Political Kitsch


Peter Costello is on Lateline, talking about anti-Americanism and about making radical imams a travel offer they can’t refuse; Brendan Nelson is insisting that Muslim schools teach ‘Australian values’ and the story of Simpson’s donkey; the PM tells Perth radio that the Government will ‘get inside mosques to ensure that they are not teaching terrorism;’ so Brendan then ups the ante, telling people that if they don’t like Australian values they can ‘get out,’ and on it goes.

Of course, there are excellent and understandable reasons for such tough talk – the jockeying for poll position to knock the PM off the perch, and Howard’s equal determination to stake out his bit of territory on the hard-Right. Oh, and global terrorism.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett


Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

The upshot is that we have entered a period in which we will be overwhelmed by political kitsch – a tsunami of smug, self-congratulatory received ideas as each candidate seeks to outdo the other in the production of homilies, anthems and schmaltz.

It would be futile to point out the manner in which the current shameless spruiking of fear and panic is against the spirit of anything that could remotely be called ‘liberalism’. It’s probably also of little use to talk about the way in which it plays into a sort of cowardice – a willingness to throw liberal principles overboard at the sound of a bomb 20 000 kilometres away.

The most important question is, does it mean anything? It would be easy to say, ‘no,’ and try to ignore the plaster-ducks-flying-up-the-wall talk of Australianness, but it is probably unwise. Political kitsch and opportunism has a way of hardening into something else if it is not contested.

Milan Kundera – who seems to have popularised the concept of political kitsch – noted two types of it: one was the utterly cynical and empty propaganda, characteristic of East European communism, believed by neither speaker nor audience, such as the relentless playing of revolutionary songs through loudspeakers that follows one of his characters even into the toilet of the work camp where she is billeted. The other is the kitsch Kundera encountered when he went to the West, and, standing on a lawn in New England during a sunset, heard the Senator beside him say (stretching out his arm): ‘this is what America is all about.’ Kundera’s comment: ‘and I think he truly believed that only in America did small children run across a lawn during a sunset.’ This latter form of political kitsch is often unknowing, but it is equally pernicious, since it relies on an effective dehumanisation of other cultures – it takes as specific, what is a general feature of human life.

Consider Brendan Nelson’s nine values for Australian schools (these are available in full here). In summary they are: care and compassion; doing your best; fair go; freedom; honesty and trustworthiness; integrity; respect; responsibility; and understanding, tolerance and inclusion. What could possibly be wrong with teaching these values? Nothing at all. What is wrong is the imputation that they are particularly Australian values, and that Muslim schools have to be reminded to teach them, as if the whole of Islamic civilisation had somehow muddled along for 1400 years without the concept of ‘care’ or ‘integrity’.

If you look at these nine values more closely, you will find that they fall into two groups. One is the type of value that is simply essential to any form of functioning society whatsoever, whether it be Judeo-Christian-Islamic, Confucian, atheist, tribal-shamanic, or whatever. This is the case with values 1, 3, 5, 6, and 8 – care, fairness, honesty, integrity and responsibility. No society could possibly run without some idea of these, because they are the building-blocks of sociality itself.

A ‘society’ based on the opposites of these – indifference, capriciousness, lying, cynicism and license – would not be any sort of society at all. It would be, as Rousseau remarked, a ‘desert of wild animals’. Humans are so deeply social that such anti-societies emerge rarely, usually in conditions of starvation. Primo Levi and Bruno Bettelheim wrote about outbreaks of them at certain times (but not all times and places) within the Nazi death camp system. Closer to home Watkin Tench wrote about the collapse of early white Australian society in 1790, as the first settlement began to starve due to failed crops, and delayed supplies – a situation, Tench noted, in which friendship and social activity died.

The other four values – 2, 4, 7 and 9; doing your best, freedom, respect, tolerance and inclusion – are more particular, but they are no more characteristic of Australia than anywhere else.

Value 2 – ‘doing your best’ – reads in full: ‘seek to accomplish something worthy or admirable, try hard, pursue excellence’ (link here). But this is an idea which is contrary – in its implicitly worldly view – to a great deal of religious teaching, from Catholic to Hindu and all points in between. The great religions have often taught that such activity in the world is either vanity, or the false pursuit of illusory desire, or whatever, and that the most important value – or virtue – is acceptance of your lot and goodness and the avoidance of temptation.

‘Tolerance and inclusion’ are similar. Tolerance is necessary to the management of a hybrid society, but a refusal of inclusion is necessary for groups to establish a cultural, political or religious identity. Hillsong, for example, has a perfect right to be non-inclusive – to exclude people on the basis of its belief that the Bible is the literal word of God. Would they be guilty of anti-Australianism if they were to refuse to be ecumenical, to refuse to co-operate with people who thought that the Bible was metaphorical, that Jesus was not divine, and so on?

These latter four elective values from Nelson’s list are not particularly Australian – they are modern-humanist ones, products of particular historical circumstance. Most of what Pope John Paul II taught throughout his papacy would be against aspects of these values, as would much orthodox Jewish teaching. And of course, it goes without saying that reaching back into whole movements within our history – White Australia, Daniel Mannix, the Movement, ‘Australia First’, Henry Parkes’s effusive praise for Russian anarchist terrorism – would hardly find a golden thread of tolerance, non-violence and inclusion.

So what is the purpose, or at least the result, of this urging on of a grab-bag of universal social values and particular modern ones as ‘Australian’? It is racism pure and simple. It is an attempt to paint the global Islamic community as some sort of de-socialised rabble, who are so barbaric that they have to be told to teach their children the virtues of care and honesty.

It is understandable that many Muslim leaders would play a cautious game around this, but at some point they will have to jack up and talk back to this garbage. The most important way to combat political kitsch is to name it as such, to show the plaster beneath the glitter.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.