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Why so smug?

November 4, 2013

I wrote this post in the days following Abbott’s election and a little embarrassingly am posting it now that we have had two months to adjust to that reality. Here are my still relevant observations about the smugness I often observe on the Left – essentially what derives from a lack of class and race analysis. And from a poor understanding of anti-politics. This is my attempt to unpack it as a political and emotional response so we might move past it. So we might avoid continually marginalising ourselves and transformative politics in the process.

“Of all the horrid, hideous notes of woe, Sadder than owl-songs or the midnight blast, Is that portentous phrase, “I told you so,” Uttered by friends, those prophets of the past.” – Lord Byron, 1819

‘Don’t Blame Me. I didn’t vote for Abbott’ – all over my Facebook news feed on 8 September, 2013


Sunday September 8, on that day after that horrible night before, I logged into social media to nurse my breaking heart. I joined with those in my twitter feed and on Facebook searching for consolation. The dawn of a government with its leader declaring the country ‘open for business’, while closing it to compassion and in the process trashing the environment was always going to trigger a collective mourning on the Left.

In the now ritual unleashing of ‘feelpinions’ into the social media stratosphere I noticed something disturbing emerge. Along with the despair at the horrors this country will likely face from a PM elected to rule for the Super Rich, a few memes quickly formed.

Friends – activists and campaigners who make up the broad and diverse tapestry that is the Left – began to change their profile pics from ‘This Saturday I’m Voting Green’ (or the more disaffected version of ‘This Saturday I’m Getting Shitfaced’) to ‘Don’t Blame Me. I didn’t vote for Abbott.’ This was in the similarly problematic vein of ‘Not in My Name, Not With My Vote’ that had popped up earlier in the campaign. Others were more direct: those that voted for Abbott, the Palmer United Party or one of the record number of micro parties in the Senate could have done so for no other reason than being ignorant, homophobic, racist and so on. The outpouring continued: Why couldn’t people grasp how preferential voting worked? Why couldn’t the unwashed masses show the requisite amount of respect for the official political process? Frankly, they got the government they deserved. Suck it up.

This superiority came from friends who just days earlier had been posting about caring for refugees.

There is an important lesson here: Smugness will not win hearts and minds.

Granted in the days after the election result this smugness was born from hurt and despair. Yet, even as we pick ourselves up and prepare for our long march to what may be 2019, many progressives inside and outside official politics have continued to be smug. In the week following the election it was directed at the dark disenfranchised heart of White Australia and the Senate ‘circus’ it delivered. They blamed the ‘duped’ voter or a ‘gaming’ of the system. Across the political class a chorus formed calling for the urgent need to change democratic process. Unsurprisingly, the major parties proposed reforms push in precisely the wrong direction, favouring fewer voices not more.

Christos Tsiolkas, in the September edition of The Monthly, in unpicking how as a nation we came to despise asylum seekers, brilliantly describes the chasm in attitudes and experiences that has emerged:

The reality is that there isn’t “one nation” that makes up Australia, only competing notions of “nationhood”. There is the cosmopolitan, educated nation of the inner cities and the parochial, anxious communities  of the urban fringes and the bush. Asylum seeker rights are easily understood and supported by cosmopolitan Australians. We are well-travelled, we are not suspicious of multiculturalism and we are confident of processing and adjusting to change. At the same time, we rubbish their McMansions while gentrification makes the inner city unaffordable, and we castigate them for their cashed-up lack of generosity while it is in fact their kids mixing with the children of refugees.

It makes for uncomfortable reading. A Left largely characterised as white and middle class will need to confront this if it is to significantly connect beyond its inner city enclaves.

There is an uncomfortable distance – a segregation, if one were more blunt – that is hard to confront. As we rightly rally against the latest attacks on university education, the reality is that it is not the chattering classes that feel the hardest edges of the neoliberal project. It is Howard’s Aspirationals, starved of infrastructure and mortgaged to the eyeballs. It is the most recently arrived, marked as different. And so on.

Some of my friends, like me, occupy a space somewhere between the two worlds Tsiolkas describes. We are the socially mobile children of working class migrants. Armed with university qualifications we can apply a class analysis to our situations and so we leave the ranks of the so-called politically disengaged masses to join the inner urban elite. It is unsurprising then that given our experiences combined a resistance to being relegated to debates concerning identity, the task of starting the awkward conversations about why such sentiments persist falls to ‘the others’. It shouldn’t be this way.

First: to unpack smugness as a political and emotional response. Smugness is lazy. It is the easy option. It is self-satisfied and self-righteously complacent. Dwelling in it might make one feel better for a little while but ultimately it distracts from the hard work of analysis and building a bigger political project. It leaves us collectively ill equipped for that enormous task. Not least by blocking the ability to develop empathy. Smug people do not listen. By closing themselves off, smug people come loaded with a plethora of fixed assumptions. Smugness is not useful. Given the blatant and sometimes unashamed display since the election, smugness is not confined to the Right. Once we let go of being smug we begin to see how our own attitudes hinder us. We accept that being right is not an end in itself.

Smugness conveniently glosses over what has been driving a significant number of voters to abandon the major parties. It prevents understanding their deeper alienation from politics. This requires some introspection on the part of the Left and includes a necessary apportioning of blame to Labor and the Greens as outlined in Tad Tietze’s recent piece.

The finger of blame has been pointed at the Australian people, who are both conservative and stupid. Such easy and palatable explanations completely miss the slowly evolving factors that led to a Coalition win. Importantly, it does not prove that progressive ideals have lost. Australians have not embraced either the ALP’s technocratic neoliberalism or the Coalition’s anti-environment conservatism. Privatisation and handouts to mining remain unpopular despite the deep pockets supporting these agendas. The informal vote reached a record 5.9% and a further 5.5% of voters chose a partly led by an anti-politician who can twerk, making it clear that people are disenfranchised and with very little on offer are looking for an alternative.

Another predictable but understandable response from the Left since the election has been outrage – found amply on display as a rebellion distilled into four letter words and brandished on the front of t-shirts. What is perhaps more dangerous is some of these outraged expressions point to a kind of individualism that has taken hold in some parts of the Left.

Grappling with how the broad Left has responded to defeat will be a prerequisite to building a sustained and inclusive movement. This is indeed not separate to the immediate challenge of understanding the election result and the new political terrain. It is also not separate to formulating strategy. All will require moving beyond blame and easy explanations of ‘it’s The Media’ or accepting that most Australians are stupid, hateful, misogynist wingnuts. For it is where ‘smug’ and ‘outrage’ meet that the Left are most ineffective and most vulnerable.

When our smugness meets with the tactics of the Right, largely in the form of the Culture Wars, we are defeated. If we understood the logic of that we might respond a little differently. We might not be so smug.

Read Part Two on the futility of the Culture Wars here.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ron Hoenig permalink
    November 5, 2013 6:06 pm

    Thank you for your analysis. It’s painful to address the whole theme but I feel very much as you do. In particular I resonate with much that Christo Tsiolkas says. I think he is right about the urban left’s response to the “bogan” Australian public. It is, in many ways, a response that has no class analysis and no recognition about who we are as ‘white’ middle class, relatively well-off compassion freaks. We have wanted to extort compassion from people who, for both good and bad reasons, feel threatened. They are threatened by a neoliberal and casualising culture which is looking overseas for cheaper labour. They are threatened because the very comfortable life we have had built for us seems rapidly coming to an end, but mostly people are threatened because they/we are losing what Ghassan Hage calls our sense of ‘natural aristocracy’.
    At the same time, we are, in fact, incredibly wealthy by comparison with most other countries, yet people have been convinced that we are not well-off and that our happiness and our belonging is threatened by people escaping from the most awful situations. I know that the Europeans do not , on the whole, treat asylum seekers and legal or illegal immigrants terribly well. I know that Lampedusa and Christmas island share a “split” identity – half tourist mecca and half prison. Yet, the Italian community and the pope were able to hold a day of mourning for the 300 or so people who were killed making the journey from North Africa to Italy. When could Australians do such a thing?
    Why is it that we – one of the most comfortable people in the world – can not see the death of asylum seekers as a national tragedy? How could we let a Labor government get away with a politics that allows the most intense cruelty on the specious excuse that it is a kindness – that it will save the lives of people? How could we let both parties win with a politics of intense cruelty and a short-sighted vision that sees the solution to the problem of millions of people seeking refuge by “stopping the boats”. I don’t know if it is smug, but something in me wants to vomit when I see that, on the whole, the Australian people – a migrant people – can be lulled into not caring about the fates of millions of refugees by having the boats hidden from us and perhaps stopping them coming. The stopping of the boats is what we cared about. We apparently do not care about the people themselves, only that they do not confront us with their real suffering, that they do not make a call on our vaunted generosity.

  2. November 10, 2013 10:11 pm

    Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. Glad you liked the post.
    Yes, I wrote it primarily as part of my reflecting on the responses I saw crystallise after the election. Understanding people’s disengagement and the rise of an anti-politics mood both here in Australia and in many countries around the globe (even South Africa is facing the lowest voter registration numbers since the end of apartheid) is crucial. Instead, I saw smug and outrage as a default response from some. This acts as some kind of intellectual smoke screen. We need to figure out what is causing the anti-politics sentiments if we are to then figure out how to respond and offer up alternatives.

    And as for the question of refugees and asylum seekers, my heart truly breaks. As we enter a space that is some sort of Coalition mash up of Orwell’s 1984 and Kafka’s The Trial, it leaves us struggling to decipher the way out of the maze and towards a place where we treat people as, well, people.


  1. The Futility of Culture Wars Mark II | what prevents you from dancing?
  2. No Crap App: fortnight beginning 4 Nov 2013 | No Crap App

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