Monday, 25 July 2011

Carp's Cornered and the rhetoric of hate

Up here in National Party heartland, things are hotting up in regard to the proposed price on carbon. The NP faithful are going into overdrive, and the Port newspapers are issuing challenges left, right and centre to the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, daring her to come on up and explain that there carbon tax to them in person, dammit. Somewhat surprisingly, the Wauchope newspaper appears to be much more balanced, offering a much more thoughtful discussion of the issues involved.

It is these newspapers that have given rise to this particular blog. Those of you in the Uniting Church would be aware that our church actually has a statement on climate change and the environment and discipleship. Last week, the National Director of Uniting Justice sent out a press release congratulating the government on its stand on carbon pricing, reiterating UCA support for this policy.

John and I sent the press release with a few comments to the three local papers. We know it was printed in the Wauchope Gazette and the Port Paper. It was possibly printed in the Port News. In this electorate, where the local member Mr 72% is king, this press release was not viewed benignly by all.

The Gazette carried a letter stating that the Uniting Church should stay right out of politics. We have responded by reminding the letter-writer that any church that stands up for the poor, the marginalised, and the environment must be political if it is to challenge the social, political and commercial structures that enable such injustices or problems to occur in the first place. We also pointed this out to one of the local pastors, who distrusted the local Federal member and who believed the NP rhetoric, and who was not happy with our stand.

The published article in the Port Paper (and possibly the Port News) drew another type of response. John received a Snowy Mountain postcard pertaining to be from someone in the Labor party in Sussex St, Sydney. It reads:

“Dear Comrade John, Ref. Port Macquarie Paper. Your support for our Labor Party initiatives is great. With the loss of the Rev. Harry Herbert, our Labor Party member, we have needed someone like you who believes in the Fabians and homosexuality. Your success with the lesbian pastors is commendable. Keep up the good work. Con Raftopolous, Sussex St, Sydney.”

I apologise to any Con Raftopolous for reproducing his name, should there be such a person. The postcard was postmarked Mid North Coast. It was so ridiculous that John couldn’t stop laughing when I read it out to him.

The handwriting, was however, recognised. Apparently it was none other than Mr Carp, our friend and Carp’s Corner columnist from that scurrilous rag, the Port Paper. The Carp was cornered indeed.

There is something deeply disturbing about this response. While its sublime ridiculousness provoked mirth, the thought processes behind it are deeply disturbing. Beneath the sarcasm lurked the rhetoric of hate, a hate that was aimed at minority groups and which used the gay and lesbian community as symbols to express dislike and disdain.

I find it disturbing that, despite its perverted goals, such rhetoric effectively influences people via our media and the political leaders who may seek power and status ahead of the well-being of the Australian population and the future of the planet. Our pastor friend’s opinion made it clear that those who read such rhetoric can be persuaded by it. Up here in National Party heartland, it is rhetoric that "works."

In an article on this topic at the author noted that “[George] Orwell warned that clich├ęd and pretentious language is more than a stylistic nuisance -- it also obscures the truth. Such language is potentially dangerous. It has been used by governments to manipulate public opinion in support of destructive policies.”

It is also rhetoric that most Christians should despise and want to dismantle, as hate is as real a force as love or compassion. The arguments used by the Carps of this world are often deceptively friendly in tone, and have a dangerous power to persuade. Politically euphemistic language becomes the tool of such people to justify hatred toward entire groups of people.

The Christian church needs to not only condemn such rhetoric, but also itself refuse to join its seductive power. It is time for the Christian church to separate the rhetorical chaff from the wheat, and make a stand against the rhetoric of hate, and its deliberate attempt to obscure the truth about issues that must and will eventually concern all of us.

Which leads me to the following.

The assumption that a church or indeed any religion cannot be political and cannot speak out against misinformation designed to mislead needs to be challenged. Any religion that has social justice on the agenda and which seeks to challenge inequity, injustice and human rights abuses must be political.

It was clear from the discussion with members of the local ministers’ association that social welfare is often confused with social justice. While welfare and op shops and services for the poor are indeed necessary, they are not in themselves social justice. As I stated earlier, to aim for justice for the poor and oppressed means publically challenging the political structures that have allowed the inequity and hatred to develop in our societies.

Further, the gospel stories (especially in Luke) make it clear that Jesus had social justice high on his agenda. The Magnificat in chapter one of Luke sings of the complete inversion of the status quo, with the rich and powerful being pulled down, and the poor and lowly being lifted up. He spoke up and challenged the religious leadership (and hence Jewish political leadership as they were one and the same) of his day, staking his colours to the mast as it were in both the triumphal entry and the overturning of the tables in the temple.

If as Christians we seek to emulate the actions of Jesus, then individual and pietistic faith alone is simply not going to cut the mustard. To be a follower of Jesus means to be called into action, to speak out publically against all forms of injustice and to live a discipleship that requires faith in action.
It is time for the Christian church to recognise the rhetoric of hate under its alluring blandishments and challenge it. It is time to for the Christian church to separate facts and issues from party politics and rhetoric, and speak against such tactics. And it is time for the Christian church to challenge the Carps of this world, as they use the language of denigration to speak the rhetoric of hate.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Coffee, communism and communications: the politics of power Part 2

Up here in National Party heartland, it is hard to move around the various cafes in the Wauchope and greater Port Macquarie area without running into the dulcet tones of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley of 2GB and John Laws of 2SM. Their strident tones tend to disrupt the digestion of coffee drinkers such as ourselves, and while disliking the content and modus operandi of all three, Alan Jones particularly can quadruple my blood pressure.

Did you know that Bob Katter is a communist? No? I didn’t either. But his wanting to form his own party apparently is the proof, according to Alan and Ray’s listeners. And they also think that the Government is a minority Communist Party Government run by Brown, Gillard and turncoats who faked the footage of how our cattle are treated in the live export trade in some of Indonesia’s abattoirs. As for the carbon tax, there are thousands of responses on 2GB’s website. My favourite was one that asked why should Cate Blanchett be believed about global warming when she is an actress? Followed immediately by the comment that the listener was not a climate scientist but had read extensively on the topic. Mmmmmmm.

Hundreds were convinced that Julia Gillard was a liar, the famous Juliar of Alan Jones’ invention. Maybe she is, but I also seem to remember a prime minister that said that a GST would never be introduced by him. Courtesy of a website known as liar list, I found the following:

John Howard: “No, there’s no way that a GST will ever be part of our policy.”
Journalist: “Never ever?”
John Howard: “Never ever. It’s dead. It was killed by the voters in the last election”.
John Howard, interview, Tweed Heads Civic Centre, 2 May 1995

Why do I raise this old piece of news? Because I am totally perplexed about why Howard was apparently not a liar about the GST, but Gillard is about the badly named and greatly misunderstood carbon tax. Apparently Alan can’t seem to remember this interview with Howard. Not to mention the cash for comment enquiry he himself was involved in and how his own integrity was under scrutiny.

For those of you who watched the documentary “Leaky Boat” on Thursday night, you would know that the lying of the Howard government was systemic. Howard himself said in an interview on 17 August 2001 that “we don’t turn people back into the sea.” Within weeks, he was doing just that, and as time went on, with worse and worse consequences to asylum seekers, beginning with the Tampa and ending tragically with SIEV X.

Information and photos from the Navy were misused in the so-called children overboard affair. The Howard Government gagged the navy, and deliberately and erroneously linked asylum seekers with terrorists. Navy personnel were ordered not to humanise the people on the boats. The crew of the HMS Adelaide, who rescued the people in the “children overboard” affair, were told they were not to reveal what really happened during that rescue to anyone. In other words, the lying of this particular government was calculated, deliberate, systemic and designed to portray a vulnerable group of people in a light that pandered to Australian fear and paranoia.

The real issue here was neatly summed up on the documentary by Brigadier Garry Bornholt, the Head of Military Public Affairs. He commented that the Howard government’s actions were not about security, they were about politics.

I think he is right. And what this blog is really about is the polarisation of broad social and environmental issues into political camps.

It doesn’t really matter to Alan Jones or Ray Hadley whether Julia Gillard is a liar or not. It doesn’t matter whether Howard was a liar or not. What matters is the colour of their politics and political cronies and political party of each.

Issues which should be the concern of all people, such as humanitarian crises, cruelty to animals and environmental degradation and pollution, issues that will affect the entire globe have become the domain of one or the other political camps.

Being concerned about the environment means one is automatically labelled “greenie”, a title with clear derogatory overtones in much of this electorate. It also implies you probably vote Green or Labor, side with city people, drink chardonnay and are a communist. Being concerned about climate change means that you chain yourself to tress, raid egg farms, aren’t prepared to listen to other arguments, and you vote Green or Labor.

Likewise, being concerned about water rights and drought labels you a conservative, whinging farmer who converses in monosyllabic variants of “Arrrrrhhhh”. It also implies you disapprove of population growth, immigration, that you vote for the National Party or Liberal Party, and the Shooters’ Party in the Upper House, and that you think there should be more police in Wauchope.

Political parties in this country have become synonymous with particular issues instead of each issue being treated on its merit by the entire body of elected Members. This kind of labelling forces people into taking sides, and the issue (for example, boat people) becomes a ‘hot potato’ that is used to make political gains.

Research in the USA has shown that once an issue is linked with a political party, those on the opposite party literally cannot take in well-argued and well-researched evidence that demonstrates the validity of a particular humanitarian or environmental issue. The Fors and Againsts neatly divide into party lines. The more connected with the party someone is, the more entrenched that person’s opposition will be to the other point of view.

Further, the opposing political party’s very name becomes a slur and target for derogatory remarks. So up here, “National” is good, and “Labor” and “Greens” are bad, and it therefore follows if you vote one or the other you are “bad”. I am sure it would be reversed in Labor heartland, such as within the union movement. I wouldn’t be owning up to voting National if I was in certain union contexts.

The media, with its incessant appetite for controversy and the provocative sound bite, has fuelled this by presenting uncritiqued comments that have no other purpose except to slur the opposing party. The casualty in such a media strategy tends to be the truth.

So at this point, I return to my friends at 2GB, their rhetoric of extremes and their considerable influence mean that these party line opinions become so cemented in the psyche of their listeners that it is impossible to hold a reasoned debate with them about any topic where Labor and Liberal may differ, even slightly.

Take the example of the electorate of Lyne. When Rob Oakeshott won the seat of Lyne initially in a by-election, it was with a thumping majority of around 74% in the two candidate preferred percentage. In the last federal election, Mr Oakshott got 47.15% of the primary vote. The Nationals received 34.39%, and Labor and the Greens 13.49 and 4.29 respectively. That means around 65% of this electorate did not vote for the Nationals.

On 13 Sept The Australian newspaper ran an article on the election and Lyne. It stated that the deal Mr Oakeshott cut with Labor offered nothing for farmers and small towns.

The Australian reports:

The farmers believe the focus Mr Oakeshott and fellow independent Tony Windsor have put on regional affairs as their price for supporting a minority government excludes rural industries.

In the small dairy farming town of Comboyne, 60km southwest of Mr Oakeshott's home base of Port Macquarie, the independent MP won 71 votes compared with 162 for Nationals candidate David Gillespie. Only 15 people in the town voted Labor.

Further southwest at the polling booth of Barrington, Mr Gillespie got more than double Mr Oakeshott's vote, with a 60 per cent swing towards the Nationals.

Ten days later, on 23 Sept 2010, Alan Jones also addressed the same topic of Lyne. He accused Mr Oakeshott of abandoning farmers in his electorate. He concentrated on the results from polling booths in Comboyne and Barrington. In a barefaced manner, he lifted The Australian’s article and used its sentiments and figures to make it look as if Mr Oakeshott barely squeaked in and that his duty was to form government with the Coalition, due to the National Party vote being the highest vote at these tiny booths. He accused Mr Oakeshott of concentrating on Port Macquarie, and this was how he scraped into office.

The population of Greater Port Macquarie is around 70,000. That of the electorate of Lyne is around 122,000. In 2010, 88,261 people voted in Lyne. Jones’ argument cannot be sustained on these figures. It cannot be sustained on the figures from the election. Did he actually bother to check the figures or did he just rely on the rather biased article of The Australian? Did he torture the data until it confessed to what he wanted it to say? Who knows? If I could find out the correct figures, Alan Jones surely could have as well. The only reason for misrepresenting them in the skewed way he did was party political. That is, Rob Oakeshott had not agreed to form government with the Coalition.

This thesis was confirmed when the Opposition Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey, on Jones’ show, stated that a vote for an Independent was a vote for Labor. It was further entrenched when a National Party member said that it was time Rob Oakeshott started acting like an Independent and voted with the Coalition.

I don’t know what the answer is to such misrepresentation, especially when it hides behind the veneer of democratic debate. Perhaps it is time our media grew a backbone and did some research and presented the facts rather than the sound bites.

I don’t know how we are ever going to get bipartisan support on vital issues such as our waterways, climate change, refugees and fiscal policy, especially if voters, coached in the entrenched view of their favourite party, have these opinions affirmed by a sensationalistic media.

Unlike Tony Abbott, I do not agree that a ferocious Opposition is good for Australian democracy. It fosters resentment, entrenched party lines and a closing down of true debate.

The Liberal Party needs to acknowledge that the global financial crisis was caused by systemic fraud and massive market failures rather than over-regulation by the US government. It also needs to face up to the reality of climate change. The scientific evidence that is now available overwhelmingly demonstrates that climate change is real, and is already harming the world, including Australian farmers and citizens. Cultivating climate denial in what it sees as its voting base is neither honest nor ethical – especially when some members of that voting base who live on the coastline of Australia begin to watch their assets being regularly flooded. Accepting the scientific reality and joining with the rest of the industrialised world in setting a price on carbon would demonstrate that the Coalition is really interested in the well-being of Australian citizens and the global economy.

The Labor Party (particularly in NSW) needs to acknowledge that it is fractured by factionism and turned rotten by bad policy and incestuous political behaviour. It needs to grow its self-awareness and stop listening to the polls in order to compete with the Coalition. It can’t, and it shouldn’t, as to do so is to become even more unethical than it is.

And the National Party (particularly in Lyne) needs to grow up, stop spitting a dummy in its infantile and bullying attacks on Rob Oakeshott. Nationals need to understand that 65% of this electorate voted either for Mr Oakeshott, Labor or The Greens. That Mr Oakeshott formed government with Labour and the Greens is a true representation of this electorate – something which you all claim you wanted him to reflect. He did. Get over it.

And for Mr Jones, arguing that "this is what I believe and this is why I believe it, and I disagree with any people who disagree with what I believe" and saying it more loudly than anyone else is not an argument – it simply reveals your inability to actually think seriously on most topics.

Isn’t it time that both politicians and the media grew up and started presenting real information and tried to become good investigative journalists?

(The figures and percentages cited from the elections in Lyne are drawn from the website of the Australian Electoral Commission.)