time machine and travel back to the misty days of, um, two years ago. In the long forgotten era of 2011, the writer and academic Larissa Behrendt once tweeted about the ABC’s Q&A program.

Context: Behrendt had been watching the HBO series Deadwood on ABC2, which, apparently, included a scene of bestiality. She turned to Q&A to hear Bess Price’s remarks in support of the NT Intervention, against which Behrendt has campaigned for some time. On Twitter, Behrendt wrote: ‘I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price.’

Rude, perhaps, but certainly neither sexist nor racist. Nonetheless, over the next fortnight, the Australian – the paper that, remember, says ribald jokes aren’t significant and that journalists shouldn’t obsess over Twitter – published over ten stories about Behrendt’s tweet. Most of them were on the front page. At one point, Strewth columnist Graeme Leech described the remarks as ‘the slur of the century, a slur so vile we won’t repeat it’.

In the Oz’s opinion pages, Keith Windschuttle went so far as to denounce Fairfax for devoting insufficient space to Tweetgate, an incident, he said, represented ‘one of the most damaging scandals yet to have rocked Aboriginal affairs’. He explained how:

The story received front-page treatment in News Limited newspapers, especially The Australian, when it broke on April 14, and for the following five days. Several television and online forums canvassed its consequences. But Fairfax editors regarded it as such a threat to their world view they imposed a nationwide ban on the story. Not a word about it appeared in the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review or The Sun-Herald.

Not so much back then about those salt-of-the-earth toilers too busy to tweet! On the contrary, in 2011, disdain for cheap symbolic politics seemed to be yet another contemptible characteristic of the latte-lapping elitists responsible for the Financial Review.

So what, you might say. It’s the Australian: a loss-leading newspaper insulated from the free market it lauds by Rupert’s desire to own his personal performing seal. So long as the Oz barks and claps its fins about the issues Murdoch deems significant, the angry granddads populating its editorial pages can pursue whatever petty vendettas they like. That’s why the opinion section reads like a student newspaper edited from within an old people’s home: self-indulgent and spiteful, yes, but also dreary and, every so often, entirely unhinged. No-one expects consistency, let alone decency.

Yet there’s a broader point here. It’s an article of faith on the Right that progressives obsess about political correctness, that lefties can’t take a joke and get uptight about trivial matters. That’s precisely the charge levelled by today’s editorialist: ‘Today’s dollar-shop feminism, to which Ms Gillard subscribes, insists [that] women are a breed apart, susceptible to insult, easily offended and in need of affirmative action.’

In reality, of course, the Culture Wars don’t work like that at all.

On the contrary, in Australia today, there’s no constituency more permanently offended than rich white men. You can see that at both ends of the Right’s spectrum.

Check out the comments beneath Andrew Bolt’s blog (warning: you’ll need a bath afterward). The factor unifying the bizarre array of issues bedevilling Boltland’s colourful characters is generalised outrage. Something (though it’s not altogether clear what) has always gone terribly wrong and someone (though it’s not altogether clear whom) is always getting away with it. The country’s falling apart, Muslims are building mosques, the flag’s not being saluted, young people are listening to hippety hoppety music, art is being modern … and it’s all done with the express purpose of making the commenters on Bolt’s blog suffer.

Head over to Quadrant, the home of Bolt’s literary cousins, and you’ll find much the same, albeit with better spellchecking. What are we offended about today, folks? Has someone disrespected ANZAC? Was there nudity on stage? Has Al Gore put on weight? Is the mass no longer held in Latin?

That’s the Culture Wars in a nutshell: an endless pity party thrown by the privileged, concerned that someone might subject them to the treatment dished out to the rest of the populace since time immemorial. Rich, elderly whites are forever feeling hardly done by, and the role of the Culture War pundit is to keep the victimology well stoked. That’s why Indigenous people seeking land want to take your backyard, a few refugee boats represent an invasion, and every minor terrorist episode anywhere in the world proves once again that jihadis live under your bed, waiting to slit your throat without so much as ‘how do you do?’.

The implicit cry of ‘me! me! me!’ running through the whining helps explain the political psychology of the response to Gillard. The grey eminences of the Australian react to claims of sexism in public life not simply with disbelief but also with anger. Why? Because they believe themselves to be the most persecuted people since persecution began – and it’s a status they’re reluctant to share. Their outrage at those who denounce misogyny amounts to a cry of ‘Check your privilege!’, albeit one emanating from Topsy Turvy Land. Women can’t be oppressed, you see, because that might throw into doubt the all-prevailing oppression heaped upon rich, white men by the cultural elites, the Torquemadas of our time. By contrast, Indigenous academics must be endlessly condemned for their tweets because they are the natural enemy of that perpetually endangered species, the conservative baby boomer.

That might sound mad – hell, it’s completely fucking bonkers – but when Rupert Murdoch himself can, without the slightest self-consciousness whatsoever, denounce elitism from whatever million dollar mansion in which he’s holed up with Tweetdeck, it’s not so surprising that his paid mouthpieces genuinely see themselves as a small band of partisans deep within enemy territory.

There’s lessons in all this for the Left.

It’s entirely correct – necessary, even – to denounce sexism whenever it appears. Quite obviously, no male prime minister would ever be subjected to inquiries about his partner’s sexuality. That such a line of questioning might seem appropriate when interviewing Gillard speaks volumes about the depths of backwardness in Australian public life.

But for most of the media, Mal Brough’s menu matters primarily in terms of whether it produces a ‘gotcha’ moment, a point at which some politician or another might be caught out in a lie.

For the Left, that’s the least important aspect. After all, even if Brough saw the menu, it’s far from clear that his endorsement of its humour would damage him in the eyes of his constituency, many of whom no doubt regard jokes about Gillard’s body as the zenith of political whit.

The real scandal lies not in the incident itself but in what it reveals: that in the twenty first century sexism remains an entirely everyday matter, something that ordinary women encounter with unfailing regularity. If some clown thought he could get away with sexualised humour directed at the most powerful woman in the country, what does that say about the treatment those without power or influence might expect?

Mind you, there’s undoubtedly worse ahead. With the coming of an Abbott government, expect a great derangement in the media, as the nuttiest of the culture war commentariat bask in a new relationship with power.

Jeff Sparrow

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

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. So beautifully written and witty. It is good to see that at least some really intelligent comment and criticism still exists in Australia. But I think that not many of Bolt’s readers or blog commentators are rich.

    1. That’s a good point. Indeed, many of Bolt’s readers may well have face real economic and social problems. The task of rightwing populists is, of course, to direct that genuine and legitimate anger into all kinds of bogus causes, most obviously the scapegoating of minorities.

  2. I was with you right up till:

    After all, even if Brough saw the menu, it’s far from clear that his endorsement of its humour would damage him in the eyes of his constituency, many of whom no doubt regard jokes about Gillard’s body as the zenith of political whit.

    As someone that lives next to his constituency, and has plenty of friends that live in his constituency, I find it a shame that you can denounce the broad tarring of large groups of people and then do exactly the same thing yourself.

    Well done, you have successfully proven your own point.

    1. You might live in his electorate but that does not necessarily make you part of his constituency, which I’m using in the sense of ‘supporters.

      1. It would make sense to distinguish between Brough’s overall “constituency” (with the implied meaning all LNP voters in the electorate) and the internal culture of the LNP and its funders, which produced the document.

      2. You can’t just change the meaning of a word to suit your point. If you mean his supporters then say his supporters, constituency means all those in an electorate that are eligible to vote.

        Also you are now claiming that all LNP voters suffer from the same “political whit” which is still just as bad. I know plenty of LNP supporters that were horrified at that menu, yet you seem happy to group them in with the people that think this sort of joke is funny.

        And lastly, Brough is not an elected member of parliament, he is only a party nominee for the seat of Fisher, the current constituency belongs to Peter Slipper.

        1. You are right of course that constituency has an unambiguous meaning, even if it’s social use is misplaced sometimes. You make the point the Bough is not an MP so perhaps that’s confirmation of the author’s ‘intended’ mis-use of the word. Although he did represent that consistency in the past which confuses the issue even more!

  3. Well I’m sorry Cranky, but I read strait up the ‘eyes of his constituency’ referred to his mates as discussed above, not his electorate. Perfectly acceptable use if the word.

  4. “With the coming of an Abbott government, expect a great derangement in the media, as the nuttiest of the culture war commentariat bask in a new relationship with power …”

    Though, reading certain publications (e.g. The Australian), you’d think that these culture war commentators had been firing on all cylinders for years! They felt oppressed under Rudd/Gillard, and – under an Abbott government – they’d still feel oppressed by some, vaguely-defined left-wing conspiracy, They can never win!

  5. The woes of Labor, and male politicians, seem to have taken the place of the oppression of women in this comment thread. If seeing is believing, the Alston cartoon in The West Australian newspaper (13/6: pre the Sattler comment), which uses tendentious humour to tread a fine line between satire and indecency, goes beyond the now infamous printed menu by displaying a naked Julia Gillard as a “dressed pig” on the table as the dinner is about to commence, and has to be seen to be believed.

  6. I think what’s really interesting and important about all this is — as a result of the last few weeks (not to mention the footy scandals of a couple of years ago) we can now see that misogyny (the very existence of which the right-wing has been denying for some time now, coz we abolished women’s inequality somewhere back in the 80s) is a serious social problem, up there with problem gambling, drug abuse, school bullying, everyday racism … Organising to make governments and civic institutions take it on is is our job; and now I htink that the opportunity presents itself.

  7. Good point about Australians being too snowed under to notice/respond to abuses in the political landscape. Yes, it is a worry about how things will deteriorate if a government is formed in the future which does not understand that unregulated competition is bad for individuals, businesses and Australia. Already 680,000 Australian Citizens have no work at all. 100,000 are homeless. 457 & 485 work visas are an important source of unnecessary competition.

  8. I love your articles Jeff but I do not love the persistent ageism pervading them. Again and again you sheet the problem home to “old” people and ‘baby boomers”. How then do you explain Nicolle Flint? Alex Hawke? The ever-renewing horde of Young Liberals? And what will you do when you attain the big 6.0. – retire gracefully from writing on the principle that, being that age, you must now officially suck? Come on. Examine that aspect of your writing, please, because your ageism is spoiling some great analysis.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.