March 27, 2017

Your handy guide to political newspeak

By David Marr
To help combat unwelcome ideas about sex, women, human rights and especially race

A new political language began to be fashioned in America in the 1980s to combat unwelcome fresh ideas about sex, women, guns, human rights and especially race. The fate of Western civilisation was said to be hanging in the balance. This lingo of reaction was hammered out in Washington think-tanks and test-run in little magazines. Big minds and big money were engaged in the task. The work was wonderfully done. A key purpose of the exercise was to find ways in a disapproving world of continuing to fight for white privilege. Talk of culture wars, elites and political correctness offered cover to politicians as they went about an old familiar task.

Australia lapped it up. An early adopter was the mining industry. The industry’s mouthpiece, the Institute of Public Affairs, became quickly fluent in the newspeak. So did News Limited, which was the bridge on which this American dialect crossed into Australian public life. Decades later, hardly a week – hardly a day – goes by without an opinion piece in the Australian deploring political correctness and/or the blindness of the elites. The language would not have stuck without there being, often enough, a grain of truth in the writing of the harpy columnists. Yes, there are progressives who don’t give a damn about the people they claim to speak for. And there are politically correct politicians afraid of being branded bigots or traitors if they show their true colours. Such horrors have been with us always and the English language has always had ways of dealing with them. The point of the new rhetoric isn’t so much argument as abuse. Yet it comes with an attractive plea that we debate race and sex and guns and free speech without abusing one another. “You ought to be able to have sensible discussion on these sorts of things,” John Howard told Paul Kelly and Dennis Shanahan last year. “But there is a sense in which people are so frightened of being accused of being discriminatory or intolerant that they don’t speak the commonsense view.”

Evidence of speech silenced is scant. In late February, on the seventh straight day attacking Q&A panellist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the Australian published a cartoon by Bill Leak which, not so long ago, would have been considered unthinkable in a national newspaper. Leak has a hipster teacher telling primary-school children: “Out of cultural sensitivity to the beliefs of some of our more devout Muslim pupils we have decided to relax the school rule banning the beheading of infidels.” Meanwhile, on the opposite page, Janet Albrechtsen was for the umpteenth time denouncing the anti-insult, anti-intimidation provision of the Racial Discrimination Act as “a law that strikes at the heart of Western liberalism”. How? Who is it silencing at the Oz? Could Bill Leak’s abuse have been any more robust? Yet Albrechtsen worked herself up into a fury over the Turnbull government’s failure to free Australia from the act:

“It’s time to change the party’s name to the Illiberal Party. And in that values vacuum you will hear Pauline Hanson’s tally-counter clicking fast and furiously as more voters choose One Nation rather than a misleadingly labelled Liberal government that cannot find the political backbone to defend free speech.”

Speakers of newspeak have many enemies in their sights. Some are virtual strangers on the Australian political scene. It mattered in America to fashion a vivid new language to attack anyone who might aid abortion or regulate gun ownership. They aren’t such urgent causes here, though it’s a pleasure to hear One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts slip into the lingo to denounce those wishing to punish gun smugglers as “enemies of freedom”. Done by the book. But the common enemies are many, and here and abroad two underlying principles are always in play when new rhetoric is deployed: the Left is the enemy of freedom, and race is never about race. Some key terms:

Assimilation: “Asians,” warned Hanson in her maiden speech, “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” Not being able to fit in to a new country is a key racist claim through the ages. Once blood and biology were to blame. That’s become unfashionable. Now the fault is said to lie with culture and religion. Asians were bad enough but Muslims are worse. On her return to parliament in 2016 she declared: “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims, who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own.”

Cosmopolitan: Men and women of the world and their shallow ideas. Not really Australian. Backers of multiculturalism are by definition cosmopolitan. Ditto, rich republicans like Malcolm Turnbull. Out on the far right, cosmopolitans are blamed for seeking to impose a police state in order to ban guns.

Culture war: The notion that new ideas on race, sex, religion, freedom, education and so on are a coordinated attack on Western values that must be met with full force on all fronts. The metaphor of war signals the threat and conscripts contestants into two armies – Attackers and Defenders – while licensing ferocious combat in the trenches. John Howard was the Monash of culture warriors, but these days only his old army seems to be in the field. The other got bored and left.

Division: The natural consequence of pampering Aborigines or allowing foreigners into the country who won’t assimilate. “This nation is being divided into black and white,” Hanson declared in 1996. “I am fed up with being told, ‘This is our land.’ Well, where the hell do I go?” The threat of Aboriginal partition seems to have receded in Hanson’s mind, while the danger of multiculturalism is as potent as ever. She has always said: “Abolishing the policy of multiculturalism will save billions of dollars and allow those from ethnic backgrounds to join mainstream Australia, paving the way to a strong, united country.” Hence the party name: One Nation.

Elites: Not men who lunch at the Melbourne Club. Not families who find themselves in the BRW Rich List. But educated and prosperous Australians who live in cities and impose their progressive ideas on the mainstream. Hanson declared on the day of Trump’s victory: “People around the world are saying, ‘We’ve had enough with the major political parties, with the establishment, with the elites.’” Their influence is sinister. They bully. They seize control of universities. The ABC is staffed with elites. Hanson’s 1997 manifesto used language familiar from attacks on Jews before World War Two: “Our common oppressors are a class of raceless, placeless, cosmopolitan elites who are exercising almost absolute power over us: like black spiders above the wheels of industry, they are spinning the webs of our destiny.”

Equality: “My greatest desire is to see all Australians treat each other as equals,” says Hanson. Another key racist concept: that need and not race should decide who gets what. Sometimes expressed: “I am colour-blind.” Fine in theory. But in Hanson’s world it means cheap loans for farmers but no scholarships for black kids. She electrified the nation in her maiden speech by declaring: “I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia.”

Free speech: Not about everything. Mainly race. But it’s not free speech to ping racists for being racists. That’s censorship or, indeed, persecution. Not at issue here is Australia’s status as the only country in the Western world without a Bill of Rights. The battleground is section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which seeks to put a brake – no fines, no jail time – on speech that might “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people on the basis of their “race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. A complex debate continues between those who want the law to stay as it is (nearly everyone); reformists who want to raise the bar by deleting offend and insult; and abolitionists who claim that being able to humiliate and intimidate Jews and Lebanese is essential to free speech. By driving this debate, News Limited has made 18C the most famous single provision in Australian law.

Mainstream: Not to be confused with majority. Numbers don’t count. The mainstream is white, of Christian background and conservative. Commonsense and true Australian values, in such short supply among the elites, flourish in the mainstream. Assimilation means merging with the mainstream. Care must be taken not to call overwhelmingly popular causes like equal marriage mainstream. The word doesn’t work like that. Also: while mainstream is obviously good, the mainstream media is self-evidently bad.

Multiculturalism: The policy of allowing many cultures to survive – or even flourish – in a single country. From the moment she emerged from Marsden’s Seafoods, Hanson’s primary target has been multiculturalism. Over the last 20 years she’s found a good word to say from time to time about Muslims and Aboriginals, but not multiculturalism. She is the voice of that 12% of Australians who, according to the latest Scanlon survey, disagree that multiculturalism has been good for Australia. On her return to parliament in 2016 she declared: “Indiscriminate immigration and aggressive multiculturalism have caused crime to escalate and trust and social cohesion to decline. Too many Australians are afraid to walk alone at night in their neighbourhoods. Too many of us live in fear of terrorism.”

Politically correct or PC: A protean term for which new uses are found every day. PC began life when American communists in the 1930s criticised the rigid doctrines of Joseph Stalin as “politically correct”. Something of that meaning remains after all these years: PC is sticking with beliefs that are doctrinaire and out of touch with reality. Hanson has dismissed just about everything she disagrees with as PC: special treatment for Aborigines; tenderness to refugees; multiculturalism in all its forms; indulging the unemployed; any and all “unworkable socialist engineering doctrines”; and lately a satirical Meat & Livestock Australia advertisement which had a dozen races gathering for a beach barbecue on Australia Day. “Surely you have all had enough of politically correct stupidity like this,” raged Hanson. “It has to stop because it is undermining our Australian culture.”

PC also has another meaning: cowardice in debate or ridiculous lengths taken to prevent giving offence. The Urban Dictionary: “Only pathetically weak people that don’t have the balls to say what they feel and mean are politically correct pussies.” The fundamental charge of harpy columnists is: “He doesn’t believe what he’s saying about blacks/women/refugees/homosexuals/Muslims, being politically correct.” Cowardice is shackling debate. Oddly, there seems no requirement that the cowardice be proved. It just is.

Populism: The front-bar wisdom that sees the world divided between them and us, where the good are always oppressed by the self-serving few. Those on the left blame the rich. Those on the right, the elites.

Progressive: Pejorative. Useful synonym for both left and elite. Progressives sit on both sides of politics. They have no real feeling for the men and women whose interests they claim to have at heart. Progressives are even to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. Wayne Swan sees it as a lesson for Australia: “If you’re looking for reasons for Trump’s victory look no further than the potent combination of powerful vested interests dictating policy and some progressive elites shoving their orthodoxies down working people’s throats.”

Swamped: Not a fact but a state of mind. We’re waiting for the new census figures, but the last showed Asians at 8% of the population. Muslims numbers are growing but the Australian Bureau of Statistics has them at the moment at only a little over 2% of the population.

Western Civilisation: Old and fragile, Christian and white. Its oldest continuing institutions are, according to Tony Abbott, the papacy and the crown. Western Civilisation is under continuous attack today from progressive ideas and the long collapse of public morals. Australia has earned a fine reputation in the conservative world as a last redoubt in the struggle to defend Western Civilisation, for example by resisting equal marriage. Supercharging Australia’s efforts will be the $25 million Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, to be chaired by John Howard. Abbott is on the board. An early task may be to clarify where the Australian Way of Life stands vis-à-vis Western Civilisation. This is not entirely clear. The old enemy of Western Civilisation is, of course, Islam.

This is an edited extract of David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 65, The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race, $22.99

David Marr

David Marr is a writer and journalist. He is the author of the award-winning Patrick White: A Life, Quarterly Essay 38, ‘Power Trip’, and co-author of Dark Victory. He has been a reporter with Four Corners and the host of Media Watch.

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