The promise of Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler’s The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press is that it will excoriate the right-wing punditariat. This wouldn’t be a bad thing, as the hyperbolic and shrill “op-edders” who dominate most of our major metropolitan dailies are matched for their mediocrity only by the quality of debate about the media in Australia. (A little bit of balance in critiquing the token lefties at The Australian, Michael Costello and Ross Fitzgerald, would also be a good thing, as both could easily bore for their nation.) But unfortunately, there’s quite a gap between the promise of Lucy and Mickler’s book and their performance.
Much of the disappointment I experienced on reading The War on Democracy relates to the way in which the authors set up and frame their central argument.
They contend that right wing columnists are not just participants in a culture war, but are also anti-democratic. There are two strings to this bow, but more of that later.
This position is somewhat counter-intuitive. What, it could be asked, could be more democratic than the expression of strong opinion in the media? But Lucy and Mickler want to argue that it’s precisely the nature of that opinion that is anti-democratic. In other words, they’re not making a claim about balance, that there really is no debate in the public sphere of the print media because only one side gets heard, but rather that the views held by the Janet Albrechtsens and Christopher Pearsons of the world themselves constitute a danger to democracy.
With some degree of reason (and supporting evidence), Lucy and Mickler accuse the punditariat of demonising all sorts of mild liberals as Marxist fellow travelling leftists. The irony that they themselves demonise the pundits for being anti-democratic based on their own eccentric definition of the term appears to be lost on them.
The key to their thesis is to reject the notion that representative democracy is in fact sufficient for democracy (it may be necessary, but again they’re lamentably unclear on this). They prefer a notion, derived from the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, that democracy is always “to come”. It would be eminently possible to query this interpretation of Derrida, and the concept is defined in this book by assertion rather than argument (though fortunately not in the dense prose beloved of some postmodernist authors).
Put bluntly, democracy for Lucy and Mickler must be a left wing project. Women’s suffrage is not enough, if substantive gender inequalities are not also addressed. Democracy has to empower those without power.
There’s nothing exceptional about this, if we are talking about social democracy, or some varieties of liberalism. But most would understand such ideas as political ideologies contending for power and hegemony within a democracy, not the substance of democracy itself. “Certain social groups”, write Lucy and Mickler, “deserve so-called special considerations and entitlements”.
The upshot of all this is that anyone who is (for instance) a classical liberal, or a conservative, isn’t a democrat in these authors’ terms. Worse, they’re necessarily anti-democratic. They may well hold these views in all sincerity, but they’ve set a trap for their pundits that they can’t escape.
But, as I noted above, the irony is that in many ways the mode of argument Lucy and Mickler employ is the mirror image of the pundits they criticise. The chapter on Gerard Henderson, one of the weakest in the book, exemplifies this problem.
Although legitimate questions could be asked of Henderson’s assumption of authority through the use of a title derived from a privately funded institute, it’s unclear that he is under an obligation, as the authors argue, to critique big business. This is consistent with their own view of society and democracy, but more commonly accepted views wouldn’t castigate Henderson for being “anti-democratic” because he writes mainly about politics and doesn’t take up the fight to corporate power that for Lucy and Mickler is a sine qua non of democratic principle.
Their critique actually resembles that of many of the pundits they attack, all of whom are fond of claiming that “the left” is morally deficient or repugnant because left wing writers don’t choose to take aim at this group or that problem. Janet Albrechtsen and her fellow feminists of convenience are mistresses and masters of this art - the left stands condemned because women are subordinated in Islamic culture.
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