Issue 5, May 2007 | Marcus Priest

The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press

The War on Democracy:Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press
by Niall Lucy & Steve Mickler
(UWA Press, 2006)

For the last 11 years of the Howard Government, right-wing columnists have done a good job of marginalising agendas which are critical of the conservative agenda. They have done so through the devices of ridicule, misrepresentation, and bullying. More importantly they have effectively hijacked the English language from their privileged position of a weekly column and been allowed to define the terms of reporting for the rest of the popular media. Terms such as “political correctness”,  “inner city elites” and “un-Australian” have become a lazy, and easy, way to marginalise those who don’t toe the Howard Government line. In contrast, “Common sense” and “practical” are used to denote support for the agenda of those they support.

For that reason, cultural theorists like Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler from Curtin University should be ideally placed to provide a reasoned critique of the work of individuals like Christopher Pearson, Gerard Henderson and Janet Albrechtsen. Mickler’s critique of the WA media in its reporting of Aboriginal people was timely, incisive and well-researched.

At its best, War on Democracy provides an amusing analysis of the double standards of modern conservatism. There is Michael Duffy, who uses the opening strains of Golden Brown, the ode to heroin by UK post-punk band The Stranglers as the theme for his ABC radio program. And also Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine, who is an unwitting proponent of post-modernism.

Unfortunately, for the book most part confirms claims by conservative columnists that the left-wing is intolerant of those that question their agenda. It falls into the very stereotypes and traps created by the Right for the Left.
War on Democracy is also a nasty diatribe; dismissive of opposing views and unable to see the flaws in its own arguments or recognise legitimate points.In other words, the authors are guilty of the very things they accuse their targets of.

And while good points are made – for example, Henderson’s failure to address any issue critical of corporate Australia – they are lost in a scattergun of bile. It is manna from heaven for Gerard Henderson and Co. It plays right into their hands.

Some will argue that there is no better way to take on the right by playing them at their own game. But I think that once the Left abandons its attempts to maintain any kind of intellectual rigour, it has lost the argument.

Simple exposition of the facts is far more effective than over-done invective. Adherence to the facts is where right-wing columnists are most weeks. To be diverted from those simple facts allows conservatives to argue that the injustice and inequality is over-stated, or, worse, does not exist.

However, what makes Lucy and Mickler’s analysis worse is that it is also lost in a miasma of words. Points that could be simply and directly made are obscured in rambling diatribe which plays the man, and woman, and not the ball.

I even felt sorry for Christopher Pearson – and I should’nt have to – by the end of the chapter on him. He is accused of hypocrisy by the authors for not explaining to readers how he can be both gay and conservative. It is a nasty character assassination based solely on his sexuality.“What is Christopher Pearson calling for? Labour restrictions. Covenant marriages. Uniforms. Bondage. (Their italics),” write Lucy and Mickler. “By accepting to represent such interests, Pearson shows he is nothing more than Howard’s political gimp.”

The heart of the book’s argument is that democracy is not a static concept defined solely by the Westminister system of parliamentary government. Instead, it is an ongoing process of debate in which ideas and norms changes as they are challenged and tested. In other words, the essence of democracy is the ability to freely express one’s own opinion and challenge others.

“The idea and the ideal of democracy, then, can never arrive at a point of completion; democracy is not just an unfinished project, but an unfinishable one, ” Lucy and Mickler write. “Every aspect of society remains always open to question or inspection for failing to live up to democracy as an idea, by allowing, say, for instances of arbitrary privilege, power and status.” It is not an unreasonable argument. But as an example of the way in which the authors are their own worst enemy, after of the preceding passage they wonder of the beaten path into an impenetrable discourse on religion and power. “According to this idea, which extends to the logic of equivalence, it is possible to think of a society in terms of a discontinuous realisation of the force of difference,” they say. You what?

Such criticism no doubt would lump me in the same boat as Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who Lucy and Mickler criticise for taking issue with an academic’s jargon-laden speech. However, I happen to believe in the unfashionable concept that in the communication game there is merit in plain English. I should not need an advanced degree in semiotics, or any other subject for that matter, to understand a book, especially when it is about my own profession. But that is exactly what Lucy and Mickler seem to suggest at points.

Part of the book’s problem is that it just as much a defence of post-modernism and cultural studies, the bete noire of the right, as it a critique conservative columnists. For that reason, Luke Slattery, a colleague of mine at the Australian Financial Review, is one of the seven individuals focussed on by Lucy and Mickler. It is no co-incidence that he is the first of the seven to be critiqued, even though in no other setting would Slattery be classified as a conservative. However, his offence, in the eyes of Lucy and Mickler, is to question the teaching of post-modernism in high school English classes.For this, he is pilloried in a highly personal and unfair way, by implying his decision to withdraw from a Masters course lessens the force of his criticism about post-modernism. “How many NASA staff responsible for the most recent shuttle mission, we wonder, failed to complete even a Masters degree in rocket science at university?” ask Lucy and Mickler.“Now we think Mr Slattery knows as much about postmodernism as we do about rocket science, but of course that’s not how he sees it.”

Now I may be a Fairfax journalist who lives in inner-city Sydney but even I think there is some substance in Slattery’s concerns about modern syllabus. However, in Lucy and Mickler’s eyes this puts him in the same camp as the other six columnists. “Like other conservatives, deep down  Slattery’s a book burner,” the conclude grandly.

What makes the last sentence even more offensive is that it is also ungrammatical. And perhaps, this last sentence is an illustration of the very point Slattery makes; theories of cultural theory can be taught to the exclusion of the fundamentals of the English language.

One point highlighted by Mickler and Lucy is the shift in the political and cultural landscape between the Baby Boomer generation and those who are younger; between a generation whose outlook was shaped by the Cold War and post-War full employment and a generation shaped by the internet, The Simpsons and, god forbid, post-modern theory. It is no coincidence that both the subjects and the authors of this book are all over the age of 40; they are all hung up fighting yesterday’s battles.

Hopefully, those who read the War on Democracy will use the skills and independence of thought derived from the study of things like post-modernism theory to recognise the book’s abundant flaws. That would be an irony that even the authors should appreciate.