He was different from the other older journalists as he had down-shifted to a video journalist position after having been employed in a senior managerial role at the TV station. A lanky man, with a simple enthusiasm for his craft, he let me shadow him one afternoon when he interviewed a union official about a scandal involving the local Labor Party at Newcastle, a mid-sized town south of Sydney.
White-hot sun hit the windscreen, the ocean was a striking blue, as he informally shared what he’d learnt over the years about being a journalist. One comment stayed with me and comes back to me now. Our role, he said, is to be alert to all forms of injustice, or oppression, no matter who it affects. There was no hierarchy of value in terms of stories we do, he said, and no hierarchy of victims.
Back then, I was heavily involved in activism against Australia’s immigration detention system. Regular contact with asylum seekers locked up in Baxter gave me a knowledge that I often wished I didn’t have, of baton assaults by guards and police, military-style charges, the use of tear gas and water cannon and solitary confinement and various petty forms of humiliation metered out with glee by the low-paid guards, working 12-hour shifts with little job security. Indeed, I nearly lost my job at the national broadcaster after I offered to help with a campaign and foolishly mentioned the name of my employer in the online posting.
Post-Trump’s election I recall this journalist’s comment as if we – those on the Left – are to learn anything from this upset, which follows Brexit and may pre-date Marine Le Pen’s presidential election next year in France, we need to think critically of our past political actions, as surely the success of these populist movements reflects, to a certain degree, our own negligence.
The motivation behind my activism against the immigration detention system reflected my belief, which remains unchanged, that it was the greatest injustice in Australia at that time (not the only one, but certainly the most extreme). Having said that, I also can see that in some ways it was easier to focus on this issue than other ones, in that the oppressor and the oppressed were clearly defined, and it was separate to me and my immediate experience (or sense of self as someone with a racial identity, or as someone who was part of a broader community).
In my journalism I wrote about the staff working in the detention centres, who were without exception white, and had done previous activist work within largely white communities, but still I conceived my work as a fight against the State and an abstraction, structural racism and in so doing, I didn't spend much time trying to understand the frustration felt by 'poor whites' - and other whites across all social classes - who supported the country's hard-line approach to boat people.
Such frustration rapidly coalesces into feelings of victim-hood, as we are now seeing. This is something Trump and Marine Le Pen in France know all too well. Listen to Trump’s standard speeches: two themes dominate the idea of ‘winning’ (he is winning, everywhere all over the place, winning the polls, winning in his business, therefore you will too) and his expressions of affection for his audience. Whenever he says how miners in West Virginia are good guys it’s easy to dismiss it as ridiculous, coming from a man who embodies economic privilege, but his supporters clearly felt otherwise.
All this is good politics – a clear simple message of belonging, of being one and the same people. Marine Le Pen’s National Front understands this as well, of course, with the party’s slogan ‘On est chez nous’ which can be translated as ‘we’re at home’ (but also has the suggestion of ‘this is our place’). Where are similar politicians on the Left who can express similar sentiments, or seem sincere while doing so?
Far too often, it seems to me, all the oxygen among commentators and Left politicians is spent on expressions of feeling – of shock and outrage and judgement - and an obsession about what is said, rather than done. As one commentator said recently Trump’s supporters took him ‘seriously, but not literally’ while his opponents took him ‘literally not seriously’.
Sometimes though I also wonder if the appeal of defending those who are different to us (perhaps this is most obvious in a racial sense, I saw a white English columnist after Trump’s win refer to his/our need to stand beside ‘our black brothers and sisters’ what does that even mean?) reflects a radical chic, or virtue signalling and we do it because it easier. Like a classic black and white photograph the two 'sides' of the image are so clearly defined.
Might the US election outcome have been different if all that energy spent denouncing Trump’s racism/sexism/xenophobia had been directed towards humble development work in ordinary, low-income communities across the United States whose residents saw themselves represented in his message of reinvention and rejuvenation?
It pains me to write this, but in the end, our words are just that: words. They do not equal social change brought about by court judgments or elections. We need to remember that, as otherwise it’s going to be a painful winter and new year.
(About a week has passed since I wrote this post above and I think I might be wrong about the expression of victim-hood etcetera displayed in the Trump vote; am feeling a bit despondent seeing the happy-face expressions of white racism since the election. The worst was a 'joke' cough where students at a high school in Florida put up the Jim Crow era signs, 'Whites only' and 'Colored' over a water fountain. Hil-ar-i-ous).