Tom Switzer : Man of Letters

Having already discussed Tom ‘Man of the People‘ Switzer’s stellar performance on Q&A, it’s time to examine his contributions to Australian public discourse as a Man of Letters.

To begin with, of his years spent toiling away for the neo-conservative (read: statist-reactionary) American Enterprise Institute and the Australian Financial Review, there appear to be few traces online. He did, however, write a book review of Tripwire: Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (Doug Bandow) for the AEI zine (January 2000), as well as one of The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress (Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross). Beyond this, it seems, he was mostly of notice once he’d left their corporate bosom and returned to Australia — whereupon he could be quoted singing the praises of his, and their, hero.

Of his sojourn at the AFR, the most notorious of his writings has already been referred to: “FOOTNOTE With friends like the Palestinians, who needs enemies?”, December 23, 1998. According to Tom, having surveyed the previous week’s events in the Middle East — US President Bill Clinton’s holiday in Gaza, followed by his lying authorisation of missile attacks upon Iraq (aka ‘Operation Desert Fox’) — “it would appear that the Palestinians remain vicious thugs who show no serious willingness to comply with agreements”. Tom’s ‘argument’, such as it was, is as follows:

At the beginning of the week, President Bill Clinton went to Palestinian-controlled Gaza where he gave an impassioned speech on the plight of the locals. The Palestinians responded by unashamedly embracing the US leader and rejecting passages in their charter calling for Israel’s destruction. Three days later, Mr Clinton launched US strikes to obliterate military installations in Iraq. To which the Palestinians responded: “Death to Clinton” and “Death to America” while burning American and Israeli flags. The moral of this story is simply this: the Palestinians cannot be trusted in the peace process.

And what a story.

Operation Desert Fox

Four years after Bill’s foxy operation in the desert, Robert Fisk (‘Bush Wants War Not Justice’, ZNet, September 18, 2002) wrote:

Major Scott Ritter, Iraq’s nemesis-turned-saviour, was indeed – as an inspector – regularly travelling to Tel Aviv to consult Israeli intelligence. Then Saddam accused the UN inspectors of working for the CIA. And he was right. The United States, it emerged, was using the UN’s Baghdad offices to bug Iraq’s government communications. And once the inspectors were withdrawn in 1998 and the US and Britain launched “Operation Desert Fox”, it turned out that virtually every one of the bombing targets had been visited by UN inspectors over the previous six months. Far from being an inspectorate, the UN lads – though they didn’t all know it – had been acting as forward air controllers, drawing up an American hit list rather than monitoring compliance with UN resolutions.

By Tom’s standards, one might reasonably conclude that United States citizens remain vicious thugs who show no serious willingness to comply with agreements. In any case, Tom’s twitterings were held to be in breach of New South Wales racial vilification laws.

And from the AFR, Tom progressed to The Australian.

Operation Restore Hope in Australian Journalism

In a column published on March 5, 2008, Janet Albrechtsen wrote:

IT is only a slight exaggeration to say opinion writing in the Australian press has two eras: BT and AT. Before Tom. And after Tom. The dividing line is October 2001, when Tom Switzer commenced as editor of The Australian’s opinion page. Switzer departed last week, but one hopes that the AT legacy will continue…

High praise indeed.

(Note that prior to this Janet expressed her approval of Tom’s vilification of the Palestinians in her column of January 18, 2008, when she noted that “the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal upheld a complaint against The Australian‘s opinion page editor, Tom Switzer, for saying perfectly accurately, if somewhat colourfully, in 1998 that the Palestinians were “vicious thugs” who were derailing the peace process.” In her considered opinion, Tom’s case — to be precise, Ali Kazak’s complaint of racial vilification — is a good example of how “the little guys [get] put through the human rights commission wringer”, further noting that “Failing to complain about the quotidian incidences of oppression by human rights bodies only encourages the egregious examples to occur”. One wonders who else she believes might run afoul of their oppressive practices.)

So: what did Tom do during his seven-year (2001–2008) reign? For one thing, Tom solicited opinions from others. First, some context.

Guy Rundle (‘Power Intellectuals in the Howard Era’, arena magazine, No.91, Oct–Nov 2007:

In the 1970s, the Whitlam Government had been able to institute a range of social policies that some of its working-class supporters would have seen as either wacky or irrelevant because the main game was economic equality and political power for permanent irreversible change. In the 1990s, the message that the economy was largely out of the government’s hands served to focus many frustrations on the residual cultural power of the ‘elites’, to be presented over the next years as the source of all the country’s woes. This proceeded in essentially the same manner as it did with the rise of right-wing populist movements in the 1890s — a group of journalists, bookish politicians, think tank writers and a few others, all of whose lives, networks and living habits were essentially part of the way of life they were describing, constructed themselves as the unmediated voice of the people, channelling its general will. For those in the know, this was often comic — there was something ridiculous about an old Push-anarchist [sic] like Paddy McGuinness, a gay Maoist such as Christopher Pearson, and an erratic serial enthusiast like Keith Windschuttle presenting themselves in opposition to a ‘cultural elite’. One wondered at times what sort of naked horror they would be greeted with if they turned up en masse at the suburban barbeques they were so keen on celebrating. The use of the ‘elite’ tag reached its apogee around the time of the Tampa refugee crisis, September 11, the sequestration of David Hicks and, to a lesser degree, the publication and puffing of Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. Compared to the vicious and often lethal populism of the first decades of the twentieth century it was light enough stuff, but it was essentially of the same form — a small group of deracinated types wanting of patriotic feeling and alienated from everyday life had set themselves in opposition to commonsense and self-evident values. Much of the sharpening of this ‘debate’ was done by Tom Switzer, the op-ed editor of The Australian, who had transformed the page into one similar to The Wall Street Journal‘s and, paradoxically, had often early on hammered home the theme of deracinated unAustralianness with extensive reprintings from US newspapers and journals…

Questions of foreign intervention could then be put not in terms of Australia’s interests as a geographically Asian country, but as a junior partner in the advancement of the grand project of the West. Questions of social policy would be put not in the terms of a mixed-economy, developed over decades, but in the American free market framework of choice and freedom versus constraint and coercion. A complicated pantomime would develop whereby a right-wing think tank would produce a report which would be trailed in the News Ltd pages and then be noticed as a good idea by the government which would then commission the think tank to flesh it out, and on it would go. This process was essentially a simulation of a public sphere with the public left out, their part played by power intellectuals. Indeed the gap was so great that Murdoch did not even feel the need to disguise the process behind a fig leaf of pluralism. In recent comments he has noted that he has now been converted to the notion that climate change was an urgent problem for humanity, and that the message would be introduced into news stories in all his publications. The fact that someone can talk about ideas in this manner — as if they were vitamin B added undetectably to bread, rather than matters to be openly debated — speaks volumes about the structural cynicism of the organisation for which [Paul] Kelly [to whom Guy is responding] works. Given that the editorials of The Australian were, at the time, almost daily screeds of climate change scepticism, which have now tailed off, one can only presume that the entire editorial staff came simultaneously and separately to the same conclusion as Murdoch…

Curiously enough, this dismal conspectus was admitted explicitly by Tom Switzer, in the record of a dinner speech in the most recent Quadrant — one that in any other era would have been buried under Chatham House rules. On the theme ‘conservatives are winning the culture war’, Switzer notes that in contrast to the days when Left voices allegedly dominated opinion pages:

    Today, by contrast, the ranks of the Right have swelled to include Andrew Bolt, Piers Akerman, Gerard Henderson, Greg Sheridan, Miranda Devine, Janet Albrechtsen, Imre Salusinszky, Sandra Lee, Michael Baume, Dennis Shanahan, Terry McCrann, Michael Duffy, John Roskam, Tim Blair, Christopher Pearson, Paul Gray, Neil Mitchell, and Paul Sheehan …

And of the ABC:

    Even the ABC has shown signs of political diversity in the past decade, though conservatives not surprisingly feel betrayed by Donald McDonald. Of the long-time ABC chairman, one high-profile Liberal said:

    As far as Liberals go, the major cultural war of the last twenty years has been against the Left of the ABC. And John Howard has failed to fight it. Donald McDonald has become our equivalent of John Kerr, and John Howard should have known he’d turn on us.

In other words, the op-ed pages — presumably not subject to the referendum process — have been almost entirely stuffed with conservatives. The ABC chairman’s defence of its independence and the sacking of an incompetent general manager amount to a betrayal of the project. This, apparently, is how pluralism now works in Australia.

“How pluralism now works in Australia”; Or, “Go and fuck yourself”

In ‘If the BBC can do it, so can Aunty’ (July 16, 2007), Tom simultaneously displays his hostility to the Communist ABC, appreciation for the efforts of former Communists, and their — and his — skepticism regarding climate change: “Certainly the ABC was right to broadcast the controversial British Channel 4 documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, if only to prove to taxpayers to whom she purportedly answers that Aunty is fair and balanced about climate change.” A task for which British filmmaker Michael Durkin, producer of Swindle, is apparently well-qualified for.

Swindle was of course preceded by another, equally superb documentary called Against Nature (1997), also produced by Durkin. Like Swindle, Against Nature was ostensibly directed at introducing some hard science into the mushy rhetoric of environmentalists. Some of the flavour of Durkin’s views may be found in an interview conducted with Durkin by sp!ked, ‘Apocalypse my arse’ (February 7, 2007): ‘I wanted to call it “Apocalypse My Arse”, but in the end we decided on “The Great Global Warming Swindle”. It’s a provocative title, which helps with ratings.’

spi!ked, incidentally, is the latest incarnation of the artist formerly known as the Revolutionary Communist Party, which has spawned a truly bewildering array of front groups over the last few years. Its lider maximo is Frank Furedi. Frank was in Australia in August at the invitation of the Centre for Independent Studies to address ‘The CIS Big Ideas Forum’, 2008 — on the theme of ‘Protecting the Legacy of Freedom: The Ideas of The Enlightenment in the 21st Century’. Frank spoke alongside Ayaan Hirsi Ali, currently a Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Frank was also interviewed by Michael Duffy on ABC Radio (and prior to that, in 2004). Michael is a big fan of Frank’s, having previously described him, in the pages of The Australian in 2005, as “one of the most interesting thinkers in the humanities today”. Presumably, Durkin is “one of the most interesting thinkers in the natural sciences today”. Of course, as well as being a most interesting thinker, close colleague of the barmy army at sp!ked, and a filmmaker, Durkin is also a writer. In an email to Simon Singh who questioned some of the science in Swindle, Durkin responded: “Why have we not heard [contrary facts] in the hours and hours of shit programming on global warming shoved down our throats by the BBC? Never mind an irresponsible bit of film-making. Go and fuck yourself.”

Opinions are like arseholes

Along with his embrace of Swindle, on the first anniversary of the Civil Uprising in Cronulla, Tom explained why ‘Beach violence not a symptom of rampant racism’ (December 11, 2006). Apart from the usual blandishments about Orstralia being all right really, Tom avowed that the media was innocent of all charges (it was recalcitrant Muslims wot done it). According to Tom:

Another charge that has gained currency in recent times is that the media, in its general coverage of Muslim-related issues, has ignited “racism and religious bigotry”. In the case of the Cronulla riots, talkback radio host Alan Jones was singled out for allegedly stoking the violence that weekend. Yet the majority of his audience is older than 40 and the rioters at Cronulla were half that age. Besides, talkback hosts are merely raising and debating a subject that has been taboo for too long: that a significant group of Muslims is much more resistant to integration into Western society than other ethnic groups. It is surely far better to discuss openly uncomfortable community concerns than letting them fester.

Multi-millionaire squawkback hack Ordinary man-on-the-street Alan Jones, for one, begged to disagree: “I’m the person that’s led this charge” he loudly proclaimed. In summary, Jones openly advocated and encouraged violent reprisals and vigilante behaviour against young men of Middle Eastern appearance. Or so concluded the NSW police investigation (as reported by Tom’s paper two months prior to the publication of his own analysis). “SYDNEY’S Cronulla race riot and subsequent reprisal attacks have catapulted Australia’s multicultural society into a new phase, a police report into the violence has found. The report, prepared by retired assistant commissioner Norm Hazzard and released today, said the beachside riot last December was fuelled by racial prejudice, alcohol and inflammatory text messages” (Police misjudged Cronulla race tension: report, The Australian, October 20, 2006).

Quadrant: “the most successful and influential magazine of ideas in Australia’s history” to have been launched by the CIA

In keeping with his role as a leading member of the neo-con cheer squad, Tom paid handsome tribute to one of its principal tribunes, Quadrant; the ‘little magazine that has left a big mark‘ on the Australian body politic. Tom and fellow neo-con Owen Harries (founding editor of The National Interest and one of Quadrant‘s editors in the 1960s, now a senior fellow at the CIS, and with a long history of service to state and corporate power) position Quadrant within a mythological history within which it “took guts” to be a ‘conservative’ social critic, and Stalin’s tanks were forever poised to roll southward on to Canberra. “In more recent times it has fought the good fights in the nation’s culture wars, combating the political correctness that has poisoned the intellectual class and, until recent years, the political establishment. Above all else, Quadrant has been a rallying point for Australian intellectuals and journalists who rejected the prevailing leftism of the times.” In short, Quadrant has been the voice of a peculiar brand of US-based neo-conservatism, based on an underlying anti-Communism.

Among its many achievements, Tom and Owen argue, are the following:

Peter Ryan’s revelations about Clark’s biases and dodgy research; Geoffrey Blainey’s and Ron Brunton’s convincing attacks of the black-armband view of history; Robert Manne’s exposure of Wilfred Burchett as a Soviet agent; Keith Windschuttle’s forensic dissection of the historical fabrications of Aboriginal massacres; Gerard Henderson’s (and a 29-year-old Peter Costello’s) attacks on the old industrial relations club, which helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the recent labour market reforms; the work of Lauchlan Chipman, Leonie Kramer and others on education; Dyson Heydon’s critique of judicial activism that many say helped secure him a position in today’s High Court: these and others have had a substantial national impact. And, thanks to the work of McAuley, Vivian Smith and Les Murray, the magazine has made a huge contribution to the promotion of Australian poetry…

Exposing ‘Communist tyranny’ (and its intellectual apologists), whitewashing Australian history, attacking trades unionism and ‘progressive’ judiciaries, espousing neo-liberal economic theory and publishing poetry, in other words. Further, and as a result of the efforts of this intellectual colossus, “Today, few seriously mouth platitudes about apologies, treaties and separatism. Instead John Howard’s (and Quadrant‘s) language of integration and practical reconciliation prevails.” “High praise for a little magazine”, indeed, but — in the manner of Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of ‘The End of History’ (published in The National Interest of Summer 1989) — slightly presumptuous, might I suggest.

The Last Hurrah?

One of Tom’s final hurrahs came after he left The Australian to become a political adviser to former Tory party leader Brendan Nelson. Fellow yuppie Christian Kerr (formerly with Crikey!, and prior to that also a Tory political adviser) wrote rather scathingly that:

There is intense anger in the Opposition over an article that appeared in The Australian‘s opinion pages on July 11 under Nelson’s name, written by his foreign affairs and trade adviser, Tom Switzer, and approved by his chief of staff, Peter Hendy. Switzer left his job as editor of The Australian‘s opinion page to join Nelson’s team. “It’s not his area of expertise. He’s the new kid on the block. He hasn’t worked in a political office,” a senior staffer complained. “I’ve always liked Tom but never thought he had any political judgment,” the conservative warrior said. “That’s why I was surprised he’d jumped ship. He’s incredibly politically naive. He’s a typical think-tank type. They have their own beliefs, oblivious to the fact that 90 per cent of the population doesn’t understand them or disagrees.”

Which is a puzzling remark: Tom not in tune with the needs, desires, interests and perspectives of Joe Six, the Little Aussie Battler on Struggle Street?

Oh wait

See also : Spectator to launch Australian edition, Ben Dowell, guardian.co.uk, October 1, 2008 (“The launch issue will see contributions from the former opinion editor of The Australian newspaper, Tom Switzer.”) | Clive Hamilton, ‘The Australian, Free Speech and Hypocrisy’, newmatilda.com, June 15, 2007 | Alan Knight, ‘The taking of the ABC’, Friends of the ABC, [no date] | Robert Manne, ‘Murdoch’s War’, The Monthly, No.3, July 2005

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2020 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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