Quand une guerre éclate, les gens disent : « Ça ne durera pas, c’est trop bête. » Et sans doute une guerre est certainement trop bête, mais cela ne l’empêche pas de durer. La bêtise insiste toujours.
When a war breaks out, people say: ‘It won’t last – it is too stupid!’ And, of course, war certainly is too stupid, but that does not prevent it from lasting. Stupidity always insists.
(Camus, La Peste, 1947)
I don’t believe that the current world is significantly worse than any other period in history. As a conservative, I always think that we are in some kind of degenerate state but I don’t believe that this degenerate state is worse than any other.
The churn in Western democracies at the moment is questioning a lot of wisdom which we have not, on a grand scale, questioned for a while. We have a moment to reexamine the received wisdom that many people — far too many — accept entirely without challenge. We have intuitions about democracy, freedom of speech, and liberty that, on closer reflection, do little but support tired power structures in society. And I say this from the conservative end of politics, reflecting on the incredible expansion of the market that has filled the void where traditional state authority used to be.
But it is rare that so many people are invited and encouraged to challenge liberalism, centrism, and even democracy to engage in a discussion about what sort of a society we want and how we can go about realising that society.
It is a conversation, alas, that is far too easily hijacked by the relics of the crumbling age. On Meanjin, Terry Barnes writes of the death of the sensible centre:
Where moderation and sound judgement go missing, fear, grievance and hatred will prevail. If Australian centrism is permitted to wither and die, our liberal society’s future risks being nasty, brutish and short. Deprived of effective centrist leadership from either Labor or the Coalition, we will be doomed to act out the scene of Gericault’s nightmarish painting The Raft of the Medusa: a flimsy raft made from wreckage tossed on the angry seas of intolerance and populism and, on which we, shipwrecked and leaderless, cannibalise ourselves without hope of rescue.
Colourful stuff. Barnes contrasts centrism with populism. Where centrists are about consensus-building, moderation, tolerance, and civility, populism is wild and crazy, chasing the selfish whims of this or that radical group.
Except what does Barnes mean by centrism? Barnes shot to prominence by agitating public discussion about levying a $5 GP co-payment (which I demonstrated was built on bad advice). He opposes marriage equality. He thinks we need a day to celebrate middle-aged white men (because women get International Women’s Day). He thinks that breastfeeding mothers should be considerate of others who don’t want to see breastfeeding in public. He wrote in support of Cardinal George Pell.
You start to wonder what Barnes might mean by centrism given that he clearly identifies himself as such.
But isn’t that, in a nutshell, what ‘centrism’ as a label is supposed to do? It’s not you who has the kooky weird fringe views based on feelpinion and bigotry. You’re a centrist. You’re the sensible centre. It’s everybody else who is non-centrist. It’s everybody else who is populist.
‘Centrism’ is not ideologically neutral. It is designed to limit, very narrowly, the scope of legitimate public debate. Throwing glitter at Andrew Bolt is a thuggish act of non-centrism, but musing about bombing the ABC studios is mere satire. A man is allowed to call for racial segregation laws, but punching him is not on.
I, of course, think that rational discussion is better than violence and think that’s one of the strengths of the parliamentary system. But I also know that the parliamentary system is built on violence and there is an enduring obligation on those who want civility to ensure that people can participate meaningfully and substantively in that civil politics. Letting racists run wild is not protecting civil debate and it opens the door to legitimate forms of protest that are not just strongly worded letters to editors.
We run the risk here of believing all political intuition to be legitimate and authentic. We should not. Most political opinions are formed by watching television shows and listening to pop music. I think every superstar should hire a sort of political tutor to inform their world views. How great would it be for Katy Perry to start talking legal theory intelligently and insightfully? It would be the best. It would be the best.
But we don’t live in that glorious utopia. Instead, we live in a world where commercial interests try to get our attention by offering the outrageous, the scandalous, the sensational, and the obscene. In this way, the news media shapes our views of the world not by giving us a diet of what is good to consume, but by giving us junk that makes us intellectually flabby.
I’ve argued a lot that the media should be helping us to shape the kind of society that we want. One way it could do that is by not rewarding attention-seekers with attention when they trash public debate.
Jason Wilson — former University of Canberra academic who now resides in the US — disagrees and argues that the media should give the attention-seekers more attention:
More fundamentally, it’s crucial for journalists to help us understand the society we live in, and how far right ideas so easily, and so often, gain a foothold in mainstream political discourse. If there isn’t a clear line between mainstream conservatism and the far right, it’s a journalist’s responsibility to point that out.
Jilly Willy, of course, has this backwards. The far right gets a foothold in mainstream political discourse by farming attention. It is almost guaranteed this attention by journalists in desperate need of some outrage-bait. So by giving them more attention, they are more likely to get a foothold in public debate.
Wilson, like many liberal weenies, underestimates the power of the media. It is not a neutral, independent recorder of facts. Through editorial decisions, it shapes how people see the world and directs where people will invest their attention. If the media stopped encouraging people to pay attention to the worst parts of political debate, those elements of society would largely die off.
This all returns me neatly to the start of this blog post. We are given a lot of opportunities at the moment to challenge the structures which are keeping the stupid wars raging. The next part of Camus’ quote asks us to turn our attention outwards. The stupidity persists because we are too caught up in ourselves to notice the bigger picture and to notice how we, collectively, can do better. But it also encourages us to move away from our immediate impulses. Terry Barnes wants to be seen as a centrist, but we should not let him. Jason Wilson wants the media to give more attention to the alt-right, but we should not let it. If we don’t fix these deep structural problems with our political system, the stupidity will continue to insist.