Make no mistake, Caleb Bond is being bullied. He’s sixteen years old. He’s precocious. He’s expressing terrible opinions which are being published in serious newspapers. And the adults on Twitter love a pile on.
I’m sure that there will be no shortage of hot takes on the Caleb Bond phenomenon, but there’s something else going on here that points to the toxic nature of our political culture. There’s something which should make us all take a step back and wonder how things got this bad.
Setting up the superficial problem isn’t difficult. Last week, The Daily Telegraph published an opinion piece by Bond which opened with:
The screaming feminazi Left notched up a win when the government took a step over the line
People are, of course, outraged that Bond would write such a thing. It is odious and offensive to refer to people like this. Women are tired of being referred to like this. Associations between feminism and Nazism — even if it is rhetoric in the style of ‘grammar Nazi’ — degrade both feminists and those who critically engage them.
It’s also an extremely ugly sentence: ‘took a step’ should, of course, be ‘stepped’; ‘notched up a win’ is more appropriate to sports commentators than political commentators; and ‘screaming feminazi Left’ has absolutely no rhythm.
But he’s sixteen. The response on Twitter from adults was aggressive and frightening. Not least, there were constant remarks about his sexual activity. It baffles me that we, as a community, could say those sorts of things to a child.
Surely the real object of our derision should be News Corp for publishing this garbage in the first place. The ignorant ranting of a sixteen year old boy was considered publishable by The Daily Telegraph. Worse, the reason it was considered publishable is that it would cause controversy. It’s cheap and easy circulation.
The Daily Telegraph clearly considers opinion writing to be a low-skill job. Two years ago, I wrote about the contempt Media Watch had for opinion writing. My argument was — and still is — that (good) opinion writing helps the public to frame their political, social, and moral intuitions. As a conservative, I think this role is essential to a vibrant, engaged democracy: it helps us to explore ideology and test ideas.
But what about bad opinion writing. What about the sort of opinion writing that is just regurgitation of stale slogans and epithets? The sort of opinion writing that even a sixteen year old can do?
The surprising thing about the Bond phenomenon is that his writing is not dissimilar to that of the adults he apes. The same slogans and the same epithets are used indiscriminately and uncritically. His writing is practically indistinguishable from Miranda Devine’s (whom he idolises), and remarkably similar to that of Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt. Here are three people who are paid a phenomenal amount to produce output that a teenager can crank out for a pittance. Something is clearly wrong here. Something is deeply wrong.
Mind! I don’t mean to suggest that it is only right wing writers who demonstrate surprisingly little talent. I routinely sledge Mike Seccombe for his rancid content, and Jane Caro clearly holds a grudge against the English language.
And Mark Latham.
On the other hand, if any News Corp columnists ask for a pay raise, Julian Clarke can threaten to replace them with a sixteen year old. So maybe it’s not all bad.
Before we wind this up, let’s look at this an entirely different way. What if Bond is not supposed to demonstrate the quality of his thought, but instead the detrimental effect our right wing columnists are having on the intellectual development of the young? We are not to learn from his sage counsel but, instead, we are to look on in horror at the monster we have created.
The kid is fucking impervious to all known reason. The rhetoric that he’s learnt from News Corp columnists means that he is functionally incapable of constructing his opponent’s best possible argument. The article in question shows that fairly conclusively. This wasn’t a discussion about balancing two equally intellectually serious positions; this was about screeching feminazis who hate freedom of speech. When he’s attacked online, that style of reasoning is reinforced: he has the courage to give voice to the silent majority and the PC-brigade will try to shout him down. The quality of your argument is measured by the amount of outrage expressed by your ‘enemies’.
Worse, this sort of writing is now a form of entertainment. The game is to see how inflammatory you can be towards people who have no capacity to fight back, and in a way which actively prevents them from being able to engage constructively. So the privileged sixteen year old white boy sledges feminists because News Corp thinks they’re a target worthy of a privileged sixteen year old white boy. Andrew Bolt sledges Indigenous Australians and Muslims because they’re a fair target. Chris Kenny sledges people on the social media website that he’s promised to quit several times.
It’s not in any way constructive. If the point of a free and fearless media industry is to improve the quality of our democracy, why does it consistently give a platform to people who routinely degrade our democracy? Clearly the stated purpose is different to its functional purpose. Its functional purpose is to entertain the privileged. Its functional purpose is to sell advert space. Its functional purpose is to amuse the poor.
Sir Keith Murdoch founded News Corp. His uncle, Sir Walter Murdoch, was one of Australia’s most gifted people. He arrived in Australia aged 10 years old in 1884, grew up in the dynamic world of Australia’s federalist movement, and then became an academic — one of the University of Western Australia’s founding professors. On my bookshelf, I have a copy of his best work, Alfred Deakin: A Sketch, a biography of Australia’s best Prime Minister.
I wonder why Australia isn’t producing greatness anymore.