Milan Kundera observed in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
In times when history moved slowly, events were few and far between and easily committed to memory. They formed a commonly accepted backdrop for thrilling scenes of adventure in private life. Nowadays, history moves at a brisk clip … No longer a backdrop, it is now the adventure itself, an adventure enacted before the backdrop of the commonly accepted banality of private life.
The present time and the public realm have upended the past and the private. Give us this day our daily drama of the news cycle. Life on the iPad, Google, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter take up a good deal of each day, not to mention reading newspapers, watching television and answering the day’s emails, letters and recorded messages. Longer-term projects are postponed in the face of pressing, but passing, matter. (On the positive side, the internet provides an enormous library at our instant disposal.) You may get a lot of “likes”, but this merely reinforces your own views at the expense of more challenging inputs. T.S. Eliot said he didn’t read the newspapers because they were too exciting. We become vicarious actors, expert media sleuths in a continuing global drama, fulfilled by being in touch with vital contemporary currents. The spheres of our inner world and the world conversation happily align. The personal moves to the public sphere.
The ancients juggled carpe diem (living for the day) with vanitas vanitatum (the futility of human endeavour), but for us it’s a no-brainer. In the past, delayed gratification and instinctual renunciation were the ways to achieve long-term goals, but large swathes of our culture have settled for hedonism, stroking of the ego, and instant entertainment. The Bible taught the Jewish and Christian peoples there was nothing new under the sun, but since the 1960s we have been propelled by the shock of the new. This has come about because a unidirectional tendency has overtaken contemporary thought, moving discussion into ever narrower channels and towards the present. Unlikely notions, sometimes originating in the academies, filter down to the media where they are given wider credence by public opinion-formers who act as gatekeepers to the wider community. A sign of coming times was the fad of brainstorming which threw people with limited knowledge together in a room, and provided a wonderful impression that something was going to eventuate, but was futile, as the process lacked any shared pool of information and any criteria of judgment. Ideas don’t appear out of nothing.
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The avant garde homed in on change, on being original, on being critical of the status quo. Commentators were under pressure to say something radical, causing an in-built bias against Western democracies. The next move was the smart thinking in the 1970s, with its beguiling but false paradoxes such as, “Not to be involved in politics is a political act”. We were told by Marcuse’s followers that the absence of violence in Western societies was a sign the authorities had internalised the instruments of repression. In other words the absence of visible violence was the knockdown argument for its existence. Modern art, with slogans like “the cutting edge” and “operating outside the box”, searched relentlessly for a new take on things; Patricia Piccinini’s grotesque sculptures elided the boundary between mankind and animal, reducing our status to the humanoid.
In the 1960s Susan Sontag said that “the white race is the cancer of human history”. We have gone well beyond this, now believing all of us are exterminating devils threatening life on our planet. We have moved to the bizarre and the shocking. A Royal Commission discovered that a genocide had occurred in Australia within living memory. We use the catastrophic imagery of Aids and Ebola to indulge the thought that there might be unsolvable problems for us to wrestle with, or even wallow in. Extreme events and disasters are foregrounded: coral bleaching, plastic choking the oceans, increased tornadoes, volcanoes and floods (though these latter may be just more noticed because of improved media coverage). We are told our planet is at a tipping point, foreshadowing the end of the world as we know it. We live in the end days—here the secular Green Left hold hands with US religious fundamentalists of the Alt-Right, both being equally drawn to Gotterdammerung imagery. The recently introduced Japanese word tsunami has expanded its range, now a metaphor for the many diverse phenomena about to overwhelm us. As with the word holocaust, its overuse has ironically domesticated it, undermining its original force.
In our ahistorical perspective, today matters above all else. History courses used to end a century before the present; the intervening time was living memory, too close to be objectively assessed. History now moves towards the present, dovetailing with current affairs. Whitlam’s dismissal was the hot topic in Australian history courses within two decades of its occurrence. As a result we lack a memory of different times and different perspectives in assessing the present.
The 1930s was a decade of politique d’abord (politics above all else). A standout novelist and journalist of this period was Joseph Roth, who moved from the Jewish heartland of Galicia to Vienna, and then to Berlin and Paris. A brilliant daily journalist with a great grasp on things and plentiful sources of knowledge, he was the first person I know who devoted his entire life to public events. He wrote daily on them, he had no permanent abode or possessions or attachments, he lived out of a suitcase in hotels and apartments, his wife was sent to a sanatorium and then murdered by the Nazis. Every day was consumed by exhaustive reporting on current events, until he finally succumbed to despair and alcoholism in the early 1940s, as the Holocaust took hold of his race and his civilisation. He had no private life, or more accurately his personal and public life had become one. If even he with such resources collapsed under the strain, how much more likely might we without them.
Similarly with the 1960s, like the 1930s a time when political events were foregrounded. The US poet Robert Lowell amalgamated his personal state with the dramatic public events unfolding around him. He added a new dimension to the picture: it’s not just a simple matter of getting excited by the day’s news, it’s a constant oscillation between quiescence and excitement that is the new normal. In poems like “Waking Early Sunday Morning”, Lowell is able to align his own manic-depressive condition with wider public shifts in opinion. It’s waking time, it’s early, it’s Sunday, it’s morning, all times when we are most relaxed, until our mood-swings kick in:
Sing softer! But what if a new
diminuendo brings no true
tenderness, only restlessness,
excess, the hunger for success,
sanity or self-deception
fixed and kicked by reckless caution,
while we listen to the bells—
anywhere, but somewhere else!
A low period (“diminuendo”) triggers a hunger for vicarious public excitement “anywhere, but somewhere else”. Linking our mood to the public one is not a one-way street—it involves a constant, exhausting roller-coaster ride switching between the lows and highs, a ride we can’t get off, as Lowell understands in his wonderful line: “each drug that numbs alerts another nerve to pain”. In the poem a public figure, the US President (most likely based on J.F. Kennedy), moves in the opposite psychic direction, shedding tense affairs of state by relaxing in a swimming pool:
O to break loose. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer …
elated as the President
girdled by his establishment
this Sunday morning, free to chaff
his own thoughts with his bear-cuffed staff,
swimming nude, unbuttoned, sick
of his ghost-written rhetoric!
Every night television chat show hosts and 60 Minutes reporters get themselves (and us) worked up over an issue they claim to be “passionate” about. But next week it will be another equally demanding issue, with the previous “vital” one consigned to the memory hole. It’s the need to show we are compassionate that’s the constant, the target issue can easily change. It’s synthetic caring. Because no issues are resolved they are used merely as entertainment. Television visuals are such eye candy they blot out deeper responses, relegating information transmission to a lower-order priority. Indignation rather than insight becomes the main driver. The feeling that things aren’t as right as I think they should be becomes a deeply ingrained conviction in the viewer. I am the arbiter, and our society is to blame. In fact serial indignation, getting het up daily, gets one nowhere: it’s a giant distraction, a frustrating, self-crippling state, which builds up resentment at society with no way of resolving the issues, or of fruitfully releasing one’s angst.
In traditional societies one aimed above all else to tell the truth, both for moral reasons and to provide a plausible analysis of events. In education today one learns above all to be critical—I criticise, therefore I am—whereas the aim should be to tell the truth about our society, which always involves a mixture of some criticism and some endorsement. But we have so focused on the critical faculty, which can be destructive if over-emphasised, that we spend much of our time bagging our culture and its mores. The adversary culture, the culture of complaint, is dominant. In fact, the pluses of life in the Anglosphere and Europe far outweigh the deficits (look at how many are trying to enter them), but rarely get an airing and so wither from lack of acknowledgment. Under these pressures the key verb to criticise has changed its meaning from the neutral to assess to the pejorative to blame.
Jean-Paul Sartre promoted commitment above all in the 1950s. In one direction this has led to activism and protest, a blunt instrument, a surrendering of the original goal of analysis. Protest makes the protester feel morally superior; as self-therapy it justifies itself, whatever the result. Using events for their stimulus value is the wrong way round, it’s just pseudo-commitment. Protesters, especially on race and climate issues, are unsatisfiable, with a new log of claims always in the offing. They don’t, in spite of their claims, represent anyone but their own unrepresentative selves. Their self-image as outsiders is belied by the uncritical attention they receive from the mainstream media.
Analysis of society previously consisted of a range of subject areas (literature, history, classics, politics), each with a distinctive, non-ideological discipline appropriate to it. From the 1970s these discrete areas of inquiry began to be folded into each other, a generalised sociological critique of society’s defects with no boundaries or “discipline”. A partial reading of the novels of Dickens and Conrad demonstrated the evils of industrial and colonial societies. By the 1990s the new holy trinity of women, Aborigines and environmental destruction became the basic subject area of many courses. The content was being narrowed, as was the prescribed approach. Discrimination moved from choices to exclusions. We make choices all the time, which is good and natural. But modern identity rhetoric is a zero-sum game, in which someone must lose out, which in most cases is not necessary or true.
In recent years the previous ruling trinity has been superseded by gender, identity politics and climate change, all issues in the present, and with little free market of ideas around them. By now there were about thirty university campuses in Australia offering similar postmodernist BAs. Universities employ marketing experts who believe product differentiation attracts additional market share, but surprisingly almost no campuses broke ranks and offered a traditional BA. The proposed Ramsay course called Western Civilisation, which originated outside the universities, is more or less the traditional BA. The real objection to it from humanities staff is not the alleged defects of Western civilisation itself. The unstated worry is that the Ramsay course threatens the stranglehold position the stakeholders of the compulsory postmodern BA have obtained. Like all monopolists they can’t allow any new rivals to upset their cosy position renting out their courses. Students at present lack a diversity of course offerings, they can’t vote with their feet, and so become the losers in all this.
It’s a closed shop: the government pays the staff, its pays for campus infrastructure, and it pays the HECS fees for students until they later pay them back, which almost half never do. Real-world economics never get a look in, with the government paying at both ends. As with the ABC and Fairfax media, Gramscian staff-capture calls the shots. Academics have a self-image as daring innovators promoting diversity and challenging the status quo, in the face of the facts. Like all declining grandees they cling to the perks, such as peer group assessment, as they feel increasingly beleaguered.
From the 1960s ideologies—that is, organised internally consistent worldviews like Marxism, environmentalism, feminism and orientalism—were imposed onto reality so it could be altered into a shape acceptable to the investigator. These ideologies had at least some basis in evidence. Later on when this phase had run its course, more nebulous concepts designated as theories became flavour of the month or year or decade. These new theories were fact-free and did not have the consistency, inane though it may be, of ideology. Preconceived intellectual miasmas, with their own unique language and with loose rules, appeared on the horizon. As has often been pointed out, the mafia made you an offer you couldn’t refuse, but the new theorists made you an offer you couldn’t understand. As there could be no such thing as reality or fixed values, everything was simply an artificial social construct as ephemeral as a soap bubble, which dissolved at the touch, even the theory itself. Everything could be expertly deconstructed, but nothing could be grounded. Arguing against the existence of values can be a cover for having no values oneself; postmodernists treat life as a moral-less and reality-less game to be manipulated by smart slogan wielders and agenda setters. New theories rapidly multiplied and were just as quickly discarded: literary theory, gender theory, queer theory, structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction, and so on. Such churning is a giveaway sign that little of lasting value is happening. This higher-level vacuity became an endless procession until exhaustion intervened, or someone noticed the emperor had no clothes.
Theorists in their very make-up abhor distinctions and boundaries, which imply judgments and values. They want ideally to live in a borderless, nationless UN world open to all comers, where there exist no bourgeois distinctions of rank. All roles are amalgamated and thereby confused. Academics (long-term impartial researchers) want to be instant op-ed columnists, journalists (objective reporters) want to be commentators, not just reporters, then all (academics, journalists and commentators) want to move one step further and become actors in the public realm. International celebrity egos like Geoffrey Robertson put themselves at centre stage and soon become their own story. Chat shows like The Drum and Insiders consist of journalists talking to journalists, a hopeless confusion of roles—what criteria of judgment can they employ? In fact, each of these vocations has different skill sets, attributes and arenas of action, but these are elided. The journalist Paul Kelly commendably moved the other way and in his book The End of Certainty produced, while a working journalist, long-term original, academic-style research. After decades in television journalism, Clive James similarly tackled more substantial projects.
Safe spaces started as designated rooms in universities for minorities terrorised by racist and sexist predators roaming the campus. Now the whole university has become a designated safe space for those who thirst for a purer atmosphere where political correctness can be enforced without demur. ABC and Fairfax products are now safe spaces. An ABC ad tells us, “The ABC—it’s yours”. It’s not clear who “yours” refers to, but it’s certainly not “ours”. Whole suburbs, the inner north in Melbourne, the inner west in Sydney, have become havens for like-minded trendy elites. They resemble cantonments in Asian cities in the nineteenth century where European overlords were safe from the orientals, or the party members in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, who never visit the vast wastelands inhabited by the proles. Journalists are rarely familiar with the denizens of the outer suburbs they are supposed to be reporting on.
Superior elites must on the one hand break the comforting values of the self-satisfied bourgeoisie by blurring their boundaries, but on the other hand (a double-think contradiction), they themselves need snowflake sanctuaries, as they are a protected species seeking safety from the white Right. Fear and exaggeration of dangers are common, and gated communities are increasing. Frank Furedi has shown how we overemphasise the mishaps, risks and ills flesh is heir to. Snowflakes require guarantees against life’s accidents.
Many television shows, newspapers, blogs and conversations circle around the same issues: climate change, asylum seekers, environmental degradation, Trump, MeToo, the incipient fascism of the Alt Right, and so on. We are not allowed to nominate different issues, resulting in fewer independent voices. In discussing asylum seekers, we are not allowed to ask why many nations today are failed states, but we are allowed to compare Manus Island and Nauru with concentration camps. A few decades ago we were exhorted to understand the “other”; now we are not allowed to, since the current take is that only Aborigines/Muslims/women can discuss Aboriginal/Muslim/women’s affairs. We should not be constrained by fixed identities housed in silos. We can sympathetically imagine what we have not experienced—it’s called literature. SBS claims in its ads it is “celebrating the differences we share”, a typical double-think circumlocution. In reality, multiculturalism is designed to artificially prolong differences.
We can overcome this narrowing of attitudes by acquiring a knowledge base, by invoking other perspectives, and by nominating our own topics, not those endlessly foisted on us by a compliant media. Economics and society are the forerunners of politics, not the other way round. The prime drivers in our society are the natural organs of civil society, the intermediate institutions which mediate between citizens and government, and cushion the latter’s effects, thus directing our energies to compromise, problem solving and living in harmony with others. The drivers are not class or race or gender, arenas in which the antagonists believe themselves engaged in a struggle to the death. Better to lift ourselves above the circling mire so we can inhabit again the broad sunlit uplands of the spirit, as someone once recommended when things looked grim.
Patrick Morgan lives in Gippsland. His most recent book, The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920–70, was published by Connor Court last November.