9 May 2013

Time To Tighten The Latte Belt

By Catriona Menzies-Pike

A fantasy about cultural elitism drives Nick Cater's new book. It's cynical populism - and everyone wants a piece of it. Catriona Menzies-Pike went to the western Sydney launch

Last night Labor MPs Chris Bowen and Daryl Melham launched Nick Cater’s new book The Lucky Culture, with help from Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker.

Cater, a News Ltd editor, journalist and executive, who migrated to Australia from the UK in the late 1980s, is an avowed convert to Aussie egalitarianism. “[S]omething particularly refreshing hangs in the egalitarian breeze as soon as you step off the plane,” Cater writes — a breeze that blows most bracingly in the western suburbs of Sydney. As Whittaker said at the launch, held at the Revesby Workers’ Club, “much of the coming ideological battle will be fought in Sydney’s west”.

In The Lucky Country, Cater worries about a cultural elite characterised by moralism, intellectual conceit and snobbery, who tell the rest of us what to do. (Not the ones launching and praising his book, of course.) Since Cater arrived in Australia he reckons he has witnessed the emergence of a new “moral class” (the commissioner class, the knowledge class, “latte sippers”, progressives, the “plastic bag refuseniks”, the “bunyip aristocracy”). The moral class are responsible for plain-packaged cigarettes and the persecution of Andrew Bolt, and they’re having a dire effect on the ALP and the country.

According to Cater, the crux of the problem is that "for the first time there are people who did not simply feel better off but better than their fellow Australians".  You don’t need a history degree to demonstrate that this assertion is incorrect; Guy Rundle does an excellent demolition job on Cater’s historical arguments so I’ll leave it to him.  For those who want to judge for themselves, there’s an excerpt from Cater’s book here.

By the time everyone had gathered in Revesby last night, the big book shivoo for the day had already taken place. Yesterday morning, John Howard launched The Lucky Culture at the Art Gallery of NSW. He said he’d been given his copy by Rupert Murdoch in New York. Former Quadrant and Bulletin editor Peter Coleman made a few remarks and the crowd drank champagne.

Even though it was only launched yesterday, an audience has already been carved out for The Lucky Culture. It’s on its third reprint and columns have been written about it by Cater’s News Ltd colleagues Miranda Devine ("Cater’s book is the spiritual sustenance our maligned nation needs”) and Janet Albrechtsen (“a new book that makes a major contribution to the cultural archeology of this nation”). Piers Ackerman got excited about The Lucky Culture in the Daily Telegraph (“extraordinary book”) and Tony Abbott reviewed it for The Spectator (“beautifully written and perceptive book”). 

If the advance publicity is impressive, so too is the launch program. Next week historian Geoffrey Blainey will launch The Lucky Culture in Melbourne at the IPA. Kevin Rudd will launching the book in Brisbane, Bill Leak and HG Nelson will send it off in Woy Woy (tickets $40 a pop).

I sat up the back at the Revesby Workers’ Club launch; there weren’t more than 50 people in attendance. Behind me, a group of late arrivals chatted about their first trip to Revesby and laughed about getting lost on the way. This awkward spirit of bipartisanship defined the event. Cater chuckled when he said the western Sydney launch was the most important one of the day and told an anecdote about cycling without a helmet in Kirribilli. Whittaker made jokes about an unemployed hairdresser living in the Lodge. Daryl Melham, the president of the Revesby Workers’ Club, got a few digs in at John Howard: “I’m sorry John Howard couldn’t make it. Last time he came here he was campaigning against me and I got a swing my way”.

So let’s get to it: Why on earth would Chris Bowen agree to launch a book so unfriendly to the ALP? The former frontbencher addressed this question directly. Debate is important, he said. The ALP needs to listen to criticism and respond to it.

Bowen agrees with Cater insofar as the emergence of “a growing well-educated high income cohort with different views” is concerned – but not on the influence of that group on the Labor party. Last night he argued that the ALP needs to focus on economic growth and jobs – and pointed to a tradition of Labor leaders who had done just that. Whitlam, Wran, Keating and Hawke were his leading examples, the ones the party should be following now. Their history of reform and popularity, he claimed, is the proof that Labor thrives when it does not embrace “soft elite doctor’s wives issues” -  such as a more humane immigration policy.

Reflecting on his time as Immigration Minister, Bowen recalled that he was criticised for pandering to the “racist voters of western Sydney” as he spearheaded the Gillard Government’s policy on asylum seekers. The elites don’t understand “asylum policy in the real world”, he said. Everybody else understands that “Australia can help but that we need an orderly and fair system”.

And so it went on, imaginary elites and imaginary ordinary aspirational voters.

Everything said they wanted robust and civil debate to flow from the publication of Cater’s book – but the only real instance of anything like this at the Revesby Workers’ Club last night was Melham’s gallant defence of the Racial Discrimination Act. “True equality requires differential treatment. Aboriginal people deserve a lot better than what they’ve received,” he said. The protections afforded Indigenous people by the RDA are about more than free speech, no matter what Andrew Bolt might claim. There were a few shuffles from the News Ltd crowd at this point.

Higher education has always been a battleground in the culture wars. When Bowen defended the Rudd-Gillard support for tertiary education the contradictions in the “elites” caricature quickly emerged: “We have a stronger economy and fairer society if we have more people going to university,” he claimed, as long as the ALP doesn’t follow an “elitist tertiary-driven agenda”.

Cater has mixed views on university education. As he put it, “it’s not that people go to uni, that’s not the problem. It’s what you think when you come out, whether you believe your own bullshit”. To call this anti-intellectualism is to concede too much ground. It sounds like a provisional license for university graduates. Use your newfound skills to get ahead, to contribute to the economy – but leave your big ideas on campus. Just who is talking down to the aspirational voters here? It’s hardly a prescription for a free culture of debate, let alone one which fosters innovation and critical thinking.

There are certainly groups in Australia who hold views that are at odds with Cater and Bowen – but they’re not holding the country or the Labor Party to ransom. Mining, taxation, environment policy and immigration are all divisive issues, however there’s scant evidence that the consensus is swinging to the left. For instance, two-thirds of Australians favour same-sex marriage, dubbed a polarising issue by Cater and Bowen, but their views have little sway when it comes to making legislation. The notion of a powerful progressive cultural elite is a fantasy, one which serves to advance the political agenda of genuinely powerful people like Cater, Whittaker and Bowen.

Speaking of fantasy, we might as well close with Cater’s presentation of his experiences in Australia as an exemplary migrant story. “The promise that the humblest migrant could through enterprise and energy earn enough to buy property and land was at the heart of the Australian dream from the beginning,” he writes. Last night he framed himself as a “refugee from Thatcher’s Britain”, a line that’s been trotted out a few times in the media blitz. The Lucky Country makes plenty of smug, dumb claims – but nothing is more telling than Cater’s casual claim that he’s some kind of refugee.

“Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. That’s what it says in the Geneva Convention and that’s the definition that asylum seekers languishing in detention centres are desperate to show they meet. It doesn’t apply to a journalist who decided he’d like a lifestyle change. His story of the migrant made good by diligent assimilation to Australian egalitarianism – with a little help from News Limited – is, at best, disingenuous. As the politicians and commentators with whom Cater aligns himself pull Australia further and further away from adherence to the key document of international law, it’s a dishonest, morally bankrupt claim.

I’m aware that pointing this out is probably what Cater would, with a sneer, gloss as a typically censorious and humourless reflex of the commissioner class. I’d like to think of it as upholding another good old Aussie tradition – a low tolerance for self-serving bullshit. That tradition is being undermined by the genuinely powerful audience lapping up The Lucky Culture. This being so, we may do well to treat Cater’s book as an indication of the cultural politics we can expect under a Coalition government. What’s on the cards? Cynical populism dressed up as egalitarianism, hypocrisy, a readiness to circulate convenient, glib untruths – and a galling, smiling, smugness.

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Jordan
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 13:47

Nice.

I take it this is the same Nick Carter who got absolutely, monumentally humiliated - totally barbecued by TJ on Q&A a week or so ago. Was there still smoke coming off him when he ventured out to the Revesby Workers'?

butlerad
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 13:55

The phenomenon of the Dunning-Kruger effect comes to mind i.e. the dumb get confident, while the intelligent get doubtful.

That's the conclusion that David Dunning and Justin Kruger came to when studying people's perceptions of their own talents. What has now become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect helps describe why lay people often act as experts and inept pollies get our votes.

Listen on Radio National

Neil James - Au...
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 14:24

1951 Refugee Convention not "Geneva Convention" (and its Geneva Conventions (plural) anyway as there are four of them and three additional protocols)

Evan
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 15:41

I'm not sure this grouping is a fantasy at all.

I'm not sure they are much of a threat but our public discussion of some issues has a particularly (Victorian - the era, not the place) tone to it.  The demonising of smokers being the chief example.

I do think the culture wars have produced some pretty repellent smugness on all sides.

ozzydazz
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 18:49

I think Catriona Menzies-Pike should be embarrassed that an English import has his hand on the pulse of Australian cultural divide than she does.

Whether you like it or not he is absolutely correct on the majority of average Australians feelings about our society today. Too few are making the loudess noise saying it represents the majority of what Australians feel or should think.

How wrong can this expression be, I get sick and tired of hearing someone like the Greens Christine Milne say "most Australians" It is such a throw away line formed to create headlines rather than actual fact.

As an example I have absolutely no doubt that if a referendum was held that asked the question "should the marriage act be changed to include same sex marriage"?

The over whelming majority would vote NO in a referendum.

BUT

If the same question was asked and this time it was in the federal parliament you may get a completely different result. (FOOT NOTE: I have not problem with same sex marriage, but I know what most say when asked this question individually.)

Unless you are in contact, live and mix with Aussies that do not reside within 15km's of the major CBD's of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane etc you really have not got a clue what the average and the majority of Aussies think or say other than what you read or hear in some opinion poll.

When was the last time this author visited say a public bar at Penrith, Blacktown, Ipswish, etc or a local sporting event of any kind in areas like these mentioned? Door knocked Mt Druitt or Logan? Travelled on a train from Sydney to Penrith, Richmond or Liverpool?

Untill you or anyone else who believe they know what "all Australians think" you really are only expressing a narrow view of public opinion and because you can sound bite in the right areas it gains more traction than a conversation from the neighbourhoods.

I do not agree with Nick's view of "Social Snobbery" based on education levels but more so on "Social Groupings".

There are plenty of well educated people that disagree from one another on all levels of environmental, political and social justice.

But I agree on the fact that there is a growing divide between those who think they know whats best to those who just believe in commonsense.

Those who think that all problems are solved by regulating by governments and those who think that non-regulation is best.

Those that think whats bad for 10%-5% is eventually good for the other 90%-95%, to save the minority is in the best interest of the majority.

To stop 5% of troubled gamblers the other 95% of gamblers must be penalised as well for example. To prevent the 5% of bad parents penalise the 95% of good parents as well and it goes on and on.

I say thank god that The Lucky Culture has been written, I am very sad that it took an Englishmen to say it.

Thank you Nick

 

fightmumma
Posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 - 22:23

ozzydazz - for a start the greatest portion of our population actually DO live in the major cities, I think something like 75%...and city life is more conducive to people developing diverse and different opinions, tastes, preferences, where they are exposed to more experience of difference and less under the eye of any one dominant social group's values, beliefs and expectations.

Commonsense is highly dangerous because it depends on unexamined assumptions - and in the case of what this article is highlighting - there seems to be a dangerous swing to this group of people who prefer unexamined, untested non-critiqued assumptions and beliefs - to people who have education, abilities to critique, analyse, think, problem solve etc. 

Of course this makes complete sense when the majority of people can't be bothered with anything beyond their own horizon...neatly illustrated by the pathetic choices of potential prime minister and political parties in this country at present...people who've gotten into power on the tides of these above don't-give-a-damners"...so easy to do what you want when nobody can be bothered truly analysing your actions, outcomes, consequences etc.

And know we are seeing that the people who want change, want the freedom to critique and do all that are really our obligations within a democratic society...these people are being demonised and criticised!  Seems to me we've seen this before anywhere in history where people stood up for the rights of others, for injustice and social change...it's just happening again...let's hope it doesn't end in another war...

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013 - 18:49

Well done, Catriona, a masterpiece of deadpan irony, deliberately embodying the very characteristics Cater bemoans in the new graduate class, parodying their look-down-their-nose belittling of those dumb enough to have right-wing thoughts, and even (shock horror!) to vote Liberal.

Genius!

You've got the reflexive sneer of the latte sippers down to a tee – brilliant! This could go down in history as the internet prose equivalent of This Is Spinal Tap!! (And of course you've sucked in half the commentators on this board, convincing them you're being serious, that you're playing it straight!)

And your jawdropping genius is nowhere better illustrated than in how you capture so deftly one of the defining characteristics of this new class: its blind hypocrisy.

With you to puncture their self-satisfied smug superiority, Cater's Commissar (sorry, commissioner) class has no hope of retaining power.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013 - 19:09

 

Now, @fightmumma, @ozzydazz was quoting Cater in locating the greatest concentrations of his new graduate class in the inner cities, within 15 km of the CBD (although I think this circle is probably too large), a region of urban homogeneity dominated by their social group's values, beliefs and expectations, and calculated to confirm the prejudices of this new class.

Certainly not to expose them to any experience of difference, let alone to encourage the development of diverse and different opinions, tastes and preferences. Been down Lygon Street lately?

And if you want to get people on these boards to read some pop psychology, perhaps you are right to start with a kindergarten-level blog laden with Left-wing stereotypes like the golfing CEO, but for those willing to have their cherished attitudes challenged might I suggest a book called How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich.

Jordan
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013 - 23:27

 

Wow @aussiegreg, I'm blown away by the originality of your comment.

What a novel technique - entirely ignore anything remotely associated with the content of the article and just focus instead on indignant belittlement of the author and crass name-calling.

Did you learn that at private school?

Jordan
Posted Saturday, May 11, 2013 - 23:42

 

@aussiegreg:

“a region of urban homogeneity dominated by their social group's values, beliefs and expectations, and calculated to confirm the prejudices of this new class”

And you say you find this article ironic

That's priceless.

You, my friend, are obviously a professional. Is that something you always broadcast telegraphically?

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 04:27

Hey, @Jordan, there's a bit of pot and kettle going on here. I did nothing but compliment the author!

Since you ask, I went to a couple of public schools.

The first one was dominated by working-class kids, many of whom went hungry when their parents were out of work, but only because their parents spent their dole money on cigarettes, booze, and trips to the local SP bookmaker.

The second one was split between poor kids like me, who rode to school on our $2 second-hand bikes in our second-hand uniforms with our second-hand textbooks in the second-hand haversacks on our backs, made our own sandwiches for our lunch and picked a piece of fruit from our own backyard fruit trees for our morning tea. 

Then there were the rich kids, who were delivered to school (sometimes in chauffeur-driven limousines, I kid you not!), in brand-new uniforms with brand-new textbooks and money to buy their morning tea and their lunch at the school tuckshop. Why did their parents not send them to private school, when they could so clearly afford it? Simple. It would have spoilt their carefully-cultivated image as "progressives".

I wonder which camp you would have been in?

 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 04:34

@Jordan

I can tell you haven't taken a walk down Lygon Street lately either. 

And no, I'm not a professional, I'm something far worse: a former farmer, a former processor of the crops I grew, and a former packager and wholesaler of those processed crops.

It's a life calculated to knock the nonsense out of you. Perhaps you should try it.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 04:37

Oh, and @Jordan, I live on less than the dole, but I am still a financial supporter of New Matilda, whereas you are not. That says rather a lot, don't you think?

jennyhaines
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 10:46

So if you live in  the inner west and you care about human rights you must be a latte sipping yuppie. Sounds like a horrible generalisation to me, just like the generalisations that all in the west are bogans. Big excuse not to listen when you are in conversation or debate. There seems to be a lot of people who just want to confirm the noise going on in their head rather than listen, learn, explore and develop ideas. Lazy intellectualism.

 

fightmumma
Posted Sunday, May 12, 2013 - 11:55

Jenny - spot on...generalisations only serve the status quo, and the current tensions, conflicts and assumptions embedded in it.  The name calling that goes with it is not constructive and only serves that individual's needs for displacing their own emotional reactions onto others to cloud their own responsibilities for deeper thinking/contribution and to unbalance others who are trying to examine the issues with objectivity and creativity in order to debunk the myths.

ozzydazz
Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 12:03

Well said aussiegreg.

And to fightmumma your just a hypocrite, you seem as confused as your username suggests 

fightmumma
Posted Tuesday, May 14, 2013 - 12:49

ozzydazz - attempt at personal putdown isn't really part of a debate.  A great example of how a person wants to say whatever the heck they want, NOT be challenged or questioned and then attack anyone with a brain for scrutinising their opinions/claims/perspectives...that is what this article is talking about - about the people who want to examine assumptions, generalisations, the status quo, being the bad guys nowadays, rather than the people instigating social change.  The heroes become the villians and the villians are dominating discourse/opinion to make themselves appear the heroes...

sduxson
Posted Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 13:11

Absolutely fantastic article. Nick Cater claiming to be a refugee makes me physically ill.

David Jacobsen
Posted Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 08:49

Grateful acknowlegement to: THE CHILDREN'S ENCYLOPEDIA

EDITED BY ARTHUR MEE

 

To us Brits, "the island continent of Australia, viewed as a whole, is one of the most interesting parts of the Earth. In so many ways it stands by itself. The last tract of land suitable for white men that has been taken posession of by them. And of all lands it is the strangest to Europeans. To us it is the country of contraries. Cold weather comes to us from the north; On Australia heat pours from the north and cold from the south. The living things on the Australian continent that were there when white men first visited it were nearly all peculiar to the land, and were not found elsewhere in the world.

The men living there were a distinct race of a very low type. The animals seemed to the discoverers monstrously different from any they had ever seen or heard of, and the vegetation was to a considerable extent peculiar. In each of these points great changes have been made since the early settlers arrived.

The naked canibal type of man, who is neither Polynesian, nor Asiatic, nor Malayan, nor Negro, has to be searched for to be found exactly as he existed when the white man came. The people of the land, the people who lived there when white men arived, the aborigines, were of such a primitive type, so few and scattered and migratory from place to place, that they have not been a difficulty. No one could say that they really occupied the land. They do not number 100,000, scattered over a continent larger than the United States of America. They were and are to backward either to help or to be in the way of progress. As a remnant of very early mankind they are interesting to the student of human progress, but they are not a serious problem.

Thre was always going to be the problem of the natives, the strangest and most primitive of peoples - savages, cannibals, weilding a marvellous weapon in the boomerang, and able to make fire by rubbing wood on wood, yet too ignorant to build a hut; matchless as climbers and trackers, but generally beast-like in their habits, and filled with superstitions and terrors.

The natives, indeed, played their part with us in the opening-up of this mighty land of which they had made not one particle of use. Escaping convicts treated them with fearful cruelty at times, and so kindled a vengeful spirit in them. we read of one man cutting off a native's finger to make himself a pipe-stopper.

Yet these poor creatures could be affectionate and faithful. All the big exploring trips included natievs, and great things these poor people did at times; terrible things, too, often. To some of them a white man was a meal; to others he was a god, and some would face him as Caliban on his island faced Trinculo in Shakespeare's Tempest, when he said:

Crikey!

hast thou not dropped from heaven?

 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 15:52

@David Jacobsen

 

Gee, so Arthur Mee pioneered This Is Spinal Tap parody all those decades ago! Everything old is new again…