Two Cultures

David Burchell has a piece in today’s AFR. I think it’s so good, he’s let me post the unedited version.

“Two Cultures”
David Burchell

About half-way through the federal election campaign a poster appeared on a telephone-pole not far from my home. ‘You Lie, You Lose’, it said, with stark Biblical simplicity. The authorization was from the ‘Not Happy, John’ crowd. And since the only other adornment was a portrait of the PM, looking shifty, you were left to fill in the dots yourself.

If you’d conned the Old Testament in school scripture lessons, the moral was obvious. Because of Mr Howard’s shiftiness in the ‘children overboard’ affair, and because of the Americans’ signal failure to find WMDs in Iraq, a just but vengeful God was going to reach down from heaven and give the Coalition the big shove. Using the Australian electorate as his agent, rather than the more traditional thunderbolt, famine or flood.

The poster summed up rather succinctly the depths of self-delusion to which many self-styled political observers have sunk over the last few years. Forget Centrebet. You could have made a motza out of accepting bets on the election in the cafes and bars of the nation’s inner-cities these last months.

Legion were the folks in designer spectacles and black roll-neck sweaters who seemed convinced that truth and falsehood, light and darkness, blood and oil, were the essential, the defining election issues – all because, in their own personal moral schemes of things, these issues were vital tests of conscience that could not be ignored.

If a utopian is one who superimposes the map of their heart on top of the map of the world, and imagines the two to be the same, then we’re suffering from utopianism-overload at present in this country. Or at least in its inner-urban reaches. Too many people who ought to know better are examining, not the dull, prosaic state of popular opinion, but the tormented landscape of their own souls.

What makes the situation worse is that many of our habitual heart-gazers occupy posts which license them as putative experts. The heart and soul of the ‘Not Happy, John’ congregation, after all, are big-city journalists on newspapers like this one, folks who like to imagine they have their finger on the pulse, rather than simply their hand on their heart. Close behind them are academics – hyper-critical types who like to imagine themselves ‘seeing through’ public opinion, rather than simply transcending it into a higher reality. These are people supposedly credentialed in political analysis. If they’re off with the fairies, who’s left?

And yet the political tea-leaves haven’t really been that difficult to read in Australia over the last few years. In the ‘burbs people are preoccupied with their financial and personal security. How well-heeled professional types who’ve been ‘trading up’ through the property-market to their heart’s content could grossly underestimate the political importance of interest rates is a mystery best left to the realms of psychoanalysis. How people obsessed with bloodshed in Iraq could ignore the fear of related bloodshed closer to home is equally hard to fathom.

Even on the ‘moral’ issues they’ve hung their hats upon, the grandstanders have been remarkably dim. It was simply never true to say that Australians lined up on the asylum-seekers issue primarily on the grounds of conscience. Mostly they were concerned about mundane issues of statecraft and sovereignty – how many people should be allowed past our borders, how their bona fides should be measured, how we should discharge our international obligations, and so on. The huge imagined outpourings of empathy (on the one hand) and racism (on the other) were to a very considerable extent a mirage.

Nor was the Iraq war a moral litmus-test for most ordinary citizens. Most people don’t fancy themselves as international relations experts. They rely upon their governments to make prudent decisions on the basis of reasonable calculations – and then, if the decisions turn out to be wrong, to clean up the mess. By these standards, the government may have erred badly on Iraq, but this didn’t necessarily turn us all into moral lepers.

By the same token – as the Prime Minister divined with his customary canniness – Australians by and large do not expect their leaders to be paragons of transparency and candour, and are reluctant to judge them on such a basis. With his very opening gambit of the campaign, implicitly opposing ‘truth’ with ‘trust’, Mr Howard effectively undercut the entire moral thrust of the ‘Not Happy, John’ crew. Even if they were too worked up to notice.

Too many people imagine ‘trust’ in politics to be some kind of blood-pact between the people and their leaders, like a bloodied-thumb-pressing exercise in the school playground. Yet in the end, as Machiavelli once observed, in politics people judge by the result.

Labor has many problems right now. It has whole sub-regions of the country seemingly turning against it, perhaps for good. It has trouble making itself heard, even when it ‘flicks the switch to vaudeville’. It’s burdened by the legacies of a mis-remembered past.

One of its biggest handicaps, however, is the influence of its erstwhile friends in the media, the arts and the higher professions. The party which canonised the all-too-human Gough Whitlam, and which has had Bob Ellis foisted upon it as self-appointed poet-laureate, has enough myth-making to contend with already.

Mr Latham needs to make like Odysseus. Resist the siren-song of the self-deluded and, strapped to the mast, head full steam ahead towards the land of the sausage-sizzle.

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8 Responses to Two Cultures

  1. Tom Round says:

    > “Too many people imagine ‘trust’ in politics to be some kind of blood-pact between the people and their leaders, like a bloodied-thumb-pressing exercise in the school playground. Yet in the end, as Machiavelli once observed, in politics people judge by the result…”

    Andrew, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. When Howard’s opponents (most entertainingly, Red Symonds) repeated the line that “you can’t trust” Howard, they thought they hd a lay-down misere because it seemed self-evidently true.

    No sane person would “trust” J Winston in the sense of expecting him to volunteer a factual answer to an explicit question (eg, “Mr Howard, when are you going to retire and let Mr Costello take over?”) In this sense, it’s of course true that more Australians “trust” Mark Latham. Latham doesn’t hide what he’s thinking. Indeed, he expresses it rather too clearly for the ALP minders’ comfort.

    But in a different sense of “trust” — expecting a leader to get his hands dirty (or bloodied) where necessary to achieve the expected results — the majority of Australians do “trust” Howard. They believe he will do “whatever it takes” (an ironic phrase, seeing as it originally came from a doyen of Labor) to secure the nation’s interests as he and they define these interests. Howard’s lack of transparency is therefore even a positive plus: it leaves all the moral burden on him, and takes it off us, because we didn’t know about it, did we? We may have mandated our servant “Keep our borders secure and the US Alliance strong”, but we never explicitly told him to bend the truth in pursuit of those goals, so if he over-reaches — (1) we’re not accountable, and (2) too late to unscramble the broken eggs; may as well enjoy the omelette.

    Being a right-wing Laborite by temperament, I was surprised to find in the past few years (especially since September 11, 2001) that Howard, whom I’d disliked for over a decade, was starting to annoy me much less than many of his shriller and more sanctimonious critics. I can only imagine that a large swathe of Labor voters felt this even more strongly on 9 October.

  2. Tom Round says:

    Sorry, just realised I should have congratulated David, not Andrew, for hitting nail on head (David primarily; Andrew for recognising David’s wisdom!)

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    No problem. I’ve mentioned your post to David, who tells me that he has a large pile of essays to mark today, but is hoping to write a response soon. In the meantime, he also has a different article, on a similar theme, at http://www.apo.org.au/webboard/results.chtml?filename_num=00912. Here’s a taste:

    “Labor strategists are no doubt crestfallen that their lovingly crafted tax and family income policies – aimed at suburban mums unable to get back into the workforce – sank without trace. Medicare Gold conspicuously failed to go platinum. The only Labor policy which bit was the symbolic effort of clawing back a few bucks from the very richest private schools to spread around all the others in penny-packets. Latham as a pantomime Robin Hood.”

    Damn, I wish I could write like that.

  4. Nick Yates says:

    I’m currently reading your book ‘Imagining Australia’, I think it is a fantastic read full of fresh ideas and optimism for Australia’s future. I can’t help but find myself agreeing with the logic in the ‘Two Cultures’ article but at the same time find it dissapointing that it seems like you are excusing ‘J Winston’ for his moral bankruptcy. I beleive the ‘self deluded’ political observers which are referred to early in the article merely want something better for Australia than being constantly misled by their elected representative. Transparency is essential to a healthy democracy, is Andrew endorsing, as a an author of ‘Imagining Australia’ that Australians should not be expected to expect honesty out of their leaders?
    Seriously, when did being a succesful economic manager become an excuse to mislead? Why, as Australians can’t we expect good economic management, ‘safety’, AND honesty? Why, does questioning the moral behaviour of your leader make you ‘utopian’ and why are the stereotypes of people that do so so often reduced to turtle necked, black spectacled, inner city yuppies? So what if they are? If this country has come to the stage where ‘Real People’ from the ‘burbs’ are excused from questioning the behaviour of their government so long as it keeps their interest rates low then I must be ‘Imagining’ a different Australia than you. When did the Coalition become the natural domain of safety and economic success anyway? Being misled does not make you any safer. Canada did not join the war and the terrorist attacks seem to be missing them. And what kind of invigoration have John Howards policies given the economy anyway? Yes, 13 years of economic growth based on increased household debt and a hugely overpriced real estate market, which by the way will not leave anything for future generations to smile about.
    As Australia moves further and further away from the ideals of a ‘fair go’ for all and closer to the ideals of individualism, as inequality grows, and democracy erodes then we will all look back and wonder what went wrong. Yes, in the end, as Machiavelli once observed, people will judge by the result…

  5. Nick Yates says:

    I’m currently reading your book ‘Imagining Australia’, I think it is a fantastic read full of fresh ideas and optimism for Australia’s future. I can’t help but find myself agreeing with the logic in the ‘Two Cultures’ article but at the same time find it dissapointing that it seems like you are excusing ‘J Winston’ for his moral bankruptcy. I beleive the ‘self deluded’ political observers which are referred to early in the article merely want something better for Australia than being constantly misled by their elected representative. Transparency is essential to a healthy democracy, is Andrew endorsing, as a an author of ‘Imagining Australia’ that Australians should not be expected to expect honesty out of their leaders?
    Seriously, when did being a succesful economic manager become an excuse to mislead? Why, as Australians can’t we expect good economic management, ‘safety’, AND honesty? Why, does questioning the moral behaviour of your leader make you ‘utopian’ and why are the stereotypes of people that do so so often reduced to turtle necked, black spectacled, inner city yuppies? So what if they are? If this country has come to the stage where ‘Real People’ from the ‘burbs’ are excused from questioning the behaviour of their government so long as it keeps their interest rates low then I must be ‘Imagining’ a different Australia than you. When did the Coalition become the natural domain of safety and economic success anyway? Being misled does not make you any safer. Canada did not join the war and the terrorist attacks seem to be missing them. And what kind of invigoration have John Howards policies given the economy anyway? Yes, 13 years of economic growth based on increased household debt and a hugely overpriced real estate market, which by the way will not leave anything for future generations to smile about.
    As Australia moves further and further away from the ideals of a ‘fair go’ for all and closer to the ideals of individualism, as inequality grows, and democracy erodes then we will all look back and wonder what went wrong. Yes, in the end, as Machiavelli once observed, people will judge by the result…

  6. Geoff Robinson says:

    David Burchell is one of those hard-boiled critics of Labor sentimentalists: Galligan, Goot etc. There is much of their value in their work. But they are better at criticising others than making practical proposals and affect a tone of lofty indifference to the idea of moral judgment. I am sure the people on the deck of the Tampa thought a lot about ‘mundane issues of statecraft and sovereignty’. This is the language of moral evasion. What the left needs to do is consider what its goals are and develop a strategy to achieve them. I agree public opinion is crucial, but the best map in the world won’t get you anywhere if you do not know where you are going (David Kemp’s last book is a good example of the approach I propose from the other side). If there are two cultures how about some factor analysis of public opinion research to prove it? It is also about time we saw an end to lines like ‘designer spectacles and black roll-neck sweaters’, this kind of pseudo-populism is as tedious as Monash graduates playing at being timberworkers. The key electoral base of left-libertarian politics in this country are human services public sector employees most of whom don’t have time or money to dress this way (have a read of Kitschelt’s The Transformation of European Social Democracy on this).

  7. David Burchell says:

    Normally I hate it when the author pops into these discussion defending themselves in a pontificating way. Either the piece stands up or it doesn’t. But for what it’s worth here’s a couple of author’s observations:

    1. The piece was indeed rude, I confess: it was designed to shock, annoy and get under skins. So no complaint from me for getting a bit of rudeness back!

    But I have to confess that if I belong to a school of thought, I’m yet to see the staff roster. Almost everyone has hunkered down behind the ideological barricades the last 2 or 3 years, it seems to me. And that has meant, in the case of the centre-left, digging in around positions that are emotionally gratifying but politically untenable.

    2. No-one can pretend the electorate nowadays is stupid or ignorant on any of the great moral controveries of the last 3 years. People simply aren’t. The issues have been aired exhaustively now, and people have simply made up their minds on Iraq, the Tampa etc.

    This puts a responsibility on leftish-type people who think of themselves as politicos to understand why others are disagreeing with them, and to try to address the grounds of the disagreement. ‘I am human: I consider nothing human alien to me’. This manifestly didn’t happen on the asylum-seekers issue. It was name-calling all round.

    3. I can’t myself claim the expertise to do a definitive study of the culture-gap issue in terms of public opinion. But there are tentative gropings in that direction in Chapter 2 of my little book Western Horizon (Scribe, 2003). I think the suggestions there are pretty compelling, myself. But would be delighted to hear of other, conflicting findings. Or corresponding with other working on similar data to the same end.

    David Burchell

  8. Tom Round says:

    I see Mungo MacCallum made the same point in the “Northern Rivers Echo” (No 1041, 14 October 2004, p 15):

    “In a sense Howard got it right on day one when he talked about trust – not trust in honesty, which he had long ago found to be dispensable, but trust in competence. What Latham had to do was to provide reassurance that he would be a steady hand at the wheel, and by constantly going on the defensive over detail he did exactly the opposite…”

    http://www.echonews.com/1041/politics.html

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