An Embarrassment To The Latte Belt

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I’ve never liked Catherine Deveny’s work. I’ve consistently loathed it ever since she became a columnist at The Age. Before that newspaper sacked her on Tuesday, I’d wished publicly and repeatedly for the same to happen. It’s not just that I didn’t find her stuff funny (I can cope with that) but that I found it offensive, and a liability to all that she presumed to represent.

I couldn’t care less about what she tweeted about celebrities at the Logies the other night. Celebrities are powerful, they have avenues of reply. The likes of Rove McManus and the Irwins can look after themselves. My concern was never with what she put on Twitter, but with what she wrote in her columns which occupied precious broadsheet real estate and allowed her to draw a salary from a company whose resources are more and more limited.

She used those columns in part to expound on her contempt for everyone whose lives are led outside the few square miles of inner-city Melbourne where she apparently feels comfortable. More often than not, the contempt was directed down the social scale, toward those who live in the outer suburbs that this self-proclaimed "Reservoir Girl" has left behind. Her pieces on suburban and outer-suburban life never seemed to involve her laughing with her targets. Rather, she was always furiously distancing herself from suburban lifestyles and popular culture, marking out the distinction of her and her friends, licensing the snobbery of suburban emigrants and bluebloods alike.

A few columns stick in my mind. One about her excursion to Chadstone shopping centre, one where she observes suburban women on a night out at a male strip joint, and one where she describes the allegedly lumpen environs of Northland shopping centre.

If you care to read these pieces, you’ll see that suburban lives and suburban people are made abject in these pieces, under Deveny’s explicitly touristic gaze. People living ordinary lives — some in less fortunate circumstances than Deveny currently enjoys — are transformed into automatons or savages. The column about Chadstone is as hateful, in my view, as anything right-wing columnists might be permitted to write about, say, immigrants. She also pretends that outer suburbs like Reservoir are all "white trash", and not the places that immigrants often enough end up, and where the complex negotiations of multicultural Australia must be carried out.

This isn’t, in my view, just about my own subjective sense of humour not "clicking" with Deveny’s work. I think columns like this are only "funny" in the way that racist jokes are — they deride stereotypes in order to legitimate social divisions. If Deveny’s work has done us a service, it’s to remind us of the origins of racist discourse in the ways we talk about the socially disadvantaged. Among the many disservices it has performed is helping to further license and entrench "bogan" as an epithet.

So I’ve always been confused about how her voice could possibly be mistaken for a "progressive" one. And actually, I think that association has been damaging. Her work has always seemed to verge on aping another stereotype: the right’s cherished myth of the inner urban "latte lefty".

Columns like the ones I’ve mentioned might as well be wrapped in a bow and sent to Andrew Bolt. Deveny’s version of "the left" can’t speak to ordinary suburban life, or to those in suburbs further out who’ve been cast off by the postindustrial economy. There’s no prospect of dialogue with the majority of Australians here — only that of a bitter smile at their gaucheness, their ugliness and their lack of self-awareness.

It’s the mirror-image of the petit-bourgeois politics of resentment that Bolt and his ilk peddle. Every time Deveny was offered in other forums as representative of left-wing views — as in her cringe-inducing Q and A appearances, the prospect of a broadly based progressive project in Australia died a little. I know I’m not alone in holding this view.

Given this, it would be hypocritical of me to join in the chorus saying that the absence of her voice will be a loss. In fact, on balance, I think it’s a good thing. Many of those who have gone into bat for her over the last couple of days either know her well, or move in the same milieu. I respect many of these people, so I have to believe that she really is good and kind in person. But for those of us who only have her writing to go on, some of the claims being made in her favour do not wash. Indeed, some of what she and others are saying is actively disingenuous.

The right to free speech doesn’t entail a column in The Age. (Nor, for that matter, does it require country church halls to throw open their doors to atheist comedians.) Deveny’s tendency to talk about free speech and the importance of feminist voices like hers and to ask others to be brave when her chickens are coming home to roost, are ways of absolving herself of responsibility for the results of her own modus operandi. And her schtick, like other trollumnists, is mostly about pissing people off. She can hardly complain when she succeeds in this, as she did on Sunday.

Perceptions of her "edginess" have always depended on its contrast to the regulation stodginess of The Age — when The Age does as The Age is, well … And I’d go so far as to say that anyone who thinks Tweeting from an account with hundreds of followers is "just like passing notes in class" (as Deveny described it to Jon Faine on Wednesday) has no business being a professional writer in this day and age. If Deveny believes that, she simply doesn’t know what she’s doing, and The Age‘s judgement that she’s a liability is spot on.

As for those who say that people offended by her Twitter stream could simply have "unfollowed" her, they are missing a couple of things. The first is her own claim to have been offended by the Logies — on which she nevertheless elected to offer a running commentary. The second is that writers with a profile like Deveny’s are naive if they think that unacceptable claims won’t attract criticism. It’s the same reason people take the trouble to publicly disagree with Andrew Bolt.

As Deveny said to Faine yesterday, it seems odd for someone who has written hundreds of columns to be sacked over a couple of tweets. Odd, that is, unless this was simply the last straw. There’s a record of conflict between her and The Age — her staging of a one-woman strike when her pay was reduced, and the spiking of a recent column and the attendant kerfuffle on her blog are just two examples.

Paul Ramadge, editor of The Age, sounded mighty upset to this listener when he had to defend Deveny on Faine’s program last year, and it’s possible that he noticed Deveny’s on-Twitter outburst on ANZAC Day. It’s impossible to tell from the outside, but it may be that an editor who inherited rather than hired Deveny finally decided she was more trouble than she was worth. Deveny herself has indicated that there is more at stake here than what happened on Sunday night.

With all that said, there’s something about the way all this happened that means I can’t be completely happy that Deveny has been denied The Age as a platform.

Although her MO consists of antagonising people, there was something that reeked of mob justice in the way she was dismissed. Social media can be about sharing, conversation, and positive forms of activism — but they can also be a venue for a kind of outrage porn. This can be quickly satiated without effecting any lasting change, and any one of us might stir it up with an ill-advised tweet or two. There but for the Grace of God, etc.

It’s also galling that The Age have allowed the impression to form that the likes of Bolt had a hand in getting rid of Deveny — and have only managed to appear weak as a result. It’s hard not to think that in an organisation like News Ltd, she would have been summarily sacked first thing Monday or backed to the hilt. And she also seems — as Jonathan Holmes pointed out this morning — to have been sacked for being herself, and acting in the way she always has.

Given all this — and if The Age still aspires to make a positive contribution to public debate — the question needs to be asked: why was she hired in the first place?

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