How a leisurely Sunday afternoon read two weeks ago confirmed that the bien pensant left is the biggest asset of the far right, and more destructive of Western ideals than anyone cares to admit.
The reading session started out with Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s scathing condemnation of the Brisbane Writers Festival (BWF).
I’ve not read Flanagan’s novels, but I am aware they have been well-received by critics, and he’s won awards for some of them. His prose as a commentator certainly turned out to be smooth, and his arguments impeccable.
In summary, Flanagan’s point was that ‘uninviting’ Bob Carr and Germaine Greer from this year’s BWF, to be held early in September, was unconscionable, regardless of whether you disagree strongly with their respective views on various issues.
Flanagan made deliciously withering remarks about the BWF’s acting chief executive, Ann McLean, for justifying this decision by stating that Carr might talk about his latest book, and that his presence might not align with the interests of several festival sponsors. Greer, on the other hand, is accused of likely hogging the media limelight, leaving other writers unmentioned!
Carr might talk about his Book? At a writers’ festival? Whatever will they think of next. And Greer might drum up media coverage for the festival? Shhh. Be quiet! We don’t want just anyone knowing about the event.
I wondered how and why such imbecilic comments could have come about, so I looked her up. The Brisbane Writers Festival web site gives the following as her professional profile:
Ann McLean identifies first as a creative producer, working alongside individual creatives to achieve their goals. She drives the success of arts organisations, deftly managing people and projects, the results of which are felt long after they have been delivered. Previously, as Executive Director of Ausdance Queensland, Ann’s role was that of business manager, enterprise developer and producer. As Topology’s General Manager, Ann shaped and repositioned the brand, and consolidated its touring programs. As Marketing Coordinator for Flying Arts, Ann strengthened her affinity for regional cultural communities.
In her element developing strategic partnerships, or working on new ideas with like-minded souls, Ann brings her love of the arts, a life-long commitment to her own practice, and the vision to believe in the value and impact that creatives bring about.
I’ve written some PR twaddle in my time, but these paragraphs are right up there with the very worst I’ve ever read. You could be forgiven for wondering whether McLean is in fact a yoga instructor turned hustler. What is not in doubt is that there is not a word in it that seems to qualify her to steer a writers’ anything. It’s not good enough to compress writing into a general ‘arts’ bracket. Would we accept a street graffiti artist as qualified to oversee a ballet company; smartarse comments to the effect ‘why not’ aside, this just wouldn’t happen.
Suffice it to say you should read Flanagan’s words about McLean yourself. He is very clever about being devastating. And so are some of his conclusions:
Does this mean money chooses which writers you hear – and don’t hear – at the BWF? Exactly when did the Brisbane Writers festival become the Brisbane Corporate festival? And since when did writing in Australia answer to corporate dictate?
There are questions that should be answered by the BWF. Why were Carr and Greer blackballed? And by whom? When did the BWF stop seeing its role as supporting writers ahead of corporations? Is Greer being dropped because her views on rape are not those of the prevailing orthodoxy? Is Carr being dropped because of his views on Israel or population?
Most interesting, to me, in Flanagan’s piece, though, was his castigation of the 2016 BWF organizers for denouncing one of their speakers, American author Lionel Shriver, after a ridiculous social media lynch mobbing, instigated and led by professional social media narcissist Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
Flanagan’s piece linked back to Abdel-Magied’s rant, but also to the text of Shriver’s speech. I thought it interesting that Abdel-Magied was published days earlier than Shriver, meaning readers could not, at the time, have formed their own informed opinion. More on the older controversy in a moment.
Flanagan went on to consider the Junot Diaz affair. The American Pulitzer Prize-winning author who cancelled his speaking engagements in Australia after being accused of having forcibly kissed a woman some years earlier.
Flanagan didn’t have to spell it out, but one of the most troubling aspects of #MeToo is that allegations are treated by too many people and organisations as proof of wrongdoing. In Western jurisprudence there is a general principle of innocence until guilt is proven. Usually in a court of law. Social media lynch mobbing, however, has created an environment in which mere accusation is already cause for condemnation. And it strikes me that this lynch mob is likely to have encouraged spurious, malicious, and attention seeking allegations.
The presumption of innocence is a principle written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Is that principle to be abolished by tweet storm?
As Flanagan said of his own musings on the affair: ‘None of this is to argue for or against Junot Diaz. But is it to be the case that Australian writers’ festivals will abandon any writer once social media turns against them? And what if the mob have it wrong?’ Quite so.
It is difficult to summarize Flanagan without losing some of his nuance, but he made some comments I thought were priceless. Like these:
Beneath their determined, if dreary, attempts at funkiness and fashion, beyond the latest New Yorker sensation imported for our provincial enlightenment, past the wearying social media feeds with their ersatz excitement, writers’ festivals now run the risk of running with dogma, with orthodoxy, with the mob – with fear, in other words – and with money. It’s the new Victorian age wearing a hipster beard.
Of course, not all writers’ festivals are like this. But the large ones are increasingly becoming that way. If they were to rename themselves “Festival of Safe Ideas”, or “Celebration of Conventional Thinking”, or “Festival Approved by Twitter Bots” I wouldn’t mind. But having dropped two writers because, it would seem, of what they have written, for Brisbane to call itself a writers’ festival smacks of false advertising.
The individual examples of Shriver, Diaz, Carr and Greer, all point to a larger, more disturbing trend. Writers’ festivals, like other aspects of the literary establishment such as prizes, have in recent years become less and less about books and more and more about using their considerable institutional power to enforce the new orthodoxies, to prosecute social and political agendas through reward and punishment.
After Flanagan’s piece, I turned to the text of the speech made by American author Lionel Shriver (it was interesting for me to note that ‘Shriver’ is an Indo-European root-word, and like it’s contemporary German, ‘Schreiber’, means ‘writer’).
Her speech begins by revealing that the festival organisers had intended her to speak about ‘community and belonging’. My eyebrows inched towards my hairline. Dictating a topic is one thing, but could there be a more asinine one than ‘community and belonging’? Were the topics decided on by some primary school kids cowed into poluitically correct thinking by the teacher?
The topic I had submitted instead was “fiction and identity politics,” which may sound on its face equally dreary.
But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Quite. This has been my perception of quite a bit of what goes on the Australia’s alleged ‘arts’ scene. Lip service to bien pensantism.
Shriver was succinct in describing the intent of identity politics:
Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other people’s attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
It’s an absurd notion, really. It removes the most basic common ground: we are all human beings, and all share in human aspirations. And yet we are encouraged by the orthodoxy of identity politics to fracture any chance at human solidarity, playing off against each other instead, like street gangs, and perpetually eclipsed by vested interests who find fractured groups much easier to control and distract than a united population.
Shriver’s point, though, is that writers can hardly be prevented from trying to imagine characters and situations that involve locales and ethnicities far beyond their own. If that were forbidden, as identity politics warriors seem to demand, there would be no literature. In effect, Western literature would come to an end, to be replaced entirely with narcissistic self-reflection or arid propaganda. Somewhat like Soviet literature under Stalin.
I’m unreservedly with Shriver when she says:
I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.
I’d add that even rural life can be enhanced by embracing the idea that people don’t need to share ethnicity or social class to benefit from making common causes in their mutual interests.
Shriver is on point to remind everyone that writers beg, borrow, and steal every idea and theme known, and perhaps create new ones in the process. Moreover, fiction writers ought not to be constrained by the idiotic notion of ‘authenticity’. There would be no fiction if it had to adhere to ‘facticity’. Shriver is right to condemn ‘the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity”’, because ‘fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake’, ‘the ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction’. That simple truth seems to escape most of the people Shriver calls the culture police.
Similarly, Shriver rightly castigates the notion that there must be ‘diversity’ in stories. No, no, no! The author decides whether diversity advances plot and themes. If it does not, homogenous ‘straight and white’ is as good as ‘gay and yellow’ or any other monocultural, monosexual mix. Yet, as Shriver points out, if you do include some token diversity, you will be torn to shreds for culturally misappropriating someone else’s identity and experiences!
That’s a plainly cretinous edifice of ideology.
I am reminded here of Raymond Chandler, who wrote in 1950 to his British publisher, Jamie Hamilton, expressing the view:
A classical education saves you from being fooled by pretentiousness, which is what most current fiction is too full of. In this country the mystery writer is looked down on as sub-literary merely because he is a mystery writer, rather than for instance a writer of social significance twaddle. To a classicist – even a very rusty one – such an attitude is merely a parvenu insecurity. When people ask me, as they occasionally do, why I don’t try my hand at a serious novel, I don’t argue with them; I don’t even ask them what they mean by a serious novel. It would be useless. They wouldn’t know. The question is parrot-talk.
What suggests itself from this opinion, in the context of my present consideration, is that, then as now, self-appointed cultural arbiters lack the education to understand the ridiculous things they say and demand.
In the end that turned out to be true nowhere more powerfully than for Shriver’s detractors in 2016. But back to the author herself. I especially enjoyed the following summation of the current problem in the USA, apocryphal or not–since I can read between the lines:
Writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser on Vox, the author of the essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Scare Me” describes higher education’s “current climate of fear” and its “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity” – and I am concerned that this touchy ethos, in which offendedness is used as a weapon, has spread far beyond academia, in part thanks to social media.
It seems inescapably true that social media have made it easy for even the most simple-minded of people to yell and scream. To latch onto some bandwagon without understanding its purpose. To join a lynch mob just for the sake of harming someone else, regardless of guilt. Worse than such people, however, are others in positions of authority and responsibility who listen to such mad dogs bray. It’s Mao’s Red Guards all over again, re-casting a cultural revolution in the West.
Shriver’s point is even sharper. Never mind the real. Fiction is not that, but seems to be under increasingly similar attacks:
Ten years ago, I gave the opening address of this same festival, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others – because if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane we’ve been losing.
You should read the entire speech before reading Abdel-Magied’s rant to fully understand the irrationality of the latter’s rhetoric, which seems to have completely misunderstood Shriver’s points. Maybe even ignored them entirely in favour of deliberately false assertions about what they were.
Even though Abdel-Magied admitted walking out on the speech before it was finished, she felt entitled to argue that Shriver was mocking identity politics and political correctness. I rather thought Shriver was warning about the authoritarian aspects.
Abdel-Magied went on to propose that the speech ‘was a poisoned package wrapped up in arrogance and delivered with condescension’. Fair enough. If that’s how you choose to interpret a tone, say so, but don’t demand that this was an objective reality.
And then came pure ideology, not backed by any convinicing arguments other than opinion not admitted as opinion:
The stench of privilege hung heavy in the air, and I was reminded of my “place” in the world.
See, here is the thing: if the world were equal, this discussion would be different. But alas, that utopia is far from realised.
It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.
I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.
So access – or lack thereof – is one piece.
There is no credible evidence that the Australian and Western literary establishments haven’t bent over backwards to create access, to the point of bestowing honours on bad writers with unsellable works. But that doesn’t seem enough for Abdel-Magied.
The history of colonisation, where everything was taken from a people, the world over. Land, wealth, dignity … and now identity is to be taken as well?
In making light of the need to hold onto any vestige of identity, Shriver completely disregards not only history, but current reality. The reality is that those from marginalised groups, even today, do not get the luxury of defining their own place in a norm that is profoundly white, straight and, often, patriarchal. And in demanding that the right to identity should be given up, Shriver epitomised the kind of attitude that led to the normalisation of imperialist, colonial rule: “I want this, and therefore I shall take it.”
The attitude drips of racial supremacy, and the implication is clear: “I don’t care what you deem is important or sacred. I want to do with it what I will. Your experience is simply a tool for me to use, because you are less human than me. You are less than human …”
That was the message I received loud and clear.
Clearly there is only one correct view on literature, history, and identity: Abdel-Magied’s. That’s what I could call cultural Stalinism, as I’ll explain shortly. But not only did she find meaning in Shriver’s speech that was simply not there, she all but accused Shriver of being responsible and guilty of the crimes of colonialism committed for centuries. Conveniently ignoring for the time being that not all colonialists in history have been Caucasians.
It’s the kind of attitude that lays the foundation for prejudice, for hate, for genocide.
What a twit this woman must be. To invoke genocide as a motive for a writers’ speech about facing down censorship.
Abdel-Magied’s rhetoric was fractured, illogical, and reminiscent of a teenager’s rebellious rejection of things as they are, demanding that things should be perfect according to notions that might be charming, but remain unworkable and scarily authoritarian in the end. Authoritarian because in utopia no one gets a choice; there is one yardstick of perfection, and offenders will be purged.
It is the precise opposite of pluralism, liberal democracy, and Western culture. For all its faults, it is still more progressive, inclusive, and forgiving than any other culture I can think of. In China Shriver is unlikely to have been able to deliver her speech, but Abdel-Magied is likely to have been imprisoned or simply shot for her childish temper-tantrums. Likely the same fate would await her in many predominantly Muslim countries.
She has a large chip on her shoulder about Caucasians and her own skin colour, but no qualms at all making money from her ranting, doing nothing concrete at all to change things for the better, and pandering solely to her own ego.
The whole reading experience reminds me of my own encounters on Google Plus, five or six years ago, rubbishing the politically cretinous crowd and their damaging effects on Western culture and its various societies.
It is so plain to me, and yet so opaque to such cultural police: They effectively splinter the political left by forming cliques of bratty children who refuse to cooperate in any endeavour to keep the real and materially menacing fascists, plutocrats, oligarchs, and populists at bay. That is precisely the effect of pursuing identity politics as zero sum games: my identity group must have its demands met at the expense of all others or we’ll sulk and support no compromise in which everyone gets less than they want, but more than the nothing that such splintering guarantees.
And the ridiculous concept of cultural appropriation proposes that we do not have the common ground of all being human. That we must be prevented from identifying with each other across all gender, social, and ethnic boundaries. That we must be enemies now because we may have been enemies in the past.
All of that twaddle being wheeled out on Google Plus back then led me to write an essay on political correctness in 2015, in which I clarified the origins of the term ‘political correctness’. Origins of which both the proponents and opponents of that practice seem to be largely unaware. It seems to me that the more extreme the view on political correctness, the more ignorance lay behind it. What I wrote in 2015 included the following historical overview:
… Lenin … was an enthusiastic politicizer of engineering and science methods, paradoxically along the lines of the American doctrine of industrial efficiency–Taylorism. Lenin sought to fuse this technical rationality with politics to inject into his party’s ideology the same kind of deterministic ‘accuracy’ or ‘correctness’ he saw as underpinning engineering and scientific principles. Anyone who does not immediately recognise this enterprise as absurd and surreal in its subversion of human logics may in fact be a Marxist-Leninist! I suspect this is increasingly true for a great number of Americans who do not recognise themselves as such at all, and many others in Europe who would prefer not to give voice to that recognition.
To accomplish this fusion Lenin began to talk and write about ‘partiinost’, meaning party spirit, and then ‘politicheskaya pravil’nost’, meaning political correctness. This in conjunction with increasing rhetoric about correct and incorrect positions: trends that ‘threaten to divert the movement from the correct path’ with correctly defined tasks and arguments comprising ‘the correctness of our position’ (from What Is To Be Done, 1902); opposition to ‘individual elements and trends not fully consistent, not completely Marxist and not altogether correct’ that require ‘periodical “cleansings” of its ranks’ (from ‘Party Organisation and Party Literature’, 1905); defense of Lenin’s uncompromising attitude as ‘the correctness of our resolution’, that imply accusations from him of ‘“Treachery” is not “an abusive term”; it is the only scientifically and politically correct term with which to express the actual facts about, and the actual aspirations of, the bourgeoisie’ (from ‘How Comrade Plekhanov Argues About Social-Democratic Tactics’, 1906); and persistent mentions of ‘correct historical evaluation of economic development’ (in ‘A Revision of the Party Programme’, 1917, and subsequent works).
It was the assertion that only the party represented the correct interpretation of Marx, and the correct manifesto of action and thought. Implicit in this formula, too, was the idea that no non-Marxist basis for politics needed to be addressed at all! This might be seen historically as the beginning of the secular theocratic turn by which communism assumed the supreme, tyrannical authority dealing in unquestioning faith, and pursuing the persecution of dissent as heresy. Lenin was quite open about justifying the terror of mass murder as a necessary adjunct of the revolution, and as a ‘correct’ implementation of Marxism. Stalin adopted this approach virtually without change, calling it Marxism-Leninism, and setting himself up as the sole international authority on the ‘correct’ interpretation, implementation, and methods of communism. Methods Drucker says American academics had absorbed in the 1940s, and that were thrown back at them by McCarthy in the 1950s.
At the time I accused the politically deranged brigade of being Stalinists, for emulating Stalin’s implementation of Lenin’s ideas. Since that time, though, I’ve changed my opinion slightly. There may be those on the Left, such as it is, still clinging to Marxism-Leninism, or to Maoism, with its own incarnation of political correctness, exercised during the murderous Cultural Revolution. But they are a tiny minority of the hysterically shrieking social media mobs today, demanding adherence to irrational positions on identity politics, cultural appropriation, virtue signalling, and other asinine pursuits.
The majority are not politically correct so much as politically cretinous. Unlike the Soviet incarnation of the concept, which had, at least, a unifying center, today’s proponents have no single party platform to consolidate their demands, which change at will and create no benefit to anyone. Except perhaps to the narcissistic self-promoters like Yassmin Abdel Magied.
All the contemporary political cretins do is seek to weaponized the concept in the full expectation that the louder they make their demands under cover of ‘correctness’, the more likely it is that they will get what they ask for. As such, the politics thus promoted are entirely alienated from the people they are supposed to defend, and even from the people who espouse them. The outcome is always entirely destructive, laying waste to any chance at improvement, and dismantling decades of efforts by earnest people to reform and enhance social and civil institutions and practices.
Worse, these cretinous politics reveal as intolerant bigots the very people arguing against bigotry. A strategy based on vilification is no less racist, bigoted, and hateful than its strawman targets.
It ensures permanent artificial divisions between people on the basis of supposed solidarity solely between members of the same ‘identity; (ethnicity or sex). What utter nonsense! That’s street gang logic. If you ain’t wearing my colours, you ain’t my bro or ‘ho.
I emphatically deny any solidarity between me and men like Peter Dutton, Malcolm Turnbull, Waleed Aly, Bill Shorten, Tom Cruise, or the bloke next door. Not on the sole basis of skin colour, or gender, or social class. Not on any basis at all. I know that the same applies to women, ethnic minorities, and so on. Solidarity arises from common causes, not common identities or common adolescent temper tantrums. And I don’t need some half-arsed social media warrior to tell me to think differently.
The artificial social and political divisions thus created prevent people on the Left, and of more liberal thinkers, from working together to prevent government and bureaucratic takeovers by the real threat: reactionaries, fascists, plutocrats, demagogues, and so on. That’s why Trump won in the USA, why Brexit was successful at the polls, why Germany remains committed to destructive Reaganomics, why Putin is laughing up his sleeve, why Australia has a government of incompetent clowns, and why China thinks it needs military muscle and posturing to survive in that environment.
There’s something else associated with political cretinism: it demands absolutely that people, particularly men, be forced to behave as if they had no natural inclinations. The fact is that we have been raping, pillaging, and murdering since human history began. All of us, not just Caucasians. To address these urges and outcomes, Western civilization developed the notion of the social contract, in which individuals surrendered their will to act anti-socially in return for certain protections and collective benefits. That’s really the basis of liberal democracy.
The political cretins want to undo that social contract by claiming they have the right and duty to behave anti-socially, while others do not. Ironically this is almost precisely the Nietzschean notion that the mediocre rise by restricting the capabilities and rights of the gifted and strong. Nietzsche or not, political derangement is the biggest single threat to liberal democracy, and there are grounds to argue it has already destroyed that polity.
In this environment it is little wonder that so many people have turned their backs on civil discourse and a commitment to liberal democracy.
There’s a lot of talk in social media that we must fear the far right, or demagogues, or plutocrats. We only need to fear them because a new class of politically cretinous narcissists is busily at work making effective opposition to them impossible.
In those terms, Abdel-Magied and others like her are the very people guilty of prolonging social injustices they complain of. In fact, they have everything to lose if real change is made for the better because they will no longer have anything to condemn or bleat about. The most concerning aspect of that simple truth is that people with authority and power appear too ignorant and weak to dismiss the hysterical shrieking for what it is.