Will You Please Be Quiet About Cory Bernardi, Please?

As Bernardi’s brain-farts become ‘a thing’ on social media, they get reported and amplified elsewhere, and suddenly questions long since closed are opened again.

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Have you heard about Cory Bernardi’s new book, The Conservative Revolution? No? This guy! You wouldn’t believe the crazy things he says!

He says women use abortion as “an abhorrent form of birth control”! He says Islam is incompatible with the Western way of life! He thinks only married hetero couples should have kids and that single mothers raise criminals and sluts! He thinks that the “green agenda” is a threat to Christianity! What a wingnut! Hey, have you seen all of those amazing one-star reviews of his book on Amazon? ROFLCOPTER, amirite? Man, he’s just had his arse handed to him—

Look, you have an internet connection, ergo you’ve heard about Cory Bernardi’s latest brain-fart. You’ve probably tweeted about it, or at least laughed at that unspeakably filthy tweet by Benjamin Law about it. You’ve probably already read Lenore Taylor on Bernardi, seen all the funny .gifs in Clementine Ford’s response to Bernardi, and hated on Helen Razer because she wrote something that doesn’t unequivocally add to the chorus of lefties baying for Bernardi’s blood. (You probably haven’t read the book itself, but that’s for the best — why on earth would you want to inflict that on yourself?)

Four days after The Conservative Revolution lit up the Twittersphere and the news media, Van Badham kept the story alive with her analysis of it at Women’s Agenda. A whole week after the story broke — that’s about two years in internet time — Fairfax has gotten in on the action by publishing three asinine op-eds about Cory Bernardi, ranging from the predictably contrarian (Paul Sheehan) to the hyperbolically unfunny (John Birmingham) to the cynically opportunistic (Melinda Tankard Reist). We’re still talking about Cory Bernardi. For the love of god, why are we still talking about Cory Bernardi?

Can we all just shut up about Cory Bernardi? Please?

It’s not that I’m a Cory Bernardi fanboy who wants this incident swiftly forgotten so his odious views can avoid the supposed disinfectant properties of sunlight. It’s not that I disagree with the analyses linked above — I think that Taylor, Ford, Razer, and Badham all have salient points to make. It’s not even that I’m heartily sick of the outrage reflex that rules so much social media at the moment, and the way it has turned the entire internet into a “supermassive faphole”, as Liam Pieper has put it.

It’s that we’re doing Cory Bernardi’s work by getting outraged. So if you, like me, think that Cory Bernardi is a dangerous wingnut with offensive views about a variety of subjects you hold dear, then please shut up about him. Don’t tweet at him to say you’re a single mother with a PhD in rocket surgery and two virgin, law-abiding children in the Prometheus Society. Don’t post his office phone number on Facebook and encourage women to call him to ask if they should have the pulled pork and kimchi slider or the tofu bánh mì because, lol, he thinks women shouldn’t be allowed to choose. Don’t even share a link to that funny takedown of him. Just shut up.

Cory Bernardi Is Not Aldi

In order to examine why we should all just shut up about Cory Bernardi, I’m going to rely heavily on one of the articles I think shouldn’t have been written and published about Cory Bernardi — not because it’s egregiously wrong, but because its analysis of the situation is actually spot-on. Van Badham’s piece in Women’s Agenda very cannily recognises the structural role that Bernardi is playing in the current Liberal Party: that of a “stalking horse”. Noting the similarity between Bernardi’s current role as the lunar right pugilist in the Liberal Party’s ranks — and Tony Abbott and Pauline Hanson’s similar roles (one inside the party, one outside) during John Howard’s prime ministership — Badham argues that Bernardi’s role is to draw out the crazies in the electorate, while maintaining plausible deniability for Abbott should the move backfire. “A stalking horse in politics is considered to be an outlier whose expressions of belief or declarations of support are used to flush out sympathisers or dissidents without a leader having to expose their own position,” she writes.

“In this light, it’s worth reviewing not only Bernardi’s recent statements alongside the past couple of years of Abbott’s own glib political pronouncements, but also to consider what the election of Australia’s first female prime minister exposed so sharply about the Australian electorate. Where Bernardi rails against homosexuality, Abbott refused his caucus a conscience vote on equal marriage. Where Bernardi campaigns for the heteronormative family unit, Abbott has said a bad husband is better than no husband. Now, re-read the statement from Abbott’s office about Bernardi’s book: there is a vast difference between a statement that condemns the behaviour of a senator and one that offers the gentle recognition that a backbencher’s words are not government policy.”

Not only this, but Badham also recognises that the current situation is nothing but a win-win for crazy Cory: “Whether Bernardi is in fact a stalking horse, or is merely a far-right representative spewing noise from a pulpit that he’s stumbled up to by event of a factional freak, he has nothing to lose and only profile and supporters to gain from his present activities.”

So what’s the correct response to the Liberal Party using Bernardi as a stalking horse to reignite old conflagrations and flush out Australia’s nutty far-right? For Badham, “If Abbott is watching to see what Bernardi reveals of the electorate, overwhelming rejection and activist outrage must be expressed loudly enough to scare both the horses [Bernardi] and hunters [Abbott] away.” Thus Badham argues we should encourage those “Twitterarti”  who “enter the fray with outrage at full-froth” and boo the “contrarian naysayers” who “pooh-poohed the furore as disproportional to Bernardi’s offence.”

In short, in order to contain the threat of a Bernardi we must proceed as usual: mock him with Spongebob Squarepants .gifs, write erotic fan fiction about his trysts with a St. Bernard, tweet about our own moral superiority to Bernardi, and — I wish I were joking — create a petition asking Bernardi to be removed from the Liberal Party’s South Australia senate ticket. Most of all, we should keep up the pressure on Bernardi by loudly proclaiming our own morally righteous views, which will let Tony Abbott know that this lunar-right ploy doesn’t win votes. (The cynically-minded among us might note that Badham’s remedy would further stoke the internet hate machine, which entails more clicks and commissions for her own opinion pieces.)

The problem with this approach is that nobody can publicise Cory Bernardi’s idiocy without simultaneously providing a platform for his idiotic viewpoints. You, the reader, already know exactly what Cory Bernardi says about single mothers, abortions, Muslims, the Greens, and the gays — either because you’ve already encountered the frothy, frothy outrage of the Twittersphere, or because I told you these views at the start of this article. As more people get outraged by Bernardi’s idiocy and share articles condemning him, his views become more widespread. As the Twitterstorm builds, mainstream media will feed on the continued outrage and amplify this crank’s opinion even further. (And yes, I’m fully aware of the awful paradox that in asking everyone to shut up about Cory Bernardi in order not to publicise his abhorrent views, I’m guilty of talking about Cory Bernardi and therefore publicising his abhorrent views.) Worse, nobody will be convinced not to hold views like Bernardi’s because they read that righteous opinion piece about how Bernardi’s views are misogynist — anyone who cares enough to feel the sting of implied misogyny will already profoundly disagree with Bernardi.

What will happen is that this widening gyre of political discourse will expose Bernardi’s views to people who might be inclined to agree with him but wouldn’t have heard of him or his stupid book otherwise. And for these people lefty outrage is like Sriracha: it enlivens even the dullest meal. Clem Ford hates it? Good, I like it. Philip Adams is wringing his hands about it? I’ll have two, thanks.

The strategic error here is thinking that Cory Bernardi is susceptible to public shame when he is not. Barring a double dissolution or constitutional crisis, his position as a senator is secure for the next six years. Will you remember The Conservative Revolution six years from now? To put it another way, can you name the key players in the Lindsay pamphlet scandal without Googling it?

Cory Bernardi is therefore not like Aldi, who recently (and rightfully) bowed to social media pressure to remove racist and historically dubious t-shirts from its stores. No matter what dumb shit Bernardi says, Abbott will not be forced to dump him from the Liberal Party: Abbott can just cite the “broad church” mantra and remind everyone that Bernardi is not in a position of party power. Warren Entsch will get good guy points by rehearsing an old — and slyly homophobic* — argument about how it’s the rabid homophobes who you have to look out for. The outrage machine will power on, more frothily outraged opinion pieces will be commissioned — quick! quick! copy before noon, please, we want it to hit Twitter while everyone’s on their lunch break! — and we bien pensant left will pass endlessly through the great “ouroboros of shit”.

Meanwhile readers of the Herald Sun will get a free advertisement for Bernardi’s braindead book, and we’ll have achieved exactly the opposite of what our outrage set out to do.

* To quote D. A. Miller’s essay ‘Sontag’s Urbanity’: “As anyone adept in the bon usage of homophobia knows, too much of it is as apt to be thought to betray homosexual desire as too little; becoming a fully entitled man in our society … means not just learning homophobia, but also learning to acquire the calculation-become-intuition that would moderate it, or rather silence its expression just short of the point where it might start to show.”

Reframing The Debate, Or Why This Matters

At this point you might be tempted to ask what the harm is, if nobody is going to wind up thinking anything different to what they thought before. Ignoring the very substantive issue of how the internet polarises debate and the corrosive effects this has on public discourse (and, by extension, contemporary democracy itself), the key harm in publicising Bernardi’s views is that his lunar right views are reframing the debates about issues such as the role of the Greens in Australian politics and gay marriage — or, in the case of abortion and single parenting, reigniting debates long thought won by the left. As Bernardi’s brain-farts become ‘a thing’ on social media, they get reported and amplified elsewhere, and suddenly the question of whether or not a woman is morally allowed to control her own reproductive system is open again, as though the entire goddamn twentieth century and second-wave feminism didn’t happen.

This is in fact already happening. Nearly all of News Limited’s coverage of The Conservative Revolution features an autoplay video of Bernardi in discussion with News Limited journalist (and fellow South Australian) Tory Shepherd about abortion. A debate that we had thought was settled in Australia is suddenly legitimate again, and the false equivalency that news organisations thrive off — you know, the same false equivalency that sees climate change deniers debating scientists on air despite the preponderance of evidence that climate change is already here and it could get very nasty indeed — means that the debate is going to be to sane, moderate feminists versus those who want women to be walking babymakers and damn the consequences. On this score there is no opposing rabidly left view: nobody currently seriously proposes that abortions are a good thing and we all should have more of them (although the argument does appear occasionally as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the pearl-clutching of anti-abortion activists). Reasonable observers, believing as they do that the truth lies somewhere in-between, will think that maybe the best solution is not to ban all abortions, but ban only the bad kind — maybe just those where no rape or incest was involved. Or maybe we should just make it super-difficult and expensive to get one — that’ll teach those slutty girls who use it as a convenience, but anyone who really needs one will be able to get it.

And so the ground will be prepared for a gradual erosion of women’s reproductive rights, even if the endpoint is not actually Bernardi’s wet dream of a nation of up-the-duff women. This is why it’s vitally important for us on the left to handle Bernardigate carefully.

This is not to say that those of us on the left cannot or should not use our anger and outrage where appropriate: anger and outrage are powerful emotions, and when productively harnessed they are the lifeblood of progressive social movements. This is not a ‘tone police’ argument, asking the left to play nice with social conservatives because nobody likes an angry whiner. Rather, it is an impassioned plea to recognise the circumstances where expressing our anger and revulsion at abhorrent statements — and yes, Bernardi’s statements are abhorrent — is actually aiding and abetting our political foes.

Mocking Bernardi on Facebook, calling his office to ask if you should get a flat white or a caffè latte, or sulking on Twitter about how your non-traditional family turned out just fine is exactly what Cory Bernardi wants you to do. So please, if you hate Cory Bernardi as much as I do, if you want to get back at him, if you want him to go away — please please please just shut up about him.

UPDATE: The Conservative Revolution has just won a second print run. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. He is the current Festival Manager of the National Young Writers’ Festival and has recently written for The AustralianThe Lifted BrowKillings (the blog of Kill Your Darlings), Meanjin andThe Quietus amongst others.