What is trolling really?
It’s obviously more than mere abuse — even when it concerns the repeated vilification of a particular group. It’s not, as the Daily Telegraph would have us believe, "sustained, targeted and vicious behaviour towards a person online", that targets "not just celebrities and sports stars but other everyday users".
Trolling has meant something very specific since the early days of the internet, as noted in Gizmodo yesterday:
"[A troll is] one who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument."
Trolling is different from straight-up bile because it takes delight in being churlish. Trolls refuse to argue the point or engage in good faith with the evidence. They play neither the man nor the ball; they shit on the field.
In order to move beyond mere abuse and become trolling, a "social license" — to borrow the term now popular among anti-CSG groups — is necessary. It has to be permitted, or at least not prohibited.
The right-wing French writer Michel Houellebecq, himself the target of a sustained campaign of vilification and character assassination in the French press, wrote in a letter to Bernard Henri-Levy (another of France’s "Public Enemies") that,
"…there has always been a scent of the lynch mob around you. Often, when your name comes up in conversation, I will notice an evil grin I know all too well, a rictus of petty, despicable pleasure at the prospect of being able to insult without risk".
To insult without risk; to refuse to acknowledge a person’s work or stated policy in favour of repeated smears; to continually dredge up irrelevant, long-dead episodes from the past; to endlessly attack a person regardless of their actual influence in public life, under the laughable auspices of the "public interest"; to attack in a mob and take smug pleasure in every cronyistic remark; and to make attacks under parliamentary privilege or in powerful newspapers without fear of the consequences. That’s a real trolling campaign, not abusive tweets from morons.
It’s also the campaign that’s been waged for years against Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon by members of the Coalition over her past membership of the Communist Party of Australia. The Murdoch press have been avid accomplices, continuing to report on the Senator’s "secret past" as if it were new and relevant information.
The latest episode in this tawdry saga took place in New South Wales Parliament, thanks to the Liberal Party’s chief troll in that state, Peter Phelps MLC — who until he was disappeared from Twitter was much-loved for his trolling on that platform too.
During a recent session concerning Grandparents’ Day, Phelps chose to attack Rhiannon and her mother, Freda Brown. For example:
"As I was saying, the international recognition Grandma Rhiannon has received includes being awarded the Lenin Medal. As she is the only Australian grandmother — nay, the only Australian woman — ever to have gained such an achievement one has to ask what it was for. I presume that it was for her grandmotherly activities, rather than for being an agent of Stalinism in Australia over many years."
When challenged by Greens members, Phelps replied:
"…the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world… It is relevant to talk about the important role that mothers and grandmothers play in bringing up their children and the values they inculcate upon them."
It is also relevant to note that Rhiannon is no longer a sitting member of the NSW Parliament, but Phelps has repeatedly used occasions such as this to single her out. On Mothers’ Day, this year, egged on by Labor MLC Luke Foley with shouts of "Talk about Lee Rhiannon and Mother Russia", he said:
"…no sane and rational human being, knowing of the murder of Trotsky or the disgraceful behaviour of the Communist Party after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was announced, could possibly have [been a communist]. It must have been her mother and her love for her mother."
When challenged, Phelps fell back on his usual defence:
"If I am not allowed to use practical examples of the relationship between a mother and a daughter…"
When Rhiannon spoke in the Senate of a revival of "McCarthyism style politics with the intent to discredit my work", Phelps responded in NSW parliament:
"The broad membership of The Greens—quaint folk in Birkenstock sandals and hemp shirts clutching their healing crystals and banging their heads on wind chimes—was taken over by a well-organised communist cadre. From there, the parasitic element used the Greens Party to install its preferred candidates in positions of power. The end result was the elevation of former Senator Kerry Nettle and current Senator Lee Rhiannon."
During a debate on energy and climate change:
Dr John Kaye: Tony Abbott, your Federal leader, accepts [the climate science]so perhaps you should listen to him.
The Hon. Dr Peter Phelps: Perhaps you should listen to Lee Rhiannon.
Duncan Gay, the Coalition’s deputy leader in the upper house, has also joined in. During a debate on CSG:
"If you are in doubt, if you are too lazy or if you are so inept that you cannot develop proper policy, the easy way out is to have a moratorium. I am disappointed in the Hon. Jeremy Buckingham because, frankly, he is brighter than that. That is the sort of stuff I expected from Lee Rhiannon, not from him."
The transformation of a woman’s name into a de facto insult with no fear of risk — here’s to the trolls! She cannot even escape it in TV-land, where talking head debates are usually polished and moderated into oblivion — in July Labor MP Michael Danby derailed an ABC Capitol Hill debate over asylum seekers to once again condemn Rhiannon’s past.
Rhiannon’s past affiliations are all on the public record, through the reporting of journalists like Mark Aarons and the release of her ASIO file. What new information is revealed by this kind of conduct? None.
In fact, Christian Kerr, who has repeatedly published attacks on Rhiannon and the Greens in The Australian, admitted, "there is no evidence that Rhiannon, seen as an outside contender for the leadership of the Greens, ever worked as a Soviet agent".
No, Phelps and co. do it purely for laughs, proving once and for all the old maxim that a buffoon makes jokes to amuse others, while a gentleman amuses only himself; Phelps is, after all, a true gentleman, a member of the party of bunyip aristocrats.
But what about the more current charge? The one that says Rhiannon is the Stalinist heart of the Greens, running the so-called "Eastern Bloc" of the NSW party like a cult of personality?
Sally Neighbour pursued this theme in a piece for the Monthly in February. Anonymous sources were happy to dish out the dirt on Rhiannon. She’s "a fucking communist" whose mob is "out to control everyone and take away the power of states’ rights. They’re into that fortress mentality. It’s crap, it’s a reflection of their barricaded world".
If Rhiannon really is the radical Left heart of the party of watermelons, it’s hard to see how those politics are reflected in Greens policy. Christine Milne told the Jewish News days after her appointment that the Boycotts Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) issue "is behind us". The party remains committed to a market-based, rather than centrally-planned solution to climate change. The Greens candidates in the Melbourne and Heffron by-elections, Cathy Oke and Dr Mehreen Faruqi, are hardly the vanguard of the oncoming revolution. Peter Whish-Wilson, Bob Brown’s replacement in the Senate, was once a committed John Howard voter. As I’ve written before, the Greens at times appear more like a conservative party than one on the hard left.
But what about her own writing? Rhiannon recently wrote on the future of the Greens in Left Turn:
"Often as political parties grow, decision-making power becomes more centralised … As the Australian Greens are based on a confederation of states model, there are significant checks on shifting power away from the membership."
Doesn’t sound particularly totalitarian, does it? Stories on the Greens typically fail to mention that they are structured differently to the two major parties — policy is developed at a grassroots level. According to the Greens’ constitution (pdf), "decisions at all meetings of The Greens will be made primarily by consensus and a serious attempt at all times will be made towards achieving consensus".
Elected members of the Greens are required to vote in line with party policy — why have a consensus-based grassroots party without such a provision? Snap decisions and conflicts of conscience that result in a vote against the party platform require the member to return to the party and indicate why. This is the opposite of Stalinism. One would imagine Rhiannon is bound to respect her party’s constitution.
Even if the popular characterisation of Rhiannon is correct, her influence inside the party is greatly overstated by her critics. The risk of mocking her must be negligible; where was the purge in the Greens following Neighbour’s unsympathetic Monthly story? And if the Marxist left are still relevant or influential at any level of public life in our much bemoaned post-9/11 world, I’m yet to notice it.
During the Grandparents’ Day debate John Kaye replied to Phelps, saying that although Senior Liberal Eric Abetz’s uncle was a Nazi, such a fact "would have been irrelevant, just as is the Government Whip’s contribution irrelevant". What is less well known is that current members of Barry O’Farrell’s government were apprenticed to an actual Nazi collaborator and anti-Semite, Ljenko Urbancic, who was a member of the fascist Slovene Domobrans fighters during the Second World War. Urbancic was influential in the Liberal Party well after he was exposed by Aarons in 1979 — he died in 2006. Liberal MLC David Clarke was his protege, but I suspect we shall be waiting forever for the Fathers’ Day diatribe from Phelps proclaiming the paternal love Urbancic must have felt for his adoptive son.
To return to Houellebecq, at the height of the campaign against him, which involved slander both from and about his family, he began to get sick. "I started to get oozing red spots all over my forearms and my legs," he wrote in Public Enemies. Very few were prepared to defend him; fewer were prepared to suggest he not be denigrated without the opportunity to defend himself. A social license for abuse had been granted, in part by smears in the press, but also by those happy to see him spat upon because they considered him a racist and misogynist.
Houellebecq’s views are repugnant to many, and perhaps Rhiannon’s are too. But what about her health? Or her ability to live a public and private life free from constant self-defence? Supporting the right of beautiful celebrities and footy players to go unmolested online is one thing. But to delight in the ongoing trolling of a woman because of her political affiliations decades ago, while demanding fatuous apologies that will in any case never be accepted, is another thing altogether.