Conspicuous Indignation

Christopher Sheil of late lamented BackPages fame, threw a cat among the pigeons in the thread on Che t-shirts. Chris coined the neat new theoretical concept “conspicuous indignation” to explain why right wing pundits and pollies get all steamed up without actually doing anything about the source of their ire.

Chris wrote:

Yeah, conspicuous indignation has become a kind of right-wing performance art. Loved the flamboyant little gig your crowd played over the disco-anthem in the run-up to New Year! Gave me a good belly laugh every day. An empty-headed outrage that achieved the usual zilch and is now well forgotten of course, but that’s not the point. Posturing as ordinary, patriotic, virtuous, down-trodden victims of traitorous, biased, hectoring, arrogant, sanctimonious, tree-hugging, big word-using, chards-guzzling, latte-mainlining, inner-city liberal elites is the whole performance art of the thing.

Your lot have been fulminating over the ABC since the dawn of time, or however long it has been since Howard was first elected. But it gets nowhere of course, for that would close the theatre, and then you’d have to find something else to act powerless over and get all furious about being betrayed by. One of the tricks is to get indignant over a cause you can never win. Meanwhile, back in the shadows, your government moves to further concentrate the already concentrated ownership of commercial media, but no-one is allowed to worry about that in the new PC. Perhaps Nowra’s onto something. If you ever get sick of uselessly complaining about the ABC and academics and journos that don’t toe your line, maybe the right could have a full-scale indignant re-run of the cold war now that its long over – a sort of post-modern McCarthyism. Can you imagine anything more pointless? Perfect! Might even further boost sales for the Che t-shirt, coffee mug, poster production line. That should keep the corporations happy while also safely maintaining the flow of fuel. Way to fulminate! Must be off – the chards will be cold by now.

Go read the whole thread for some brilliant writing by Chris where he further elaborates “conspicuous indignation”.

Chris is dead right. Reagan made it an art form with his stories of “welfare mothers on crack” etc. And the odd wink to the Christian right about school prayer without ever doing anything. The right needs cultural targets to keep their disparate constituencies on side. It’s far better if the target doesn’t really exist (eg militant secular humanists spoiling Christmas or latte-sipping elites despising battlers), or is a beat-up (PC Police) or is something that they have no intention of actually changing (eg abortion law). Thus the crusade can go on and on and on. The lack of action, as well as exhalting symbol over substance, helps preserve the illusion of powerful elites who stop these crusaders from implementing their battler-friendly and divinely inspired plans. And that nasty all dominant liberal media, of course. Of course, much of this conspicuous indignation is launched from that self-same media – Bolty, the Devine Miss M, Janet A, Piers, Hendo etc etc. Odd, isn’t it?

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Yobbo
2021 years ago

So what you’re saying is that because right-wingers choose not to make fucking idiots out of themselves by making big papier-mache marionettes and marching in the streets about every single issue that irks them, then they really aren’t serious about the things they’re complaining about?

Maybe they just realise that making other people’s lives a misery in order to get a point across isn’t the best way to go about things.

Fyodor
2021 years ago

Shame, really. I think I’d enjoy RWDB street theatre. There’d probably be a kick-ass BBQ and decent booze. Oh yeah, and naked chicks. Actually, it sounds a bit like Summernats…

Yobbo, you missed the point, which is that most of the indignancy is focused on non-issues. The reason why RWDBs didn’t march in the streets over the inadequacy of Sydney’s Christmas tinsel probably had something to do with the fact that it mean sweet FA.

Mark, maybe you should have called this post, “Manufacturing Dissent”.

blank
blank
2021 years ago

This seems to be variations on those “irregular verbs”.

I am firm
You are obsitinate
He is a pig-headed fool

I am sparkling.
You are unusually talkative.
He is drunk.

I daydream.
You are an escapist.
She ought to see a psychiatrist.

When one of “my lot” does it, it’s deeply felt,
when one of “the other lot” does it, it’s grand-standing.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

Nowra’s concern wasn’t about Che T shirts per se as Chris well knows. It was about whether or not there is any depth of understanding on the part of their wearers about the totalitarian nightmare inflicted on twentieth century humanity by ostensibly Communist regimes. I didn’t read it as “conspicuous indignation” any more than I would see Nowra as part of “the loony right” (talk about your ludicrously overblown critique) for making the observation.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2021 years ago

This is all getting a bit confused. The idea behind something being ‘conspicuous’ (consumption, compassion etc) was that it was essentially status-seeking, whereas in this post it is sliding over into rallying the troops (I can’t see what Henderson is doing in the list, incidentally).

And pundits, by definition, don’t “do” anything, they are commentators, not legislators. Perhaps you meant that their remedies ought to be more specific?

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Maybe I should have left Hendo off the list, Andrew.

Please note that I’m also talking about pollies – ie Abbott’s grandstanding on abortion. And pundits might like to come up with some positive policy suggestions for (for instance) dealing with sexual harrassment (rather than just condemning femo-nazis) or the future of public broadcasting (rather than just bagging the ABC).

David Tiley
2021 years ago

I love the idea of marionettes making Yobbo’s life a misery. Every day, struggling to get his morning coffee (oops, a latte) through the forest of papier mache Big Business Dragons, Bunyips of Reaction, stick insect Uncle Sam’s, terrorised artificial trees, and tricked up walking logos chanting about Indonesian children. Finally to be run over by a squadron of feminazi Prams Against the State.

Scott Wickstein
2021 years ago

I think ‘blank’ has hit the nail on the head, here.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2021 years ago

Geoff, “talk about your ludicrously overblown critique” is part of Chris’ point. On my reading, he’s trying to parody the “ludicrously overblown critique” characteristic of the Devine Miss M, Janet Albrechtsen, etc.

cs
cs
2021 years ago

Geoff, I can’t get sucked into another afternoon of comment in the sphere, but I think Nowra’s piece stands as a superb example of conspicuous indignation. ‘Conspicuous indignation’ has been perfected by the American right, but is also pervasive here, and is generally characterised by the level of moral outrage being pitched in inverse proportion to a recognition of the causes of the source of said indignation – getting indignant over hopeless or lost causes is the ideal foil. Anti-abortion is the sine qua non of the performance art of conspicuous indignation, having achieved an absolute inverse to its level of outrage, i.e. nothing. In this case, as I said in my first comment about Nowra on the earlier post, Che t-shirts are no more than another example of the long-entrenched long-recognised (yawn!) corporate commercialisation of dissent, a driving force which which Nowra has ignored. To get beyond being bagged for merely indulging in politically correct performance art surely requires some attention to the real world that produces the source of offence. Tom Frank wrote his book on the corporate Conquest of Cool about 10 years ago. Here’s an extract:

“… rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment, used to promote not only specific products but the general idea of life in the cyber-revolution. Commercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright “revolution” against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming. For some, Ken Kesey’s parti-colored bus may be a hideous reminder of national unraveling, but for Coca-Cola it seemed a perfect promotional instrument for its “Fruitopia” line, and the company has proceeded to send replicas of the bus around the country to generate interest in the counterculturally themed beverage. Nike shoes are sold to the accompaniment of words delivered by William S. Burroughs and songs by The Beatles, Iggy Pop, and Gil Scott Heron (“the revolution will not be televised”); peace symbols decorate a line of cigarettes manufactured by R. J. Reynolds and the walls and windows of Starbucks coffee shops nationwide; the products of Apple, IBM, and Microsoft are touted as devices of liberation; and advertising across the product category spectrum calls upon consumers to break rules and find themselves. The music industry continues to rejuvenate itself with the periodic discovery of new and evermore subversive youth movements and our televisual marketplace is a 24-hour carnival, a showplace of transgression and inversion of values, of humiliated patriarchs and shocked puritans, of screaming guitars and concupiscent youth, of fashions that are uniformly defiant, of cars that violate convention and shoes that let us be us. A host of self-designated “corporate revolutionaries,” outlining the accelerated new capitalist order in magazines like Wired and Fast Company, gravitate naturally to the imagery of rebel youth culture to dramatize their own insurgent vision … And from its very beginnings down to the present, business dogged the counterculture with a fake counterculture, a commercial replica that seemed to ape its every move for the titillation of the TV-watching millions and the nation’s corporate sponsors.”

Apparently the US has or at least had an ice-cream called The Cherry Guevara! Having safely immunised his critique from recognising where the trend comes from and what drives it (i.e. it’s bloody profitable), Nowra is going to be busy conspicuously fulminating for a very long time to come. Today it might just be politically cleansing t-shirts, but tomorrow it will be the latest commercial line of … underpants. Starbucks lies just over the horizon! Nowra’s morally outraged counter-revolution rolls fruitlessly, fulminatingly, foolishly on!

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2021 years ago

It was his reference to Louis Nowra as “loony right” that provoked my “overblown critque” assessment. But blank and Scott are on to it. One person’s hysterically overwrought polemic is frequently another’s thought-provoking and deeply-convincing analysis.

saint
saint
2021 years ago

Yeah and I think David is on to Yobbo.

Yobbo
2021 years ago

Actually the “Cherry Guevara” was sold in Australia by Streets. I wouldn’t be surprised if they stole the name from Ben & Jerry’s though.

Yobbo
2021 years ago
Francis Xavier Holden
2021 years ago

Its important not to hyperventilate over the Che image thing on T shirts. A lot of the younger ones just see it as another image that looks good. Just as images around of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley look good in that 70s rock way. I’ve seen kids with Che posters who have no idea who he is or what he did.

There was also a slight surge of interest in the Playboy bunny logo which sent oldish feminist mothers into Greerish rants and swearing, much to the bemusement of teenage daughters with no thoughts except that it looked ok to them.

There was also a brief fad for that naked stylised sitting girl that in my day was only seen on semi trailer mudflaps. I dont even know what brand it was. But not so long ago homies all over were wearing track suits emblazoned with it.

cs
cs
2021 years ago

Great link Yobbo. Love the wording on the ice-cream stick! (Don’t anyone dare tell Nowra I typed that!)

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2021 years ago

Fyodor, the reason why RWDB street theatre wouldn’t work in relation to the naked chicks is because with the economic rationalism principle of user pays, or more accurately in this case, self abuser pays, Peter Costello would be there collecting a tax for the wankers using the said vision.

This leads perfectly onto what c.s. was on about ie ”conspicuous indignation” being also ”conspicuous wankerism”

David Tiley
2021 years ago

In 1983, I met a researcher in Nicaragua who was working on a particular form of revolutionary folk/pop song which had circulated before and during the Sandanista revolution, rather like the garage reggae of the same period.

He was looking for the copyright holders, and was stunned to discover that CBS had gone around the country and bought the rights to the lot. The musos needed money, and someone at CBS had taste.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2021 years ago

Mmm, on second thoughts, to be fair, a lefty street theatre with naked chicks and Keating would have seen the premature emissioners charged with a fringe benefits tax !

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