Thursday, August 30, 2012


The invention of the internet was supposed to usher in a blossoming of knowledge.

Instead it appears to have strengthened the voices of ignorance, as this column from yesterdays Canberra Times suggests . . .


Here’s a simple rule if you want to get noticed in today’s Australia. Don’t worry about how much you might actually know or have thought about an issue: just go in hard and outrageous. Volume is all that counts. Shocking people is better than saying nothing at all. And there’s no need to concern yourself about ‘blowback’. The media cycle moves so quickly that by tonight your contribution will have been forgotten.

Civil society has never faced a greater threat. The ill-informed pass as knowledgeable; those who merely channel and focus the ignorant attitudes of others are lauded as opinion-leaders. Who’s to blame? Well, amongst others, politicians and journalists. We barely make an effort to sift through the detritus of screaming commentary to find the truth.

Take the ABC. At one time the broadcaster used to pride itself on accuracy. Today, programs like the Drum regularly blur the line between opinion and news. The views of anyone within reach of a microphone are treated as worthwhile, ‘expert’ opinions, regardless of what they actually know about a particular subject.

Take last week’s Gruen Transfer for another example. This presents as a light-hearted yet somehow intellectual ‘take’ on the world of advertising. Its presenters deconstruct the world around us using their specific expertise. The analysis works well – in advertising – but that’s the outermost reach of such scrutiny. Last week it was taken somewhere completely inappropriate. For some reason panel member Todd Sampson felt qualified to provide his analysis of why the Russian feminist protest band “Pussy Riot” were arrested (because the event went viral on twitter, forcing the government to act). Then he confirmed he had absolutely no idea what had occurred.  “It will do a brilliant job for the band and album sales”, he opined. A serious political protest is reduced to nothing more than a laugh-line. Another jumbled pastiche of uninformed comment surges into the public sphere.

This is why Professor Hugh White’s recent book considering the strategic relationship between China and America, The China Choice, is so useful. It serves as an extended, logical argument about the (inevitable) decline of US influence relative to the (rapid) rise of China. Despite some hysterical, almost breathless, screams of fury accompanying the book’s launch, nobody sensible is challenging the crux of White’s thesis: the military balance in our region is changing. The informed commentary focuses rather on the nuance of how this might occur.

The most cogent critique comes from one of White’s exact predecessors in both defence and academe. Like White, Professor Paul Dibb crafted one of our Defence White Papers and has played a key role at the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Unlike White, Dibb’s intellectual background is informed by insights developed from embracing a geographical perspective to illuminate the way the world works. He emphasises technological and cultural factors, such as regional concerns at the way Beijing is exercising its new strategic weight, acting as a further check on the way China may act in future.

Launching the book at parliament last week Malcolm Turnbull added his own caveat: there’s no need for formal recognition – a treaty, if you like – to resolve tensions between the two superpowers. He believes there are other ways to ensure the changing dynamic doesn’t accidently spiral out of control with tragic consequences.

Note the way everyone has brought their own specific expertise to the debate. Turnbull, the lawyer, possesses an intimate understanding of the problems of contract law. He sees no benefit in resorting to documents, urging the new reality be accommodated in other ways. Dibb, the geographer, notes that if the tectonic plates may be shifting, they’re certainly not moving at anything like the speed White suggests. Yet the progenitor’s role in the intellectual debate has also been critical. Trained at Oxford in philosophy he cogently reasons a case, which is then developed with all the force of his later training as a journalist.

So far, so good. Intelligent discussion on a significant matter of public policy. Then the screaming banshees arrive, yelling down anyone who seeks to challenge their world-view. Bizarrely, last week the loudest voice belonged to the US Assistant Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell. He rejected “out of hand” White’s “foolhardy” and “false assessments” that were “inaccurate and overwrought”. Pardon? Exactly who’s sounding tense and overexcited now?

More calmly, Campbell asserted “no country has taken more trouble to engage with China” than the US (which serves as a pithy yet correct assessment of Australia’s failure to develop our own bi-lateral relationship with Beijing). Hyperbole aside, it’s difficult not to accept much of what the Assistant Secretary had to say. The issue is rather that he felt it was necessary to assert it in the first place. A relaxed superpower doesn’t feel the need to intervene in domestic squabbles at such a high tempo. Perhaps there may be something more to White’s assertions, after all.

America, and our gushing government, is certainly acting to ensure Australia remains ever more tightly locked into the alliance’s embrace. Ever since Julia Gillard’s impersonated an excited and eager schoolgirl as she addressed the US Congress, Canberra has made it clear it is utterly uninterested in any alternative way of dealing with the world. Just last week US Ambassador Jeff Bleich stood alongside Stephen Smith as the Defence Minister announced we were buying an upgrade kit for our (US made) Super Hornet jets. Our links with America remain as secure as the knowledge that there’ll be a couple of US-made sit-coms on TV tonight.

Ultimately it’s the politicians who are most responsible for this dumbing-down of political discourse. The financial travails of the mainstream media, together with editorial willingness to obsess over momentarily exciting froth of celebrity gossip, are leaving community discourse in a fragile state.  As we become isolated into islands of anomie the public sphere shrinks.

That’s why the real choice isn’t between Beijing and Washington – it’s between a thoughtful, analytical life or one dominated by intellectual slothfulness and lived in ignorance. We won’t have a vibrant society unless people are prepared to shake off the glib complacency that inhabits so much of our intellectual life today. 


  1. The interesting contrast was the speech delivered a couple of months ago by Malcolm Fraser delivering the 2012 Whitlam Oration and specifically looked at the US-Australia relationship criticising the way in which the current policy has locked Australia into US interests at the expense of an independent relationship with China. Julia Gillard's speech to the US Congress was embarrassing, the more so given most of the people seated in the chamber were staffers and others roped-in to fill up the seats. John Howard was not much better with his 'deputy sheriff' to the US statement. Really appalling servile behaviour.

  2. Excellent diagnosis of the symptoms, however, I do not believe it is the fault of the politicians or the journalists. In my humble opinion, we live in an era of information overload, and in an era where one has ten seconds or less to convey a message . For example, in seeking to expose what I believe to be suspicious financial activities involving Jeff Bleich, I resorted to "story telling" in hope of capturing an audience. The long and short of it, convenient circumstances create the impression that Bleich and other engaged in shenanigans in order to cause the election of Barack Obama.