I really don’t want to join the public discussion about the attacks on Paris. It’s a dull conversation in which dull people try to fill the gaps in their understanding with dull, gnomic aphorisms. Terrorist attacks are a kind of public Rorschach test onto which we all project our insecurities and prejudices. It gets to the point where it doesn’t matter what the particular attack was, our responses to it are going to be determined by our intuitions, anxieties, and our need to perform particular identities: ‘What opinion would the sort of person I want to be express?’
Crazily enough, I am much more interested in the political rhetoric than I am in the events. The discourse that emerges from events is often much more significant, in the long term, than the events themselves. It sounds callous but the response to the Holocaust — the emergence of particular norms, the development of the ‘rights discourse’, the promotion of universalism as an objective good, &c., &c., &c., — has been far more significant to human history than the Holocaust itself. The response has affected people who weren’t born at the time of the Holocaust in countries that weren’t involved in the Holocaust in ways that have no obvious link to the Holocaust.
It’s also a lesson we don’t learn: the narratives of events matter. How we frame ideas and talk about them — how the response to tragedies and catastrophes are shaped by particular viewpoints (not always the victims) to serve various agenda, and how popular culture and the mass media characterise these issues — continues to be ignored by just about everybody with something interesting to watch on television. It’s a fundamentally boring topic. It’s a ‘meta-discussion’ about how we talk about discussions. How we represent Muslims post the twin towers. How we represent Asians post Vietnam. How we represent Russians during the Cold War. How we represent the Japanese post Hiroshima. And so on and so forth. These representations shape how the world will change long after the real world dust settles.
And that gets me to the lazy, but widely celebrate, take of Osman Faruqi: Everyone’s wrong and no one knows what to do (including me).
Faruqi begins his analysis by correctly discovering that just about all (if not actually all) of the white right winger commentariat in Australia is hopeless. They are cultureless mediocrities whose relevance is, for some reason, subsidised at great cost by media industries. Why the media companies continue to inflict these clowns upon the public remains a mystery to me. There must be some economic reason why they’re able to draw a salary.
But then Faruqi does something strange. He jumps from ‘the right wing commentariat aren’t much truck’ to ‘conservatives offer no solutions’.
This might be forgiven if Faruqi believes that Andrew Bolt, Chris Kenny, and the wake of vultures that passes as right wing commentary in Australia were the most intellectually serious variant of conservative thought. This is an absurd thought unworthy of somebody who wants to be a Thought Leader. Most of our newspapers are full of the junk food commentary (both left and right) that we consume while we’re waiting for better hot takes to be cooked.
Further, what is it that Bolt et al., are saying and what questions does Faruqi want answered?
In this age of global issues, I don’t see a lot of point in Australian journalists at foreign bureaus. The US Presidential Election is right around the corner, and Australian companies will spend a small fortune on sending Australian journalists to file stories from Washington and the campaign trails. But there’s literally nothing that they can write that won’t be better expressed by American writers whose works are freely available on the World Wide Internet.
The same is true of global catastrophes. I don’t really care what an Australian writer thinks about the Paris attacks. I care even less that there was a girl from Tasmania who was peripherally involved in surviving the attacks. What I wanted was views from France by the French on what they’re experiencing first hand. I wanted the best Parisian intellectuals to reflect on how the events had changed them, or had failed to change them, and how they were conceptualising the problems they now faced.
Instead, I got noise and clamour. Just as I got Bolt’s Islamophobic nonsense, I got Waleed Aly’s nonsense about ‘What Isis wants’. Here were Australians, miles away from the actions, expressing the poor cousin versions of views being expressed far more eloquently around the world.
What we wanted from our public intellectuals were views that linked the world to Australians: just as the attacks on the Twin Towers radically affected Australian life, how was Australia going to change in response to the Parisian attacks? Nobody could offer any insight into that question because they fundamentally disregarded it in favour of hot takes about the nature of Isis. Even Waleed Aly’s ‘Don’t do X because Isis wants you to do X’ ramble was all about pushing a view of Isis that is completely unverifiable.
Conservatives and progressives both offer solutions about how we can respond to the issue of terrorism, radicalisation, and the global threat of Isis. Even though I disagree with the progressive viewpoint, they’re intellectually serious about the nature of breaking down established cultural norms that exclude people, the established economic institutions that make people feel powerless unless they resort to extreme activities, and the constructs which suppress individuality and oppress non-market behaviours.
At the same time, conservatives are presenting intellectually serious arguments about the value of particular traditions (including Islamic traditions), the need to defend particular lifestyles (including Islamic lifestyles), and the need to connect a disaffected generation with the greatness of our cultural pasts (including Islamic cultural pasts).
This all gets me back to one of my core complaints about contemporary political commentary. Crap people are eclipsing everything else, then the people who would otherwise express sensible viewpoints end up wasting their time trying to spin gold out of the crap-infested straw. Academics are as guilty of this as anybody, hosting conferences and workshops to discuss issues that wouldn’t even be in the public debate if it weren’t for a bunch of imbeciles with nationally syndicated columns.
To really understand why Faruqi’s argument is dumb, imagine I only considered the views of rusted on climate change deniers and Gaia-theory hippies, then declared that ‘no side has the answers’. You’d think I had rocks in my head: yes, the sides have answers but I had missed them by focusing only upon the lunatics. Similarly, Faruqi has concentrated upon the mediocre nobodies who will never produce an insightful opinion and then declared, triumphantly, that ‘it’s an incredibly complex issue, and there isn’t a simple, single cause’ as if this means anything clever.
We need to get the elites back into public debate.