revenge of the snerds

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    Revenge of the Snerds

    by Ian McFadyen

    The first rule of gamesmanship is "Name your enemy" however one of the frustrating features of political discussion in Australia is that one of the most influential power groups in our society not only has no name, it has long eluded being labelled as a group at all.

    I first become aware of the group in the early Seventies through a Tone which began to creep into dinner party conversations. Later, working in the ABC, I oft heard the Tone around the corridors and in the tea rooms. By the Eighties the Tone had evolved into a political Creed and by the Nineties it had become virtual Dogma. It is a set of attitudes which now permeate the arts, the ABC and most educational institutions. It is possessed by people whom conservative politicians like to call "Left wingers" and the Hansonazis call "intellectuals", though in truth they are neither left wing nor intellectual. They are sometimes described as "Yuppies", though they usually shun the conspicuous consumption that characterises that group. I have struggled for twenty years to put a name to this set of beliefs and the people who hold to them - or to even describe them adequately - but somehow they have always slipped through the linguistic net like an intellectual superfluid. Recently however I finally saw what the attitude is and it is simply this: it is snobbery.

    It is not a snobbery based on wealth or aristocratic origins. It is the snobbery of people, usually from modest backgrounds who have created sense of class superiority for themselves on the basis of possessing the right attitudes rather than property or wealth. It is aÊ snobbery based on being "well informed", of being "concerned" and "having a sense of social morality."

    It is the snobbery of people who believe that public transport should replace the private car, that more money should be given to the arts, that the ABC is not biased and that dams, holiday resorts, roads, bridges, housing developments and farms other than vineyards are a blight on the landscape.

    It is the intellectual superiority of people who hold that organised religion is an anachronism but ancient Aboriginal beliefs should be revered: people who condemn British imperialism in principle yet send their children to English style public school and drink Twinings Early Grey. They deplore the urban sprawl and maintain that people ideally should live in small terraces houses close to the city yet they have a holiday house at Torquay to "get away from it all" and commune with nature. They support the Australian film and television industry because we need to "tell our own stories", but detest Neighbours and Home and Away. They talk endlessly about preserving Australian Culture but at the same time deplore the national preoccupation with sport and beer.

    They areÊ people who live for books (Peter Carey, Phillip Adams, Angela's Ashes), French Provincial cooking, imported cheese, domestic wines, the ABC subscription series, walking, Absolutely Fabulous, antiques, art galleries, Japanese gardens, woks and brass bedsteads. They believe in bike tracks although they never ride a bike.

    But even these quaint views do not quite define them. These fancies may be attendant upon the class but they are not quite at the heart of the thing - the thing which perturbs. What makes this class of people snobbish rather than simply pretentious is their tendency to sneer. It was this tone of sneering, to which I first reacted, with some surprise, during dinner table discussions in the Seventies. It is this tendency to sneer which still pervades the culture of the ABC. You can hear it any day on ABC radio and it even creeps into the demeanour of interviewers such as Jennifer Byrne and even Kerry OÕBrien. It is the sneering tone heard when these people discuss Jeff Kennett or John Howard. It is a tone into which permeates otherwise good satirical programs such as "Good News Week". It is a tone which implies that certain thing in life are so axiomatic that no discussion of them is necessary or even possible. It is simply taken for granted by this class - which I will hereafter call the Snerds - that, for example, Labor politicians are champions of the working class (with the exception of Bob Hawke who was a class traitor) while Liberal politicians exist purely to serve big business which is, of course, ruthless and corrupt. It is beyond question that the police routinely breach civil rights every day, that the poor are getting poorer, that working class Australians and Americans are a brainless yobs (but working class Irish, Scottish and French are wonderfully "authentic"), that Europe makes the best films, that Blackadder, Mr Bean and Absolutely Fabulous are brilliant while Roseanne, Home Improvement and Friends are American crap and that there is no such thing as a bad work of modern art.

    This is not to say that the Snerds are always wrong. Many of their attitudes may be defensible. What is difficult about conversing with a Snerd is the degree to which their attitudes are locked down. Snerds seem to have formed most of their opinions Ð in conjunction with other Snerds Ð in the Seventies and have not budged since thereby creating an middle-class intellectual dogma which underpins almost all discussion of politics, education and the arts in Australia.

    The existence of this dogma makes it impermissible to raise certain questions. It is not permitted to raise for discussion, for example, the suggestion that probably half the 20th century art in the National Gallery is garbage, that Sydney Nolan was not a good painter, that Judy Davis is a limited actor, that Phillip Glass and his protégé Michael Nyman are the worst composers ever to set note to paper, that the rituals and myths of the stone-age cultures are only of marginal interest, that the East has very little of value to offer the West, that uranium mining is a good thing or that the extinction of species doesnÕt matter. Not that any of these propositions are necessarily true but the Snerd class has decreed that even to discuss such questions is heretical. Any such challenge to the basic tenets of their beliefs will simply be sneeringly discarded and the questioner relegated to one of the baskets of ratbag, fascist, racist, right wing reactionary, capitalist, Philistine or ill-informed.

    These threats of excommunication are often mistakenly called Political Correctness by the frustrated non-Snerds but they are not based on a conscious effort to conform to a political doctrine such as might characterise a member of political group who believes they must hold the party line at all costs. The inflexibility of the Snerd arises from a personal arrogance that he or she is a well-educated, well-informed and intelligent person who has worked all this out and come to - what they believe to be - the only possible solution. Snerds are characteristically blind to the fact that their belief systems are based, not on an independent intellectual of the issues, but on attitudes received from a very narrow range of sources, and shaped by the prejudices of a sub-culture.

    Fortunately, despite their self-assurance, Snerds have only a modest influence on society. Because they disdain such activities as business and politics they are reduced to working behind the scenes. This is of course reinforces their perception that they are not a political pressure group. To regard themselves as a political force would be to admit that they were on a side whereas, like the churches, Snerds prefer to affect that they are on no particular side but, simply following certain fundamental, incontestable truths.

    The Snerd influence makes itself mainly felt in academic and artistic circles. They have great influence in the print medium and absolutely control the National Gallery, the National Trust, the Australian Ballet, the Australian Opera, the Australian Film Institute, the Australian Film Commission, the Australia Council, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The fact that the ABC runs personalities like Helen Razer and shows like Recovery, McFeast and Roy and H.G. is often adduced to show that the corporation is not a stuffy middle class organisation. However we must remember that all these unstuffy shows are all still predominantly concerned with sneering Ð sneering at politicians, big business, celebrities, commercial channels and "straight" society Ð so they further the Snerds agenda. It simply illustrates that the SnerdsÕ addiction to sneering outweighs their addiction to taste. Snerds like nothing so much as to sit back of an evening and watch a professional Snerd like Andrew Denton do their sneering for them.

    The other reason Snerds have little influence of public affairs is that they really don't wish to change things very much. When they express opinions on a matter they do so more to define the boundaries of their own class than to actually change anything in the community. For example when Snerds protest about freeways that are really showing off how clever they were to buy a house in Middle Park or Carlton rather then Mulgrave or Tullamarine. They express their outrage at cuts in education to remind us that they are themselves educated people who of course have a commitment to schooling. They do not, however, protest en masse about a lack of respite facilities for home carers because looking after a brain damaged or incontinent relative in the home does nothing to position one as a person of superior intellect or taste.

    Thus, while Snerds are quick to opinionate in areas which they feel will enhance their image as culturally superior - politics, law, the arts, they have no opinions at all on, and are careful not to get involved with, matters which they consider down-market likeÊ agriculture. Primary production, manufacturing and manual labour simply do not exist in the Snerd universe.

    Of course if everyone began to think and live like them, the Snerds would cease to enjoy their superior status, so when Snerds complain about the erosion of culture, they are really about as concerned as De Beers are about a world diamond shortage. The only time Snerds start to worry is when their lifestyle and status are directly under threat. The Albert Park Grand Prix in Melbourne brought howls from the South Melbourne Snerds, not because it posed a threat to the park, but because they were appalled by the prospect of their quiet suburb being invaded by thousands of lower middle and working class people watching noisy cars. Albert Park was an area which Snerds had specifically marked out as a Yob-Free Zone. (They had priced the original working class inhabitants out of the area decades earlier.) Alas, the whines of the Snerds were ignored by Premier Kennett bringing down on him, thenceforth, the undying enmity of the Snerd class. Cuts to education, the arts and the ABC also send a frisson (to use a favourite Snerd word) of anxiety through the Snerd community raising fears that they may not be able to afford the holiday in Tuscany next year or, worse, they may have to sell the Citroen and buy a Holden, which would be terrible because, they might find themselves being sneered at by the other Snerds, truly a fate worse than death.

    Ian McFadyen
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