Bri Lee



Bri Lee

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about universities in Australia, the various roles they play and why they are so loved by some and loathed by others. In my latest book, I refer to this as the “chimera of the campus.” Some see a hotbed of Marxist hippies in the making, others see a funnelling of wealth and power to the same narrow elite political class. Somewhere between the two are the champagne socialists, latte-sipping lefties, the stealth conservatives and the bulk of the upwardly mobile middle class. The current federal Liberal Party appears to be doing what it can to eviscerate the tertiary sector, yet the Young Liberals in most states meet and recruit in those very quads under those very sandstone towers.

Lech’s brother, John, tells Lech how people talk down to him when they find out that he and his friends don’t have uni degrees and that he sends his kids to the local public school. “‘Labor became a party for people who went to uni,’ says John, ‘As people get more educated, they get more opinionated. But even if what you’re saying is factually true, it doesn’t mean that I need to agree with you.’” Lech surmises that the contempt John “feels emanating from progressives isn’t an anecdotal anomaly.” And, thanks to the wonders of compulsory voting, “every three years, John gets the chance to prove that his opinion has equal weight to those of our university-educated brother and sister who vote for the Greens.”

The rich and complex legacy of Enlightenment ideals flows through universities and presents itself as the baseline ideology from which anything else is an aberration. When a “highly educated” person hears someone such as John reject factual evidence in favour of his own opinion, they immediately translate this as a kind of fundamental idiocy. Anyone who denies climate change is a moron, and only the thick-skulled opposed marriage equality, and if you believe a woman’s place is mothering and home-keeping you are simply an idiot. When the highly educated disagree with someone, their automatic response is to discredit their opponent, often in language that attempts to suggest they are less intelligent somehow. The “bogan” judgement is a part of this, as a lower level or “quality” of education has become tellingly synonymous with those outside of major cities and with less money. In doing all this, the highly educated person’s own value system is invisible to them and hyper-visible to those they are speaking down to. John could afford to send his daughters to a fancy private school but doesn’t, because he would rather they grow up knowing that “hard work and being a good person” are what make you successful in life. Lech is right in writing that “contempt” towards people such as John “emanates” from progressives. We progressives like to think that our derision is only ever reactionary – that the “bogans” do the “bad things” first, and then we try to teach them how to think and do things the “right way.” But the uncomfortable question that John’s story raises is just how much us insufferably opinionated progressives are driving the rest of the country further to the right.

In the aftermath of the last federal election, I moved from Queensland to New South Wales and felt a pretty big difference in the response and attitudes on the ground. In Brisbane, I had the sense that the metropolitan lefties were the minority of the state. In Sydney, everyone was incredulous and outraged that a small bunch of rednecks up north had somehow managed to ruin everything for everyone else. I was invited onto ABC’s The Drum to discuss the result, and tried (in vain) to explain in a soundbite what Lech Blaine achieves spectacularly in Top Blokes: progressives can be so excruciatingly condescending. Everyone was acting shocked by the results coming out of Queensland, but it had been a long time since anyone actually asked Queenslanders what they wanted and stuck around to listen to the answers. Queensland is a string of large satellite cities, each with its own identity and needs. It’s rare to see anyone from Cairns, Townsville, Bundaberg or Rockhampton on the ABC, and certainly not on The Drum, where everyone sat, apparently confounded that they didn’t know their compatriots. Young progressives took to social media, exploding with outrage and disappointment and exhaustion, cursing the “bogans.”

The split Lech documents among his own siblings is, I believe, extraordinarily representative of a large cross-section of Australians. Many of us experience a version of it when we go home for Christmas with our own families. There are ABC articles with titles such as “How to Deal with a Racist Uncle at Christmas,” and when I see them being shared online I have the impression they are being read by people with degrees in preparation for difficult conversations with those without them. This makes for an often impossible balance of goals and ideals: people of colour have no obligation to debate with racists and no duty to try to “convince” someone they are their equal. Similarly, it is not fair that women asking for equality in the home and workplace need to tread on eggshells around the hurt feelings of the conservatives, and in no way would I ever suggest that the LGBTQIA+ community aren’t “doing enough” to bridge the gap between their future and the people who like the prejudiced past. But Lech’s essay gave me the immense satisfaction of having articulated something I’d been fumbling around and towards for a long time: just because people on the left have ideas that move us towards a better collective future does not mean our superiority complex is justified or useful. If we don’t pull our heads in and find better methods, we drive away the people we must bring with us. White progressives must talk to other white people about racial equality, the straights need to take more of the load on issues of gender and sexuality, and men must step the fuck up and talk to other men about women.

I believe that we need to treat global warming as the emergency it is. I believe children under the age of five have the right to free and universal care and education. I believe we could and should take ten times the number of refugees that we currently do, and that we’d be better for it. Death to kings and tax the rich. All of it. But if we, the progressive left, continue to belittle people who think differently, we will remain doomed, perpetually in opposition in both government and life.

Having spent the last three years researching the role the education system plays in our ideas of intelligence and worth, I see where the left–right split often calcifies: between those who attended university and those who didn’t. One of the best things about the Enlightenment was the wrangling of power away from the church. A failing of the Enlightenment’s contemporary followers is their presumption that their own capacity for “reason” is inherently superior. The data prove the almighty correlation between level of educational attainment and voting behaviour. What the left often don’t want to acknowledge is how we use this as shorthand evidence for the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right.

Bri Lee


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 83, Top Blokes. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 84, The Reckoning.


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