Friday, June 30, 2006

Does anyone get Leunig?

One of the hardest things traditionalist conservatives have to do is to figure out the mindset of liberals.

Although I understand better now than I used to, it’s still difficult at times to grasp the logic at work in the way some liberals think about things. A recent article by Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig is a case in point.

Leunig begins on a note of despair. It seems that his own older generation of lefty intellectuals are feeling their traditional world falling away. Leunig writes:

But older folk become disillusioned, too - by matters that emerge in later life. Civil matters, for instance. What now of their sadness and disgust, as they watch their culture being methodically poisoned - not by the so-called barbarians beyond the city gates but by the gatekeepers and the Prime Minister who has appointed them?

So common and resonant in our land is this peculiar, appalled new feeling that there must surely be a special name for it - this late-life, close-to-the-heart dismay about the apparent destructiveness and bitter perversity of the prevailing political order.

So deeply does Leunig lament the loss of his left-wing culture that he writes almost like a conservative in defence of it:

Citizens, regardless of their political inclinations, carry a devout sense of their shared culture and its temperament - and, having contributed to it all their lives, hold decent and reasonable hopes for it's continued integrity. It's a gentle and complex sensibility, which comes from forebears, from the uniqueness of the land, from relationships, work, history, art and the many ordinary tales and folk legends of the society - a vital yet almost intangible ecosystem - of which governments are expected to be the respectful custodians, not brash redevelopers.

When a government imagines it will renovate the national culture according to its ideology and exclusive ambitions, as if culture is just a mechanistic matter of knobs and levers and suckholes in powerful positions (a government that has piously denounced the idea of social engineering and proclaimed the wisdom of the free market and, presumably, free culture) then it begins to feel for many as if their country has been somehow invaded and is under occupation - that they are being marshalled and callously divided into two categories: "you're in, you're out".

Now, it’s not impossible to understand part of Leunig’s viewpoint here. The left-liberal intelligentsia were so dominant in Australia in the 1970s and 80s that they really did create and inhabit a distinct and recognisable culture.

Since the mid-90s, though, a right-wing liberalism has grown in strength, particularly in Canberra, so that the comfy, unexamined left-wing culture no longer dominates as it once did.

So there’s some objective basis to Leunig’s feeling that the older Anglo left-liberal culture is slipping away.

Still, Leunig’s viewpoint seems odd overall – and not only because he exaggerates the differences between his own politics and those of the Howard Government.

Leunig expects the Government to be a respectful custodian of a left-liberal culture which is itself self-destructive. The left-liberals want to continue to preach the awfulness of their own society, and to open the borders of their society, without restriction, to the unassimilable Other. They don’t appear to realise that there is no Government measure which could allow a comfortable, traditional Anglo left-liberalism to continue on this basis – that they are preaching a politics which can only end in their own displacement.

The difficulty of reconciling Leunig’s outlook – of preserving a left-liberal cultural ascendancy based on national guilt and open borders – is suggested in the following paragraphs, written in a strangely mixed vein:

In one's own beloved native land - which, in spite of its many failures, has historically welcomed and provided some measure of hope and unconditional friendliness for exiles from desperate situations in other lands, it is a peculiar paradoxical sadness to sense such a growing mood of alienation, national dispossession and lost identity among a significant proportion of its intelligent citizens resulting from an abusive government impulse that nobody much had foreseen or thought possible.

How odd and lamentable that a nation that was the consoler of outcasts could also be the creator of outcasts. Yet how unsurprising also, for regardless of whatever infantile denials are made in ivory towers and newspaper offices, ours is a nation built knowingly or unwittingly on a moral foundation of occupation, repression and exclusion - still formally unacknowledged. Abuse is written into our moral constitution and practised as a nationalistic compulsion, whether it be in the waging of war against defenceless peoples abroad, or against the environment and the remnant innocence in our own land.

These thoughts are known as the black armband view. Even the redeeming and humanising values of remorse and sorrow are held in contempt by the perverse new gatekeepers - those creepy cultural stalkers and warmongers ... Time will have to pass before gravity and spirit of country reassert what is true.

This kind of writing is so difficult to disentangle. One moment Leunig is telling us that our country historically welcomed exiles with unconditional friendliness, but a few sentences later the exact opposite is asserted with equal force, that our nation was built on a moral foundation of exclusion.

It’s not a politics with a long shelf-life. Leunig can already see the writing on the wall: that the kind of middle-class, Anglo, left-liberal culture he inhabited and identifies with won’t survive modernity. In some ways it was too successful for its own good – it could only have survived if there had been some counter-force strong enough to restrain its self-destructive tendencies.


  1. I think sentimentalism has its place, but it has to be actually based on something. I don't know what Anglo liberalism is based on anymore besides proving that open societies eat themselves.

    Mr Leunig's sentiment seems deliberately infantile and incoherent - a sort of tantrum that everyone isn't in on the suicide pact.

    He needs to go back and read Rousseau to get his story straight, as do most of the modern day English speaking commentariat. Why is flagellation a virtue? Why is insularism a vice?

    Sarcasm and irony just don't cut it; "you're in, you're out" - nudge nudge, wink wink - but that doesn't tell me why natural human selectivity is intrinsically bad.

    If someone is going to market a social philosophy that is currently being challenged, they need to explain - in a language other than devalued catch phrases - why it is a truth and to what end that truth will deliver us.

    Otherwise, it's like trying to decipher a hysterical three year old.

  2. Don't try to think too much about Leunig's ravings.

    Remember as the mad philosopher Nietzsche said:
    "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you" (Aphorism 146, Beyond Good & Evil, Hollingdale translation.)

  3. Mild Colonial Boy, believe me I won't gaze too long into the Leunigian abyss. It just seemed a challenge to try to unravel what Leunig was saying: even if only to try and explain the contradictions.

    Shane, thanks for the comment. Your turn of phrase is, as usual, first rate.