[A condensed and modified version published at Eureka Street, 7 Feb.]
The Australia Day “riot” at the Lobby restaurant in Canberra was the subject of hysterical misreporting – I know, I watched it. We would be wise not to dismiss this episode as just another example of media sensationalism. Rather, it is symptomatic of a growing nexus in Australia of fear, hysteria, racism and ignorant ranting.
These phenomena are rapidly degrading our capacity for decency, our democracy, and even our perception of reality. We are moving rapidly away from the decent, laconic Aussies of our stereotyping, and into being a fearful, intolerant, nasty and brittle society.
Images of the Prime Minister being dragged away superficially created the impression that a howling mob was in pursuit, an impression most reports did nothing to dispel. In fact the security man doing the dragging was rattled and over-reacting. This is easily confirmed by seeing Opposition Leader Tony Abbott walking behind, flanked by police.
In fact the episode was not violent, as a few lonely eye-witness voices have tried to point out, including mine. A few other journalists saw through the spin and/or consulted eye witnesses. Ben Eltham on New Matilda wrote a piece called “The mob violence that wasn’t.” He quotes Michael Pachi on 3AW, and a blog by Wil Wallace, who in turn quote eye witnesses.
Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times was not present, but was another of the few to look more carefully at the coverage before he hit the keyboard: “At no stage did it appear that Gillard made contact with any protester, or that any lunged towards her. The stumble was a function of the extrication, not crowd pressure.”
Outraged reaction to the misreporting was swift, and right-wing chatterers quickly joined in. David Penberthy called it “an unprecedented outburst of violence”. Further on he noted that “Julia Gillard’s office has clarified that she was not knocked over or hit by protesters. ” Shoot your mouth off first, think later.
Andrew Bolt: railed that reconciliation “means Gillard, fear on her face, being monstered and falling in the melee as police rushed her to her car for safety, one shoe lost in the crowd. … the reconciliation movement must end. It’s just too dangerous.”
My account, posted on The Drum Opinion Monday, got a big response in online comments. Among the usual dismissals and rants were many expressions of gratitude that I had confirmed what they could see or suspected: that there had been a huge media beat-up. Not everyone was fooled.
The real howling mob was not the demonstrators on the day. The real howling mob was a mis-informed public, incited at every step by the media and politicians. It’s a dangerous mob too, and the danger works at several levels.
At the most immediate level, the mob gets to vent its fear and loathing of whatever it fears and loathes. That includes Aborigines, who are whingers stuck in victimhood and will never be satisfied. Bleeding-heart lefties get a serve, and there is much partisan slanging about who conspired in which back room to manipulate which event. Disrupters of civic tidiness are also a great threat, who must be forcibly removed if necessary, as we have seen in the response to the Occupy movement.
Everyone has a right to express their opinion, but when the opinion is ill-informed and delivered angrily it becomes a rant. Unfortunately the ignorant rant is becoming legitimised as proper political discourse in Australia. It features prominently in talkback radio and online comments, but is by no means confined to those outlets. Many so-called commentators regularly indulge, the whining Miranda Devine being the type example. The Australian newspaper as a whole seems to have lost the ability to distinguish between ignorant ranting and so-called responsible journalism, as demonstrated in particular by its response to detailed criticism by Robert Manne in his Quarterly Essay Bad News. Many members of Parliament are also of this inclination.
The justification for the prevalence of ignorant ranting is the right to free speech. However free speech also needs to imply responsibility. One responsibility is not to propagate falsehoods. Another is to reflect before mouthing off, in other words to be aware of one’s gut reactions and to move through them to a more considered expression. This is known as emotional maturity, an increasingly scarce quality it seems. These responsibilities apply particularly to the media and those in the public realm.
Another level at which the mob is dangerous is when it is used to run more deliberate agendas. Witness Andrew Bolt railing about the wickedness of reconciliation. Quite how his logic goes escapes me, but the point is not logic, it is to catch the mob while they’re foaming at the mouth and receptive, or vulnerable, to one’s message.
General hysteria also feeds the profits of the media moguls of course, which is why media have been sensationalising for generations. This maintains the wealth of the moguls, and their great power over us.
All of this feeds an underlying strategy that has been vigorously pursued for the past several decades in Australia, and many times in other times and places. The strategy is to raise the general level of fear in the population and then to step forward as the strong man who will keep us all safe. The alleged threat of terrorists has been a gift to this strategy, but any scary group will do, such as boat people or aborigines. Thus racism is never far below the surface.
Those who propagate the idea that we have much to fear are projecting their own fearful world view. But this is a laughable proposition when held up to the light. Australia shares no land border with any other nation, there are no strategic threats facing it, it is rich in natural resources, and has a diverse, educated and creative population that speaks most languages of the world. Every other nation on Earth would envy our fortune.
However we have always been a cringing, fearful lot. A century ago we were afraid of the Russians and the coloured races, later we were afraid of the yellow horde pouring down the map. Above all we have been afraid to stand up and be ourselves in the world, so we have allowed the colonial masters to be replaced by home-grown puppets of foreign money and power. They have been most anxious to keep the truth of our situation from us.
Philosopher Karl Popper, writing in the context of the threats from both left-wing communist dictators and right-wing fascist dictators, concluded that the most resilient society would be the one most willing to tolerate and cultivate a range of ideas. The world is always changing, and throwing up new challenges. The broader range of ideas a society can draw upon, and the more willing it is to change its ways, the more likely it is to meet such challenges and survive.
Dictatorship severely restricts the range of ideas allowed currency, and thus limits the resilience of the society. Short of dictatorship, there are those at present who seem to take pride in ignorance, to be supposedly just part of the common ruck. You don’t need to properly inform yourself, and science is disdained, or at best treated as just another demand on budgets. The disdain for systematically pursuing knowledge manifests strongly in the global warming arguments. This attitude cultivates illusion, the comforting belief that the world is as we want it, but an illusion is ultimately a lie.
Writer Jane Goodall reminds us on Inside Story that former Czech intellectual and president Václav Havel pointed to the deeper effects of the communist oppression of his people. Oppressed people become so used to living in a lie that it infiltrates every aspect of their lives, until they can’t deal honestly with each other, or even with themselves. We are not as oppressed as the Czechs were, but we are similarly fed a manipulated reality.
As Goodall observes “A form of democratic politics that is conducted through the tabloid press, focus groups and opinion polls is one that ultimately fails democracy. An electorate dominated by resentment and punitive impulses can easily vote its way back into totalitarianism.”
Havel understood that only if we are willing to speak the truth, to ourselves, to each other and in public can we hope to extract ourselves from the mire of oppression, and he suffered imprisonment and risked his life to do so. Goodall further notes “Havel spoke always from a conviction that civic intelligence is the most valuable commodity in any nation, and its erosion is the greatest danger.”