Actor/satirist Bryan Dawe has such a low-key, laconic approach to ‘giving a talk’ that the journalistic instinct to take notes deserted me. Dawe is the surviving half of the satirical act Clarke & Dawe, but he is much more than that. He told the audience at Griffith University’s Integrity 20 Summit that when it came to political satire, he and John Clarke had never been short of material over 25 years of producing their weekly TV show.
Dawe introduced one of his best-known satirical characters, boozy retired judge Sir Murray Rivers QC; Dawe as interviewer/straight man to Sir Murray’s confused bigot. His presentation was funny; funny and sad, as he often referenced his late partner in satire John Clarke, who died in April this year. Dawe’s ‘talk’ would have been illuminating for the year 11 and 12 students attending Integrity 20, as Dawe summarised his unhappy days at school where he left early after being told by a careers adviser he would not amount to anything because he came from the ‘wrong postcode’.
Dawe joined Julian Morrow of The Chaser and The Checkout for a discussion on satire, comedy and how to know when you’ve gone too far. When asked that question by panel chair Rebecca Levingston, both agreed that nothing was off limits.
While agreeing that one could satirise and make jokes about anything, Morrow conceded that The Chaser’s skits post-9/11 were “too soon”. Levingston prompted Morrow to revisit the time The Chaser (a TV satire show), penetrated security at the 2007 APEC conference in Sydney with a fake motorcade transporting a ‘Mr bin laden of Canada’. As Morrow recalled “We never expected to succeed.”
Both satirists agreed that there are powerful people who always try to have good satire shut down, probably because nothing is funnier than the truth, greatly exaggerated. The trick, said Dawe, was not to engage with critics, trolls and others whose power base was being diminished by The Chaser’s sharp sketches or by John Clarke’s familiar introduction: “Thanks for having me, Bryan.”
Bryan Dawe’s presentation was the ideal tone for Integrity 20’s afternoon session, which followed serious and at times contrary debate about hate speech, free speech, censorship, the global rise of populism and how to destroy democracy.
You may have heard Richard Fidler on Conversations interviewing Masha Gessen, an exiled Russian American journalist and author. Her speech ‘How to Destroy Democracy’ and later contribution to a panel discussion on populism was a highlight of Integrity 20.
New York-based Gessen outlined the seven lessons in ‘imagining the worse’, in which the rise of populism destroys democracy. These include destroying the sense of participation, conspiracy myth-making, and engaging in the ‘forever war’, (which in the US means a 16-year war against ‘terrorism’, an unidentifiable foe, with no end point in sight).
Gessen, an outspoken critic of Donald Trump, also referred to the way democracy could be destroyed simply by degrading language.
“Trump is a master at that. He lies and lies to convince you that something that’s not true is true. There’s no way for a journalist not to quote his lies.
“Trump says he’s the subject of a witch hunt when that’s the opposite of what he means. He creates word salad and makes it difficult to work out what it all means. It’s a direct assault on how we all live because language is the main tool we use to co-exist.”
Even while Gessen was articulating this I was thinking about former PM Tony Abbott’s ludicrous comments about goats, volcanoes and climate change. However daft the comments seemed, journalists had no option but to quote what he actually said at a climate conference in London.
As Ricky Gervais said this week in a thought-provoking tweet:
Some opinions are so stupid they hurt my feelings. But that’s my problem. It’s a person’s right to hold as stupid an opinion as they like. (@rickygervais):
A panel discussion followed on the global rise of populism. Panel chair Luke Stegemann summarised the rise of populism in countries including Italy, Poland, the UK, France and Germany. “Australia is not immune by any means,” he added, citing the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and how it taps into the frustrations, racism and bigotry of people who are angry about immigration and furious about globalisation and the perceived impact these issues have on their jobs.
One ought to keep in mind that populism − a movement for the people and against a privileged elite − can occur across a broad political spectrum. It is possible, as panellist Geoffrey Robertson QC observed, to have left-wing populism.
The origins of populism date back to the 1800s when rural peasants revolted against their robber baron landlords. Today it is more about polarising the electorate and pitting angry poor people against (poor and possibly angry) immigrants and asylum seekers.
The privileged elite seem to survive with wealth intact, whichever way the populist wind is blowing.
Rachel Kleinfeld of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the common perception was that supporters of populism are racists and bigots.
“There is a racist fringe but the core of populism is about high inequality and why people don’t understand why politicians don’t listen.”
Geoffrey Robertson said young people were disenchanted about the rampant capitalism that democracy encourages. This was in response to Kleinfeld’s comment that only 52% of people aged 18 to 29 think it is preferable to live in a democracy. Robertson said the key threat imposed by populist leaders was the attempt to replace an independent judiciary with their own people.
Kleinfeld made comparisons between Donald Trump and outsider president Andrew Jackson (1828-1834), who enjoyed two terms and put his successor, Martin Van Buren, in place to ensure 12 years of a populist government.
The Atlantic made much of the Trump/Jackson similarities.
“Jackson, like Trump, won over many white working-class voters, who brushed aside critics who warned that he was unstable and a would-be dictator. He maintained their loyalty even though, like Trump, he was of the elite.”
I can’t recall who started it, but it seemed all panellists agreed that Trump, despite being widely reviled, would easily take another term in office. They didn’t say so, but it seems obvious that Trump has a like-minded and seemingly un-impeachable successor in Mike Pence sitting on the bench (wearing a Martin Van Buren t-shirt).
If you were not yet confused about populism and its multiple meanings, Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, coined the phrase “thin ideology”. This means to merely set up a framework: pure people versus a corrupt elite. Thin ideology can be attached to all sorts of “thick” ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, anti-imperialism or racism.
I will leave it to the reader to decide what type of populism exists in Australia.
Monday I’ve got Friday on my mind
I leave you with a tribute to the late George Young, who co-wrote the song from which this essay takes its name. Young and co-writer Harry Vanda and their band The Easybeats had an international hit with Friday on My Mind in 1967. Here’s a terrific cover from Richard Thompson and band from the album 1000 Years of Popular Music. (Please don’t listen to the Bruce Springsteen version that comes up after that…Ed)