De civilitate optimatum: An open letter to @adambrereton

Dear Adam,

How are you?  If you are well, I am also well.

I hate open letters.  Or — perhaps more accurately — I hate the modern form of them.  There’s been a spate of them where the author takes either a moralising, condescending tone, assuming the didactic role of the teacher, or a sarcastic, condescending tone, assuming the role of chief rock-thrower in a city full of glass.

This is a shame because there’s no reason for open letters to be like this.  As you know, I’m a fan of politics as a conversation between people who disagree but like each other as people.  I want to see people who disagree on an issue tackle and explore issues together, rather than just having a weekly opportunity to tear each other apart.

Less Henderson v Marr and more Margaret and David, essentially.

On reflexion, I guess there’s no reason why an open letter format couldn’t be used in this way.  Two intelligent people have a disagreement about an issue via open letter such that others look on and see what parts of the two positions they like and which parts they don’t.  Further, it’s a good way to expand on ideas too complicated for the 140-character format of Twitter.  This isn’t to be disparaging of Twitter — I think its limitations cause people to think about how communicating more succinctly (‘Had I had more time, I’d have written a shorter letter’, said Circero.  Also captured by Shakespeare in Hamlet: ‘Brevity is […] wit’) — but some subjects require a bigger space.

Before I launch into a lengthy exploration of our conversation on Twitter — about my conception of a ‘good conservative’ (which I have rather pretentiously and indulgently titled ‘Civilitatas Optimatum’, the Political Philosophy of the Elites) — it would be vulgar and ugly of me not to congratulate you on your exceptional coverage of the Royal Commission into Child Abuse.  Your reporting of this issue has been sensitive, intelligent, and moving.  I know that I would not have the personal strength to cope with these hearings and I am in awe of your capacity to do so.  If there were any justice, you would walk home with a sack full of awards for those articles.

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I was brave and unique… The Future of Conservative Commentary post Sattler #auspol

Edmund Burke, Colston Avenue, Bristol

Edmund Burke, Colston Avenue, Bristol (Photo credit: Ravages)

Last week, right wing radio personality Howard Sattler interviewed the Prime Minister and asked her if her partner were gay.  Not because Sattler thought the Prime Minister’s partner were gay.  No, no.  Perish the thought.  It was because there were ‘rumours’ and ‘people’ were wondering.

Keeping with the tradition of seeking apologies from the rational members of groups when the fringe elements go wonky, allow me to apologise on behalf of Australian conservatives to the rest of the community.  We are sorry about Sattler.  Not all conservatives are that obnoxious.

But perhaps conservatives have something more for which to apologise.  Over the past few days, the community has been able to dissect and interrogate the ‘Sattler Incident’ as if it were an isolated event.  On the same day as the comments, Channel 10’s The Project interviewed right wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen for her views on the issue.  Albrechtsen thought that the ‘sacking of Howard Sattler was an overreaction’, even though she considered the comments to be ‘horrible’, ‘stupid’, ‘impertinent’, ‘offensive’, and ‘crossed the line pretty comprehensively’.  Albrechtsen then compared this comment to a poster in Tanya Plibersek‘s office which suggests that the Leader of the Opposition is homophobic (as if these attacks are somehow comparable).

Even the infamous Piers Ackerman was able to claim on Insiders that the question was ‘probably the most stupid thing [he’d] ever heard on public broadcasting’, before criticising the Prime Minister for her response, and then claiming that the rumour was circulating the Press Gallery.

Albrechtsen and Ackerman were able to frame the incident as an isolated event — one lone lunatic turned rogue extremist.  But this framing hides an uncomfortable truth on the right wing of the commentariat: this is what right wing commentary has become.

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So free your love. Hear me, I’m coming… Why opinion writing matters #MediaWatch #auspol #ausmedia

Monday night’s Media Watch ran another of its ‘special’ episodes where it tries to explore a particular issue relating to journalism in more depth.  Unfortunately, both the time constraints and the limitations of the current host tend to cripple the show’s ability to really nut out the issues in sufficient depth.  In an interesting exploration of the phrase ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, Media Watch really wants to achieve something amazing, but has neither reach nor grasp.

Which is a shame.

In an episode filled with unchallenged assumptions, one stood out to me in particular because it’s quickly becoming the dominant ideology in discussions about the media.

 And even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting. […] Laurie Oakes is hoping – vainly, perhaps – that the mainstream media will see that fact-based reporting, not endless opining, is what it can do better than the blogosphere. But he, and I, both fear that it may be too late. [Souce: Media Watch, 22 April 2013]

In the comments of the transcript, one comment echoes this ‘fear that it might be too late’:

The media doesn’t have any interest in reporting facts. I’m sick to death of listening to journalists opinions. I want the facts. As a result, I now look for my news and facts outside of the usual news outlets. [Source: ‘Jason’ 23 Apr 2013 8:12:40am]

As a person interested in theory, I worry when people start to divide the world into ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’.  Facts, it seems, are independent of the observer and, as such, are the correct material for newspapers and journalism.  But we know that the world doesn’t work like this.

Take the discussion about live exports.  People were extremely passionate about the subject and had radically different ideas about what was at stake.  In the middle of this was an internal-ABC paroxysm about whether the ‘correct’ word for the building where animals are killed was ‘slaughterhouse‘ or ‘abattoir‘.  Both words denote the same thing (broadly), but one has the word slaughter in it.  Is it neutral to use a word which does not include that connotation?  Is it neutral to use a word which does?

In January, Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’ which marks… settlement? colonisation? invasion?  Which is the neutral word?

More than the prevalence of opinion (to which we’ll return in a moment), I’m worried about the pretence of ‘neutrality’.  Time for some Zizek!

In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, Zizek noted the director’s claim that it was supposed to be a neutral account of the events leading up to bin Laden’s… death?  killing?  murder?

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?

Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale. [Source: Zizek, ‘Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power’ The Guardian]

Zero Dark Thirty is a really good case study in ‘neutrality’ as a way to obscure the ideology of the author.  Watching this film, you get the impression that torture was useful in the hunting down of bin Laden even though no particular point of the film outright makes the claim.  When confronted with the allegation, the director was able to hide behind the air of neutrality: ‘Oh, I’m not really saying anything or pushing a particular message.  I’m being neutral.’

Journalism should not go down this path.  Journalists and editors are just like directors, they make decisions about what goes into the news and, equally as importantly, make decisions about what is not covered.  When we, the ordinary public ask, ‘Why did you cover this story in this way, and why didn’t you cover that story?’ the answer is not ‘We objectively presented the facts!’ but ‘We made decisions about what we thought was important based on our own judgement.’

In this respect, I wish journalists were a little bit more human.  Instead of hiding behind the phony veil of objectivity, I wish we could get a better understanding of how they view the world first so that we can see the perspective from which they’re writing.  Alas, we’re never going to get that because of journalists’ pretension of professionalism.  Objective and impartial…

Don’t get me wrong.  Worse than trying to be objective and denying subjectivity is the greater evil: being extremely partial and pretending to be objective.  Going holus bolus after particular political parties, &c., &c., &c., in the ‘news’ is flatly unprofessional.  It was unprofessional when Murdoch’s media empire backed Gough in the 1970s and it’s equally unprofessional today.  All of that said, I wrote in New Matilda that the attacks on News Ltd weren’t always entirely justified and still agree with that position:

It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds? [Source: Fletcher, ‘Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?‘ New Matilda]

So, just to reiterate: outright bias masquerading as objectivity is a Bad Thing, but feigning objectivity without admitting subjectivity is also a Bad Thing.

What I argue now is that the same principle can be applied to opinion writing.  Further, good opinion writing is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.

The difficulty in making this argument is that we are much more familiar with bad opinion writing than we are with good opinion writing.  From both sides of politics, we are more familiar with the asinine restatement of partisan party lines as opinion than we are with opinion writers who are able to put into words those ideas that we’re struggling to express.

Forget journalism for a moment and turn to applied ethics.  Everybody has ethical intuitions.  Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad.  The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics.  The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.

Opinion writing — good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework.  The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.

It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter — presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.

Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important?  We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument.  ‘Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’  But it’s not actually true.  Some people have much better opinions than other people.  Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others.  Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman (see, for example, the recent atheism debate where a white guy straight up told me that there was no problem of gender in pop-atheism and that I should STFU for claiming such a thing).

When we live in a Republic of Reasons, it is important that people have the tools necessary to discuss and debate their reasons with others.  Good opinion writing provides that tool.

And we see the outcome of our modern landscape of poor opinion writers.  Tony Abbott puts up a sign with some potentially inaccurate words; people freak out about those words, vandalise the sign, and then completely forget to analyse the policy.  Meanwhile, millions of voters have their bellyfeel instincts about both border control and asylum seeker activists confirmed.  We have protests filled with people of both political tribes who can barely mumble out what they believe.  Meetings of the WTO and G20 are bombarded by people screaming ‘Something something globalisation something something.’  We see crowds gathered at Parliament House with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs.  You could replace all journalists with objective robots who dutifully conveyed information in some value-neutral way (i.e. with magic) and you’d still see this depressing obliteration of public discourse.  Why?  Because people don’t have good quality resources for forming opinions.

So let’s get back to Media Watch.  Jonathan Holmes and Laurie Oakes fear ‘endless opining’.  They shouldn’t.  The current batch of opinion writing is not unlike a sewer gushing out into the wilderness and we should fear that the rivers will never again run clean, but we shouldn’t fear opining itself.  What we should be doing is looking for ways to improve the content of our opinion columns.  We should look for ways to promote diversity in columnists for one, and to promote quality for another.

But we already know why this won’t happen: the market.  When it’s more profitable to pump out blogs and columns by trolls (leftwing and rightwing) who can draft up linkbaiting garbage with very little research, you’re going to tap that resource dry before you start to look for well-researched opinion pieces which (shock, horror) will be expensive.

I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be able to read the opinion pages of an e-newspaper which won’t be flooded with ‘comedians’, ex-politicians or their staffers, or think tank miscreants.  I suspect I’ll be dreaming for a long time to come.

Understanding #Thatcher: A perspective from a young conservative

When Gough Whitlam dies, I dread to think what the Young Liberals and company will tweet.  Last last night, I was given a bit of a sneak peek courtesy of very many lefties on Twitter in response to the death of Margaret Thatcher.

At the outset, I should say that I don’t get that moved or sentimental about the deaths of famous people.  As a community, we thought it particularly odd when North Koreans made public displays of grief when Kim Jong-Il died… and yet think it perfectly ordinary to demand outlandish lengths of respect and commemoration when cricketers, musicians, and various other menaces to the Public Quiet kick the bucket.

It is not a sentimental feeling of loss I feel now that Thatcher’s dead.  I don’t feel the need to wear sackcloth or rub ashes in my hair.  I don’t even feel like it’s a great shame that she’s dead — a feeling which I suspect comes more from our shared fear of death and of mortality rather than an appreciation of eudaimonia.

But what I do feel is that her passing gives us an opportunity to reflect upon who she was, what she did, and what we need to learn from the period in which she was influential.  Perhaps more than just an opportunity.  Perhaps it’s an excuse.  As a society, we feel the need to find excuses to think.  I worked as an adviser to an influential special interest group and developed a quick appreciation for the need to capitalise opportunistically when spaces happened to open up in the agora for new ideas.  It seems we can’t cold call the public with new ideas; we need to wait until they’re in a frame of mind to listen.  The death of a public figure puts people in that frame of mind to consider ideas.  The death of Thatcher puts people in the frame of mind to ask questions about conservative politics, women in politics, and the near total colonisation of the political sphere by the economic sphere.

I must admit that I don’t have a lot to say about women in politics.  I imagine there aren’t too many people who’d care what a straight, white male would have to say on the topic either.  I do have plenty to say on the topic of the economic sphere’s hostile takeover of politics, but it’s the first subject that I think is the most relevant here.  The death of Thatcher gives us an opportunity to look over the past thirty years of conservative political thought and ask: ‘What the fuck have we done?’

Thatcher is perhaps more responsible for the modernisation of both the Left and the Right than any other person.  The modern Left, in particular, is only recently coming to terms with the idea of Thatcher being influential in their intellectual development.  Who — besides the rusted on crazies — in the Left are still wedded to collectivism?  Which modern Left wing thinker doesn’t (even if begrudgingly) accept that markets are Just So the ideal way of distributing goods (but, as we don’t live in a perfect world, we must have some State intervention)?  How many times have I heard Latham, Rudd, Gillard, and Beazley impress upon the population the need for personal responsibility?  And where would Keating be if it weren’t for Thatcher paving the way with economic rationalism?  Third Way politics is the munted love-child of Thatcherism and the Left’s desperate need to feel relevant.

Thatcher’s great success was the normalisation of a particular kind of attitude: that economic rules were free of ideology and should be accepted by both sides of politics.  The debate shifted away from other areas of politics towards the modern debate, ‘Which side of politics best gives expression to these ideologically-clean rules of economics?’  Of course, economic rules are not free of ideology — and their integration into social policy is certainly not.  But, thanks to Thatcher, we can now trap voters in discussion of the nation’s budget in terms of their household budgets, and promote the voodoo economics of ‘Rich people make poor people richer because Science’.

Over here on the Right side of the political spectrum, it is nearly impossible to escape the Thatcherite shadow.  She, aided and abetted by Reagan, cut off the many-headed Hydra of conservative thought, cauterising the stubs of all but the neo-liberal neck.  The important similarity between this Heracles and Iolaus of Anglo-American politics was their recreation of the past.  All conservatives (even me) are guilty of creating their own imagined past to which we wish the world would return.  For Reagan, it was a new vision of the old Constitution.  For Thatcher, it was a fantasy Victorian age with stalwart values and thriving institutions of state (especially the Monarchy and the Parliament).  It’s here that we get the very odd idea of the ‘Economically liberal; Socially conservative’ politician — as if advocating a market system which advantaged the wealthy were somehow ‘liberal’.

It’s this violence towards traditional conservatism which severed the link between the mainstream political conversations of the 1800s-1960s and the present.  Our political dialectic was not between the workers/labourers and the aristocrats/bourgeoisie.  Thatcher’s (poor) treatment at the hands of the old guard Tories reframed the conservative debate: we now discuss issues in terms of common individuals and imagined latte-sipping, technocratic/academic elites.   Both sides of politics do this, but modern conservatives are a bit more eager about this narrative.  Tories used to fantasise about families: Menzies’ ‘The Forgotten People‘ speech, for example, isn’t about real families.  It’s about his idealised fantasy family: heterosexual parents who dutifully maintain the marriage to support the production of children who, in turn, would dutifully undertake their filial obligations towards their elders.  It was a whitewashed family, bleached of complexity and imperfection.  Thatcher changed this: over the course of her time in power, she stopped talking to fantasy voters who couldn’t deliver her actual votes, and instead took to talking to real individuals about the fantasy elites who were ripping them off, who were concealing the truth, and who were really to blame.  Confusingly, union leaders were held up as typical of this new elite — publicly speaking out in favour of workers, but really holding individuals to ransom and privately being corrupt.  The telos of this is the modern absurdity where working families are resentful of elitist, ‘class war’ politicians who want to tax the rich in order to fund socially beneficial programs.

In his essay What Is To Be Done?, Lenin discusses ‘Tailism’ (‘khvostism‘) where political leaders hijack the spontaneity of the public mood.  The leaders aren’t really leading, says Lenin; they are following the mood of the public and echoing back to them what they want to hear.  It was a criticism specifically of various revolutionaries, but Thatcher showed that reactionaries were similarly capable of tailism.  The public is often too eager to fall into moral panics, and Thatcher had a knack (studiously copied by John Howard) for giving voice to these excesses of indignation.  Instead of being a social leader, Thatcher’s conservatism exemplified a new form of reactionary politics: affirming whatever politically beneficial bellyfeel was permeating the electorate.

Being a social leader was antithetical to Thatcherism.  In a confusing and often contradictory way, Thatcher herself believed deeply in supporting charities — but only ones which had a proper Victorian air about them, like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children — but did not believe in society as a whole supporting individuals.  Extremely wealthy individuals helped the poor, she thought; State investment in social goods did not.  Her political inclinations were as much an attack on the conservative understanding of the State as they were an attack on Lefty entitlement culture.

It’s this nihilism about the value of society which has bled out the soul of conservatism.  We are no longer the staunch defenders of the arts and high culture — because that would be elitist — but we are mouthpieces of individual responsibility without ever having to decide what we mean by those words.  We have the audacity to criticise left wing political parties for funding cultural institutions which celebrate low culture, but won’t back universities and high culture when we have government.  For this, we can thank Thatcher and her cronies.  After all, they claim, why should the check out chick have to subsidise the opera and the ballet via their taxes?

Thus, we get the choice of two groups of barbarians.  Which party will be the best custodian of the economic good?  If you ask about the cultural good, you’re an elitist and must be voted off the island.  If you ask about the social good, you’re making some sort of category error: there is no society, only Zuul.

Now is a good time to put Thatcher to rest, both figuratively and literally.  The great shame is that we can’t bury her political ideals with her; instead, we conservatives are doomed to be haunted by yet another spectre whose chain-rattling warnings from the beyond cannot be heard over our own sanctimonious intercessory prayers.  And so we should commit the Blessed Thatcher to the earth where, with Plautus as host, she can spend eternity with Hayek, Mises, and Reagan.  There, she will be safely sealed away from the political world of the living, and can fill her cup with the sort of riveting conversation we would associate with Hayek, Mises, and Reagan…

It was dark on the ground. There was frost all around… When the Right shifted Left #auspol

There’s a lot of hyperbole about the Left shifting Right.  The idea is that there is some Mythical Centre from which the parties distinguish themselves as being either to the Left or to the Right of that Centre.

What doesn’t seem to get much recognition is that ‘Centre’ isn’t a normative description: it’s wherever the bulk of the voters are.  The theory is that most of the voters won’t be fringe lunatics, so they bulk up in the middle somewhere.  If the population takes a giant shift towards either extreme, the centre moves with it.

It therefore becomes a bit confusing when people complain that left wing parties have taken a shift to the right.  You mean, ‘A party has decided to adopt the views of the bulk of voters?  What sort of tyrannical democracy where voters’ views are represented is this?!  I thought I bought this was an oligarchy.’

Even when I stop playing masturbatory semantics games, the intended meaning isn’t even true.  In Australia, it’s usually used as a claim that the ALP has taken on more traditionally right wing views.  But the views being adopted aren’t traditionally right wing ones…

Take, for example, ‘border protection’.  The Refugees Convention was signed in 1951.  Who was Prime Minister?  Conservative Robert Menzies.  Vietnamese asylum seekers cascaded down to Australia in the late 1970s.  Which Prime Minister took them in?  Conservative Malcolm Fraser.

The right wing of Australian politics has (or should that be ‘had’?) a good reputation when it came to this issue.  The left, not so much.  ALP introduced detention centres.  ‘Two Wongs Don’t Make A White’ Calwell (first Immigration Minister) was from the ALP.  The exclusion of non-whites from immigrating to Australia was driven by the ALP and had to be tempered by the conservatives Barton and Deakin.

Would that Howard had continued the tradition of conservative immigration policy and abolished the detention centres implemented by the Australian left.

It’s a bit rose-tainted, true.  I’ve skipped over the embarrassing classism and moralism which unjustly disenfranchised large sections of the community.  The right has had more than its fair share of the ignorantly hateful, but they were usually far too incompetent to do any great damage (it wasn’t until the old school started to die off that the Religious Right started to ramp up its political profile).  But the core part is true: conservatives never saw other cultures as a threat, because the underlying hubris was that our culture was so great that it would assimilate everybody who arrived and would eventually spread to every corner of the globe.  As a result, good immigration policies.

Populism was typically a left wing trait.  The danger, too frequently encountered, was that by being anti-populist, conservative parties became elitist and patronising.  Conservative parties opposed interesting reforms to the status of women and the poor because they refused to acknowledge the merit of other points of view.

While conservative parties could appeal to the aspirations of civility and the mos maiorum, they failed to engage the public and couldn’t maintain the image of integrity when they were caught in embarrassing scandals.  If you look at the conservative parties of the first half of the 1900s, you see a monoculture of people who had all the power, didn’t want to lose it, and engaged in some pretty grubby affairs trying to cling on to it.  You also see a side of politics which failed to live up to its own rhetoric, disenchanting the population in the process.

Left wing parties, on the other hand, were much better at engaging broader audiences because left wing parties were more diverse.  So left wing parties could manage a broad church of left wing issues, even if they contradicted or were uneasy bedfellows.  Workers’ parties (the natural enemy of migration: ‘They want to steal my job!’) were shoulder to shoulder with human rights groups who wanted nothing more than for everybody in a war-torn country to move to Australia.  Naturally, this meant that left wing parties were less stable (which the history of the ALP shows rather well).  To combat this instability, they had to be more populist (usually in the form of appealing to disenfranchisement: ‘You don’t have power because conservatives are keeping it all for themselves and their mates.  Vote for us.’).

So what happens when a right wing party (still overwhelmingly homogeneous) adopts populist strategies?  The current LNP.

I’ve always been slightly confused by complaints from the left that the LNP is a populist party.  Whitlam had a song-based campaign, and Rudd managed to get elected without having to explain any of his policies beyond ‘I’m going to get rid of WorkChoices’ (remember when he was going to turn back the boats?  How quickly we forget).  Hawke was nothing if not populist.

It should surprise us that the average, disinterested worker has more affinity with the right wing parties than with the left, and yet now so many of the left sneer at the ‘bogan vote’.  The ALP, the party of the worker, no longer has the trodden-upon worker as its base.  It was stolen using the same techniques, the same anti-elitist rhetoric, the same appeals to disenfranchisement which the left had used for decades.

From my conservative perspective, the problem with Abbott and Howard was that they weren’t conservative enough.  Abbott, in particular, seems to be a devotee of the ‘Tea Party Right’: a populist strategy of appealing to the worst aspects of the electorate, their fears and their angers.  The real problem in modern politics is the shift of the Right to the Left.

The anti-populist conservatives are a dying breed; I’ve moaned about this before.  But if the ALP really were taking a shift to the right, we’d be seeing better policies.

God, you’d want to be such an arsehole… Deveny, Devine, and Tribalism in #auspol

I’d been sitting on these ideas for a while, so it’s a bit out-of-date…

Catherine Deveny’s rant in The Drum about Miranda Devine is demonstrative of the factionalism and tribalism festering in Australian politics.  Deveny claims that Devine is needed by conservatives “to massage [their] prejudices” and by progressives “to voice the extreme beliefs of the other team to get your beliefs over the line”.

Deveny concludes that “Miranda Devine’s cry for help on Sunday is more helpful to progressive causes than any same-sex marriage rally or gay rights Facebook page because it engages both sides in a raucous and rigorous public debate.”

Apparently, what the world needs now is discord, sweet discord.  Deveny seems to think that there are two sides to the “debate”: the backward and unthinking conservatives who need to be “lulled into a false sense of security”; and the free-thinking, enlightened progressives like Deveny.

But there’s no debate going on here.  Not once in Deveny’s fifteen hundred word diatribe did Deveny even try to engage Devine’s argument.  This, no doubt, has a lot to do with the scantiness of Devine’s article: a series of non sequiturs and assertions that makes the breathtaking leap from “[Gay marriage] is simply a political tool to undermine the last bastion of bourgeois morality – the traditional nuclear family” to “As a rule, what prevents social chaos and the underclass is an intact family. What keeps children safe is an intact family, with a father in the home.”

Instead, Deveny resorted to the same strawman rhetoric that most on the left did: Miranda Devine was arguing that “gay parents (via fatherlessness) are the cause of the London riots”.  Get your favourite lynching stones ready because the “raucous and rigorous debate” is about to begin…

Although I’m a young conservative, I’m certainly no fan of Miranda Devine.  Why the left keep promoting News Ltd columnists and libertarian “think tanks” as bastions of conservative thought is beyond me.  Is it just an insatiable appetite for low-hanging fruit?

I’m living proof that it’s possible both to be conservative and to be in support of gay marriage.  We non-homophobic conservatives are still trying to protect traditional values, such as considering love to be the cornerstone of the family unit (not gender) and that children should be raised by people who love them (and not necessarily by those who gave birth to them).

Preferring to regale us with folksy stories about how witty she is and how insightful her kids are, Deveny misses the bigger, more intellectually serious problems with Devine’s article.

First, Devine is comparing all families to her concept of the ideal family.  While she recognises the existence of domestic violence and unfit fathers, she’s arguing that an ideal father is better than no father.  For example, I – like thousands, if not millions, of others – was raised in a single-parent family due to the relationship of my parents breaking down.  I think that I was better off in that situation than to have the unhappy marriage of my parents persist.  But Devine isn’t arguing that my parents should have stayed together: instead, she is arguing that I would have been better off if I had Mr Ideal Father for a parent instead of the one I got.  “[T]he ideal situation for a child,” says Devine, “is to be brought up in an intact family with a father and a mother”.

It’s an infinitely richer argument than the version crafted by Deveny, and it’s harder to dismiss out of hand as just right wing extremist claptrap.  It has an intuitive obviousness to it: the ideal is better than nothing, so why aren’t we promoting the ideal?

There are at least two credible responses to it.  First, we can argue that Deveny’s Platonic Ideal of the Father isn’t a terribly practical concept.  While the “traditional” family might be appealing to a certain kind of person, millions of men have demonstrated their capacity to father children but their incapacity to be a father to children.  These are the men whom Devine recognises as “feckless”.  Surely a stable, loving family of any form is preferable to a turbulent, unhappy family where the biological parents are staying together “for the kids”.  Why should we consider a “non-traditional” family to be second rate?  Devine asserts that traditional concepts of family promote social stability, but doesn’t provide any credible reason for believing her.  Contrariwise, there aren’t obvious reasons for believing that stable, non-traditional family units wouldn’t also result in stable societies.

More than that, if children need fathers, why aren’t two fathers better than one?  Surely, as a good Catholic, Devine believes that Jesus had two fathers: one who art in Heaven and one in Joseph.  If it’s good enough for the Messiah, why isn’t it good enough for Catherine Deveny’s housemates?

The second response is that Devine attempts to render her homophobia invisible by normalising heterosexuality as the default ideal.  She’s not discussing homosexuality; she’s just idealising heterosexuality.  By shifting the discussion to a glorification of heterosexuality, Devine can avoid open criticism of homosexuality and can thus deny that she’s being homophobic. If she so chooses, she doesn’t even need to discuss homosexuality at all.

This isn’t just a problem confronting us right wingers: our entire community is saturated with the belief that people are heterosexual until proven otherwise and that homosexuality is a deviation from the norm.  Perhaps the most infamous symptom of our modern malaise was the sexuality of Harry Potter’s Dumbledore: his sexuality was so invisible that J.K. Rowling had to declare it long after the final book was published.  Fictional characters, like Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert, aren’t allowed to occupy a position of asexuality: they must be gay or straight and, in the absence of conflicting data, they’re straight.  When Devine glorifies the Mother and Father as the ideal couple, she’s unquestioningly importing the heteronormativity of our society.

Deveny doesn’t pick up on any of this.  To do so would be to admit that Devine said something meatier than “Lesbianism caused the London Riots”.  To do so would be to lose an opportunity to make hilariously zany jokes about conservatives being oppressed and needing UN assistance.  And isn’t the cardinal rule of being an opinion-writer like Deveny and Devine to deny our political opponents are capable of crafting ideas worthy of serious consideration?

To suggest, as Deveny does, that Devine’s articles are written to comfort conservatives and provide cannon fodder for progressives is to entrench the idea that political discussions are slinging matches between warring states who can never agree.  To ignore then the content of Devine’s article in favour of confirming her readership’s prejudices about conservatives is to contribute to the antagonistic and toxic environment of contemporary political debate.

Everybody is poorer for that kind of debate.  It’s time to stop characterising our political opponents as unthinking trolls and to start fostering a positive atmosphere where homosexual equality can be promoted by both conservatives and progressives.

Stay away from Major Tom… Ridiculing #ConvoyofNC #auspol

I haven’t updated in a while. It’s the usual problem caused by life and lifetastic things getting in the way of actual blogging.

Let us correct that with an epic post about Australian politics.

I’m a conservative. I think that, in general terms, the status quo should be the default rational position. Progressives, on the other hand, think that no position should be privileged. As one position is not clearly more correct than the other, it comes down to preference. It also means that I can’t declare political ‘opponents’ moronic, retarded, insane, or any other ableist pejorative simply on the grounds that their preferences differ to mine.

My Twitter habits, as a result, are fairly atypical. I follow more people who are progressive than conservative. The sort of conservatives I like (and admire) tend not to be the sort of conservative with a Twitter account. The sort of conservative with a Twitter account tend to be neo-cons and hate mongers.

It was therefore deeply shocking to see my Twitter feed, dominated as it is by left-wingers, erupt into a foamy groupthink of hate, prompted by little more than a few farmers driving trucks.

As part of a campaign against a number of policies, a protest group called ‘The Convoy of No Confidence’ drove trucks to Canberra as a demonstration of their concerns. The idea was to have something dramatic so that the media would pay attention. Groups of all political persuasions do it: during the Howard years, the left burnt flags, effigies of Howard, and blockaded roads with marches.

When it’s a predominately right-wing protest, the left flare up in a chorus of ‘How dare you?’. My Twitter feed has been hijacked by ‘Dumb Fucks on Trucks’, by ‘Convoy of No Clue’, by ‘Convoy of Incontinence’, and so on.

But nobody’s been able to say why the activism is illegitimate.

There is a clear and not unreasonable concern that the current government is unsympathetic to the views of regional and rural Australians. When the cruelty to exported animals problem erupted, instead of attacking the MLA, the ALP punished farmers by banning exports to a not insignificant market. If the Government (rightly, in my view) banned the import of coffee that wasn’t fair trade, shutting down nearly every inner city coffee shop and pumping up the cost of lattes, there would be an outcry. But because rural and regional Australians are given secondary consideration to populist reactions to inner city qualms, live exports were banned…

… Then the ban was overturned…

… And now nobody really knows the state of play.

The reason the anti-Carbon Tax rhetoric of the Opposition is so persuasive is that the ALP is dreadful at communicating with rural and regional Australia. The ALP, rightly or wrongly, has responded to the inner city threat of the Greens, sacrificing its interest in regional votes. That’s why this Convoy exists. It’s a symptom of a broader political malaise upon which the LNP is capitalising.

Instead of engaging in conversation, the left has shown the same tribalism and factionalism as the right. The concerns of the Convoy aren’t worth listening to, apparently, and so they should be mocked until they shut up.

The Convoy is yet another opportunity for the ALP to engage with the disaffected. The Convoy is yet another opportunity for the ALP to see how it’s failing to win hearts and minds.

But… No. It’s just easier to consider them to be ‘from the other side’ – eternally and forever stuck in bumpkin views of the world. What a sad waste of opportunity.

Staring at the sea, staring at the sand… #lolbolt and the right-wing freak show

Andrew Bolt has a new television show, courtesy of a certain mining magnate.

In the course of 30 minutes, he managed to grovel to Tony Abbott, savage an Afghan Refugee, subject the audience to Latham and Kroger’s furious agreement about how terrible Julia Gillard is, and then a very confused rant about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Even Abbott seemed uncomfortable about the whole thing.  Bolt is a known climate-change denier.  Abbott has been at pains to show voters that he doesn’t ignore reality.

So there was a miniature trainwreck coming when Bolt asked Abbott: ‘Why didn’t you ask my favourite question?  How long would it take the government to reduce the temperature of the Earth?’

Of course, the question is nonsensical.  Action on climate change is designed to slow the rate of temperature increase; not reduce the current temperature.

Smelling a trap, Abbott avoided the problem by evading the topic.  You know a show’s in trouble when even Abbott thinks the host is a crazy.

Not that other conservatives on Twitter seemed to mind.  Summing up most of the Tweets, @VikingQuester wrote: ‘#BoltReport is filling a massive void in the left, politically correct world of TV.

As a conservative, I was really hoping that Bolt would manage to get on a few conservative guests who could discuss and analyse issues.  Instead, we were treated to a confused rush of nonsense.

For the sake of clarity, I’ll be more precise with my terms.  The sort of ‘conservativism’ on display during the Bolt Report and most of the Tweets is that malevolent neo-conservatism that’s drowned out most of the right.

If there’s one things neo-cons hate, it’s political correctness.  They hate it so much that they’re willing to sacrifice correctness altogether.  There was no substance to the Bolt Report.  It was content to make inflammatory assertions about people, most of whom were unable to fight back.  Admittedly, it fell into the same void as Insiders – in an attempt to make journalists seem knowledgeable, they skirt across issues so quickly to avoid anybody making any substantial comment.  The key difference between Bolt Report and Insiders was BR‘s rapid cycling through issues, rather than moving into new territory.

So the opening monologue was about ‘boat people’ and how dreadful they were.  He moved quickly on to a different topic.  He then returned to ‘boat people’ for a quick chat with Latham and Kroger before moving on quickly again.  He then interviewed an Afghan refugee, asking a string unrelated questions as if to bait the poor guy, then closed down the interview.  I forget if ‘boat people’ returned in the closing section (I was stunned by the last section: it was an unrelenting attack on the senses).

The media has a right-wing bias.  The default reporting of events is written from a right-wing perspective (even on the ABC): Coalition talking points are normalised, even when they’re batshit insane; Greens are considered left extremists (I’m no fan of the Greens — I think they’re tricky and deceptive — but I wouldn’t call their position extreme).  Opinion writing is overwhelmingly left-wing, with most of our highest profile writers being ‘progressives’.  If Bolt was to fill a gap, he’d be filling the ‘Analytical and critical right-wing opinion’ gap which we conservatives have left seeping.

Unfortunately, it seems far too much to expect from Bolt, who seems far too content trolling public debate rather than contributing to it.

They’re not half as bad as me say anything and I’ll agree… Geoffrey Robertson and Big Tobacco

Advocates of an Australian Charter of Rights concentrate almost exclusively on its humanitarian benefits, ignoring the obvious ways in which the wealthy and powerful will exploit their good intentions.  One of the least critical champions of an Australian Charter of Rights is celebrity QC Geoffrey Robertson.

In Statute of Liberty, Robertson outlines a proposal for a charter of rights.  The book exemplifies the shallowness of thought which has plagued Robertson in recent years (see, for example, The Case Against the Pope).  While his arguments in favour of a charter of rights are eloquent and articulate (if wrong-headed), he dismisses any opposition to his case as ‘charterphobia’.  An interesting development in Australian law is about to show precisely why the ‘charterphobia’ was rational.

The Australian Government has outlined its proposal to enforce plain-packaging for cigarettes.  Various health groups are in favour of it and it doesn’t seem as if the opposition will oppose it.  British American Tobacco Australia, on the other hand, will and will mount a case defending their intellectual property rights.

Let us imagine, for a moment, if Robertson’s charter had been adopted complete with its ‘property’ right.  Instead of being a difficult argument to mount — that BATA has an investment in its brands which should be protected by law — Robertson would have given them a free kick.  It would have been trivially easy for BATA to argue that the charter of rights protects their property and, as such, the Government’s proposal is unlawful.

When thinking about rights issues, it’s not enough to trumpet what you’ll receive; you also have to wonder what others will take away.  We dodged a bullet.