A number of memes of varying wit and originality have been circulating since last Saturday's election to express the despair and foreboding of non-Coalition voters. One of these is simply the recurring phrase “fuck Abbott”, which can now be purchased in t-shirt form.
These symbols of youthful rebellion are available from various outlets. For instance, writer Clementine Ford is selling a selection on a temporary basis, with a portion of the profits to go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the Aboriginal Legal Service and the Council for Single Mothers and Their Children. There has, predictably, been some disapproval at the slogan. Some speculate that “fuck Gillard” shirts would have been deemed sexist and unacceptable.
Some on the left will disagree with the shirts on a tactical basis. These garments, with all the swagger of a raised middle finger, are obviously unlikely to win people to a cause and will tend to elicit a hostile response. Like a placard reading “Howard is a fascist” at a protest rally in the late 1990s, the t-shirts appeal exclusively to the converted: those for whom a Coalition government is self-evidently bad. They speak to our inner, angry adolescent – the kid who has no truck with nuance or subtlety but deals in pure emotion.
Marriage equality campaigner Rodney Croome recently wrote an open letter to protesters requesting that the phrase “fuck Abbott” not be used on posters, asking, “How can we expect Australia to take marriage equality seriously when some proponents of reform base their case on insults rather than reason?”. Some activists will agree with Croome and others will not: where politics is deeply felt, language will often express rage as well as reason, whether constructive or otherwise.
There is nothing inherently wrong with political conflict and there is, certainly, a great deal in Abbott’s mean-spirited platform about which to be angry – for instance, deep cuts to foreign aid and to the Aboriginal Legal Service (which Warren Mundine now suggests may be reversed), the withdrawal of publicly funded legal representation from asylum seekers, the demolition of Australia's climate change infrastructure, the rumblings about “wasteful” academic research and the arbitrary sacking of 12,000 public servants.
In 1973, historian Manning Clark characterised the Menzies era as a time "of unleavened bread", and with an anti-Labor backlash to deliver, the Abbott years promise even less wholesome sustenance for the nation.
Still, the Coalition won decisively, and those of us who wish it hadn't have to accept the result rather than indulging in the kinds of tantrums the conservative parties threw after failing to form government in 2010. To return to the t-shirts, the criticisms about their anger or aggressiveness — and their use of the f-bomb — tend to overlook a bigger problem.
Arguably the most problematic shirt is the one boasting no foul language at all. It proclaims simply: “Abbott is not my Prime Minister”. Unless you're living in an alternative reality, yes he is. Those of us ideologically opposed to this government need to digest this truth, face the challenges before us, and hold our leaders to account — not close our eyes and believe in fairies.
The sentiment on that shirt also speaks to something more abstract, a kind of progressive individualism. Ideology-as-accessory is nothing new, and it is always dubious to use social media as evidence to support a proposition (there is, for instance, a Facebook group for pretty much every sentiment imaginable) but some themes have been recurring in recent weeks. Consider the slogans “Not in my name”; “Don't blame me, I didn't vote for him”; and “Abbott doesn't speak for me”. There is a palpable desire to extract the disappointed, grieving self from the messiness of political reality.
Beneath these slogans lurks, perhaps, weariness with democracy and an attempt to disassociate oneself from the broader populace and “their” government. On her shopify site Ford implicitly explains the Coalition’s victory as no more than the outcome of her compatriots’ racial prejudice, writing that the Prime Minister is a “buffoon whose greatest contribution during the election campaign was to just yell STOP THE BOATS whenever a racist was in earshot”. This conclusion overlooks Labor’s own appalling asylum seeker policy, painting a rather simplistic narrative of the kind for which Abbott is pilloried (you can also buy a t-shirt from the site with a picture of Abbott’s face above the word “baddie”, referencing his comments on Syria).
In somewhat similar vein, Ford recently pronounced herself “baffled” by the Coalition’s victory, writing: “the electorate has evidently overlooked the clear discomfort he has with women”. Here the writer seems to stand above the voters, looking down critically and with little attempt to understand — a dynamic thoughtfully critiqued in Jeff Sparrow’s recent analysis of Abbott’s tactical victory over a particular strand of liberal feminism.
These sorts of conclusions present the Coalition’s victory as an inexplicable mystery and necessarily imply a certain disrespect for voters, calling to mind former Liberal Senate Leader Reg Withers dismissing the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972 as no more than the result of “temporary electoral insanity of the two most populous Australian States”.
The desire to parade one's despair and anger with our new government is civic engagement of a rather narrow kind. The sphere of the political seems to shrink; instead of a concern with the wider world and the clashing ideologies and the power relations that shape our society, politics is a matter of individual performance. The personal is political, the political personal, and the snake devours its tail until nothing is left. As writer Rebecca Giggs argued shortly before the election: “Despair, being personal and self-regarding, atomizes us, turning individuals inwards, turning our shamed faces away from one another. To that extent as a political emotion despair is a conservative one”.
We are citizens, not consumers. We are part of something bigger than ourselves, even if our nation state is set to swerve rightwards. A retreat into our own anger and grief is in some ways a surrender, an embrace of individualism rather than empathy, as though Margaret Thatcher was correct after all and there is truly no such thing as society. To make a real and radical change in our politics, we need something less stylish than belligerent despair: a commitment to the unfashionable notion of the collective good.
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