19 September 2005

Bloggers for Broggers

by Matt Rubinstein at 7:17 am

No, of course I’m not in favour of former NSW Liberal leader John Gilbert Brogden MP—I’ll just do anything for a rhyme, as anybody who’s still reading Equinox will already know. But I’m not 100% against him either.

On Monday, when news of his foolish, boozy night first broke, I was naturally appalled but mostly surprised: I’d always found him an unconvincing opposition leader, numbingly reliable in his appearance after every government announcement to carp on about how that proved once and for all how evil Bob Carr was. But he always seemed very controlled, which didn’t make me like him any better, but made his meltdown seem somewhat left-field. Then on Tuesday, when I heard he’d resigned, I almost felt sorry for him. Here was a guy who never even sounded like he believed he had a chance to beat Labor in NSW—no matter how shrill and frequent his protests—until Carr checked out, giving him at least a fighting chance against the low-profile Member for Lakemba (see?). And the first thing he does when that happens is pound a couple of celebratory beers and shoot himself immediately in the foot (not so bad until you remember his foot was lodged firmly in his mouth). It’s almost tragic.

And then on Wednesday, when it came out that he’d tried to harm himself, of course I really did feel sorry for him. I think he did the right thing by resigning, though he did it because he found himself suddenly unelectable rather than for reasons of remorse or honour (otherwise he would have resigned as soon as he sobered up and remembered what he’d done, not when it was reported). But he didn’t deserve to wind up in hospital over it.

The circumstances of his disgrace have prompted some interesting responses. Anne Summers wonders whether the “mail-order bride” slur really was racist, or at least whether it was more racist than sexist:

The stereotype of the mail-order bride in this country is of an Asian woman, often from the Philippines, whose economic circumstances are so dire that she feels no choice but to enter into a so-called mail-order marriage. Such women these days are just as likely to come from Russia or Eastern Europe. In other words, what characterises a mail-order bride is not that she is Asian but that she is poor. Oh, and that she’s a woman.

Brogden might have had in mind to racially slur Helena Carr, and his comments have been described by her husband, Bob, as a “cruel insult against all Asian women” but let’s not forget that they were also deeply sexist. A smear of Helena Carr will of course risk having racist overtones because she is Asian, but she is also a woman and entitled to equal respect as such.

Now this strikes me as perhaps a bit opportunist—everyone wants to be outraged by Brogden’s behaviour for their own reasons (Australia Post has also complained about the slur against things ordered through the mail). Yes, Helena Carr is entitled to equal respect as a woman; but not every insult levelled at a woman is sexist. This one is in the same way that “soccer mom”, “gold-digger” and “princess” are: sure, kind of, since they refer primarily to women, but they’re all more directly about other things. And Brogden’s comment in particular was, I think, overwhelmingly racist.

Of course his real intention wasn’t to insult Helena Carr but to insult Bob Carr—by implying that the former premier lacked the mettle to find himself a wife through the ordinary channels. And that’s deeply sexist, the idea of reducing a woman to a symbol of her husband’s masculinity or whatever, but that doesn’t seem to be what Summers is getting at. And but the only reason Brogden could even try to marshall an insult to Helena into an attack on Bob is that she’s from a region stereotypically associated with that kind of postal arrangement. He might even have tried it on if she were Russian, I don’t know. The unifying characteristic of mail-order brides might be that they’re poor, but the trait that Brogden latched onto is that some of them are Asian, and so is Helena Carr. You can’t say that calling someone a “lazy Abo” isn’t racist because plenty of other people are lazy. Once you’ve implied something insulting about someone based on the person’s race, or insultingly attributed a characteristic to the person’s race in general, that’s a racist insult.

Which also makes it weird that people are running around pointing out that Helena Carr is highly educated and intelligent and a successful businesswoman and lived in Australia for years before she met Bob—that’s all entirely beside the point. In fact it comes very close to buying into the underlying racism. If someone tells you that Herschel is a cheap kike, the answer isn’t to list Herschel’s contributions to charity and generous tipping practices and insist that he’s not one of the cheap kikes; the answer is, “You racist fuck!” Here, Helena Carr doesn’t need defending: there hasn’t been a serious suggestion that she personally is or was a mail-order bride; there’s only been a racist remark, which is to be condemned but not engaged with.

Of course, Brogden did other bad things that night at the Marble Bar, and Summers correctly points out that the racial slur has been seen as much more damning than the propositions and groping. Sun-Herald journalist Angela Cuming was one of Brogden’s targets, and she told her story this week, partly in response to his later claim that he was joking and didn’t mean to hit on her:

I said: “Hi, John” and started to ask him about his chances of taking western Sydney Labor seats. He then stopped me by raising one hand.

He slipped one arm around the small of my back, leant down and said: “Enough of that. Are you available?” I must have looked startled, as did my colleague.

I stumbled out some reply on the lines of: “No, I have a boyfriend, thanks very much.”

Brogden certainly comes off as a sleazebag here, but I still can’t help feeling that the racism was worse. Maybe the reason is somewhere in here:

I, like every other girl in Sydney, is used to the odd drunken suit throwing out a dodgy pick-up line in a bar on a Friday night. It makes me feel uncomfortable any time, as I believe women have a right to a night out without being harassed.

Yes, they do: but people go out to pubs in large part to be around other people, and these other people aren’t just wallpaper—there’s a chance they might want to talk to you. For every group that just wants to be left alone, there’s a group that wouldn’t mind interacting with the other humans and is maybe a bit disappointed that everyone’s so damned unfriendly around here—and it’s not easy to tell the two groups apart. Human interaction is a difficult thing, and the rules are complicated (hey, just like grammar!) but the underlying premise is a reasonably sound one: we’re all trying to get along, and at least some of the time we’re trying to pick each other up. Nothing wrong with that, as long as everyone respects the rules (again, like grammar).

John Brogden has a family, and so his behaviour was rotten. The public has long been tolerant of politicians’ infidelities but I think they probably shouldn’t be: honesty and commitment are important to high office and it does
seem to be one of those jobs where the quality of your personal dealings is relevant to the discharge of your duties. Brogden also broke the rules: you’re supposed to ask a woman whether she’s available before you grope her, not after; that’s just common sense. But this was a social setting, not a workplace, and Brogden never had any power to abuse—as a journalist, Cuming probably could have mopped the floor with him. So his sleazy behaviour might seem more like the perversion, or even just the inappropriate manifestation, of a fundamentally acceptable drive to social and sexual interaction, and perhaps if not forgivable then at least understandable given the minefield that that can be.

Whereas racism is just nasty to the core, and racist remarks can really reveal something deep-down wrong with a person. It can’t be interpreted as over-enthusiasm; there’s nothing defensible about it and so perhaps it should be judged as more serious than some other excesses. I’m glad that as a country we have so little truck with explicit racism; certainly there is systemic and underlying racism all over the place, but at least we’re not cheerfully racist in the way that some cultures are or have been, and we won’t tolerate it in our elected (or repeatedly non-elected) leaders. That may not be much, but it’s something.

Which brings me to the end, I promise. Many people have asked whether Brogden’s transgressions were so much worse than those of John Howard, and further afield George W Bush and Tony Blair, who keep on getting elected despite their unwavering perfidy. It’s a reasonable question. Certainly nobody has died as a result of Brogden’s big night out; no countries have been invaded. He may have made racist comments but he hasn’t promoted a nationwide culture of xenophobia. I don’t know why he’s been pinged while the rest have got off without so much as a warning. Perhaps it’s because people believe that Howard et al really have their best interests at heart, and don’t mind if they blatantly lie about some or all of the details; whereas it’s not possible to conceive of any end to justify Brogden’s behaviour. Who knows. The answer, of course, isn’t to let Brogden off the hook but to hold the others accountable too. I’d like to think that Broggers’s resignation will usher in a new age in which politicians are punished for their outrages, but I’m not a complete idiot.

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