Left-liberal progressives choked on their lattes when they opened The Age (or Sydney Morning Herald) at inner-city cafes recently.
It wasn’t that Guillaume at Bennelong had lost a hat in the Good Food Guide that was troubling us. There was jaw-dropping disbelief at Fairfax columnist Miranda Devine’s new role as ‘war correspondent’ reportingfrom the frontline, shoulder-to-shoulder with Foreign Affairs Minister, Brendan Nelson.
For some, Devine’s latest incarnation was no more than a cynical PR exercise by a megaphone for the Government. For others, this was too obvious they wanted to know what her ‘real’ motivations were. Is she a shameless opportunist, or a hard-core, true believer? Is she crazy-brave? Or simply crazy?
Questions of motivation specifically, as they relate to the personal and professional relationships between journalists, media organisations and a Government desperate for some good publicity on an increasingly unpopular war are real and important ones. But it’s also important to make sense of the broader cultural significance of Devine’s impersonation of a war correspondent.
I’ve suggested before it’s the visceral reaction to Devine’s work that’s particularly revealing. At first sight, the source of the anger evoked by her new role seems a no-brainer for the self-proclaimed Left: news as propaganda is a threat to democracy.
But on another level, it’s indicative of the battle over who has the authority to speak about what, and on behalf of whom. In this case, the question on the Left’s lips is: What right does someone like Miranda Devine have to be talking about a serious matter like war?
This question hangs over her columns on Iraq like a beer gut over Stubbies. And in the mad scramble to justify her position, Devine gets into the usual trouble tripping herself up in a tangle of logical contradictions and conceptual inconsistencies.
One of the more bizarre consequences of this is that she manages to unintentionally align herself with her enemies. So, Devine, the self-styled defender of the ‘ordinary’ Australian against the ‘minority’ interests of a privileged intellectual elite legitmates US General David Petraeus’s authority, in part, by citing his academic pedigree a PhD from an Ivy League university, no less.
At the same time, the opinion columnist justifies her right to speak over and above the most senior politician in the Labor Party, a former diplomat, on the basis that, well, she’s there and he isn’t: ‘If Rudd did go to Iraq he would find ‘, and ‘If Rudd had been in Afghanistan last week he would have seen ‘
Devine’s problem here is one her position can’t allow her to admit to and it’s the root cause of her fuzzy logic. To give authority to her defence of the Howard Government’s conception of democracy, Devine is obliged to defend her own authority via a related set of values about truth and who can legitimately represent it. Simply put, this traditional understanding of the role of the ‘author’ relies on the conventional idea that truth is simply about setting out the facts.
Yet, it’s precisely on these terms that Devine has a problem. Despite insisting her job is to ‘write as dispassionately as possible’ as ‘it would be irresponsible to inflame sentiment,’ Devine’s identity as a popular and provocative polemicist give the lie to this.
And this is why, while meeting Petraeus in Baghdad, she can unselfconsciously say things like:
We can be proud, too, of the Australian people, who have not placed the kind of naÃ¯ve, unprincipled pressure on their political leaders not to be involved in what they perceive, wrongly and with a touch of Schadenfreude, as purely an American problem.
This appeared in a piece entitled ‘No Time to Give Up the Fight When We Know We Are Right.’ As the title suggests, Devine doesn’t even attempt to substantiate through argument the idea that opponents of the Iraq War are wrong. Instead she uses a much more powerful rhetorical device to dismiss them an emotional appeal to our sense of patriotism.
One way to understand this split thinking is to see Devine’s position as analogous to Howard’s position concerning authority. In the same way that Howard’s claim to a ‘mandate’ is held up as confirmation that he is representing the interests of the ‘ordinary’ voter, Devine claims her authority on the basis that she is representing what the majority believe is ‘right.’
The result? The rhetoric of democracy becomes a Trojan Horse in which undemocratic speech is smuggled into the public sphere.
And once this is achieved, all bets are off. Free speech reveals itself not as ‘an independent value’ but ‘a political prize.’ What we’re left with is the ‘we-win, you-lose mentality’ that has long-defined public debate in this country.
Regardless of what values she chooses to defend, Devine has a right, within legal limits, to speak her mind in any way she chooses. And we have a right to criticise her particularly when she speaks undemocratically in the name of democracy. The way to do this is not by holding onto to old ideas about authority as long as they suit our purposes (as some of the self-selecting Left often insist on doing), but to champion an ideal of democracy which, like it or not, affords Devine her right to speak.
Authoritarian opinion (from either the Left or the Right) masquerading as debate has been in our faces for too long and it’s served the current Government well. The metaphors of war and fear that have peppered neo-con commentary decorate a shameful era in Australian politics which the current polls suggest may well be over.
Until then, Devine would be better off recasting herself in the spirit of a Hemingway, an Orwell or a Didion. They were all writers who openly reflected on their ideological tendencies and the complexity of reporting on a war you either support or oppose. War, after all, rarely provokes indifference in the observer.
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