Labels have power. They shape the way we know the world. They allow people to see actions with greater clarity or distort our understanding to make things unrecognisable.
When war involves “collateral damage,” the label strips the incident of shredded flesh and wailing orphans. By labelling the near elimination of abortion access a Pro Life position, conservatives elide the dramatic and deadly impact on lives caused by the denial of reproductive justice. Calling it a “state sanctioned forced birth” position recasts the nature of women’s experience in Republican America.
When Scott Morrison demanded that refugees exercising their legal right to seek asylum were relabelled “illegal maritime arrivals,” it became easier to persecute people fleeing hell without public horror.
By depicting welfare recipients as fraudsters, Alan Tudge escalated the war on those who experience periods of struggle. And Robodebt showed how labels can even hide things from us. The Saturday Paper’s special podcast series “Inside Robodebt” illustrates that one of the key factors delayed recognition of the scandal emerging is that the illegal debt averaging process didn’t have a name.
“Inside Robodebt” also highlights that it was not journalists, by and large, who detected the program’s criminal disgrace. It was a loose group including a lecturer and Twitter commentators. No wonder the Coalition’s friends love to apply disparaging labels to their Twitter critics, conflating commentators’ valid critiques of a scandalous decade with the troll army’s vile bullying.
Right wing politicians and commentators have an additional label in their arsenal at the moment to discredit every person or idea that doesn’t suit their agenda. By calling something “woke,” it ceases to be a matter of morality or compassion or sound policy or good manners. It becomes something – or someone – to be derided and despised.
We deny ourselves the ability to choose our present circumstances and shape our future if we allow the lazy application of labels.
Mainstream journalists were supine in their acceptance and repetition of the politicians’ disgraceful mislabelling of vulnerable people during the Coalition decade. The public absorbed the idea that people could be “illegal,” that fake debts made ordinary Australians into criminals. Sometimes journalists were rushed and forced to fill pages with tweaked press releases. Sometimes, however, journalists were cynics ensuring access and front page leaks by playing the politicians’ games.
The most likely news source to counter the government’s narrative was the ABC, but that has been abused largely into complicity. Any ABC efforts to challenge and expose malfeasance continues to be discredited by the wholesale framing of the organisation as “woke” or “socialist” by the Coalition and the corporate media. Any exposé coming from it is thus made irrelevant.
Some on the Labor side had accepted the Coalition’s labels as valid and echoed the framing. Others gave up trying to frame the debate more accurately and tried to fight the battle along lines drawn up by the power players of the narrative.
Journalists have been the gatekeepers by which we understand the civic space. Their lazy acceptance of labels helps perpetuate distortions that damage individuals and society. We need journalists who understand that they share the blame with politicians and public servants for making the Coalition’s decade of shame possible. Without critical thinking skills, journalists betray the muckraking and investigative stars of their profession’s history; otherwise they can be much better paid as the spin doctors many seem content to ape.
The news media has struggled to describe the events of this era. Part of the problem is that they fail to appreciate the degree to which the Right is radicalising, bogged down in normalcy bias. Part is that the news sector bends excessively towards being balanced between positions: when the Right’s position is so extreme that to describe it aptly sounds like a judgement, the decision-makers struggle to cope with the new reality.
We need to understand our political labels at a moment when the Right is embracing ever more oppressive political ploys internationally. Robert Reich noted that American newspapers are finally beginning to label presidential contender Trump’s messaging as “authoritarian.” He spells out clearly, however, that it is technically better understood as “fascist.” Trump’s Republican Party is a ghoulish parody of its grand old past.
None of this is accidental. The cynical Americanised ultra free market Right does not believe in government’s role. It is funded and galvanised by the needs of the plutocrats: low tax and ever fewer protections – labelled “regulation”- to stifle their ultimate freedom to exploit. The same kind of cynicism has driven the Right in America to fight, since the Civil Rights era, to reverse the progress that withdrew the barriers to equality for persecuted and disempowered groups. The strategies to undo America’s democratic structures have been in construction at least as long.
Much of the plutocrats’ Dark Money has gone to strategists and spin doctors. The same ethics-free intent to achieve their goals at any cost pervades their political representatives. Robodebt’s egregious fraud perpetrated against citizens is the most striking Australian example; media advisor Rachelle Miller has revealed Alan Tudge’s spin strategies. When Scott Morrison took over immigration, he employed 66 spin doctors compared to PM Tony Abbott’s 39: “on water” secrecy and propaganda was costing us $8 million a year.
Journalists have been far too ready not to question their role in spreading this strategic toxic spin. In fact, they use that spread as the basis for further stories about artificial “controversies.”
Structural politics is illustrative of these orchestrated drifts. It only takes a brief look at the names of Australia’s two major parties to see how political labels can ossify, representing the history rather than the ideology of a party. Labor does not represent the labour movement that was its original constituency. The Liberal Party is not liberal, but neither is it conservative. The Liberal politicians who merited those labels have largely left in disgust at what the party has become. The rump is a radicalised Right mimicking the extremists dominating the Republican Party.
Parties represent a loose coalition of ideologies and goals aiming to contain personalities, priorities and the tactical decisions that might achieve them. Since John Howard’s era, Australians have seen how much these can change a party. Dragging the label “conservative” with them, the Right now depicts centrist policy as “woke” and “socialist” in a long Americanisation of the more worker-friendly Australian social contract.
The linear continuum by which we have attempted to understand our politics – from Left to Right – has always been an artificial construct too.
The rightly contested horseshoe theory shallowly suggests that the political extremes of communism and fascism are closer to each other than to liberalism. Kathleen Belew replaces that with the metaphor of a circle. She described the “crunchy to alt-right pipeline” where, since the 1970s, hippies and white supremacists bonded over such anti-government fights as the fluoridation of water.
The Red Brown alliance is a late soviet description of a much older phenomenon – the rough cooperation of communists and fascists in joint, nationalist loathing of liberal elites. Third Reich Nazis were often both “green” and yoga lovers.
These connections do not reflect true sympathies, but they do underscore the fact that we all have different concerns activated at key moments.
In the era of permacrisis, however, even the old approximations are crumbling.
Over covid, the far right exercised its usual cunning in coopting the conspiracy theorists emerging around an internet joke: QAnon. It also drew on the deep resentment that came from policies poorly explained or executed that harmed the precariat while the billionaires reaped massive profit. Belew’s “crunchies” (hippies) were absorbed over again into the White supremacist sphere in their antagonism to Big Pharma and a fear of government’s oppressive tendencies. In Australia, our Pastel QAnon yoga influencers and antivaxx mums joined the far right in their Convoy to Canberra in a complicated conspiracy smoothie.
QAnon has now seeped into the radicalised right space intermingled with Pentecostal cultish beliefs. These underly the application of the term “groomer” to anyone defending LGBTQIA+ existence on social media as a side note to the exterminationist rhetoric.
Online, influential men considered to be of the Left drifted towards the Right, often driven by resentment towards the age of consequences, more commonly labelled Cancel Culture. Their preeminence as mostly White men has been challenged by the demands that they share the microphone with minority voices. Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, for example, suddenly started finding a better home on Fox News than subversive left-leaning platforms. The dirtbag Left and the Alt-Right (a label meant to elide the movement’s white supremacist core) share an ironic and provocative aesthetic that has helped draw these figures together in shared disdain for the prissy judgement of the bougie “woke.”
Younger American “conservatives” – many of them on the lucrative gravy train where Dark Money donations fund their early career – have turned old Soviet Nazbol politics into the new Nat Con movement. National Conservatism feigns support for the battler in a way that looks vaguely leftist while continuing the persecution of the most vulnerable combined with a “traditionalist” persecution of minorities for “patriotic” redemption. These elite youth frame an anti-American “elite” as an existential threat: their prestigious university education is not the same as the university education that they define as “woke” poison.
Presidential contender Robert Kennedy uses similar faux-egalitarian talking points to signal himself as meriting the destiny of a “Kennedy” while actively working with his tech bro plutocrat funders and spreading disinformation, labelling it “free speech.” He has now said that the Covid19 virus was ethnically targeted to protect Jewish and Chinese people.
These shifts in allegiance make pinning down “Left” or “Right,” “centrist” or “conservative” outrageously challenging. Journalists of integrity can be forgiven for missing the seriousness of the trajectory.
Such mislabelling normalises the dragging of “conservative” politics ever further towards fascist politics; it serves the far right by presenting their grotesque policies as a facet of business as usual rather than a radical change. Ignoring the trajectory outside their information bubble meant that most Americans missed the indicators leading to insurrectionist attack on the Capitol on 6 Jan 2021. Normalcy bias means journalists continued to quote Republican politicians reframing it as a normal tourist visit.
Climate scientists have struggled for decades to frame their messaging of the looming – potentially existential – crisis. Scientific communication that always conveys the possibility of new discoveries has been exaggerated to imply doubt about predictions. The profession of creating doubt to prevent regulation of industry was deployed by tobacco sector: the same strategies, and even the same people, translated into the fossil fuel sector’s destruction of our sense of a shared knowledge base.
At the end of the Obama era, those watching knew how fragile America’s democratic structure was, but few imagined the brink towards which the Republican Party could drive their nation in a single presidential term. It took one shameless conman to achieve it.
Australia is at risk of the Coalition finding that charismatic conman who will allow it to destroy the reign of the despised “woke” urban electorates. Just as so much of their agenda and strategy is defined by the Republican machine, their policy will likely come after the rights and freedoms that their mentors are destroying in the USA.
If journalists can’t label the moment in its true seriousness, we can’t expect the distracted public to recognise it.
A much shorter version of this was published in Pearls and Irritations as An American system of “state sanctioned forced births”?
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