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Smackdown!

This essay won the special prize for written communication by a scholar aged under 30 in the 2003 Co-Op Bookshop Dialogica Awards. The awards encourage clear and compelling writing about academic topics for a general audience.

It’s a pro-wrestling thing. Two wrestlers face off, grappling, staggering, gouging, kneeing, body-slamming. It’s spectacularly visceral. They know the rules, and blatantly disregard them. The commentators screech in outrage, but the ref never notices. One wrestler hits the ground like a sack of spuds. Smacked down.

In Australia, another kind of smackdown is in progress. In the red corner: humanities academics. In the black corner: journalists. Their holds and trademark wrestling moves? The English language. The arenas? Newspaper columns and television programs. The prize? No less than the right to determine the intellectual direction of this country.

So far, it seems the academy is losing. People who think, publish and teach for a living have less and less credibility in John Howard’s Australia. At best, their opinions aren’t deemed relevant to ‘ordinary Australians’: they’re caricatured as members of ‘elites’ or ‘chattering classes’. At worst, they’re traitors to their country, ‘infecting’ innocent youth with their anti-Australian calumnies.

How can humanities academics escape this squirrel grip? How can they redeem their ideas from columnists’ accusations of irrelevance and superficiality? And given a political climate in which research is increasingly judged on utility, how can academics persuade an apathetic Australian public that thinking critically is the most useful skill of all?

These are big questions, and I can’t answer them here. But any answers will have to deal with the academy’s continuing failure to communicate with journalists. So, I want to look critically at the language used in the journalist-academic wrestling match. After all, this is a rhetorical smackdown. I’m interested in two 2003 skirmishes, which I’ll call ‘Miranda Devine vs Cultural Studies’, and ‘Andrew Bolt vs Media Watch’. Bolt is an associate editor of Melbourne’s Herald Sun, and his bi-weekly column is one of the paper’s institutions. Devine’s column appears on Sundays in Sydney’s Sun-Herald. Both are regarded among Australia’s leading conservative commentators.

Many academics regard them as irritating, inconsequential reactionaries. At a conference I attended in July, Devine’s stab at cultural studies was summarily dismissed as ‘just more of the old culture-wars rhetoric’. While comforting in the presence of one’s peers, this refusal to engage with Devine’s thinking is alarming — and dangerous. Of course, the Australian humanities have long railed against a culture they claim is anti-intellectual, and journalists have long propounded anti-elitism. Ideas like ‘cultural cringe’, ‘ivory tower’ or ‘tall poppy syndrome’ have been around so long they’ve entered the vernacular.

What is new, and urgently deserving of critique, is the vindictiveness of the language used by Devine and Bolt to condemn new work in the humanities. What’s also new is the target of all this vitriol — the young disciplines of cultural studies, media studies, or as Bolt puts it, “every tertiary course with the word ‘studies’ in it”.

Bolt and Devine have three rhetorical wrestling moves. First, theirs is the language of economic rationalism. They argue that taxpayers should only fund academic research with practical, useful, ‘real-world’ outcomes. Second, it’s the language of relevance. They claim that ideas they don’t deem ‘useful’ are not important to their readership. Third, it’s the language of citizenship. Bolt, especially, implies that academic thought should never undermine the government of the day.

Combining these three moves, Bolt and Devine deliver glancing blows to projects that analyse everyday practices. They imply that academic investigation of these things is both unnecessary and irrelevant, because ‘ordinary Australians’ already understand them. Yet in a weird paradox, they condemn humanities academics for using arcane language and theories that are incomprehensible to laypeople.

Bolt and Devine contrast humanities research with scientific, technological and industrial projects. Where humanities research is ‘superficial’, these projects are ‘useful’. Where the humanities are ‘pessimistic’ and ‘self-loathing’, the sciences give our country a ‘future’. Where cultural studies projects drain the public purse without enriching Australian knowledge, technology and commerce projects form productive connections between the academy and the private sector. Ultimately, where humanities graduates become fit for nothing else but more useless wankery, science and commerce graduates end up in high-powered, respected jobs in politics and big business.

Miranda Devine vs Cultural Studies

Nowhere are these ideas more clearly crystallised than in Devine’s column, “Super PhD loses out to blondes and vampires”. Devine’s “super” pun is intentional. She tells us that a “talented commerce graduate”, Wollongong University doctoral candidate Zaffar Subedar, is unable to find government funding for his “boring, though worthy, topic of risk in superannuation.” And Subedar knows exactly who’s getting the money he’s missing out on: “people researching things such as whether Jesus is gay and blondes are dumb”.

Faced with Subedar’s plight, Devine feels compelled to ask herself (and her readership) if we’re “getting value for money from our nation’s most educated brains”. She spends the rest of the column listing PhD thesis topics which did obtain Australian Postgraduate Award funding; and which, she suggests, provide poor value for money indeed.

In 2001, Andrew Bolt wrote a similar column, published under the headline “Scholarship or stupidity?” Like Devine, Bolt lists academic projects awarded Australia Council Discovery Grants. For Bolt, these ‘explain’ why “few of our academics have any impact in public debates — other than a negative one, thanks to the never-say-die Marxists and the navel-gazing Deep Sighers of postmodernism who so infest higher education.”

Devine’s language is subtler. Her examples of cultural studies projects are carefully chosen for their combination of banal, everyday subjects and academic jargon. That way, the projects demonstrate their own silliness. She cites a PhD on tattoos by Macquarie University’s Dr Nikki Sullivan, entitled “Writings in flesh: subjectivity, textuality, ethics and pleasure.” The academic reader might be intrigued. But to casual readers of a Sunday newspaper, this topic makes no sense at all. And Devine wants it that way.

Devine also suggests these PhD topics don’t involve hard work or rigorous thought — rather, that they’re a highbrow version of dole bludging, in which taxpayers shell out for students to do things they already enjoy. Adele Morey, for her PhD on the marriage breakdown of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, “read The Australian Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day, New Idea, NW and Who Weekly”. And on ANU student Alex Leonard’s project on “the surf culture of Bali”, Devine notes drily: “It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.” Her conclusion? “Maybe there should be an inverse proportionality formula applied. The more ‘fun’ a topic, the less chance of funding.”

Devine’s column provoked several academic counter-moves, with mixed results. The University of Queensland hosed down her claim that Dr Rollan McCleary had received $51,000 to write a “PhD about the supposed homosexuality of Jesus”. Six weeks before Devine wrote her column, the university had issued a ‘statement of clarification’ on its website, spelling out that “Dr McCleary did not explore the issue of Christ’s sexuality in any detail, but made a very brief reference to the subject by citing the views of two other authors.” It was more convenient for Devine’s argument, however, to blur the distinction between McCleary’s APA-funded thesis and his subsequently produced book, which did make claims surrounding Christ’s sexuality.

A less successful rebuttal came from Dr Nikki Sullivan, whom Andrew Bolt had also attacked in a column denouncing the “Bodily Modifications” conference she organised at Macquarie University. An enraged Sullivan emailed Devine to defend her thesis. Unfortunately, she played right into Devine’s hands by using exactly the same impenetrable language that Devine had so ridiculed: “Furthermore, insofar as my research seriously engages with the social, political and ethical effects of such practices, it is of no less import than research that looks at the risk involved in superannuation”. Consequently, Devine required only an acid, two-word rejoinder to demolish Sullivan’s entire argument. “Got that?”

Andrew Bolt vs Media Watch

In 2001, Bolt asked: “Who on God’s earth will read these works for which we are paying so dearly?” In 2003, he sniffed out a much more heinous misappropriation of taxpayer funds: Asian studies scholar Alison Broinowski’s book About Face: Asian Accounts of Australia. That Broinowski “can get so much help from the Australia Council to write books you’ve never heard of is one reason you should know of her,” Bolt writes. “And get cross.”

But Bolt’s quarrel isn’t really with the Australia Council. He writes that Broinowski “shares the now fashionable view of our grant-fed ‘artists’ — that this land of unprecedented freedom, tolerance and riches is in fact a sewer of evil.” For Bolt, Broinowski’s “self-loathing judgment” that Australian foreign policy encouraged the 2002 Bali bombing is just more of the old “shame-Australia-shame drivel”. He writes: “If our artists didn’t flaunt their ‘national shame’ in opposition to the national pride that is the ‘popular attitude’ of the rest of us, how would we know they were artists?”

With this one sentence, Bolt distances Broinowski and her ‘artistic’ ilk from all other Australians, who presumably are throbbing with “national pride”. His implication? That Broinowski doesn’t deserve the privileges of Australian citizenship — like government funding. But his argument relies on the same shift in language that allowed Devine to construe Rollan McCleary’s PhD as a “gay Jesus” project. About Face investigates how Australia is viewed by Asian commentators. But Bolt sets out to pin these overseas writers’ comments on Broinowski herself.

“There’s a difference between endorsing and reporting, a difference Bolt is ignoring here — dishonestly,” says ABC-TV Media Watch host David Marr. Bolt once branded Marr “gleefully cruel” and “a bouffant moralist”; and their animosity flared up again when Marr used his nationally aired program to pull apart Bolt’s Broinowski column. “Bolt is not a man to let the truth stand in the way of an insult,” says Marr. “The book he was putting the boot into … received no funding whatever from the Australia Council.” Instead, Bolt’s outrage stems from Broinowski’s “worst crime of all — pursuing an academic career.”

Bolt immediately sent Marr an email demanding an on-air apology. “I consider an academic career to be something very respectable indeed, and admire those close friends of mine who lecture in our universities.” This is “encouraging”, Marr replies, “and we trust future columns in the Herald Sun will reflect this view.” He adds that “in the end, the uphill battle you face is to convince your Herald Sun readers that you are being fair and truthful. We suggest you concentrate on the task.”

This suggestion didn’t impress Bolt. He sent another email to Marr, returning to his favourite theme of wasting taxpayers’ money. For Bolt, Marr had “hijacked Media Watch and turned it into what seems a $1.4 million taxpayer-funded vehicle for attacking your ideological enemies”. This accusation has a certain irony. While Bolt had originally identified Broinowski’s taxpayer-funded academic treason as the enemy, his ire quickly shifted to Marr. In the recriminations that followed, Broinowski’s research — or the need to defend it — was quickly forgotten.

Alison Broinowski herself didn’t step into the ring at all. Her viewpoint was endlessly quoted, implied and speculated upon, but she never issued a comment. In some ways, her silence is encouraging. Cultural studies academics shouldn’t need to apologise for their ideas — after all, critical thinking is what they’re trained, and paid, to do. However, academics shouldn’t sit back and let journalists treat their disciplines as resources for slow news days. As Nikki Sullivan tried to tell Miranda Devine, understanding why we devalue certain ideas is one of the most valuable knowledges we can have.

But Devine’s continued ridicule of Sullivan shows that, no matter how important the idea, people lose interest if it’s poorly expressed. Obtuse, jargonistic writing may win funding and the respect of one’s academic peers, and it might stem the dreaded slide into ‘anti-intellectualism’, but it won’t win over the public. And if academics think engaging with the public isn’t their job, they’ve missed the point.

Like pro-wrestling, the smackdown between academics and journalists can be pretty entertaining. It certainly sells newspapers. But if researchers in the humanities don’t start learning some new holds, they could soon be down for the count.