George W. Bush has been re-elected decisively and we are still enlisted in his war on terror. He asked the American voters to trust him. Tony Blair has asked the same of British voters. John Howard did it first, I believe. To him, it appears, the world owes the novel idea that, in politics at least, one might distract attention from mounting evidence that one has been systematically mendacious, perhaps even a liar, by laying claim to the people’s trust.
I suspect that few of the people were fooled. It looks as though many believed him when he said that he would manage the economy better than Mark Latham would, but they believed him because they thought there was good reason to predict that things would turn out more or less as Howard said they would. You could do that and also believe that he is pervasively mendacious, even a crook. To trust someone, you must do more than believe him. You must believe in him. You must believe that he is essentially truthful.
Imagine if Howard had said, “I’ve been accused of pervasive mendacity, even of lying. Don’t let that distract your attention from what is important. You must now judge whether you can justifiably predict that the Coalition will manage the economy better than Labor.” That would not have sounded good. But that, I assume, is what the electorate took him to be saying. From the moral core of trust, it subtracted predictability, or reliability, if one takes that without its moral connotations. And that, I suspect, is what Howard hoped it would do. I imagine that he also hoped that in the confusion of claims that engulfed the election some of the people some of the time would see him as truly trustworthy.
Two days after the American elections I was at a conference at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League liberal studies college in New Hampshire. Some of the most distinguished academics from Harvard, Princeton, MIT and elsewhere attended. The topic was the future of liberal education. It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, that many of the people who attended the conference said that Bush’s victory had sent them into “shock”, “disheartened” and “bewildered” them, and made them “unsure about what to make of their country”.
As far as I could tell, that mood afflicted nearly everyone who attended the conference. On the last afternoon, a man commented on the claim that a liberal education was intended to make people think. If that is true, he asked, why are the beneficiaries of such an education so unanimous in their political opinions? His voice trembled and because I sat directly behind him, I could see that he was shaking, not with anger or indignation, but with anxiety about what he had said and what he was about to say. “Did anyone here vote for Bush?” he asked. “Would that have been inconsistent with having learned the deepest lessons of a liberal education?”
It was a fair point and it took some courage to make it to that gathering. Later someone else in the audience suggested that it was perhaps condescending to assume that all religious fundamentalists were superstitious. To assume that, he pointed out, was not to practise what the conference was so often preaching – namely, that a liberal education would better enable one to understand humanity in all its complexity. That too was an important point. Both rebels were responding to an unmistakable complacency in the ways people expressed their dismay that Bush had been re-elected with an increased majority.
In America, as in Australia, such complacency provoked an understandable backlash. Few things are as irksome as urbane condescension. Nonetheless I believe that the majority at the conference were right to be incredulous that a president who was incapable of presenting a coherent account of the reasons why he invaded Iraq and how this was linked to the war on terror could be re-elected, especially now that over 1000 American troops and (apparently) around 100,000 Iraqis have been killed. They were right to be dismayed that Bush’s majority was in part secured by people, like Bush himself, who preach the sanctity of life, who apply the concept with ferocity to abortion and stem cell research, but who seem untroubled by the fact that the country went to war in a cloud-cuckoo land of conflicting justifications led by a government that cares so little for the people its soldiers have killed that it refuses to estimate their number. They were right to feel estranged from people who think that to be in favour of gay marriage is not just to advance a moral opinion with which one could disagree, but to have placed oneself altogether outside the sphere of morality. What else, after all, could be implied by the claim that the vote for Bush was a vote for morality? And they were right to feel anxious about the nature of democracy in a country where 40 per cent of the population believe that Saddam was in cahoots with the terrorists who bombed the twin towers and that the invasion of Iraq was a justifiable response to that atrocity. Or in which many people despised John Kerry because he had acknowledged that American soldiers had committed war crimes in Vietnam.
Australians are fortunate that they are not so deeply divided. Australia is not a country where large numbers of people are politically and morally incomprehensible to one another. So at any rate it appears in America, where I am finishing this essay. To many people in Australia, though, it doesn’t appear that way. Howard’s supporters and his detractors seem agreed that his renewed majority shows how decisively most “ordinary” Australians rejected the political values of the liberal middle class, especially its concerns about truth in politics, the treatment of refugees, reconciliation and the war in Iraq. The right is triumphant, the liberal left despondent and bewildered. “It seems that they don’t care about morality,” a friend wrote to me in London (where I spend half of each year) when the election results were announced.
I confess to have thought much the same, and for that reason expected the Liberal–National Coalition to be returned to government. In an essay that was a precursor to this one (published in Griffith Review and in the Financial Review), I said that Australians seem to believe that their feet are planted firmly on the ground, that they know how to take the measure of their politicians and that they don’t care much whether they lie (expecting them to anyhow) provided those lies don’t affect their economic interests and their security. I contrasted this with Britons who, under the influence of many years of sophisticated spin, seemed no longer to know where the ground was onto which to plant their feet. Australians, it seemed to me, were not afflicted by an anxiety that they had lost contact with political reality.
The British disorientation had something to recommend it, I thought. When Lord Hutton released his report, into the death of David Kelly and on whether Tony Blair’s government had “sexed up” the dossier on Saddam’s (alleged) weapons of mass destruction, there was an explosion of incredulity, which cleared the fog so the ground could again be seen. From left to right, from tabloid to broadsheet newspapers, from Channel Five to BBC 2, one heard almost unanimous expression of disbelief that a man could be so foolish as Hutton was to think that the worst that the government could be accused of was putting the most favourable interpretation on the facts available to it. (When I returned to Australia, I noticed how often commentators who supported Howard said that Hutton had “proved” or “established” that Blair had been innocent of any attempt to deceive the British public.)
Another example: when I first went to England in 1972, I was struck by the fact that it mattered as much who won the argument in parliament as who won the votes. Sometimes it mattered more. When in 1986 Mrs Thatcher and her minister Leon Brittan were accused of misleading parliament, and suspected by many of actually lying, about the sale of helicopters, the matter (it came to be called the “Westland Affair”) occupied parliament for months. Most Australians I met at the time were bemused that concern about whether politicians had been truthful over a relatively minor matter could preoccupy parliament for so long and take up so much media time and space. Such differences, which continue to exist (though perhaps not so markedly as then), partly explain why Howard has not been held to account over Iraq, whereas Blair has been seriously damaged by widespread belief that his accounts of what he knew before Britain went to war and why he took her to war are not to be trusted.
It is true that Australians are cynical about politics, more so than Britons. Yet now I am inclined to think that the contrast is not so simple. It is probably true that most people who voted for Howard did so for economic reasons, but “economic reasons” is a phrase that covers everything from naked greed to the desire to build a good home and to care properly for one’s children. Even in a country as wealthy as Australia, much that is rightly cherished can be threatened by bad economic management. Economic and moral reasons should not therefore automatically be opposed. And while it is obvious that many voters did not think that truth in politics, reconciliation and the invasion and occupation of Iraq were matters that should drive them away from the Coalition, it is not obvious what that shows. Perhaps many of them thought the difference between Labor and the Coalition on these matters would not be sufficient for them to risk the consequences of bad economic management.
In regard to all those matters, Howard and his supporters, particularly those in the media, have been remarkably effective over the years in muddying the waters to the Coalition’s advantage. They have done so by entangling what is controversial about them with what should not be controversial in a decent and moderately politically literate community.
What our immigration policy should be is properly a controversial matter. It should not be controversial that it is evil to incarcerate children behind razor wire as part of a strategy to deter asylum seekers from landing on our shores. Nor should it be controversial that we do not have to choose between what is misleadingly called “symbolic reconciliation” and (again misleadingly) “practical reconciliation”. The first misleads because most of the ways we are obliged publicly to acknowledge the wrong we have done to a people are no mere symbols. The second misleads because without such acknowledgement nothing we do for and with them is properly called “reconciliation”. It is properly controversial whether we should have been part of the coalition of the willing who invaded Iraq, and it is properly controversial for how long and under what conditions we should stay there. Decent people have disagreed about both. But it is surely not controversial that a government shows contempt for an electorate when it gives first one reason for going to war (weapons of mass destruction), then another (humanitarian intervention) that the government had previously explicitly rejected as a sufficient reason, all the while concealing the probable reason for its decision to go with America.
Before the elections in 2001, I rented a cottage in central Victoria at which I stayed on a number of occasions, sometimes for as long as five weeks, to write. At the time there was much controversy over asylum seekers. I discussed the government’s policy with many people, nearly all of whom supported it, some defensively, others aggressively. Always I acknowledged immediately (as surely anyone must) that in common with many other nations, Australia was facing a problem of considerable moral complexity and that, of course, any policy toward asylum seekers had to be restrictive. After we had discussed the difficulties and canvassed most of the issues that are genuinely controversial, I asked them to focus on only one question: does the policy need to be so cruel? More specifically, can we justify incarcerating children behind razor wire for months and even years?
At first nearly everyone was defensive about this, but also inclined to say that regrettable though such a policy was, it was necessary. Would it be better, they asked, if the children were separated from their parents? Could we really make ourselves so vulnerable to the moral blackmail that would probably follow if we released the children? And so on. The questions are familiar. I felt, though, that they were not put entirely seriously, that the people I was talking to were not entirely behind what they were saying; it was as though I were talking to someone constantly moving his gaze in order to avoid meeting my eyes. So I pressed, again pleading that for a time we focus only on whether we could live with ourselves if the effects on the children of such a policy were constantly and vividly before our mind. Were there any benefits that Australia might enjoy, any realistically assessable damage it could incur, that would justify this? Without exception, they said no. Without exception, they then agreed that the government’s policy was also unnecessarily cruel towards adults.
It is, of course, only an anecdote, but unlike many anecdotes it can be generalised reasonably safely because its generalisation relies only on the assumption that when they are pressed, most people will agree on what is uncontroversial provided it is disentangled from genuine controversy and put before them for sober contemplation.
Most people can be brought to agree that if it makes sense for John Howard to say, “We settled the land, fought the fires and withstood the droughts. We fought at Gallipoli and later stood against murderous tyranny in Europe,” then, in exactly the same sense in which that assumes a collective, national agency – though most of the people he is addressing actually did none of that – it makes sense to say, as Paul Keating did, “We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the disasters. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.”
National pride and national shame, it should be evident, are two sides of the same coin, having the same conceptual structure. They are two ways of acknowledging that we are sometimes collectively responsible for the deeds of others. Some people say both attitudes are irrational, and there is a case to be made for that, but its hyper-rationalistic assumptions are not congenial to most people. The “we” that marks fellowship rather than merely classifies a group – we who have suffered this misfortune together, we of this family, we of this nation and so on – makes no sense without the assumption of that kind of agency, and the desire for it goes deep in the human heart. In the debate over the apology and much else that came under the derogatory heading of “symbolic” reconciliation, it is national shame that has come under attack in the name of national pride. The wish to be proud without sometimes acknowledging the need to be ashamed is that corrupt attachment to country – I will not call it love – that we call jingoism.
A sense of national shame is really nothing other than the pained, humbled acknowledgement of the wrongs in which we have become implicated because of the deeds of our political ancestors and which a faithful love of country requires of us. It is foolish to think that this must encourage a debased sense of victimhood and a loss of will and purpose in those to whom we apologise. When this does happen, it is not because we have acknowledged the wrong we have done them, but because we have done it and they have responded in confused ways. Jingoists find it impossible to believe that shame should be one of the forms of love of country, but it is so. An apology is one, natural though perhaps not necessary, expression of it. In the right circumstances, the solemn announcement of the findings of a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation might be another, rendering a formal apology otiose. Be that as it may: the Aborigines asked for an apology, and so in our circumstances it is morally necessary to give it. It would mean nothing, however, if it were not part of a practical concern to alleviate the material and psychological misery of much of the Aboriginal community. And it would be servile if it meant, as those who go on about black armbands appear to think it must, that we should descend into morbid self-abasement, afraid to criticise Aboriginal culture or institutions.
In the main, all that is so obvious that the constant obfuscation of it by John Howard and his supporters seems to be a deliberate attempt to ensure that plain truth and common sense are not visible. Why should they do that? Because, I think, there is a natural, though not logically inevitable, movement from the acknowledgement that the misery of the Aborigines is not the effect of a natural disaster but in considerable part the consequences of the wrong done to them by our political ancestors, to a preparedness to listen to those among them who voice a desire to explore forms of political association that would truthfully express their history – to explore, in other words, forms of “self-determination”. Howard and his supporters have closed their ears to those voices, have encouraged others do the same, and have sometimes vilified those who will not.
If I am right, the divisions that run deep in Australia are not between the liberal middle class and ordinary Australians, but between the liberal middle class and Howard, some members of his government and his supporters among the intelligentsia, some of whom have stirred up trouble and come close to inciting hatred. The last have generated the kind of confusion which has obscured from many Australians like those I spoke to in central Victoria what, on sober reflection, they really believe. Or, at least, obscured from such people how close sober reflection would reveal them to be on some fundamental matters to the city-dwelling liberal middle class from whom the likes of Andrew Bolt and Piers Akerman persistently try to alienate them. They take themselves to speak for ordinary people, to understand them because they have their ears close to the ground. I am reminded of a remark, attributed to Keynes, about a man who had his ear so close to the ground that he could no longer hear what an upright man was saying.
There is therefore no reason for those who were depressed by Howard’s victory to feel ashamed of being Australian, though they have reason to feel ashamed of some things Australia has done. The present and the past of most countries is a mixture of good and evil. One can be proud of the good things and ashamed of the evil while loving the country and its people. Sometimes it is a painful love.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY