‘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.