Home > Oz Politics > One Cheer for John Howard (guest post from Jack Strocchi)

One Cheer for John Howard (guest post from Jack Strocchi)

August 31st, 2004

Following up Brian Bahnisch’s guest post, I’m presenting another from Jack Strocchi. It should be obvious that I don’t agree with Jack’s view of Howard as a Straussian/Machiavellian, telling “Noble Lies” to lead us all to his vision of tolerance. But I’ll leave it to others to make up their own minds.

I found the discussion of Brian’s post very interesting. Jason Soon has some more thoughts, with which I broadly agree, though I’d concede that excessively narrow utilitarianism can lead to the kinds of moral blindness pointed to by Brian.

I congratulate Brian B. on his eloquent plea for Australian citizens to show more “care of strangers”. I, as the son of a migrant who fled a ravaged Europe in the aftermath of tyranny and war, deeply sympathise with his call for more fellow-feeling for those distress. His words radiate the spirit of humanitarian concern, so beautifully expressed in Rabbi Hillel’s poem:

If I am only for myself, what am I?

But I cannot bring myself to endorse Brian B.’s, and Pr Q’s, general political critique of the Howard governments alien settlement policy. Brian B.’s position contains the necessary soft-hearted moral sensibility. But it lacks a hard-headed political rationality.

the battle between the political head and personal heart is an age-old problem in moral philosophy. Frank Knopfelmacher, citing pacifism as a paradigm case of “principled unpragmatism”, used to argue that


There is such a thing as a moral
[lly] coherent empirical absurdity.

The cognitive dissonance generated by this moral conflict is causing our Cultural Elites to experience a weird political neurosis. There is now a chorus of voices, including that of our own Pr Q’s, raised to demonise John Howard as a liar, racist and scourge of humanity.

I find the Howard-hating thesis to be an ahistoric, hyperbolic and counter-empiric. The evidence for this orchestrated campaign of vilification is unpersuasive. It is an ungracious valedictory for a man who, at the rate he is going, is unlikely to make it into our storehouse of Living National Treasures

The demonisation of Howard’s cultural policies ignores the politico-historical context of Australia’s recent cultural conflicts. The asylum-seeker problem arose as part of a broader institutional-political struggle for the soul of the Australian polity. Howard has waged, with occasional misadventures and misspeakings, a systematic campaign against the more pernicious forms of these ideological nonsenses.

To restore balance I propose that, before Howard shuffles off the stage of public life, progressive politicos find it within themselves to celebrate his contributions to our culture. I don’t anticipate a full-throated roar. Raising one ragged cheer will do.

But first we must set the record straight. Howard’s cultural policies have been trivialised as “wedge politics” designed to play to the prejudices of suburban bogons and rural rednecks.

This implies that the cultural conservative view is axiomatically illegitimate. I beg to differ. Howard has restored some order to institutions that were rocked to their foundations by the Cultural Left’s long, and Great-Disruptive, “march through the institutions” during the sixties and seventies. The Cultural Left had a divisive agenda which was leading us down the not-very-rosy garden path to civic anomie, autarchy and anarchy.

Then there is the critique of Howard’s personal character and professional mode. Acres of wood pulp have been darkened, and banks of cathode screens are being pixel-sprayed, with endless tales of Howard’s petty deceits and grand machinations.

One can wearily acknowledge Howard’s political lies (I’m shocked! Shocked!). And one must deplore his politicisation of the Civil Service profession. The GG and the PS should go back to being faceless and opinionless.

Yet, as Auden hinted at in his call to arms, there is a darker veil of ignorance drawn, and web of deceit woven, around much bigger sources of our civic woes. And this is by the very thinkers entrusted to safeguard our cultural institutions:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad…
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie

Howard has got some crowd-pleasing runs on the board. Think of some of the mad, bad and sad ideas that our Cultural Leftists would be pursuing had they not received Howard’s 1996 and 2001 double-whammy:

Can this Devil’s reputation be Salvaged? I think it can, but first we must be prepared to get off our high moral horses and take a close look at the rocky political ground we have traversed. A certain amount of grubby political chiseling is required to appreciate Howard’s mine of precious civic gems.

We might contrast Rabbi Hillel’s humanitarian formulation with Mr Howard’s apparently chauvinistic construction:

we will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come

How can these apparently contradictory positions be reconciled?

Part of the answer lies in the second half of the Rabbis triplet, which asks what kind of person is fit to be of moral consequence:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

The stronger you are, the more secure you are in your identity, the more good you can do. Over the naughties Howard has, militarily, economically and civically, strengthened this nation both in quantity of resources and quality of relations. His personal hard-headedness, and professional skill, has put this nation into a politically soft-hearted zone.

A new poll has found Australians are now more willing to accept asylum seekers than at the time of the last election.
The Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper today found 61 per cent of voters want at least some asylum seekers arriving by boat to be allowed to enter Australia.

This has already had a liberalising effect on asylum-seeker policy. Howard has, following a more “relaxed and comfortable” attitude in the community, softened the Party line on asylum-seekers:

Thousands of refugees on temporary protection visas will be allowed to stay permanently in Australia, after federal cabinet agreed to a radical overhaul of the Government’s asylum seeker rules yesterday…
The change of heart has been made possible, however, by the reduction in the number of boat people arriving over the last three years.

Only Nixon could have gone to China. Only Howard could have restored Asian immigration to high levels, and still retained public confidence in a lawful alien settlement scheme. The Coalition Minister for Multiculturalism highlighted out the cross-wired political effect on public attitudes to migration:

new research by his department showed that when the Coalition came to power in 1996,
65 per cent of people thought migration was a negative.
“Now 65 per cent think it’s a positive,”

Howard, up until the mid-nineties, was losing the battle for civic determination of cultural institutions. Keating performed the invaluable service of formally declaring the Culture War. Howard won the 1996 election with a resounding mandate for a conservative cultural-populist policy. Howard’s cultural populism, not Hewson’s economic rationalism, was the beginning of the real “fight-back”.

Then, in 1999, the Culture War was overshadowed by a Shooting War. It was apparent, from the reaction to the Timorese intervention, that the Political Elite’s mantra of “Asian engagement”, and disparagement of the US alliance, was a dangerous fantasy. National survival still required an ANZUS sword to go with DFAT covenants. 

But Howard got no credit from the Cultural Elite for his liberation of Timor. And the Political Elite traduced Howard for standing up to the Javanese Imperialists. The Cultural Elites continued to dug in their heels.

So, in 2001, Howard escalated the Culture War to militant levels of force. He chose the arrival of the Tampa to fight the decisive battle. It was, as Stalin used to say, “no accident” that Howard used the SAS and RAN to execute this policy.

The “enemy without”, to some racists Australians, were the asylum-seekers. But, to many Australians, the asylum-seekers were innocent civilians who suffered (regrettable but reparable) “collateral damage” in the course of the cultural conflict.

The real targets of Howard’s militancy were the “enemy within”, the institutionalised Cultural Elites, the HREOC’s, the ATSICS, the ALP ethnic lobby et al. All those well-intentioned “nice guys” whose ideological announcements and institutional arrangements had led us to this unpretty cultural pass.

And then, out of the blue, 911 hit. This, for me and many others, spelled the end of the fashionable ideologies of pee-cee and multi-culti. No longer can anyone kid themselves that all other ways of life are all equally worthy.


the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade

So, in 2001, like many other social democrats, I bit the bullet and voted for Howard. Swallowing his deceitful verbalisations and tolerating his abusive incarcerations was not something that gave me a warm inner glow I grant. But some lesser evil had to be done to stop the rot.

The Machiavellian politician kept up his end of the statesmans bargain. Even if he loses this election he has, using nasty political methods to achieve nice policy results, won the Culture War.

Howard’s policy legacy includes a high and diverse flow immigrants, most-all of the genuine refugees are being freed and cared for and the people-smuggler boats, which used to sink without trace, no longer make the dangerous journey.

Politics is now more about institutional substance than ideological style. Real funding of Aboriginal social policy is up 30 percent since 1996.

Even Howard’s most dubious decision, participating in the US attack on Iraq, has had a beneficial effect on the polity. We have paid-back the favour owed to the US for assisting us in E Timor and have <a href=http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/03/02/1078191324438.html>strengthened the US alliance.

Howard’s political legacy is equally impressive: a Hansonite-less L/NP and Theophanoid-less ALP. The leader of the ALP is a cultural conservative and not beholden to faction or lobby.

Howard deserves some credit for his recovery of Australia’s Vital Centre. Instead the knives are out and he is being hounded off the public stage by intellectuals who should know better.

Brian B. is right in one respect: it is essential to our humanity that we offer a safe haven to those in distress. But Howard is right in another, equally crucial, respect: we need to make sure that the haven stays safe and not turn into the kind of place that refugees are fleeing.

we can now answer to Rabbi Hillel’s final query

If not Now, When?

The Australian polity, after a generation of cultural bickering, is ready to achieve Desmond Manderson’s noble vision of offering sanctuary to those who depend on the kindness of strangers:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

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  1. MarkWW
    August 31st, 2004 at 11:43 | #1

    Does Jack actually have an opinion of his own, or has he outsourced his entire view on cultural politics out to Paul Sheehan? Either way, its one man’s opinion, one man’s interpretation of recent history, one man’s ongoing war against those horrible, nasty elites. If Jack and anyone else wants to buy it, they can. I happen to think its a blinkered vision crowded with over-generalisations. A bit like the Blayney Boyer Lectures.

  2. Richard O
    August 31st, 2004 at 12:31 | #2

    Mark WW,

    Well I for one reckon Jack has summed up my own feelings about Howard and the elites exactly. I can remember the general feeling of unease I felt throughout the late eighties and especially during the Keating years. In my mind Australia was heading in a direction I definitely did not like.

  3. August 31st, 2004 at 13:39 | #3

    Jack,

    I couldn’t agree more with you about the long-term destructive effect of “the Cultural Left’s long . . . march through the institutions during the sixties and seventies”. Only I thought that the great mass of these participants have long since crossed over to the Thatcherist/fundamentalist Right – or at least raised the white flag (which is pretty much the same thing, IMO).

    In other words, you are defending Howard by resorting to a straw man. The remnants and straggling hardliners of the baby boomer political Left have petered out since the mid-90s, due to house-price inflation and other lifestyle-kickers (for them, anyway) – all factors that Howard had nothing to do with, in a direct, cultural-interventionist sense.

    As for the future (which is what really matters anyway, to quote the PM), I don’t disagree with you that the major parties have both converged on the centre. But how is such unofficial bipartisanship a good thing – even remotely – for democracy?

  4. Jason Soon
    August 31st, 2004 at 14:07 | #4

    interesting to find this convergence in 60s-bashing between a faux-’lefty’ who is in substance a Buchananite cultural warrior and a baby-boomer basher. can someone explain exactly what the hell was so bad about the 60s?

  5. Jason Soon
    August 31st, 2004 at 15:02 | #5

    allow me to elaborate – opposition to censorship, opposition to dull provincialism (see Donald Horne’s critique), opposition to that stupid pointless war in Vietnam, opposition to the whole picket fenced complacency about restrictive, traditional roles for non-mainstream groups, a flourishing in acceptance of diversity and experimental lifestyles, a widere awareness of the broader world. so which of these didn’t you like about the 60s, Jack ‘Norman Rockwell’ Strocchi?
    and frustrating the ability of the Tampa to come to shore for as long as possible, making an international embarrassment of Australia when ultimately even if they were allowed to land you could send them back anyway if they didn’t meet the right criteria – this pointless grandstanding was all a necessary part of your cultural war? people could have actually died at sea in the meantime, and Howard would have had blood on his hands.

  6. Paul Norton
    August 31st, 2004 at 15:11 | #6

    “Think of some of the mad, bad and sad ideas that our Cultural Leftists would be pursuing had they not received Howard’s 1996 and 2001 double-whammy:

    “Aboriginal separatists would still be dividing ATSIC’s spoils;
    “feminist spinsters would be hogging the bureaucracy’s bully-pulpit;
    “ethnic lobbyists would engage in even more uninhibited stacking of ALP branches;
    “Minimal Republicans would still be pursuing their time-wasting fetish
    “Kiwi-style isolationists would be weakening our strategic defences
    “Jakarta-Lobbying appeasers would be consolidating the misery of the E Timorese.”

    What do you mean, Jack? Which specific policies and stances of the so-called “cultural left” are you referring to by this string of cliches? For that matter, which specific individuals, media and organisations of the “Cultural Left” advocated such policies? What alternative approach would you advocate on these specific cases?

    On the fourth point, Howard actually indulged the minimalist republicans very generously with his conduct of the Constitutional Convention in 1998 and the preceding ballot in 1999. It is an insufficiently remember fact that the Australian Republican Movement and its friends were quite happy with Howard’s commitment, at the end of the ConCon, to put their preferred option to a referendum.

    On the sixth point, appeasement of the Indonesian occupiers of East Timor was never supported by any section of the Left (cultural or otherwise) and was most ardently championed by the Right (in both Liberal and Labor variants).

    As for the other points, unless Jack responds to my challenge in the first par of this comment, they stand as a textbook case of right-wing death bestiality.

    P.S. How did Howard’s electoral success in 1996 and 2001 inhibit the practice of branch-stacking in the ALP?

  7. August 31st, 2004 at 15:31 | #7

    Jack: I agree that if we dismiss Mr Howard’s moments of untruthfulness, and his systematic destruction of the independence of the public service, there are aspects of his prime ministership that deserve credit. And if we also dismiss the handouts to his brother and business friends, turning genuine refugees into pawns of his ideological games, taking Australia into war on a pretext he should have known was false, and so forth, it looks even better to me.

    I hope you’ll understand then, if I reserve the rose coloured glasses until after John Howard “shuffles off,” at which point I will have no objection to according him the respect due to any ex-Prime Minister, including placing him on display in the middle of the National Treasure museum.

  8. August 31st, 2004 at 15:40 | #8

    “Can someone explain exactly what the hell was so bad about the 60s?”

    In a nutshell, someone forgot to ask “THEN what?” at a 1968 sit-in – or more likely, of course, the question was asked, but the matter was allowed to quietly lapse.

    As for Jason’s list of good things that, more or less, emerged from the 60s I’m with Jack (I’m assuming) in that all of these could/would have since been achieved anyway, and with much less fuss/social disruption – i.e. more *sustainably*.

    As Theodore Roszak has written in “The Making of a Counter Culture” http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/6642.html , the 60s’ cultural revolution was only possible because of the exceptional affluence of the times. As soon as things got economically rocky (1973), if not sooner (the disastrous ultra-left McGovern Democratic campaign of 1972), the idealists basically packed up and went home (to “Mum” Thatcher, or her pre-1979 prototype, I would add).

    Oh, and they didn’t bother cleaning up their mess, either. Meanwhile, things economic have teetered ever since 1973, under which conditions a whole new generation, or more, of the Left has had to grow up under and adjust to – a task made harder by the Boomer Ameliorationist Project clutter still insisting things were getting better, when they plainly (and especially since 1990) were not. But that’s life – up to a point. Personally, I’d trade every single civil right which the 60s may-or-may-not-have won for a (decent) job.

  9. James Farrell
    August 31st, 2004 at 15:48 | #9

    For those impressed by the above, and wishing to emulate it, here are six easy steps to writing your own Jack Strocchi post.

    1. List a miscellany of things nobody likes, being sure not to omit branch stacking, bribery and corruption.

    2. Invoke a cariacature of a muddle-headed, irresponsible, grant-hungry, postmodernist, patronising ‘cultural lefty’. Most of us know someone a bit like that, but even if not, he is a well-known figure from decades of Paddy McGuinness columns.

    3. Blame the outrages in (1) on the character from (2). You may need to do this several hundred times before the connection is etched in people’s minds. But it’s worth the investment if you can pull it off.

    4. State your view on the issue of the day, e.g. Howard was right to keep the refugees out.

    5. Brand anyone who disagress with your views in (5) as a ‘cultural lefty’. This identifies your opponent as the clown in (2), who through the logic in (3) is also an apologist for the scandals in (1). This spares you from the labour of actually defending your position.

    6. Put in as many lists of bulleted points as possible to give the effect you have a lot of arguments, even if individually they are far fetched, and put in plenty of links, to create an impression of extensive research.

  10. Harry Clarke
    August 31st, 2004 at 21:14 | #10

    I enjoyed Jack’s posting and think he is right. I am also pleased that John Q allowed this contrary posting to be made — and surprised given the strength of John Q’s recent attacks on Howard.

    John Howard is about substance not about dramatic gestures. Australian’s do welcome immigrants more warmly because they believe Australians are in control of immigration policy rather than some corrupt politicians trying to buy ethnic votes.

    The aboriginal situation will improve because a philosophy of self-help has become part of the national debate rather than the handout charity attitude. This is a sea-change in view that will survive even if the Libs lose these elections because progressive aboriginal leaders know it is the only way forward.

    The abuse and hatred directed at John Howard provided relief to the angry left and the Robert Manne right but convinced few of those to change their assessment who previously supported him.

    Howard is a tough-minded Burkean conservative whose biggest fault has been to become so successful.

  11. James Farrell
    August 31st, 2004 at 22:06 | #11

    I guess you’re right, Harry. Australians are in control of immigration policy. The rot has been cut out. We can all breathe easier.

  12. Factory
    August 31st, 2004 at 22:20 | #12

    I think the main problem is that JH used the refugee issue to win an election, not to change the face of immigration, that was just a side effect, and was prolly unintended.

    OTOH I think Howard did a rather good job in dealing with our local neighbours, the only blemish I can see was the ‘America’s Deputy’ interview.

  13. Brian Bahnisch
    August 31st, 2004 at 23:49 | #13

    I’d like to thank Jack for an interesting post, written with considerable eloquence, which I enjoyed. The poetry was beautiful and beautifully used. It would be no surprise to him though that I disagree with his summative judgement.

    I would be more than pleased to find some upside in the dark years of Howard’s rule and Jack’s interpretation can sit there along with the many others that hopefully will soon be able to take an historical perspective on his years. Meanwhile I hope the transcript of Judith Brett’s recent chat with Terry Lane will appear in due course.

    A few comments would be in order.

    On Howard hating, I find hate and anger corrosive and destructive emotions. Better to save your emotional energy for something else. If hate you must, then hate what he does rather than the man himself.

    Only Howard could have restored Asian immigration to high levels, and still retained public confidence in a lawful alien settlement scheme.

    You may have identified one positive there, Jack, and indeed it may have been easier for Howard. I can’t believe, though, that no other person could have done it.

    And if so it is too high a price to pay. Howard has told more than a few noble or harmless lies. He has on three matters, children overboard, Manildra and Iraq, mislead both the people and the parliament in a deliberate and premeditated way. If Parliament had resumed this week he would have done it again.

    Howard has made himself and his interests synonymous with those of the Liberal Party. While proclaiming liberal values he has moved to subvert them. He has been intolerant of dissenting voices both within his government and elsewhere. He has engaged in cynical pork-barrelling on an unprecedented scale. He has turned his face against harm minimisation in drug programs, almost certainly thereby consigning some addicts to the cemetry. He has cynically neglected to call off his attack dogs, for example with Justice Kirby.

    There is more, but I see him as a power-oriented opportunist with few redeeming features.

    On the economy, when he began cutting back R&D and ‘corporate welfare’ programs and winding back university funding I predicted that the economy would do better for a while, but we would pay the price later. The consumer-led growth has been stronger and longer than I anticipated, but I’m still worried about what Peter Brain has termed the deindustrialisation or pastoralisation of the economy.

    On our institutions and the cultural left, I was a young man in the 1960s. The 60s and 70s (until the Dismissal) were times of burgeoning diversity and hope, slowly snuffed out by neoliberalism, managerialism and conformist consumption. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of prudent conservatism, but Howard is radical and in some ways reactionary rather than conservative.

    On asylum seekers, the change and softening in attitude has come not from Howard, but inspite of him, as we became aware of the human face of the suffering of asylum seekers in Australia. Amanda Vanstone may be softening, but only because of the lobbying of a rural constituency desperate for labour in certain industries.

    Julian Burnside has probably had more positive effect on attitudes than Howard.

    One likely outcome of the Tampa incident is that commercial ships from then on would be even more likely to sail on by in these waters.

    Finally, Manderson’s message was not that we need a healthy dose of compassion to balance more hard-headed and rational policies. He was suggesting, I think, that we have an existential solidarity with those lacking entitlements within our polity by virtue of their humanity and our humanity. This is not a bit of altruism thrown in “from the depths of our autonomy” but rather “their otherness is the very condition of our existence”. That is the starting place of our policy considerations. Once they present in their full humanity, once they choose us, hospitality is our duty and our predicament.

    What Howard and Ruddock were seeking to achieve was to present ourselves in such a way that no person, however desperate, would ever choose to seek refuge with us. They will get no thanks from me for having succeeded.

  14. Harry Clarke
    September 1st, 2004 at 03:49 | #14

    I take issue with a comment in Brian’s post which points to John Howard’s policies on harm minimisation with respect to illegal drug use. It’s a small part of the post but illustrates the way criticisms of Howard are often ideological not logical.

    Reducing the ‘user costs of heroin use’ (harm-minimisation via safe injectionm rooms or public provision of heroin) has similar effects to reducing the price of heroin. It encourages use. This is Howard’s claim. Thus opposing such measures reduce’s heroin use as do supply-oriented enforcement measures by raising price. There are limitations to this view (just how difficult do you make it for users?) but it is just unfair to emotively characterise Howard’s policies as ‘consigning some addicts to the cemetry’. Moreover I think careful economic analysis supports Howard’s claims.

    Brian you make the usual claim that hatred is nasty and so on but make remarks like that just quoted and claim Howard is ‘a power-oriented opportunist with few redeeming features’. I am unconvinced that you are not doing what you say you reject.

    On Jame’s quip about immigration policy. Come off it James. Public acceptibility of immigration, particularly from Asia, has improved under Howard. Certainly better policy outcomes than crybaby Hawke’s pandering to blowouts in the family program in order to tieup the ethnic vote in the large cities. Australians were not racist towards Asians — their intolerance was to politicians seeking to turn Australia’s immigration policy into a social experiment that came from the top down and which frightened them.

  15. Jason Soon
    September 1st, 2004 at 09:31 | #15

    Harry
    I think Brian’s comments on drugs policy is a fair point. A choice to prefer ‘tough on drugs’ to ‘harm minimisation’ is a choice to take the risk with existing users’ lives (by forcing them to procure and consume their drugs under black market conditions) in order to reduce growth on consumption of drugs (by reducing opportunities for non-users to become users) and perhaps over the long run by making consumption so difficult for existing users that they choose to quit – if they don’t die first. So you’re both right – I can’t deny that a harm minimisation approach may lead to increased consumption – whether that is a bad thing or a worthy objective is precisely what is at issue. My own view based on my knowing people who do engage in consumption of illicit drugs on a regular basis is that some drugs are more dangerous than others, that these truly dangerous drugs are in the minority, that most illicit drugs are no more debilitating when carefully used than some current legal drugs and that this is not a legitimate policy concern for knowingly putting users’ lives at risk.

  16. Brian Bahnisch
    September 1st, 2004 at 10:48 | #16

    Harry, we disagree about drug policy and harm minimisation and probably will continue to do so. When the issue was live I listened to endless debates and discussion, reports from Switzerland etc on the radio before forming a conclusion. Having come to that conclusion it is difficult to write about one’s summative view in brief without including some emotion, which btw I welcome in others rather than trying to adopt detached tones at all times.

    So it might sound like a cheap shot, but it’s not meant to be.

    Our youngest is 17 and drugs are always front of mind when you have teenagers. The best answer is preventative and lies in the work you put into the personal development of the young, and if any-one thinks that’s easy they are sadly deluded.

  17. Brian Bahnisch
    September 1st, 2004 at 11:23 | #17

    Harry, we disagree about drug policy and harm minimisation and probably will continue to do so. When the issue was live I listened to endless debates and discussion, reports from Switzerland etc on the radio before forming a conclusion. Having come to that conclusion it is difficult to write about one’s summative view in brief without including some emotion, which btw I welcome in others rather than trying to adopt detached and tones at all times.

    So it might sound like a cheap shot, but it’s not meant to be.

    Our youngest is 17 and drugs are always front of mind when you have teenagers. The best answer is preventative and lies in the work you put into the personal development of the young, and if any-one thinks that’s easy they are sadly deluded.

  18. Brian Bahnisch
    September 1st, 2004 at 11:33 | #18

    James, as wbb says, Jack Strocchi said “a national utilitarian ethic .. does not forbid exemplary deterrent measures”. The utilitarian argument of the greatest good for the greatest number has frequently been used in the context of asylum seekers and it’s where Manderson starts substantatively. In a lecture or two we had in philosophy on utilitarianism in my youth, almost the first thing mentioned was the problem of the tyranny of the many over the few arising from Bentham’s view. I don’t know a lot about him and he may have other attractive virtues.

    C8to, thanks for not being too cross with me about the formal misuse of “begs the question.” A faint alarm did ring in my head, which was not in good shape at the time, but not loudly enough. Please substitute “fails to address the question.”

    Could you enlighten us laypersons what you mean by the distinction between “act utilitarianism” and “rule utilitarianism.” I can’t second guess Manderson, but it may be useful to think of utilitarianism as a process that has no necessary content, as I think gordon and Jason do. In my youth I didn’t regard utilitarianism as philosophy at all for similar reasons.

    At a bare minimum the concept of ‘utility’ will always surely attach to utilitarianism. There is also no doubt that Manderson is associating individualism with utilitarianism. Rightly or wrongly so have I. Not, however, as in what Jason Soon referred to as the “rational indidividual maximiser model” but certainly privileging the individual and rationality. One need go no further than a text like Andrew Heywood’s “Political Ideologies” (2nd ed, Palgrave, 1998) to read that liberalism privileges individualism and reason as well as freedom, justice and toleration.

    Manderson is suggesting that the notion of the individual self is derived from an intersubjective social reality. He further suggests that this changes how we should see ourselves.

    I find this idea attractive, partly because I prefer the French Revolution values “liberty, equality, fraternity” to the American foundatiional values of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. As Mark Bahnisch has suggested elsewhere the gendered “fraternity” requires a different word, and suggested “solidarity”. Better, I think, if such solidarity is based on an existential solidarity which not only tolerates diversity but rejoices in it, than a solidarity of commonly held ideas or ideologies.

    Gordon raised the issue of how far we extend this affiliation or intersubjective solidarity, pointing out that there were two levels of aggregation, family and nation state, between us plus stranger and all of humanity. Manderson is only talking about the stranger in our midst (the voiceless needy within our society) or the one who presents from outside seeking help. I can’t second guess him on gordon’s issue.

    For myself, I’d prefer to think initially in preindustrial terms, tentatively because of lack of knowledge. Here I’d suggest the important groupings are a food gathering and sharing group and the tribe. These would seem to be the important ones for affiliative love and identity formation.

    In the modern world neither of these is as strong. We have very restricted food and resource sharing groups, roughly the immediate family. Nation states are not always coextensive with the ancient tribe.

    We have been successful as a species, I think, precisely because we have weak instincts and are adaptable to new circumstances. Nevertheless as a species we may have some inherent behaviour patterns that helped us survive a couple of ice ages in our modern form (plus a bit of luck, probably) which persist. Cooperative activity in the provision of shelter, safety and sustenance are examples of such persistent behaviour especially in the immediate family group, strengthened, it would appear, by affiliative love.

    What is new in our world is a dominant economic system that has core values of exploitation and greed with built in tendencies to authoritarianism and predation.

    Also new is a dissolving of time and space, not completely and not entirely new, but the degree of dissolution amounts perhaps to a paradigm shift. If so I’ve reinstated globalisation in my thinking.

    New too is the pressure humanity is putting on the earth’s natural systems and resources.

    For us there is still a common failure of imagination with respect to the ‘other’, so the other remains ‘other’. A failure of perception and imagination too in the nature of the problems facing our species on the planet.

    In these circumstances the ontological argument only goes so far. In other words even by recognising the intersubjective nature of our being we are unlikely to translate this into actions that embrace the needs of all. So then you have to choose whether you ought to do anything about it or just look after your own immediate sphere of transactability. You might decide that your most effective sphere of personal transactability is local, but we need to take an interest in how remote peoples in remote continents are getting along because we are in the end interconnected and their story is part of our story.

    But in any case gordon it is not OK to deny the distress of others to teach their persecutors to behave better. That again is using people instrumentally to their detriment, even through inaction.

  19. September 1st, 2004 at 12:32 | #19

    heh…sorry for being so pedantic brian…i actually accept that common use of begs the question is now “prompts the question”…unlike my more militant philosophy lecturers…

    the way to interpret the new form is as shorthand for “begs that this question be asked”…so all the philosophers can sleep at night…

    as for act versus rule utilitarianism, i characterise them as:

    * act utilitarianism: for each act (that an individual or government may take) one tries to evaluate what will create the greatest good for the greatest number

    * rule utilitarianism: you pick rules for a society (laws if you will) and for each rule you pick the one that if adhered to absolutely creates the greatest good for the greatest number in the society.

    note: both of these mean you have to consider other acts or other rules in making a decision.

    act utilitarianism allows finer control, but may be less stable and more complicated to follow. rule utilitarianism is more obtuse, but its easier to enforce and probably more stable.

    for individuals i recommend rule utilitarianism for most things, and act utilitarianism for the rare and large problems one encounters in life (eg. should i abort this child, should i kill this one person to save many)

    for governments, domestically they should obviously set laws and just stick to them, but as regards foreign policy, i think this is far too obtuse an instrument, and in the face of little to no international enforcement of order, if your following rules, and no-one else in the system is, you’re going to get taken advantage of.

  20. September 1st, 2004 at 12:37 | #20

    actually i want to emphasize for rule utilitarianism that you are actually selecting a set of rules which strongly influence each other and you should pick the utility maximizing set of rules.

    as another aside, i view libertarianism as utilitarianism where utility is liberty, not happiness. (for a great example of the difference, read brave new world)

  21. James Farrell
    September 1st, 2004 at 13:05 | #21

    “After fleeing Afghanistan for our lives, why did I and my children have to spend two years in a camp in Nauru, driven to despair, before being recognised as refugees, when hundreds of other people arrive by plane every year on student visas, apply on much flimsier grounds than mine for asylum when their visas expire, and are not incarcerated at all?”

    “Yes, I can see from your perspective it might seem a bit rough. But the thing is, there was this Labor immigration minister who kept giving discretionary immigration permits to people’s relatives so they would vote for his mates in preselections. And then there was a guy called Theophanous – you won’t believe what a creep he was – actually taking bribes to get people in here. We had to put a stop to that sort of thing, and sending you and your children to Nauru was the obvious method. Now, be reasonable, surely you must see that?”

    If that second person is a utilitarian, I’ll have to check whether I’ve been confusing utilitarian with machiavellian all these years.

  22. Brian Bahnisch
    September 1st, 2004 at 13:12 | #22

    Thanks c8to, that all makes sense.

    I had diabolical trouble posting comments this morning, retired from the scene and turned the machine off unaware that I had had some success.

    I think it’s got to do with Windows 98 and the virus checker, but I don’t know.

  23. Chris Borthwick
    September 1st, 2004 at 17:38 | #23

    Noting, though, that Auden in later life would take his book from people’s shelves and correct the last line of the poem, and of Strocchi’s post, to the logically superior

    We must love one another and die.

  24. wbb
    September 2nd, 2004 at 00:58 | #24

    WTF – “Only Howard could have restored Asian immigration to high levels” ?? This is a demonstrable falsity. The breakdown of origin of immigrants is available at DIMIA. Howard hasn’t “restored” Asian immigration to high (whatever that may mean) levels. And the constant conflation of general immigration with asylum seekers. Leave that to Steve Edwards please. Jack’s writing will always be entertaining but can become tedious with these more pedestrian contortions.

    (First time I’ve heard the “Jakarta lobby” described as leftists! Self-determination from colonial rule is such a hobby-horse of the right, too.)

    I prefer if Jack remain in the comments box, where he always manges to spur on the debate. It’s a bit disorienting to find him doing a guest post. Is it like Insiders getting on Bolt/Akerman just to show how balanced the ABC is?

    James Farrell puts it superbly and as it is.

  25. James Farrell
    September 2nd, 2004 at 01:06 | #25

    That’s spooky. I was mentioning you approvingly in the same instant on the other thread: a coincidence, I swear.

  26. September 2nd, 2004 at 02:18 | #26

    wbb at September 2, 2004 12:58 AM remarks

    First time I’ve heard the “Jakarta lobby” described as leftists! Self-determination from colonial rule is such a hobby-horse of the right, too


    It would be more accurate to call the Jakarta lobby the cream of the Political Elite, which includes Leftists, Centrists and Rightists.
    The Jakarta lobby and fellow travellers included some of the Brahmins of the Australian Left: Paul Keating, Richard Woolcott, Richard Butler, Gough Whitlam.
    It also included centrist and rightists. elements, eg Ashton Calvert and Greg Sheridan.
    I believe that many of the 43 “doddering daquiri sipping diplomats” who put their monikers onto the anti-Howard screed are being manippulated by the Jakarta Lobby, as payback for Howards triumph in East Timor.

  27. September 2nd, 2004 at 06:26 | #27

    call the Jakarta lobby the cream of the Political Elite, which includes Leftists, Centrists and Rightists.

    Australian prosperity later this century will come through Indonesia. That country will do a China before it becomes a “shop on the credit card” country like Australia is. At the moment Australia and Indonesia have roughly complementry economies, we should be pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with Indonesia, not the US.

    Australia investing into Indonesian prosperity through a FTA will give greater returns than an US FTA. Indonesia is making great steps towards maturing as a democracy and an economy. Australia ensuring that the region is stable and a “genuine” economic synergy between the nations will only increase the inter-dependance and ultimately the security.

    Keatings line of security within Asia rather than from it is very true IMO. The major Australian defence vulnerabilities are the north-west shelf, the timor sea and the coral sea. With a strong economic, cultural, diplomatic and defence relationship with Indonesia those vulnerabilities would be far less open to exploitation by outside entities.

    The main risk Indonesia faces is balkanization. East Timor has split off, though it was annexed in the 70′s. Irian Jira was annexed in the late 60′s. It doesnt look to have the same nationalism as East Timor did, but it isnt the safest or most secure place on the planet. Aceh has already been put down once recently.

    It is going to be up to Australia to provide a secure and stable environment for Indonesia to mature as a democracy and market economy. It will also require Australia to speed Indonesia’s path to prosperity. Roll out the FTA with Jakarta is the easiest way. Flood our universities with Indonesian students too.

    The anglosphere is political eugenics for those that dont truly want to be internationalists. It is eugenic isolationism with the appearance of internationalism. The sooner the facile “great and powerful friends” doctrine gets dumped the better, then Australia can truly focus on where it is vulnerable as a nation-state and take the defence, economic, diplomatic and cultural steps to remove those vulnerabilities. It all points to Indonesia.

  28. Gaby
    September 2nd, 2004 at 19:02 | #28

    I have been an avid reader of Professor Quiggin’s blog for the last couple of years. And this is my first comment in response to a post. So, first I should thank John for the pleasure, stimulation and teaching he has provided to me.

    But I have to say that after reading Jack Strocchi’s guest post I was left disquieted. . Generally, I find Jack’s comments to be interesting, to offer an unusual and at times unconventional perspective and to provide a broad and diverse range of references.

    I too am the son of refugees from WWII. My initial bias is that anyone prepared to risk an ocean crossing with his or her family is going to be highly motivated to succeed in their country of choice.

    I think that Jack is wrong, and wrong in a particularly pernicious way.

    Jack makes various statements about the causes of, or reasons for, various historical events that, prima facie, seem surprising. But I am not competent to properly evaluate the validity of his judgments. In any event to me they seem mere rhetorical flourishes and only tangentially relevant to his central case.

    The core of my objections relate to Jack’s moral reasoning. My point is that there is a better and more economical explanation for Howard’s actions.

    First, there is the implausibility of his claim that to have a humane detention policy and “to win the Culture War” required the lies of the Tampa and the callous rigour of the “island solution”. As he says, “some lesser evil had to be done to stop the rot”. This prescription is just silly. I don’t think any festering has stopped either.

    “[Howard] chose the arrival of the Tampa to fight the decisive battle”. “Decisive”? This strains credulity given Howard’s past as a politician in general and on Hansen and immigration in particular.

    He goes on to assert that 9/11, for him, “spelled the end of the fashionable ideologies (sic) of pee-cee and multi-culti”. Really? I think his reference to 9/11 is a clue to what he is really on about. And that is that “the world has changed”. A ‘War on Terror” has been declared, not by “us”, but by “them” who hate us our “freedoms”.

    Which in turn justifies “lies” proffered in support of a war prosecuted for our “protection”. As Jack seems to want to say, but doesn’t (Johnny’s “most dubious decision…has had a beneficial effect on the polity”).

    Against this I would urge that we are not in a war, but enmeshed in a state of “Creation of Fear”, being engendered by our politicians and their media and academic courtiers.

    Secondly, his post displays remarkable sophistry deploying a range of moral euphemisms such as “misspeakings”, “deceitful verbalisations”, “abusive incarcerations”, “ahistoric”, “hyperbolic” and “counter-empiric”. “What’s in a name?” What is wrong with the good old earthy “lie” for the two first mentioned? Or “illegal detention” for the last? Are “ahistoric”, “hyperbolic” and “counter-empiric” just words meaning wrong or false. This just attempts to hide the moral force of his reasoning. I feel that it is deliberately obscurantist and evasive.

    Finally, his reasoning is all about consequences, not about the morality of the means or even their utility in achieving the desired consequences, ostensibly a “soft hearted” policy. His reasoning is situated in a context of “political rationality”. Is this different from ordinary, vanilla moral rationality? Is the political category merely “means to ends” reasoning, with possibly the former justifying the latter? It is a non-existent dichotomy.

    Of course there is no sense of the morality of the virtues, of the importance of truth and honesty. In short, of the importance of the practice of virtue.

    It is the concentration on consequences of moral choices, to the exclusion of other considerations, that easily leads to justifications such as Jack’s. Greater emphasis on the nature of the good life, the means to it and the role of the virtues in it is required. Only in this context will the values of truth and honesty be given their due weight.

    A simpler and more straightforward explanation is that Howard lied and did so to win in order to create fear. If his aim in using his means was a humane detention policy, then say so and let us judge as to their effectiveness in achieving his aim and their morality. If he thought the “Tampa” incident would lead to this result, then say so and let us judge. The Tampa as a battle in the “Culture War”? Please let us in on the secret. We just might disagree.

    We must require stringent standards of truthfulness and honesty and the exercise of the other virtues. We must reject any distinction between political and moral rationality. Let us insist on speech that is free of the obfuscations, ambiguities and equivocations to which we have all grown so accustomed. Let’s hit “spin” for six. Otherwise, too nimble feet will be required of too many of us to play the googlies bowled to us by “spin”. For we know that winning is not the only point, and we ignore the verve and honesty with which we play the game of life to our cost.

  29. James Farrell
    September 3rd, 2004 at 01:12 | #29

    What a great comment. I hope it’s the first of many.

  30. September 3rd, 2004 at 02:28 | #30

    Gaby at September 2, 2004 07:02 PM complains that my apologia for Howard entails a cynical justification for the political interests of John Howard at the expense of the moral interests of asylum-seekers.
    This criticism is only half-true and the bit that is true is the smaller half.
    Australia has recently been in the throes of concurrent domestic and foreign crises. From 1974-2001 we have had an ongoing cultural identity crisis. From 1999-2003 we experienced a series of massive national security crises.
    Something hard had to be done to sort these messes out before they got out of control. I felt Howard was the best man for the job available at the time. I supported Howard inspite, not because, of his xenophobic handling of the Tampa. I felt he was the right man to:
    resolve the internal Culture War, waged against Multicultural Leftists and Nativist Rightists, into a victory for the Vital Centre
    manage the external Culture War, waged against Fundamentalist Militants, by strengthening of the US Alliance
    So far Howard has delivered well on the internal cultural war and seems to be avoiding disaster on the external cultural war.
    I also wanted to restore some balance and sanity into the moral evaluation of Howards political career. I feel that the demonisation of Howard as a war criminal was way over the top.
    He has beaten back domestic political extremists of Right and Left.
    He has entrenched a high-flow ethnic immigration program.
    He is relaxing the draconian regulation of asylum-seekers.
    He is the first Australian leader to really involve himself in nation building the South Pacific.
    He has helped to liberate three countries from real live war criminals: Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq. The refugees from these countries are now free to go home and are doing so in great numbers.
    The claim that he is responsible for the manslaughter of the passengers in the SIEV-X is unsubstantiated and borders on “grassy knoll”-style hysterical speculation.
    Howard has his many faults, but he has left Australia a stronger and safer place than when he found it. A strong and safe Australia can do more good for those in need of care. He deserves some credit for that.

  31. September 3rd, 2004 at 15:28 | #31

    Jack,
    Are you supporting the Iraq war again. I thought you’d resolved it was a mistake. Afghanistan was supported world-wide and was still a stuff up. Currently Afghans in Oz are having their TPVs extended as nobody thinks that it is safe for them to return – three years later.

    The cultural war 1974-2001 is a figment of your imagination. The aboriginal problem remains and new approaches come and go with no alignment to the cultural war thesis. Hansonist views are still rife but Hanson has been repressed by the majors on both sides. Spinsters on top? I don’t see them backing off anywhere. The preamble was laughed out of the place. The republic is still popularly supported just that they were outpointed politically in the short-run. Multiculturalism has only been defeated if you believe that Theo’s crimes were the point of multiculturalism. In the real world major employers constantly bang on about respecting cultural diversity – it is mainstream and accepted as natural and common sense. That I think was always the point of multiculturalism. Just because you were forever put off the cause by the “I just love the Hindu culture” crowd in your youth. Who wasn’t but what had they to do with multiculturalism. That had never anything to do with the subject. It was about making overseas arrivals welcome and at home without forcing them to do their thing behind closed doors. It was not a radical suggestion. It was simply to put an end to the days when we all called and thought of them as “bloody wogs”. Howartd mereley identified a couple of individuals and groups that could be painted as the embodiment of a multicultural industry to tarnish a whole social change. Tawdry indeed. Politicising something for selfish ends. Again.

    Howard has continued with “high” immigration as the business world and demographers demands – and as far as the ethnic tolerance shown by the “high” Asian component – all he’s done there is back off on the hysteria he himself whipped up in the first place in ’87 and then again in 2001. You don’t give someone credit for fixing their own mistake.

    Ending the cultural war? Fanning it more likely. Gays, ATSIC, refugees – always grandstanding on issues which should remain bipartisan or low-key or calm. We never heard the term cultural war until he got in office.

    And we still watch TV in colour.

  32. Gaby
    September 6th, 2004 at 19:05 | #32

    Dear Jack,

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comment.

    I do feel, however, that you have misunderstood or misinterpreted my views.

    You charge me with being more wrong than right. Albeit with a particularly infelicitous trope. I’m not sure how my “half-true” criticism can be the “smaller half”.

    I certainly did not intend to assert that your post was a “cynical justification for the political interests of John Howard at the expense of the moral interests of asylum seekers”. Rather, in your terms, I charged you with a cynical justification for the telling of lies. A totally different thing.

    I did not attempt to consider at all the moral interests of ostensible refugees to asylum in Australia. This is a far thornier ethical issue than that of the virtue, and the nature of the obligation, of telling the truth. That refugees have a moral interest to which we must have regard is beyond doubt. The nature of a refugee’s interest in a safe haven from our perspective is a far more difficult moral problem.

    The core of my comment was rather that endemic lying by our politicians is gravely inimical to our democracy and which you have not addressed at all in your reply.

    Furthermore, I also utterly reject your description that Australia has recently been involved in various “crises”: domestic, foreign, internal, external, cultural, essentialist (the “vital centre”???), security, or of identity. There has been some debate, differences of opinion and policy, but not anything that you would not expect in any flourishing free, tolerant and liberal democracy. To call these “wars” is to go beyond any form of justifiable rhetoric or permissible metaphor.

    This, for me, deflates the achievements you ascribe to Johnny about success in any so called “Culture War”.

    You also set up a straw man when you say you want to defend Johnny against “demonisation as a war criminal”. This is not the issue, although in passing, I believe that politicians are morally responsible for the consequences of their decisions, such as deaths occurring in wars they may declare.

    Johnny is certainly not Macchiavelli’s “Prince”. He is duplicitous, unenlightened, uncreative, divisive, intolerant and probably fundamentally illiberal. His “safe and comfortable” vision for the future of Australia is laughably and characteristically myopic. Of course, Johnny, but is that all? And nothing like what one would expect from a de Medici “prince”.

    The real, underlying problem of Howard as politician is of a man obsessed with gaining and maintaining power. But not in using that power to equitably distribute the largesse of Australia to the majority of its citizens. And to take an easy example, not interested to humanely treat “alien” children, among others, that may chance upon our shores. Or the hypocrisy evident in the many and various abrupt, and “compassionately conservative”, changes in policy recently announced by the Government. “Tributes” to “virtue” of the “vice” inherent in previous Government policy.

    Can the possession of power really be such a potent aphrodisiac?

    To answer my own rhetorical question in the context of the current election campaign, it must be very alluring. Because if it were not, then why would a self-respecting leader choose to become a mere “small target”.

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