A young white male wakes up on November 9th. It’s a big day. By day’s end a woman will be the president elect of the United States. It’s all but assured. He takes the safe bet that things will remain as they are, that the outsider will be left in tatters, that the establishment will reign supreme and that Lady Liberty will recover from the trauma. It was, in many ways, an ordinary morning.
When I first sat down and began writing this piece I had a different intention. I wanted to illustrate how sick and tired I was of politics, Australian and otherwise. It’s a notion repeated ad nauseam by many and it comes at no surprise. When Turnbull pulled the grubby rug from under Abbott’s feet I thought okay, things might get interesting, maybe even better. He had been touted as ‘progressive’ and ‘moderate’, at least by his own party’s standards. And man, he wore the sickest leather jacket. But nothing much seemed to change. In fact, things appeared to get worse in more than a few ways. I wanted to write about this and more, that it was all becoming rather boring, because it is expected. Of course One Nation received a not-so insignificant number of votes, and of course senator Malcom Roberts is wasting the senate’s and the CSIRO’s time with climate denial (tip of the iceberg really when it comes to senate shenanigans); of course the president of the Human Rights Commission is made a political plaything; of course coal is said to be important to us for ‘decades and decades’ to come; of course there won’t be a free vote in parliament for marriage equality. Then there is, of course, the continued suffering of those on Manus and Nauru—when did the insufferable treatment of others become so tiresome to think about? Expected evil, I keep thinking.
It definitely has something to do with the political language of our time. Obfuscation, euphemism, polls, slogans (oh, the beauty of template campaigning). It’s become so normative and so insisting that it’s become the same monotoned, garbled mess that hardly seems worth listening to. I even think politicians as a group, especially Australian politicians, have developed their own normative form of intonation, of speech patterns. They literally sound the same. Even the younger politicians like James Paterson sound like their older peers. And Turnbull, once the man of promise, has emerged as one of the most feckless and weakest leaders in a generation. It’s all just so boring and it’s what I now expect. There is, as I like to say, not enough puke in the world…
But something has happened.
When it dawned on me that the UK had voted to leave the EU it felt like a dream. No, I thought, that can’t be right. It was similar to the feeling I had watching state after state fall red on November 9 (Australia being ahead in time). Right up until the Rust Belt was called I thought surely not. But it happened and we now live in Trumplandia, Upside-Down Land. It’s all topsy-turvy and doesn’t feel right, yet there it is. The weirdest of dreams have come true and not even the writers at South Park could’ve guessed it right.
I watched the live updates all day and as Florida fell to Trump my jaw dropped. By day’s end, he was the President Elect of the most powerful nation on Earth, a man who is probably racist, definitely doesn’t read, who has shown very little composure or self-control; he’s a man who is convincingly sexist, a man who warms to authoritarianism… but we know this, all of it. We can all argue about the details of a man who is so obviously unfit for the highest office on Earth, but it’s too late.
It’s part of something bigger. Grubby populism and isolationism has reemerged. There’s Brexit, there’s Trump, and the growing strength of the Reactionary Right in the West. It’s happening in France with Front National, it’s happening in Germany with a backlash against immigration and it’s happening again here with the reemergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Though there are other world events and trends that have contributed to this, I think something has gone wrong on the Left, which I consider myself loosely a part of. I think it has staled, I think it’s weak and distracted, falling for the same traps. You can see it in the microcosms of our culture, in tiny instances of our social media. A friend posts a status decrying the labelling of all Trump supporters by a group of feminists as all sexist and racist. Another argues the problem of other’s reducing the issue to gender alone. Another offers the nuance of ‘it’s part of the problem.’ Another again vents their frustration to me about the black-and-white nature of the discussion. Because it can’t be true, can it—it cannot all boil down to race or gender. Sure, every racist who voted voted for Trump. But many others who are just as conscientious as you and I voted for him too. Take, for example, Asra Q. Nomani, a Muslim, an immigrant, and a woman, also a Wall Street Journal reporter and a self-proclaimed liberal (small L) who voted for Obama. She voted Trump. Why? She’s sick of a broken healthcare system (or lack thereof); she’s feeling the mortgage squeeze; she’s sick of watching working American’s suffer still, after eight years of an Obama administration; and she’s sick of the double-think involved in omitting Islam, the word and the doctrine, from talk of terrorism. Does she particularly like Trump? Not really. It was a protest vote, of sorts. I think she knows, like many of us, that a vote for Trump was a vote against the status-quo.
This is the Left’s growing problem: a sickly, collectivist status-quo. Take another small sample, another microcosm. The Flight Facilities, well-known electronic music duo, weighed in on the outcome of the election. They talk of how it should stand as a ‘wake up call’ for us all, that rather than ‘kicking and screaming’ we should ask sincerely what it is that led to Trump’s victory rather than ‘pigeonholing’ others who don’t agree with us. They suggest that it is perhaps we, the Left, the progressives, who are the ones really out of touch. What do they call for? Respect, tolerance of others, especially of those with opinions contrary to our own. Fine and dandy, surely.
The response: ‘an uninformed and incredibly privileged take’; ‘it’s easy for white, straight men to shout their opinions at the world, but that doesn’t mean they should’; ‘thanks for the privileged pov’; ‘…you are white males with no understanding of how hard life really can be’; ‘protesting and rioting are two very different things, guys.’ It goes on with most comments hinging on the FF’s whiteness and gender, as if this proves their point. This isn’t to say that racist mantras and misogyny should be accepted but decrying them as the central issues is missing the point (and arguing gender or skin colour as disqualifying is a simple non-sequitur). It lacks nuance. It’s also one of the easiest ways to deflect criticism.
I have mixed feelings about people protesting the results of a democratic election (one that is flawed, I know). Of course people can protest and should do so if they want. It’s important to make it clear to Trump that he has no sweeping mandate—he lost the popular vote. But other than that, what does it accomplish? And I daresay that some of the protests did turn riotous. There was damage done and even some flag burning, something that’s usually the preserve of angry extremists. This is, I’m afraid to say, ‘kicking and screaming.’
This is where the Left is getting it wrong. It’s the incorrect reaction and it’s a reaction that proves the distractions we are laden by. We need a real debate, a discussion, not a continuous protest. The Left needs to reform into something strong and cohesive, not petty and disparate. We can’t always reduce our opponents to labels and we need to kill identity politics. Sam Harris makes this point well, and he does it again and again. One’s argument does not depend on who or what they are. It depends on the argument, it depends on the evidence. Everything else—and yes, I say this as another useless white male—is absolutely irrelevant.
Harris also talks of the need for intellectual honesty. We need to have an honest and open discussion about Political Correctness and how it obfuscates the consequences of a doctrine—Islam. Calling Harris or anyone else an ‘Islamaphobe’ for insisting that certain ideas have material consequences doesn’t actually do anything. In fact, it’s now a very popular form of distraction. It also has an ironic effect, isolating those of the opposing view, creating an echo chamber for real bigots to flourish, for views to flow untempered by reason. How can one honestly debate something properly when they continually face accusations of ‘racism’? (As if race is equivalent to religion.)
There is an urgent need to end the act of silencing: reducing arguments to identity politics, filthying and slandering those who think differently to you, and even protesting or blocking someone from talking. This is cowardice. Any thinking person should take any chance they can to listen to the opposing point of view. Christopher Hitchens made some of the most touching and eloquent defences of free speech I’ve ever heard and read and he made it clear, echoing other greats before him, that the right to speak also includes the right to listen. (A small but energised debate over speech is occurring in Canada. Look into Jordan Peterson’s stance against the legislation of speech by both the University of Toronto and the government.) To curtail the speech of someone else is in effect a knife for your own back. And it’s important to listen to those who oppose you. Speaking of the foul treatment of historian David Irving (a holocaust denier and revisionist), Hitchens suggested that listening to him, like any other heretic, is important because it might ‘offer a grain’ of historical truth, that it obviously took some effort to come up with, and most important of all it forces us to consider what we think we know: how do I know the holocaust happened? How do I know the Earth isn’t flat? Come to think of it, what would I say to a climate denier or to someone arguing the inferiority of women?
If you want to fight your enemies you must know them. Calling 59 million people a bunch of bigots won’t do. Listen to them. It’s the only way you can improve your side of the house. We mustn’t be afraid to listen and we especially can’t be afraid of admitting when things go awry, when we’re wrong. Why is there a political divide between city and country? Are there sections of Feminism that err towards the extreme? Might Islam have something to do with Islamic Extremism? Is it a good idea to legislate our speech?
We can’t keep coddling and insulating ourselves form ideas and things we don’t like. It makes us worry about the wrong things—trigger warnings and weird hate speech laws. These are frivolous exercises that ultimately soften us. It’s a battle of ideas, big ideas, that we need. It’s about culture and economics. The Left is under attack throughout the West and we need to defend it, but we have to change our ways first. It is a battle being fought often on university campuses and for this reason we might be tempted to think ‘bah, they’re just kids, there’s nothing to worry about’, but those that are winning, those outlandish student unions and political groups, those arguing most vehemently for regulating our speech, who represent the worst of the Left (and Right), are winning. And it’s these people who are going to run the place.
This might seem a waste of time, me writing all this. I’m an Australian, not American. I do think we are, at least for the time being, relatively insulated from the populism and nationalism emerging elsewhere. And our politicians are right in saying ‘Australia is not America.’ But it still matters, for whether we like it or not, the West is a community of nations, similar in culture and sharing great values, and what happens in the biggest of these communities affects the rest. I’m not even convinced that the Left is anything more than a name, especially if its traditional core constituents—the white working class—can be so easily hijacked by the demagoguery of Trump. But if it’s still there, like I hope it is, it needs to reimagine itself, it needs to reformulate and articulate something the working and middle classes can get behind, from the economy to free speech to social issues. We need to suggest ways of making government fairer and less vested. We need to form an argument for multiculturalism and globalisation whilst acknowledging what needs to be fixed, where it’s gone wrong.
We can’t afford to be bored anymore and we can’t keep the same habits. We need to fight the good fight and we need to fight it well.
On November 9th, in the late afternoon, a young white male wandered out of his room. Trump’s victory was all but confirmed, the whole of America now adorning his yellow hair and orange skin, Lady Liberty feeling the grab. ‘He’s done it,’ he said to his father. He’s at first confused so the young man repeats: ‘he’s done it. He got in.’
‘Ha,’ his father said, shaking his head, crossing his arms. ‘Cheeky cunt.’