Crikey reported during the week that Gerard Henderson was threatening to sue UWA Press over their triple-titled The War on Democracy/Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press/A Savage Journey to the Heart of the Conservative Dream. But it’s in the bookshops, and that’s where it should stay, so that it can sink under the weight of its own silliness.
The authors, Niall Lucy, author of A Derrida Dictionary, and Steve Mickler, begin with a Humpty-Dumptyish definition of ‘democracy’:
As an idea and an ideal, then democracy acknowledges that between the many different interests in a society there are unequal relations of power, and so it acts to give power to those interests which on their own are less equal than others.
That’s hardly how most people would define democracy, which is about giving people political power, not equalising power more generally (in practice a broader equalisation of power has been a consequence of democracy, but it is not ‘democracy’ in itself). What Lucy and Mickler mean is closer to social democracy, or social justice. I can’t see any intellectual value in conflating separate concepts; the authors are confused, or perhaps they are trying to use the term as a polemical device to disassociate conservatives from something everyone believes to be A Good Thing.
‘Democracy’ is not the only eccentric definition. The first ‘conservative’ to be attacked is Luke Slattery, who I think would probably put himself somewhere on the left, and certainly would not be seen by anyone on the right as a ‘conservative’. But he gets labelled a ‘conservative’ because he is against postmodernism.
Ironically, this is because Lucy and Mickler seem to follow the logic of their own criticism of how conservatives construct the left:
According to the brutal logic of conservatism, if you are not on the side of the right you must be a communist sympathiser … and of course ‘communism’, as everyone is supposed to know, is code for ‘Stalinism’.
I know some conservatives can engage in hyperbole, but very few contemporary leftists are seen as communists, much less Stalinists (actually, ‘Trots’ is the standard right-wing term for the radical left, ie the Trotskyites who defined themselves against Stalinists, in the long-ago days when communism was a major force on the left. But even ‘Trot’ is not meant to imply communism, just that they are the loose political descendants of the original Trotskyites). Lucy and Mickler never bother establishing their point here. The only ‘conservative’ they quote using the word ‘Stalinist’ is Gerard Henderson, who suggests that like ‘fascist’ and ‘Nazi’, ‘Stalinism”s modern usage is as a ‘mere weapon of abuse, devoid of any historical meaning’. Exactly. Laughably (in more ways than one) Lucy and Mickler ‘illustrate’ their point by reference to the send-up of Alec Baldwin in Team America, saying it is satire on a conservative caricature. But they are taking the deliberate wild exaggeration of Team America as if it is a fact worthy of use in a book published by a university press. Can I cite Team America in my essays too? It would be a lot more fun to use that as ‘research’ than to have to read about the actual subject matter.
So on the twisted logic of if you don’t agree with us you must be a ‘conservative’, because Slattery opposes the postmodernism which Lucy and Mickler support he must be a conservative, even though there is no other evidence to support this conclusion.
I’m not sure that, except defined by not supporting a radical left agenda, Gerard Henderson is much of a ‘conservative’ either. His main sin, it seems, is not to have written any articles about the James Hardie asbestos compensation issue, which Lucy and Mickler believe is because James Hardie Chair Meredith Hellicar was also Chair of The Sydney Institute, of which Henderson is Executive Director. Yet the authors can’t even get their lines straight. On p.57 they say this is the kind of issue that Henderson would normally be interested in, yet on p.58 they say that since July 2000 (why not search earlier columns?) Henderson ‘never seems to have commented critically on any private corporation…’. So would he be interested or wouldn’t he? The p.58 point seems to undermine their argument against Henederson. His areas of interest are political and intellectual affairs, and he sensibly writes on subjects he knows something about. If he did write regularly on corporate affairs, but had failed to mention James Hardie, they could reasonably have inferred that the silence on asbestos was because of the Hellicar link, but otherwise not. But even if this had been a reasonable inference, it would have been a trivial point. Nobody is obliged to attack their donors, employers, allies or friends. It is only when they praise or defend them without acknowledging the link that they can legimately be criticised.
There is much else wrong with this book – Christopher Pearson has already corrected some of the errors in the chapter about him. I don’t want to waste any more of my Saturday writing about it. I will finish with one question I cannot easily answer: why are critiques of the Australian right from the left so uniformly bad? Few of the critics seem to have any idea of what they are talking about. Surely it would be in their interests to write powerful critiques of the ideas right-wingers actually hold?