Passing Bull 58 – Bullshit about being well informed


It is curious that the Looney Tunes of politics and what used to be called the chattering classes have over the last generation or so gone from one side of politics to the other.  Formally it was the Labor Party that was plagued with theorists and purists – now it is the Liberal Party.  If anything, the Liberal Party is suffering more from internal dissension now than used to be the case with the Labor Party.  If, like me, you can recall how toxic Labor Party politics were in the generation leading up to 1972, this is an appalling conclusion.  But I think it is correct, and it is one of the main reasons why this country is becoming ungovernable.  The decline does now look to be vicious – the more people distrust mainstream politicians, the more likely they are to vote for people who will really merit that distrust – and revulsion.  Just look at people like Farage, Trump, Corbyn, and Hanson.

Let us take Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt as examples of the chattering classes on the side of reaction in Australia.  (They like to call themselves ‘conservatives’, but that offends me – so do I.)  They see the world as split between those who can look at issues like Islamic terrorism and ‘freedom of speech’ clearly for what they are and those whose thinking is warped by what they call ‘political correctness’.  They live in a world of labels and slogans.  Their thinking is inhibited and their minds are closed.

There is another division that you can see.  It is between those who belong to or subscribe to the chattering classes and those who do not.  Would you agree that less than one in, say, twenty Australians happily take part in this kind of discussion?  A far smaller number knows ‘the Canberra bubble.’

There are currently four issues agitating people like Bolt and Jones – gay marriage; climate change; free speech and section 18 C; and the republic.  What thread can you trace between those four issues except reaction?  Would more than one person in twenty Australians want to spend more than five minutes talking about the lot?  If you sought to raise any of these issues – except perhaps the monarchy – in any pub I know, the best result you could expect would be a very funny look.

Now, there is nothing inherently wrong in a person reacting, but it does look a little hard to avoid the impression that it is just a matter of time before these people are run over by the bus of history on each of those four issues.  (Was it Trotsky who spoke of people being thrown into the dustbin of history?)

And you can see how much trouble the reactionaries are causing the Liberal Party.  While he was Prime Minister, Tony Abbott was the very dux of reactionaries on each of the four issues I have mentioned.  (Indeed, it was his fawning adulation of the monarchy that finally convinced the nation that he was about as sane as Don Quixote.)

The new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has a very different view on each of the four subjects – his view is flatly opposed on each to that of Abbott.  His view is I think closer to the temper of the nation, but he has been placed behind bars put up by the forces of reaction. The result is a disaster for the country.  And it does seem a bit hard for the reactionaries, who are the core of most problems facing the Liberal Party, to blame Mr Turnbull for the lack of leadership that has bedevilled this country since the fall of Paul Keating.  In truth, the Liberal Party has been arrested if not hijacked by troglodytes.  It is grimly fascinating to watch Corbyn’s people do the same thing to the other side in England.

Mr Shorten is powerless to help.  He is the reverse of passionate intensity – he lacks all conviction.  He looks like a school prefect whose mum has dressed him and combed his hair, but who has lost his way to school.  I call him the Kelvinator Kid.  He can’t pass a refrigerator without opening the door to feel the light shine upon him.  And speaking of galahs who lust after the limelight, has Canberra seen anything more repellent than Sam Dastyari, the reincarnation of Edward G Robinson, the big screen’s standard hood?

There is another division that we can see.  It is between those who are well educated and those who are not.  You see it most plainly with Trump.  Most people I know would not allow Trump into their house – not because he is a stupid, lying, racist bully, but because he has no manners at all – he is just a spoilt child who never grew up.  Whenever he comes on to the screen, I have to suppress a feeling of nausea.  Then my eye goes to my copy of The Great Gatsby and I think of that immortal line:

It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people – with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

We therefore wonder how anyone could vote for a man like Trump to become the President of the United States.  And for once, I’m happy to say that nothing like that could happen here.

Well, my view is that most of these people who are taken in by Trump are watchers of reality TV.  They are not too bright and are not very attractive – the sound and vision of the public addresses are very unsettling – there is a fever pitch of hate. It is very redolent of fascism. But we tend not to say things like that – first, because it would be impolite, and secondly, because it would be unhelpful: Trump and his followers feed on rejection.  But if you stand as the champion of those opposed to the elite, you may have to face the possibility that you are the champion of the gutter.  If the elite are the chosen, their opponents will come from those who have been rejected.  The trouble is that these rejects glory in their own martyrdom.

This division in education was well illustrated by Professor A C Grayling in discussing our gay marriage plebiscite.  (I incline to the view that this unholy imbroglio was devised by Satan to bring out the worst in our politicians and in our clergy.  If so, this is his biggest win since the apple.)  Grayling compared the history of this plebiscite with that of the British referendum on the E U – a prime minister making a bad promise to appease a faction of reaction in his own party.  He said that the result was terribly divisive ‘and tremendously unsettling to most informed opinion.’  That is certainly the view in places like Oxford, Cambridge, and London.  It is the view of most people I know here or in England.  They see the result as a very sad aberration.

The trouble is that the success of people like Farage, Corbyn, Trump, and Hanson shows that people of ‘informed opinion’ have utterly failed to come to terms with the views of people who are not so well informed on issues like migration and refugees. It is like the problem we have with our politicians – they get out of touch with what the proverbial people in the street or on the land think, and too many of them have never had a real job.

That last proposition does not go for people like Jones and Bolt – the less well-informed are precisely those to whom they appeal.  And the appeal consists of labels and slogans.  ‘Freedom’ is bonzer for any label – except for choosing the sex of the person you want to marry.  (This issue does put a bit of a dent in the aspiration of the reactionaries to call themselves ‘libertarians’.)

There was a beautiful example on a BBC panel show.  On the burkini issue, one very conservative commentator gave Milton and John Stuart Mill chapter and verse.  ‘I choose what I wear – not the government.’  Well, that is fine.  But any slogan has its limits.  Try giving that answer to the copper who arrests you on Piccadilly for wearing a T-shirt with the words ‘Freedom or Death’ – and no further garments.  And if you can be arrested for wearing too little in public, it might seem a little odd if you could also be arrested for wearing too much.

The truth is that these theoretical arguments about ideas are not welcome to us down here.  Australians distrust ideology – the distrust is visceral.  That is why propaganda coming from think tanks is so dangerous for either major political party.  It is just, as I said, that at the moment it is the Liberal Party that is suffering the most from this form of political infection.

Not only do Australians not like ideology, they reject by and large the idea of being preached at by ‘intellectuals.’  The term ‘intellectual’ is almost as much a term of abuse as the term ‘academic’ or, God save us, ‘scholar’.

These aversions are not native to us in the Antipodes.  They come from more than 1000 years of history in the development of the English law and constitution.  The English have never asked whether a proposal to change or add to the law accorded with a theory.  They just asked whether it worked – and if it did, then later on someone might be bothered to invent a theory as window dressing.  Rousseau preceded the French Revolution; Locke came after the English Revolution.

This difference between the empirical approach of the British and the rationalist leanings on the other side of the Channel runs very deep through so many aspects of our public life.  It is why we and the Americans get into trouble when we try to impose some overarching absolute – like section 92 of our Constitution – on a quilt made out of centuries of hard, gritty experience.

So, on a slogan that is as plastic as that of ‘freedom of speech’, the English experience is to ask not whether a law accords with a theory or a political scheme, aspiration, or slogan, but whether it works.  We therefore put high theory or aspiration to one side and ask how long we would last without tearing ourselves apart like enraged Yahoos in a state of mayhem if we abolished all laws relating to offensive and insulting speech, and the police were then left powerless to deal with someone marching outside the front of a convent with a placard saying ‘All the women inside this building are sluts,’ or someone marching outside the Shrine on Anzac Day with a placard saying ‘All Anzacs are war criminals and cowards,’ or someone marching outside the Bendigo mosque with a placard saying ‘These Towel-Heads are not Religious – They are Mad’.

It is really a source of wonder that some people get so wrapped up in their own bullshit that they lose all contact with the rest of us.

Poet of the month: Henrik Ibsen

In the Picture Gallery

With palette laden

She sat, as I passed her,

A dainty maiden

Before an Old Master.


What mountain-top is

She bent upon? Ah,

She neatly copies

Murillo’s Madonna.


But rapt and brimming

The eyes’ full chalice says

The heart builds dreaming

Its fairy-palaces.


The eighteenth year rolled

By, ere returning,

I greeted the dear old

Scenes with yearning.


With palette laden

She sat, as I passed her,

A faded maiden

Before an Old Master.


But what is she doing?

The same thing still–lo,

Hotly pursuing

That very Murillo!


Her wrist never falters;

It keeps her, that poor wrist,

With panels for altars

And daubs for the tourist.


And so she has painted

Through years unbrightened,

Till hopes have fainted

And hair has whitened.


But rapt and brimming

The eyes’ full chalice says

The heart builds dreaming

Its fairy-palaces.

One thought on “Passing Bull 58 – Bullshit about being well informed

  1. Many would quote Auden
    To the man in the street ,who I am sorry to say is a keen observer of life, the word intellectual suggests straight away a man who’s untrue to his wife .
    Doggerel and a bit rich from Auden.
    Comensense that much used term means what I think about it and everyone who doesn’t is wrong.
    Mainstream means everyone who agrees with me.
    Yes the right of the LNP and others are full of passionate intensity and the ALP lacks all conviction although that doesn’t mean they are the best.
    Increasingly as you point out new LNP members are Crusaders and ALP members aspirants to a career

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