The Saturday Paper’s editorial “The Australian Belligerence” (23 December, 2017) describes this belligerence as “a drunk speaking louder and louder to make the same point. Its senses are numbed, its reasoning diminished. It is angry at its impotence.” Anger is the dominant element in this unattractive syndrome (which can also be observed in other settler-colonial societies) but there are several others. The editorial focuses on the angry denial of Australian history, while also pointing to a broader set of problems. Sticking with anger for the moment, alongside the denial of history, we might note a refusal to face up to Australia’s present – the stubborn denial of our disgraceful treatment of the asylum-seekers holed up on Manus Island & Nauru; our persistent failure, ritually lamented every year, to make significant progress on Closing the Gap between indigenous & non-indigenous Australians; our mean-spirited treatment of welfare recipients; the creeping erosion of individual rights stressed in a 2015 Report of the Australian Law Reform Commission; our complicity in the violence perpetrated by our allies in Afghanistan, Iraq & Syria; and our de facto endorsement of Israel’s oppression of all Palestinians in easy reach of its military and its clear determination to create sufficient facts on the ground to undermine any prospect of a two-state solution.
Numbed senses clearly play a part in many of these cases. What of diminished reasoning? It would be hard to argue that Australian public life today exhibits a strong commitment to reasoned argument. The clearest examples of this difficulty concern the recent hounding of Sam Dastyari – essentially by the Government but with the eager complicity of our mainstream media. What Sam has done, besides his continuing allegiance to the NSW Labor Right, is: first, after allowing Chinese-owned businesses to take care of a few small bills a year or so back, he spoke out taking a sympathetic view of China’s stance in the South China Sea dispute; and, second, to warn a Chinese millionaire with close ties to China’s Government that their smart phones might be compromised – a personal security issue of which few regular users of the internet would be unaware. The response of politicians and media commentators to the first was to pay little attention to what Sam actually said (beyond noting that it conflicted with the policies both of the Government and his own Party) and, reading a temporal sequence as evidence of a causal relation, move on to accuse him of taking cash for comment; and to the second, to jump from what he is alleged to have said to the claim that he was undermining the sterling work of ASIO and even, as Peter Dutton asserted, that he was a double agent, working both for the people of NSW who had elected him and for the Chinese Government.
In one case, an opportunity for a much needed policy debate on how best to handle our relationships with both China and the USA was passed over in favour of the serious business of dumping on one’s political opponents, coupled with an apparently unquestionable devotion to our long-standing alliance with America. My point here is simply to note the failure to engage with Dastyari’s argument not to defend what he had to say – frankly, I thought his points were pretty amateurish. In the other case, we saw daring leaps from flimsy evidence to hard conclusions. But in neither case did political or media commentary display any commitment to, or even interest in, the principles of reasoned argumentation. If anything, what came to the fore was a contrary commitment, to the principle that if you say something forcefully and often enough, it will be accepted as true – not so much post- as pseudo-truth, a principle nicely satirised (in the figure of the Bellman) in Lewis Carroll’s classic poem The Hunting of the Snark – which is all that matters for the purposes of political combat. This last point leads me to suggest that, while they operate in different registers, a distrust of, if not contempt for, reason may be as important a part of the Australian Belligerence as the denial of history.