First published in The Weekend Australian.
Greg Barns, Rise of the Right: The War on Australia’s Liberal Values
Hardie Grant; $24.99; 154pp
Tim Soutphommasane, On Hate
MUP; $14.99; 47pp
Stephen Fry, Jordan Peterson, Michael Eric Dyson, Michelle Goldberg, Political Correctness Gone Mad?
Oneworld; $16.99; 124pp
Contemporary right-wing populists have a number of styles available to them. There’s the trashy demagoguery of a Donald Trump; the lethal bigotry of a Jair Bolsonaro; the braying parochialism of a Nigel Farage; the unfocused resentment of a Pauline Hanson … But one must-have item for populists everywhere is the mantle of ‘the real people’. Populists must believe, or affect to believe, that democracies are unduly influenced by a progressive and remote elite, and present themselves as its antidote.
One reason this idea now gets such traction is that liberals and progressives do indeed have more power than they did in days and years gone by. It’s been said that in the 1990s the right won the economic argument and progressives won the culture war, and we’re now living with the status quo that emerged from that division of the spoils. Where once the so-called cultural left was confined to the universities (where it proposed to build Jerusalem one radical reading of Pericles at a time) it has now spread out across society, losing much of its radicalism in the process, but not its belief that the law, media, arts and education system should be orientated around greater diversity and tolerance. The populists call this ‘political correctness’ and accuse the elites of seeking to override the democratic will of the people.
Greg Barns and Tim Soutphommasane beg to differ. They see the charge of political correctness as cover for a recrudescence of bigotry, and the campaign against ‘identity politics’ as an expression of precisely that: white, male resentment in a striking new outfit. Taking issue with the cant and hypocrisy of the right, they argue for a kinder polity, where rights and the rule of law are respected. Both are unapologetic liberals, and, as an activist lawyer (Barns) and former Race Discrimination Commissioner (Soutphommasane), high-profile members of the progressive elite targeted by the populists.
Barns’ polemic Rise of the Right argues that conservative populism is corroding ‘Australia’s liberal values’. His evidence is plentiful. Hysterical coverage of ‘Sudanese gangs’, dark references to a ‘final solution’ on immigration and the degradations of talkback radio all underwrite his central claim that we are witnessing the rise of ‘illiberal democracy’ – a politics of notional and actual walls that, in true right-populist style, pits the ‘ordinary’ voter against the elites and the minorities they are assumed to favour. For Barns this politics is marked by ‘intolerance of diversity, anti-globalism, nativism, and a strong belief that the rule of law comes second to national security, including legislation that interferes markedly with the balance of power between security and liberty.’
That emphasis on the rule of law is central to the book. The ideal of an independent judiciary is a core principle of liberal democracy; but the law’s insulation from political interference means that it often becomes a flashpoint in populist administrations, where the habit is to make the leader or governing party identical with the will of the people. As a solicitor, Barns has witnessed this first hand, and his book is strongest when dealing with the policies that encroach on the spirit and/or letter of the law. Examples include the Northern intervention, Victoria’s punitive drug legislation, Federal national security laws and the spread of so-called ‘discretionary powers’ accorded to certain ministers of the Crown. But for Barns the most serious encroachment of all is the transgression of international rules governing the treatment of asylum seekers. Exchanging the principle underpinning those rules for a cruel utilitarian calculus, both the Coalition and the ALP have ridden roughshod over liberal values. For Barns, indeed, it was the Tampa affair that ‘broke the consensus on liberal values once and for all’.
Though Barns is good on all of this, that notion of a liberal ‘consensus’ points up a significant flaw in the book: its tendency to treat liberalism as the natural repository of common sense and common decency. This is important, because the rise of populism cannot be separated from the failures of liberalism in its economic and social varieties, and any defence of the latter that begins (as Barns’ does) by effectively laundering the concept – absolving it of any responsibility for, say, rising inequality – is bound to look a little weak. Barns’ argument is that a return to liberal values ‘is a necessity if we do not want to continue on the road to a fearful, narrow and divided future’. But the idea that a social and economic ideology stressing the ‘primacy of the individual’ might have created some divides of its own never seems to occur to him.
This incuriosity is again in evidence in Soutphommasane’s essay On Hate. Soutphommasane receives some honourable mentions in Rise of the Right, and deservedly so: as Race Discrimination Commissioner he conducted himself with determination and poise – this despite being a frequent target of the bigotry it was his job to challenge. But his liberalism has significant blind spots, and it involves no defence of the haters to say that On Hate reproduces them faithfully.
The first thing to note about the essay is that it isn’t primarily about hate at all; there is nothing from psychology or neuroscience, and very little on the moral question of whether hatred can be a righteous emotion, save for some asides to the effect that it is possible to hate injustice without hating the people who embody it – a progressive version of the sin/sinner distinction invoked by Christians in a tight spot. Rather the essay is on racism, which Soutphommasane takes to be a form of hatred – hatred being defined, though only in passing, as a form of ‘power and dominance’.
This will come as news to the worker who hates his boss, or the woman who hates her abusive husband. But the main problem with Soutphommasane’s essay is that it pathologises a political phenomenon. For it isn’t only egregious acts of racial hatred that are dealt with in the book, but also the institutions and attitudes that (in his view) engender those acts. The point is not that the author is wrong to believe that rightwing politics is often motivated by hatred; it is that his insistence that it must be so motivated puts his critics beyond reason and his own politics beyond question. Widening the moral goalposts, he effectively turns hatred into the organising principle of the politics he opposes. Thus: ‘Hate also comes in degrees. What begins as something seemingly innocuous – a joke, an offhand remark, or some crude language – can, if left unchallenged, grow into something malicious.’
To the extent that ‘political correctness’ now refers to anything real, this, surely, is its key characteristic: the idea that intolerance exists on a continuum, and that the job of the progressive is thus to challenge it wherever and whenever it appears above the parapet. Hence the ‘call out’ and the public shaming and the elevation of an ad for razors to the status of a cultural breakthrough. Lacking any radical program for change, many modern progressives attempt to build equality through managing individual behaviour.
That this kind of politics is a gift to the right is a point made eloquently by Stephen Fry in Political Correctness Gone Mad?, the transcript of the Aurea Foundation’s latest Munk Debate. The motion for the debate is ‘What you call political correctness, I call progress’ and Fry is on the ‘Against’ team. His partner is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who in recent years has become the darling of the alt-right and its periphery. Their opponents are the journalist Michelle Goldberg and the academic and broadcaster Michael Eric Dyson, both of whom argue, as do Barns and Soutphommasane, that ‘political correctness’ is often code for positions that threaten those with power.
They’re right, of course, and their Canadian interlocutor provides a matchless demonstration of why: Peterson is simply incapable of grasping the point that the individual responsibility he favours (as opposed to the ‘collectivist’ claims of identity) is a hell of a lot easier to cultivate when one is starting from a position of relative power. By contrast, Fry clearly shares his opponents’ desire for greater social tolerance, but believes that the political intolerance often evinced in the effort to advance it is sinister and counterproductive. In that sense, he’s on both sides of the debate – less a cultural warrior than a belligerent neutral.
Both Goldberg and Dyson make some excellent points in their debate with Peterson and Fry. But if one point emerges from these three books it’s that liberals and progressives have a long way to go before they can reckon honestly with the rise of rightwing populism, the successes of which derive from its ability to combine increasing economic insecurity with resentment at the cultural impositions of a well-educated, well-remunerated knowledge class. Yes, the populists are dangerous and disgusting. But the question is how we arrived at this point, and ‘haters gonna hate’ is no answer at all.