When Tom Switzer has something to say, he deserves to be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. Not even deranged left ideologues could have invented a more stereotypical silver-spoon neo-fascist: Sydney’s North Shore; private school; Sydney University; linertarian think tank; climate change denier; and obligatory ‘other side’ presenter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) radio’s ‘Between the Lines’.
Switzer, like many others in the Australian polity, claims to be a ‘conservative’ when really, he is something much more right wing, echoing the irrational, populist, doctrinaire neo-fascist rhetorics of British Tories and American Republicans.
That certainly seems to be the direction he’s charted for the Sydney-based Centre for Intendent Studies, of which he’s the executive director.
Writing about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), those views come into sharp focus. He would prefer the ABC news editorial policy to reflect an arrogant disdain for liberal democracy and Australian demographic groups that reflect his own vision for a white, nationalist, bigoted, authoritarian Australia.
He thinks the ABC should reflect his ideological perspective, in which the ‘riff-raff’ know their place, and born-to-rule white boys from ‘good families’ on Sydney’s North Shore would naturally rise to determine the nation’s affairs, while an illusory Britannia and Amerikaner Empire rule the world outside, with Australia as a loyal vassal state.
Nothing he says, however, makes a clear case against the ABC for addressing failures in commercial media, by telling the stories, and offering the perspectives, of people otherwise invisible in national political discussions dominated by antiquated, discredited neoliberal political economy—women, first Australians, migrants, the ideologically convenient LGBTQ construct (I dispute this is a homogenous group with uniform interests), and especially the poor, including those who are also disabled, sick, or elderly.
As a white, middle-aged man who has experienced both enormous privilege and dispiriting disadvantage, it has been easy for me, for many years, to ignore the political powerlessness and mean-spirited, populist demonization of the people arbitrarily aggregated in those groups. But since I have been actively looking for that widening gap in national consciousness, I have developed some sympathy for the view that being excluded from public life on a regular basis breeds a smouldering resentment and disengagement from civic society that is definitely not in the national interest.
It is, effectively, a disenfranchisement of more than half the national population—ignored at policy-making levels for its lack of political influence and social or economic power.
If the ABC does something to address this gap, it does a better job of representing its constituency than Parliament and the right wing extremists currently in government. It also seems to be successfully reflecting the perspectives of demographics ignored or excoriated by commercial media organizations.
- No one could accuse the Murdoch propaganda empire of representing anything but its owner’s interests, which have leaned heavily to neo-fascism in the USA, the UK, and now also Australia. Probably to distract everyone’s attention from his own brand of anti-democratic, slash-and-burn, robber-baron plutocracy.
- The Nine Entertainment group, chaired by former John Howard treasurer and continuing Murdoch puppet, Peter Costello, is more moderate only by a matter of degrees.
- The Fairfax stable has been moving steadily to the right for more than a decade, and the Australian Financial Review openly embraces the long-discredited plutocrat neoliberal ideology best summarized as ‘trickle down’ theory, which has been the justification for wealth concentration and increasing immiseration of ever widening numbers of citizens since the Reagan era.
- Aside from pandering to low-brow titillation based on a psychosexually repressed prurience, spanning all demographic divides, the other private television and radio networks have been quick to embrace a bigoted, nationalist populism for the sensationalist headlines and soundbites it offers, and the laziness of not investigating or reporting on news rather than merely recycling nonsense political rhetorics.
On that basis the ABC’s representation of the less-than-influential, and less-than-militant groups in our society strikes me as distinctly more fair and balanced than its private counterparts.
Switzer maintains the most tired of right wing critiques: ‘Conservatives, like some social democrats, have long believed that the public broadcaster all too often flouts the statutory guidelines that insist on impartiality.’
That argument contains an American subversion of the concept of ‘impartiality’. It demands equivalence for irrationality with rationality. In its simplest terms, it is the claim that flat-Earth beliefs should be given the same credibility by media as rational, science-based conceptions of the universe. The objective is to strip away from the concept of impartiality the objective criteria underlying Fourth Estate selection of newsworthiness and of credible, rational analysis.
Impartiality has never meant, and does not now mean, that any claim deserves to be treated as credible just because it is advanced by a public figure, political party, or identity/interest group.
The American subversion of impartiality is based largely on claims from the religious right (immensely more influential there than in Australia) that personal ‘revelations’ of divine will, meaning of course any kind of delusional conception, must be embraced, without critical analysis or dissent, as legitimate foundations for public discourse and political demands.
By arguing this particular interpretation of impartiality, Switzer exposes himself as a champion of the school of thought that demands journalism has no business selecting, sifting, and analysing stories. A kind of journalism that never really existed in the West. What he really demands is propaganda stenography for an official party line, the way it is favoured by despots, and practiced most conspicuously today in North Korea, Iran, and China.
Ideologies always assume that one idea is sufficient to·explain everything … and that no experience can teach anything … . The danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought for the total explanation of an ideology and its Weltanschauung, is not … so much the risk of falling for some usually vulgar, always uncritical assumption as of exchanging the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think for the strait jacket of … some outside power.—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.
By Switzer’s own argument, the ABC often gives voice to ‘sides’ in political debates that have little or no representation, or to issues not favoured by the political class. Complaining that ‘conservatives’ don’t always get what they want from the ABC is actually an arrogant assertion that a minority viewpoint deserves to eclipse majority perspectives. Just one under-represented demographic in Australian society outnumbers Switzerian conservatives: immiserated women. Imagine how large that numerical disparity becomes when we add up all the under-represented groups which have less economic, political, and social power than Switzer’s right wing extremists.
Moreover, Switzer directly acknowledges that ‘progressives’ win cultural debates more often than ‘conservatives’ because the latter have turned their backs on intellectualism, erudition, rationality, and the capacity to put together a sustained and coherent argument on any issue, including in the domain of economics. This comes back to Arendt’s observation that the totalitarian impulse—neo-fascism in this case—robs its adherents of the power to think rationally, creatively, and innovatively because of an unreasoning adherence to ideology, such as the discredited economic neoliberalism, which sabotages thinking at the outset with fixed rules and objectives.
Intellect and education do not belong to progressives. It is merely the case that Australian public figures on the right have ignored both in favour of peddling neo-fascist populism and the rhetorics of bigotry and social division—because they think these have been ‘successful’ in the UK and the USA. Or worse, many on the right who do have education and intellect have remained silent when their more contemptible fellow travellers have claimed extremist territory for them all. That silence is always consent and collaboration.
I have often wished there were more erudite conservative spokespeople in Australian public life. Their absence tends to make many on the left intellectually flabby and stagnant. Sadly, even these flabby bien pensants run rings around their right wing opponents when it comes to rational argument and analysis, which is a loss for the entire nation.
Progressive intellectual hegemony is partly due to the fact that most people calling themselves conservatives today are nothing of the kind. It has never been conservative tradition to oppose progressive reforms, including welfare measures. Traditional conservatism merely opposes radical change, seen as too rapid to gauge harmful impacts on established institutions and practices.
Their rhetoric notwithstanding, the actions and policies of Coalition right wing extremists exposes them as the very kind of radicals they claim to oppose. They seek to vandalize or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy, not preserve or protect them. There’s nothing at all conservative about that, but it does look and smell like neo-fascist authoritarianism. Albeit a cowardly, timid kind that dare not speak its name.
Conversely, traditional conservatism is much closer to the policy positions of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) than of the right wing parties. Unfortunately for the nation, the cautious, sometimes cowardly plodding of well-meaning Labor politicians betrays a lack of the will to power necessary to successfully eclipse aggressive right wing radicals, particularly when the ALP openly demonstrates a preference for factional infighting to taking on and defeating neo-fascist bullies.
Switzer has some grounds for his critique of ‘political correctness’. A term that seems to have lost its meaning with overstatement and misapplication. Regardless of contemporary interpretations, political correctness is a Leninist-Stalinist concept, which insists that thought, action, and especially spoken or written words have to adhere to the ‘correct’ party line. To stray from that correctness is to commit a crime against the state.
Explicit in this conception is that the party dictates what is correct, and enforces punishment for transgressions. In other words, it is the abolition of independent thought, and the imposition of fixed ‘truths’. It is the secular equivalent of the Mediaeval Roman Church, with its many inquisitions, pogroms, and witch-hunts.
We can observe how this works by examining contemporary climate change ‘debates’, in which climate change denialism, as peddled by the political right, has no basis in fact, science, or evidence, but is pushed as worthy of equivalence with perspectives that are rational, evidence-based, and scientific.
Switzer’s own political correctness is an example of the intellectual incoherence right wing extremists are prone to: he argues that the ABC often displays ‘a left-liberal cultural groupthink’ that ‘routinely clouds its editorial output’, often expressing ‘an attitude or a tone of voice’ that ‘is more than likely a narrow, politically correct one’.
The effect of that ideology on editorial policy in news is to banish critical analysis, independent thought, and judgement. But Switzer offers no examples. Why not?
I didn’t have to search too hard to come up with one of my own. When reporting and commenting on the 2017 Uluru statement from the heart, the ABC fell into the trap of not critically analysing the statement itself, but appearing to excoriate its critics, from an undisclosed position of assumed intellectual superiority. What were the objectives evident in the statement? Were such objectives realistic and achievable? Was the statement in fact an abrogation of the mandate given to the gathering that developed it? Without answers to these questions, what is the basis of criticizing the critics of the Uluru statement? As far as I can tell, the ABC has never addressed those questions.
Imposed as ideology, political correctness is just like reactionaries pursuing the long-discredited idea of trickle-down economics as a rational policy position. There is simply no logical basis for that argument. All the cumulative evidence points to it as a failure to meet its own criteria (leading to repeated stock market and financial crises) or the outcome that concentrating wealth will inevitably lift people out of poverty rather than the reverse.
And herein lies a logical conclusion arising from Switzer’s own argument: what he wants is not the banishment of political correctness, just a switch to a kind of political correctness that favours his right wing perspective, which is just as inflexible and irrational as the left wing kind he seeks to criticize.
Political correctness stamps out critical analysis and the confidence to make the kind of judgements that are still necessary in credibly assessing all human endeavours. If that were not so, we could simply program a computer to remove all semblance of analysis and human judgement in news coverage to reflect only ideologically cleansed lies about human conduct and public affairs.
A corollary would be to do the same for politics, making representative government and liberal democracy entirely redundant, just the way Lenin and Stalin saw it.
Switzer’s demands are little more than ideological determinism, infantilizing all adults as needing to be controlled and supervised, the way convicts were in colonial Australia. I cannot see how totalitarianism of this kind is in the national interest. It diminishes us as a nation and as a people. It legitimizes instead the necessity for a ruling class to tell us all what to think, say, and do. Which were precisely the objectives of Leninist-Stalinist political correctness. And, ironically, also of the neo-fascist populists in the contemporary Liberal–National Coalition.
How closely political correctness and right wing extremist politics are aligned, and how much both work to atrophy independent thinking and judgement, is illustrated no more clearly than by a recent example set by the news media and the Prime Minister himself.
- In not reporting on Barnaby Joyce’s infidelity prior to a crucial by-election he campaigned in on ‘family values’, the news media has exposed itself as unreliable, negligent, and bound by ideological, not rational limitations.
- In proscribing sexual relations between ministers and staff, the PM has clearly admitted that even the nation’s elected leaders cannot be trusted to make sound judgements. And if they are not to be trusted with judgements about their private affairs, what hope is there for the public to trust MPs to act in the nation’s interests at all, let alone its best interests?
As an aside, it seems pretty evident that many politicians can indeed not be trusted to make sound judgements, and that the power they wield leads them to believe that common human decency, ethics, and integrity are all concepts that don’t apply to them.
How did the ‘bonk ban’ come about? Through the imbecility of a darling of the extreme right: Barnaby Joyce. A man barely capable of putting together a coherent sentence. A man who appears to be perpetually drunk. A man who was deputy prime minister in a government so unprincipled it could not resolve to pressure Joyce to resign for its own good, let alone that of the nation.
Switzer should not weep such crocodile tears about unfavourable reporting by the ABC when his own side in politics makes such a mess of things that even the Murdoch propaganda machine sees fit to publicize its imbecility.
While the realities of the day are that reactionaries and right wing extremists behave like uncouth clods, who deserve to be called out by news media for being that, Switzer would do better to focus on advice to his fellow travellers on lifting the intellectual and rational tenor of their policies and rhetorics.
Throwing stones inside his glass house at some illusory target beyond its fragile walls makes him come across as petulant in a perpetually juvenile manner.