You’re not all that. You’re really not.

By skepticlawyer

The other day, Pavlov’s Cat drew my attention to this piece on why bullies bully, particularly in schools. The tl;dr version? Telling kids that they’re all that produces narcissistic, entitled little monsters who think the world owes them a living. Contrary to the mythology, bullies have high self-esteem, not the opposite.

Well well well (three holes in the ground) as my former partner used to say. Who’d a thunk it?

It is always nice when research happens to confirm common sense observation (oh, the sky is blue? And that’s because of the ozone?), because very often common sense and science are at considerable variance. I put the piece on bullying mentally to one side until I encountered (via Kieran MacGillicuddy, so a gentle tip of the hat to him) this piece by writer Christos Tsiolkas. I recommend you read it, even if you are not a creature of the political left, and at the same time make allowances for the author’s periodic lapses into hyperbole (at one point he strays dangerously close to arguing that only the current economic boom is keeping Australia from race war). Tsiolkas’s piece is also about bullying: bullying people whom you purport to represent because they won’t sing from the same songsheet as you. Those people, of course, being working class and lumpenproletariat Australians.

It contains such wonderfully acute observations as the following:

The historic tragedies and outrages of Left totalitarianism are enough reason for any of us who still identify as socialist to choose inquiry over conviction, to favour the nuances of contradiction and doubt. ‘Political correctness’ is a phrase so over-indulged by conservatives that its very use now seems trite and banal, but 20 years on from the culture wars we need to acknowledge the truth that strident identity politics and postmodernist obsessions over symbols and language led to a straitjacketing of feminist and socialist thought.

Jove on a pony, an admission that trying to do well for everyone without consulting them results in mountains of corpses. That identity politics is completely barmy to anyone not within that particular charmed circle and leads to people enjoying an extra ground of suit on the basis of race or religion (as happened in both the Bolt and the Catch the Fire cases), thereby undermining the rule of law. That this kind of crap is going to take time and effort to unpick. Amazeballs.

[W]e who are left […] must learn to argue, assemble and agitate from an understanding that we were, and continue to be, history’s ideological losers. Even though the global economic crisis that began in 2008 has re-energised critiques of capitalism, we continue to have questions rather than answers. It would be an act of almighty hubris to not be humbled by the stagnant and malignant torpor of the welfare state or the failures of planned socialist economies.

Next thing, he’ll be quoting ‘bad’ Peter Saunders and the Centre for Independent Studies on the failures of the welfare state…

Part of the smugness I am identifying includes a tendency to disparage membership of the Australian Labor Party, even, at times, trade unions; to see involvement with these organisations now as always inauthentic or politically expedient. It is not that I don’t understand disillusionment with the labour movement but I question the assumption that working outside it is automatically politically superior.

This paragraph made me want to stand up and cheer.

Disclosure time: I am a former Shoppie. That is, a former member of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. I was a member for 5 years, too. Now the Shoppies are hate figures for many people on the progressive left, with their ‘old Labor’ conservatism and hostility to abortion and equal marriage. And as readers of this blog know, I am in favour of both (abortion and equal marriage). So I disagree with my old union. But when I was a member, the Shoppies made sure I worked in a pleasant, air-conditioned environment at reasonable pay for not very difficult work (I was at Myer). Their shop floor representative was a decent, jovial fellow who listened to both employees and management and negotiated with real skill. He also kept confidences, a trait that is surprisingly uncommon outside the legal profession. There is a reason there were no gossipy stories about my 5 years in the employ of Coles-Myer in the papers or on the teev during the controversy over my first book. My high school, university and fellow literati failed to protect my privacy. The Shoppies did.

And that, friends and neighbours, is what a union is supposed to do, nicht wahr? And, may I ask, is any of that so very bad or dangerous?

I don’t believe the international crisis in the movement of peoples across the world can be addressed without also rethinking the limits our nation places on population. Or are we to feel pity for the asylum seeker but resist the building of infrastructure and an economy that allow her the opportunity and empowerment of work? It is my sense that the Greens have not yet begun the work of understanding such contradictions and of beginning to address them.

Or (in other words), ‘Dear Greenies, public policy is hard, and you are currently making a mess of what could be a decent Labor government because you believe in the economic equivalent of pixies’. Also: entitled, narcissistic greenies, you are not all that. You’re really not.

The toxicity of progressive bourgeois smugness can be ascertained by how contemptuous is the language used to define the behaviour and expressions for working-class and welfare-class lives. The danger of this smugness is clear in how few working-class and welfare-class voices are given space to articulate an alternative Left politics to one founded either on identity politics or categories of morality. The ‘cashed up bogan’ is condemned for wanting to live in a McMansion on the outskirts of the city. The ‘aspirationalists’ are castigated for wanting to send their children to a private school rather than the local high school. The worker stood down from a power plant in the Latrobe Valley is mocked as a ‘redneck’ for questioning the promises made by environmentalists about the creation of ‘green’ jobs. That condemnation often comes from progressives living in the unaffordable inner city; that castigation from former university radicals who do not recognise the cultural capital their children are privy to; and the mockery from people who have no first-hand knowledge of the humiliation that comes from receiving the dole in the age of ‘mutual obligation’.

Conservatives (like Andrew Bolt) and classical liberals (like Sinclair Davidson) have been saying this for a very long time,  and it is no doubt very familiar to readers of this blog. It doesn’t need any further commentary from me, other than the observation that he is absolutely right, and a note that Legal Eagle cancelled her Age subscription because so many of its columnists articulated exactly the views that Tsiolkas flays. She is far from alone, as we know from that newspaper’s circulation figures.

Another danger of confusing morality and politics is a Left and progressive acquiescence to state intervention in controlling and modifying behaviours. The fines, curtailments and punishments dispensed by state institutions are, I would argue, more harshly experienced by, and enforced against, working-class people.

The reaction against such intrusions, therefore, should not always be regarded as reactionary and conservative. Even if its guise is ‘the nanny state’, supposedly holistic, green and progressive, the state still enacts the laws and regulations that control, discipline and imprison people. Such state control increasingly utilises progressive rhetoric to further encroach on liberties – an example is the use of feminist language in suspending the Racial Discrimination Act to enable the Northern Territory intervention.

Yes. THIS. Someone on the left has finally said it. Conservatives won’t: they love the nanny state just as much as the lefties. The only voices raised against the micromanaging of people’s lives were, until very recently, classical liberal voices. One of the Labor candidates for Lord Mayor of Sydney, Cassandra Wilkinson, gets it, and found herself in the awkward position of being a liberal without a party. She plumped for Labor, but describes her discomfort with both sides beautifully:

[T]he Liberals are turning into what Labor has long accused them of being: a Tory party.

The Liberals now support high taxes to pay for what were once regarded as Labor social goals: Medicare, family payments and pensions, environmental protection and maternity leave. And since Work Choices is “dead, buried and cremated” it’s hard to see what serious differences exist on economic policy except for the carbon and mining taxes.

Simultaneously, Labor is busy turning itself into what its opponents have long accused it of being, a party of clumsy big government socialism.

Labor opened up the “bonsai” economy, engineered the national electricity market, created sustainable funding for higher education through HECS and significantly unwound centralised wage and price setting. It’s now in a coalition with Greens and agrarian socialists busily re-nationalising communications infrastructure; building an internet firewall to decide what we can see and say online; and writing volumes of new environmental, financial and industrial regulations to tell us how to run the businesses that generate the taxes that make it all possible.

Tsiolkas’s essay impressed me so much that I decided to review the book from which it comes, Left Turn, which is edited by two prominent lefties, Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow. But then I thought better of it. I am a classical liberal leavened with a dash of conservatism. I don’t have a left-leaning bone in my body. I really don’t. And I don’t want to engage in the same bullying rhetoric Tsiolkas’s piece skewers so skillfully. The book needs a review from someone who is of the left, who will take its claims seriously and address them thoughtfully. Fortunately, one of our regular (leftie) commenters, Dave Bath, has been sent a review copy by the publisher and has agreed to write a review for Dave is an on-call IT specialist, so doesn’t have a huge amount of spare time, but his piece will be available in the next few days.


  1. Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Must admit that I may have been wrong in my gut feel that righties (of the right kind) wouldn’t engage with the book – the title and blurb doesn’t help.

    I will also admit to smugly putting down CUBs and their McMansions … Guilty as charged, … less about what they think than the fact they don’t like thinking – proven by the how the politicians seem to discourage voters thinking – an approach that wouldn’t be used (by both sides) if it didn’t work so well.

    I do see a huge problem with the left-talking-to-left, right-talking-to-right, and shouting slogans across the divide. It’s unproductive, and both sets of thinking types aren’t kept on their toes – and the conversations get boring! I’m surer in my leftiness /because/ I put myself into a position where good righties can slap me about when I am sloppy and deserve to be slapped about.

    The left being self-critical is good (and this essay on smugness is an example), certainly needed – but it’s still lefties talking among themselves. The lefties who will accept the self-criticism need to work with similarly-minded righties, the “hate to say it, but my opposite number has a point” types – the types of righties who point at the Libs and go “bloody tories” as suggested in “the oz” article mentioned.

    The smug leftie types, skewered in this essay, are just as blinkered, just as unwilling to think as the aspirationalists and CUBs. Some will accept the criticism and mull over it, some won’t. I’d also say there are smug righties who don’t think, support what /calls/ itself capitalism without looking at the bailouts and moral hazards that make a mockery of the theoretical basis for capitalism.

    Now, if there was a book by the evidence-lovers of both right and left, skewering uncritical unthinking fans of both dogmas and fashions, and asking “how the hell can we get the process back on track, the bits we agree on, so we can have a proper fight about what we disagree on”, then that would be most welcome. I don’t know of such a book yet, one that tries to sketch out a strategy to make democracy functional again. … But you’d need a fantastic editor/ringmaster to do it.

  2. kvd
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    What an excellent piece, and enhanced by DB’s comment above. Welcome back from examination-land SL, and thank you.

  3. kvd
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    One thing in that Wilkinson piece I don’t agree with is your quoted “Labor… created sustainable funding for higher education through HECS”.

    I’ve always thought that was just a clever budget trick, a little like moving liabilities off balance sheet when you’ve no idea, or possibility, of ever funding them. Can’t find the reference at the mo’, but the amount outstanding is quite ridiculously large in future funding terms.

  4. Posted June 2, 2012 at 4:32 am | Permalink

    Great piece. I have always disliked the self-esteem movement; what you want is self-respect. Bullying shows lots of self-esteem (feeling good about yourself), not much self-respect (considering what you do in a wider context).

    Christos Tsiolkas’ piece is excellent too. As is normal in such pieces, the bits I find teeth-gratingly silly are where he does the left-flag-waving bit. Australia simply isn’t suffering high rates of fear and resentment; on the contrary, we are regularly polling as one of the happiest countries.

    Of course, the mindless inflation hawks who did so much to get the global economy into its current mess are indeed giving critiques of capitalism a new lease on life; just as their exact equivalents’ mindless adherence to the gold standard did in the 1930s. But chest-thumping certainty is unlikely to have good consequences for public policy no matter which direction it is coming from since it tends to be so indifferent to actual evidence.

  5. Posted June 2, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Quite so.

    On my comment, it turns out that “mindless inflation hawks” is not even hyperbole.

  6. TerjeP
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think I have ever seen a house that I regarded as too large. Even the Queens cottage in London looks cozy to me. So how people get off in mocking others for putting their resources into having a large home, all be it something of the cookie cutter variety, is a little beyond me. I grew up around communists who were into communism because they saw the great depression first hand, loathed poverty and dreamt of a world of prosperity. They may have been frightfully wrong about communism but at least they believed in material prosperity. Post 1989 it seems that a different type of lefty came to the fore. One that hates capitalism precisely because it delivers prosperity. WTF?

  7. kvd
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Just on that HECS thing, the latest figure I can find is $22Bn outstanding, reported April 2012. As to ‘provision for doubtful debts’ there’s mention of 28% – but that is from a 2006 budget estimates question, so it may have improved. But not to worry as I see it has now been renamed “Higher Education Loans Program”.

    The acronym HELP sort of rolls reassuringly off the tongue; a bit like how we are all comforted by having a Future Fund which actually isn’t.

  8. kvd
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I agree LE, and also those short form Bill titles. I believe my compulsive need to object would be somehow less of an issue if some government or other would just cut to the chase and introduce “A Bill For An Act To Ensure We Get Re-elected”.

  9. Posted June 2, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    The HECS system is actually pretty good (and far better than the current messes in the US and Britain). The funding shortfall is because there are too many universities and too many people go to university. And as the latest ONS data for the UK show, the value-add once conferred by a university education is only conferred on those who attend Oxbridge, Ancient Scottish or Russell Group. If Australia were any different on that score I would be very surprised (for the Australian ‘sandstone’ equivalent, + the ANU).

    I wrote about the issue here:

    And then actually had to provide the ONS data in the comments to people who seem to think that the law of diminishing returns does not apply to the increased provision of university education.

  10. kvd
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] yes, I remember that post, and looking at the comments I see that I made almost the same [email protected] that I made above. My comment is not directed to the ‘worth’ of education, more to the passing off of the ‘cost’ of same to some future budget process. The ‘funding shortfall’ as you term it is in part due to the fact that 1 in 4 dollars of HELP will probably never be recovered.

    This goes against the simple statement (not yours) that “Labor… created sustainable funding…”. As with the Future Fund, sooner or later the piper must be paid, and that is all I was saying.

  11. TerjeP
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    Better to recover 75% of the funds from the users rather than none of it as was briefly the case under the prior system.

    I think HECS should be used to recover medical costs that people incure under the Medicare system. Currently we recover 0% from the user. I’ve previously written on this here:-

  12. Mel
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve never bothered reading “bad” Peter Saunders because I simply assumed he was a typical CIS idiot. But now that I have read something he wrote I realise I was wrong; he isn’t an idiot, he’s mad:

    ” …. gay marriage will not bring the bourgeois social order crashing down, but it is one more step in Antonio Gramsci’s call in the 1930s for a revolutionary ‘march through the institutions.’ Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, realised that Western capitalism would not be destroyed by economic class struggle, for it is good at meeting people’s material needs. What was needed, therefore, was a long-term campaign against the core institutions through which bourgeois culture is transmitted to each generation. Break the hold of the churches, take over the media, subvert the schools and universities, and chip away at the heart of the citadel, the bourgeois family, and eventually, the whole system will fall.
    Gay marriage. Drip. Drip. Drip.”

    I’m glad you have axeheads like Saunders on your side, SL. Just make sure you keep them well tethered.

    Tsiolkas’ piece is proforma stuff and I think I’ve read the same claims at least ten times before. He appears to be a typically dull and shallow literary leftist and I have no doubt that many of his criticisms apply to the empty vessels within his social circle but apart from that my advice to him is Shut Up. Just Shut Up. And if you can’t Shut Up then go play with somebody on the right like Peter Saunders. You can bark and howl and hiss at each other until you both have sore throats.

  13. Posted June 3, 2012 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Not had your morning coffee yet, Mel? Or on the third cup?

  14. Mel
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I should have added some substance to justify my attack on Tsolkias. Sorry about that. I’m sure Christos is a nice guy but I don’t see even one example of originality or penetrating insight in what he wrote. I can think of left leaning philosophers, lawyers, economists and even one or two social scientists who are capable of saying something original and insightful but I can’t think of even one contemporary left wing literary figure who can do the same.

  15. Posted June 4, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Agree with pretty much everything here SL.

    One minor quibble though. I’m not sure what you mean by “The Left” when you use it in this article. eg (paraphrasing) “Finally someone from ‘the left’ saying this”.

    As you allude to with you SDA digression, there are plenty of people in the ALP who have been saying these things for years. I know because I am one and can name dozens of fellow travellers who think and speak the same way.

    (In fact I had a piece in the Labor Right journal making this core point just last month – ).

    I suspect that what you really meant by “The Left” is the legacy cultural commentariat who have self-appointed themselves as the sole judges of what is ‘left’ while ignoring the fact that the political arm of the progressive movement has largely left them behind.

    Feel free to set me straight otherwise…

  16. Posted June 4, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Tim (we have a lot of Tims!) I think you and Mel have both made a similar point, just in different ways – and I have been lazy in just reusing Tsiolkas’s tag ‘the left’ without thinking about it.

    Subject to reading your piece (which I am now going to do), the bit that did strike me as new in Tsiolkas’s piece was the observation about the nanny state bearing hardest on the poor (although it isn’t much fun for the rest of us). Until Wilkinson in Sydney, I had not heard that concession from anyone I associate with Labor, and certainly not anyone from Abbott’s school of big government conservatism.

  17. Mel
    Posted June 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink


    “Subject to reading your piece (which I am now going to do), the bit that did strike me as new in Tsiolkas’s piece was the observation about the nanny state bearing hardest on the poor (although it isn’t much fun for the rest of us).”

    I would argue that from a consequentialist perspective, the nanny state has been a striking success. Nanny policies like compulsory seat belts in cars, anti-tobacco measures, vaccination programs etc etc etc have saved countless thousands of lives while various income support programs have greatly reduced inequality while providing greater equality of opportunity and reducing crime, homelessness and so on.

    The fact that some nanny initiatives like the criminalisation of drugs haven’t worked (and I’ve reluctantly come around to your way of thinking on this issue) doesn’t indicate any inherent defect the philosophy of the welfare state.

    The welfare state has also done more to increase individual liberty than practically any other development over the same timeframe as it has allowed us to break down the previously extant and often onerous system of familiial bonds and atomise as individuals.

    Thank Gaia for Nanny. May she live long and prosper!!!

  18. Posted June 5, 2012 at 5:47 am | Permalink

    Apologies. It strikes me on reading the link that I posted that the edited down version of the piece I wrote de-emphasises the two themes that were more relevant to this discussion.

    The full version is here:

    In short, the piece was intended as an allegory for the contemporary ‘Left’ in the sense that Tsolikas uses it emphasising that the people that the progressive movement is trying to help need to be the starting point of politics and policy making rather than the subjects of ideological or trend-ite political re-education campaigns. The quotes from Gould’s book really emphasise this well I think.

  19. kvd
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] my family was never rich enough to afford a nanny. I guess times were tough, but we got by; made our own rules, learned our own lessons. That sort of thing.

  20. Mel
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the inane feedback, kvd. I’ll file it in the appropriate place.

  21. kvd
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Good idea Mel. I would lend you my file for all the pointless senseless inane government intrusions on my life if you wish, but it’s a bit full. If you waited for the nanny to tell you to wear a seatbelt, it’s about what I’d expect.

  22. Posted June 5, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    Gentlemen, I’m hoping this exchange is meant to be funny 😉

  23. mel
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, kvd. I think you’ve already told us about the ASIO men who keep trampling your rose bushes, the CIA men who jump out of helicopters onto your roof and the MI5 men who’ve been tampering with your brown parcel special mail deliveries. Best of luck with it all, old bean.

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  1. […] recently mentioned Christos Tsolkias' piece in her recent post on left-wing politics. At the end she said: Tsiolkas’s essay impressed me so much that I decided to review the book […]

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