You say tomato, I say…

1984_6.jpg

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” – George Orwell.

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

Orwell’s purpose was to bemoan and decry the deformation of the English language by politicians seeking partisan advantage. But what doesn’t fully come across in Orwell’s essay is their strategic use of language to reframe the way we think. From Newt Gingrich’s famous list of adjectives to be used to redefine the Democrats as the incarnation of all evil to John Howard’s astute appropriation of words like mateship and battler, the Right has had a knockdown victory in the Language Wars. This may be about to change, though, at least if the advice of George Lakoff in his newly released book Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate seeps in to political thinking.

NOTE: For a variety of reasons, I will not be blogging again for some time. This post attempts to refine further a number of ideas about politics I’ve been developing throughout my time at Troppo. New readers might like to refresh their memories by browsing the archive of my posts.

Language determines how we view the world, but not in the sense that there’s an unproblematic correspondence between social and political concepts and their referents. Lakoff, a prominent cognitive scientist and linguist, correctly argues that how we understand facts is a function of how we frame them. While this might superficially be similar to the postmodernist argument that language is our prison house, Lakoff by contrast is acutely aware of political agency in framing issues and therefore how we read the political and social worlds.

A good example is the rhetoric of “tax relief”, much favoured by George W. Bush. This phraseology, Lakoff argues, implies first that tax is a burden or a virulent disease which cries out for a cure. Though taxes are imposed by government in the first place, the governing Republicans are able to distance themselves from the very political institutions that they control (partly because they run against Washington) and position themselves as on the side of the ordinary citizen against the behemoth of big government. This frame also has the unbeatable political advantage of being a simple way to look at the world. Complex debates about progressive tax scales or tax boondoggles can be avoided, and the resonances of the Republicans’ crusade for tax relief are linked nicely to the values for which the party stands – themselves powerfully rhetorically articulated.

A similar argument could be made about the language of “welfare dependency”. This implies that welfare recipients are pathologically sucking on the tit of the Nanny state. While welfare used to be a positive word, its associations with things everyone is against – passivity, dependency, disease, pathology – reframe welfare itself as a dirty word, and thus a problem to be eliminated. People are written out of this frame, or cast out as the threatening underclass. Just as the Howardians tried their hardest to avoid showing any humanising images of asylum seekers as real people, so too are debates about the underclass designed to position “all of us” as virtuous, and those who are welfare dependent as a greedy and lazy class of unruly and failed citizens who must be treated with “tough love” at the very best.

Lakoff asks rhetorically – why are only some values defined as family values? The Culture Wars are ostensibly about our social fabric. What they are really about is deeply reshaping our perception of the world so that the easy answers propagated by the Right become the new common sense. The Labor Party, and other forces in Australian politics opposed to the Howardians, then find themselves either arguing against the grain (“but taking money from private schools is class warfare and many aspirational battlers struggle to give their kids the best”) or conceding the argument before it’s even made (“we’re better than the Libs at fiscal policy”). There has to be another way, and it’s definitely not The Third Way.

I criticised postmodernism recently because it lacks a positive politics and tends to substitute linguistic playfulness for substantive political and social action. But one thing the postmodernists are aware of is the power of language. It’s just that arcane and intimidating academic prose is not the way to change society. The Right knows this, with its network of thinktanks, op/ed writers and its strategic acuity in knowing how to tell a story that makes all of us think we are Australians with values deeply in tune with the Howardians. The Right have a very good sense of how to use images and language to spin a narrative that redefines reality. The Left is yet to learn the lesson.

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Rafe
2022 years ago

This is indeed a ‘you say tomato’ situation because from where I sit, the left has had a dream run in getting the rhetorical benefit from linguistic usage. The most obvious and upfront example is the use of left and right itself. The image of “right” is jackboots and concentration camps, so “left” gets an immediate leg up in comparison. Add to that the fact that the term right does not mean anything in general (apart from specific local factions) because of the philosophical diversity of non-left groupings and the fact that some of them (the platonic neo-coms) are for practical purposes pushing in the same general policy direction as the coercive utopians of the left.
The really big lesson that the humanitarian left has to learn is that their best allies are the minimum state liberals.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Though as Lakoff’s ideas have been around for ages in the US (eg Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t, 1996) this new book, which looks to be largely a rehash of Lakoff’s same – though interesting – ideas doesn’t seem likely to make much difference. Knowledge is not power.

‘The Right knows this, with its network of thinktanks, op/ed writers and its strategic acuity in knowing how to tell a story that *makes all of us think* we are Australians with values deeply in tune with the Howardians.’

Mark – Is this an assumption that it is all a con job? On my reading of public opinion, there are issues in which the Coalition/the right is closer to public opinion than the left , and therefore their job is intrinsically much easier. Even in the absence of adept use of language they would still be at an advantage, because they don’t have to persuade.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

That’s interesting, Rafe – kind of reinforces the point about different cognitive frames.

What you say about the humanitarian left and the non-statist right is of great interest, I think. Jason wrote something about this last year, as I recall, but it’d be nice to see it raised at Catallaxy so we can thrash it out.

Andrew, Lakoff’s latest book is really a distillation of the ideas in “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t” but designed as a sort of how to book for US liberal activists. It’s only 119 pages. I commented in my earlier post on Julia Baird’s contextualisation of the book in her Intro to the Australian edition here:

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/008513.html

Of interest as well is a thinktank/research institute set up in the States to develop further his ideas:

http://www.rockridgeinstitute.org/

His ideas are perhaps more pitched towards activist groups in the US like moveon.org, and it’s clear that they are having some impact – for instance in the discourse of the Religious Left that I wrote about some time ago and in the “values” debate in the Democratic Party:

http://troppoarmadillo.ubersportingpundit.com/archives/007795.html

That’s why it’ll be interesting to see what impact the book has in Oz.

“Mark – Is this an assumption that it is all a con job? On my reading of public opinion, there are issues in which the Coalition/the right is closer to public opinion than the left , and therefore their job is intrinsically much easier. Even in the absence of adept use of language they would still be at an advantage, because they don’t have to persuade.”

No doubt, but this ignores the active work that goes into creating and shaping public opinion – a two way process to be sure, but public opinion doesn’t arise in a vacuum but is influenced by the media, pop culture and political discourse. That’s where the Left has been rather passive, I think.

Guy
Guy
2022 years ago

Mark, I agree with both your comments and to a certain extent Rafe’s initial comment. I think both the right and the left (particularly the more rabid left) often use language in public life in a way that is less than transparent and accurate.

I think the key difference is that the broader right (being more centrist, and having swarms of everyday journalist cogs echoing and dissecting their comments) have greater access to the mainstream media, where they are free to peddle their rhetoric. Green Left Weekly is out there if you look for it, but it’s not taken seriously (or even recognised as existing) by the majority of the population.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Guy, there’s little reason to take Green Left Weekly seriously as it’s a good example of issues being framed in an extremely narrow, outmoded and offputting ideologically extreme way. I’m more concerned at the lack of even mainstream social democratic perspectives in much of the mass media. There are some good “little mags” such as Overland or Arena but they seem largely not to have the same sort of influence on public culture and political debate as UK (think New Statesman) and US (think the Nation) publications.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

The left’s problem is not just words, it is tone. There is too much moral outrage, which doesn’t easily fit with the laidback Australian culture. The ‘Howard lies’ campaign was smarter than other leftist tactics in that it tried to tap into an existing moral consensus in favour of truth telling, rather than denouncing people for not following a morality they did not share anyway (about refugees etc), but still didn’t work because people make pragmatic overall assessments of people and governments, rather than demanding absolute moral purity at all times.

Ron
Ron
2022 years ago

As a lefty, I find Green Left Weekly, embarrassing – the worst of juvenile undergraduate rabid-left stuff that really does turn off the rest of the population.

I really think it does harm to the ’cause’.

Ron
Ron
2022 years ago

Mark,

Have you seen Dissent Magazine?

http://www.dissent.com.au/

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Expanding on Andrew’s point – the left has been getting angry about asylum-seekers for years now without understanding that to the ordinary Jo the Howard/Ruddock line about queue-jumpers actually seems quite reasonable. I know the left thinks it’s morally indefensible but the broader community thinks otherwise. Robert Manne wrote a thoughtful article about this after the election: the only thing missing from his analysis was a complete unwillingness, as a member of left (albeit belatedly), to wonder whether the left might itself have got it wrong on some of these issues, rather than the community. I suspect that accusing it of being racist and xenophobic for not coming to the same conclusions as the left simply hardens the community’s hostility. Indeed, it could hardly do otherwise.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Yes, the “Howard Lies” campaigns were probably counterproductive. There is still a need to hold a government accountable but perhaps the stridency of some of the rhetoric detracted from its effectiveness.

It’s worth remembering, though, that the ALP needed to win back an enormous number of supporters who defected to the Greens and Demos in 01. If you’re not going to win, shoring up your base is one strategy that needs to be put into effect.

I’m unconvinced that “The Left” ran around at any point in time calling people racists and xenophobes. Totally unconvinced. This seems to be another instance where an assertion is made and it’s repeated endlessly as fact without the need ever to cite any proof – another example of the sorts of rhetorical frames that Lakoff is talking about.

I suspect that adopting a lofty moral tone and conspicuous indignation are both barriers to truth and reasoned argument. The latter seems to have resonances, though, because it reinforces and props up “common sense” and its hyperbole fits in nicely with similar styles on other media – for instance, talkback radio.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Ron, yes, I’ve seen Dissent. A good rag – but it could use a bit more creativity in the layout and punchiness in the writing.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Mark, I don’t have the links but I recall Phillip Adams railing against the general community in those terms in some of his more intemperate moments. Also the inhabitant(s) of Inner Margolia. I’ll see if I can dig up some examples.

Resistance is a strange mix of the silly and the sensible. For an example of the former, check out John Burton’s prescriptiuon for effective democracy a coupld of issues ago (not online last time I checked).

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

No doubt you’re right, Rob. But that’s an example of what I’m talking about. Not everyone on “The Left” shares those sentiments and some would passionately dissent from them. But you feel free to make a sweeping statement that “the Left” in general were calling people xenophobic and racist. If I made a similar statement about “the Right” I’d be shot down in about 5 seconds flat. But because what you are asserting has been disseminated so widely and reinforced so often it seems self-evidently true at first glance. Hence the rhetorical advantage the Right enjoys in this debate – once upon a time it was the Left who was aligned with “the ordinary person” – it’s an incredibly powerful rhetorical position to occupy.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Mark, Maybe the left in general did not go around calling people racists. The ALP for obvious reasons did not. But you only have to put ‘refugee’ and ‘racism’ into Google to get plenty of evidence of it, some links copied in below. Put in ‘refugee’ and ‘dog whistle’ and you’ll get even more. Maybe the statements aren’t so blunt as ‘supporters of mandatory detention are racists’, but the implication is clear. The average punter is not going to distinguish between leftist sub-groups, and on the evidence could reasonably conclude that they were being dismissed as racists.

http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/04/28/1083103550118.html

http://www.sofweb.vic.edu.au/lem/esl/refweek.htm

http://www.media.anglican.com.au/tma/2001/2001_11/racism.html

http://home.vicnet.net.au/~wypin/beatracism.htm

http://www.refugeeaction.org/rac/campaign_statement.htm

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

I get a laugh out of the left complaining about the alleged propaganda advantages of the right. Let’s see; the left-of-centre dominates academe, curriculum development and implementation, literary grants, ARC grants, Fairfax metros, the ABC, the SBS, advocacy NGOs, unions, hunts in packs …

A bit of talk-back, some Murdoch columnists (but far from all — Philip Adams is a Murdoch columnist after all) and a few think-tanks hardly equals the above institutional resources. The situation is a bit different in the US, but even more one-sided in Europe.

Given the advocacy resources hugely favour the left-of-centre, you have to look at the product. Which sucks, basically.

The left has been wrong on socialism, on the Cold War, on economic reform, on ecomomic development, on indigenous policy, on fighting the jihadis. It’s been flogging a dud product and, what’s more, shows no sign of learning from its pattern of failure.

It has a basic problem. It defines being virtuous as asserting onself against the most prosperous, technologically dynamic, free, democratic societies in human history. If you define virtue against success, you are going to end up advocating a lot of failure.

The basic problem is a patent status claim — we are morally and intellectually superior. Worse, we are morally and intellectually superior to the vulgar masses.

The progressivist intelligentsia dislikes mass politics for the same reason it dislikes mass commerce — both fail to value the intelligentsia and its products at their own estimation.

Hence it has anti-democratic politics. It is generally in favour of judicial activism, more judicial power, transnational governance, bipartisanship which *blocks* popular preferences on policy (particularly on immigration and indigenous policy).

If you have a track record of failure and are continually trying to sell the notion that the general public *shouldn’t* get its way and that people who disagree are moral gnats, then you have a product problem. Which no amount of clever propaganda is likely to solve. All the right has to do is be able to contest the above, and of course they then have an advantage. But its one the left gives them and probably cannot stop giving them without changing quite profoundly.

squawkbox
squawkbox
2022 years ago

I think the problem with political dialogue in Australia is simply that there are very few moderate labour voices in the media commentariat. The ‘left’ commentators in most papers – the Adamses, Kingstons, Ramseys etc – generally have views to the left of Labor on most issues and as previous commenters have pointed out, they combine this with perpetual indignation and poorly hidden contempt for the public. The result is that Labor suffers from guilt by association. The Financial Review seems to be the only paper where intelligent criticism of the government can be found regularly.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

“It’s worth remembering, though, that the ALP needed to win back an enormous number of supporters who defected to the Greens and Demos in 01.”

I don’t really understand that bit, Mark.

In the federal sphere we don’t have optional preferential voting.

The Greens and the Demos are not winning House of Reps seats, so their votes flow back the the ALP via preferences – I can’t see too many ex-labor Greens/Demos putting the coalition second.

Rob
Rob
2022 years ago

Michael, that’s as neat and succinct an epitaph for the failed ideology that is socialism as I’ve ever encountered. Tick VG, Mr Warby.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

blank, two points.

First, even with compulsory preferential voting if the Labor primary vote falls down to the low 40s it’s possible for it to lose a seat – there’s inevitably some preference wastage and if there’s a large field and the Libs or Nats are close or just ahead on the primary vote, then the ALP is in trouble. Check out the voting figures for the electorate of Brisbane in 2001 for example.

Secondly, Labor were very worried indeed after the Cunningham by-election about losing inner city fiefs like Melbourne and Sydney to the Greens.

The other point is that the overall primary vote is important for the party’s legitimacy.

Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Andrew, I doubt that too many average voters occupy their time doing google searches on “refugees” and “racism”. Since you note the large exception of the ALP (and it’s a very big one – the only major political party of the Centre-left) it’s the way these perceptions are filtered through the media and through the Liberals’ rhetoric that’s important – ie
“the Left” in general are condemning ordinary people, etc. when in fact it’s a small (if vocal) minority of people and groups on the Left.

Rob and Michael obviously didn’t read my earlier comment as sweeping condemnations of “the Left” (which are the stock in trade of these two gentlemen RWDBs) and the assimilation of everyone on “the Left” to whoever your whipping post of choice is (ie Soviet Marxism) are precisely what I’m talking about. Thanks, gentleman, for reinforcing my point.

Rafe’s point about the complexity of the ideas and groups that are articulated together as “the Right” could apply equally as well to “the Left”.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Mark wrote “I’m unconvinced that “The Left” ran around at any point in time calling people racists and xenophobes. Totally unconvinced. This seems to be another instance where an assertion is made and it’s repeated endlessly as fact without the need ever to cite any proof”.

I didn’t have the time and energy to keep all the cuttings but I seem to recall a certain amount of that kind of namecalling when Pauline Hanson appeared on the scene, despite the fact that she was not personally a racist, she issued statements that she did not want racists in One Nation and she advocated a rethink on indiginous issues along the lines that are now becoming almost mainstream.

Mindful of Mark’s thesis it is a bit mean to pursue the issue of the complexity of groupings on the left, however it seems to me that there is a set of common features about the leftist groupings that does not apply to the non-left. Moreover, there are some groups on the non-left whose policies on industry protection, authoritarian big government and the like actually mimic the tendencies for regulation and authoritarian big government that are urged by the left. This is apparent in the US where there is bipartisan support for a whole raft of things that affront minimum state liberals, ranging from the War on Drugs to corporate welfare. And in Australia under a “non-left” Coalition we have the highest spending and taxing administration of all time, by some accounts.
Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am not a conservative” (now online) is the most helpful statement of some differences between the classical liberal position and another non-left position that he labelled “conservative”, though many of the people who call themselves conservative actually stand close to Hayek’s position.

Warbo
Warbo
2022 years ago

Michael Warby (no relation!) writes a quite breathtaking amount of rubbish, but rather than unpack the whole sorry mess it’s necessary only to consider the first two pars…

… wherein, inter alia, the Fairfax metros (What! Both of them? – I assume he isn’t counting the Fin Review) are placed on the side of the left, notwithstanding the fact that the SMH has never advocated a vote for the ALP at federal level; notwithstanding columnists such as Miranda Devine, Gerard Henderson, Paul Sheehan; notwithstanding the management or editorial policies of the papers …

… whereas the Murdoch press is represented only by its columnists (perhaps no-one reads anything else from The Australian, The Courier-Mail, the Advertiser, the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and so on and so on and so on); and of course the only one Warby actually names is Phillip Adams. Presumably he hopes we’ll forget about Piers Akermann, Andrew Bolt, Greg Sheridan, Janet Albrechtsen and all the others.

This sort of elision, obfuscation and mendacity is typical of the fundamentally dishonest ‘framing’ used by much of the right in its increasingly desperate attempt to wind back gains made by ordinary people in democracy, justice and equity across the Western world over the past couple of centuries.

I do believe we need to take the long view sometimes and remind ourselves that what could broadly be described as the social democratic movement has historically sided with the oppressed and disenfranchised against the rich and powerful; and that, importantly, it is winning.

One hundred and fifty years ago, unionists were exiled into perpetual servitude; 100 years ago women were villified for wanting to vote; 50 years ago blacks in America were not allowed to sit at the front of a bus; until recently homosexuality was effectively illegal. In the West we take these rights for granted now, but it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come … and reminding ourselves that there will always be dinosaurs like Michael Warby trying to keep people in their place.

‘Framing’ has its use as a tactic, but it’s not the main game.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Warbo, you have not been paying attention! You need to specify who you are talking about when you say ‘the right’ because some of us are in favour of some of the changes that you regard as progressive. So put your blunderbus away and take careful aim before you open fire or you may find you have shot yourself in the foot.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

But Rafe, the “left” is equally anything but monolothic. The thing I find bizarre about this thread is how passionately both sides manage to accuse each other of exactly the same sins, and that both actually believe their accusations equally sincerely and are convinced beyond doubt of their correctness. Weird.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

In Michael Warby’s hilarious analysis of left-right influence in the media, he seriously underestimates the effect of talkback radio and the shock jocks.

A more reliable indicator is Howard, who invariably makes his most important (or difficult) announcements on Jones (mostly) or occasionally Laws or Mitchell. Never parliament. Note also how quickly he responds when Jones rarely takes up the cudgels:eg the criticism of Testra dumping sponsorship of Lifeline led to a hasty call to the Telstra Chair and a reversal of it.

We saw a similar reaction with the Kosova refugees a few years back. The hostility on radio led to a backflip on attitudes.

Warbo
Warbo
2022 years ago

Rafe: you rightly warn me against using a blunderbuss, but compared to Michael Warby’s comment I think mine was a laser-guided precision missile, yet I haven’t noticed you criticising him for failing to specify what he means by ‘the left’. Of course I realise there are myriad shades of philosophy on ‘the right’, but I don’t think there’s much point engaging in the niceties of debate against those on the far right such as Warby.

I suppose the fault is mine for rising to his bait rather than discussing the matter at hand with reasonable righties such as yourself or centrists such as Ken.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Warbo

I generally agree that the ubiquitous RWDB claim that the mainstream media is predominantly left-leaning is just plain silly.

But perhaps we’re losing sight of (what I take to be) the main point of Mark’s post, namely the extraordinary success of the Right in devising and employing rhetoric that “frames” its own preferred values as mainstream and its opponents’ as marginal or “other”. Why are they so good at it? Why is the modern non-right (a probably futile attempt to avoid yet another sterile left versus right argument) so bad at it? Keating and Hawke were both masters of this art, but the knack seems to have been lost.

I truly doubt that values like fraternity (mateship, community) or equality (a fair go) have ceased to be attractive to Australians, or that we’ve mostly ceased to detest cheats, liars and arseholes who want to rip us off or take an “I’m alright Jack, bugger you” attitude. The negative rhetoric needs to be a bit smarter (and maybe wittier and less thuggishly hateful) than Latham. And blunt class warfare rhetoric (like the stuff about the Kings School) just doesn’t play well these days. But it can be done, I reckon.

Someone recently called for bloggers and commenters to start coining a new rhetoric for the Non-Right. It sounds like a good idea. “Conspicuous indignation”, for example, is a reasonable counterpart to “politically correct”, because like it the label contains a germ of truth. In fact, the whole RWDB “the media is agin us” meme is a classic example of confected conspicuous indignation. But I’m hoping we can move away from a media bias focus, and zero in instead on Mark’s point about harnessing rhetoric. I reckon there’s a lot more to say, and it’s potentially much more interesting and less repetitive than the hackneyed media bias debate.

Rafe
2022 years ago

It would be good to follow Ken’s advice and get back to the original point. However I want to respond to Ken’s previous comment
“the ‘left’ is equally anything but monolothic. The thing I find bizarre about this thread is how passionately both sides manage to accuse each other of exactly the same sins, and that both actually believe their accusations equally sincerely and are convinced beyond doubt of their correctness. Weird.”
On the first part, I have invited folk on the Quiggin list to suggest how the left splits in the way that I have suggested the right splits into (some) incompatible factions. The results, as of this afternoon, were not overly helpful. If I recall correctly it is in the “Monday conference”.

On the second part, I couldn’t agree more, indeed that has provided me with a deal of quiet amusement over the years. It probably reflects the extent to which we spend too much time either supporting the prejudices of our allies or lambasting the perceived sins of our opponents. The more helpful approach is to subject our own ideas to searching criticism and to find common ground with opponents so that differences can be pursued in a way that at least clarifies what the differencs really are, even if they can’t be easily resolved.
I don’t claim to be any better at doing this than anyone else but I reckon it is worth giving it a try now and again.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

” until recently homosexuality was effectively illegal. In the West we take these rights for granted now, but it’s worth remembering how far we’ve come … and reminding ourselves that there will always be dinosaurs like Michael Warby trying to keep people in their place”

Warbo, Michael Warby is a gay libertarian. By all means criticise his media observations but don’t make unfounded presumptions

Rafe
2022 years ago

I would like to follow Ken’s advice and get back to the point, but first a couple of comments on his previous comment.

“the ‘left’ is equally anything but monolothic. The thing I find bizarre about this thread is how passionately both sides manage to accuse each other of exactly the same sins, and that both actually believe their accusations equally sincerely and are convinced beyond doubt of their correctness. Weird.”

On the first point, on John Quiggin’s Monday message board I have asked for help to identify the really fundamental divisions on the left, and the results have not yet been overly helpful.

On the weird behaviour of the left and right regarding percieved media bias, I could’nt agree more and the phenomenon has caused me a great deal of quiet amusement over the years. It seems to reflect the way that birds of a feather flock together and reinforce each others prejudices and perceptions. More research is required.

Just for a change from reinforcing the prejudices of our friends and lambasting the follies of our opponents, it could be therapeutic to subject our own ideas to really searching criticism (like testing the rungs of a ladder) and to find common ground with opponents to explore differences. One of my beefs with the politicisation of every single issue is the way that the above approach is shafted by the zero sum or winner take all confrontation that tends to dominate in politics.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Sorry about the double post, I thought the server lost the first one.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

First, I didn’t state that the mainstream media was left dominated. Much of it is a fairly open battleground, though that varies by issue.

It is, however, quite clear that the typical opinions of journalists are to the left of the general public (see Prof. Heningham’s research). Part of the reason talkback is so popular is precisely because, being highly competitive and interactive, the gap between it and the opinions of the general public are narrower than in the rest of the media. Any sensible PM uses that — Keating cultivated John Laws, after all.

Second, anyone who doesn’t think that the tone and content of the Fairfax metros (and no, I don’t mean the AFR which is why I said the metros) is predominantly left-of-centre has a very peculiar notion of where the centre of public opinion lies in Australia. Who the editorial endorses for elections is an insignificant indicator.

Third, nothing I said was about Soviet Marxism (except, tangentially, reactions to it).

Fourth, yes the left is a varied beast (though not nearly so varied as the right). But there are dominant positions within it. Over the last 30 years, the dominant position has been
(1) To sneer at Reagan’s foreign policy, particularly his Evil Empire speech
(2) To put advocacy of socialism as, at the very least, a moral postive
(3) To sneer at the whole ‘neo-liberal’ agenda
(4) To advocate a highly dirigist approach to third world development
(5) To advocate a series of disastrous policies on indigenous affairs — it was, after all, Noel Pearson who declared progressivist thinking as the enemy of his people
(6) To be violently opposed to Dubya’s policy and contemptuous of any suggest creating an Iraqi democracy was actually what Dubya was about.

I am sure you can find left dissenters on all the above. But they would be dissenters. It is perfectly clear what has been the publicly dominant position in each case.

I would also happily concede the phenomena of blogdom has made the variation in opinion on the left more obvious. But it has made variation in opinion more obvious, period.

There has also been a gap between what one might call the policy left and the wider left. The former being those in the ALP having to actually make real decisions. Brian Howe is rather different than, say, Guy Rundle. But, nowadays, Guy Rundle is a much better indicator of where the public face of the left sits. Offer the notion that economic reform (“economic rationalism”) was about making the Australian welfare state sustainable at a Parkville or Balmain dinner party and see what reaction you get.

And it is, after all, the public face of the left which is the issue here.

And it remains true that the left has far more advocacy resources in Australia at its disposal than the right. Nor do I think the right is cleverer than the left. The right (by which I mean the non-left with strong opinions) just has an easier sell, provided it chooses to contest. At times, it has simply been getting the idea accepted that positions dominant in the progressivist intelligentsia are allowed to be, and can be, contested which has been the crucial fight.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

A caveat on the right not being cleverer. It does the advantage that it cannot avoid knowing what the dominant left position is and so naturally frames itself in response to that. Many of the left obviously operate in social milieus where they rarely have to deal seriously with someone of opinions outside the left (much academic commentary on economic reform clearly suffers this disability). Living mostly in an echo chamber probably does make you less adept at being persuasive to outsiders.

Michael Warby
2022 years ago

The social core of the modern left is the public sector middle class. Its politics is mostly about expanding the ambit of the public sector middle class.

It tends to like taxes (more careers and influence to the public sector middle class) and regulation (ditto: regulatory complexity also generates intellectual capital in understanding said complexity and gives unions — and employer organisations — more services to sell to their members and more post-ps careers).

The left is thus naturally inclined to a colonising mode of politics — ordinary folk are either incapable or incompetent and so need more and more things done for them.

A colonising mode of politics feeds naturally into a status-assertion mode of discourse. We know, we understand — leave things to us.

The philosophical core of the poltical left is social democracy. Which is a mixture of socialism and liberalism. Over time, the liberal element has tended to get bigger. First was liberal politics (electoral politics, parliamentarianism etc). Then was the abandonment of nationalisation. Then the embrace of privatisation and de-regulation. The reason why the liberal element got bigger and the socialist element shrank is straightforward — socialism doesn’t work.

Having given up on nationalising the firm, the social democratic left concentrated on nationalising the household (through the welfare system). Alas, that doesn’t work too well either. Hence welfare reform as the new cutting edge of social democracy (Clinton, Blair, Latham). Besides, welfare dependency can’t keep going up as it has been.

But if the liberal element in policy is expanding, and the socialist element contracting, this creates a problem for a preferred program of making the public sector middle class bigger.

Status discourse, colonising mode and policy imperatives and electoral persuasiveness are pushing in different directions.

The typical opinions of the public-sector middle class are also quite distinct from the general public — particularly the working class. As Katharine Betts has pointed, based on AES data, the biggest gap in Oz politics is between working class voters and ALP, Democrat and Green candidates.

Besides, taxes *do* lessen people’s control over their incomes. It is hardly misleading to use words which point that out. Someone on welfare *is* dependant on the actions of bureaucrats and the labour of others. Welfare is *not* supposed to be a career for those of working age. Again, it is not misleading to use words which imply these truths. If one’s politics is based on games of “let’s pretend” you are going to have a problem if opponents come along and say “let’s not”.

The problems of the left are much, much deeper than the right using phrases that resonate. It is that there are deep reasons why it is generally much easier for the right to do so.

If the ALP wants to win the next election, campaigning on lower taxes and compulsory external literacy and numeracy testing would be winners with voters (and, IMHO, very good things to do). Since the former tends to means less money to the public sector middle class and the latter imposing increased public accountability to a politically salient section of the same, not very likely.

Rafe
2022 years ago

Michael Warby wrote “A caveat on the right not being cleverer. It does have the advantage that it cannot avoid knowing what the dominant left position is and so naturally frames itself in response to that.”

I suspect that non-left people mostly know about the left position because they were there themselves. The left has been so dominant among intellectuals for a long time that most people who get interested in ideas find ourselves thinking in leftwing terms or identifying with leftwing causes by the time we get to about age 20. We may move to a different ideological address as a result of further research and critical thinking but we usually understand where the left is at because we were there.

It is essential to understand a position before it can be effectively criticised and that is a big problem for the footsoldiers of the left because they have been betrayed by their intellectual leadership, as witness the risable series of books that purport to criticise economic rationalism.