Journey to the west
By adopting identity politics, Mark Latham shows us its weaknesses

Mark Latham on The Verdict. Image: Channel 9

“One of my pet gripes about modern society [is] the way in which serious issues and events are converted into bizarre forms of celebrity.”

That’s a quote by Mark Latham but it might equally be a quote about Mark Latham: former Labor leader, political theorist (how many other MPs have written a book as ambitious as Civilising Global Capital?), newspaper pundit, and now resident contrarian on The Verdict. In case you’ve missed it, that’s Channel 9’s new tabloid version of the ABC’s Q&A, a show so desperate for controversy that last night it resuscitated ’90s race-baiter Pauline Hanson to opine on, of all things, marijuana policy.

Not so long ago, Latham mocked Rosie Batty for getting “wheeled out at business functions to retell the story of her son’s murder”. Today, he’s earning a crust by trolling on demand: “Will drop pants for food,” as Krusty the Clown once said.

Spectacle aside, Latham’s new incarnation highlights his dependence on the identity politics he so regularly denounces.

Consider a fairly stock Latham rant from August this year. In this case, he’s attacking anti-racists over the Adam Goodes affair, but you can find almost identical Latham sprays aimed at feminists, same-sex marriage campaigners and other predictable targets.

He writes:

The elites, enjoying the luxury of high incomes and cosmopolitan interests, have subdivided Australia according to questions of race, gender and sexuality. They live their lives through the prism of these identities and expect others to do the same. When suburbanites refuse to comply (instead, prioritising practical concerns about living standards and service delivery) they are vilified by the elites as racist, sexist and homophobic. Identity politics is the standard currency of Australia’s outrage industry: the holier-than-thou moralisers that denigrate anyone who steps outside the boundaries of political correctness … The outrage industry is one of the reasons why Australian politics has entered an era of gridlock.

Now compare Latham’s own behaviour on The Verdict on the week the panel turned its collective wisdom to Eric Abetz’s use of the word “negro”. Latham, of course, didn’t see a problem.

“Back in the ’70s and ’80s,” he said, “‘negro’ was actually a respected, dignified alternative to really racist terms like ‘nigger’ and ‘darky’. So I must have missed the memo somewhere in the ’90s or more recently as to when ‘negro’ became unacceptable. I’m happy to make my weekly donation to Australia’s outrage industry by saying ‘negro, negro, negro’.”

(In passing, let’s note that you could defend “nigger” and “darky” on a similar basis, given both terms were once standard usage in white newspapers.)

But, in his subsequent remarks to host Karl Stefanovic, Latham gave a fairly standard piece of curmudgeonly back-in-my-day bigotry a distinctive tweak.  

“Well, Karl, I could walk through any street in western Sydney and no one would find ‘negro’ offensive. And who are these unelected, self-appointed people who’ve decided that we all need to speak like them?”

With that, he grounds his critique in an assertion of identity, using a methodology entirely familiar to every campus radical.

In almost everything he writes or says, Mark Latham identifies himself as the incarnation of western Sydney – or, when he’s in a more expansive mood, the outer suburbs in general. He uses that to deploy a “prolier-than-thou” moralism against his many and varied enemies, countering the more customary triad of race, gender and sexuality with an aggressive assertion of class.

It’s the last step that makes Latham so distinctive and (paradoxically) so representative of his era. In the past, a certain kind of left intellectual might have expressed gender through the analogy of class (think of Engels’ assertion that “within the family … the wife represents the proletariat”). Latham, however, treats class as gender – or, at least, as an oppression to be understood in terms popularised by the feminist movement of the last decades. In other words, he identifies himself with an identity systemically denied expression, thereby framing his opponents as exclusionary, even censorious.

“This is how I talk in the western suburbs of Sydney in the pub, with my mates at sporting events,” he explained at his notorious Melbourne Writers Festival event. “And if you don’t like it you can fuck off.”

 In the Goodes article, Latham blasts those who, he says, live through the prism of their identity. But that’s exactly what he’s doing himself. By referring to western Sydney, he snatches the mantle of victimhood and wields it against others. When activists object to the term “negro”, Latham counters by identifying himself as an outsider and shouting “check your privilege!”

Now, to the extent that the gambit works, it’s because it touches on a genuine issue. The voices of ordinary suburban people don’t get heard in the forums to which Latham has access – and everyone knows it. WEB du Bois noted that African Americans were always asked how it felt to be a problem. Something similar might be said of the inhabitants of Western Sydney, who are eternally discussed (especially at election time) and yet are rarely asked to speak.

That’s why – at, say, a writers’ festival or similar event – Latham can pose as the brave outsider by mocking feminists: he’s speaking, you see, on behalf of the excluded. You might object that there’s something a little odd about a career politician and widely-published intellectual wrapping himself in the garb of a humble suburbanite. Latham’s book from last year contains an extensive index entry for “Henderson, Gerard” (pp. 60, 67, 70, 74, 76, 79, 80, 104, 138, 163—7, 173, 224, 258—60, if you’re interested), for instance, a preoccupation not exactly characteristic of your average proletarian.

Yet arguments about whether Latham does or does not authentically represent the suburbs only raise more important questions about what “authenticity” and “representation’ mean in this context.

As it happens, in a recent Verdict episode, Latham himself explained that not all western Sydneysiders were created equal.

“It pains me to say in Western Sydney there is a Muslim problem,” he said, and then continued: “So, the best thing the Federal Government can do is get these people out to work. In many ways it is not just a question of stopping radicalisation. How do we promote normality, normalisation in Western Sydney so people are making a positive contribution to society?”

Again, the Muslim residents of the locality are probably far more “normal’ (if by that we mean closer to the statistical mean for income levels, housing, etc) than Latham himself, a man who, with his parliamentary pension and all, can’t exactly be short of a quid.

But, of course, the transformation of a region with a couple of million varied inhabitants into a single, stable identity necessitates exclusions.

Latham’s performance of “outsiderness’, his establishment of his political persona, relies on a set of familiar markers that hold his identity together with their very familiarity. Latham becomes a “battler” through the aggressive assertion of “battler” traits (outspokenness, ocker masculinity, whiteness, etc), a process that both enables and requires him to marginalise other ways of understanding the suburbs.

You might counter Latham’s shtick with the moral authority of a different “western Sydney” identity – one based on, say, genuine poverty or religious marginalisation. But that would be susceptible to the same problem, since producing a single category from an unstable multiplicity of people always depends on the exclusion of those who threaten it.  

As the American writer Michael Rectenwald has said of identity-based political argument:

The upshot in political practice is a static pluralism of reified social categories, each vying for more-subaltern-than-thou status on a field of one-downsmanship. While it may be useful for sociologists attempting to describe groups and their struggles with power, as a political theory, it is useless, or worse. This is because, by ending with the identification and isolation of its various constituencies, it in fact serves to sever the connections that it supposedly sought to understand and strengthen. The practical upshot … is the perpetual articulation of difference, resulting in fragmentation and the stagnation of political activity.

Perhaps that’s why identity politics has now been thoroughly adopted by those who most claim to despise it. Every culture warrior rails against identity politics, yet every culture war depends on a very similar methodology, as tabloid pundits construct a victimology around some concocted persona or another. The campaign for the US Republican presidential nomination provides a perfect illustration: essentially, a contest between professional outsiders competing only on the basis of identity.

As Malcolm Harris notes in his review of a recent South Park episode lambasting political correctness, “What South Park libertarians don’t seem to realize is that they’ve crafted a whole politics around their bruised feelings, which is exactly what they accuse the PC police of doing wrong.” Here in Australia, of course, nobody in the whole country so loudly complains of ill-use as Andrew Bolt and his readers, who are oppressed and censored wherever they turn.

That in itself should give pause to progressives. If the right can so enthusiastically embrace the politics of identity, perhaps it’s time for the left to rethink.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Melbourne editor, writer and broadcaster.

@Jeff_Sparrow

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