Although I’m on the wrong side of the political spectrum, I enjoy reading Overland. I highly recommend it to others, in fact. Some of the writers they gather there are exceptional, insightful, witty, and clever. Jeff Sparrow’s writing about atheism is easily some of Australia’s best and I sincerely wish it were more widely read by New Atheist weirdoes.
As is inevitable for an organisation that wants to excel and push boundaries of discourse, sometimes Overland’s reach exceeds its grasp. This usually happens when the writer has absolutely no idea about the subject matter. Stephanie Convery’s recent article ‘The age of conservatism‘ is an excellent example of this.
I’ve written before about the problem with the asylum seeker debate and the way that it’s cynically trashed by various megaphones on all sides of the discussion. We characterise people who disagree with us as being driven by slogans and ulterior motives, and then frame our prejudices and assertions as unassailable facts. One of the key phrases in the ‘debate’ was from Kevin Rudd, who claimed that asylum seeker policy was suffering a ‘lurch to the right’. It’s never been entirely clear what a ‘lurch to the right’ meant, but it spoke to the intuitions of people on the left. Meanwhile, conservatives were left wondering how appealing to the prejudices of the working classes could ever constitute a ‘lurch to the right’.
Just so we’re all clear: I have no favourite when it comes to proposals for addressing humanitarian migration needs. I have some thoroughly disliked options (working rights for asylum seekers, for example, although a good friend of mine has some good arguments against my position), but I don’t think anybody in the mainstream is particularly crazy.
So this sets up the framework. Everybody’s shouting at each other and not really discussing much. Nobody’s interested in analysing their own opinions, because everybody who disagrees with them is easy to dismiss as a troll.
Naturally, media organisations have learnt how to exploit this state of affairs. If you get somebody to knock out a few hundred words of inflammatory random assertions, it’ll be shared and reshared across social media.
If anyone doubts that these people know full well what they are doing, all they need do is watch the TV clip of the man who claimed they had rung the Australian embassy but help had not arrived. To travel with mobiles on international roam, with the numbers in hand either of the Australian embassy or onshore colleagues ready and willing to contact it, is not the modus operandi of uninformed people who are duped by people smugglers. No, this is the work of people who are playing hardball with the Australian government and using the media to do so. [Source: Vanstone, A. ‘Media-savvy asylum seekers play hardball’, The Age, 7 Oct 2013]
That was Amanda Vanstone, former Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs under the previous Howard Government.
It’s not exactly unexpected for a former Immigration Minister of the Howard Government to accuse asylum seekers of somehow playing political ‘hardball’ with their own lives (and with such sophisticated technology, too – mobile phones on international roaming!) This is, after all, the politician whose career highlights include dismantling of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the unlawful detainment and deportation of Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez Solon. [Source: Convery, S. ‘The age of conservatism‘, Overland]
That was Stephanie Convery, a Melbourne-based ‘writer and arts worker’. ‘As a piece of writing, Vanstone’s article is almost completely incoherent,’ writes Convery. ‘The Nazis were fascists who killed six million people.’
Convery’s article concludes:
If Labor’s defeat in the recent election demonstrated anything at all it’s the futility of the Left attempting to beat the Right at their own game. Whether it’s for the sake of a few advertising dollars or an attempt at political revival, for Fairfax, it’s a strategy that’s sure to fail, and it bodes ill for progressive thought and independent journalism in the coming years. [Source]
Meanwhile, Vanstone’s article — which began with an assertion about the motivation of asylum seekers — concludes:
More women does not necessarily make better government. Look at the Rudd/Gillard years. But a government of predominantly men looks horribly out of touch. Abbott might do well to reflect seriously on that when the first shuffle opportunity comes knocking. [Source: Vanstone, A. ‘Media-savvy asylum seekers play hardball’, The Age, 7 Oct 2013]
The only charitable interpretation of Convery’s article is that she’s parodying Vanstone’s wildly chaotic writing style. The strategy is simple: whenever you make an assertion you can’t support — for example: ‘this is the work of people who are playing hardball‘ in Vanstone’s case; ‘‘a sad story does not entitle them to come to Australia’, she argues, except that, well, it kind of does‘ in Convery’s — you either follow it up with an even larger assertion or change the topic.
The result is an unedifying public debate. There is something fundamentally weird about people sinking off Indonesia calling Australian authorities, but Vanstone’s insinuation is that we should tut-tut when people try to maximise the likelihood of attaining their goals. But Convery isn’t the person to analyse this because she has absolutely no background in the debate, thus her confused comments about what constitutes an entitlement to refugee status or complementary protection. It also explains why she rapidly turns to an ad hominem argument rather than analyse Vanstone’s assertion. Perhaps she simply dismissed it out of hand for ideological reasons. Only she knows.
Vanstone and Convery are basically the two sides to the same problem in Australia’s asylum seeker discourse. Coalition-aligned spokespeople account for nearly all of the ‘right wing’ contribution to the public debate. So instead of having conservative arguments espoused in the debate, we have partisan sniping. Where the left has more non-partisan commentary, it’s suffering heavily from a culture of assumptions and intuition-based arguments (see, for example, the hilarious commentary about the Houston Panel’s recommendations which echoed almost perfectly Andrew Bolt’s commentary about the IPCC reports).
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