Continuing my thoughts on whether we couldn’t now have an election for columnists as well as the government, I realised that somewhere in the past decade, op-ed journalism in Australia was taken over by Cranks. A Crank can be defined as a writer who is more interested in chasing the bees in their own bonnets, over and over again, than in facts and ideas; they lie somewhere between the committed journalist and the full-blown Crackpot. Sometimes a Crank is also a great writer (Ezra Pound, George Bernard Shaw) but such examples are rare: most Cranks, in print as in life, are bores, and the primary objection to Crankiness in journalism is aesthetic.
I think I can remember a time when journalists could be partisan without being manic culture warriors; when people attacked or defended ideas – “social democracy”, “conservatism”, “conservation” – rather than demographic straw men – “the cultural left elites”, “doctor’s wives”, “Howard battlers”, “aspirationals”. But maybe I’m imagining that. It was a long time ago, and I was younger, and Crankier, then.
The following is mostly about the Sydney Morning Herald and the right-wing boofheads that made me stop reading it; so it may be a little out of date. The bias reflects my own politics, but Cranks can, of course, be found on all sides. And need I mention that I scribbled most of it down at 1AM in the morning and then typed it up on my blog the following day? It is, therefore, itself fairly Cranky.
It’s almost impossible to trace the cause of the Crank takeover without falling into one or another form of Crankiness: Left Cranks would blame the Howard Government, Right Cranks would blame the Cultural Left and its Domination of Our Nation’s Cultural Institutions, Luddite Cranks would blame the Internet. I think the third of these is probably the most correct: the Internet is the happy hunting ground of the Crank. It also provides an elegant solution to the problem: give them all blogs.
Bees in bonnet: the Left, greens, opponents of the Iraq war, whoever else is The Enemy this year
Evidence of crankiness: cites “the right-wing blogosphere” as source (all political bloggers are by definition cranks, no matter what side they’re on)
ur-Cranks: the right-wing blogosphere; that older female relative of yours who listens to Alan Jones and goes on about “foreigners coming over here bringing their germs”
Bees in bonnet: the DLP, “the cultural left”
Evidence of crankiness: brings the ALP split of the 50s, and the anti-Catholic prejudice of those times, into any column to which it can be made to seem remotely relevant
Mitigating factor: can write well, seems to be a smart fellow. Is an example of a talented partisan writer who only slips into crankhood when something – usually an attack, real or imagined, on Cardinal Pell – gets him off and running
ur-Crank: B. A. Santamaria
Bees in bonnet: Muslim men, sexual assault, feminists, “the cultural left”
Evidence of crankiness: managed to get the Good Weekend to run a cover story touting mineral water as the elixir of life; writes like he’s off his meds
ur-Crank: Thomas Carlyle. When Macaulay was told that Carlyle had travelled to Bath to take the waters, he quipped “if he returns writing sense in good English, I shall declare myself a convert to hydrotherapy.” Note: Carlyle’s prose style was even more frenzied than Sheehan’s, but it was still better. His politics, on the other hand, were much, much worse. I’m not actually sure what Sheehan’s politics are – he can’t present his ideas clearly enough for me to work them out – but they can’t possibly be as bad as Carlyle’s were at the end of his life
Bees in bonnet: John Howard, the logging industry, Australians, cities
Evidence of crankiness: repeatedly writing the same overblown, handwringing article accusing Howard Government of casting Australia into a decade-long dark night of the soul during which we lost our moral compass; continuing to write the same article even after the Howard Government was soundly voted out by the same, presumably still morally bankrupt, population
ur-Cranks: Jeremiah, Hanrahan
Evidence of crankiness: has plenty of political opinions, yet claimed that the most recent NSW state election was the first one at which he’d bothered to vote
Bees in bonnet: urban planners, medium density development, public transport, the State
Mitigating factor: as with vegetarians, his form of crankiness is now so mainstream that it barely qualifies as such
ur-Cranks: anti-dual-occupancy/Save Our Suburbs cranks; that weird guy at university who was always staring at your ear and trying to get you to read Ayn Rand