It is only with the most heartfelt insincerity I rue my failure to locate a copy of Mark Latham’s newest book. I should have loved nothing less than a weekend spent with what publishers describe as a “curated collection of the best previously published articles from the former Labor Leader”. But, oddly, the well-publicised text that promises to bravely reprint all the true hypocrisies of “the left” is tricky to find. It is not available for physical delivery from one major retailer in under 15 business days, and another estimates waiting time of two-to-three weeks. Alan Jones may have last week launched the thing with ceremony, but Outsiders appears yet unavailable for purchase in digital form.
You don’t get to say that Latham he is damaging or dangerous while arguing simultaneously that all things he opposes are benign.
Mr Latham’s publisher was similarly unable to provide an advance electronic copy—this is not uncommon—but kindly invited Daily Review to pop over and grab an old-fashioned book in time for deadline. And, you know, I woulda were I not (a) now unable to read printed books due to crap old eyes and (b) the sort of Politically Correct Safe-Space Snowflake disinclined to take a train and two buses to pick up columns we have already read.
So. Let it be plainly said before Latham says it for us all. (1) Mine is exactly the kind of lazy, lefty, feminist, victim attitude that is The Problem With This Country Today. (2) This is not a book review. Rather, it is an effort to consider thinkers like Latham, their prominent passions and how these have come to change and function within Australian, and Western, public life.
I want to do this without being too directly combative. This is not to take the former First Lady’s lofty advice to “go high” when they “go low”. I do not spurn low and vulgar argument. I do, however, believe there is only defeat in playing a game where the rules are essentially set by one’s opponent. You don’t get to say, as many of Latham’s critics do, that he is damaging or dangerous while arguing simultaneously that all things he opposes are benign. This is just cultural pugilism where one guy hits with, “your published ideas are harmful and will bring down the nation!” and the other guy punches back with, “Your face is!”
There is no way to assess the “damage” done by Latham’s mouth, just as there is no measure for harm done by his perceived Political Correctness Gone Mad. Between you, me and any person who would rather not spend all of their time fretting about the effects of public speech and cultural tendencies, who fucking knows, and maybe we should spend more time worrying about other stuff.
This is not to say that “free speech” is a trifling matter. This is not to say that it is not both injustice and brute obstacle to democracy itself that there are those with a great deal to say who never get to speak. How do we address this problem of unequal, ergo not truly free, speech? Do we keep defending the “right” of whoever we happen to fancy, even though this is a right they exercise loudly and very often? Perhaps we might occasionally think about what prevents so many from speaking.
As offensive as many found Latham’s comments, he was correct in stating that mental ill health disproportionately afflicts those in the arse end of the income distribution.
Here are some suggestions: illiteracy, poverty, incarceration, broken local infrastructure, institutionalised racism, poor health. In other words, what we might consider as a new political priority is “a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.” This particular fight is one that Latham has shown some conditional and imperfect interest in, before naming himself The Outsider. As offensive as many found his comments in an Australian Financial Review column of 2015, he was correct in stating that mental ill health disproportionately afflicts those in the arse end of the income distribution. This is a fact. Now this is my opinion, and sorta Latham’s: in becoming a cultural preoccupation for a well-to-do knowledge class, mental ill health is largely discussed in non-economic terms. This is a very poor way to publicly discuss a problem for which poverty is a very clear risk factor.
So, he didn’t say this well. So, he couldn’t resist putting the boot in to all vulnerable flesh he could find in Australian media. So, his fight for the “crude and material things” seemed to be largely eclipsed by spite. I was not convinced upon reading his column that Latham gave much of a hoot for the truly marginalised, and fairly convinced that he felt most sorry for himself. “I am marginalised,” has been his central message for some time.
I get this. It is a human temptation to think of oneself as hard done-by. It can be irresistible for the political and media classes. Not only is it very easy to believe that public ignominy is far worse than private abuse—I have now learned it is not, and I give no sort of flip for the “Twitterati” that so upsets Latham—it is a very simple matter to turn your perceived hurt to elite advantage.
Perhaps you have noticed how many professionally amplified people, including Latham on the cover of his book, claim that they are at great risk of being silenced, and do so to applause. Liberal feminist women recount attempts to quash their speech, in very public spaces. Parliamentarians who wish to impose the cultural values of an earlier age on their constituents sell themselves as “anti-establishment”. Billionaires persuade voters in key counties that they have not long enjoyed establishment friendships, but are also marginalised and ready to be “your voice”. Progressive politicians receive sympathetic space to defend their travel spending because “grumpy old white men” oppose it.
The self-pitying postures of an elite knowledge class fill many in the West with the shits. This is a powerful cultural divide. Here is what Latham doesn’t get: he is one of the elite.
Here’s one thing Latham is right about—or at least, was half-right about the last time he tried to whine about something bigger than Mark Latham, i.e. the nation, with the 2013 publication of his Quarterly Essay. The concerns and self-pitying postures of an elite knowledge class fill many in the West with the shits. This is a powerful cultural divide. Here is what he doesn’t get: he is one of the elite. As is Trump, Cory Bernardi, the falsely rebellious Tony Abbott, the Devines and Bolts and Kennys who all claim to speak upon behalf of the marginalised, the no-nonsense, the real.
Sure, these pundits have their audience. Just as knowledge class progressives have theirs. But both groups have become interdependent and are absorbed far less in a fight for the “real people” they claim to represent and much more in a self-involved league of Who Hurts Most. This is the message on “both” political sides now: I am right because they say I am wrong. This is not argument. This is no route to justice. This practice is boring and irrelevant to the lives of many, and has, even on the alt-right side of things, about a year of shelf-life left in it before a final and cheap, “the true enemy is political correctness! These are the real bigots!” begins to sound as meaningful to consumers of media as GDP.
Where does this guy get off claiming that he is still, or has ever been, silenced and oppressed?
National GDP tells us very little about the lives of most citizens, and increasingly offers us only the success story of the elite. Latham tells us even less of mass struggle, preferring largely to describe his own. And, yes, I agree with him when he says that the elite preoccupations of what he calls “left” feminists are absurd and intended for consumption by the few. Even setting aside that eminent ladies who write about elite problems of the boardroom or the newsroom or the Senate sit just slightly to the “left” of Mussolini’s seafood fork, where does this guy get off claiming that he is still, or has ever been, silenced and oppressed?
It is perhaps useful here to remember that Latham was once a theorist of the Third Way—basically, Blair, Clinton and the idea that you could promote a refined society while making sure that just a few people had all the crude material things. So, these guys, inspired by sociologists who truly believed that the starting point for full social participation by an individual was more cultural than found in the material world, let the rich get richer. They argued against the welfare state—and, under Clinton, effectively killed it—and said a lot of super nice stuff about inclusion while, oops, throwing loads of people of colour in profitable prisons. Yeah. That whole privatisation thing didn’t work out so well for black Australian women.
This guy who championed globalisation—the borderless movement of finance and labour—now can’t stop himself from imposing restrictions of the cultural kind.
This is useful to remember for two reasons, the first being a bit petty. His new book blurb promises an author who “refused to bend his knee to the leftist fads of the day.” LOL. Tell that to Anthony Giddens, Sunshine. I cannot think of a worse “leftist fad” in history than the Third Way, save for Stalinism. The second may be more instructive. This guy who championed globalisation—the borderless movement of finance and labour—now can’t stop himself from imposing restrictions of the cultural kind. He keeps saying what is and isn’t “Australian”, as though we ever had that identity confidently worked out. It is almost as though the global contradictions of the Clinton and Blair eras are now playing out in his head.
There are decades of bad policy inside Mark Latham. He has the hair and some of the nationalism of White Australia Policy-era Labor. He has advocates like Alan Jones, the moribund force of both AM talk radio and the Libs. His economic views are kind of AWOL, but we know he has a good deal to say to the libertarian David Leyonhjelm, whose opposition to a minimum wage has now prodded him into “rethinking my position”. And from all of this failed policy junk, he believes he can build a sound solution. And communicate his unstable handiwork by means of invective, and by calling himself an opponent of the “mainstream” in the pages of our most mainstream publication.
If only our speech was free. If only we would fight for the conditions to allow it.
Just how “damaging” Mark Latham might be is not, for mine, the most interesting question. How damaged and fragmented even a former politician’s understanding of politics can become is worth more investigation. Sure, Latham’s understanding appears to us as the most incoherent. But there are so few in Australian public life now who offer much in the way of a political understanding. It’s largely “Political Correctness has Gone Mad” or “We Need More Political Correctness, Especially For Ladies in Boardrooms”.
If only our speech was free. If only we would truly fight for the conditions to allow it. If only we would be crude enough to speak about the crude stuff of organising a good life for all. Then, we could be refined, perhaps even spiritual.
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