Relevance deficit disorder, or relevance deprivation syndrome, as it was originally called by former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans1, is a very strange phenomenon. Evans lamented the sudden feeling of social impotence he felt when he was no longer privy to the inner workings of Parliament. He apparently hated watching and reading political news stories, knowing that he’d played no role in their development2. This disorder afflicts all sorts of people, and not just those in politics, when they suddenly find themselves lacking their purpose, or when their audience disappears. With politicians, like Evans, it is often when they retire or are voted out, but that is not true of all sufferers, it may be when they peak too early, or make a wrong turn in their ‘careers’.
Naomi Wolf has just been ejected from Twitter for spreading anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, including that vaccines were a software platform that can receive uploads3. She is an American author and journalist, and her first book ‘The Beauty Myth’ (1991) sold very well and was generally, but not universally, praised. On the strength of that book, she became a leading spokeswoman for ‘third wave’ feminism. In the 1990s she was a political advisor for the presidential campaigns of Bill Clinton (1996) and Al Gore (2000). Later books such as ‘The End of America’ (2007), ‘Vagina: a new biography’ (2012) were less well received and criticised for their use only of selected facts and poor scholarship. Her latest book, ‘Outrages’ was recalled because of significant errors in scholarship. This was not the cause of her latest fall from grace; it has been coming for a while.
As Parul Sehgal said in a review of ‘Outrages’: “Naomi Wolf’s long, ludicrous career has followed a simple formula. She audits herself for some speck of dissatisfaction, arrives at an epiphany — one that might contravene any number of natural laws — and then extrapolates a set of rules and recommendations for all women …. Over the years her batty claims have included that a woman’s brain can allow her to become pregnant if she so desires, even if she is using birth control; that women’s intellects and creativity are dependent on their sexual fulfillment and, specifically, the skilful ministrations of a “virile man”; and that writing a letter to a breech baby will induce it to turn right side up.”
Wolf has been regarded as a conspiracy theorist for nearly a decade. Some of her theories are bizarre, to say the least. They include: that the ISIS videos of beheadings were staged by the US government; that the US was sending troops to West Africa not to assist with Ebola treatment but to bring Ebola back to the US to justify a military takeover of American society; and that the Scottish independence referendum was faked. As adulation has faded she has tried to compensate for that decline by attempting shock people. It hasn’t worked; it has only made her a laughing stock.
Bettina Arndt is another sad case of relevance deficit disorder. In many ways her career mirrors that of Naomi Wolf. She started out as a sex therapist, working mostly with women and in the 1970s was the editor of ‘Forum’, an adult sex education magazine. This led to numerous television and radio appearances; she was the darling of the midday television talk shows when they needed a little frisson of excitement in talking about sex or relationships. She also worked in sex education, giving postgraduate courses, seminars and lectures for groups including doctors and other professionals. Forum magazine closed in the early 1980s and she started writing for Australian Playboy and the then Fairfax (now Nine) newspapers, the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1986 she moved to New York City and while there wrote a syndicated column through The Age in Melbourne. She moved back to Australia in 1991. In the 1990s she wrote columns for Cleo, The Bulletin, The Australian and the Australian Women’s Weekly, and was a guest reporter on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) Four Corners program and was a regular guest on ABC radio7. However, this is a decline from the heady days of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was everywhere. I suspect that this decline is in part because the sexual revolution has largely happened and the sort of advice Arndt was giving is now superfluous for many. So what does one do in such a situation? You look for a cause with which you can shock people and generate publicity. She is now a men’s rights activist, the cause celebre of those blokes who think women should know their place and who believe that equality for women is persecution of men.
In 2007, the ABC television program ‘Media Watch’ demonstrated that an article by Arndt in Murdoch’s ‘Courier Mail’ ‘newspaper’ plagiarised large tracts of a Guardian article published three years earlier8. Arndt also got into trouble because of something she said after the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband who set fire to the car while the family was inside. Some idiot Queensland police officer opined that the husband may have been ‘pushed too far’. Bettina Arndt, ever after an opportunity to shock, tweeted: “Congratulations to the Queensland police for keeping an open mind and awaiting proper evidence, including the possibility that [perpetrator’s name] might have been ‘driven too far’”. This was too much even for right wing nut jobs in Murdoch’s media and sundry other media outlets, with the gist of their comments being that no ‘pushing’ could ever provide an excuse for such horrific violence9. In 2017, Arndt interviewed the abuser of Grace Tame and Arndt was seen to laugh and referred to “sexually provocative behaviour from female students” and said young women should “behave sensibly and not exploit their seductive power to ruin the lives of men”. This is simply blaming the victim. The perpetrator, a teacher at Tame’s school, groomed and repeatedly raped her when she was 15. He was also convicted of possessing child pornography10. In Arndt’s world, it seems any publicity is good publicity.
Another bizarre case of relevance deficit disorder is that of the former leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham. He joined the Labor Party when quite young and worked as a research assistant for Gough Whitlam and Bob Carr, before entering federal parliament as the member for Werriwa in a 1994 by-election, and joined the shadow cabinet after the 1996 federal election, which the Labor Party lost in a landslide. He left the front bench in 1998 after a dispute with then party leader Kim Beazley, but rejoined it when Simon Crean became leader. Latham became leader of the Labor party when Crean resigned11. Latham went into the 2004 election campaign with a 52:48 two party preferred lead in opinion polls and it was expected that the result would be a substantial Labor victory. However, Latham’s lack of discipline in the campaign, including criticising the media, and in some cases simply walking away when he didn’t like the questions12 cruelled his pitch. One instance which sticks in my mind was ‘that handshake’ when he aggressively seized Prime Minister John Howard’s hand, held in a vice-like grip, and yanked the diminutive PM towards him—looming over Howard like a schoolyard bully13. This pulling the person whose hand is being shaken towards the handshaker is the same sort of handshake technique that Trump used on the unsuspecting14. It is a typical bully’s technique of trying to unsettle his opponent by asserting dominance. It also emerged, that in 2003, Latham had an altercation with a taxi driver over non-payment of a fare, and broke the driver’s arm when he upended him13.
The surprising thing about Labor’s electoral loss was that Labor went backwards, given that Latham started the campaign as a likely winner; it was a stunning turnaround. Latham told the party that he accepted responsibility for the campaign, but also expressed frustration with the hopelessly balkanised state of Labor’s factional system. He also told them that he had failed to recognise the problems in his own office, and failed to assert himself against state Labor premiers on some of the local issues he thought had harmed Labor during the campaign. Latham viewed these words as accepting blame, but others, especially the state premiers, viewed them as an attack on them. In January 2005, Latham resigned from the leadership and from parliament15. In September of that year, he published ‘The Latham Diaries’. It was a huge sales success, and while it contained much cogent analysis, he did not hold back on his opinions of caucus colleagues, factional leaders, union heavyweights, business elites and journalists. It not only included Latham’s own views, but recounted comments from other Labor members and party figures, many of which were scathing16.
He had a short stint as a columnist at the Australian Financial Review, but was sacked, in August 2015, after using Twitter to attack Australian of the year, Rosie Batty, and female journalists Anne Summers, Leigh Sales, Lisa Pryor, Mia Freedman and Annabel Crabb17.
In late 2016, he began as a co-host (with Rowan Dean and Ross Cameron) on Murdoch’s Sky News’ Outsiders, but the lack of discipline continued such that he only lasted three months before being sacked. The reason was because of insulting comments about another Sky News host Kristina Kenneally, who lodged a formal complaint. Latham also reputedly did the same to fellow Sky Host Peter van Onselen and ABC’s Wendy Harmer. Not only this, but he also accused the 15-year-old daughter of the Reserve Bank governor of being a privileged child who didn’t care about the disadvantaged. The sacking was announced on air by then Sky News Political Editor David Speers17.
In May 2017, Latham joined the Liberal Democrats Party, which was headed by David Leyonhjelm. He stated he supported “80-90 per cent of the Liberal Democrats platform, “So I have joined up and want to play a role in fighting for our national values, based on personal freedom and responsibility.” He said the “party of freedom” allowed room for “dissent and diversity of opinion”, something, he said, which contrasted greatly with the values of the Labor Party who were only interested in diversity of skin colour, gender and sexuality18. After being unable to agree on where Latham would run in the next election, he dumped them in September 201819. Not long after, he joined Hanson’s One Notion Party and identified immigration, congestion, overdevelopment and electricity prices as some of the issues he would use to campaign. He also hit out against “political correctness” and “divisive identity politics” and stated that “These are all issues that are banking up in NSW [and] haven’t been addressed by the major parties”. He was subsequently elected to the NSW upper house20.
Since being elected he has tried to disrupt the NSW electricity infrastructure roadmap legislation which promises to cut power prices in NSW and decrease the state’s reliance on coal-fired power generation. This bill sailed through the lower house with bipartisan support. As the NSW environment minister, Matt Kean, stated “Delivering energy policy shouldn’t be about partisan politics, it should be about delivering the best outcome for the people of this state. Any members of Parliament who don’t support this bill are voting against jobs, cheaper electricity and the nation’s future.”21 Strange that these are some of the items that Latham said he was running for. This is another indication that this is not about policy, it is solely about Mark Latham.
Latham has quite often put up Tweets which are used to engender outrage and occasionally to stick the boot into the Labor Party and anyone else whom he dislikes. These tweets range from the deranged to the laughably ironic. His response to a tweet from Liberal Mark Speakman regarding consent and respect while referencing Aretha Franklin, in response to the epidemic of sexual assault against women is instructive. He replied: “In setting up the NSW Bedroom Police, Green Liberal Mark Speakman is now playing DJ – that’s about his level. Despite all his noise, he actually hadn’t got legislation through Cabinet, and in Macquarie Street, concern is growing about his social engineering over-reach.” This is another instance of his casting aspersions rather than dealing with policy. In response to a call by Kean for an enquiry into the Luna Park fire of 1979, which is now suspected of being arson rather than accidental, Lathan replied: “42 years ago. Kean wasn’t even born. What would he know? I’m surprised that other ABC whipping boy Christian Porter wasn’t accused, over from WA on a school debating trip. These conspiracy theorists are nuts.”22
Latham has now developed the Education Legislation Amendment (Parental Rights) Bill 2020, which is all about denying that transsexual (trans) people are real. Latham stated in parliament that acknowledging the existence of gender diversity is part of a “disease in most Western education systems” that he wants to “outlaw” in NSW. His bill will effectively force all public and private schools to deny that trans people exist. It will be unlawful for schools to tell their students that there is a difference between chromosomal sex on the one hand, and gender expression on the other. Latham told parliament that it’s “child abuse” to tell students that there’s such a difference23. This is despite science knowing about the difference between chromosomal sex and gender for decades24.
Latham can never forgive the Australian population, its media and other politicians for not making him Prime Minister. This is despite the fact that it was largely of his own doing; his lack of discipline, his short temper, and his persecution complex. All he can do now for him to believe he has some relevance is to shock and snipe. As the Sydney Morning Herald said, his “downward spiral since quitting as opposition leader has captivated and horrified Australia for 14 years but his alliance with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation to enter NSW politics marks a new nadir in his betrayal of his former self.”25
Wolf, Arndt and Latham are prime examples of relevance deficit disorder. Their past glories have all faded and their relevance has dimmed dramatically. So, to try to regain something akin to their former relevance, they are reduced to garnering publicity by whatever means they think necessary to assist in this aim, and that manifests itself mostly in trying to shock people. However, it is only turning each of them into their own little freak show.