Like many of my friends in academia, when Trump was elected I went online, just as I had done after Brexit, and Turnbull, and Abbott, and every other major election and political ‘event’ in the last decade or so. Facebook—the Facebook I inhabit—was on auto-pilot. First came the shock, outrage and despair, then the think-pieces. Class-based critiques, race-based critiques, gender-based critiques, intersectional critiques of those critiques, critiques of the polling industry, critiques of the electoral college system, critiques of the Right, of the Alt-Right, of Populism, of Neoliberalism, of the Left, of the Republican party, of the Democratic party, of the Media, of Social Media…and so on ad nauseam: control, copy, paste, repeat. I read and agreed with all of it, and nevertheless found the experience utterly deadening.
Exactly a week later I went online again to find that all but one of Radio National’s music programs were being cancelled, the latest in a string of savage cuts to the ABC, and just the most recent and local phase in the ongoing conservative crush of Australia’s public institutions more generally. This time the experience was more personal. Earlier in the year, I’d been commissioned to produce something on the weaponisation of sound—music torture at Guantanamo, the use of sonic booms to terrorise civilian populations in Gaza, the increasing deployment of devices like the LRAD and the mosquito here in Australia—for a show called Soundproof, which at the time was pretty much the only dedicated venue for overtly experimental radio in the country. From 2017 that venue will be gone, along with the rest of RN as a broadcast station by 2020. As far as the IPA and its acolytes are concerned: good riddance.
I now realise what I should already have known. For certain groups in this country and across the world, indeed, for a lot of people in positions of power, as a member of the academy and the intellectual left, I am the enemy. Not just someone to debate or disagree with, but actively ‘part of the problem’. Breitbart, whose polemicists and media trolls are now preparing to occupy the White House, would denounce me as a ‘cultural Marxist’. No doubt the likes of George Brandis, Tim Wilson, Pauline Hanson, David Leyonhjelm, George Christensen and Cory Bernardi would all agree.
The things that matter to me, the values I stand for: the idea of the University, the continuing value and necessity of art and the humanities, the importance of a robust system of social welfare, of limitations on markets and resistance to a paradigm of unrestrained growth, an environmental consciousness, a sense of responsibility towards vulnerable non-citizens, a commitment to and solidarity with feminism, cosmopolitan and queer politics, the recognition that colonial violence is real and ongoing… —all these things are being systematically vandalised and dismantled. And I am not doing enough about it. We are not doing enough.
We are the enemy. And we are losing.
What is to be done? More specifically, what is to be done as an academic of the left? At this particular moment in history, with its peculiar constellation of opportunities and impediments?
The University is a public good that must be defended. But this requires us to commit to a vision of the University that values art, science and the humanities equally; which is affordable; which refuses to concede rigor, dignity and care to the domain of the economic and administrative; which strives towards truth telling in teaching and learning but doesn’t pretend that scholarship ever is or should aspire to be apolitical; and which refuses to evade questions of its own ethics and social responsibility. As anyone who works at or with a contemporary University knows, this vision has been under dramatic assault for some time. And with anti-intellectualism, populism, and the strange unity of white supremacism and untrammelled capitalism well on the ascendancy, now is not the time to jump ship.
This puts academics in a difficult position however. On the one hand, we must continue to insist on the importance of scholarship per se: on the slowness and rigour of proper research, critique, conversation and inquiry. On the other hand, we must do so more vocally and with a greater sense of urgency, even if that sometimes impacts detrimentally on our research.
How we go about negotiating this tension will of course depend on our relative institutional influence and security. Those of us in more precarious employment face more and greater risks than those whose positions are more secure. Nevertheless, I do want to make a couple of quite practical suggestions that I hope will speak on some level across the board.
- Now more than ever we must not allow ourselves to get isolated, either personally or professionally. We must do whatever we can to maintain the institutions that matter to us and work hard to build new and better ones, with larger constituencies and more influence. Because it is intellectual life per se that it is under threat, this may mean making alliances across traditional political lines. If they are a scholar, they are your friend.
- We should acknowledge that the internet—by which I mean the actually existing internet, in its dominant cultural iterations, fuelled by social media and fed by trolls, the internet that has so conspicuously failed to deliver on any initial emancipatory promises—is part of the problem not the solution. Of course, it can offer an important lifeline for people marginalised by reason of geography, disability or opportunity. But if that is not you, get offline as much as you can. Social media especially is not the place anymore to hold our debates and air our grievances. Its extraordinary tempo and demands on one’s attention are simply not conducive to scholarship. The version of the social that social media offers—certainly that it offers me—feels increasingly emaciated. If you feel the same, make time in your week—ideally institutionalise it—to meet with your closest friends and colleagues in person to discuss ‘what is happening’ and what to do about it.
- Keep teaching like it matters; because it does. The attacks on cultural Marxism are actually a direct recognition of this. The classroom remains one of our key sites of influence and responsibility. Students recognise passion, care, intellectual curiosity and rigor when they see it. And for the most part, they will respond accordingly. If they don’t, refuse to treat them with contempt. Though they have been well cast as the avatars of audit culture and a customer service model of higher education, students are not the problem. They are the symptoms of a broken system who are being sold a pup by a high level administration that has vandalised our institutions, promoted itself beyond us, then kicked out the ladder. And it is our responsibility to help them see the world otherwise. In practice, this means a few things especially. Above all, we must resist growing class sizes, refuse the creep online where it is being done for reasons of efficiency as opposed to pedagogy, and take control of the substance and administration of curriculum design wherever we can. A lot of damage has been to Australian higher education in the name of ‘standardization’. Wresting back autonomy over what we teach and how is crucial.
- Occupy ‘engagement’. If Universities are going to insist that research and teaching alone are not enough, and that we also make explicit the connection between our work and ‘wider society’, we should take them at their word. Speak and write more often in public. Don’t forget to mention it in your performance development review. If you are an activist, artist, blogger or podcaster, include that too – and explain why. Make yourself a public intellectual. Debate in public, ask questions, interrogate power, and when you do, resist the insidious talking head banality of the ‘expert’.
- Support and defend spaces and institutions which continue to provide forums for sophisticated discourse, academic or otherwise. Attempting to understand and communicate our complex world is not the preserve of the elite, but nor does it belong to shock jocks and news media. Obviously there are bigger grievances in the world than the dismantling of Radio National, or my trifling radio show on sonic warfare. At the same time, however, the reason these things are being dismantled is precisely because this loose, weak coalition of the new right, the government, IPA, Breitbart etc know very well that there is a connection between them and the political projects they oppose. If we lose these forums for news, discussion, wonder and debate we will lose a lot more with them. So if you have the opportunity to resist the dismantling of the ABC, SBS, the Australian Council for the Arts and other similar institutions, do it. And if you have the money to subscribe to Netflix or Apple Music make sure you support the Guardian, New Matilda, Crikey, the Saturday Paper and so on as well. One of the things we will miss most in the age of post-truth politics is quality journalism.
- Finally, occupy positions of institutional power, and do whatever you can to avoid being changed in the process. Too many university departments are being governed by principles that are routinely disavowed both by the officials tasked with implementing them and the academics most affected. This sort of cognitive dissonance is too insidious to be normalised. Now more than ever, we must not allow ourselves to become our own worst enemies.
James is a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne Law School