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’sGreg 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.