Monday, February 16, 2015

Elitism and bullshit

Jeff Sparrow gets on the elitism bandwagon - by which I mean treating elitism as a subject of political discussion all of its own - in examining recent literary ejaculations by David Flint and Nick Cater.
We’re now in a position to understand the relationship between elitist anti-elitism and the more recent anti-democratic turn. Almost by definition, elitist anti-elitism depends on external commentators like Cater or Flint to mystically interpret and convey the sentiment of the masses. If the man in the pub were to argue for himself – or, worse still, to agitate or organise – he’d immediately lose his authenticity. If he starts to talk, he’s half way to becoming one of those hated intellectuals.
Abbott saw no problem with knighting Prince Phillip, since he and Flint know in their bones that only elitists could hate the monarchy. The unpopularity of the knighthood doesn't change anything – it merely shows that the elitists have somehow corrupted the natural instincts of honest folk.
My initial reaction to the nonsense put out by Cater and Flint is to conclude that "elitist anti-elitism" is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete bullshit. Sparrow calls it "mythology", but my gut feeling is that it is just bullshit, plain and simple.

Lest you think I'm merely being scatological for its own sake, bullshit has become a subject for serious intellectual study in recent times. As a rhetorical technique, it has been defined as subtly different from lying and humbug. The difference between lying and bullshit has been summarised thusly:
The liar believes that A is the case, but he wants to convince you both that Z is the case, and that he believes Z is the case. The bullshitter, by contrast, wants to convince you that Z is the case and that he believes Z is the case, but he is indifferent as to whether Z is the case or not[.]
As for a delineation between these two and the concept of humbug, to me it seems committing humbug incorporates some level of pretence, insincerity and/or trickery on behalf of the humbug, but apparently it stops short of outright lying. In the above formulation, the humbug wants to convince you that Z is the case and that he believes Z is the case, but he is ambivalent about whether Z is the case or not. (Ambivalence and indifference can be contrasted by saying that indifference means you don't care, whereas ambivalence means you don't know).

So do Flint and Cater really believe their bullshit, or are they just humbugging it up with straight out lies? Which faith are they arguing in badly? This matters in the sense that it important that the right maintains some semblance of attention towards the truth, because Harry Frankfurt's message with his 1986 essay was that too much bullshit was toxic for the soul. At least if they are merely lying, they can eventually be proven wrong. If they have caught the Baudrillardian disease of forgetting to care about reality in the first place and immersing themselves in their abstracted truthiness, then we're in trouble.

I think, on reflection, that Cater and Flint are engaging in humbug. They have come up with a quasi-intellectual framework of post hoc justification for their identity politics, but they have done no academic work to put this in context of the rest of scientific thought on the issues. They just don't care about the reality of the situation, as long as they keep getting attention and/or cheques. The lies suit their purposes. Don't look behind the curtain, because there's nothing there except an old white man running a scam.

They are not as bad as the George W. Bush era's self-appointed creators of reality, though perhaps that's only because they are so relatively powerless. Thankfully.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

39/100: fractional factional friction

So, the first #libspill came and went, largely as I predicted with Abbott keeping his job but none of his credibility. The only thing I didn't expect was chief whip Philip Ruddock deciding to make the pre-spill vote a secret ballot - but Cabinet solidarity extended to all but six members anyway (according to the Tele). If that last snippet is true and assuming 35 members in Cabinet went 29-6 against the spill, then the numbers from the backbench were 33-32 for the spill.

Several things should be said that I don't think I've heard much of elsewhere. The first was hinted at by Piping Shrike.
That was true of the entire process, actually. This is the nature of spills in parties in the Westminster tradition, where the party is focused almost exclusively on what Abbott calls "internals". The PM talked about being more "collegiate", but you have to be a member of the right college for that to matter. When he did remember to mumble platitudes about listening more to voters, it was always as an afterthought behind the real targets of his rhetoric, the elected members of his own party. The changes to the ALP's process after the Rudd debacle means that Labor won't make that same mistake, though they will probably discover all new ones.

Speaking of the Shrike, he reckons this could have been Turnbull's best shot.
So what next? It would be tempting to wonder if the right, having instigated this instability, then suddenly going quiet, with those like Howard and Bernardi appearing only at the last minute, had shifted its priority from replacing Abbott to just stopping Turnbull in his tracks. The talk was that Morrison, probably their preferred choice, was not yet experienced enough in senior portfolios to take over. This sounds phoney, probably the numbers weren’t there yet. If so, it would suggest that Turnbull might have just missed the best chance he had to regain the leadership.
That may be true, but it may also be true that 39 votes was the best he was ever going to get from the current party room, populated as it is by so many of the right wing of the party. I haven't seen much analysis of where those 39 votes came from in terms of factional groupings. The narrative of this being a peasant revolt by backbenchers without reference to ideology is too cute, too convenient.

One would assume the Christian/Tory wing of Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz would be right behind Abbott, whereas the smaller Julie Bishop faction would be mostly for the spill as Bishop has been highly cheeky in the indirectness of her public support for it. The Hockey club (cigar club?) would surely be in a bind at the moment; their leader has been smashed from pillar to post for attacking the Age of Entitlement, to no effect. Would a new Treasurer under a new leader be from the same club, and thus it doesn't matter who is given the poisoned chalice, even though that means the nominal factional leader gets the lemon sars? I suspect the clubbers think Turnbull wouldn't be good for their prospects for advancement, but there are a lot of younger members who have been champing at the bit for the dead wood to be cleaned out of Treasury so factional solidarity wouldn't be all that great. Then we come to the more regional alliances: Pyne's South Australian mob who must be staring at electoral oblivion given how poorly Abbott has treated them; and Greg Hunt whose Victorian cadre stand to lose 6 of their 16 seats if current polls hold up and must feel unloved given the dominance of NSW in the modern Liberal Party.

Finally, there's the Scott Morrison faction, which has been called Right with a capital R, even though Morrison is quoted as having some wet economic positions, and his ascension to Parliament was over the body of a candidate of the Right. Would the members of his faction have been voting for a spill? I suspect not. They would have been some of the first names on the list of 70 pledges that Abbott's numbers men drummed up on the weekend, as loyalty to the leader suits Morrison right now. Some of them may have lied, but not all that many did.

The long game is for Morrison to capture enough votes from enough of these groupings to win a spill, and the obvious first target is the Andrews/Abetz faction because that seems to be the dominant one in this Parliament. Changing their vote en masse in favour of a spill would be a fait accompli for Morrison. Being a committed Christian doesn't hurt his chances of capturing this faction, albeit his religion is of the Pentecostal evangelical variety - but the American Right managed to accept Mitt Romney and his Mormonism, so political factions tend to override religious denominations as long as God is in the House. Morrison has been promoted by both Turnbull and Abbott in his brief career, and he is talked about as a unity candidate. He should be the favourite when the decisive spill in this inexorable process is held.

In closing, it would be remiss of me not to note Sinclair Davidson going all in for Malcolm Turnbull prior to the vote. He misses the obvious solution to his own dithering dilemma: Morrison as PM and a man who can "drive the process"at military speed and efficiency, with Turnbull as Treasurer doing the sales job for hated "reform" that Hockey can't.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tony Abbott: see you next Tuesday

The #libspill is on. Only problem is: nobody is standing against Tony Abbott yet. Julie Bishop has ruled herself out, as has Scott Morrison. Malcolm Turnbull is the only viable alternative candidate, and he's working the numbers.

I have not had the greatest of luck in predicting these things - I thought Rudd wouldn't run against Gillard and said so on the fateful day that he won back the leadership - but I reckon the most likely scenario is that Turnbull realises he doesn't have the numbers, and doesn't stand. He may run and lose, but that won't solve anything, just as it didn't solve anything when Rudd ran and lost a couple of times before winning. There will be plenty of opprobrium to share around in any case. Abbott's leadership will still be terminal, he still won't have a mandate, and his position will be even worse because he'll have to bone Turnbull from the front bench and appoint someone less qualified.

This all plays into Scott Morrison's hands. Abbott and Turnbull can bash each other up across multiple failed spills, and he can wait for the right moment to come around the outside like Kiwi in 1983. (Note to self: must update sporting analogies to 21st century.) As he rolls out social security policies, Morrison will look like the only one who is still accomplishing anything at a level of competency befitting a leader.

I feel like Steve M. over at No More Mister Nice Blog who is similarly wailing abut Scott Walker being the quiet favourite for the 2016 GOP primary. I think it's important to know the real enemy, and why he is the dark horse based on his attractiveness to right wing extremists. Walker puts the wind up Steve the way that Morrison puts the wind up me: they could cause the most destruction to the apparatus of social democracy if they ever fluke their way into office. Leftists hate Walker and Morrison, but they get results in implementing their hated policies. It's the quiet ones who are most dangerous at times like this.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

To engage or diss engagement

Every night as I'm going to bed I grab my tablet and go through a supper list of American poliblogs, in what has now become a firm order. First comes Booman Tribune and No More Mr Nice Blog for a bit of leftist ranting, followed by Hullabaloo as the (relative) voice of reason by main blogger Heather "digby" Parton, then Balloon Juice and Lawyers, Guns and Money for the policy/law wonk substance. Afterwards for dessert, I read Paul Krugman and then maybe Brad Delong, then if I'm still awake a bit of Daily Kos. Of these, I probably enjoy LGM the most as it's got the meatiest material, and Hullabaloo can seem a bit like the vegetables you have to endure for your own fibrous good. Nevertheless, digby comes up with some crackers now and then that remind me of why I read her, and this one on the journey of Joe Klein is one such.

Are there any Australian journos who have embarked on the Joe Klein experience, where through the needs of the new digital age they have been forced to engage with online agitants and been browbeaten into changing their own tune as a consequence? People like Andrew Elder are crying out to be listened to by such people, and he has much the same sort of message to be delivered to the closed workshop of the mainstream media. His entreaties seem to go on deaf ears, unfortunately. Whoever it is behind the Dorothy Parker pseudonym at Loon Pond comes at the same problem from the angle of lampoonery, which can have a similar effect if anyone was reading him, which it appears few are. But it only takes one.

If there are two mainstream journos who I think may have already had the humility and intelligence to see where the wind is blowing and take on the concerns of the online community, they are Katherine Murphy and Lenore Taylor. They weren't ever really part of The Machine like Klein was, though, as they were not really spruikers for the political class and its increasingly bipartisan neoliberal hegemony. The equivalent here would be someone like Peter Hartcher or Barry Cassidy, veteran "insiders" who sorely need a dose of non-Canberra reality to jolt them out of the cosiness of their relationships with the elite apparatchiks.

I'm not necessarily blaming the journos themselves for being so unapproachable. It's a long way from Davos to Damascus, especially if you're stuck in Canberra stuffing the constantly ravenous political news hole with "content". Someone like Murphy is flat out trying to produce enough to satisfy her employer, let alone waste time feeding the social media maw.

The smallness of the Australian market, and its lack of competition, mean that many journos don't have to pay all that much direct attention to the "punters", never mind the online left, such as it is. It's not only the ABC which lacks a commercial imperative, but also News Ltd which is allowed to lose money hand over fist if it stays true to its proprietors' ideology. For the Joe Klein scenario to happen in Australia, it would probably take a cataclysmic collapse of Fairfax and/or News for their journos to be forced into much less well paid jobs at new media startups where contact with the hoi polloi was much more a function of the business model. I'm not holding my breath for that eventuality.

Millennials' response to this situation has been to turn off from the mainstream media almost completely, and it's hard not to agree with their conclusion. The media don't talk to them or speak their truth to power, so why should they donate their precious eyeballs? This is where I have immense respect for Elder and Parker, but I couldn't do what they do in fisking entire MSM articles line by line. To me, it seems better not to play their game, because it's rigged and you always lose.

UPDATE: Taylor and Murphy respond, like the professionals they are.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Arise Scott Morrison, the cromulent Cromwell

I have long thought that Scott Morrison would be the next leader of the Liberal Party, but I wasn't quite sure he would be the next Prime Minister of Australia until the events of this week.

Not only is it now inevitable that the Libs bone Tony Abbott - there is no coming back from here, as the Prince Phillip disaster was followed by a Press Club speech basically telling the party room that he was never going to change so you can take the keys to Kirribilly out of his cold, dead fingers - there will be a spill presently which will be the first of several, so the process is drawn out as painfully as possible. There are only 30 or so of the 102-strong caucus who would vote against Abbott, so he will most likely win if Warren Entsch goes ahead with his plan to cause a spill.

Morrison knows what's coming, mainly because he saw it with his own eyes when Labor went through it not that long ago. He knows the Abbott coalition-within-the-coalition is still the largest voting base in the party room, which is why he is on Abbott's side working the numbers and acting as Team Tony's front man for the media. He will be able to point to his superior loyalty after he eventually wins the one that matters, drawing a sharp distinction between himself and those tarred with the Tone Def brush.

Scott Morrison is the answer for which many on the right yearn. The question being asked by the faceless men is, "who will satisfy the Liberal party room and its base, without bringing unworkable baggage?" Everyone else conceivably in the running has too many faults. Bishop is a lightweight, Turnbull is not ideologically acceptable, Hockey is a beaten man.

Liberal voters love an authoritarian who dominates on their behalf. Morrison will frighten some horses with his cromulent Cromwell impression, but as long as they are mostly millennials and/or leftists, that's perfectly fine from the perspective of the blue rinse set.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Abbott and elitism

There have been various justifications made for why Tony Abbott knighting Prince Phillip on Australia Day has been so universally condemned by everyone except David Flint and Kevin Andrews. It's a broken promise, it's a bad look, it's tone deaf, and it's poor process. However, many other such decisions by the Abbott government have been made without the instant cacophony of vitriol from every quarter. The underlying problem, to me, goes back to the old saw I have been banging on about for a while now: elitism.

The monarchy is the ultimate elite in Westminster democracies: unelected, unaccountable except in the most ethereal of manners, and unapproachable except in carefully controlled glimpses. Buckingham Palace is the apotheosis of the gated community for the rich. Giving the consort of the monarch Australia's highest honour makes Abbott look like the Queen's suckhole. Worse, the only people whom he consulted were Angus Houston, whom he also gave a knighthood, and the Governor-General who is bound not to give harsh advice in pretty much any matter to the Prime Minister.

Abbott's one-man conga line has been contrasted with a similar bauble handed out by Bob Hawke in the 1980s, but that was the 1980s. These days, leaders have to be careful not to seem as if they are only concerned with elites, and this is perhaps the most elitist thing that a PM of a Commonwealth nation could do.

There have been  points made about Richie Benaud, who like the Prince is elderly and infirm, asking why Abbott didn't extend his honours to the legendary and much beloved sportsman. This point is valid, and perhaps even more important is that Abbott only gave out two knighthoods, thus reinforcing how exclusive is the club that he and the knights belong to. That's the basic message out of this mess: Abbott is part of an elite, and you're not invited, and he doesn't care what you think about it. In a democracy, this is the worst kind of message to send.

At this point, Abbott is Labor's best friend. He got rid of Napthine, he was the difference maker in the weekend's election in Queensland to oust Campbell Newman, and he will likely cause major heartburn for NSW Liberals on March 28 when they try their luck. The Libs are up by eight points at the moment in NSW, although Newman was supposed to be up by four points in Queensland so the pollsters will be scrambling to reallocate preferences on new parameters.

Can Abbott last until April to make it a hat trick of Liberal premier scalps in the last six months? Scott Morrison is still my favourite to take over at some point, and he's making all the right noises about unity and moves in support of Abbott today to ensure he can't be accused of disloyalty. Things are going to get a lot more ragged in the next two months. It will be rough.... Mal Brough. Should be another interesting day today, for example, with Abbott standing up in front of the Press Club. Can he even make it through the day? Popcorn time.