Last week, right wing radio personality Howard Sattler interviewed the Prime Minister and asked her if her partner were gay. Not because Sattler thought the Prime Minister’s partner were gay. No, no. Perish the thought. It was because there were ‘rumours’ and ‘people’ were wondering.
Keeping with the tradition of seeking apologies from the rational members of groups when the fringe elements go wonky, allow me to apologise on behalf of Australian conservatives to the rest of the community. We are sorry about Sattler. Not all conservatives are that obnoxious.
But perhaps conservatives have something more for which to apologise. Over the past few days, the community has been able to dissect and interrogate the ‘Sattler Incident’ as if it were an isolated event. On the same day as the comments, Channel 10’s The Project interviewed right wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen for her views on the issue. Albrechtsen thought that the ‘sacking of Howard Sattler was an overreaction’, even though she considered the comments to be ‘horrible’, ‘stupid’, ‘impertinent’, ‘offensive’, and ‘crossed the line pretty comprehensively’. Albrechtsen then compared this comment to a poster in Tanya Plibersek‘s office which suggests that the Leader of the Opposition is homophobic (as if these attacks are somehow comparable).
Even the infamous Piers Ackerman was able to claim on Insiders that the question was ‘probably the most stupid thing [he’d] ever heard on public broadcasting’, before criticising the Prime Minister for her response, and then claiming that the rumour was circulating the Press Gallery.
Albrechtsen and Ackerman were able to frame the incident as an isolated event — one lone lunatic turned rogue extremist. But this framing hides an uncomfortable truth on the right wing of the commentariat: this is what right wing commentary has become.
When we think of right wing columnists is Australia, the vast majority of us can only think of examples of outrageous behaviour. Andrew Bolt — mostly unknown outside of Victoria — is vaguely remembered as the guy who made offensive comments about ‘white skinned Aborigines’. Right wing think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies, routinely make bombastic comments for link bait. But the right wing troll par excellence is Alan Jones. Even before he became headline news with his comments about the Prime Minister’s father dying of shame, he would be returned to the public’s consciousness every few weeks by ABC’s Media Watch. His audience consists of a few hundred listeners in Sydney when he’s making run of the mill obnoxious comments, become the audience increases to thousands of national viewers when he says something really rank.
We even import this rubbish. When Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi invited Islamophobic Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, to Australia for the purpose of harassing Australian Muslims, it was to stir attention (Bernardi, of course, sees his brand awareness skyrocket when he makes antisocial utterances). When Viscount Monckton’s frequent visits to Australia saw diminishing returns in attention, he suggested that Ross Garnaut was a Nazi.
This sort of behaviour from conservatives would have been unimaginable forty years ago. You can’t imagine Winston Churchill or Robert Menzies resorting to this sort of gutter claptrap. It seems difficult to reconcile our position as custodians of decency, morality, and social values when we trash the public conversation like this.
So what’s changed?
It’s commonplace to talk about the ‘marketplace of ideas’. Under this narrative, opinion writers are producers of content which we, the public, consume as ‘cultural goods’. Trivially, a successful opinion writer is one who can produce content which is consumed by large audiences. Ideas which attract larger audiences are more valuable in this market than ideas which don’t. On the one hand, they increase the traffic on a website, circulation of a paper, or viewership of a television programme earning the publisher income from advertisements. On the other — in organisations which do not rely on advertising funds, such as the ABC — the increased attention is a proxy for relevance.
As with any industry, market forces distort the production of goods available for consumption. When it comes to the marketplace of ideas, the overwhelming majority of consumers are people who are progressive. And it’s the character of the audience determines the demand.
On the progressive side of the spectrum, we see popular writers who champion social causes, trying to connect with an audience which agrees with them. The idea is not to challenge or persuade the audience, but to speak to their bellyfeel understanding of injustices in the world. Theodor Adorno wrote about this stultification of thought in the 1951 essay Cultural Criticism and Society:
The notion of the free expression of opinion, indeed, that of intellectual freedom itself in bourgeois society, upon which cultural criticism is founded, has its own dialectic. For while the mind extricated itself from a theological-feudal tutelage, it has fallen increasingly under the anonymous sway of the status quo. This regimentation, the result of the progressive societalisation of all human relations, did not simply confront the mind from without; it immigrated into its immanent consistency. […] Not only does the mind mould itself for the sake of its marketability, and thus reproduce the socially prevalent categories. Rather, it grows to resemble ever more closely the status quo even where it subjectively refrains from making a commodity of itself.
But Adorno’s caution about cultural criticism doesn’t explain the current generation of conservative writers. Far from falling under the anonymous sway of the status quo, conservative writers increase traffic by upsetting the audience. Here’s Andrew Bolt in his Herald Sun column about Andrew Goodes:
Goodes heard the abuse, and pointed her out to security. A bit over the top, since she’s so young, but Goodes has Aboriginal ancestry and no doubt understandably feels such insults more keenly than I think reasonable.
A stupid statement, absolutely, but links to it were blogged and reblogged around the blogosphere. As far as the marketplace of ideas goes, this ludicrousness was a highly valuable cultural good. Ibidem, the comments of Jones about the Prime Minister’s mother, the comments of Viscount Monckton about Ross Garnaut, &c., &c., until, finally, the comments from Howard Sattler about the Prime Minister’s partner.
Howard Sattler was not an isolated incident at the fringes of right wing commentary. He was its inevitable telos.
And we’re stuck. On the one hand, we need to call out and reprimand people who make offensive statements. On the other hand, it just gives them precisely what they desire: an audience.
As a conservative writer in his 20s, the future does not look bright and rosy for conservative commentary. We won’t discuss policies. We won’t discuss ideas. But we will troll the public with offensive garbage just so we can bask in the flames of lefty outrage.
- Julia Gillard: DJ Suspended Over Gay Questions (news.sky.com)
- ABC cultivates interest in Gillard’s life that Howard Sattler continues (redearthbluesky.wordpress.com)
- Sattler sacked over PM interview (smh.com.au)
- Julia Gillard: ‘I don’t know how she finds the courage to get out of bed in the morning.’ (fairmediaalliance.wordpress.com)
- On the Duty of a Representative: Edmund Burke (blackstoneinitiative.com)
- Conservatism and the Limitations of Self-Reliance (commentarymagazine.com)
- Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman – review (guardian.co.uk)
- Identity, family, marriage: our core conservative values have been betrayed | Roger Scruton (guardian.co.uk)