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Windschuttle and Breivik

A lesson in populist rhetoric

That’s it! Keith Windschuttle has had enough: ‘It took just two days after Australians awoke on Saturday [25 January] to the terrible news of the mass murder in Norway for the left-wing commentariat to start exploiting the event for political capital’. The Quadrant editor and revisionist writer on Aboriginal matters has had it with the Left, and particularly with Aron Paul, who wrote a piece in New Matilda, and Crikey’s Guy Rundle. No longer will he stand stoic and composed in the face of the vicious attacks waged against defenceless and moderate conservatives. No longer will he let his name and that of his colleagues be tarnished by simplifications and generalisations. Even though Anders Breivik quoted Windschuttle in his 1500-page manifesto, Windschuttle stands by his statements and refuses to accept that this links him to the ‘lone madman’. Fair Dinkum? A very short analysis of his article demonstrates the cheap trickery that he uses, and yet the damage this has done to the very idea Keith Windschuttle pretends to defend.

In the midst of the News of the World scandal and the long-overdue recognition that there is a problem with the way the media interacts with politics and democracy, Windschuttle’s article really shows those who still doubted the bias of Australia’s media. Interestingly, this is something Windschuttle and I agree on. Needless to say, our shared understanding stops there. The Quadrant editor feels it of utmost importance to denounce the scavenging tactics of the ‘left-wing commentariat’ who ‘exploit’ ‘the terrible news of the mass murder in Norway’ ‘for political capital’. This vocabulary, used in the sub-heading of the article, should suffice to undermine the whole piece, was it not published by Windschuttle in The Australian. What can we learn from someone as influential as Windschuttle, an ABC board member, and his unashamed populist attacks?

First, that the most outrageous claims can be made in the Australian media. Windschuttle states that ‘it took just two days’ for the Left to viciously attack the Right, defender of ‘the concepts of free speech, the rule of law, equality of women and freedom of religion’. Just two days? That is how long it took for the Left to regroup. In that case, Windschuttle should not worry too much. After all, how long did it take for so many in politics and the media to assume the attacks were part of an Islamist terrorist plot? When it appeared Breivik was part of the Christian Right, how long did it take for the conservative media to render this attack the deeds of a madman rather than a political or religious fanatic, like Muslim suicide bombers for example? Finally, how many European newspapers have published the comments of the extreme right denouncing the attacks and demanding that no link be made between their organisations and the ‘mad man’, sometimes even threatening to sue? Come on, Keith, let’s not jump on our high horses; your firepower is a lot more potent than that of the Left and it would be silly to believe otherwise.

Yet Windschuttle finds it fitting to turn the Left into a caricature, even at a time when the Right has been made to face its extreme. Note how the word ‘commentariat’ takes us back to the Soviet regime. Are we to think that writers like Aron Paul or Guy Rundle want the gulags to return? Were I to write an article on a couple of conservative writers expressing their concern about the rise of Islam in the world and tagged them part of the ‘Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’, I doubt it would be long before I was sued for defamation. Yet Paul and Rundle ‘exploit’ the news and the murder of many innocent Norwegians. Something conservative commentators would never do; after all, for Windschuttle, ‘the quality that stands out in the work of most conservative writers today is restraint’. For someone who ‘reads Bolt regularly’, it seems grotesque at best to make such claims. Since Windschuttle uses his own self to push his point, allow me to do likewise. I was once exposed by Andrew Bolt—whose specialism in French politics I had somehow ignored—on ‘the most-read political blog in Australia’, and needless to say his comments on French youth (as well as myself incidentally) expressed very little restraint.

Having dedicated the past four years to studying the extreme right and its impact on mainstream politics, it is clear that the ‘vocabulary wars’ which began in the 1980s in most of the western world have intensified the growing sense of insecurity and played a part in creating the atmosphere which led to the attacks on Norway. However, it is wrong to jump to unwarranted conclusions such as those of both Paul and Windschuttle. I do not believe for example that Blainey was for the return of the White Australia Policy. However, he clearly played, perhaps unwillingly at first, a part in legitimising a discourse which later led to the growth of ethno-exclusivism in our countries and to the growing irrational fear of the ‘Other’. Blainey, like Bolt, Windschuttle and others, is of course not responsible for the attacks on Norwegian soil. These were the act of an individual who pushed his beliefs to the extreme. However, while such acts are at present uncommon, the beliefs held by Anders Behring Breivik were allowed to gain prominence over the past three decades, and to be accepted as a normal part of our daily political life. The stigmatisation of the entire Muslim population after the 9/11 attacks has been a useful decoy in a world which had lost its nemesis after the fall of the USSR. The creation of the Muslim ‘other’ offered a scapegoat to those who increasingly feared the system was not delivering them with what it had promised.

It is in this context that a profound reflection on the role of the media is not only overdue, but vital for the wellbeing of our democracy. In times of crisis it has always proved easy to rally people with the use of exclusion and racist or neo-racist trickery. As our world is currently facing a multitude of crises, be they real or fantasised, it is indeed vital that our media provides us with news which will allow us to make an educated decision about our future. As it stands, the future is not so bright.

Author: Aurélien Mondon teaches politics and history at the University of Melbourne and Victoria University. He is the co-founder of the Melbourne Free University. His research focuses on populism and racism and their impact on democracy, and some of his work can be found on <www.briefandfalseadvertising.net>.

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