Sunday, October 5, 2008

Duffy, the big sort, the soft sell, the rope a dope and the rusted sword in the scabbard

There's little doubt that Peter Garrett cuts the sorriest figure of any Australian federal politician, at least when you compare what he once said or sang about to what he now does. Better to die on your knees or sing on your feet, or was it better to sing on your knees and sell out on your feet, or - can't quite recall it - did it have something to do with the revolutionary philosophy of dying on your feet rather than living on your knees.

Whatever, Garrett now makes Sir Humphrey sound like a clear-cut moral philosopher whenever he tries to explain he's doing a big fat fatuous nothing about his portfolio. And even more incongruously, the bald-headed Garrett evokes images of that long lost British film by the Boulting Brothers - Fame is The Spur - the one where Michael Redgrave plays an ambitious radical politician spurred on by stories of the Peterloo massacre, and the sword handed down to him as a relic of that day. 

By film's end, Redgrave is very successful, mainly at selling out his constituents and his radical ideas, but also in terms of power and prestige, so it's no surprise that when he gets down the sword from above the fireplace and tries to release it from the scabbard, he finds it rusted tight. It's a simple visual metaphor, but an effective one, and the only problem using it with Garrett is that it gives his past as a rock singer mouthing empty radical rhetoric more status than it deserves - Midnight Oil certainly ain't no Peterloo sword, and while Garrett is now firmly rusted into the scabbard, he's not even trying to pretend he once had the sword out of the sheath and ready for action.

Now what, you might ask, has all this got to do with the esteemed Michael Duffy, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald? Well, it comes down to trying to work out what a person believes in, since that usually determines what he does, or attempts to do. Garrett, for example, espoused an abundant number of causes, and then turned his back on them. 

But Duffy is opaque. It's hard to work out what he believes in, if anything. Each week there's a new wrinkle - for example, one week he's saying how incompetent slack supervision by credit agencies led to the subprime crisis, the next week he's whinging about the way fierce credit agency supervision is preventing the state labor government from indulging in a pre-election spending blow out.

So we can't expect consistency. But what does he think on crucial matters like fundamentalism and the belief in God? Does he believe, as Bill Maher puts it so neatly, in a talking snake? Is he on the same wavelength as creationists like Sarah Palin? Does he think that having a delusional man like George Bush, who thinks God talks to him on a daily basis, was a good choice for President, and does he welcome the prospect of the even more delusional Palin being a heart beat away from the possible Presidency of a 72 year old recovering from a potent form of cancer?

Well, this week provides no further clues, except that the study of Duffy is as compelling and intriguing as trying to find a minotaur dwelling in the depths of a Cretian labyrinth. Yep, you betcha, we have to turn to the cult of the bull to get an answer on Duffy.

The punchline at the very end of his column entitled "America shows politics of a sort is a real threat to democracy" - sorry if it's a spoiler - is that he's having second thoughts about his long held belief in favor of voluntary voting. Maybe, opines Duffy, if you look at what's happening in America, it isn't such a good idea. 

Duffy, it seems, has been stricken with the same kind of second thought thinking that's recently struck New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, who wrote that the likes of Sarah Palin was a cancer on the Republican Party, and who now sometimes sounds like a secular rationalist where once he was a fervent holy roller for the cause.

But back to Duffy. He's read a book by Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, which looks at the way that Americans have sorted themselves into like minded groupings, because they can afford to, and political partisanship has become more extreme, and there's a growing intolerance. Lordy, it sounds just like the Republican party, and their attempts to smear Obama (with a Hussein) as an outsider terrorist interloper who isn't really American and just happens, in case you haven't noticed, to be somewhat black as well as a founding member of the SDS before moving on to join the Weathermen in their campaign to end the Vietnam war. No wonder he's political now, imagine how political he was when he was five.

The intolerance and hatred spewed out by the right - as they go about the business of losing for a change - has been a reliable subset of Rovian politics for some time, but it also reflects the benefits of power in an imperial America. There's real bucks to be made if you're in charge of the system, hence the growing divide between rich and poor, and the absolute obscenity of consumerist indulgence that saturates the whole economy.

For Duffy this seems to be some kind of revelation. Easy enough to differ with someone on health care - especially if you think the poor don't deserve it but you do - or take a different view on foreign policy, like killing off thousands just to show you can by invading a country because of weapons of mass destruction it never had, or the handing out of school vouchers, when it's better to turn a secular education system over to religious schools run by fundamentalist ratbags, and provide a handsome government subsidy to assist the process.

Oh yes, that's all just friendly shit, jolly japes amongst chums. What, you actually don't like these things going down? Well not to worry, you'll have your say at the ballot box. And so, lordy lordy, Garrett and Saint Kevin hoved into view, and we were supposed to feel grateful? 

Bottom line, according to Duffy,  it's appropriate to have any number of simple minded divisive issues - call them 'policy matters' - but strangely enough "when you differ on everything, there is a risk opponents will become enemies and democracy will start to break down."

Poor Duffy just wants to be loved. The right just wants to be loved. Why, oh why are people so unkind, easy to be cruel.

Suddenly Duffy has discovered the benefits of political moderation and apathy - it seems being indifferent, apathetic, and totally out of it, means politicians don't have to be so hard, they can cushion the nation from the shock of disagreement and change. Yep, Duffy has finally discovered that slackers rule, that dole bludgers disengaged from society who go surfing are performing a vital social service. Well let's see him write a revelatory column - how I became a slacker for democracy, extolling the benefits of a joint and a good lie down.

Having seen the light in America, Duffy's alarmed for the implications in Australia - have Australians done the big sort, is there a boom in trailer park trash, have the rich pushed away the poor? Well yes, the Duffster opines, the poor have been pushed away from the coast (evidently Duffy hasn't thought of living in Port Kembla), and worse still the middle classes are unlikely to catch public transport, except when commuting with people much like themselves.

Well flip that pancake, that's no surprise, since Duffy favors bigger and better motorways and bugger all for public transport, and seems to hate the thought of sharing a carriage with sweaty smelly lumpenproletariat types.

Even the mass media has broken up "so we can all pick what reflects our existing interests and ideas" - and publishers can impose twits like Miranda Devine (or Janet Albrechtsen or Gerard Henderson, or yes even Duffy himself) on us in the interests of diversity, and making sure there is now a profound, and hardened intellectual divide in this country. Sadly Duffy is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Still, never mind a return to better columnists - whatever happened to Mike Carlton? Never mind stupid sentimental ideas about a fair and balanced society. Policies which attempt that kind of 1984 social modeling require subtlety, nuance, and a willingness to share.

No, all might be well if we just keep on with compulsory voting - but wait, just as you think Duffy has made a really firm point, has come out against the likes of Nick Minchin and the other free market fundamentalists who think they can transform the Australian political scene by Rovian tricks, he stops short of committing to anything. In his typically obtuse way, Duffy doesn't cede anything, he just says he's having 'second thoughts' about voluntary voting. So we will never really know if he's prepared to recant, or he's just having another wank in public. 

Of course if he actually said he was in favor of compulsory voting, he'd be breaking with his libertarian colleagues, and so in a queasy way. Duffy exemplifies how we prefer to maintain the picking and choosing of 'what reflects our existing interests and ideas'. He can't even begin to become the Peter Garrett of libertarians,  and move over to the dark side.

Well you can bet that if the depression develops full time, and the rich begin to feel the wrath of the poor, the free market idealogues are going to dance around on a hot griddle a lot more, and think about changing their ideas. There's already an argument that George Bush is perhaps the greatest socialist President America has ever seen, what with his nationalising the banks and pushing forward the military industrial complex in a way Stalin could only dream about.

Meantime, Duffy can continue - along with Henderson - to rail against do gooders who like coffee and wine and take silly green bags to the supermarket so they won't bring home plastic bags. They can continue to write about how soft and pudgy and pathetic these liberals are, what a group think herd mentality they show, and they can continue to imagine they're the Rambos of ideas, the Adam Smiths of today, when in reality they're just the lap dogs of a political class which imagined, as Rove did, that they could rule for a thousand years.

It's a pity a hard rain has to fall to muddy these delusions, and the delusions seem to be getting nicely muddied as a very hard rain begins to fall, but having lived with intolerance for years, it's hard not to give a little intolerance back. Duffy just wants to be loved, but now he's discovered that being infuriating and intolerant, can lead to being loathed. And all he had to do this time was say he fervently, emphatically thought compulsory voting was a good idea - so that at least once every four or so years we could acknowledge an obligation to the polis. No, no, no, Mr udon noodles man goes limp as usual. The sword of ideas rusted into the scabbard long ago.

So to the score:

Discovery that American political system is fucked (even if belated): 3
Discovery that America itself is fucked (even if belated): 3
Realization that slackers rule dude: 11
Realization that the poor find public transport useful: 2
Understanding that denying poor slackers access to surf is a crime against humanity: 2
Realization that Australians devoted to importing American ideas will fuck the country: 3
Ability to flip flop and have second thoughts without committing to anything: 11
Titillation at being able to use Margaret Atwood's word 'pleeblands': 11
Continuing willingness to travel with the herd of right wing columnists: 11

A high scoring column. Duffy is always at his most compelling when offering to open up his entrails for scrutiny, only to make us wonder who slipped the chicken livers into the bottom of the tea cup.

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