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May 11, 2012

Tony Abbott: philosopher-prince of the assertion-based community

Tony Abbott now insists things are true merely because he says they are, and his budget reply reflected that.

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The only significant phrase uttered by a politician this week was by Tony Abbott, when he asserted that the government’s education refund handouts were  different to the baby bonus because “they just are”. I hope I’m quoting Abbott accurately, because the transcript from that interview was, curiously, not released by Abbott’s office.

As I’ve noted before, Abbott has no interest in consistency, evidence or logic. Such things are the hobgoblins of little minds, and Abbott’s is vast enough to hold multiple positions, often every possible position, on important issues.

This week he has gone further, though, into a new form of epistemology. He has previously dabbled in this area with his famous caveat that things are only true if he has written them down, rather than asserted them off the cuff. But now our philosopher-prince has gone further: things are now true merely because he asserts them to be the case: “they just are.”

Abbott’s budget reply was, yes, entirely devoid of detail or policy, barring an uncosted, undated thought bubble about Asian literacy, but that was expected. Don’t linger on that. What was more interesting was Abbott’s long list of assertions about the government’s performance and that of the Coalition. Stephen Koukoulas has already done a demolition of the more egregiously false statements by Abbott, although he missed my favourite, Abbott’s claim that “the Coalition identified $50 billion in savings before the last election and will do at least as much again before the next one”.

The Coalition’s $50 billion claim ($47.6 billion, but never mind) was a fiction, riddled with double-counting and asset sales, one of the reasons they were tripped up by Treasury and Finance during negotiations with independents in 2010.

But silliest was the claim that “there is no plan for economic growth; nothing whatsoever to promote investment or employment”. Indeed, Abbott suggested, only the Coalition would deliver economic growth, jobs and investment.

This is patently wrong, wrong in a black-is-white way, in a “they just are” way that can only be maintained by someone who has no regard for the inconveniences of a reality in which the economy is growing with low inflation and interest rates, maintained on the day unemployment fell below 5%. But it chimed nicely with Clive Palmer yesterday insisting that if Australia, which is labouring under a “socialist and communist philosophy” (Clive of China is presumably unaware of the difference), were a company he would write if off.

Clive and Abbott have this in common, that both are in a position where they don’t need to care what they say — Palmer because he’s so wealthy, Abbott because his party is nearly 20 points clear in opinion polls against a Prime Minister to whom voters have stopped listening.

But Abbott’s bland declaration that things are true merely because he says they are is more reminiscent of the famous assertion by Karl Rove that the Bush Administration was “creating its own reality”, one that the poor folk of the “reality-based community” would simply be left to study afterwards. The parallels between the Liberals and the Republicans are sometimes overstated, but let us to defer to Brian Loughnane, who noted in 2006 “the close ties between President Bush and Howard were reflected in the similarly strong ties between the Australian Liberal and US Republican parties”.

Since then, the Republicans have embraced a full-scale war against science, not to mention wars on women, wars on gays and whatever is the conspiracy theory du jour about Barack Obama.

This sort of relativism, of course, used to be the preserve of the far Left, a comforting narrative in which even reason and logic themselves were simply tools of white patriarchal capitalist tyranny, one busy “genociding” every conceivable minority group (genocide having not merely had its meaning extended to include the mere giving of offence to someone of another culture, but turned into a verb, because grammar, too, is a weapon of oppression). Now it’s been embraced by the Right, along with the automatic victimhood that goes with it, one in which pointing out the lack of correspondence between an assertion and reality is an attack on free speech.

The result is a battle in which the assertion-based community will always have the upper hand, since the reality-based community is hobbled by trying to adhere to logic and evidence, whereas its opponents are free to say anything they wish, and reject any need to verify or explain themselves.

The media environment is entirely conducive to this growing split between the assertion-based community, of which Tony Abbott is now the leader, and the reality-based community. Most of News Ltd is firmly in the assertion-based community: look no further than the “here’s one we prepared earlier” theme of “class war” in this week’s budget coverage. Serious use of the term “class warfare” in a Western market economy is a convenient indicator of stupidity, but its assertion about a government under which the profit share of income has risen, despite a financial crisis, and about a budget in which government spending is falling significantly, is straight defiance of reality.

But that’s only part of the problem; perhaps the more damaging media role is played by outlets seeking “balance” by flatly reporting and thereby legitimising even the most absurd, reality-defying statements from politicians, without any effort to note how false they are. We’ve been here before, of course. The likes of overhyped New York media critic Jay Rosen attack this as “the view from nowhere” but I prefer Washington Post’s Greg Sargent’s take, that “balanced” reporting of outright falsehoods results in a media outlet’s readers being misled, and no media outlet should assist in misleading its readers.

As our politics becomes more and more a contest between assertion and reality, between “they just are” and logic and evidence, those sections of the mainstream media that have not joined News Ltd in the former camp need to consider what role they want to play in the new paradigm and the extent to which they’re prepared to mislead their readers in their coverage.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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57 thoughts on “Tony Abbott: philosopher-prince of the assertion-based community

  1. susansan

    It’s a great relief to hear someone stating the obvious when all that the rest of the 4th estate, including the ABC much of the time, is doing is propagating a universe of obfuscation led by News Ltd, or Limited News. More’s the pity that these fine words will never escape the pages of Crikey and do anything to jolt the addled public discourse.

    The Labor Government is about as lost as any other centre-right party anywhere in the world, having forsaken its brief and lost its social centre of gravity, here in the dying days of the globalised neoliberal experiment. Moving so thoroughly into that orbit just as though it were the only possible way of conceiving ‘reality’ has cut its tongue out and replaced any chance of incisive speech with hypocrisy and regurgitated spin. The public Julia Gillard sounds slower than the speed limit in suburban streets these days and I don’t just mean the drone of her delivery. Her mode of discourse dumbs itself down to the pitiful level of someone addressing people of very limited intellectual capacity. It is indeed intolerable to listen to her when she is not on the floor of parliament, sounding like an interesting, intelligent, gutsy and capable human being. Though one lacking all possible skills and nous in sensing and connecting with the public nerve in any way at all.

    So that’s half the spin story. Here’s the rest of why we’re a nation bogged down in impossibly absurd politics without traction, wheels spinning in futility.

    There is a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest in which Cary Grant utterly disrupts and renders impossible a fine arts auction simply by ‘bidding’ whatever comes into his head, rather than a progressively higher figure than the bid before. He keeps a straight face while doing so. And no-one can do anything about this breach of customary protocol. If you decide to be a barbarian at the ritual called ‘an auction’, you can destroy it while everyone who is there with a serious purpose looks on helplessly.

    Anyone recognize the analogy with the corruption of political protocols in the last couple of years in Australia? Tony Abbott is not a politician of the policy-making school. How very last decade or last century is that very idea!. He is a knee-capper, toe-cutter, a man acting with utter confidence that the press will never hold him to account in any serious or thoughtful way for the gob-smacking absurdities and contradictions of his ever shifting ‘positions’, each one of them formed not to even faintly cohere but simply to throw one more spanner in the working ability of the government. Few could do this with more bald-faced chutzpah, I grant him (and Cary Grant) that; but all of his highly limited creativity lies in saying anything – anything! – that will throw the process of government sufficiently off the rails that it ties itself up in knots and fails to be able to convey to the public any one of its many achievements over the din he manages to create. with the monumental help of the Murdoch press echo-chamber that is detectable even in the framing of questions by Radio National journalists these days!

    The entire press of this Australia, with the very smallest and rarest exceptions such as this site, has had just one deeply uncivil note to sing for the last 12 months or more, which is let’s kick this government to death while it’s down and spit on its high offices, kill it, drown it, drown it out, do anything but take a serious look at the running joke called the Opposition.

  2. Tom McLoughlin

    BK, and the next step in the analysis is?

    OK it took me decades to really understand this – when you detect your protagonist is not respecting facts, this is the critical evidence to note that good faith is now relegated to foreign country status, and the currency of the language is now POWER.

    This was the case when Howard and Abbott owned the Iraq War after and despite the confirmation there were no WMD. No pretense at rationale. It was about POWER not facts or truth or wisdom or lives.

    How does one converse in the language of power. Well for a start one stops obsessing about facts and the time and energy needed for verification. That’s throwing good faith down a pit of toxic bad faith.

    Second you analyse what your power is. You are bound to have power you didn’t recognise, acknoweledge, took for granted when actually it is unusual or rare, etc etc.

    Thirdly you analyse the protagonists weaknesses and lack of power.

    Fourthly, you strike, preferably without warning, and preferably according to Gandhi’s principles of non violence which I personally hold dear. Gandhi was not your passive type. He believed in passive confrontation, and he surely understood the language of power when he liberated 300M people from 300 years of colonial servitude.

    One weakness of Abbott is correctly identified as his slippery approach to facts. Necessary but insufficient. Next is his illegal activities as a student – why did he punch my mate Peter Woof? Next perhaps his bribe policy to Australian women to abrogate their freedom to choose? Iraq War on WMD has to be another. Would have save the Franklin River? Does he do surf patrols or has he corrupted his local surf club patrol schedule (always a nuisance for the busy professional)? Does he sleep around? And on it goes.

  3. klewso

    Up here in “Q” – with a demographic of habit for sourcing their “news” – many of us have to make do on the unbalanced, restricted, intellectual low calorie diet dispensed by our one paper, “The Curry or Maul” – and day in to year out all we get is their edited partisan spin on “current affairs”. I reckon their sort of selective (negative for the Left, positive for the Right) take on “reality” has to affect the public perception of “fitness to govern”?
    Now we’re left with a Newman Limited News Party government, and an “opposition”, only when they step on “Murdoch’s bunions” – because Labor is virtually unviable and that role has fallen to our edited, selectively amnesiac, politically active, press?

    [It continues to amaze me that anyone thinks Limited News – with their share of the “opinion influence market”, through their viewspapers coupled to that aperture of a view of their news on the pay TV they effectively control – so big others seem to have to follow – subjects the Conservative side of politics to the same sort of scrutiny, analysis and critical publicity as they do the Left?
    And if the retort is “Gillard’s trail of deceit warrants serious scrutiny” – then compare that which they hand out now, in judgmental vehemence, vitriol, language, passion and general tenor to their “lethargic” (in comparison) reporting of Abbott’s (the alternate PM’s) pathological “habits”. As if he’ll change his ways in office?
    “Gillard’s lies”…….? Compared to “Honest John’s” record of non-core promises – surely a PB/record by almost anyone’s standards?
    Or go back to their selective coverage of “Iraq/the war on terror”. Or the sort of PR they dispensed re “Howard’s economic management better than Labor’s”.
    Their “balance” when it comes to reporting “climate change”? Or “refugees/boat people”?
    And if it hadn’t been for the ABC, stirring up trouble with their questions, when would we have heard about those “extra facts” surrounding “Children Overboard” – and the stable still touted/pimped Howard (and Reith) for that election 3 days after those revelations of theirs, to the electorate?
    I reckon most of their time is spent indulging themselves in getting back at those – that didn’t have the resources of Limited News to publicise such things – who had the temerity to question their infallibility and criticised Howard’s Way.
    I wonder if anyone who thinks Limited News doesn’t think Australia would be better off under a Conservative government of any type – and is doing their best to influence that outcome – has been reading their papers. And they only have to influence the opinion of “less than one in 12 (half+ of the swinging vote)” of us to do that.]

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