Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Who creates the sort of society we live in?

Lindsay Tanner can't help but blame the media in his recent book; "Sideshow - dumbing down democracy".

He's right, but at this column attempts to suggest there are a few other culprits as well, politicians especially . . .

(PS - Why does the esteemed Henry Rosenbloom, Publisher of Scribe, INSIST on not using Capitals for words that should be capitalised. such as "Dumbing Down Democracy"?)

Some very energized Britishers are desperately attempting to prove that the Royal Wedding has actually changed the country. According to these overexcited people the event has provided a basis for lifting the United Kingdom out of recession. One frenzied economist even tried to suggest that the “entire mood” has changed and was now providing a basis for moving forward into the new millennium.
Pointing enthusiastically to the “fact” that some three million people are estimated to have traipsed the streets of London to watch the wedding procession travelling past, those who want to boost the event will be poring over the latest data and attempting to extrapolate meaning from unconnected events.
According to these people, society moves as a whole. It is a single beast, united by the media. The reality is otherwise. Our parents generation did stand on the streets to watch the Queen go by; we watched Princess Diana on the television. Today, certainly in my family, young people had other things to do on a Friday night. Our society is fracturing. It no longer makes sense to attempt to generalise about its mood in a meaningful way.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. The media, in particular, thrives on the idea of emphasising the common ground that unites us. So do the politicians. It’s an image that, by and large, we’re happy to accept, however that doesn’t mean it’s reality. Gradually, slowly, we learn as individuals that we have an existence beyond the classroom, or the workspace, together with its many burdens and the expectations of society. Negotiating this space successfully is the key to our own inner illumination. Society, and particularly the media, even with the pomp and ceremony accompanying a royal wedding, won’t provide meaning for us. We need to create it for ourselves.
British Prime Minister David Cameron appears to understand that calculating happiness requires more than a quick calculation of the amount of gold and silver someone possesses. He’s attempting to establish a new measure that will gauge Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It’s easy to ridicule this as a simple attempt to shift the goalposts so that the UK can actually win at something. The idea is sensible, nonetheless. Cameron’s announcement reflects an obvious truth: although wealth can be associated with happiness, anyone can live a good life. Just because a wedding is televised to millions around the globe doesn’t necessarily mean that marital bliss will result. The easy media message – the fairytale, in which the happy couple ride off in a magic carriage into the middle distance – doesn’t necessarily reflect reality. We need to create our own meaning, instead of relying upon society to create it for us. The question is: how has it been possible for us, as a society, to lose touch with the fundamentals of a happy, good, life?
Former Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner examines this from a slightly different perspective in a provocative new book, “Sideshow – dumbing down democracy”. He argues that the popular media is driving political debate to its lowest common denominator. Central to everything is “an entertainment frame which has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues”. This means that individuals act rationally, in pursuit of their own interests, but he argues that the net result is the loss of serious analysis about the hard choices that need to be taken to push us in the right direction as a country.
Tanner’s case is bolstered with anecdotes and examples over the past decade. The “media” makes for a nice, slow-moving target. Few could argue that, despite the diversity of the Internet, that the quality or diversity of political deliberations has improved over the past few years. Tanner will not criticise Labor, but it’s difficult not to conclude that his own party has played a central role in encouraging this trivialisation.
When Tanner retired from politics last year his seat was won by the Greens. After just three years of Labor voters in that area decided they wanted a party that stood for genuine action on climate change (as, to be fair, did Tanner himself) rather than the laughable notion of some sort of “People’s Parliament” that Julia Gillard ended up taking to the election. It’s quite possible to take exactly the same anecdotes that Tanner uses to come up with an excoriating indictment of the advertising industry; the party-pollsters; or (perhaps even more accurately) the politicians themselves, and simply depicting the media as a helpless player on the sideline.
All the major newspapers (and particularly this one!) carry op-ed pages that attempt to deal seriously with the substantive issues of the day. But this is not to dismiss Tanner’s important message because it taps into an important issue that we are going to have to confront sooner rather than later. Although the mining boom has cushioned the economy, our former paradigms for growth are beginning to fray at the edges.
Australia has prospered, through the years, by the creative implementation of a couple of fairly simple strategies. The first was strategic, and involved picking a major power (first the British Empire, then the US) that would guarantee our security. The second was economic, and involved either growing or digging up all materials that could be sent overseas. Despite many promises that the country can be developed into a sophisticated “knowledge nation”, the reality remains that the political class have found it much easier simply to allow people to benefit from the increasing pie of economic growth rather than attempting to transform the way wealth is created.
This means it becomes impossible to wean ourselves away from the simple message of the advertisers — consume more, and your life will be better. Despairing of the current system (or blaming different parts of it) won’t be enough to set us off in the right direction.
When Kevin Rudd took over Labor’s leadership he pledged to confront the difficult issues. Voters grew disillusioned with the party at almost the exact time it abandoned dealing with the substantive policy issues. Royal weddings, bells and circuses all play a palliative role in keeping us happy, but we need more to genuinely add to our sum total of happiness.

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