Miranda Devine and Postmodernism


‘To avoid endless head scratching, it might help to borrow the scrambled brain of a post-modernist.’

This was Miranda Devine’s suggestion in last week’s The Sun-Herald when trying to figure out how that disreputable institution, the Nobel Foundation, could award its Peace Prize to dangerous eco-radical, Al Gore.

Let’s take her up on this suggestion but in relation to her own ideas.

According to Devine over many years (and there’s even a reprise in her latest column), postmodernists, when they think at all, think the following: truth and values are a matter of convenience, and so minority interests reign. Like many, she believes that postmodernists adopt this position in order to impose their elitist views on a silenced majority. It’s not a position that any postmodernist thinkers I’ve read subscribe to. But, interestingly, it’s one Devine’s ill-conceived rhetoric exemplifies.

For example, it seems the opinion of Devine and her neo-con compatriots in the popular Australian media has triumphed over reasoned argument on any number of issues. Why? Because she and they fearlessly champion a particularly ‘disenfranchised’ minority: the ruling elite who claim to represent the interests of the ‘ordinary’ person.

Take her recent column on the human rights debate. In ‘Whose Human Rights Come First?‘ Devine boldly speaks out on a number of ‘dimly understood’ human rights issues: capital punishment, abortion, slave labour, multinational corporate interests in the Third World, and the Western moral policing of, well, all those foreigners. In doing so, she knowingly risks incurring the wrath of the politically correct liberal-Left establishment who’ve clearly hijacked the debate.

In case you’ve forgotten who the politically correct liberal-Left establishment are, Devine provides a list: Kevin Rudd and his ‘would-be regime,’ Amnesty International, ‘jejune Leftists,’ ‘armchair compassion freaks,’ ‘human rights posturers,’ ‘thoughtless activists’ and human rights lawyers engaged in the indulgent politics of ‘feelgood principle.’

In the face of this monolith, Devine bravely states her case. One of her first targets is the Opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson Robert McClelland. He had the gall to give a speech in support of the abolition of capital punishment. Devine is troubled not just with the content of this speech, but with its timing. It’s insensitive and distasteful, she claims, because it coincides with the anniversary of the 2002 Bali Bombings and the imminent Indonesian court decision about the fate of three of those convicted of that horrific crime. (She attacks Amnesty International’s campaign against the death penalty on the same basis.)

I wouldn’t claim to speak on behalf of individuals or organisations with whom I’m not affiliated. But I’m guessing the timing of McClelland’s speech and Amnesty’s campaign may have something to do with the fact that it coincided with World Abolish Capital Punishment Day.

Logic would also suggest that advocates for the elimination of the death penalty would be aware that the global media attention surrounding the Bali terrorists may shine a light on their concerns about the serious matter of State-sanctioned executions. For those who see capital punishment as a gross violation of the most basic human right, the imminence of the executions may also factor into the equation. Moreover, Amnesty’s stance on human rights issues is necessarily an apolitical one. As such, it would be troubling if their opposition to the death penalty was applied arbitrarily or with ideological import.

Devine’s also unimpressed with the forum in which McClelland’s speech took place. In her account, it was given to an unnamed ‘human rights group’ in the heart of Sydney’s ‘well-heeled’ Eastern Suburbs, and was hosted by the Lefty ratbags behind ‘ online magazine New Matilda‘ and some human rights lawyer running for Parliament on the back of trendy concerns about trees. (This is simply not true. The ‘shindig’ wasn’t organised by New Matilda it was a Labor Party function, specifically organised by the Wentworth electorate campaign committee, and I’m told this was made clear on the night by the Chair of the meeting, Susan Ryan.)

All of this is small beer, however, compared with what’s actually at stake. Devine’s attack on McClelland’s speech allows her to take aim at her real target “ Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd. Rudd is exposed by Devine as a ‘venal’ politician for repudiating McClelland’s speech because there’s an election at stake. According to Devine, Rudd doesn’t want McClelland to give away Labor’s bleeding-heart liberal view of capital punishment, just yet that’ll get sprung on unsuspecting Australian public if and when Rudd’s ‘regime’ gets a guernsey.

Of course, Devine’s dead-on about the fact that politicians are politically expedient hypocrites. To cite a fresh example: many thought John Howard’s death-bed conversion on the issue of reconciliation published by Devine’s employers the very next day was suggestive of this. But the idea that Rudd is exhausting himself trying to conceal ‘the true nature’ of his ‘would-be regime’ rings a touch paranoid.

To settle the issue, I made a quick call to the Australian Labor Party’s Public Information Line. It’s a helpful service that provides the average punter with general information about ALP policy on a range of issues. I told them I was concerned Rudd was hiding something about Labor’s stance on the death penalty. This is what the bloke who answered the phone told me: ‘The Australian Labor Party is universally opposed to executions carried out in any jurisdiction.’ He even sent me a copy of the policy via email.

But the fundamental problem with Devine’s reading of the human rights debate is not that she uses it to gain political capital. Nor is it that she uses it to push her religious views although she certainly does that: ‘Human rights campaigners could save a lot more human souls by campaigning against late-term abortions than fretting about death rows in South-East Asia.’ Her ideological alliance with the Right and with Religion should be pretty clear by now and, thankfully, she has the right to express her views.

The fundamental problem is her rounding up of the usual suspects. This has a much more sinister and lingering effect because it has a real impact on how the average person frames the complex problem of individual versus group rights in relation to their own lives.

Devine’s unrelenting attack on people concerned with questioning the current hegemony in the name of unrepresented or under-represented minorities or causes in her terms, politically correct, intellectual elites who subscribe to a postmodern worldview is easy to trivialise because of her extreme rhetoric. But it demands our attention, and not just on the Big Issues.

Why pay her any attention, many on the conventional Left keep asking? Here’s why: Because the fictions her writing promotes are crucial to the maintenance of the enormous power and privilege enjoyed by the ruling minority.

At its heart, Devine’s opinion relies on the fantasy that we live in a society where the twin evils of ‘political correctness’ and ‘postmodernism’ have supposedly triumphed. This must be taken seriously because it’s crucial to the neo-conservative attempt to convince ‘ordinary’ Australians that their very identity is under threat by minority, elite interests.

Moreover, in the space she occupies, the alternative view remains largely unwritten: that the conservative desire to reinscribe a ‘traditional’ moral order undemocratically serves the interests, not of the average person, but of those who promote it.

A large number of people in this country especially those most disadvantaged by Howard’s divisive ‘reforms’ have been successfully sold the lie that it is minorities, and those who speak on their behalf, that have disenfranchised them. It seems that worrying about trendy, inner-city intellectuals who ‘fret’ over the fate of drug smugglers and terrorists from the comfort of their chaises longues is a lot easier than facing the elephant in the corner: a Government that has substantially eroded the basic rights of most Australians, not just a few, for its own ill-gotten gain.

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.