The very model of a (Post) Modern Prime Minister

The article below began, in my mind at least, as a post. Then thinking that it might be worth putting the effort into it to make it read pretty well, I spent some time on it and sent it unsolicited to Crikey! They prefer stuff they’ve asked for or that you’ve pitched, and they took it to be an article on John Howard’s woes articles on which they were well served. I then expanded it to offer it to the MSM. I doubted it had much of a chance owing to a repeated swearword. I was right. So tomorrow it goes on sale (for nothing!) at Online Opinion (Declaration of interest I’m the Chairman of Online Opinion’s holding company) and tonight it goes up here. There’s also some content from one of my early Troppo posts.

ooo000ooo

As long as his party wants

A few years ago John Howard needed to kill further speculation about when he might retire. So he told us hed serve as long as his party wanted him.

The statement was absurd on its face what political leader lasts longer than their party wants? But he wasnt deceiving because we all knew that what he really meant. Behind the humble body language of the words was the quite different meaning I’ll resign when I want.

With his party keen for him to stay, had Howard resigned twelve months ago, the media would have been too busy with punditry, drama and reminiscence to give much prominence to this thought: So much for as long as my party wants me.

In fact in clinging to office against the wishes of Cabinet, indicating that hed only depart after a bloody battle he traduced the original words more comprehensively than seizing the more graceful alternative previously might have done.

As long as my party wants me was just a form of words. The new form of words is that quitting isnt in John Howards nature. That the new words mean the opposite of the old words is neither here nor there. In this sense a form of words is something you tell people to smooth things over, like small talk, because silence seems unfitting, even impolite too peremptory.

The actual words chosen, both for the previous and the current form of words were, to speak precisely, bullshit as in tell them any old bullshit.

In an essay first published in 1986 and republished in 2005 to become a bestseller in times that suited it even better, philosopher Harry S Frankfurt helps us make a bit of sense of all this.

The title of his essay? On Bullshit.

As Frankfurter explains, the liar has some concern for the truth if only in order to deceive. The bullshitter doesnt care one way or the other.

One might deduce from the increased popularity of Frankfurts essay that bullshit has increased in significance in our society. One might conclude the same from the fact that we now have a comedian laureate of bullshit John Clarke.

Clarke first came to our attention (well mine anyway) as Fred Dagg. Daggs high silliness was different to the surrealistic silliness of, say, the Pythons because of the way in which its style grew out of a certain matey antipodean pomposity. Daggs history of Western philosophy looked askance at Rene Descartes skepticism as to the reality of his existence the French were a jumpy bunch of garcons and observed that The Russians experimented with the thickness of the novel and discovered that it could become very thick indeed.

His style matured further as the anchor of the farnarkling reports on the Gillies Report: a sports report of high hilarity in which the reporters overbearing and desperate assertion of the utter seriousness of his absurd words was the essence of the gag. This morphed very easily into his current format. Farnarkling was pure bullshit.

Today every week, John Clarke and Briane Dawe show us how arbitrary is the connection or otherwise not just between what our politicians say and do, but indeed between what they say and what they say. Words can mean anything the speaker wants them to mean. The statement X might mean Y, X or not-X.

And the audience dubbed inevitably the bullshittee in literature following Frankfurter is complicit in the code.

As Kevin Drum puts it, its a shared secret that brings them closer together. Thus the piquancy of bullshit, as well as its popularity.

When John Howard was rearranging his position on when he would retire, he said this to Kerry OBrien.

I would expect well into my term, .. I would probably, certainly form the view well into my term, that it makes sense for me to retire, and in those circumstances, I would expect, although it would be a matter for the Party to determine if Peter would take over.

Remarkably, perhaps out of politeness, or the propriety of easing the Prime Minister through his squirming, Kerry didnt press him on this new, still inchoate, form of words, so different from his earlier as long as my party wants me and so similar to previous statements about his expectation of what his expectations might be in the future subject of course to the wishes of his party.

John Howard, whose detractors like to lampoon him as a man of the 1950s, might be particularly well practiced in such post-modern arts. But hes never been on his own, either amongst his peers in politics or amongst those in the audience whether theyre in the front stalls as producers, or amongst the millions down the back as consumers of the medium through which political messages are broadcast.

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Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

I’m glad Crikey and the MSM didn’t want your post. It’s far too perceptive, original and whimsical for either of them, and one of the reasons why the blogosphere (and to a lesser extent an outlet like OLO) has much more to offer, as long as you know where to look.

Robert
Robert
14 years ago

The question central to this article, ignoring as it does deeds, is: “Is John Howard about truth?”

Next, it asks: “If truth were/was failed, how could it be failed?”

If John Howard is about truth, or not, if as posited above, then one can argue and celebrate the subset about bullshit and lies, for sure.

Yet that doesn’t take into account other things which can also question truth, like legalese (where technically nothing of it was travailed, let alone codified for it to do so); context (where it may be distorted); preconception (where it may be coloured); immaturity (where it may be untested); schizophrenia or mental illness (where it may reside as unqualifiable); hunger (where it may be constricted), nor even the greatness of time (where it may be all or in part the above) – nor even that it may grow. Nor that it may be known already, and grow in consciousness not by seed, but by release of any or all of the above. Or that it may be a distillation. To throw down a few.

But what if John Howard as centrally supposed above is not about lies or bullshit, or even truth?

What if John Howard were about appearance? Seemingness? Acting? Perception? The power of suggestion?

Are these sorts of things aspects of truth, or do they exist in their own right, regardless?

If they exist in their own right, and John Howard is about them, the article above is shot.

If appearance, seemingness, acting, perception, the power of suggestion, and the like, exist as an aspect of truth, would it be fair to say the article above is incomplete?

Nicholas, as author, no doubt you write to your audience, and your politeness and respect holds strong. Geez mate you can inspire as well. The above is food for fun if it’s of any value at all, yet in the most positive way can it be said that one wonders what would happen if you really cut loose.

Cheers and thanks.

relevent or irrelvent.

Caroline
14 years ago

A win on both counts, as the less heinous bullshitter and the more contemptuous liar. Bullshit needs be wordy, convoluted, obtuse. One glazes over mid-way through, and so bored, giving ground becomes easier than cutting through. People tend less to embellish what they know to be absolute falsity. The bullshitter appeals to our inner Walter Mitty and can be funny when not serious. Serious bullshit, spoken or written in earnest, tends to evoke a sense of tedium, irritation at being rendered bored but later pathos for the bullshitter and his inner Walter Mitty–reflecting back to us the reason why we’ve been compelled to read or listen to his crap.

observa
observa
14 years ago

“In fact in clinging to office against the wishes of Cabinet..”
There’s no evidence whatsoever, that the Cabinet wanted Howard to step down 12 months ago. Quite the contrary. Now it may well be true, that given the polls now, that they wished they had, but that’s an entirely different matter. Even if they wished they had been gifted with 20/20 vision then, they still wanted Howard to lead them into this election, presumably to take the inevitable fall now. ‘As long as my Party wants me’ is still the truth of the matter and always has been and will be, despite all this fairies at the bottom of the garden stuff.

observa
observa
14 years ago

As for the statement-
“I would expect well into my term, .. I would probably, certainly form the view well into my term, that it makes sense for me to retire, and in those circumstances, I would expect, although it would be a matter for the Party to determine if Peter would take over.”
I would expect Rudd or any other Premier to be as equally evasive, when asked when they are going to retire, for equally obvious reasons. That said, the punters now know Howard will not lead the Coalition to the next election, which is more than they know about Rudd, or the remaining Premiers, simply because noone asks them all the time. I think the punters can safely deduce now (read my lips folks)that Howard would give his successor, at least 12 months grace as new leader and they get to vote for the team now on that basis.

observa
observa
14 years ago

By the same fairy logic of course, we can look back now and say quite emphatically, Beattie was living a lie with the punters at the last election, knowing full well he was planning to retire on them during the next term eh?

Enemy Combatant
Enemy Combatant
14 years ago

Core and Non-Core Bullshit: A Howardian perspective.

Renovations at Kirribilli House are completed in time to invite Peter and Tanya over for air kissies, drinkies, din-dins and photo-ops. Just the four of them. Australian Story are invited to record the happy foursome breaking bread together as part of an Election Eve Special. John proposes a toast to Peter, to Australias future PM and makes self-deprecating jokes about how, as he promised he would, hed see his parliamentary days out as the Back-Bencher from Bennelong sometime well into his next term. The probability of this is certain John insists, and what fun it will be for he and Janette(beams and nods approvingly) picking up sticks and moving back to their heartland of Woolstonecraft safe in the knowledge that Australia, as well as the World Heritage Listed abode would be in the very best possible hands.

Rex
Rex
14 years ago

Observer, I don’t think Howard was being evasive with those words you quote. He was actually being in a sense truthful. It was very evident that he struggled to get those words out. He hated saying them, and he had to fight with himself to get them out. That’s why they arrived all contorted and twisted.

It raises an interesting question. Do supposed bumbling politicians – those renowned for mangling their words – Bush and Bracks for example – have more immediate appeal to the public thaa a politicians with smooth and practiced lines? Does it send a signal that they’re honest chaps if they stumble over their sentences?

If this theory holds water, then perhaps we might see endearing mistakes scripted into the performances of the future.

observa
observa
14 years ago

So Howard likes being PM Rex? Funny, I thought Rudd and the five other leaders of the Opposition during his reign were on the same wavelength, but obviously I’ve missed something really deep here? Costello wants to be PM too by all accounts, but I can’t for the life of me fathom why either?

Enemy Combatant
Enemy Combatant
14 years ago

Could be right, Rex. When analysing linguistic gauchery, feigned or otherwise emanating from the lips of a lifetime politician who happens to be a lawyer, maybe it’s best to never misunderestimate a mis-spoke.

observa
observa
14 years ago

Noone summed it all up better than Tim Blair did then and to this very day-
Nothing ended up happening. No election called, no leadership change, nothing.
Bloody priceless!

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
14 years ago

Observa: “The punters now know Howard will not lead the Coalition to the next election, which is more than they know about Rudd, or the remaining Premiers”

Are you really sure about that?? If the Coalition manages to win a fifth term, against all the odds, Howard will be even more unassailable and even less moveable than he is now. There is no way he will leave the gates of Kirribilli house other than in a hearse.

observa
observa
14 years ago

MrD, If Howard gets up this time he’ll have every right to change his mind about retiring just like Beattie did recently. I notice Fred Thompson, aged 64 is stnding for Presidential candidate in the US. Are you intimating that if Rudd is elected and drops dead or retires in a couple of years, the ALP have to go to the polls for Gillard or someone else to rightly be our PM? It’s an interesting idea.

Mr Denmore
Mr Denmore
14 years ago

No observa, I am merely making the observation that taking anything Howard says at face value is pointless. Fortunately the public have finally wised up to his pathological mendacity, which is why his assurances about handing over the reins to Costello “well into” his next term are purely academic.

Incidentally, his typically slippery assurances on this matter in his interview on the 7.30 Report last week revealed Howard at his most strained. With his head half turned, his lip curled and his jaw jutting out, he appeared to be fighting with himself, as if the words were being dragged out of him against his will.

Howard is borderline insane and has nearly driven the country bonkers in his maniacal hunger for power. Hopefully, the days of insanity are nearing an end. Surely no reasonable person will be sad to see him put out of his misery.

observa
observa
14 years ago

I think you’re over-reacting to what is simply a very successful leader of a successful team over a long time, that you don’t particularly like politically. In that you’re not alone. Such manic frustration at success, coupled with their own political shortcomings, led many such people to seek solace in a real hand grenade like Lithium. Speaking of crazies, I think if Howard does win, I’ll be leaving the country for a while. Streuth, if you’re any guide ex ante, they’re going to make AQ look tame ex post.

We the people decide. Remember, we’re the same people who voted wall to wall Labor in the States whilst we voted for Howard and Co in Canberra. Crazy are we?

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago

Mr Denmore’s passionate hyperbole aside, observa, he’s right about Howard not resigning if he does manage to win the election. no-oneo in the Libs would be game to remind him of this promise after such a win. So it’s definitely a non-core promise – as you yourself have implied.

But the post is right – Howard instincts are for bullshitter rather than outright lies. He is very happy to say things that might or might not be untrue but can never be proven untrue (mainly because on close analysis they are ambiguous or even outright meaningless), but usually tries to avoid saying things which might be provably untrue.

And I’m glad ther’s someone else who’s a John Clarke fan. His Sydney Olympics show was hilarious, because so true to life. And I try never to miss the last few minutes of the 7.30 Report.

derrida derider
derrida derider
14 years ago
haiku
haiku
14 years ago

nick,
obs never tires of arguing against stuff that you didn’t say. the smoko room is a weird and often unnerving place …

observa
observa
14 years ago

Nicholas, all this imagineering aside, all I’ve heard actually confirmed by the actors involved is this- basically Howard as a result of the unprecedented gloomy polls for the Govt, asked his team (the Cabinet) whether they still wanted him as leader. IMO that was unthinkable some 12 months earlier(any links to some Nostradamus on that score?), but fairly reasonable now under the circumstances. Almost to a man they agreed Howard would lead them to the polls, albeit they might mostly have thought they’d missed the boat on a successful leadership transition a year or so ago. The last bit is surmising on my part, but probably not unreasonable, under the circumstances. That’s it, there aint no more, despite all the imagineering and speculation to the contrary. So much for Howard clinging on by his fingernails, etc. My take is, any political leader in his position poll wise, would quite reasonably ask exactly the same question of his peers. It’s no big deal, just common-sense and Howard recognised that. I’d be questioning his political marbles if he didn’t.

As for Rudd perhaps doing a Jim Bacon on the job, well, ummm, err.. hush my big mouth it seems
http://www.news.com.au/adelaidenow/story/0,22606,22446212-5005962,00.html

saint
14 years ago

Heh, I first came across Frankfurter’s essay from a blog,and blogged about it too with a passing reference to politicians. Next up media, activists, the bullshit spouted at us by managers and job applicants…some blogs rock.

Fun post.

David Rubie
David Rubie
14 years ago

observa wrote:

As for Rudd perhaps doing a Jim Bacon on the job, well, ummm, err.. hush my big mouth it seems

More coalition muddy straw clutching. It will backfire (again) – Rudd is already comparing himself to the Governator. You have to admit, it’s got to be more appealing than “Mr Magoo without the good intentions”.

Amanda
14 years ago

That’s not a modern Prime Minister, THIS is a modern Prime Minister.

observa
observa
14 years ago

We already know the Govt will contrast the team difference bit and hence will go for a long campaign to heighten the chance of any gaffes or stumbles (study those tax scales for the Debate Rudd meboy) Memories of Lithium too for them there. Now we know how taxing camapigns are on the main actors. You don’t suppose it could hospitalise Rudd at the eleventh hour with Julia having to take the reins do you? Sexegenarian Howard couldn’t be that arsey now could he?

Bruce
14 years ago

Ah Wonderful. I bought “On Bullshit” for my brother last Xmas. Now you’ve given me a reason to borrow it from him (or at least make sure that he’s read it all by now).