Tag Archives: Waleed Aly

Aly and Stephens, Uncivil Wars

Waleed Aly & Scott Stephens, Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy (Quarterly Essay 87, 2022)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 88

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens are co-hosts of the ABC radio show and podcast The Minefield, on which they set out to negotiate the moral and ethical dilemmas of modern life. Their unscripted chats don’t shy away from big words like ‘epistemic’ or ‘teleological’ and refer frequently to philosophers ancient and modern, with occasional insights from the Islamic tradition. There’s usually a guest who has expertise in the topic of the week. There’s banter, an occasional malapropism, and usually – the main source of pleasure for me as a listener – a sense that no one knows quite where the conversation will go. One of the recurring motifs is the importance of thoughtful, deliberative communication, of which the show is a fine example.

Of necessity, in this Quarterly Essay Aly and Stephens speak with one voice – no mutual demurs, no pricking of pomposities, no license to meander. It’s not as much fun as the podcast but, especially when read along with the correspondence in QE88, it’s a stimulating and challenging essay.

The essay begins with a description of much current public conversation:

It is now entirely common for each of the opposing sides of a vociferous debate to consider themselves shamed and silenced, unable to speak without being branded in some malevolent way.

(Page 1)

Their diagnosis is that people on all sides of hot-button topics see the others as acting in bad faith, as tools of oppression, or perhaps as deluded fools – and the debate descends into mutual contempt. It’s not the readiness to be outraged or the short fuse to anger, but contempt that puts an end to any useful dialogue.

The essay then falls into four sections. First, some moral philosophy, which proposes some definitions of contempt and describes recent defences of it as a moral virtue. Second, some history: contempt as the air we breathe as fostered when the great US press barons of the 19th century realised that their profits would grow if their newspapers stirred up emotions, of which contempt was a real winner. Capitalist commodification of emotion reached an extreme with social media, particularly with Twitter’s retweet button and Facebook’s like button, both of which make it possible to broadcast an opinion to the world without any mental effort. Third: how this plays out in politics. The essay distinguishes between ‘thin’ democracy – in which people get to vote and that’s pretty much it – and ‘thick’ democracy, ‘which imagines society as a more dynamic organism where people can have their preferences and interests changed by interactions with others’. This is familiar ground to The Minefield‘s listeners. The final section, titled ‘Democracy as Marriage’, is a call for us to be more attentive to each other, including those with whom we disagree, and perhaps especially those with whom we disagree passionately.

As well as drawing on a wonderfully broad range of cultural touchstones – from Godard’s movie Contempt to George Floyd’s brother Philonise, with Simone Weil and James Baldwin featuring prominently – the essay draws heavily on recent events in the USA, because of its global cultural dominance and because it has gone further down the contempt road and so shows what can happen.

This Quarterly Essay featured in a special edition of the podcast, which originated as a session at the 2022 Festival of Dangerous Ideas in Sydney. You can listen to it here.

I can’t have a closer look at page 75* as there are only 64 pages to the essay. On page 47 (chosen because I was born in 1947 – is that arbitrary enough for you?) the essay is engaging with the argument in favour of ‘upward’ contempt as a way of doing politics. Quoting US philosopher Amy Chua, it argues that ‘to aggregate and compare … the average earning capacity of white and non-white families’ and similar statistics may be useful but it overlooks differences among white people, particularly class:

Many working-class whites clearly felt alienated from the culture and institutions that surrounded them. Few people with any mainstream cultural or political power seemed to take that alienation seriously. It’s easy to imagine that working-class whites felt themselves to be objects of contempt. And in an environment where such emotion can be commodified and turned into profit, someone like Donald Trump was always liable to come along.

The politics of contempt is what enabled the rise of Donald Trump and Trumpism. This leads into the beginning of the most interesting section of the essay, four pages in which James Baldwin is invoked. His body of work, the essay asserts, ‘stands as a monument to the refusal of contempt. It is shot through with sensitivity to its danger and warnings of its self-sabotage.’

So that’s page 47.

Leaping ahead to the correspondence in QE 88: it kicks off with a long essay by African-Australian Nyadol Nyuon, which argues with lawyerly precision that Aly and Stephens have missed the main point by apparently assuming an unreal symmetry between social groups struggling against oppression and those who are enforcing it (those are my terms: she is much more specific than that). In particular, she challenges their reading of James Baldwin. It’s a powerful piece of writing, and anyone who reads the original essay ought to read it. And not only it but the seven other thoughtful and not entirely supportive correspondents. And Aly and Stephens’s final reply.

Taken together, this is an inspiring example of serious conversation about real things. People misconstrue each other, but its generally in good faith. There’s an occasional sarcastic gibe, perhaps some defensiveness (if Nyadol Nyuon went after me I’d be a lot more defensive than thee authors, who hold their ground but remain genuinely respectful), some interesting anecdotes that are tangential to the topic, maybe a little self-promotion. But it’s a conversation, rich, thoughtful and mutually attentive.

* Currently when blogging about books I take a closer look, arbitrarily, at page 75 – moving on to page 76 at my next birthday if the idea works well enough.

500 people: Week Twenty

See this post for a brief description of my 500 People challenge.

As predicted, opportunities for chats with new people this week have been few, if you don’t count knowing glances shared between people wearing masks in the street even though they’re only mandated indoors. To make matters worse, grandfatherly duty was cancelled because Ruby had been contact-traced and was in isolation. But there have been some chats.

  1. Sunday 27 June: we have new neighbours in one of the two other flats that opens onto our small landing. They’ve been here a week or so, but today for the first tine we both emerged onto the landing at the same time. We swapped names; I made a point of asking the name of the little boy who was enjoying the challenge of the stairs. They’ve only been in Australia for a couple of weeks. I expressed mild surprise that they had been allowed into the country but not, I hope, in a way that suggested disapproval. I said ‘Welcome’ more times than was cool, and practised a little Portuguese (‘Bom dia‘ to be precise).
  2. Monday, I had a bone density test at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. The wonderful nurse who did the test said that as it didn’t count as essential my appointment would have been cancelled, but the latest lockdown announcement was made on the weekend, and I was first cab off the rank on Monday morning so turned up before they could tell me not to come. When she introduced herself it was by a first name that differed from the one on her name tag: the tag name indicated complex non-Anglo heritage; the other, as she explained, was given to her in Year 5 at school and she embraced it as straight-up Aussie. She told me bits of her family story, and generally filled the clinical visit with human interaction.
  3. Tuesday afternoon, visiting the new Harry Hartog bookshop in Marrickville Metro, I asked the shop assistant about her name tag, which gave her pronouns (yes, this is the 2020s), her unofficial pastime (I won’t tell you the actual pastime, but let’s say it could have been ‘House sharer’), and the kinds of books she’s interested in. This led to a wide ranging conversation about the bookshop, the amount of attention lavished on decor (it shows, and it works), the special islands of imported remainders. After quite a while, in which the Emerging Artist and I bought a number of books, I realised that I’d read and remembered everything from her name tag except her actual name. We swapped names before the EA and I went on our way.
  4. Tuesday, a couple of seconds later, I had a brief but similarly amiable conversation with the other shop assistant who, in spite of having a beautifully embroidered moustache on her mask, also nominated her pronouns as ‘she/her’. The EA says these young women probably saw me as a needy and garrulous old white man. I choose to believe otherwise.
  5. Wednesday evening, I was putting our recycling into the communal bins to the accompaniment of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens chatting on about laughter. As I was moving huge chunks of styrofoam from a recycling bin to a landfill bin, another inhabitant of our complex came into the room. I turned the podcast off, we introduced ourselves and had the kind of awkward yet almost-intimate conversation you can only have when both people have their hands full of garbage.
  6. Thursday, for at least the hundredth time, I walked past a black plastic fishpond in one of the tiny front yards on a busy street near my place. I often take a moment to enjoy the big healthy golden fish, who provide a splash of colour and elegance in the otherwise fairly dreary street. This day, a man was sitting in the afternoon sun and reading in a cane chair on the front veranda. I stopped to say g’day and say how much pleasure his fish gave me. I mentioned that we have a smaller pond on our balcony, with much smaller fish. ‘They’ll grow,’ he said.
  7. Saturday, on an exercise break in the alarmingly busy Sydney Park, where many people were masked and most were kind of keeping their distance, we passed a family group who were collectively training a puppy. ‘Sit … sit … sit,’ the woman said as she and the rest of the group moved away from the anxious but stationary puppy. I made an admiring exclamation as I passed, and the spell was broken: the puppy bolted to its human. Much merriment all round.

Running total is 191.

Brown and Leos-Urbel on Anti-Semitism

Cherie R Brown & Amy Leos-Urbel, Anti-Semitism: Why Is It Everyone’s Concern? ( 2018)

I wasn’t intending blog about this little book. Its publisher is identified only as the US-based project Jews and Allies: United to End Anti-Semitism, and it has something of an in-house feel: that is, it reads as if it’s intended for readers who are already engaged with the project or are considering engaging with it, a kind of summary of its theoretical base.

Then I listened to ‘Why does anti-semitism cut across the political spectrum?‘, an episode of Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens’s thinkfest podcast The Minefield, and realised that the pamphlet talks with remarkable clarity about things that felt like unresolved paradoxes in the podcast.

The Minefield‘s guest was Deborah Lipstadt, the woman who took on Holocaust-denier David Irving in real life and was the main character in the Mick Jackson–David Hare movie Denial. Deborah laid out longstanding distinguishing features of anti-semitism – of the stereotyping of Jews: it has to do with money (the myth that all Jews are rich), power (the belief that somehow Jews wield enormous behind-the-scenes power), intelligence (as in wiliness). Unlike most other oppressed groups, Jews don’t escape being targeted by achieving social status and wealth: anti-semitism is generally imagined by the perpetrators as ‘punching up’.

This booklet offers an interesting insight into this phenomenon, by describing anti-semitism as cyclical in nature. Here’s the description of how the cycle has worked historically:

Living as a minority without a homeland for nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people had to rely on the good will of rulers in each country where they settled. In exchange for a promise of protection for the Jewish community, a few Jews would serve as money lenders, tax collectors or other pubic officials. The majority of Jews who settled in each country remained as impoverished as the general population. Jews were also prohibited from owning land and barred from joining craft guilds, which would have allowed them to integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours.

When the people of the area were ready to resist the oppressive conditions of their lives, they were encouraged to direct their hatred and resentment at the Jewish community – rather than at their actual oppressors, the ruling classes. […] After the violence subsided, the surviving remnants of the Jewish community would be ‘apologised to’ officially in the original country or welcomed in new places of exile as martyrs. They would be given some assistance to rebuild their communities, and once again a few Jews would be encouraged to assume the same roles in relation to the rulers. […] In exchange, the whole Jewish community would be given temporary protection, and the cycle of toleration followed by attack would begin again.

(pp 3–4)

In the part of the cycle when Jews look safe and some are in position of apparent power, explicit anti-semitism bubbles away in the margins, or is limited to dog-whistling. And so it’s often invisible or denied – and Jews get to be seen, sometimes even by themselves, as over-sensitive, paranoid, etc. And some are in fact set up to be the visible agents of oppression. (I’d just written that sentence when I turned on the television to see Josh Frydenberg uttering half-truths in his federal budget speech.)

This scapegoating mechanism is used by both right- and left-wingers. The booklet answers the question in its title by arguing, with evidence, that anti-semitism is regularly used to divide progressive movements.

There’s a lot more in the book. I got my copy through a chain of personal contacts. The imprint page gives an address for more information, and I assume copies for sale, as ircc@rc.org.

David, Kevin, Rage. So?

David Marr, Power Trip: The political journey of Kevin Rudd (Quarterly Essay 38)

In Quarterly Essay 36, Mungo MacCallum explored the miasma of myth and collective emotion that, he argued, accounted for Kevin Rudd’s popularity. Rudd’s recent plummet in the polls suggests that the popularity may actually have been based on more concrete factors, such as his promising stand on global warming, but the essay was a good read nonetheless. Two issues further on, the series once again addresses (I nearly said ‘attacks’) the Rudd phenomenon. David Marr asks not what we see in Rudd, what we hope of him, what he stands for, not centrally whether his leadership is effective or his policies correct, but ‘Who is he?’ It’s a fair enough question. There is something oddly impersonal in his media persona, a sense not so much that he’s hiding something as that he doesn’t know how to show himself. There have been baffling moments, especially his odd, televised disregard for Kristina Keneally.

The question is fair enough, but I’m not sure the answer gets us anywhere much. A cruel short version would be: ‘Kevin Rudd yelled at me when I told him he was an all round disappointment, so now I know that rage is at his core.’ David Marr writes well, and he marshalls biographical facts into a coherent story, sifting through the hostile and hagiographic scuttlebuck alike, for which much thanks. But in the end, the essay is unsatisfying. His strategy of beginning with Rudd’s use of expletives about the Chinese at Copenhagen and ending with a moment when Rudd sets his diplomat’s blandness aside and tears strips of the writer (in private, quietly, in response to provocation) may be structurally satisfying, but the conclusion that anger is Rudd’s ‘juice in the machine’ is a wee bit tenuous. Perhaps I identify with Rudd, as a mostly mild-mannered Catholic man from rural Queensland who uses four-letter words and gets cranky when personally attacked. I imagine David Marr himself swears occasionally and has the odd tantrum – at least I hope he does for the sake of his mental equilibrium.

Tellingly, Kevin Rudd’s response, as reported by the ABC,  was a verbal shrug: ‘Commentators, writers, analysts – they will draw their own conclusions.’

But a distinctive feature of the Quarterly Essay series is that it promotes discussion. No doubt all manner of responses will be aired in Nº 39. Here, the title essay accounts for roughly two thirds of the book, leaving the remaining 40 odd pages to discussion of Waleed Aly’s essay last quarter on conservatism. As a first, a number of voices from the neo-right have appear in these pages, many of them doing their usual polemic attack on straw men. Jean Curthoys (not from the right) suggests that Aly really needs a dose of social democracy. Martin Krygier’s piece makes me decide that if I ever make him cross I’d better lay low. And Aly responds to all comers with precision, grace and – in one or two cases undeserved – respect.

Waleed Aly on conservatism

Waleed Aly, What’s Right: The future of conservatism in Australia (Quarterly Essay 37)

In the 1950s my parents subscribed to The Saturday Evening Post. I habitually started reading it from the back, because there were no cartoons in the front half. There are no cartoons at all in Quarterly Essay, but I usually start up the back here too, because that’s where I find responses to the previous issue, in this case 30 pages about Mungo MacCallum’s essay on Kevin Rudd, Australian Story. Katharine Murphy, national affairs correspondent for the Age, wins the Me Fail I Fly ‘I Wish I’d Said That’ Award for this:

The problem with Mungo is you can’t read anything he writes without feeling the need to agree with it on the spot, and wish you’d written it yourself. Reading Mungo is like resisting the pull of a great seducer.

That’s so much more grown-up and articulate than my own post-reading ‘Hmmm … But I enjoyed the ride.‘ Indeed the opening sentence of Mungo’s response to the correspondence does command assent:

The most interesting thing about all the correspondence my essay has provoked is the hugely different ways in which different people see Kevin Rudd.

[Editor Chris Feik and his Board apparently agree that the multiplicity of views on Kevin is interesting: QE 38 promises to give us yet another essay on the man, this time by David Marr.]

He then goes on to characterise each of the respondents: one ‘presents the standard view from the Right’, another is ‘a Labor insider’, a third speaks ‘from his position on the ideological Left’. This mode of analysis is fortuitously held up to a harsh light on page 1 of Waleed Aly’s essay, which of course I read after Mungo’s page 140. According to Aly, the terms Left and Right, ‘in spite of their ubiquity … are utterly meaningless and should be abandoned by anyone interested in having a substantial political conversation.’ The great seducer interrupted in flagrante?

Waleed Aly’s rejection of Left and Right as terms for political debate is not of course in response to Mungo MacCallum’s use of them. As he says:

For a long time I have been intrigued by the fact that I find myself in agreement with much conservative political philosophy, yet in consistent disagreement with politicians and commentators who call themselves conservatives.

The essay sets out to reclaim the ground currently occupied, one might say infested, though Waleed Ly is far too polite and reasonable to put it like that, by  neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. These politicians and commentators, he argues, have moved a long way from the conservative philosophy first articulated by Burke, and are in fact progressives in the sense that they are committed to moving towards an ideal world, albeit one from which most people who actually think of themselves as progressives would recoil in horror. I won’t try to summarise the argument. Much of it might be either glaringly obvious or obviously specious to anyone who has studied political philosophy, but to the general reader (that’s me!) it’s an education, and a pleasurable one.

Aly does a job in this essay that has needed doing for some time. He exposes the contradictions and fallacies in the utterances of the likes of John Howard, Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin or Kevin Andrews, but from a conservative perspective. He hoists them, as it were, on what they claim to be their own petard. ‘The conservative, ‘ he writes for example,

would certainly not run immigration at record levels (as the Howard government did) and then lecture its migrant population on what their values should be. That is especially true when it is done pursuant to a neo-liberal plan, where individuals are encouraged to use their mobility for entrepreneurial reasons, not cultural ones. The conservative takes the world as it is, not as she or he wishes it to be. And it is a world in which pluralisms in culture, politics and identity within a society are an inescapable and irreversible fact of life.

After taking his scalpel to the neo’s on multiculturalism, he moves on to the climate change ‘debate’, which he describes as ‘a fight to the political death’:

Of course, it is possible that climate-change activists are motivated more by their ideological commitments than by their trust in the scientific consensus. It is conceivable that staunch opponents of capitalism may leap on the opportunity climate change provides to argue for the destruction of the market’s political dominance. But it is also conceivable – and probably much more common – for climate-change believers to take their position based on trust in what they perceive to be conventional wisdom. Climate-change denialism on the part of non-scientists, by contrast, is always an ideological or an emotional process. The intellectual lengths required to sustain it are only feasible for those who have pre-existing reasons for wanting to deny it. That may be because its implications are devastating for one’s present livelihood – as might presently be true of certain farmers, or people working in high-emissions industries – in which case the response is probably emotional. Or it might be because it counters one’s deeply held views of the world, in which case the response is ideological.  … The simple fact is that neo-liberalism is incompatible with the politics of climate-change response. In order for neo-liberalism to be preserved, climate change must, in the first instance, be denied.

As you see, Waleed Aly is not a great seducer. He’s not out to win our assent by charm, or standover tactics, or appeals to team loyalty. On the contrary, he invites us to think with him.

It’s a quick read – just 105 pages. I recommend it.

Added on 30 March: Irfan Yusuf has an excellent review of this Quarterly Essay on New Matilda.