F*ck Tony Abbott t-shirts and other crimes against decency

Andrew Bolt described the March in March as “a carnival of brutal, savage, expletive-riddled political hate”.

For once in my life I agree with him. And I couldn’t be happier.

I was fortunate enough to be taking photographs for Red Flag along the route of the Melbourne demonstration, and can confirm that many placards and banners ridiculing our dear leader were indeed as flamboyant and acid tongued as various hyperventilating Murdoch writers made out.

“If Abbott hates gays why is he fucking us so much” was admirably to the point. My personal favourite was “If Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt were drowning and you could only save one of them, which pub would you go to?” Whichever is closest, presumably.

And, of course, there were the “Fuck Tony Abbott” t-shirts. Hundreds of them, most in all their naked, un-censored glory (a freedom slightly beyond Red Flag’s current policy on word usage in headlines).

My enthusiasm for Abbott takedowns – from the crudest “screw you” to the savviest Abbott-as-Scarface creation – is sadly not shared by all on the left. Ever since the “Fuck Tony Abbott” t-shirts first appeared after the federal election last year, such frank expressions of opinion have been met with a steady diet of tut-tutting priggishness, combined in some cases with earnest lectures about the need for a “serious political strategy”.

Generally speaking, the left critics of the anti-Abbott t-shirts skip the sublime and go straight to the ridiculous.

“I can’t take my kids to a protest with signs like this”, complained one concerned parent. No, because if your kids are f-bombed at a young age their chances of fitting in at school are basically shot to pieces. It’s not like schoolyards are the original incubators of vulgarity. And anyhow, exposing your kids to the odd cuss word is much more damaging than letting them grow up in the mad world of Abbott’s Australia without knowing that anyone hates it enough to swear.

In any case, such delicate parental sensibilities seem to be off the mark in assessing what counts as strong language. Sources tell us that “Fuck Tony Abbott” doesn’t mean much to the average 5 year old.  According to a young expert on the topic (who suggested we stock a new range) “Tony Abbott did a poop in his eye” would be much more appropriately scandalous among the kindergarten set.

After those who tell us we should think of the children come the world weary types who say that cursing Abbott is childish.

The denunciation of youthful passion is the most over-worn trope in the armchair leftist arsenal.

I’m with the late US socialist James Cannon on this, who at his 60th birthday celebration confessed that the question he asked himself in old age was whether he had lived a life faithful to his  youth: “Youth is the age of virtue”, he said, “or more correctly, the age of courage, which is the first virtue. Every man’s younger self is his better self.”

On the other hand, a willingness to drive home a point is hardly the sole preserve of the young.

One of the things I remember most clearly from my time campaigning for refugee rights in the Tampa-era is the sweet old women. In their 60s or 70s, they would shuffle up to your campaign stall, and you would prepare to speak loudly and politely and ask for a donation.

Until, that is, they leaned in close to whisper in your ear, and describe in bloody and hair-raising detail what they would do if they got John Howard and then-immigration minister Philip Ruddock alone in a room with a couple of rolls of razor wire.

A surprising number of these sweet old women were at the March in March the other week. Needless to say, they weren’t complaining about the Fuck Abbott t-shirts.

As frustrating as the various prudish complainants are, they don’t hold a candle to the geniuses who insist on discussing whether the phrase “Fuck Tony Abbott” embodies a sufficiently holistic political strategy with which to turn the tide of the class struggle in Australia.

“Some on the left will disagree with the shirts on a tactical basis”, opined Sarah Burnside in a New Matilda article that accused the shirts of embodying “a kind of progressive individualism … ideology-as-accessory.” Others say the t-shirt fails to explain that neoliberal policies have been pursued by both Labor and the Liberals, and cannot be reduced to the negative character traits of a particular politician.

Good grief. It’s a t-shirt for Christ’s sake, not Trotsky’s Transitional Program.

On one level there is no point in getting too upset about it all. Hostility to the Fuck Abbott t-shirts is almost entirely confined to the self-referential circles of the Murdoch press and the left-twitocracy. In the real world, they continue to sell like hotcakes.

But I can’t help feel it bears on a broader issue. If the left is embarrassed to identify with the fully-justified hatred and contempt that so many people feel for the political establishment and its representatives, how will it ever play a role in building a real resistance to the Liberals, let alone the system as a whole?

There is, of course, more to political struggle than the expression of anger. But a good place to start is identifying with the people who think the best thing that could happen to Tony Abbott is a solid punch in the face.