Howard’s South Park pals
Young voters have flocked to the Prime Minister as the good times continue to roll, writes Caroline Overington
February 27, 2006
This is bullshit. So is this: “Before John Howard, the notion that young people leaned to the left was largely unchallenged…”
You see, I was a young person “before John Howard”. (And hey, I know it’s been ten years, but before that whiny little accountant took over, remember that ‘we’ had thirteen years of Hawke-Keating rule!) And the funny thing is, throughout that period I received the exact same message from media outlets: ‘young people’ are politically apathetic. The lesson? That if you’re young, and you want to change society, you’re in a tiny, marginalised, minority.
And that’s Overington’s basic — and quite crude — message; one apparently gleaned from reading the entrails of previous federal elections (a comparative analysis of the elections of 1972 and 2004 in particular). A highly tendentious argument, to say the least. To begin with, if young people have stopped voting for Labor as frequently as they did in the past, this does not, in and of itself, constitute evidence of any radical shift in political perspective. Secondly, the ‘irony’ — a technical term generally denoting the surprise liberals feel when the obvious cynicism of the authorities is exposed, again — is that Howard’s policies have been largely antagonistic to the interests of young people. Despite this, Overington feels comfortable declaring that: “…Howard has, over the past 10 years, been utterly transformed in the eyes of the young. To the horror of many baby boomers, Howard’s new constituency, the “young fogies”, adore him the way their parents loved to smoke dope.”
And so on, one fatuous observation after another, each intended to reinforce in the reader’s mind the idea that the image middle-aged neo-cons have of young people is not merely the product of their own phantastic projections but one solidly based in reality. Further, it’s an image of ‘young people’ that relies on a very limited conception of what constitutes ‘politics’ and, moreover, completely fails to acknowledge the existence of inter-generational political community.
Top Ten Reasons to Reject Overington’s Analysis
The evidence Overington provides to support her thesis ‘that young Australians worship HoWARd the way their parents once loved to smoke dope’ is flimsy, not only because of its overall scarcity, but also because of the interpretation she gives it (although ‘spin’ is a more accurate term than interpretation). A failure to acknowledge counter-evidence, to clarify terms, and an over-reliance on the views of non-‘experts’ is not the main flaw in her argument, however, which in reality is responding to a much narrower question: ‘Why don’t young people vote ALP as much as they used to?’ Having deserted Labor in the 2001 election:
In October 2004 — the election that would give the Coalition historic control of both chambers — the “young fogies” of generations X and Y again deserted Labor. Clive Bean of the Queensland University of Technology, one of the principal investigators in the Australian Election Study of voting behaviour conducted after each poll, told The Australian in 2005 that it might have been the first time more young people voted Liberal than Labor…
Especially young men between the ages of 25-30, 62% of whom, according to the survey, voted Liberal. As political philosopher Bart Simpson puts it: “We need another Vietnam to thin out their ranks a little.”
1) South Park “Conservatives”
“I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals.” — Matt Stone
The rise of conservative youth under Howard mirrors a similar movement in the US, where blogger Andrew Sullivan coined the term “South Park Republicans” in 2001 to describe young iconoclasts who “see through the cant and the piety of the Left and cannot help giggling”. The term comes from the anti-establishment television cartoon series South Park whose heroes are four, foul-mouthed fourth-graders who gleefully lampoon the sacred values of the Left.
In his US bestseller South Park Conservatives, Brian C. Anderson says the program is “the number-one example of the new anti-liberalism”. He notes that the show’s single black person is called Token. Anderson describes how the show lampoons the boomers, who championed individual happiness over familial responsibility and promoted no-fault divorce.
Well fuck me. Has Overington actually watched a single episode of South Park? (Even chill’un know that it’s Chef, not ‘Token’.) Like, whatever. The point is: Anderson’s book, like many others by ostensible ‘conservatives’ [sic], is in reality a corporate-sponsored sideshow; an ineptly constructed broadside from a neoconservative institution that was interrogated at the time of its launch in the US and declared to be, in the end, a damp squib.
An obvious question occurs to me at this point, which is: Why take such fucking obvious boosterism seriously? Well, according to Overington “In Australia recent studies have shown Australian young people reacting against the liberal-progressive values of their parents in much the same way.”
2) The World According to Clemenger BBDO
Clemenger BBDO’s 2005 survey Tomorrow’s Parents Today found that young people were significantly more conservative than their parents. They were more likely to volunteer, to give to charity and to go to church. They were also more likely to marry, and there is already evidence that they plan to have their children earlier.
That’s what Overington reckons. But as Nigel Bowen points out: “There is only one problem. It’s not true. Not that anyone’s about to let reality get in the way of a good myth.” Indeed.
3) Ian Has An Opinion
Ian Manning of National Economics: “You do get the feeling that forgoing worldly ambition for the sake of having kids is gradually coming back into favour. In the past, people have said, ‘Oh, I can’t have a baby yet, I’ve got to pursue my career’. But maybe it’s become socially acceptable to say, ‘No, I’d rather have a family’.”
Feelings… nothing more than… feelings… and not much thought. Thus the reader is presumably expected to take the conflict young people naturally feel regarding their financial situation versus their desire to have children as evidence of an incipient neo-conservative political revolution. A not-terribly convincing argument… but an issue which may well preoccupy the middle class audience Overington addresses in The Australian (or their parents).
4) Youth for Democracy?
The Democrats’ 2005 youth poll, based on a survey that is distributed to secondary schools, TAFE, universities, youth, and church and community groups across Australia, found that 64 per cent of students viewed family as the most important issue in their lives, ahead of health, education and money. Compared with earlier polls, there was a substantial drop in the number who had tried marijuana (from 43 to 33 per cent in 10 years) and much less support for the decriminalisation of drugs. Young people were also increasingly backing the Howard Government’s policy of mandatory detention for asylum-seekers, with support rising from 41 per cent in 2002 to 58 per cent in 2005.
Interesting. Yes, of the nine choices given respondents (between the ages of 15-20), ‘family’ came first in 64 per cent of cases. This suggests to me that young people care for their families; although it could be interpreted as meaning that young people love Howard, especially if, like Overington, one regards him as ‘the Father of the Nation’. In other news, 30, not 33, per cent of young people reported having smoked marijuana and 35 per cent of young people support its decriminalisation (a drop of one per cent since the last poll): these are mild discrepancies. However, a major distortion relates to the last figure: 60 per cent of respondents OPPOSE mandatory detention of asylum seekers; an INCREASE of 18 per cent from the last poll (2004).
Overington can’t even get the facts straight.
5) Nelson: you’ve never had it so good
You’ve never had it so good
The favourite phrase of those who’ve always had it better
You never had so much is the cry
Of those who’ve always had much more, much more than you & I
According to Overington:
Former Education Minister Brendan Nelson, who dealt [contemptuously] every day with young Australians, is not surprised. He points to some of the obvious factors: the economy has boomed under Howard; there are plenty of new jobs, especially for young people; interest rates have stayed low; school retention rates have increased; and there are more opportunities for travel. Young people, in particular, have never had it so good.
Speaking of the completely fucking obvious, is it any wonder Nelson lauds his Government to the skies? Honestly, one might as well ask an unemployed textile worker if they think that the reason production has moved offshore is ‘cos it’s more profitable.
6) Rock on Roxon, Roll Over ALP Left
Apparently, one of the main measures of political conservatism among young people is the failure of the ALP to attract young voters. (Yeah I agree: there’s a few missing premises there!) Thus Overington embarks on an analysis of the alleged flaws in the ALP’s 2004 federal election campaign. That one of the most obvious “faults” — the Victorian ALP’s preference for Family First over The Greens — is overlooked by Overington is perhaps not a surprise. Neither is her bland claim that:
While Howard has been promoting the benefits of a healthy economy, Labor has been diverted by issues such as the republic, the symbolism of Aboriginal reconciliation and opposition to the war in Iraq, which may be important to some young people but are low on their list of priorities.
Alternatively, perhaps it’s the lukewarm nature of the ALP’s support for ‘republicanism’, ‘reconciliation’ and tepid — in reality, barely existent — opposition to the war that young people find unattractive. In fact, one equally obvious explanation for a decline in the ALP’s youth vote is its fundamental commitment to neoliberalism, a commitment it shares with the Coalition, and for which there exists not the slightest hope of re-assessment, despite neoliberalism’s massive unpopularity among the Australian public. Of course, such an argument, not being ideologically serviceable, doesn’t exist in the mind of The Australian.
7) The Republic…
In 1998, after Howard decided he would not support the Yes vote in the constitutional referendum for a republic, Labor decided to embarrass him by supporting the Yes vote. It provided backing to young republican stars, such as Jason Yat-Sen Li and the lipstick princess, Poppy King, and to the movement that adopted youth oriented slogans such as Give an Australian the Head Job and which distributed condoms marked Rooting for a Republic, in the hope they would appeal to young people. In the end, only 46.5 per cent of voters voted Yes to a republic and there was scant evidence that young people backed it more firmly than others.
Where to begin? First, I’ve no idea if ALP support for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1998 referendum was prompted by Howard’s support for a ‘No’ vote; I doubt it. Secondly, the status of Li and King as ‘young republican stars’ is problematic; further, the fact that a young lawyer and a young capitalist support ‘republicanism’ [sic] is hardly likely to politically galvanise the youth… is it? In any case, anyone who bothers to make even a cursory examination of the referendum in question knows that the ‘republican’ vote was split, with one important strain rejecting the vapid model presented to the public for approval. Crucially, Howard, by controlling appointments to the farcical process known as the Constitutional Convention, helped to ensure that it was this model — one in which the Australian head of state would be appointed by Parliament rather than directly elected by the Australian people — which was presented to the Australian public.
No wonder Australian youth have fallen head-over-heels for Howard!
8) The ALP hearts the war on Iraq…
…and Overington is an appallingly bad polemicist. “Labor saw a chance to win back the young vote when Howard backed the US-led war in Iraq” opines Overington. A slight flaw in her argument is the fact that, apart from a few meaningless noises from the party’s (largely mythical) ‘rank and file’, the ALP also supports the war on Iraq! In fact, regardless of overwhelming (but useless) public opposition, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the ALP and the Coalition are reading from the same page… and the publisher’s in Washington. (Incidentally, the “[m]ore than 25,000 students [who] took part in the Books not Bombs protest[s]” did so as part of a network controlled by the DSP: hardly friends of the ALP!).
9) Where have all the people singing where have all the flowers gone gone?
According to Overington, carefully staged events such as anti-war protests by Books Not Bombs (and others) and the Sorry Day march for Aboriginal reconciliation across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in May 2000 were “aberrations to a general trend, in Australia and most other Western nations since the end of the Cold War, away from student and youth activism.” Wishful thinking on Overington’s part perhaps? Certainly no evidence is presented to support this claim; not even a reference to another right wing ideologue with whom Overington could reach smug agreement. Still, one might consider the possibility that the reason Sorry Day and anti-war protest is not dominated by young people is because sentiment against the war and for ‘reconciliation’ draws widespread support from across the political, religious and generational spectrum.
The Palm Sunday peace marches, which once were dominated by young people, are essentially dead and even protests against voluntary student unionism in 2005 attracted nothing like the crowds of protesters that once routinely gathered on university campuses.
And against which one might argue that the Palm Sunday rally has been displaced by the May Day rally; or that the ‘new’ social movements of the 1960s and 1970s have become institutionalised, and that what we are witnessing is the end of one ‘cycle of struggle’ and the beginnings of another; or that it’s the decline of the labour movement and social democratic thinking generally that has resulted in a reduction of public protest in the West; or that resistance to neoliberalism takes many different forms, and that what we are witnessing is merely the stunted recognition of such changes by ideologues…
Of course, to consider such perspectives, one probably wouldn’t want to be clouded by thoughts of love for John Howard.
Assuming her thesis regarding increased political conservatism among and reduced public protest by young people is correct, in a minor though crucial concession to (material) reality, Overington notes that “[i]n part, that’s because young people do not have time to paint slogans on to protest signs. They work an average of 20 hours a week, on top of full-time or part-time study, and they leave university with HECS debts worth $30,000 or more.” Or as Spinal Tap sang all the way back in 1965: Gimme Some Money. In other words, one of the effects of neoliberalism is not only to erode individuals’ will to struggle but also their capacity to do so. Part of this imposition is cultural. For example, the conclusion to Overington’s reactionary polemic:
Since the collapse of communism, young people are less likely to adopt the Marxist view that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. To them the fruit of capitalism is new cars, plasma TVs and trips overseas. They have grown up in an age of prosperity in which the welfare state appears redundant. A vibrant economy has emboldened young people to create small businesses of their own.
These factors have meant that Howard — straight-laced, conservative Howard — has been responsible for something that smells suspiciously like teen spirit. He has encouraged the young to rebel.
But not to think, obviously, and in that sense — as well as many others — Howard and Overington are two of a kind.
[Extract from The Howard Factor – A Decade That Changed the Nation edited by Nick Cater and published on Aboriginal land some time prior to WWIII by Melbourne University Press.]