Monday, 3 September 2012

The unvenerable bede

This article (minus some few alterations) was originally published in Tertangala: The Environment Issue on Monday 23 July 2012. You can read Bede's reply in the September Gender and Sexuality Issue.

Cover photography by Wilfred Russel-Smith, design by Lisa Diebold.

Our enmity began, I suppose, in the first year of our studies in Creative Writing. I can’t speak for his feelings about me, but I liked him at first. He was congenial, laughed readily, and was curiously, almost deliberately, polite. For me, antipathy grew out of the tinge of egotism I sensed increasingly with every interaction, and with the hostility he had earned from a number of those I respected. A friend he dated. Two girls he’d attempted to play off against one another, telling each of them he was interested in the other. There was talk of a friendship that ended over comments he’d made that were insensitive to a victim of severe illness. And then it became apparent that we disagreed on basically every point that meant anything to me, which didn’t help either. 

No great creative talent, he dropped out of the course by second year, transferring to a degree I suspect he could tell himself was more ‘useful’. And from then on I had little contact with him, except further occasional reports from friends and acquaintances, and encounters with his writings in Tertangala that did little to inflate him in my estimation. Plus whatever I saw of his activities on Facebook, where I made a habit of not engaging with him, often resisting the urge to comment on his political updates due to the diametric opposition of our opinions in that field. The one time I broke that rule was when he initiated the exchange by inviting me to a Facebook event fundraiser for the Liberal Party, which I promptly declined, writing on the wall, ‘Definitively no’ (terse, yes, but it was my genuine RSVP to the invitation). He later sent me a message asking me please not to ‘spam’ his events in the future, and smugly prophesied that I’d ‘vote liberal [sic] one day’ (read: when I grow up and snap out of my naive youthful idealism and get a mortgage in the real world). 

So imagine my surprise when he ran for local council in Wollongong. And won. It’s unfathomable to me how Ward 3 elected Councillor Bede Crasnich. I can only presume it was down to voter backlash against the pre-Administration Labor government in combination with widespread community disengagement with local politics, because it certainly wasn’t this slick campaign video on YouTube (160 views at last count), in which he demonstrates his complete inability to speak fluently for twenty-five seconds. 


Which leads me to my point. As social media has become more important in all of our lives, so too has it become a valuable and dangerous political tool. Memorably, Kevin Rudd used it to great effect in his Kevin07 campaign to juxtapose himself against a John Howard increasingly regarded as out-of-touch. But as Bowing MP Andrew Laming has warned, such benefits are ‘balanced by the political risk of missteps’. Laming himself ran afoul of this risk when he last year drew criticism for liking the Facebook page ‘How’s Julia Gillard going to run the country from the kitchen?’, while Queensland state Labor MP Jason O'Brien, former Liberal Party candidate David Barker and former Queensland Party candidate Ray Cole have all been dismissed for inappropriate and, in Barker’s case, racist online remarks

It’s clear, then, that politicians need to be conscious of their online behaviour, something Bede Crasnich is emphatically not. I won’t pretend to be a political journalist (not even an aspiring one), but what I can offer is a more personal insight into Councillor Crasnich’s online presence, which I think speaks for itself as an indictment against his unsuitability for the role of an elected official. 

The first thing I heard about Bede after the election was from a friend whose mother had run against him with the local party Community Voice. She informed me of Bede’s petty and underhanded attempts to discredit the party, claiming he’d gone so far as to confront his opponent in public about her plans, and passing on a Facebook message he’d sent to the party regarding one of their events: 

Hey, I found this event offensive. Please remove the event or content posted that may potentially be harmful. 
this group is responsible for hate speech and anti-semitic [sic] remarks 
this groups [sic] members are violent and hostile towards people whose politics they do not agree with. 
this group isnt [sic] a registered political party. 
they are not running in the elections specified. 
if you check with the NSW Electoral commision [sic] they are not a registered group running. 

Can you imagine Julia Gillard doing this? Malcolm Turnbull? Even Tony Abbott? No? Perhaps that’s too far removed. What about Ryan Park, the Illawarra electorate of Keira's state MP? Or Gordon Bradbury, the Lord Mayor of Wollongong? Yes, ‘it’s only local government’, but if we want our local representatives to transcend this kind of petty schoolyard behaviour, to leave behind the moral schlock of the infamously corrupt pre-Administration government and, indeed, if we want our greater national discourse to escape the bog of smut and negativity in which it is currently steeped, we’re going to need to hold our politicians to a higher standard, and we’re going to need to do so from the bottom up. 

More recently Bede sighted me and a companion entering the Wollongong Public Library (which shares a building with Council) for the launch of a lecturer’s novel. He later sent that companion a message on Facebook: ‘we still let lefties use the tom thumb room despite being bastards’. Apparently he had seen somewhere that UOW’s Faculty of Creative Arts had booked the room for the event. And fittingly, the grammatical ambiguity of the statement actually throws the insult back on him ('we still let lefties use the Tom Thumb room, despite the fact that "we" are bastards'). When offence was taken he insisted the comment was a joke, and I think it probably was, but I also think the evidence shows that this joke belies a very real and serious contempt that Bede holds very deeply. ‘i speak online like in person i think’, he later added. And therein may lie the problem. 

The real offence, and the catalyst for this article, came recently when I broke my self-imposed social media injunction on Bede. He had a status update that asked, ‘On a Global level what percentage of Carbon Emissions are coming from Australia??’ Unsurprisingly, such a question provoked a healthy discussion amongst his Facebook friends, comprising a total of sixty comments by the time it was done. With such a robust debate, and no small amount of contributors arguing from a Green–environmental angle, I felt I could make an exception and respond, so long as I kept it civil. One reply to the original question quoted the government’s cleanenergyfuture.gov.au website, putting it at 1.5 per cent, ‘roughly the same as that of countries like Spain, France, Italy, South Korea and the United Kingdom.’ 

My contribution to the discussion was to add that, if our emissions are indeed roughly the same as those of the nations listed above, then those countries ‘could all equally say, “We’re only 1.5 per cent. Why try to discourage carbon emissions when it won’t make a difference?”, but all those 1.5% countries add up.’ 

Bede rejoined with a tart, ‘Thanks Luke, nothing like a proffesional [sic] students [sic] opinion’, at which I was thoroughly incensed. I felt singled out, considering the lack of similar treatment for other people’s responses. I felt as though my opinion had been needlessly and disdainfully dismissed. Note how he neglects completely to engage with my argument, preferring an ad hominem attack that amounts to what Bede’s fellow conservative Shelley Gare likes to paint as an exclusive device of the Left, totschweigtaktik, or ‘death by silence’: that act of omission against an interlocutor where ‘you don’t criticise or engage with what they say, write or produce; you just let their efforts expire soundlessly, like a butterfly in a bell jar’. That’s how I felt, ‘totsched’, to take up Gare’s neologism. Not to mention the fact that Bede has been a student longer than I have. 

Later he would say, ‘Thought I’d culled all the commies from my list hold on’ before a swift defriending, and ‘There should be an option preventing Socialists from commenting on political Facebook posts...’, and the final injustice, since it was he who originally attacked me: ‘Despite the commies swiping at me this discussion was quite productive’. This is the way Councillor Crasnich behaves. This is the way he treats those he disagrees with, those who seek to engage with him in civil discourse. Not that it even had anything to do with the discussion, but last time I checked socialism was a valid political persuasion, and so too even was communism, but for Bede these are categories of political thought that automatically exclude an individual from dialogue, categories to which detractors and dissenters can be automatically and wrongfully consigned to deprive them of their political valency. It’s an old and dangerous tactic of the Right, and one I think is best left buried with the much discussed communist witch hunts of the ’60s. 

Ironically Bede’s constant censorship was the most Stalinist element of the discussion. It is, of course, his right to control what is said in his own status update, but I wonder what kind of person starts a discussion on a contentious issue and then deletes the comments of those who disagree. 

Even more concerning to me is the hostility towards academia embedded in his original ‘proffesional student’ remark which, indeed, saturates his online presence. Take for instance his Facebook ‘About me’, which reads: ‘I’d take advice from individuals who are skilled tradesman [sic], experienced in the modern workforce or proffessionals [sic] from any kind of background, over a political or academic theory anyday’. From where I see it, regrettably, this isn’t exactly a radical opinion in the community today; it is in line with the diminishing respect afforded specialisation that has given the world climate change deniers and creationists. But how strongly anti-intellectual does one have to feel to make this the sole piece of information included in one’s ‘About Me’, apart from a small list of interests? Is this Bede’s defining attribute? 

The only response I got to make to Bede’s original remark before he deleted it and defriended me was not one I was particularly proud of. Basically, I played the ‘I earn more than you’ card, but I did it for a specific reason. Not because I think it gives me any more status or authority or virtue than he, but because under the frames of his argument he does. His remark privileges the ‘real world’ of employment and economy over the cosseted welfare bubble of the student, the fabled ‘rarefied halls of academia’, the denizens of which, it suggests, cannot have a valid opinion. Well, no. I was having none of that. I refused to be cast in those terms, and I wanted to show him that even in his capitalistic vision of society, where value is derived solely (or predominantly) from the individual’s ability to generate wealth, I could still best him. 

Laughably, I must add, he boasted in his final reply to me that he’s ‘probably one of the most relaxed elected official [sic] and I rarely mention I’m a Councillor in social and non relevant settings’. That’s technically true. Instead, what he does is approach you, pretend to forget your name, then drop hints to get you to ask him about his job such as ‘I’m allowed to work in Sydney during the day but have to be back in Wollongong at night’ and ‘I got a job that’ll keep me in Wollongong for the next three years at least’ and ‘I’m not one of those wankers who walk around uni in a suit for no reason; I have to wear this for my job’. 

Despite all this behaviour, and sickeningly for such a well-intentioned campaign, the Top Blokes foundation website had a feature on Bede, who, predictably, leapt on the opportunity to tell everyone what makes a top bloke (‘Cr Cranich [sic] was the first to respond to our request for input’). ‘When asked what it means to be a Top Bloke,’ the article says, ‘Cr Crasnich pointed to respect. “A top bloke is someone who is respectful of everyone else [...”]’ Then I guess that disqualifies Bede, who has tweeted such stereotype-laden paragons of respect for his political opponents as: ‘like a useful Green who isn’t a socialist and is also employable? #pipedream’. 

I’m the first to recognise that this article could be levelled with the charge of the very pettiness it denounces, but the fact is that I’m not holding public office; I’m a member of the voting public and an aspiring, peripheric member of the free and independent press tasked, alongside exhaustive and rigorous education, with making democracy work, whatever slurs about communism might be thrown my way. In other words, being petty is my prerogative, but it isn’t Bede’s. Furthermore, personal and anecdotal as my arguments might be, I do feel that they show Councillor Crasnich as intolerant of civil debate and fundamentally anti-intellectual, with a dangerous and profound contempt for academic opinion arising, I suspect, out of his inability to comprehend it. Not only has he shown himself in my eyes to be smug, sleazy, arrogant, hypocritical and petty, but he is also inarticulate, unintelligent and uninspired. I would urge the voters of Ward 3 or any other electorate in which Bede chooses to run to reconsider their votes at the next election, and institute someone more fitting to represent them, whichever party they might be from. 

Bede won’t see it this way, but in publishing this article I might just be doing him a favour. Maybe it’s time for him to stop speaking ‘online like in person’ and guard more carefully his all-pervasive contempt for the educated Left. Either that, or do a better job next time of culling ‘the commies’ from his list. 

References

Councillor Bede Crasnich (@BedeCrasnich)’s tweet.

Shelley Gare’s article ‘Death by Silence in the Writers’ Combat Zone’ in Quadrant, July–August 2010, Volume LIV, Number 7–8. 

Daniel Hurst and Conal Hanna’s 3 November 2011 brisbanetimes.com.au article ‘Blame wars: MP accepts responsibility for ‘Gillard in kitchen’ furore’.


Libs4Gong’s 4 August 2011 Youtube video ‘Bede Crasnich Liberal for Ward 3’.