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Killer Drones, Dieback and Democracy

Free speech and doublespeak at The Australian by Justin Clemens

On Wednesday 29 September 2011, one day after he had been found guilty by Justice Mordecai Bromberg of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act, the notorious Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt hit back at his accusers with the front-page headline: THIS IS A SAD DAY FOR FREE SPEECH.The accompanying (and interminable) article bemoaned Bolt’s alleged martyrdom on the altar of political correctness. In speaking ‘frankly’ of his own struggles with his personal identity—was he Australian? was he Dutch?—Bolt declared, ‘To be frank, I consider myself first of all an individual, and wish we could all deal with each other like that. No ethnicity. No nationality. No race. Certainly no divide that’s a mere accident of birth’. Leaving aside the bizarre implication that Bolt wants everybody to be absolutely nobody, stripped entirely of any empirical contingencies or relationships, and delivered over to a vacuous deracinated egotism, it seems that Bolt, too, was proselytising for free speech to be purged of all particularities, of all restrictions—except, perhaps, for those ‘divides’ which are not ‘accidents of birth’. And what, pray tell, might those be?

Any number of media pundits, including David Marr and John Birmingham—and many others not directly in the pay of the Titan Murdoch—responded immediately to this apologia pro vitasua, by opinion piece, by letter, by blog, by Crikey! As these commentators pointed out, Bolt precisely hadn’t been gagged. Quite to the contrary, he was left free by the judgement to continue his opinionating. In other words, the HUN’s claims were simply and patently untrue. If Bolt indeed had been gagged, how was it that he couldn’t seem to shut up? Was this not an emblematic performative contradiction, a gagged man continuing to speak, volubly and at length? Moreover, wasn’t Bolt preaching hypocrisy, insofar as much of his career has been dedicated to denying the rights of free speech to others, such as to the photographer Bill Henson in 2008? Or, indeed, in demanding that Ben Naparstek, editor of The Monthly, pulp an issue in which he, Bolt, was the subject of an exposé by Anne Summers? Particular scorn was cast on Bolt’s much-repeated statement, broached on the steps of the court itself: ‘I argued then and I argue now that we should not insist on the differences between us but focus instead on what unites us as human beings’. If this is indeed true—which it might well be—then what Bolt shows we all share is a hateful narcissistic divisiveness. This divisiveness presents itself as its opposite, as courage and openness, through its dissembling routines of aggressive servility. ‘Suck up, bully down!’ is its categorical imperative. As one twitterer put it, ‘Bolt doesn’t open a space for debate, he designs a space for sympathetic opinion down to the smallest details’.

It was therefore a surprise that Julian Assange, who is, to put it mildly, also continuing to experience his own difficulties with the issue of free speech, defended Bolt in an opinion piece co-written with his lawyer Jennifer Robinson, and published in the Fairfax media, ‘Play ball, not Bolt, in free speech debate.’ Drawing on perhaps the most banal and widespread opinions about the goods of ‘free speech’—and I do not use ‘banal’ or ‘widespread’ here as dismissive terms, merely descriptors—Assange quotes Fredrick Siebert: ‘The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other’. Americanised spelling aside, this is horseshit.

What’s stupefying about Assange’s intervention is not simply its beigely innocuous character. One might be tempted to speculate as to the weird unconscious identifications unleashed when angry male narcissists find themselves threatened by governmental legal action. Certainly, one of these personages incarnates a very familiar type of reactionary propagandist, being a man who has invented not a single new rhetorical technique; the other is perhaps so radical that he, like anybody else, cannot yet quite recognise himself. Yet the becoming-indiscernible of the utterances of these antithetical characters is surely notable, as is the becoming-personal of all and any issue. That the pair agree—or at least pay lip service to the same ‘principles’—that is, absolute freedom of speech, open and vigorous debate, and the quest for truth, probably shows that these are now essentially theological terms from which no one is permitted publicly to demur.

Assange’s statement was possibly made to show that he’s a bigger man than Bolt (that is, he can reach out a hand, while the other cannot); that he, Assange, has real principles that overcome any ideological divisions; or it was perhaps just part of a global PR campaign to render him a good democrat like everyone else. But even taking such possibilities into account, it is still amazing that Assange’s statement ignores the problematic of the media—the technical means of transmission—which he, of all people, should surely be more attentive to. After all, both Assange and Bolt are now essentially post-convergent multimedia characters, existing simultaneously across an enormous number of media:

print, blogs, TV, radio, Twitter and so on, and they would have no meaning whatsoever outside of this media situation. For what’s at stake is not simply the content or form of ‘free speech,’ but the means of its delivery. The real questions are, as ever, the most obvious: above all, whose interests are being served? Who really stands to gain, and in which ways, from such opinions? How is the structure of the media itself instrumentalised to serve established interests?

It is possibly because of his attentiveness to every aspect of this media snarl—its personnel, its structure, its interests—that Robert Manne stands out from the swarms of commentators. Twice voted the ‘most influential public intellectual’ in Australia, Manne has become an indefatigable critic of denialists of all kinds, whether of climate change or of the evils of colonialism. He has also had a long-standing interest in the role of the media, from his editorship of the conservative journal Quadrant to his journalistic and academic studies. Part of Manne’s authority is surely due to his long-term reliability: despite the title of one of his collections of essays being Left, Right, Left, it seems to me that he has never really deviated from what’s essentially a classical liberal position, constitutively hostile to mass ideologies of all kinds. Like Malcolm Fraser, another uncompromising moral voice in the Australian 21st century, Manne remains a Burkean conservative for whom established governmental and non-governmental institutions, the division of powers, the rule of law, free debate and moral discussion remain paramount.

It is then no wonder that Manne is incensed by the practices of the Murdoch media empire which, as he conclusively demonstrates in his Quarterly Essay ‘Bad News: Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation’, means that ‘Australia has not one Murdoch problem but two’ (112). The first problem is that News Limited owns 70 per cent of Australia’s newspapers; the second is The Australian under Chris Mitchell’s editorship. As Manne concludes of the latter, ‘The Australian has played the role not so much of reporter or interpreter but rather of national enforcer of those values that lie at the heart of the Murdoch empire: market fundamentalism and the beneficence of American global hegemony’ (113). It is primarily this ideological capture of The Australian that Manne tracks across a number of zones: from Indigenous issues and the

Iraq invasion, through its relentless assaults on the ABC program Media Watch, the Rudd Labor government and the Greens Party, to The Australian’s fundamentally anti-scientific position on climate change.

In a sequence of clear, careful, carefully targeted vignettes—in line with his own professed schoolboy ideal of ‘clear thinking’ (37) and his well-known admiration for George Orwell—Manne argues that The Australian slewed debate on Indigenous issues in its rampant ideological support of Keith Windschuttle (and much else), promoted the Iraq invasion by shamelessly skewing the facts, consistently proposes that there is really no such thing as climate change, and went so far as to announce in a breathtaking editorial of 9 September 2010: ‘We believe [Senator Bob Brown] and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box’. Such propagandistic militancy didn’t develop overnight, but it did develop. Thanks, according to Manne, to one man in particular: he proposes that the perverse imp hovering over this ideological morass is The Australian’s much-feared editor Chris Mitchell, accompanied by a swarm of lesser ideologues, from Janet Albrechtsen to Gerard Henderson to Greg Sheridan.

But let me underline, too, Manne’s attentiveness to the proliferation of media, their interconnectedness, their propensity for feeding on themselves, and the Murdoch drive to dominate all of the above by any means available: ‘Tweet tweet’ as one section heading reads, opens onto an account of the uses of the threat of suing for defamation against individuals who dissent from The Australian’s line, as well as the newspaper’s penchant for ferocious character assassination. Speaking of its treatment of the Indigenous activist and scholar Larissa Behrendt, Manne tracks the fate of Behrendt’s ill-advised tweet about Bess Price—which becomes the basis of a front-page Australian story—and is promulgated by what Manne incisively denominates ‘the Australian’s familiar false-inference, disguised-assumption, report-as-accusation house style’ (87). We’re back to the personalisation of every issue, along with the licensing of extreme affect-opinions that, at the very least, undermine any reasonable debate.

What perhaps couldn’t have been predicted from reading Manne’s essay is the utterly staggering nature of the response: Roget’s Thesaurus would flounder for adjectives to describe it. Although I spoke to many readers of Manne’s piece, who professed finding it a less-powerful piece of reportage than the inaugural Quarterly Essay, In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right (April 2001), it seems my sample set was unrepresentative. In The Weekend Australian 17–18 September 2011, an unheard-of battery of staff writers, including Chris Mitchell, Editor-In-Chief; Graham Lloyd, Environment Editor; Michael Stutchbury, Economics Editor; Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor; as well as Chris Kenny and Nicholas Rothwell, presided over articles with headlines such as ‘On the receiving end of some nasty and wilful misrepresentation,’ ‘In denial of his own set of rules,’ ‘A critic untroubled by facts who seeks to silence dissent’. The articles themselves were apoplectic with self-righteousness: Manne manipulates the Holocaust for his own political purposes, notably around Indigenous issues; Manne has a one-eyed view of climate change, which, despite his protestations, he seeks to impose upon everyone; Manne turns reality upside down, in accusing journalists of being, say, anti-Rudd; Manne reduces the generous range of the paper and insults the public, etc., etc., etc.. Emitting an impervious, overwhelming drone, the wasps set about swarming the intruder.

The very excessiveness of the claims made by The Australian journalists—both in terms of quantity and quality—betray their real truth. Sigmund Freud once pointed out that the proliferation of phalloi was incontrovertible evidence of castration, and the former were certainly flourishing here. Manne had, so to speak, touched on their lack—and those found lacking proved to be very touchy about it. One of the key rhetorical operations was clearly this: accuse Manne of shutting down whatever debate he was purporting to foster. In doing this, Manne would hopefully appear a narrow-minded anti-democratic hypocrite and the journalists courageous defenders of our freedoms. That such claims are absolutely fabulous should go without saying—although it is still noteworthy that what Manne and The Australian journalists share is, just as I noted above in regards to Assange and Bolt (aside from the fact they are all middle-aged middle-class metropolitan white males), is a noisy assertion of their commitment to free speech, open debate and the quest for truth.

Yet what are the ways in which politics is not—and should not—be about truth? Under despotisms of all kinds, the fundamental principle of ‘do as I tell you to do’ also means: say what I tell you to say. In such conditions, truth itself cannot be anything other than a pure function of power—including when that power is contested in the name of the truth. Whether it’s a matter of distinguishing ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ sciences, or of Aryan and non-Aryan beliefs, or all the other obscene distinctions that have prevailed between orthodoxy and its heretics, truth itself is explicitly subordinated to power and defined by it.

What makes democracy unique in the historical catalogue of real and imagined polities is that it overturns the proper places and processes of despotism. For democracy renders every individual personage subordinate to ‘the will of the people’, however that ‘will’ and that ‘people’ are pragmatically conceived. If power resides with the people, and those people are constantly discussing what the people are and should do, then it’s not that truth isn’t at stake—it’s just that truth has changed its status. Truth retains authority, but that authority must now be divided against itself, and there are many other factors in play. A democratic people must discuss and rediscuss what it wants as an essential part of its democratic process and, in doing so, the people continually make themselves other than they are. If truth is a factor in democracy, truth must also be a casualty—and not the inevitable outcome of democratic process. This is, for a true democrat, less dire an outcome than perhaps it sounds.

Yet the essential mutability of the people and the concomitant occlusion of truth naturally has consequences for governance, apparent from the start. At the alleged beginning of so-called Western Thought, Plato spent an inordinate amount of effort analysing the vicissitudes of democracy. As everybody knows, Plato pitches the philosopher, represented by the low-born ugly Socrates, against the suave and sophisticated sophists, represented by a rattle-bag of professional politicians, lawyers and pedagogues, whose epitomes are figures such as Protagoras and Gorgias. A sophist treats debate as a kind of sporting event, in which all other concerns—truth, justice, logic—are sacrificed on the altar of victory. Everybody loves a winner, after all, and public victory has great economic and symbolic benefits, which sweep all along in their wake. Truth, by contrast, has little to recommend it, especially since those who pursue it not only gain neither prestige nor power, but risk, à la Socrates, state-sanctioned execution. So, some oppositions: Socrates versus sophistry; impersonal truth versus self-aggrandising propaganda; rigorous argument versus socio-political advancement; losers versus winners.

Although Karl Popper denominated Plato one of the primary enemies of ‘The Open Society’—that is, any society founded on freedom of association and freedom of speech—this does injustice to Plato’s insights. To see Plato as himself a totalitarian thinker whose animus still pulses through, say, the Stalinist communist state, is a falsehood promulgated by allegedly liberal technocrats. Rather, the centre of the Platonic project is to restructure life according to the idea, a true rationalism. Such rationalism is strictly speaking non-tyrannical insofar as that idea is, at least in theory, impersonal, rationally established, objectively accessible, and thus, according to these processes of equality, just. But this is clearly not democratic in the sense of permitting free speech. On the contrary, ‘free speech’ for Plato is only truly free if it is constrained by truth.

But this conclusion is anathema to democracy. Democracies are essentially opposed to tyranny qua single ruling body, on the one hand, and rationalism qua regulation by truth, on the other. More important than truth is discussion itself, and the opening of that discussion in principle to as many persons as possible. In other words, to think that politics should simply be normed according to truth is itself an anti-democratic idea. From the point of view of democracy, Plato simply inverts and doubles despotism, insofar as he simply replaces the personage of the tyrant with the abstract figure of truth itself—and isn’t truth itself a matter of contestation? Yet, for Plato, it’s precisely because democracy fails the test of truth, succumbing as if a matter of course to the most outrageous, base and self-damaging drives, that it is a deleterious system.

For Plato, democracy is servitude to the tyranny of opinion, that is, to the media. Notoriously, Plato believes that the logic of media is given by the poets. Poetry essentially works by inspiration, mysterious utterance, the swaying of the passions, and elite competition—all things that are antagonistic to the egalitarian openness of reasoned argument. Fundamentally, the threat of free speech is that an excess of speech ultimately jams (or spams) its own channels, thereby corrupting itself. This is why poets are banished from Plato’s Republic: they are media goons, who seek to dominate the means of representation at the expense of justice. Hence we come to the most pressing aspect of the matter: since democracy essentially requires ‘variety’ and ‘criticism’ as E.M. Forster puts it in his classic Two Cheers for Democracy, it—unlike other forms of political organisation—necessarily places an impassioned media war at the very centre of its political enterprise. This is precisely the problem again today: democracy relies upon media that undermine it.

Yet the new media undermine democracy today in ways that go far beyond anything Plato could have envisaged. If ancient democracy certainly had to deal with a variety of media, from public heckling to graffiti, these are small fry compared to the contemporary globalised post-convergent online media environment. Even as I write these lines, an email notification pings in, spruiking an upcoming lecture by Malcolm Turnbull at the Centre for Advanced Journalism on ‘Politics, Journalism and the 24/7 News Cycle’.The blurb promises a discussion of such questions as ‘What role do Facebook, Twitter and social media in general play in policy debates and election campaigns?’ Such an environment is clearly no longer able to be satisfactorily allegorised by Plato’s Cave.

For contemporary post-convergent media simultaneously:

1) transform all forms of interaction into ‘information’ due to their technological conditions,

2) massively proliferate the modes of dissemination of information,

3) massively proliferate the quantities of information,

4) massively accelerate the speed of transmission of information,

5)necessitate that everybody purchase or at least have access to the technological devices for interacting with such information,

6) condition an unprecedented centralisation and control of the ownership of the means of representation.

This list is meant to bring out something that, for some reason, political commentators hardly seem able to mention: the very interactivity of the new media, their uptake of user-generated content, their operational requirements for sociality, are by no means new opportunities for democratic mobilisation. On the contrary, they enable not only an unprecedented exploitation of immaterial labour, a tracking of every incontrovertible keystroke, an immutable archiving of every missive, but the corporations that run the sites are extra-territorial economic giants who are essentially immune to any form of local criticism that can be elaborated on their sites and networks. Criticise as much as you like—it’s just more fodder for the fibres. New media no longer inform, but confirm: they are global, real-time, online, high-tech filtering devices that reduce all complexity to intense polarisation (good/evil, true/false, wrong/right, etc.), and all discussion to the immediacy of enraged blog posts.

This is why one can only celebrate the heroic democratic attempts of Robert Manne to hold back the ungovernable tide of centralisation. The unhinged ferocity of The Australian’s response is prima facie evidence that Manne has described—calmly, clearly, magisterially—the topology of a fetid crevice that normally hides in plain sight. Manne has targeted precisely the right phenomena too, including the opinions of the key henchmen, their ideological tropes and commitments, and their money trail. Above all, the fact of systemic concentration of media ownership is in itself a wrong in a democracy, perhaps one of the worst of all possible wrongs. For under such conditions, even if every single person seemed to be discussing public events with enthusiasm and energy, democracy has been neutered—for control of the means of discussion themselves have now literally been taken from their hands and mouths. The media war required by democracy will have morphed into a media monopology (if you’ll pardon the neologism).1

So not the accuracy, pertinence and power of Manne’s description, nor the swarming fury of the reaction, nor the ongoing governmental investigations and civil suits, are enough to reassure me that ‘our democracies’ are still viable as democracies. On the contrary, we now live in a world that is the bastard lovechild of 1984 and Brave New World: prolefeed and doublespeak for the lumpen masses, social snobbery and psychopharmacology for the touristic Betas, absolute deterritorialised mastery for the Alphas. As I finish this essay, in Melbourne, Australia in mid-November 2011, scientists connected with the Iranian nuclear program are being mysteriously assassinated, unmanned killer drones are being deployed by the US government, Rupert Murdoch remains under pressure due to further allegations regarding spying at News of the World, the ‘Occupy’ movement is still sweeping the globe from Iceland to Idaho, and it looks more and more likely that Julian Assange will indeed be extradited to Sweden. Not a single one of these ‘security issues’ can be properly understood under traditional headings of national public discussion and critique.

It is Assange who, despite the fatuousness of his public remarks noted above, provides us with an emblem and a key. His method is not, despite appearances, one of democratic debate, of revelations of embarrassing secrets, of truth against corruption. Rather, it involves a systematic flooding of the system itself. It seems to me that Assange has understood the political conditions of the network society better than anybody: to use the torrents of classified information to exacerbate the same routines of classification to the point of breakdown. Recursive escalation, not revelation, is the key to Assange’s program, or what could be called, using a botanical metaphor, ‘dieback’.

Dieback occurs when a part of a plant is affected by disease, parasites or other environmental factors, and the branches or shoots begin to die from the tip inward. In certain cases, although the infection may only be minor, the plant expends so many resources on expunging the infection that it essentially kills itself. Accelerate the barrage of information, accelerate the resources needed to deal with it—dieback as a non-linear informational tactic in the current war of humanity against the corporate state. The odds are that Manne’s classical model of critical debate won’t prove determining for our world, but Assange’s informational practice of dieback will.

This is the post-convergent media dilemma of democracy today: caught between killer drones and information dieback.

Justin Clemens teaches at the University of Melbourne. His most recent books are Minimal Domination (Surpllus, 2011) and Me ‘n’ me trumpet (Vagabond, 2011).

1 Manne says this, if with a slightly different emphasis: ‘The issue is not the absence of alternative sources of information for politically engaged citizens. In the age of the internet there are hundreds of easily accessible sources of information. The issue is rather the capacity of News Limited to influence the opinions of the vast majority of less engaged citizens whose political understanding is shaped directly by the popular newspapers and indirectly through the commercial radio and television programs which rely on the daily papers for the content of their programs and, more deeply, for the way they interpret the world,’ p. 112.

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