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.

Continue reading “De civilitate optimatum: An open letter to @adambrereton”

Quick Post: On how @prestontowers’ ‘The Link’ shows what’s wrong with politics #auspol

Over on AusOpinion, Preston Towers suggests a new political party called ‘The Link’ (link broken):

The Link would be a wholly more positive and welcoming name for a new party with a new approach to advocating a progressive line of thought.

The policies of The Link would be unashamedly “leftist” and be unfettered by the compromises and pragmatism that parties like the Greens and the ALP have had to negotiate over the past few years.  I can’t imagine The Link would ever go into a coalition with a Major Party in the way the Greens have in Canberra and Tasmania.  That would help their policy purity considerably. [Source]

‘Unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’.  Right.  Because that’s what we need, yet another party ‘unfettered’ by ‘compromises and pragmatism’.  Over on Twitter, he qualifies the merit of his new party:

But within this short sketch of a proposal is a problem that reflects broader issues within Australian politics.  What does it mean to be ‘unashamedly “leftist”‘?

Continue reading “Quick Post: On how @prestontowers’ ‘The Link’ shows what’s wrong with politics #auspol”

Quick Post: The Culture Wars and your weak Culture-Fu #auspol

The Left should start using Don Quixote as their mascot for the ‘current’ ‘Culture War’.

I’ve had more than a few beers with people lately who are worried about the Culture War.  Few of them can explain precisely what they mean by the term.  Few can explain precisely why they think winning this war is a good thing.

The idea of the Culture War (and its antecedent idea the ‘Kulturkampf’) is extremely interesting.  Typically, we frame the Australian discussion around the identity of former Prime Minister John Howard.  Howard had this clear idea of what he saw as ‘ordinary’ Australia and he wanted to use the organs of State to realise that vision.

It’s fairly obvious that a Culture War is a good thing.  We look to the Government and the Opposition to share with  us its vision of an ideal Australia.  When it looks ten years into the future, what does Australia look like?  What values does it share?  What culture does it have?  How are you going to make that happen?

If you’re telling me that the Labor Party spent six years in power not prosecuting a campaign of promoting a particular culture in Australia, then those six years were more of a failure than we thought.

Howard’s ‘success’in his Culture War was in normalising his activities by promoting the intuitions of his preferred Australians as default rational.  ‘This isn’t ideology,’ he could be paraphrased as saying.  ‘This is just commonsense.’

But this has become the great sadness of the Liberal Party: its rejection of thinking about ideology.  Ideology is bad.  Ideology isn’t practical.  Ideology doesn’t connect you with ‘ordinary’ Australians.  Thus, the ideology is to reject discussion about ideology.

It’s a magic trick which only works because the audience doesn’t question it.  Indeed, it only works because the magician performing the trick also doesn’t question it.

This is why Howard and his successors will continue to win the culture war: it relies entirely on inertia.  Axing departments isn’t done for ideological reasons; it’s done for practical reasons.  Trying to save money.  Trying to streamline processes.  Trying to get rid of the ALP waste.

But it’s a weird way to use the word ‘win’.  Does gravity ‘win’ when the apple falls from the tree?  Does water ‘win’ because it is wet?  Does 8,128 ‘win’ because it is a perfect number?  The Coalition ‘wins’ the Culture War by being completely unable to do anything except pander to the intuitions of their ‘ordinary Australian’.  See, for example, what happened with WorkChoices: it did not accord with the intuitions of the ‘ordinary Australian’ and, thus, looked like ideology.  Howard was toppled.

The only way for the Left to fight — let alone win — the Culture War is to show to ordinary Australians that their non-ideology is, in fact, ideology.  It’s not about showing that the Culture War exists to other lefties who only see Culture Wars when they’re not in power.  It’s about getting ordinary Australians engaged and involved in thinking about ideology.

Until they do that, it’s a very amusing puppet play for those of us conservatives who understand ideology.

‘We must fight that giant!’

‘That numpty writing in The Guardian thinks it’s a giant.  It’s a windmill!  What a dunce!’

‘If that imbecile had correctly read my analysis of windmill-giants, he would have found that I am arguing that it’s both a windmill and a giant!’

‘Wouldn’t it be good if more sociopaths were involved in this debate?  Does anybody have Mike Carlton’s telephone number?  I bet he has good views about windmills.’


Enjoy fighting among yourselves, guys.

Quick Post: Get some Bagehot into you

The most strange fact, though the most certain in nature, is the unequal development of the human race.

If we look back to the early ages of mankind, such as we seem in the faint distance to see them — if we call up the image of those dismal tribes in lake villages, or on wretched beaches-scarcely equal to the commonest material needs, cutting down trees slowly and painfully with stone tools, hardly resisting the attacks of huge, fierce animals — without culture, without leisure, without poetry, almost without thought — destitute of morality, with only a sort of magic for religion; and if we compare that imagined life with the actual life of Europe now, we are overwhelmed at the wide contrast — we can scarcely conceive ourselves to be of the same race as those in the far distance. There used to be a notion — not so much widely asserted as deeply implanted, rather pervadingly latent than commonly apparent in political philosophy — that in a little while, perhaps ten years or so, all human beings might, without extraordinary appliances, be brought to the same level. But now, when we see by the painful history of mankind at what point we began, by what slow toil, what favourable circumstances, what accumulated achievements, civilized man has become at all worthy in any degree so to call himself — when we realize the tedium of history and the painfulness of results — our perceptions are sharpened as to the relative steps of our long and gradual progress. We have in a great community like England crowds of people scarcely more civilized than the majority of two thousand years ago; we have others, even more numerous, such as the best people were a thousand years since. The lower orders, the middle orders, are still, when tried by what is the standard of the educated “ten thousand,” narrow-minded, unintelligent, incurious. It is useless to pile up abstract words.

Those who doubt should go out into their kitchens. Let an accomplished man try what seems to him most obvious, most certain, most palpable in intellectual matters, upon the housemaid and the footman, and he will find that what he says seems unintelligible, confused, and erroneous — that his audience think him mad and wild when he is speaking what is in his own sphere of thought the dullest platitude of cautious soberness. Great communities are like great mountains — they have in them the primary, secondary, and tertiary strata of human progress; the characteristics of the lower regions resemble the life of old times rather than the present life of the higher regions. And a philosophy which does not ceaselessly remember, which does not continually obtrude, the palpable differences of the various parts, will be a theory radically, false, because it has omitted a capital reality — will be a theory essentially misleading, because it will lead men to expect what does not exist, and not to anticipate that which they will find. [Bagehot, The English Constitution (2nd ed.), p. 46]

Fortunately, it is possible to reconstruct Bagehot’s main argument without relying on this idea of poor people being degenerates…