Thursday, February 15, 2007


Post lifted from David Thompson

In previous columns I argued that grievance politics and the cultivation of pretentious `sensitivity' has led to practised victimhood becoming a vehicle for censorship and passive-aggressive intent. This convergence of tribalism and dishonesty has many effects that warrant further attention. Some are merely absurd, as when U.S. gay activist groups took umbrage at an innocuous Snickers advert. The ad in question dared to suggest that some straight men feel uncomfortable kissing other straight men, albeit inadvertently and while eating a chocolate bar. The Mars Corporation, which immediately pulled the advert, was accused of "anti-gay prejudice" and told to "correct the intolerant message they sent to millions of Americans." Apparently, tolerance is being redefined to mean continual affirmation and any suggestion, however flippant, that not everyone is comfortable with displays of same-sex affection is to be expunged from public life.

Other effects are less trivial and have philosophical connotations of a rather curious kind. These generally entail extensive knowledge of various social categories, the moral weighting of each respective group, and its position in an elaborate hierarchy of victimhood. The workings of this system are not entirely obvious and are frequently counter-intuitive. I'll therefore try to outline some of its features in order to prevent the more sensitive among us being accidentally oppressed.

For some commentators, innocence and guilt depend less upon personal actions than on the racial, economic or religious group a person can be said to belong to. Hence we're often presented with a menu of Designated Victim Groups, members of which may be afforded a measure of immunity from individual responsibility, while claiming privilege on grounds that something bad happened to someone else ostensibly a bit like them. Viewed in this light, disadvantage becomes analogous to virtue, irrespective of how it came about or why it persists.

Conversely, members of Designated Oppressor Groups are often expected to bear responsibility for actions other than their own - even the actions of strangers who lived centuries earlier. Thus we arrive at notions of genealogical guilt, whereby unsuspecting descendants of 17th century plantation owners are deemed by birth indebted to complete strangers who can claim a different ancestry. Variations of this premise underlie practically any utterance involving the term "post-colonial." This genealogical approach to morality can have bizarre effects on a person's ethical priorities.

An author and blogger by the name of Theron Marshman made these effects explicit while writing under the guise of Harkonnendog on a popular leftwing website: "Rape is a crime unlike others. In any rape case, but especially in a rape case where a black woman accuses a white man, the rapist should be considered guilty until he proves his innocence. And he must prove his innocence not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond any possible doubt. People claim this is unfair, but 400 years of slavery and countless millennium [sic] of male on female rape make this not only fair, but necessary."

What's striking here is the confidence with which the author insists that real-world particulars must give way to a quasi-Marxist categorisation of human beings, whereby guilt is assigned to types of people and on a fairly random basis: "Let's just say the accusation of rape is false, that doesn't take away the rapists' genealogical guilt. Yes, they're still rapists even if these particular men didn't rape this particular woman. How many slaves have their forefathers raped? Nobody asks that question. I've no doubt these men would be raping slaves if they could get away with it. They are white and rich."

Marshman goes on to insist that the lives of three white youths are "inconsequential" compared to the "descendents of slaves getting just recompense." One can only presume that "just recompense" entails convicting people of crimes they did not commit, provided they have the correct skin pigment and belong to a Designated Oppressor Group.

Of course, if one is prepared to dispense with the particulars of who actually did what to whom then grandiose theory can run wild, and on a planetary scale. The free-thinking capitalist societies referred to as "the West" are widely regarded as constituting a Designated Oppressor Group. For some adherents of this belief, the West is the quintessential oppressor, against which all others should be measured, if and when time permits. It's therefore all but unimaginable that Western societies, or any representatives thereof, could ever be the good guys in any situation. Should the West need to defend itself and its interests against hostile action, consternation is obligatory and almost any Western response to aggression can be denounced as "disproportionate" on the basis that military advantage should, at best, count for nothing.

According to some devotees of this outlook, the inferior (non-Western) force should prevail because of its military disadvantage, as this would be "fair." This ideological preference is based on a belief that power is intrinsically very, very bad, except when others have it, in which case it suddenly becomes good, regardless of how it may be used. This remarkable sequence of ideas may help explain Iran's nuclear armament efforts being defended by Kate Hudson of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

The phrase "asymmetric warfare" has entered popular usage and many of those who use it focus primarily on the asymmetry of military capability, rather than the asymmetry of morality, tactics and intention. Again, this follows from the notion that the ability to defend oneself is a very bad thing indeed, with the exception of certain perceived underdogs, for whom an entirely different moral standard is available. (The words "Israel-Palestine conflict" spring immediately to mind.) Those of a critical disposition may wish to object at this point on the basis that the asymmetry of military capability is for most purposes a moral non sequitur. Simply put, if a person threatens me or my family with a baseball bat and I happen to be carrying a gun, the fact that I'm better armed is in no meaningful sense `unfair.'

Even when the West and its principal self-declared rival have been roughly equal in their military capacity, culpability may still be assigned entirely to the West. As, for instance, when Ken Livingstone described the Cold War as "our fault", rather than conceding that it might have had just a little to do with Stalin, Communist expansion and the invasion of large parts of Europe by the USSR. This eagerness to climb underneath any unattended blame is difficult to account for in terms of history and causality; though sceptics may find it more explicable in terms of personal psychodrama, like some Phantom Guilt Syndrome. After all, rending one's garments and saying, very loudly, "it's all my fault" is only a notch and a half away from saying "it's all about me."

Elsewhere, I've noted the tendency of certain middle-class leftists to publicly decry material possessions and the capitalist infrastructure on which their own livelihoods and status depend. The general intent of such demonstrations seems to be to affect a superior tone while deflecting the potential envy of those who actually like material possessions and who may wish to possess more - perhaps even as much as is possessed by certain well-heeled Guardian columnists. This mismatch between how some people wish to seem and what they actually are is, I think, central to the phenomenon of pretentious guilt. Some, like pop psychologist Oliver James, presume to project their own anhedonic disposition onto the world at large, claiming - with no credible evidence - that wealth and its associated freedoms are very bad for "us." What seems more likely is that wealth is very bad for Oliver James, who seems unable to resolve the emotional and material contradictions of being a middle-class lefty.

James is far from alone in the realm of hand-wringing projection and there's a minor genre of similarly conflicted literature. A puritan distaste for success is the premise of several books that conflate any number of issues in order to argue that prosperity and freedom cause "disorders" like inequality and are thus bad things to have. The intended greenish-leftwing readership may well have sympathy with this idea, if only because their own ideologies aren't particularly good at generating things like affluence and freedom.

This tendency to direct blame inwards, to oneself and one's own society - occasionally with a note of overtly masochistic zeal - has become a defining trait of much of today's leftist commentariat and the pages of the Guardian provide an inexhaustible supply of commentary premised on this reflex. There, for instance, one can marvel at the columnist Decca Aitkenhead as she insists, via somewhat circuitous argument, that the "precarious, overexaggerated masculinity" and murderous homophobia of some Jamaican reggae stars are in fact the results of slavery and the "sodomy of male slaves by their white owners." Ms Aitkenhead maintains that "the vilification of Jamaican homophobia implies. a failure to accept post-colonial politics." Thus, sympathetic readers can look forward to feeling guilty for not only "vilifying" the homicidal sentiments of some Jamaican musicians, but also for the culpability of their own collective ancestors. One wonders how those gripped by this fiendish dilemma can hope to resolve their twofold feelings of shame.

Thankfully, Aitkenhead's article - adamantly titled Their Homophobia is Our Fault - concludes with the solution: "Real liberal values would demand debt relief, fair trade, investment. If that happened, homophobia would soon organically dissolve." From this one might suppose that only Guardian readers are obliged to apply themselves to this matter as it's beyond the capabilities and purview of Jamaican people themselves. (Readers may recall that Ms Aitkenhead is the author of The Promised Land: Travels in Search of the Perfect E - a "travelogue about visiting poverty stricken locales and dropping ecstasy in search of the perfect clubbing experience" - a volume which surely underlines the author's credentials in matters of moral gravity.)

However, while rhetorical self-harm is a staple of the Guardian comment pages, one of the more dramatic examples can be found in the musings of Melbourne neuroscientist and environmental crusader, Dr John Reid. Interviewed in December for the Australian radio programme Ockham's Razor, Dr Reid voiced his concerns about the impact of Western society on the biosphere and the success of human reproduction in general. In doing so, Reid outlined a solution that would gratify even the most self-flagellating Guardian columnist.

Ominously, the doctor warned that "the problem of overconsumption [and] overpopulation will not be solved by civil means" and that "we in the affluent world will have to accept substantial reductions in our standard of living to allow space for the poor... Income and wealth distribution within our societies will have to become much more equal. The higher up the tree one is, the greater the sacrifice one will have to make." The nature of these sacrifices soon became clear: "Private property rights will be severely curtailed."

Listeners soon discovered that other customary rights would also have to be "curtailed" with no less severity. In order to curb population growth, Dr Reid suggested "we" might put "something in the water." That something could be "a virus that would be specific to the human reproductive system and would make a substantial proportion of the population infertile."

In case listeners were unsure of which undesirable category of humankind would be subject to this remedy, the good doctor made his own preferences clear: "The world's most affluent populations should be targeted first." Faced with this vision of a streamlined tomorrow, one has to wonder how Dr Reid managed to overlook a somewhat relevant fact: That the most effective forces for limiting population growth have time and again proved to be affluence, secular democracy and the education of women - attributes that are intimately intertwined and generally associated with the Western societies that Dr Reid is so eager to dispense with.

I was once asked why I didn't have more empathy with the political left. "I don't dislike myself enough," I replied, largely in jest. But as time has passed this offhand remark seems less flippant. I've often wondered at what point a political leaning becomes a performance, then a pantomime, and finally a mental health issue. At some point ideology can be so unmoored from external reality that it serves as little more than an expression of a person's feelings about themselves. Exactly where that point lies is a matter for debate, but with the aforementioned figures in mind it's becoming harder to avoid the question.

Dutch politician blasts Koran, Mohammed

DUTCH anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders was quoted as urging Muslims to dump half the Koran and saying he would chase the Prophet Mohammed out of the country if he was alive today. "Islam is a violent religion. If Mohammed lived here today I could imagine chasing him out of the country tarred and feathered as an extremist," Mr Wilders told De Pers daily in an interview.

Mr Wilders, who is seen as an heir to murdered populist Pim Fortuyn and whose new party won nine seats out of the 150 in Parliament in November elections, has warned of a "tsunami of Islamisation" in a country home to one million Muslims. "I know that we're not going to have a Muslim majority in the next couple of decades, but it is growing," he said. "You no longer feel that you're living in your own country. There is a battle under way and we must defend ourselves. There will soon be more mosques than churches here."

Mr Wilders, who has lived under heavy guard since 2004 when a Dutch-Moroccan killed filmmaker and Islam critic Theo van Gogh, has campaigned to ban the Muslim burqa veil, wants to freeze immigration and ban new mosques and religious schools. "If Muslims want to stay here they must tear out half of the Koran and throw it away. They shouldn't listen to the imam. I've read the Koran ... and I know that there are enough awful things in it," he said.

Maverick politician Fortuyn broke taboos with his criticism of Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands and his pronouncements that the country could not absorb anymore foreigners. He was gunned down in 2002 by animal rights activists just days before an election which saw huge popular support for his party.

Nasr Joemann, secretary for the Contact Organisation for Muslims and Government, said he planned to raise the demonisation of Islam with the new Dutch cabinet, expected to be finalised in the next week after months of coalition talks. "I don't think this sort of comment from a member of parliament is good for integration or for relations between Muslims and non-Muslims but we don't want to react to the content because we cannot take it seriously," he said.


Snobbish Leftist "intellectuals" in Australia

Late last year that scholarly Stakhanovite Richard Nile surveyed expert readers of his Australian Public Intellectual websites for their pick of Australia's arguers and influencers. The result will confirm everybody's prejudices. For people who believe the Left long ceased its march through the institutions, having occupied all the best bits in the universities, there is ample evidence. Some of the founding Howard haters are on the list, such as Robert Manne, who is top of the pops.

Others will be upset that conservatives such as Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle got guernseys. But there is no doubting the list leaned to the Left. Based on their writings, I counted 23 declared opponents of Howard Government policies and/or a market economy (often both), 12 who keep their politics to themselves and three likely to vote Liberal.

But what is interesting is the way some participants decided that the true mark of the public intellectual was obscurity. It demonstrates the way the academic establishment and its camp followers who write for websites and in small magazines are interested only in agreeing with each other. As one put it in commenting on Nile's project: "We live still in a deeply anti-intellectual culture, increasingly driven by the populism of politicians and the journalist (as) celebrity. The lack of intellectuals in the current crop of political leaders in Canberra is particularly noticeable. Apart from Kevin Rudd and one or two others, there would be more chance of starting a prayer group in Canberra than a discussion group. We also live in a time when nationalism (particularly Anzac) -- simplistic, feel-good and sometimes ugly -- is on the rise. In this climate, there is a great need for intellectuals."

Apart from the snobbery (why are ostensibly intellectual chitty-chats superior to prayer?) and the dishonesty (the times may be patriotic but, sport aside, Australians are not given to triumphalism), this sort of statement ignores the obvious question: Precisely what sort of intellectuals do we need? Those who interpret society through their own ideological paradigm, or experts whose disciplined expertise allows them to point to problems and suggest solutions across the spectrum of society?

That it seems we have an awful lot of the former and far fewer of the latter writing for general audiences illuminates a great deal more than the tyranny of academic orthodoxy, it demonstrates how the intellectual tastemaker dismisses all sorts of disciplines.

While there were a couple of economic commentators on Nile's list, there were no professional economists capable of interpreting a Reserve Bank of Australia bulletin for the rest of us. Certainly pediatrician Fiona Stanley got a go but there were no neuroscientists able to explain the way everything from psychiatry to economics is being revolutionised by new understandings of the brain. Most telling, although there were ample individuals who like to lament Australia's culture of consumerism and deplore the damage done to the planet featured on the list, which included 10 cultural commentators and three politicians, there were no actual scientists with an informed idea of what is going on.

Perhaps this is not surprising. As Drusilla Modjeska pointed out in her introduction to the modestly titled anthology Best Australian Essays: 2006, she had searched in vain "for the well-written, well-shaped essay with that personal signature by architects or astronomers, physicists or lawyers".

Modjeska has a point, of sorts. She is wrong to assume that because health economists and riverine ecologists are not writing finely crafted essays based on an 18th-century ideal of entertainment for an intellectual elite they are not contributing to the national life of the mind. In fact the commentary pages of The Australian and The Australian Financial Review demonstrate the state of debate on issues that matter is strong (although Modjeska could find only one domestic newspaper piece worth including).

But her argument demonstrates how narrow are the interests of the self-appointed opinion leaders, of the sort who responded to Nile. And how they do not much care that many of the people they think dominate debate do so from a stance that is uninformed by scholarship in fields on which they comment.

The debate over Windschuttle's estimate of the numbers of indigenous Australians killed by settler society is a classic case in point. Instead of just arguing over his evidence, some critics started from the assumption that because they did not like his politics in the present, his conclusions about the past were not only wrong, they were immoral. Certainly the various experts in cultural and postcolonial studies will say their research work qualifies them to speak as experts. But often what they offer appears as informed by personal politics as academic expertise.

To argue there is anything wrong with everybody who wants to having their two bob's worth would be absurd in a column of this kind. Thanks to the internet we are in a golden age of argument. The endless opinion pages in online magazines mean that for the first time everybody with something to say can tell the world all about it. The blog empowers all who want to be essayists, and in the real world the marketplace of ideas sorts out who is heard.

But in the protected economy of academe, public intellectuals can easily exist without appealing to much of a public. Of Nile's 40, only Peter Craven and Don Watson represent the freelance in the service of the republic of letters, writers who live by their ability to produce copy people will pay to read. However, many of the people doing the talking -- certainly in the ostensibly intellectual small-circulation print and online media, the sorts of places where participation earns an author's stripes as a public intellectual -- seem disproportionately drawn from disciplines that theorise about the way we live and largely dislike the way most Australians do it.

Certainly Noel Pearson, the epitome of the public intellectual -- a man who acts on his ideas -- is on Nile's list. But so are many others who only lament the state of the nation, mainly to other academics. As one survey respondent put it: "One of the really big problems in Australia is that the best and most important minds in the country are so marginalised, they don't have much influence! Influence is inversely related to the importance of what people have to say." As an explanation of intellectual irrelevance, this is lame. But it does demonstrate how supposedly smart people can talk themselves into anything.


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