Mark Davis is not a happy man. I bought his book Gangland a while back – turns out to be ten years ago – and it seemed quite interesting, and perhaps on a worthy theme. But it was strangely dissatisfying nevertheless. Now a piece in the Saturday mags edited from Davis’s Overland Lecture to be given on May 26th at the Emerging Writers Festival conjures up my earlier mixed feelings. I think they can be summed up like this – plenty of Davis’s complaints are fair enough. But I doubt if they’re well placed as generational complaints and that in fact Davis’s critique of an earlier generation is gravely limited by its own obeisance to the values of those it critiques.
They’re complaints about the fact that once people get their hooks into institutions those institutions tend to reflect their values and their interests and that’s a pity – but it’s not news. There are plenty of people in all generations suffering from the dominance of a few in our cultural elite and many of those who are suffering are baby boomers.
It might be true that the baby boomer generation had a kind of royal ride into dominance – being the harbingers of a major change of sensibility kicked off in the 60s and entrenched in the 1970s and early 1980s. They came in on a wave of confidence in their own new ways of seeing things backed up by new music, new economic possibilities and the economic security of a generation determined to redbuild their world after the devastation of the second world war.
I think Mark Davis wants to be part of a similarly charmed generation. But assuming his assertions are true that the baby boomer generation had it pretty good, he’s not so lucky – and most generations are not. So what? Sitting as I do somewhere between the baby boomers and Generation X, neither am I. But so what? You win some you lose some. I don’t think I’ve got many grounds for complaint. I think that younger people are somewhat unlucky in terms of generational economics. Baby boomers got the best of ‘pay as you go’ government financing picking up free university education and then imposing HECs on the next generation. More outrageous things are being done right now to subsidise rich retirees and future retirees by a Treasurer who is younger than me and tells us all about the challenges of intergenerational equity. On the other hand as a matter of sheer economic buying power each generation massively out purchases and outconsumes the next – so I can’t get too worked up about it.
But other than the interpolation of the word ‘economic’ in a few sentences we hear nothing of this from Davis.
Younger people with talent are of course constantly picked up in the media and by our instutions.
Davis gives us a long list of journos from the 70s who remain with us today. But a journalist like Kerry O’Brian for instance didn’t get a particularly easy ride to the top. At least from memory he was Lionel Murphy’s press secretary (not such a hard gig to get) but then settled down to the grind of senior TV journalism until got his big breaks in the 1980s. Lateline was (I’m assuming) his idea (a reworking of the Carleton-Walsh report) in the way that The Footy Show was Eddie Maguire’s reworking of older genres. Both did them better than their predecessors, were hard workers and perseverers. One was a baby boomer. One is a Gen Xer.
Working hard and well for a long time – and talent and a bit of luck has its rewards in all generations. And institutions – whether they’re in government or the market – don’t tend to trash things that are going well. Being as good as Kerry is he’s hung on. And like Eddie, he’s had his ups and downs and will continue to have them.
For another contrast we don’t hear of new cultural institutions like Crikey!. Christian Kerr and Stephen Mayne are doing exciting things not unlike the baby boomers. They’re having more mainstream impact at a younger age than lots of the people in Davis’s list. But Davis doesn’t mention them. Oddly that old baby boomed fossil Philip Adams does.
Crikey! was founded by a Gen Xer or maybe a Y-er. It’s surely a more exciting development than New Matilda which Davis does mention – founded by a septugenarian. (I say that with no disrespect to its founder – a man whom I greatly admire (I hope I’ll be as useful and youthful as he and others like Fred Argy are now when I’m their age) but I think New Matilda went sadly astray and represents a dull 70s style reflex soft-left orthodoxy.
The weird thing about Davis and about his earlier book Gangland is that it is so redolent of what it critiques. While it complains about the sensibilities and cultural dominance of the baby boomers it provides such slight coverage of a whole new world opening up by and for new generations (well actually for all of us who have the get up and go to be part of it – if you’re reading this you’re a small part of it).
The categories he employs are so dated – so seventies. I guess the term ‘neoliberal’ of which Davis makes much, came into wide use after the 1970s but it’s use usually – and I would say in this case – signifies a kind of reflex leftism that became dominant – one might even say rampant in the 1970s. I think one of the achievements of generations younger than mine is to have left this infantile stuff pretty much behind. When I was at uni being left wing was cool (like wearing your jeans low at school and being right wing was – eeewww – daggy. Now we’ve gotten over that. It’s not, in my opinion all good, but it’s certainly swept a lot of nonsense into the dustbin . . . or so I’d hoped.
Here’s Davis arguing where the “critics fall down”
they blame young people without being able to critique the political economy that underpins the carnage in Iraq and user-pays market populism, and that puts young people in the economic and social firing line.
(By way of aside, there’s a lot in the piece about the demonisation of young people. I’ve ignored this here largely because I can’t say I’ve noticed it particularly (it’s surely more muted than it was when the baby-boomers were young) and most of what he argues in this regard is not at all well documented – even given the limitations of space in a weekend supplement. But I digress. . . )
Davis’s claims might or might not be true – I’m not too sure what it means, but what these throwaway lines – what’s “user-pays market populism” for Christ’s sake? But they remind me of the lazy cliches served up by many of the left leaning baby boomer pundits.
Throughout it all I kept wondering when the blogosphere would turn up. It barely rates a mention. There’s a list of new talent with a few names drawn from the blogosphere and then in the last column we hear of Lavatus Prodeo, Catallaxy and The Road to Surfdom.
It’s odd that this stuff comes in only to round off the complaint. Davis could have written the piece in a very different way – and perhaps in a way that I’m thinking and hoping might be more typical of younger generations – both now and more generally. As a pean to the new dawn and as a bit of an ironic laugh that the oldies don’t yet ‘get it’. There’s so much going on in culture as in the economy and technology that’s new and exciting. Instead it features as a very muted counterpoint. And while the blogs chosen are (from my limited knowledge) the right ones if one is focusing on bloging about political ideas, why aren’t any of the cultural blogs on the list. Sarsaparilla, Matilda or Theatre Notes for instance.
And Davis’s list of new talent certainly has some good talent in it. But of those known to me, on my estimation at least one has very very little to announce other than their publication of a book the main feature of which is to demonstrate their own impatience to get attention.
Here’s Davis again:
In a society that is increasingly oriented around ideas of fear and difference, youth and the idea of unruly fanaticism have become intrinsically linked, and youthfulness has become emblematic of social decline and a marker of “otherness”.
Well I don’t know. Certainly it’s a reasonable description of mainstream political discourse since things started going John Howard’s way in the culture wars – around the Tampa and 9/11. But its a very impoverished description of the social, cultural and economic possibilities facing young people (and to a lesser extent) us all today. The society is also increasingly oriented around opportunity, entrepreneurialism, openness. There’s also today a welcome rejection of excessive focus on victimhood as a 70s cliche we can do without.
But not for Davis who’s still way back in the 1970s. Here he is on aborigines:
Young people who are members of marginalised ethnic groups such as young Aborigines and young Lebanese men, can pay a comparatively heavy price, doubly scapegoated, first because of their race and again by the economic factors and stereotyping that can affect young people. Take the recent case of the 14-year-old girl beaten by five and raped by three, then left to die alone in an Alice Springs street where she lay for a day observed and ignored by passers-by. Had she been white there would have been a national outcry. What she suffered would also be much less likely to have happened in the first place. Poor education and training facilities, poor health care, and stagnating economic conditions are, according to recent studies, all part of everyday life for both urban and tribal Aborigines, especially young people, who suffer other, specific depredations. Young Aboriginal men, for example, suffer incarceration rates 17 times that of the white population.
What struck me about this passage was its embrace of aboriginal victimhood and passivity. I know in this unregulated space I will be taken by many to be making a ‘right wing’ point, but what’s missing from these descriptions is aboriginal agency. Who was it that raped the 14 year old girl? I don’t know but if it’s a typical rape of an aboriginal girl, there’s an unfortunately large chance that it was by an aboriginal. Likewise, it shouldn’t be ‘right wing’ to point out that along with the much higher incarceration rate there’s a much higher crime rate amongst aborigines.
It defies belief that worthwhile solutions to these terrible problems can come if those facts aren’t at the forefront of the discussion and our commonsense. It seems irresponsible for Davis as with so many left leaning baby boomers (unlike the previously left leaning but younger Noel Pearson for instance) to even mention the one without the other. For without this how can one convey the sense that the solutions to these problems are unlikely to emerge until they are driven by aborigines taking control of and responsibility for their own communities (hopefuly with help of any kind the rest of the community can offer). I’m actually not sure what the passage on aborigines is doing in Davis’s essay at all. The examples are of young people but it’s really about another itself massively vexed subject of how to better the lives of aborigines. (I’m buggered if I know, but I can’t see any promising leads here – just the usual hitching of the noble savage to one’s bandwagon).
Young people themselves don’t escape Davis’s pacifying gaze.
What’s needed is a fuller critique of neoliberal market populism. For example, any depoliticisation of young people has occurred against the background of a wider depoliticisation of society in an era of conservative economic and social policies. Many people, including many young people, have retreated from a process they see as cynical and micro-managed. The handover of more and more social functions to “market forces” has for many people effectively undermined their own sense of having political agency or a participatory role in the public sphere. It’s against this sense of powerlessness that mythologies of political agency mired in the 1960s remain so potent. And if some young people have indeed become apolitical, self-obsessed, or brand-obsessed, then this should be no surprise. Nor should they be blamed. Marketed to from birth, identified as customers when they are toddlers, constructed as a demographic by the time they are “tweens” (it’s no accident that much of the research on X and Y is by or on behalf of advertising agencies), they are offered little in the way of social agency other than as consumers and, because of their youthfulness, the consumed.
Well I don’t know anyone who wants to ‘blame’ young people for their situation (which I’m arguing is OK). Blame doesn’t sound particularly apposite. But that’s because ‘blame’ is not a nice thing rhetorically. But today as was the case yesterday, as was the case for the baby boomers, young people are brought up and into a world constructed by an earlier generation. Then the young become agents. I don’t want to ‘blame’ anyone, but young people are their own agents. They have all sorts of opportunities that were not open to baby boomers or even to me until very recently – like the internet to tell us and each other what they’re thinking. Like greater wealth even if it’s more skewed towards the wealthy the young are still much better off today than they were a generation ago. The baby boomers were brought up to get steady jobs and become doctors and lawyers but some of them rejected that and created a different space for themselves. That’s what a lot are doing today – in software, in business, on the internet.
I reckon lots is going on and that young people (and the not so young) are cooking up all sorts of things and that maybe, perhaps, Mark Davis doesn’t get it.