Power Intellectuals in the Howard Era

Australian intellectual life changed when Murdoch — Rupe or Lachlan (remember Lachlan?) — sacked Paul Kelly as editor of the eponymous national broadsheet, and moved him sideways to be editor-at-large. Under Kelly’s editorship, the one-time left-liberal publication had moved to a position on the Centre-Right — hardly strident, but committed to framing issues in a certain way, and prioritising certain debates. It was pretty scrupulous in its attitude to the factuality of its news stories, hands off with regard to book reviews, and possessed of a sombre and considered opinion section featuring a series of regular columnists. It was also monumentally boring, a policy wonks newspaper, the op-ed pages featuring huge slabs of Alan Wood, Judith Sloan and their ilk, overwhelmingly focused on the topics that would form the substance of Kelly’s book, The End of Certainty.

The subsequent appointment of Chris Mitchell, notorious as Courier Mail editor for an obsessive and unbalanced campaign against the memory of Manning Clark, was a sign of what the paper was about to become — one which imported an American notion of the ‘culture wars’ to Australian life and attempted to reshape debate in that fashion. Murdoch’s tabloids had already begun that process, but in those there was limited scope for anything more than passing swipes. The Australian offered the opportunity to frame the debate more explicitly. Prior to this, during the brief Downer follies leadership of the Liberal Party in 1994, John Howard had carefully laid out his comeback strategy by working up the then relatively new theme of political correctness, drawing in a section of Labor’s socially conservative working-class voters irritated by Paul Keating’s combination of historical revision — such as the Redfern speech — and unashamed celebration of excellence in the arts (and implicitly critical notion of an Australian complacency about cultural achievement). Howard took the PC theme all the way to the 1996 election, portraying it not as the enemy itself, but as the sort of thing that was wrong with the Keating Government. By the time he was joined by The Australian, and by columnists such as the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, who were more willing to draw ideas into their columns; political correctness had acquired a class base — the ‘elites’. The ‘elites’ were a loose group, overlapping to some degree archaic notions of the ‘new class: tertiary-educated workers in cultural production, social policy and education, with globalised tastes and orientation, socially liberal, economically social democratic by reflex, even when it was against their immediate interests. They had risen in the 1960s and 70s, and the two decades of liberal social policy (including the Fraser years) from 1972 on had allowed them to shape institutions like universities, and create new ones like arts festivals, from which their power issued. Compared to real political and economic power, it wasn’t much, but its influence lingered from a time when Labor’s base had been in explicit alliance with such groups, and a notion that the country was striving to be ‘better’ — however that was conceived — was widespread, and seen as positive. By the late 1990s, this very limited cultural power had come to seem oppressive. The global collapse of the authority of high culture, of critical attitudes towards consumerism and hi-tech lifestyles, of a vestigial notion of History, had ushered in a celebratory populism which increasingly defined itself against the implicit notion of striving that obtained from 1972–96. Perhaps the last big act was the establishment of the hefty arts fellowships that came to be known as the ‘Keatings’, designed to give first-rank artists the freedom of financial security over sufficient time to do work that would be better than they could otherwise achieve, on a six months or one year Australia Council stipend. The ‘Keatings’ were met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by the public; in retrospect they have the air of a Bavarian folly, a mad finale.

In the 1970s, the Whitlam Government had been able to institute a range of social policies that some of its working-class supporters would have seen as either wacky or irrelevant because the main game was economic equality and political power for permanent irreversible change. In the 1990s, the message that the economy was largely out of the government’s hands served to focus many frustrations on the residual cultural power of the ‘elites’, to be presented over the next years as the source of all the country’s woes. This proceeded in essentially the same manner as it did with the rise of right-wing populist movements in the 1890s — a group of journalists, bookish politicians, think tank writers and a few others, all of whose lives, networks and living habits were essentially part of the way of life they were describing, constructed themselves as the unmediated voice of the people, channelling its general will. For those in the know, this was often comic — there was something ridiculous about an old Push-anarchist like Paddy McGuinness, a gay Maoist such as Christopher Pearson, and an erratic serial enthusiast like Keith Windschuttle presenting themselves in opposition to a ‘cultural elite’. One wondered at times what sort of naked horror they would be greeted with if they turned up en masse at the suburban barbeques they were so keen on celebrating. The use of the ‘elite’ tag reached its apogee around the time of the Tampa refugee crisis, September 11, the sequestration of David Hicks and, to a lesser degree, the publication and puffing of Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Compared to the vicious and often lethal populism of the first decades of the twentieth century it was light enough stuff, but it was essentially of the same form — a small group of deracinated types wanting of patriotic feeling and alienated from everyday life had set themselves in opposition to commonsense and self-evident values. Much of the sharpening of this ‘debate’ was done by Tom Switzer, the op-ed editor of The Australian, who had transformed the page into one similar to The Wall Street Journal’s and, paradoxically, had often early on hammered home the theme of deracinated unAustralianness with extensive reprintings from US newspapers and journals.

Yet by 2004–5, the term ‘elites’ was losing effectiveness from overuse and the unpreventable fact that the public had begun to notice that those spruiking the idea that they had been silenced by a conspiratorial group were writing their own newspaper columns, and had their own radio shows, as well as the Prime Minister’s ear. The rapid spread of the cosmopolitan tastes that had been such a target for the populists also played its part — by 2005, they belatedly noticed that virtually everyone was or knew someone who was drinking fresh coffee, seeing weird movies, using soft drugs, eating obscure foods, consuming hard-core pornography and so on. The notion of an alien group of tastes was not cutting it anymore. At the same time, the debate over the ‘war on terror’ and the future course of the West had become more fraught, as the failure, folly and criminality of the Iraq war became plain. Increasingly commentators began to fall back on an older model — that of the ‘intellectuals’, a small group of core producers of anti-social ideas, plying their trade for a variety of delusional and or mendacious reasons. In the context of the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, it was intimated, everything prior had been a parlour game — the question was now which side you were on: progress or medievalism, good or evil? This produced a split on both Right and Left. The ‘paleoconservatives’ regrouped around new journals such as The American Conservative, damning the theory and practice of the war on terror as a new Jacobinism, with all the hubristic folly of previous episodes. On the Left, a pro-war section split off, making an explicit claim to being the legitimate continuation of the Enlightenment Left, dismissing the anti-war Left’s anti-imperialism (and the anti-wanton-destructiveness of a wide range of people) as passive — and active — support for a new (Islamo)fascism. The pro-war Left included many — such as the Australian journalist Pamela Bone and the UK writer Nick Cohen — who had tended to use their own emotions or daily life experiences as a rhetorical piggybank for their writings, and it was easy for them to slip wittingly or otherwise into a populist self-definition as the voice of the people against a bunch of pointyheads. On the Right, a similar attitude could be taken by those — such as The Australian’s foreign affairs editor Greg Sheridan — who were, or imagined themselves to be, closer to power and the gritty realm of hard choices. ‘Intellectuals’ once again became, front and centre, the contradictory term it has been since the reactionary movements took it up in the early twentieth century — a term referring to a formal quality, a life practice, yet relying for its use on a particular content (usually projected onto someone) of being anti-Western intervention, pro-socially liberal and relativistic in questions of culture and way of life. Even this latest version of populism is fading (for reasons I will discuss below) and in that respect Paul Kelly’s essay ‘Time for a Rethink’ — on the ‘moral vanity of Australia’s intellectual class’ — in The Australian Literary Review’s October edition could be said to be the classic statement of the position.

Kelly’s essay focuses on three people he takes as exemplary public intellectuals, standing for a whole class of people: the journalist David Marr, philosopher Raimond Gaita and barrister/writer Julian Burnside, as they express themselves in recent writings (the first two in Australian Quarterly Essays). Marr’s essay argues that Howard and his government have systematically shut down criticism or avenues for it; Gaita’s focuses on Howard’s infelicities with his public. Some of Kelly’s charges as regards particular points in these writings are well-made — for instance, some of the examples Marr offers of the Howard Government shutting down criticism are a bad analysis of what is going on. For Kelly, all three writers follow in the tradition of cosmopolitan elitists of the twentieth century — forward thinkers let down by a recalcitrant and mulish people — and all three are in the tradition of the greatest Australian representative of that tradition, Donald Horne, as in his The Lucky Country, of 1964. For Horne, both leaders and people might fail the potential Australian project of being a free, equal and democratic people, unencumbered by the dead weight of tradition, or the need for sense of manifest destiny. For current ‘intellectuals’, these dilemmas have returned with a vengeance in the Howard years.

In one of these works — Marr’s His Master’s Voice — Kelly has something of a target. As this writer noted in a previous essay here, Marr’s forensic intelligence as a journalist and lawyer as applied to specific issues events and episodes does not guarantee him a very reflective or acute approach to many bigger questions, where he tends to reproduce a somewhat ossified late twentieth-century left-liberalism. For Marr, Howard has been a deceitful and duplicitous leader, but he has been allowed to be so by an apathetic and compliant public, and a cowardly and unprincipled Labor party. For Marr, this has deep roots:

So why doesn’t Labor rally the nation to fight Canberra’s bullying in the name of free speech? Because the party’s heart isn’t in it and Australians have only the patchiest record of becoming passionate about great abstractions — even the greatest of them, liberty. We’ve never fought to be free. Vinegar Hill was a convict breakout easily and brutally suppressed. The officers who overthrew Bligh spouted liberty to trade in rum. Shorn of the colour, Eureka was a bunch of miners who didn’t want to pay tax. The great issue that drove self-government for the colonies was seizing control of land. We were as much a part of the British Empire after Federation as we were before. And each step away from Britain had to be forced on Australia until the great Mother of the nation finally turned her back on us and walked into Europe. Australia surprised itself by refusing to accept Menzies’ tyrannical plans to ban the Communist Party. But only just. Referendums opposed by any of the big parties always lose, and usually heavily. Liberty was preserved in 1951 by 50,000 votes in a nation of millions. The barricades have rarely been manned since.

as history, this is caricature. Firstly because it leaves out instances now and then — the 1916 conscription fights, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the nuclear disarmament movement of the 1980s — in which very large numbers of people did take part in many ways. Secondly, it ignores the dual character of any struggle which can be both parochial and universal. To take the Eureka flag out of Eureka is to misunderstand why it was the sort of event whose participants felt that it could be expressed in a flag in the first place. If it had just been a dust up about tax, it would have been no more capable of a transcendent symbol like a flag than would an argument about an incorrect phone bill. Marr has taken the tragic failure theme that runs through Australian self-reflection and attached it to the recent political passivity of Australians. Actually, recent years would suggest that people across the developed world are substantially politically disengaged for reasons of social transformation rather than historical particularity, even if Australia has been more disengaged than many. But the idea that Australia is uniquely bedevilled by this is a familiar one. Is Marr representative of the attitude of a certain social class in this respect? He probably is, in that many people in cultural, policy and educational milieux feel a deep frustration with certain characteristics of Australian life — its relaxed attitude to creation and achievement for example, compared to, say, urban American life, or its improvisational character, compared to an embedded culture expressed in a thousand tiny habits found in older societies such as France — and this often determines the manner in which the current political quiescence of the West as manifested here is interpreted, while also being, of course, a way of translating the artist from outsider to unappreciated culture hero.

In sheeting home to Marr this unexamined prejudice, Kelly is on solid ground. Where that starts to come away from him is in seeing the actual charges made by each writer only through the prism of that attitude, rather than examining each on its merits in any genuine way. After all, the bulk of Marr’s essay is a recapitulation and examination of the way in which the Howard Government has subjected the media, the public service and institutions such as museums and the Australian Research Council to various heavy and limiting tactics, which are against both the letter and the spirit of a pluralist democracy.

As Marr himself notes, this sort of thing went on under Hawke and to a greater extent Keating too. It is simply that the Howard Government overrode any self-imposed limits of prudence of its predecessors. That the public service has been subject to substantial intimidation to distort and falsify — from the Immigration Department to the Office of National Assessments and beyond — seems proven beyond doubt to most observers (even many of those politically sympathetic to Howard). If Kelly is suggesting that the Howard Government has not gone to extraordinary lengths to muzzle the press, he better consult with his own editor because The Australian seems to have been fighting suppression orders and contempt of court citations from the government toe-to-toe for the last three years. A thumbnail sketch of Australian public life would be that after the fairly sleazy politics of the 1950s and 60s — the Communist Party dissolution bill, local McCarthyism such as the exclusion of left-wing writers from the Commonwealth Literature Fund — a broad consensus on a degree of balance in the politicisation of Australian institutions was in place. The culture wars and the Howard Government threw that out the window. It was one thing for the Fraser Government to appoint Leonie Kramer as chair of the ABC, or for the Hawke government to put John Olsen there. Howard’s appointment of Ron Brunton, Janet Albrechtsen and Keith Windschuttle in quick succession, and the abolition of the staff-elected director amounted to a political stack. To deny that, or its corrosive effects on pluralism — effectively inviting a future government to spill the board, thus, as regards stability, taking ABC governance to the level of Latin American governance — is simply to be wilfully politically naive.

This is brought to the fore in his indicative misreading of Raimond Gaita’s essay on lying in politics. For Kelly, Gaita’s invoking of Kant’s categorical imperative — treat every human being as an end not a means — effectively renders him a sort of pacifist unable to get out of the house:

At another level Gaita argues for Kant’s principle that ‘no person should ever be treated as a means to our ends’ and evil (for example, killing civilians) cannot be justified for a good end. The trouble is that few, if any war leaders have upheld this noble ideal. Decisions to go to war mean that innocent civilians would be killed. If unintended death of civilians in war is morally unacceptable, then war is morally unacceptable.

Gaita was referring to the intentional or wanton killing of civilians — Kelly has rendered it an absolute pacifist manner, effectively branding Gaita’s critique — or any critique — as unrealistic. Elsewhere, Kelly acknowledges Gaita’s structural point, that systematic lying degrades the body politic, but Howard, he holds, cannot be said with certainty to have lied systematically.

If Kelly really believes that, he is just about the last person in Australia so to do — it is just him and David Flint on that lonely fantasy island. What has been clear from the polling over the last year is that a majority of people believe that Howard is untrustworthy and has lied to them repeatedly. Gaita, the supposedly alienated public intellectual, is much closer to the mass of the Australian public than Kelly is, and his argument about the corrosive effect of lying tells us why — John Howard undermined his own foundations through repeat offences. Did he know that the Iraq intelligence was shoddy, or did he simply choose not to know? Did he know that it was definite that children had not been thrown overboard when he licked his lips (and check the film if you don’t believe me on that one) and said ‘I wouldn’t want people like that in this country’? Or about the ‘information’ the government had on David Hicks’ political record? Of course broken promises about beer prices and such like are relatively trivial. What made Howard different — and connects to Gaita’s point about the necessary structure of morality — is that lying, or being indifferent to the truth of what you are saying, is of a different order when it involves matters such as going to war, when you are sending people to kill and die, or traduces the very being of desperate people who have risked their lives for the very thing — survival for their children — that you accuse them over.

Of course such lies fundamentally corrode a culture — and any given person knows this from distinctions they would make in personal life. Kelly misses Gaita’s point because he sees political and personal life as ‘overlapping’ — that is, as distinct areas. And that goes to the heart of his misunderstanding of what has happened in Australia over the past years, and of the wilful misconstruction of the relation between ideas, the people who produce them for a living, and the wider population. In a familiar strategy in this sort of debate, Kelly constructs himself as the practical type, the empiricist, connected to power and aware of its complexities, over against the abstract and alienated intellectuals. Leaving aside the fact that his career virtually mirrors Marr’s, intellectual number one in question, the key fact about Kelly is that he has spent much of his working life at the heart of News Ltd and particularly The Australian. For the last decade the paper has aggressively pursued a role of a conscious and intentional reconstruction of Australian political sentiment, in a manner that is every bit as elitist and ‘alienated’ as that of the supposed intellectuals.

For many years, for example, Kelly’s passion was trying to convince Australians that they would have to abandon not merely the most ramshackle parts of the ‘Australian settlement’, such as the tariff walls around low-end manufacturing, but also its core commitment to arbitration and centralised wage fixing. After his departure from the editor’s chair, that cause was joined by a range of cultural and social ones — a certain approach to Aboriginal issues, to the teaching syllabus, to history and much more. The manner in which this was done went far beyond simple advocacy to the systematic misconstruction of the range of debate on such issues, and much of the actual factual matter within. It was an approach that was spread through the News Ltd titles, to varying degrees. How effective it has been is an open question. What matters is that the role of a newspaper stable was conceived not as a place where the plurality of views of a community would be expressed and reflected, but as a means to shape the range within which people thought by the manner in which the debate was structured.

That idea and practice of the production of ideas — that way of being an ‘intellectual’ is — dry and technocratic, yet it shares the alienated self-distancing, the ultimate disdain, for its audience that Kelly purports to find in a work like Horne’s The Lucky Country (and possibly no wonder — the book and The Australian were launched in the same year, and given that Murdoch’s sensibilities were left-liberal at the time, Kelly’s newspaper was an agent of Horne’s arguments). For the past decade or so, the reconstructive project of these ‘power intellectuals’, for want of a better term, has been to take vestigial elements within the Australian polity and use them as the raw material with which to remake the terms of debate along American lines.

Questions of foreign intervention could then be put not in terms of Australia’s interests as a geographically Asian country, but as a junior partner in the advancement of the grand project of the West. Questions of social policy would be put not in the terms of a mixed-economy, developed over decades, but in the American free market framework of choice and freedom versus constraint and coercion. A complicated pantomime would develop whereby a right-wing think tank would produce a report which would be trailed in the News Ltd pages and then be noticed as a good idea by the government which would then commission the think tank to flesh it out, and on it would go. This process was essentially a simulation of a public sphere with the public left out, their part played by power intellectuals. Indeed the gap was so great that Murdoch did not even feel the need to disguise the process behind a fig leaf of pluralism. In recent comments he has noted that he has now been converted to the notion that climate change was an urgent problem for humanity, and that the message would be introduced into news stories in all his publications. The fact that someone can talk about ideas in this manner — as if they were vitamin B added undetectably to bread, rather than matters to be openly debated — speaks volumes about the structural cynicism of the organisation for which Kelly works. Given that the editorials of The Australian were, at the time, almost daily screeds of climate change scepticism, which have now tailed off, one can only presume that the entire editorial staff came simultaneously and separately to the same conclusion as Murdoch.

Kelly’s article — not of great moment as a piece of writing — is significant because it seems to come at the end time of the bifurcated strategy whereby the elitism and cynicism of a group of power intellectuals is projected (strategically or in genuine belief) onto a group of critical commentators, as decoy and displacement. Kelly is no flip culture warrior (though his following have failed to notice the degree to which an institutional cynicism has entered the soul of his work over the years), but his article is a part of that now rather bedraggled attempt to forge a privileged relationship between power intellectuals and the mainstream. What both power intellectuals and many of the left-liberal public intellectuals are united in failing to understand are the structural and social changes that underlie the current disengagement from political life as it has hitherto been known. For the left-liberals, this gap — the fact that for most people, large areas of politics are now a distant process of opaque administration that they would no more think of intervening in than they would in the construction of a bridge — is the cause for mourning days of wine and rage, and the need to look for strategies to spark their return. For power intellectuals, it is explained by the fact that people have not yet got what is at stake in the war on terror and the clash of civilisations, which calls all to be soldiers of the heart in the advancement of the unquestionable correctness of the West.

Neither understand that the disengagement is one of form, not content — that the structural and psychological changes created by new media, global markets, and image cultures have utterly reconstructed the public sphere in which national political conversations were hitherto based and that, barring a huge global developmental reversal, it is not returning. The more fixed relationships within which modern politics was based have been supplanted by more fluid networks of life which make the grasping of a social whole and group identity progressively more difficult. Celebrated as unambiguous liberation by some, its precariousness generates political passions that present themselves as clear regress. The manner in which the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees were greeted in the late 1970s, compared to the public and political response to those more recently arrived is not a measure of moral decay per se, but of the dissolution of a base from which a generous welcome could be offered, and the replacement of that base by a more tentative and fearful view from and of an atomised world. Thus public beliefs and emotions that would seem heterogeneous in older frameworks of Left/Right, liberal/conservative can co-exist easily. Fundamentally and overwhelmingly, the social adventure — the reconstruction of broad social life as a meaning-giving project — is in abeyance, and people’s political (in the expanded sense) passions are channelled into two areas: the vicissitudes, fluidities and possibilities of social, sexual and emotional life, and the onward rush of technology. It should be noticeable that the idea of sustained intervention in practically anything at all has for the moment more or less disappeared from the social imagination: that has confused both the David Marrs and the Paul Kellys about what is going on. For Marr it is apathy, for Kelly it is a contentment that sets itself against the professional dissatisfaction of intellectuals. Kelly and other power intellectuals’ error is the greater. They have mistaken a process whereby the arena of mass dissent has been dissolved, as a process of active consent. Such a misunderstanding becomes telling when public issues take on a form that does not fit old models.

Take the case of David Hicks. When Hicks was ‘captured’ (taken from a taxi by way of bribery) in the wake of September 11, there was little sympathy for him. This apparently anti-Semitic white jihadist was the archetype of the enemy within, the terrorist who might pop up anywhere. Over the years that he languished in Guantanamo, however, the ground began to shift. Despite real terrorist atrocities in London, Bali and Madrid, the repeated alarms about imminent threats, coupled with the obvious cycnicism of the Iraq mission, left people suspicious and sceptical about the war on terror. This scepticism was not shared by the Australian power intellectuals. Close to the government, duchessed by American think tanks, eager as anyone for meaningful life-defining missions, they committed themselves to the clash of civilisations, and failed to notice that the public had departed from behind them. As far as Hicks was concerned, matters such as his commitment to extreme groups and anti-Semitic statements were, for the power intellectuals, a small restaging of the traitorous affiliations to totalitarianisms of Westerners in the 1930s. For most of the public they were simply evidence of a type they knew from everyday life: a young man, somewhat lost, doing stupid things. By the time that a campaign to release Hicks was under way, many people were becoming disturbed — in ways they could not necessarily articulate — about a fellow citizen left to rot in an ally’s prison. Such sympathy — indeed solidarity — with Hicks, was then augmented by something the government did: it started a campaign to celebrate Australian values, including ‘mateship’. Mateship, if it meant anything as a distinctive form of human connection, meant non-judgementalism. Europeans might break with each other over abstract issues like politics, but a commitment to ‘mates’ meant not letting them down because they have a few wacky ideas. The Howard Government and the values mafia built their own scaffold, emphasising the very value system by which their conduct fell short. Once again, how was it possible for them to be so unknowing? The answer was that values such as mateship were deployed instrumentally, without being felt. They were public emotional technologies designed to reconstruct people’s previous attachments — overwhelmingly to class and its organised expression in trade union solidarity. Yet the very people deploying these values existed in worlds — media and politics — where everyday life was highly atomised, competitive and full of deceit. Worlds, in other words, where ‘mateship’ as such barely existed, except as the floating, vestigial form that comes from short-term workplace alliances.

The result was that the power intellectuals were talking about Hicks as some sort of satanic figure long after large numbers of Australians had developed feelings of solidarity and attachment to him. In this the public campaign — Bring David Home — run by Kelly’s public intellectuals was in a much closer relationship to what most Australians felt to be right than the sort of people with which Kelly himself was surrounded. One of the most telling contributions was a recent comment in The Australian by Imre Salusinsky sneering at the idea that the cause of an anti-Semite like Hicks had played a part in the deep disfavour in which Howard had fallen. Prior to becoming a journalist, Salusinsky had been an English Studies academic, with a specialisation in the Romantic period and the ‘archetypal’ literary theory of Northrop Frye. How was it possible for someone with a knowledge of that great irrationalist movement, of figures like Shelley or Byron, not to understand that it was precisely a deeply rooted archetype — the Holy Innocent — that the Hicks narrative was slotting into? Because Salusinsky had compartmentalised his own expertise. Critical interpretation was something you did when you were climbing the greasy pole of the Humanities. Once you went to work for the newspaper whose business was the engineering, rather the interpretation, of culture, you made an effort to forget everything you ever knew. By the time Hicks was returned, 67 per cent of Australians wanted him home, and Howard himself was reduced to damage limitation by mounting his ‘we listened’ campaign — ‘we listened on David Hicks’. What Howard was listening to, of course, was a campaign got up by the range of activists and public intellectuals that Kelly constructs as separate to the — always invoked, rarely heard from — actual Australian public. For Kelly’s construction of the relationship between ‘producers of ideas’ and the wider public is essentially that of passivity. Public intellectuals say what they say, things move on anyway. This is most visible in his treatment of Horne’s views about foreign affairs:

Horne was sceptical about managing Asia, fearing Australia ‘might be overwhelmed whatever it does … But he was wrong … This was the generation of Bob Hawke, Keating and Howard. They delivered … in Asia.

How, really, is it possible to look at the career of Paul Keating, an intelligent autodidact coming to political maturity in the mid 1960s, and not think that his later views on the importance (and prior neglect) of Asia were formed then, whether he read Horne’s book itself, or writers influenced by it, such as many of the campaigning figures in that left-liberal national broadsheet of the day, The Australian? Moreover, that Keating’s views would not be as they had been if someone like Horne had not made some fairly stark arguments about the complacency of our Anglo-American attachments? Kelly cannot see a dialogical relationship between ‘producers of ideas’ and the mainstream because he has already decided that Left intellectuals are alienated by definition. The only people with a real relationship to the mainstream, by this account, are the power intellectuals — practical people out to reshape the public mood, not to argue a point with it, or against a majority opinion. It is a circularity that is most evident in his treatment of Raimond Gaita, who could not even by the most scattershot account be targeted as part of a self-satisfied left-liberalism. Most of Gaita’s contributions to public debate in the past decade or so have been explicitly occupied with bringing philosophical reasoning to current issues — the sort of global assessment of abstractions such as ‘the Australian people’ or ‘our history’ are things he avoids. There is of course one departure from this — his memoir Romulus, My Father which, among other things, concretely evokes a key period in the history of the Australian people, the decades in which the migration of Southern Europeans was transforming not only our character, but also the mode by which the place was imagined. any reader can see that the book is an exercise in evoking and rendering as art a certain type of australian experience on its own terms. Really, how is it possible to suggest that the author of such a book fits the frame of the caricature intellectual?

Compare and contrast another book — The End of Certainty, of 1992, by one P. Kelly. This is an extremely useful book, a compellingly made argument for the view it is presenting, but it is also a curiously disengaged and characterless one. If it ever evokes a sense of Australian life, it is Sturt’s crossing of the desert, because you have to go for hundreds of pages without the oasis of an arresting image, an event, a conjuring of the texture of history or national character. The End of Certainty is rhetorical in the extreme, of course — its ostensibly neutral rendering of ‘the Australian settlement’ is really shadowed by exactly the sort of disappointment in the public that he accuses Horne as having. Kelly’s ostensible motive in The End of Certainty was to alert people to the fact that the settlement was long past its use-by date, and that tariff reduction would have to be no more than a first act to a more comprehensive reconstruction. In reality there was a pervasive tone that the Australian Settlement had always been a bit slack, that we had always been lulled into a way of life that fell short of the cultural and economic dynamism of the United States. Few people realise they are of the devil’s party until everyone is getting their coats and ordering taxis, but Kelly’s rhetoric has more in common with the caricature he criticises than would possibly occur to him. The difference is that his work reads like an area study, by a technocrat, of a foreign land to which he has no emotional attachment to speak of — it is never ‘in country’, in dialogue, as Gaita, Marr and others are. Moral reflection on what a government is doing in the name of a people, and the possibility that major moral failure is possible, is for Kelly and other people like him, always ‘moral vanity’. Having flattened out the scope of intellectual engagement to that of either whispering in the ear of power, or reshaping public debate through strategic means, anyone who offers an extra, moral, dimension must by definition be a fantasist. It is a projection of cynicism by those who chose it as an attitude or for whom it became engrained by a succession of compromises with power.

Curiously enough, this dismal conspectus was admitted explicitly by Tom Switzer, in the record of a dinner speech in the most recent Quandrant — one that in any other era would have been buried under Chatham House rules. On the theme ‘conservatives are winning the culture war’, Switzer notes that in contrast to the days when Left voices allegedly dominated opinion pages:

Today, by contrast, the ranks of the Right have swelled to include Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Gerard Henderson, Greg Sheridan, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Imre Salusinszky, Sandra Lee, Michael Baume, Dennis Shanahan, Terry McCrann, Michael Duffy, John Roskam, Tim Blair, Christopher Pearson, Paul Gray, Neil Mitchell, and Paul Sheehan …

And of the ABC:

Even the ABC has shown signs of political diversity in the past decade, though conservatives not surprisingly feel betrayed by Donald McDonald. Of the long-time ABC chairman, one high-profile Liberal said:

As far as Liberals go, the major cultural war of the last twenty years has been against the Left of the ABC. And John Howard has failed to fight it. Donald McDonald has become our equivalent of John Kerr, and John Howard should have known he’d turn on us.

In other words, the op-ed pages — presumably not subject to the referendum process — have been almost entirely stuffed with conservatives. The ABC chairman’s defence of its independence and the sacking of an incompetent general manager amount to a betrayal of the project. This, apparently, is how pluralism now works in australia.

That is the context and attitude that Kelly has summarised. Such a view has rendered intellectual life in this country increasingly cynical, morally corrupt and bitter. It has also made itself uniquely unable to reflect on the broader society as it changes. What successes it has had are from brute financial power. And on what is coming — as various historical processes, and especially climate change, put the fundamental questions of our way of life in question — its proponents will find themselves equally unable to speak analytically or morally on matters of real importance to our lives.

Guy Rundle is an Arena Publications editor.

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