Cognitive dissonance and its subset confirmation bias are behaviours of which all of us are guilty, probably more often that we like to admit even to ourselves. We’re not perfectly detached, perfectly rational beings. All of us have variable tendencies to frame issues in ways that support our existing prejudices, and selectively ignore information that doesn’t suit us while highlighting facts that reinforce our beliefs and bemoaning the ignorant inability of others to see self-evident truth with the blinding clarity that we’ve achieved through superior wisdom, insight and sheer hard work in mastering the nuances of historical context that others are too lazy, stupid or venal to attempt.
Gerard Henderson in today’s SMH bemoans the failure of the left to understand or acknowledge the monumental injustice perpetrated on South Vietnamese government supporters/asylum seekers 30 years ago.
It’s a fair cop, I reckon (though see postscript). Certainly Saint Gough was wont to refer to Vietnamese refugees as “fucking Vietnamese Balts”, which hardly connotes either sympathy for or insight into their plight. And it’s no doubt salutary to be reminded of Labor’s wilful blindness towards the activities of Pol Pot as recently as
But Henderson and many of his fellow conservative commentators are at least equally selectively blind to more contemporary events, to which honest, principled attention might actually make a real difference (unlike either Vietnam or World War I and Gallipoli). Where are the conservative commentators probing the true facts of the current and recent civilian death toll in Iraq? And when can we expect Henderson to write an opinion column about the signal failure of the Bush administration to properly investigate endemic abuse and torture of prisoners in both Iraq and Afghanistan?
Selective blindness is a threat to freedom. Patriotism doesn’t require us to remain silent about these sorts of prisoner abuses, any more than it requires us to ignore or make endless excuses for the ineptness of American post-invasion conduct in Iraq that allowed the Islamist and Sunni murderers to gain a strong foothold that it will take years to reverse even if it’s possible at all. Criticising US shortcomings and insisting on maintenance of basic standards of human rights is not treason, and doesn’t mean that critics are siding with Al Qaeda or treating the Americans as morally equivalent to the butcher Zarqawi. Right wing triumphalism and wilful blindness and amnesia towards American shortcomings are every bit as dangerous as defeatist, reflexive Howard/Bush-hating from the left.
PS – As Dave Ricardo points out in the comment box, it was substantively the Fraser coalition government that signally failed to take any effective action in 1979 in relation to the Khmer Rouge, mostly at the behest of the US whose interests weren’t suited. As a prominent Coalition apologist, it’s fairly breathtakingly hypocritical of Henderson to concentrate myopically on Labor’s failings in 1978, while conspicuously ignoring the Fraser government’s far larger role both then and subsequently.
PPS – On a different topic, but equally an example of cognitive dissonance, The Currency Lad attempts to exculpate the late Sir Joh with a dazzlingly post-modern relativistic reference to the Wran government in NSW:
Joh was considerably less “vicious” (used twice), if less elegantly so, than a Neville Wran and the corruption of the New South Wales police force in the glory days of Roger ‘The Dodger’ Rogerson was something Queensland’s Special Branch never even came close to matching.
Really? What an extraordinary statement! Nifty was certainly no saint, but his government wasn’t riddled with corruption from top to bottom like Joh’s mob. And, although the NSW police at the time were indeed spectacularly corrupt (as they had been to an equal extent under the Libs’ Bob Askin), there was little or no evidence of the frighteningly cosy links between police and politicians that characterised the Bjelke-Petersen government as uncovered by the Fitzgerald Royal Commission. Nor was there an endemic reign of fear, where police bashed, arrested and intimidated opponents of the government in a system that was, as Andrew Bartlett observes, a police state:
The worst aspect of the police corruption was not the kickbacks for illegal brothels and casinos that eventually dominated the media coverage it was the gross abuse of police powers to intimidate, harass and bash political opponents. The fierce suppression of political dissent generated a real and legitimate fear amongst a whole sub-section of the community, with the most powerless such as aboriginals bearing the biggest brunt. When police can get away with physically assaulting people at will with almost total immunity, you are literally in a police state maybe not as serious in scale as the South African regime of the time, but a police state none the less.
Indeed, if you’re looking for a passionate, detailed, and much more accurate restrospective on the John era than historian CL manages with the handicap of his cognitive dissonance affliction, you’d be well advised to visit Andrew Bartlett’s blog. His post also links lots of other blog coverage of Bjelke-Petersen era.