Rage before reason

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, June 3, 2014


MOBILISING the masses is easy these days. All it takes is a couple of dozen nut-jobs, a semblance of firm policing, the presence of a television camera and you have what The Sydney Morning Herald likes to call “a wave of popular unrest.”

“Waves of popular unrest” were once confined to the foreign pages. The Abbott regime is now so despised, apparently, that ripples of rebellion are lapping our shores. “Senior government ministers are signalling a willingness to compromise on key budget reforms after a wave of popular unrest,” read the Herald’s splash 10 days ago.

“A willingness to compromise” is what we used to call negotiating with the Senate, but for the gallery it is just another sign that Tony Abbott is desperate.

This commentary dressed up as news echoes the inkblot test used by psychologist Hermann Rorschach to determine personality. Like those who see dark monsters in a random symmetrical pattern, commentators are predisposed to read into Abbott’s actions whatever they want to see. Once you make up your mind that the current prime minister is morally irredeemable, an insignificant wink is replete with meaning, a post hoc justification for a judgment already formed. As Mike Carlton pointed out last week, Abbott’s wink may not have amounted to a hill of beans, but for “one giddy turn of the news cycle … it reminded a lot of people exactly why they dislike Abbott so much”.

Animosity towards Abbott is a cultural and political paradox that demands an explanation, but you won’t get one from his detractors. They loathe him absolutely, but they have apparently forgotten why. It takes a prime ministerial wink to jog their memories. Julia Gillard too was unpopular and attracted unsavoury protests, but it is hard to remember the word “hate” — one of the bluntest expressions of emotion in the English language — being thrown around so casually.

Ugly slogans were sometimes used to attack Gillard, but the worst of them could be printed in a family newspaper without being masked by asterisks. The witch ditchers were content to stand on the lawn. The Abbott haters storm buildings in which cabinet members are speaking, damaging windows, overturning tables, pouring beer over a participant’s head and smashing the bottle at his feet. Phone camera footage from a May 22 event at Sydney University shows conservative students trying to hold back the doors as a mob tries to force its way in, chanting “Tory scum, here we come”.

It is not just the students who find it difficult to state their case without resorting to profanities. Grown up middle-class people do it too in the uninhibited environment of Twitter. Just follow #TonyAbbottMHR.

It is the politics of emotion, rather than the politics of reason, a phenomenon the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says plays a much larger part in forming opinions that we are often prepared to admit. When asked to explain deeply held moral views in psychological experiments, Haidt found subjects became “morally dumbfounded — rendered speechless by the inability to explain”.

Inarticulacy is the hallmark of the anti-Abbott movement. The old Left could at least say what it wanted. The new Left — if that is what this is — relies on gut feeling. We are urged to Occupy Melbourne and March in May, but the names of these movements and much of the literature they produce fail to answer a simple question. Why?

On the cultish fringes of political debate, intemperance and illiberalism are seen as the natural response to a government too wicked for words. “The situation calls for an offensive of protest, disruption and anger — not politeness, patience or compliance,” writes Ridah Hassan in a recent edition of Red Flag, the newspaper of Socialist Alternative. “Specifically, we need more harassment of Liberal ministers. We have been demanding that they be held responsible for their policies and that they not be able to smoke their cigars, drink their French champagne or address their cronies in peace.”

Hassan’s arguments are cartoonish. Julie Bishop, she tells us, “gained her ticket into the upper ranks of Liberal swine as a defence lawyer for industrialists.” Christopher Pyne’s devious intentions are clear from “the permanent smirk on his hideous face”.  It is Abbott, however, who they loathe utterly and completely. “F. . k Tony Abbott” has become their call to arms, irritating those on both the Left and the Right who are old-fashioned enough to believe that persuasive arguments and the building of consensus are the best ways to achieve change.

The new socialist rabble appears confused, to say the least, on the politics of sexuality. One moment they are chanting “racist, sexist, anti-queer” outside a debate that includes gay Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson. The next some of thm are declaring “Tony Abbott is a faggot.”

Sensible participants in last September’s Marriage Equality Rally were appalled when a special rainbow edition of the eff-you-Abbott poster was plastered on lamp-posts along the route. “Marriage equality is about love not hate, people not politics,” wrote Rodney Croome in an open letter to the organisers, Community Action Against Homophobia.

“If you are angry at Tony Abbott’s other policies, the election result, or the Australian people, stop using marriage equality as a stage to play that out. If you are genuinely committed to marriage equality, withdraw your poster, and repudiate those narrow paths paved with anger and fear that lead only away from reform. The movement for marriage equality must be broad enough to embrace all those Australians who support the reform, whatever their origin, sexuality, faith or political outlook. But it cannot be so broad that it permits hatred and abuse to go unchallenged.”

Veteran socialists, like John Passant, are also disaffected, believing Socialist Alternative’s antics will alienate, rather than emancipate, the true working class. In late 2012 he wrote a lengthy blog in defence of the organisation. A year later he wrote another explaining why he was quitting. “It is a caricature of real Marxism,” he wrote. “F. . k Tony Abbott is a juvenile slogan of adolescent angst, not serious political engagement.”

In today’s world of eff-you politics, Passant is an anachronism, and not because he wants to see the overthrow of capitalism. He is an oddity because he insists on articulating his case.