Published in Spook Magazine, July 2015
Whenever Australians are reminded of our government’s ongoing abuse of asylum seekers or other vulnerable groups, the country’s self-declared progressives look for an alibi.
In every curio-bedecked sitting room and artisanal food store there are mutterings about the easily-fooled masses who don’t deserve the vote – the tinnie guzzling, singlet-wearing, immigrant-hating philistines who brandish their southern cross tattoos with idiot pride. On each one’s V8 ute a bumper-sticker reads: Love it or Leave. Nearly choking on his or her liquid-nitrogen ice-cream, the compassionate cosmopolitan splutters, “why don’t the bogans leave?”
Anger and grief are healthy responses to realising that your compatriots are happy to see vulnerable people broken. But blaming it on the nebulous category of “bogans” is classist and counterproductive. Like ‘chav’, ‘white trash’, ‘redneck’, or ‘hillbilly’, the word ‘bogan’ implies an essential connection between bigotry, poverty, and a lack of education, evoking a stock cultural character whose poor breeding and stupidity ensures they will always sport a mullet and brutalise immigrants. Among white people especially, such words project the worst of our heritage onto the “undeserving poor”, as though vulgarity were responsible for a history of racism and subjugation, and fear and hatred were absent from polite society. In short, the way middle-class progressives use bogan blames bigotry on the working class and unemployed – even, strangely, when this bigotry is directed at people on welfare.
Of course, drunk xenophobes sporting “we grew here you flew here” tattoos and equally charming bumper stickers do exist (as do workers who live in jealous fear of dole-bludgers seizing their taxes). And their toxic views are more obvious than the insidious prejudice that threads through more sophisticated circles, or the opportunistic tactics of political elites. But why are they the main focus of ire, and why do they get lumped into the same category as their neighbours and workmates? Perhaps this projection is linked to the middle-class’s cherished ideal of education – the belief that the school’s and the university’s disciplinary systems will uplift their charges beyond cruelty or selfishness, as though it were only ignorance that prevented kindness and unity.
While knowledge of the world is important to making intelligent political choices, and education can help with this, such examples as Barry Spurr, erudite fascists, and the racial views of the founder of the Rhodes scholarship should be sufficient to make it clear: being “cultured” does not always make us nicer or less prejudiced people. Recall too that Ricky Muir and Jacqui Lambie, often maligned as two of the most bogan senators in Australia, showed more signs of conscience about the fate of asylum seekers under unprecedented Ministerial powers than the educated blue bloods filling the Liberal bench. While neither are political role models – indeed, Lambie has been styled as a new Pauline Hanson – nor do they exemplify the deeper sickness in Australian politics.
Of course, no one shares quite the same definition of bogans, and any bogan-hater charged with classism will protest: “Being a bogan’s not about money, it’s about attitude and culture” – and the way people talk and the way they dress, that just so happen to be associated with being born in the wrong suburb and working with your hands or being stuck on welfare. Being bogan may not be about money, but it is about the cultural markers of class. The much-despised figure of the “cashed-up bogan”, far from proving that being bogan isn’t a question of class, fits the aristocrat’s vision of the newly rich, the upstart who’s gotten beyond their station. The very term implies a contradiction, as though something went wrong in the natural order to give rise to this monstrosity: a rich person, but without the right breeding or education.
As a consequence, when “progressives” blame injustice on bogans, they slot smoothly into the story the likes of Abbott, Bolt, and Murdoch want to tell: it is the story of an Australia divided between hard-working, true-blue Aussies who vote for the major parties, and out-of touch cultural elites who snigger at ordinary people. Meanwhile, the Tories who pulverise work rights and social services are portrayed as every men with the common touch. In this warped morality play, the hater of bigots takes on the character of the champagne socialist, the smug and self-righteous radical who holds Australian culture in contempt.
Such paranoid fantasies about a scheming culture elite, while not unique to Australia, are particularly successful here in obscuring the realities of wealth and power for four reasons: first, they tap into people’s profound fear of being laughed at. Second, they draw on Australia’s special hatred of wankers and attendant suspicion of intellectuals. Third, they allow the privileged to feel like underdogs – and this is particularly important for Australians, given that on average we are among the richest people in the world. And fourth, they have a grain of truth to draw upon: the temptation among moderates to treat questions of social justice as an opportunity to feel superior and gain cultural capital through excluding unbelievers, cleansing themselves of responsibility with the ritual mantra: what a bunch of bogans. In doing so, they alienate themselves from the people whose support they need, and whose struggles they in turn need to support.
Anyone hoping to protect the rights of asylum seekers and minorities cannot take these issues in isolation. The right is winning on this front because its fever dream of a country overrun with inner-city hipsters and suspect newcomers fits into a broader narrative, and resonates with real fears. While rabid nationalism can grow anywhere, it feeds on insecurity, on people’s sense that their world is not their own or could be taken away from them. Among working people, this could come in the form of the erosion of industrial rights, and the resulting precariousness that makes the thought of an immigrant “taking” jobs seem plausible. Among small-business owners and professionals, it is the ideology of merit, the fixation on “hard-work” and competition, and the fear of losing what they believe they have won of their own accord: I earned what I own and to share it is robbery. What moderates and leftists must do is build an alternative vision that is so compelling and inclusive as to eclipse the prevailing one – a vision that acknowledges and exorcises socioeconomic anxieties, rather than disowning their outgrowths as alien.
Until we do this, the best would-be allies of the oppressed can do is retreat into a sense of defeated goodness. Words like ‘bogan’ offer lazy comfort, something we can reach for to remind ourselves that tyranny is stupid, that it’s not in our name. Letting go of these illusions is difficult. To help, remember the following: every time you call a bigot a bogan, or sneer at someone’s literacy, you become a little more like Barry Spurr, and it becomes a little easier for other people to treat your voice with reciprocal disdain.