Separating the Truth from the Facts

There was almost a look of horror on Rudy Giuliani‘s face when he realised what he had done in saying “Truth isn’t truth”. His reputation as New York Mayor at its most challenging time, not to say his career as a lawyer, may have been completely undone by this latest pronouncement on behalf of an administration that has increasing difficulty in separating facts from fiction (or “real fakes” from mere “fabrication”?).

“Doh!” Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Saul Loeb

In our post-truth age, one where we have had to accommodate “alternative facts” and “fake news”, language, if not the truth, is usually the first casualty in this war of, and on words themselves.

If one was being charitable, it could be argued that the struggle between “facts” and “truth” is like the difference between structuralism and post-structuralism: so, in the former, words have a finite meaning when used in a particular way or structure; whereas in the latter, the same words can have different meanings depending on the context of the audience.

But rather than critical theory, I think we are actually dealing with a phenomenon I first encountered about 20 years ago, while working in China. A report in the China Daily regarding a constitutional matter that was before the courts said that in order to fully understand the issue, it was “important to separate the truth from the facts…”.

Next week: The party’s over

 

Bringing Back Banter

Last week I watched “The Trip To Spain”, the latest in the “Trip” franchise. For anyone who has not yet seen these films (or the TV series from which they are compiled), the narratives revolve around a pair of actors playing fictional versions of themselves, as they embark on road trips to sample some of the best restaurants, hotels and historic locations. The semi-improvised dialogue between the two main characters is classic banter – as in “the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks“.

The gentle art of banter is at the heart of “The Trip To Spain” – Image sourced from British Comedy Guide

Sadly, just as the public discourse has become much uglier in recent years (despite various calls for a “kinder, gentler politics”), it seems there is something of a backlash against neo-banter (or “bantaaaaaaah!” as some would have it). Maybe there is a connection?

If our political leaders cannot engage in the natural ebb and flow of an ideological discussion shaped as informed conversation (rather than embarking on all out verbal warfare), then don’t be surprised if this is the same boorish, belligerent and bellicose tone adopted by protagonists in social media, op eds and parliamentary “debates”. (And I am not defending anyone who uses the term “banter” to excuse/explain the inappropriate.)

Banter can help to explore hypothetical scenarios, suggest alternative opinions, and take a discussion in different directions, without participants being hidebound by the first thing they say. Plus, if done really well, it allows us to see the ultimate absurdity of untenable positions.

Next week: Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

 

 

 

 

Is this The Conversation we should be having?

Here’s a barbecue topic for Australia Day: What is happening to the quality of public discourse? Over the holidays, I read The Conversation’s 2015 yearbook, “Politics, policy & the chance of change”. It’s a collection of individual articles from the past 12 months, grouped into broad themes, covering key issues of the day, at least among the academic and chattering classes. As a summary of the year in Australian political, economic, cultural and social reportage, it’s not a bad effort. With “news” increasingly bifurcated between a dominant commercial duopoly and a disintermediated social media maelstrom, The Conversation can offer a calm rational voice and an objective alternative.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 6.43.50 PMThe title promises a new direction in political debate, and I went to the book’s Melbourne launch at the start of the summer, where Michelle Grattan, The Conversation’s Chief Political Correspondent held court in an audience Q&A. I was looking forward to the event, because part of The Conversation’s remit is to foster informed debate that is more than tabloid headlines, news soundbites and party room gossip. It has also positioned itself as a non-partisan, independent and authoritative source of news analysis.

I was hoping the Q&A would provide a considered discussion on some of the key policy issues facing the country – long-term tax reform, addressing climate change, updating Federation, dealing with the post-mining boom economy, improving the quality and efficiency of our education, health and infrastructure systems, etc.

Instead, the first three questions from the audience concerned Mal Brough, Ian Macfarlane and Tony Abbot. How demoralising. Haven’t we moved on from this cult of personality? Haven’t we learnt anything from the past 10 years or so? If the same event had been held during Julia Gillard’s term as PM, the names would have been different (Craig Thomson, Peter Slipper, Kevin Rudd?) – and for quite separate reasons, I hasten to add – but the context and implication would have been very similar: “Never mind policies, what’s the chance of (another) leadership spill? How are the numbers stacking up in Parliament? When’s the court case?”

Although I admire the aims of The Conversation, and I understand why it exists, I have some concerns about the type of discourse that The Conversation is actually fostering among its audience. As with many public institutions, I appreciate that it’s there (even though I am not a frequent reader), but like other news media, it risks confirming the bias and prejudices of its audience. It can also feel as if it is serving only the vested interests of its contributors, partners and sponsors.

So much of Australia’s recent political history has been dominated by self-delusional egos, nefarious party factions, insidious vested interests and character assassination (which I blame for giving us five prime ministers in as many years).

When it was my turn to ask a question, it concerned the recent bipartisan compromise between the Coalition and The Greens to publish the tax records of companies generating more than $200m in revenue (as a step towards tackling corporate tax avoidance). I asked, “Should we expect to see more of this seemingly new approach to politics?” Although Ms Grattan gave a detailed (and somewhat technical) explanation for this particular Parliamentary outcome and its likely implications, I felt that most of the audience were not interested. They would probably have preferred to be talking about the ins and outs of the party rooms. For me, this does not bode well for the level and quality of public debate we are having on (non-party) political issues that really matter.

I also have a few other niggles about The Conversation and the 2015 Yearbook:

  1. By only sourcing content from “recognised” academic experts and policy wonks, I think this overlooks contributions from commercial and industry experts which are just as valid. As long as such authors also declare any interests, it should ensure balanced commentary – but to exclude them from the debate just because they don’t have academic, public or research tenure is self-limiting.
  2. The site as a whole (and the book in particular) is rather thin on actual data references, and when research data is included in articles, there are rarely any charts, tables or infographics. I think this is a shame and a missed opportunity.
  3. The book hardly mentions the critical issue of tax reform (which barely merits half a dozen pages). Whereas, reform of the education system (including academic research funding) gets around 40 pages – which rather smacks of self-interest (and bias?) on the part of the academic authors

Finally, The Conversation provides a valuable (and from what I have seen, an impartial) service via its factcheck section, which in tandem with the ABC’s Fact Check is doing a sterling job of trying to keep our pollies honest (at least in Parliament…). More power to it.

Next week: David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair”

 

10 Examples of Cold War Nostalgia: We Can’t Get Enough Of It…

I don’t know if any historian, politician or media commentator has ever said it publicly, but someone must have coined the phrase, “You knew where you stood during the Cold War”.

tinker-dvdlrg

There was some strange comfort to be had in knowing exactly where the geo-political lines were drawn in the days before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian revolution of 1979* – events which could be argued to have brought about the dismantling of the Iron Curtain, but also heralded an era of constant challenge to American hegemony.

35 years after those momentous events of 1979, numerous books, TV series and films continue to feed our appetite for Cold War nostalgia. Here is a (highly subjective and selective) list of 10 such contributions from recent years:

  1. “Stasiland” (2003) – While not strictly speaking about the Cold War, Anna Funder’s  contemporary work of non-fiction on East Germany’s surveillance regime is a powerful account of her investigation into the activities of secret police operatives and their victims, and what has become of them since the Berlin Wall collapsed and the re-unification of Germany
  2. “The Lives of Others” (2006) – This film, set in 1984, is a somewhat romanticized look at events described in Funder’s “Stasiland”, but still manages to convey the numbing effects of life behind the Iron Curtain
  3. “Equals” (2014) – The year will not be allowed to pass without SOME sort of reference/homage/pastiche/exhumation/sequel to George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984”, which was published 65 years ago, and set 35 years in the future of the titular year itself. While not exactly a Cold War novel, it’s seen as an allegory for life in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a veiled warning to the rest of us about the threat of a totalitarian regime. Upcoming movie “Equals” is supposed to be a romantic interpretation of “1984”….
  4. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011) – A movie adaptation of John Le Carre’s spy novel (itself published 40 years ago, and first dramatised for TV 35 years ago when the Cold War was very much alive and kicking).
  5. “Foyle’s War” (2000-2013) – The latest episodes in this long-running TV detective series show our hero transitioning from investigating crime during war-time to the new world of espionage, counter-intelligence and Cold War intrigue.
  6. “The Hour” (2012-13) – This short-lived TV drama series was ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at a 1950’s news and current affairs programme, but uses the Cold War events like the Hungary uprising and the Suez Crisis as a backdrop (along with a healthy dose of “reds under the bed” which implicitly references the Soviet agent scandals that rocked the British establishment during the 1950’s and 1960’s and beyond – Burgess, Maclean, Philby, Blunt et al).
  7. “Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK” (2013) – Geoffrey Robertson delves into the truth behind the criminal prosecution and media castigation of a bit-player in the so-called Profumo Affair, which likely contributed to Ward’s suicide in 1963. The Profumo Affair of 1961 had it all – prostitution, Cold War politics and Soviet agents. And even though it led to the resignation of the UK’s War Minister, it has been suggested that the Establishment demanded scapegoats, and Ward was seen as a suitable victim.
  8. “Solo: A James Bond Novel” (2013) – William Boyd is the latest novelist to be invited to add to the Bond canon (original Bond author, Ian Fleming died 50 years ago), and chose to set the story in 1969 with a strong Cold War context. Boyd is, of course, no stranger to this genre – nearly all of his recent novels (“Any Human Heart”, “Restless”, “Waiting for Sunrise” and “Ordinary Thunderstorms”) incorporate elements of war-time espionage, betrayal, double agents and industrial sabotage that span the 20th century.
  9. “Sweet Tooth” (2013) – Ian McEwan uses the Cold War politics of the early 1970’s as the setting for his novel about love, trust, (self-)deception, “official” propaganda and bureaucratic betrayal.
  10. “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014) – Finally, bang up to date with a film version of the Tom Clancy novel. Clancy, who died only a few months ago, was a veritable Cold War warrior of the fiction world, and this latest addition to the Jack Ryan saga includes some (reassuring) Russian elements. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m sure it will satisfy my appetite for Cold War nostalgia.

* The events of the 1979 US embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, of course, were recently dramatised to great effect in “Argo” (2012). And just this month, The Atlantic described current US-Iran relations in Cold War terms.