May 10, 2015

Horse 1892 - Reading The Miranda Devine Rights

Like looking directly into the sun, touching your tongue on the tip of batteries, poking a venomous snake with a stick and touching an electric fence, reading the words of Miranda Devine in the Daily Telegraph or Herald-Sun is something which I know is going to give me the irrits deeply and yet I'll do it anyway.
Although we like to imagine some golden age of politics where after vigorous discussion, the two sides came together for the good of all of us (except the ones who are dead), the truth is that ever since there has been politics and especially since the days of Disraeli, politics is mainly about two opposed groups yelling as loudly as they can into the void and then scurrying away into their own echo chambers to recharge off of other people yelling into the space.
The thing that bothers me about Miranda Devine isn't that she writes from an economic rightist perspective in a popularist economic rightist newspaper, its that she has invented a straw man to burn and tear down and this makes her articles downright confusing. The problem isn't that she's yelling into the rightist echo chamber, it's that she has failed to define who the enemy is. It's all very well to use code words and jargon if and when they serve a purpose (especially in the world of finance when even explaining what a piece of jargon is can take several paragraphs) but when you're writing for a daily newspaper which is for general consumption, when you've decided to use a word in a particular way and then never explain why, it's confusing.

Sitting snugly behind a paywall is her archive of columns which stretches back several years. I don't have a subscription to the website and so haven't been able to check through the whole archive but of the 100 columns that I kept score of in the physical dead tree edition of the newspaper, 63 of them mention "the left" as though that was the designated enemy and by inference, these are the people who you should rain scorn upon. Not once was it apparent as to what sense of the word was being used.
As a creature of the economic left, I often wonder if Ms Devine means people like me or not because the way that she uses the term seems to be so ill-defined and flaky that if it was a piece of short crust pastry, it would collapse on the plate and not in your mouth. If it was the folded chocolate bar from Cadbury, then the only way to get it that flaky would be to leave it in a cupboard until November 2016 when it goes white.

On an economic scale, the "left" is the side which favours planning and ownership of the economy by governments. Inversely, the "right" is that side of the scale which favours the use of market forces to determine everything. I should point out that this scale ranges from complete government control of everything to zero government control and every single point in between. One problem with conversations generally is that they tend to devolve into an extreme of two points but the world is far more nuanced than that. There might very well be cases where the argument is black and white but there are usually a range of shades of grey in between as well as shades of red, yellow, blue, green, puce, olive, brown etc.
What makes this particularly confusing is that on an authoritarian / libertarian scale, libertarians are designated as the left and authoritarians as the right. It's entirely possible to be economically to the right and yet on a social scale be leftist. Such people don't want government controlling any aspects of their lives. At the extreme economic-right and social-left, sit the anarcho-capitalists. Conservatism (or at least how it has come to be defined from the late 1970s onwards; from the era of Reagan and Thatcher, is a combination of rightist-economic policy and rightist-social policy. From their point of view, virtually everyone sits to the let of them but this lack of nuance as to openly say with direction "left" is where the trouble arises.

One thing I have found to be quite frustrating is that Ms Devine likes to set up straw men and then burn those, instead of engaging with established facts. It's far easier to define an imagined enemy and rail against that then forming a well reasoned argument I suppose. Consider the following from about 3:40 in this piece from ABC Radio Nafional's "Sunday Extra" program¹. I think that it is about as bad journalism as might be found in the pages of Britain's The Sun newspaper's coverage of Hillsborough in that it appears to be condemning acts as far as I can tell, never happened:
"People who call themselves anti-racists but in fact most of them were from the Socialist Party, or various other left-wing operations, and they were so violent and aggressive, spitting on people, throwing horse dung at them,  punching people; inciting violence, shoving and pushing."
Followed by:
"I don't know of the Reclaim Australia people  were racist; I don't know if they were propagating bad ideas."
Hang on. How come you don't know if the Reclaim  Australia people were or weren't racist and also don't know if they were propagating bad idea but you do know that most of the people in the counter rally were from the Socialist Party and that they threw horse dung, when no other news outlet in the country reported these facts? Either you were there and didn't listen to what Reclaim Australia had to say (which seems kind of crucial to the reportage of this event) or you weren't there at all and this is all lies. I did a search through of publication dates in Google and found that the first recorded article which mentions horse dung, is Ms Devine's very article. What's really strange is that it is then claimed to have occurred at Townsville, Melbourne and in Sydney. One incident would probably be reported but can print media have been totally negligent across the country, to have missed it in three cities? Just the ratio of probability tells me that the only horse dung I'm surrounded by is metaphorical. I have no doubt that there probably were punches and words of abuse thrown about but that's sort of par for the course when two sets of rival protests clash. To paint either side as totally innocent is most likely to be deliberately blind to facts.

There a very weird line from 7:51 of the program:
"there's physical violence and then there's this intimidation and refusal to allow other people to speak; again that's part of this totalitarian push to impose a situation where only a certain type of speech is allowed, only speech that a certain powerful minority in society that has control of the chattering classes, or has control of the discussion will allow to go ahead, and that at universities is leftists"
This is a very odd claim to make. I would have thought that a "certain powerful minority in society that has control of the chattering classes, or has control of the discussion" would be that minority which has control of mass media. In cities like Adelaide or Brisbane where there is only one daily newspaper and that newspaper is owned by a media group who is very much tied up with one of the political parties, just who is that " certain powerful minority"? Maybe at universities there is a predominance of leftist though (which by the way still hasn't actually been defined) but in society generally, and especially in the newspapers owned by that "certain powerful minority" (which Ms Devine just happens to work for), there is an overwhelmingly dominance of economic rightist views and policy which is enacted by government.

There's also a strange turn of phrase which is referenced here and is brought back later at 13:21
"leftist totalitarians don't operate like that, they prefer to have a situation where only their views are allowed and we laugh about it but this is the first line of clamping down on freedom, is freedom of speech"
This pretty well highlights why I find Ms Devine so frustrating. Firstly, we live in a quite robust democracy; which is far removed from being totalitarian in nature; secondly it seems as though she assumed that totalitarianism is synonymous with the "left"; even though by definition that's actually impossible if you happen to be talking about the social left-right scale. How is it possible left to have a totalitarian libertarian leftist? Granted that the Soviet Union under Stalin was very much a totalitarianist leftist state but equally, Hitler's Third Reich was a totalitarian rightist state; both were authoritarian in nature? Fascism dovetailed very nicely with business and quite a number of corporations were only too happy to work with the state. Private enterprises such as Faber, Bayer, Mercedes-Benz, DKW, BMW all competed in fairly open markets whilst the Nazis were in power. Hitler and Stalin might have been similar from a social authoritarian perspective but their economic policies differed wildly.
There is a distinct problem in trying to make out that a group of people are totalitarians when they're not actually in power. Totalitarianism kind of implies an autocratic dictatorial kind of rule and if you have protestors out in the streets when clearly they're not the ones in any sort of ruling power at all, to classify them as totalitarians looks plain daft.
To call someone socialist is to place them on a economic scale of left to right but socialism can run the whole gammet from absolute authoritarian rule, all the way to absolute libertarian society. It is also possible to imagine a society based on the premise that everyone shares everything with everyone else. The early church might be seen as very socialist and that sort of community would be worlds apart from the Soviet Union under Stalin. Also, someone like Ghandi was very much in favour of the power of the state and of equal access to the services which the state aught to provide, yet at the same time because he lived in a society which had a very large plurality of religions, ethnic groups, languages and wildly varying traditions, rather than being a totalitarian leftist he would have been a libertarian leftist.
Given that Ms Devine's columns are broadly economic rightist and for the most part broadly libertarian² (being that she wants government to get out of people's lives, that's three corners of the political compass which differ in ideological standpoint to her and yet she never defines what she classifies as "the left". There might very well be other axis upon which to hang political opinions and if she's in dispute with any of those, the total lack of nuance in her journalism, may as well tar them all with the same brush as well. As far as well I can tell, in Miranda Devine's world, "the left" is synonymous with "anything that I don't like" and that might be subject to change depending on what the circumstances of the article are.

¹ABC Radio National's "Sunday Extra" - 12th Apr, 2015
The Audio:

²And sometimes downright barbaric:

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