‘Move him upstairs?’ is a sentiment from the acutely observed BBC series ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. It is a tip of a line which conveys an iceberg of British culture.
‘Upstairs’ is the House of Lords, where governments send inconveniently misbehaving blue blood or otherwise powerfully connected men. It is a tool in the meritocracy mythology toolkit.
Reward for merit is the most desperate lie of liberalism.
Say some Tory – they are almost inevitably conservative white men – a politician or judge or banker, for instance – is caught in a tabloid scandal. It is the family values guy sending pictures of his penis to young women. The sanctimonious homophobe snapped leaving a gay club. The misogynist judge who waxes lyrical on how women are responsible for rapists. The fetishists and embezzlers and fraudsters and thieves, engaging the services of a bondage madam, charging the taxpayer for the wedding travel, or the helicopter transport to a party fund-raiser.
But the political leadership does not need the headache. The ludicrous hypocrisy, the sleazy and often criminal creepiness, are seen as a distraction from the latest announceable. This is what passes for government under neoliberalism. An endless string of reactions, distractions or announceables: an inquiry here, a defence contract there. Some other vapid unoriginal tried-and-failed effort to hold unaccountable power to account – a tribunal, a committee, a commission.
One solution, a kind of predecessor to the dead cat, is to reward these transgressors for something else. An OBE for services to justice, for example, or a knighthood for outstanding contribution to the financial community. Hide him in plain sight, because the caravan will move on soon enough.
The caravan always does.
This technique is not funny, and it is not clever. The well-connected transgressor is not hilariously embarrassing; he is a drain on society, a wrongdoer whose reputation is treated as of greater value than the actual lives of minor offenders such as a drug addict or petty thief.
Take the idiot Australians recently returned from Malaysia. The privilege of their whiteness and maleness is not defined by the internet of things, as one major newspaper implied today. White male privilege is real and it is dangerous. It is violent and harmful. It plays out at every level of our society.
For example, two of the three police officers investigated by the Western Australian coroner over the death of Ms Dhu have been promoted. They have more responsibility than when they not only failed to ensure adequate care for a dying woman but expressed viciously nasty racist views directly to her as she died.
They are now on a higher salary. Move them upstairs.
As The Saturday Paper editor Erik Jensen observed, anyone expressing surprise at the boorishness of private school- and sandstone-educated white men does not know how privilege works. Rich white guys are trained to behave in exactly this way. The young ‘gentlemen’ of all-male institutions like The Kings School and the residential colleges of the University of Sydney are routinely schooled in consequence-free crassness; and have been for centuries.
It is another inheritance in this country from the toxic British tradition. The Kings School is a wannabe Eton, Sydney Uni is our Oxford-equivalent. The father institutions produce the Camerons and the Bojos, incompetent to a man. Their incompetence is not least because no mistake, no matter how monumental, ever results in lessons learned – except perhaps in how not to be caught; or in how to throw other people’s money at crisis-managing the next terrible, dangerous, destructive decision.
Stirring up racist violence to win an unnecessary referendum designed to resolve internal conservative differences which wiped up to three trillion dollars off global financial markets? A promotion to a senior cabinet position awaits. This is not to suggest that global financial markets are not riddled with corrupted dealings – of course they are – but has David or Boris paid any kind of price for the mess they made? Are they destitute? Condemned? Disgraced?
Nope. For a campaign demonstrably founded on racist hate, Bojo was promoted to Foreign Secretary. That’s how it works. Cameron has for the moment gone home to his luxury mansion, free to get on with whatever he chooses to do. Who knows, he could do a Tony Blair and end up being paid millions to speak on peace in the Middle East. Wreck havoc, pose as the solution instead of the problem.
Look at Joe Hockey, ensconced in the most prestigious diplomatic posting in the gift of the Australian Prime Minister. For what? Contributions to Treasury governance? Hardly. For agreeing to go quietly in an internal conservative power struggle. Like Cameron.
Or is Washington the second top post? Word is our man in London, Alexander Downer, could make way for George Brandis at the UK High Commission.
Downer lived there as a child, bless, when daddy held the position. Downer is also the former conservative Howard government Foreign Minister who presided during the corrupt wheat-for-weapons dealings by Australian entities in breach of UN sanctions against Iraq while we were at war there. Talk about reward for merit.
Brandis is the conservative Attorney General who has chanced his luck with fibbing about a meeting with the Solicitor General, a Senior Counsel of impeccable credentials who is angry enough to have made his displeasure public.
Send them upstairs.
Then there is John Howard, neck-deep in reviving the legacy of Menzies, a man who had to be stopped by unionised labour from selling iron to Japan as Japan was seeking to take Australia by force.
Nothing stops this white-washing drivel. Howard and his pet project are endlessly, tediously promoted, for free, all over the media. Hours of airtime on the national broadcaster is not quite a seat in the House of Lords. But it does go to legacy, which conservatives value as much as power, knowing the two are essential to maintain their born-to-rule mythology.
Mall this is on the same spectrum as the men who embarrassed the government and the nation this week in Malaysia. As many commentators have pointed out, it is not that these men do not know what they are doing is out of step with everyone around them. It is that they do not care.
They are not ignorant. They are arrogant.
The father of former senior defence industries “innovation adviser” John Walker told the waiting media that the ‘boys’ – all in fact men who have been adults for between 7 and 11 years – will now go home and get on with their lives. Indeed they will. And not one of the protagonists will see anything wrong with that.
(The Sydney Morning Herald reported at 9.15pm Saturday that Walker junior has tendered his resignation and minister Pyne has accepted it. Expect to see Walker on a similar or higher salary somewhere sometime soon.)
Walker senior also told us ‘there was no charge’. This is not true. The charge was public nuisance, and his son along with eight mates pleaded guilty to the charge. Their connections – called ‘remorse’ in the law and the media – then saw no conviction recorded, so the offender does not end up with a criminal record.
Tony Abbott availed himself of the equivalent provisions in NSW at a similar age.*
We can safely surmise that Walker senior knows his son was charged, and with what offence. Given he was there in Malaysia and there in court and all. Nevertheless, Walker senior has – oops – confused the case outcome with his son never having been charged in the first place. In this rarefied world, ‘there was no charge’ is code for ‘they did nothing wrong’.
It is worth noting that Aboriginal people have died in custody for less – singing ‘who let the dogs out’ in earshot of a policeman; being a victim of domestic violence with unpaid fines.
We could power the world and feed the hungry with the resources which are currently misallocated to exonerating men who are recipients of reward-for-merit (ie fuckup). Men who should – but will not – live out their days in penury and despair for their miserable actions.
A couple of forces are at work here. The first – previously mentioned – is deep and deeply harmful emotional and financial investment by liberal ideology in meritocracy mythology.
Another is the Great Man in History myth. Which is (falsely) tempered by the equivalence of the flawed human. Only men can be great, but all humans are flawed. This shallow but convenient equivalence is deployed to fallaciously refute the obvious. Churchill or Turnbull (or whoever) is not great. He is a drunk or a fake (or whatever).
When this is pointed out, the dominant narrative shrugs metaphorically and says oh we are all flawed. Who among us is not? Let he who has not sinned…
The narrative is upside down. People raised in environments epitomised by Eton or Oxford are more likely to be deeply flawed. Such a system produces terrible characters. People who start wars. Interfere in others’ wars. Send other people’s children to fight those wars. Create material conditions that perpetuate imperialism and poverty and displacement. Financial crises from which they but not the poor escape.
People not raised in these toxic institutions may have been just as deeply flawed as a Bojo or a Walker, but we will never know. This is because the elite male has so much more capacity to do harm. I can not send another person’s child to war, whether I want to or not. Tony Blair can. John Howard can. Abbott certainly wanted to, and it is his legacy that has seen the Royal Australian Air Force implicated in a war crime.
So enough with the trivialisation of Walker and his mates. The nickname is not funny. White male privilege is not a figment of the internet. The men may have had no conviction recorded, but they pleaded guilty and their plea was accepted by the court. They are, by their own admission, guilty of the charge that Walker senior tried to talk away. They are dangerous, because the message as represented by the literal and figurative father tells them they did nothing wrong.
What really matters about all this is that the ranks of the current ruling party are awash with this demographic; and that the Liberal Party is utterly incapable of reforming itself out of this ugly culture.
*Abbott was also charged with indecent assault for groping a young woman between the legs. I wrote this post before the latest news from the US and do not want to risk trivialising the allegations of Trump’s sexual criminality. For the record, millions of women are sharing similar stories right now; and characterising individual, powerful men as monsters is to miss the point.