Tu quoque

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[2], [3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, Rinehart the Kochs). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

Now let’s look at the tu quoque in a bit more detail. First, there’s the claim that the left is just as anti-science as the right. Of the three examples, anti-vaxerism can be dismissed most easily. US presentations of this argument (it’s rarely made in Oz) invariably focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is indeed an anti-science loon. But the only notable thing about RFK jr is that he happens to share his name with his famous father. He’s never held, or even stood for, elective office of any kind. By contrast, prominent Republican politicians included Michelle Bachmann and Dan Burton have pushed anti-vax rhetoric. At one time, the generally leftish Huffington Post ran a lot of anti-vax stuff. But they came under sustained pressure from the pro-science left, and have now abandoned this almost entirely. The only recent anti-vax piece I could find came from Lawrence Solomon, a right wing climate denier (more on this later) And survey evidence suggests that anti-vaxerism, like other conspiracy theories, is more prevalent among Republicans. A PPP poll reports that 26 per cent of Republicans believe that vaccines cause autism, compared to 16 per cent of Democrats.

Next, there’s nuclear power. As we’ve discussed, policy choices regarding nuclear power raise a wide range of issues, few of which can be answered by referring to peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott. The problems with the right wing claim are numerous

* First, the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question. Most obviously, the Obama Administration in the US has promoted nuclear power as part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and has received little in the way of pushback from the broader US left (compare the intensity of the campaign against Keystone XL with the handful of desultory protests against nuclear plants currently under construction)

* Second, while some on the left may have opposed nuclear power for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny, they at least got closer to the correct answer on the broader question of whether nuclear power is a sensible solution to our energy problems. It is the political right who have proved immune to evidence on this question. Despite the fact that no country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and that investors everywhere have abandoned the technology, the belief that nuclear power is a solution to our problems, being blocked only by crazy greenies, remains a cornerstone of rightwing tribal identity.

* Finally, even on the narrow question of accident risks, it’s hard to reach a conclusive answer. Nuclear meltdowns are rare but extreme events. No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say. Alleged experts who claimed to know for sure (notably Barry Brook in relation to Fukushima and the pre-TMI Rasmussen report on nuclear safety in the US) ended up with egg on their faces. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.

Evolution and creationism provide an even more interesting case. Until relatively recently, beliefs about evolution were largely uncorrelated with political affiliation. But creationism is now a Republican political issue, and beliefs are lining up accordingly, with Republicans supporting biblical literalism and Democrats mostly supporting theistic evolution[4]

Finally, there is the question of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. This is the strongest point of the rightwing tu quoque. Greenpeace, for example, is guilty as charged of being anti-science on this issue. But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.

There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.

Turning to tribalism, it is silly to point to criticism of figures like Murdoch and Rinehart as tribalist. They are powerful people who use their power (derived from wealth) to advocate bad policies, and do so in an aggressive and dishonest way. The fact that they then whine about being the subject of counter-attacks, is just further evidence of their dishonesty.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently tribalist in advocating policies that would redistribute income, wealth and power away from the rich for the benefit of society as a whole, any more than in advocating free market policies that would harm some groups and benefit others. Such policies should, be advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off, and not on the basis that the winners are the right kinds of people and the losers the wrong kind,

Tribalism involves attacks designed to mobilise one group against another on the basis of perceived identity. It is easy to point to a long list of groups perceived as tribal enemies by the right: environmentalists, public sector workers, unionists, gays, scientists, cultural ‘elitists’, refugees, welfare recipients (except age pensioners), ethnic and indigenous ‘lobbies’ and so on: in fact, just about any group that is seen as supporting the left or centre-left, is attacked in these terms.

By contrast, most of the groups that form the base of the political right (for example: small business, farmers, the military, self-funded retirees, mainstream churches) are treated with solicitous respect by the centre-left parties. The most notable example of a group commonly treated as a tribal enemy is that of fundamentalist Christians, and even here, there have been plenty of attempts at engagement, for example, on the idea of environmental stewardship.

To sum up, even when true, the tu quoque argument is an implicit admission of error. When it isn’t, as in the case of the claims that the left and right are equally guilty of tribalism and anti-scientific thinking it amounts to an intellectual coverup.

fn1. Almost entirely in the US, Canada and (now that Turnbull has rolled over) Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
fn2. By contrast, this is the normal response when instances of racism or corruption are pointed out. The primary defence is that these instances are unrepresentative. A tu quoque if offered, is usually of the form “there are similar instances on the left”, but no one on that side would concede that they are unrepresentative.
fn3. Here’s an attempt, which relies on the ludicrous claim that among Congressional Republicans ” the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming” (There’s also a big load of tu quoque)
fn4. Some have tried to argue that this position is just as inconsistent with science as is Young Earth Creationism. But in reality, anyone who believes both in God (in the usual senses of this term) and evolution must believe that God guided evolution, just as they must believe that God was responsible for the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe. More generally, they must believe that religion is consistent with the findings of science. Whether or not this is a logically defensible position, it isn’t anti-science.

Note to commenters: We’ve done nuclear power to death, so I will delete any comments on this topic. If you have something you absolutely need to say about nuclear in the context of this post, put it in the sandpits with a heading “Nuclear and tu quoque” pr similar.

133 thoughts on “Tu quoque

  1. “What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others”

    This is absolutely true.

    The other week I had the misfortune of being subjected to the Bolt Report. Guest were Planet Janet, Eric Abetz, Gerard Henderson, and someone from one of the right wing “think tanks”. The thing that struck me about every guest and every segment was all they did was bag the ALP. It was weird – instead of arguing the case for their idealogical position all they could do was to say how bad the other side was.

  2. Anti-science is easy because a good portion of the audience would rather out source thought – particularly on heavy stuff like maths and science. So they trust people who reinforce their prejudices. Many of these people have an imaginary friend (happy Easter) and they believe those stories ahead of problematic, difficult and uncertain science. Bob Altemeyer has written about the wingnuts on their native soil for over 40 years and offers some easily digestible insights into the susceptible and their wannabe ‘saviors’ http://members.shaw.ca/jeanaltemeyer/drbob/TheAuthoritarians.pdf

  3. If the Right are wrong why are they winning?

    As regular readers will know, I am well to the left on most political questions. I hold that the right are mostly in the wrong these days both morally and scientifically (think of refugees and climate change). Given that, I ask the above question in all seriousness. Why are they still winning? I take as my evidence that they are still winning the facts that inequality continues to grow and environmental damage continues to accelerate (when the ways to turn around both these trends are well known).

    It is a power issue obviously. But how does power become disconnected from moral and empirical truth and yet remain maintainable and even able to enhance itself? Also, how long can power which depends on scientific knowledge deny science and remain in power? The end of the Ancien Régime suggests that power elites out of step with reality cannot remain in power indefinitely. The question is when and in what form does the convulsion come?

  4. SCience has been known to get things very wrong though, look at Thalidimide for one example with devastating consequences.

  5. I wouldn’t be so dismissive of people retorting tu quoque. It can be used legitimately, for example, when what is being conveyed is “Come on, that’s a bit rich coming from you! How much time do you expect me to waste on the BS arguments of someone who has so little insight into himself, his mates, and the foundations of his ideas?”
    If one must do a boring rhetorical or polemical classification into right and left, why choose US Republicans as the main examples, why insist that only elected politicians are proper cases to quote (what about Gerard Henderson and Robert Manne?) and why not recognise that there is as much variety to the right as to the left, even where some views are extreme?
    Where do you place Keith Windschuttle btw? Some of his former friends on the left like to say he was a Maoist? He denies it I believe. Anyway, isn’t his The Killing of History [c. 1995] a splendid attack on pomo nonsense?
    To raise something much more substantial, what do you think of “The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left Against Science” written about 1994 by a very distinguished scientist and a distinguished mathematician?
    And while I’m in sceptical mode I note Ross Gittins excellent piece in Saturday’s SMH and Age (even if, as usual, giving readers the benefit of his wide reading) in which he relates how nearly 80 per cent of some well credentialed economists at a professional conference got a simple question about opportunity cost wrong. Like me Professor Q you would be ashamed at having taken as much as 10 seconds of thought to get the answer and get it right. So my question is why this doesn’t make you just a little bit of a sceptic about people’s claims to be climate scientists and ipso facto authoritative when they give an opinion about the likely rate of atmospheric temperature change or a trustworthy model of all the important factors? Medical science is no better of course, just to take another case of it being not enough to be one of the high-minded grat and good. My estimate of the proportion of the world’s scientists who are entitled to be other than extremely modest and tentative about the IPCC’s models and their outputs is one in 10,000 but I suspect that to be a gross exaggeration. Maybe one in 100,000 is still generous. Any further bids?
    Should we listen to tree-ring specialists (except when producing facts which are inconsistent with others’ supposedly relevant theories). And
    does well-informed apprehension about diminishing oceanic pH levels (wrongly called “acidification”) – shared by Greg Hunt I am reliably informed – count towards authority on AGW? If so, why?

    Back to opportunity costs. It would be really interesting to know your reasoned views Professor Quiggin on the opportunity cost arguments which should be involved in decisonmaking by a country as small and uninfluential as ours. Rich and able to adapt and help others or poorer from self-inflicted wounds caused by policies which achieve nothing?

  6. I meant to add that the Abbott government’s failure to set up a respectable commission of inquiry into the science and economics of AGW or climate change more broadly seems inexplicable. The cover story would be that it was needed to heal divisions (which are after all quasi-religious for 99.9 per cent of us who are not mostly agnostic: so the healing of religious divisions in the West from the 17th century is an experience to value) and to allow all Australians to get behind reliably fact based rational policies (OK, stop laughing there at the back).
    Why not? Timing maybe including the need to get max value out of the two current Royal Commissions. Or the difficulty of having defend direct action when it wasn’t a good time….

  7. @Gary Lord
    You’ve reminded me: my old cellphone had my TRIBALSIMCARD with all the tribal numbers and I thought it was lost. Now found but Paddy McGuinness and too many others have discontinued numbers…

  8. @Midrash

    I see that Ross G has not taught at a university but lectures high school students on the economy (not economic theory). Good onya Ross, teaching at this level, where economic abstractions have to be earn their stripes, maybe why he talks a lot of sense.

    I must admit, applying the “what you give up to get the next best alternative”, I would have chosen $40 (give up something you got for nothing to obtain a $40 ticket to Dylan). Having 2 1/2 econ/comm. degrees and taught economics to first year students (but spent more time as a student on history, politics, sociology, philosophy, literature), I’m still not convinced that your logic is self-evident, though you think these are “simple questions”. I may be biased but I suggest the thinking Left (the dogmatic cohort shrinks daily) is more curious, slow to draw conclusions, doesn’t banish ambiguity, but is still permanently uneasy at the certainties displayed by the rampaging Right.

    Plucking an article (by an author so distinguished you can’t give his name?) from 1994 to prove the Left is anti-science – is that the best you can do? Just as disingenuous as saying the very existence of outliers like Keith Windschuttle automatically discredits the mainstream argument, without proving the supremacy of the alternative – is that a scientific approach? How many scientists have you spoken to who confirm this, or is your swingeing rock-throwing against credentialled experts just a “feel good” self-indulgence from afar? You trash the cautionary sceptical virtue of conservative thinking, replacing it by a priori prejudice.

    Tradition is an empirical and knowledge legacy which needs continual scrutiny for relevance. Homo economicus and opportunity cost are traditionally self-interested concepts – but in a global context, which self-evidently influences the local, they can and should be re-defined.

  9. Ikonoclast – JQ seems primarily focused on the US. And in that context the left, ie Obama, is ascendent. The results from the US can’t be readily translated to Australia. Australians believe in the young earth theory or dismiss evolution with far less frequency or intensity. Howard made pro vaccination reforms and equalised gay rights around partners (but didn’t push further to same sex marriage).

  10. @Midrash

    I meant to add that the Abbott government’s failure to set up a respectable commission of inquiry into the science and economics of AGW or climate change more broadly seems inexplicable… Or the difficulty of having defend direct action when it wasn’t a good time….


  11. Direct Action is designed to deal with a political problem not a climatic one. It will do sweet FA to alter the trajectory of the global temperature. Although to be fair that was also largely the case with the policy it replaces.

  12. @TerjeP
    Can I just point out to you, even though it’s probably a waste of time, that you are wrong about the policy that Direct Action is replacing. Emissions from the electricity sector have declined, particularly since the introduction of the carbon tax.


    That’s why it’s so wrong that we have this ( insert some words expressing anger, grief and fury) farce being inflicted on us by the Abbott government. You could have some respect for evidence

  13. Politics in Australia at least has become nothing more than opportunism. George Brandis didn”t make a scientific statement today, he made a philosophical statement. I agree with his statements.

    Why should a consensus view held by scientists (apparently now called scientific fact) dictate a persons right to think otherwise, and a persons right to air those views? When and why should a scientist be given such power over our individual lives?

    I believe the attack of Brandis view to be illiberal, opportunistic, and democratically dangerous. Political gain is simply not worth this.

    If we are to accept the anti brandis position than what else are we to accept? Scientific consensus has advocated any number of things throughout history. Some of those things have proved to be very dangerous if not out right wrong (some genetic diseases are indeed accepted as scientific fact). I would use the eugenics craze in the early 20th century as an example.

    In Nazi Germany to speak out against the treatment of these afflictions was to be anti science or to be labelled part of a conspiracy against the human race. We now celebrate those that spoke out, often at great personal cost.

    When we attempt to enforce silence on a person for simply holding and airing a view (excepting incitement etc), we’ve taken the next step toward an illiberal and an undemocratic society.

    That should be agreed upon by both the political left and right. Something that has been accepted by all democratic nations due to the age of enlightenment. Surely only an extremist could disagree?

  14. @TerjeP

    You are kidding me surely? Obama is on the left??? He is the willing figurehead president of the total surveillance state. He has done nothing to reverse massive inequality in the US. He is far right. The other party is far, far right.

  15. To be honest I think Brandis was conflating issues. Attempts to silence climate change sceptics have not involved legislation banning their words. As such it has little to do with arguments about free speech. Although it is fair to say there has been an illiberal attitude by some within the debate towards those they disagree with.

  16. Ikonoclast – If “right wing” simply means stuff Ikonoclast disagrees with then perhaps. But that’s not a really useful definition of left wing. And from my perspective mass surveillance is a totalitarian outcome that the left has historically been quite into. Think communist East Germany.

  17. The best way to attack George Brandis would be to agree with his enlightened point of view.

    One could then ask why he hasn’t spoken out against Queensland and some of the most anti democratic and illiberal laws ever put forward in a democracy. Why doesn’t speak out against “commissions” that allow some exceptions” that are legally enshrined rights.

    If he believes in property rights, why doesn’t he speak out against taking a persons assets when it may be proved that person committed an offence that offence can’t be proved to of paid for all of that persons assets. (recent High Court decision in favour of the NT government). Where does it end? A few driving convictions and you lose your house?

    There are any number of questions for Voltaire loving George Brandis. Ignorant and political opportunistic attacks on him simply prove his point.

  18. One can also be against a carbon tax or carbon trading, and still generally agree with the consensus of climate change.

    I recently had a conversation with a very Green political type who was very big on climate change, carbon taxes, and the scientific consensus. Strangely this consensus become a conspiracy when it came to fluoride in water, any number of pharmaceutical medicines for the children, and any number of mainstream medical treatments.

    Oddly the anti pharma views changed when it came to any number of what’s termed harmful narcotics.

    Whatever I think of this persons non violent views, I would never want to see them silenced by a consensus of scientists or by a consensus of anybody else.

  19. @kevin1
    You’ve said a bit about yourself. Maybe you could reflect on your reasons for imputing motives or purposes not justified byMidrash’s words. Why wasn’t he just interested in gleaning more info about Windschuttle and learningstrong>what Prof Quiggin thinks about Windschuttle and his work tout court. But then the whole of your reply to Midrash seems to say more about you than anything else as it doesn’t seem that you have given what he has written a fair reading unbiased by the clues you think you have about his(her?) views which mat be too sybtle and complex for your taste.
    And you have been lazy. It isn’t too difficult to Google for a book’s title (yes book – not an article). You would have been able to point out in triumph that Midrash got the title slightly wrong: the second part should conclude “and Its Quarrels with Science”.

  20. @TerjeP

    I think we would both agree that the left wing – right wing one dimensional line does not adequately cover all of politics. But this thread started with that shorthand and I stuck to it. Obama supports capitalism ergo he is on the right. Obama does next to nothing about extreme inequality ergo he is further right. Obama supports totalitarian measures from this right perspective ergo he is far right.

    It is true that the far left also exhibits the totalitarian aspect. I tend to think of the left wing – right wing one dimensional line as actually being a circle. Far left and far right bend around to meet each other and become indistinguishable in certain ways.

    To me the centre position (at the top of the circle) would be complete social democracy with 1/3 capitalist enterprise, 1/3 public enterprise and 1/3 worker collectives with the added proviso that capitalist and public enterprise workforces be encouraged but not forced to be fully unionised. Further, management functions would be “de-statused” and shared with workers. Specialist managers would simply be workers on similar wages to all workers; just workers who happened to specialise in management work.

  21. Some thorts:

    * On the biggest ideological battleground, the internet, the Gish Gallop reigns supreme. When a leftist points out a florid right-wing science denialist, the right-winger points out a high-profile hippy, and so on. Unfortunately, no one has the patience to extend that out to a dozen, or a hundred examples, where it becomes clear that for every lefty anti-vaxxer, there’s a thousand conservatives who believe science is whatever News Ltd says it is.

    * Rarely explored is the overlap between apparently separate right-wing anti-science movements, particularly climate change and creationism. Many climate inactivists want to be regarded as serious analysts of scientific data, but at their gatherings it’s routine for someone like Christopher Monckton to share the stage with a preacher claiming that god is guiding the climate and there’s nothing to worry about. There is nothing comparable on the left, pro-science side of the debate, where the kooks are at the fringe, not the mainstream.

    * Putting on the well-worn “I [heart] Corey Robin” shirt, the ideal of “policies…advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off” is complicated by the clash between the right’s lasting affection for aristocracy and its current fashion of claiming to stand for freedom. Achieving clarity on a scientific issue is difficult when one side of a scientific debate fundamentally believes that obeying the wealthy without question is best for society, but also has to uphold the pretence of defending the common man against an elite of scheming wizards who seek to bamboozle the public with arcane talk about data and chemistry.

  22. Personally I don’t believe most left wing political people see climate change as more problem than political opportunity. I also don’t believe that right religious politicians are see religion as more important than political opportunity. I’ve been around enough to be that cynical.

    Politics is a game of numbers and politicians are merely seeking to fill the quota they need. In reality not much different to a night club strip with its variety of themed clubs. A little piece of the pie is all one needs to survive and thrive.

    Hanson Youngs pure views didn’t stretch as far as not accepting prefs from a coal mine magnate when her very cushy job and lifestyle was at risk. No doubt people could show similar examples when it comes to the pure religious” types.

    Even the worlds saviour Al Gore was a real gun rights advocating kind of guy in politics (he came from a very pro gun state). I even remember good Al”s wife running a hate campaign against heavy metal and rap records (burnings even). I guess that stuff what down well with your god and guns type.

    Oddly those gun toting, gun toting views changed the day he left politics and took up a career speaking to a different crowd.

    I guess we publically at least will advocate the views of those that pay the bills.

  23. Obama supports capitalism ergo he is on the right.

    So when JQ talks about the “left”, in the US context, he is not referring to Democrats?

  24. @yuri and @Kevin1
    Thank you Yuri. As a matter of trivial fact I might have given the names of the authors of the slightly misremembered book (sic, not article, as you noted) if I hadn’t been unsure whether the name of the mathematician was Levitt or Leavitt and paused long enough to think that naming them made no difference to my genuine query as to what Prof Q (though not Kevim1 with all due respect) thought about the book, its arguments and its relevance to the view he was expressing 20 years on. I am reminded that the book was prompted by the splendid Sokal hoax and that Norman Levitt was an avowed man of the left who was embarrassed by leftist academics attitude to science.

    Is it not interesting that a discussion can start in 2014 which assumes that there is a “right” which is against scientific ways of thinking in a way that is foreign to the “left” when the science wars of the 80s and early 90s were about the nonsense spouted by generally leftist academics infected with irrational doctrines largely of French origin such as Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, “Theory”, Post-modernism etc (I defer to anyone who had superior stamina and was actually able to read more this a few pages of their turgid emissions – but allow me to doubt that they actually learned anything valuable or improved their ressoning skills)? Did the Sokal Hoax finally destroy there influence. To provoke more Pavlovian responses let me suggest that Windschuttle’s “Killing of History” may have played an honourable part also.

  25. @Ikonoclast

    There is some recent research from the US (yet to be fully released) that partly answers your question (at #4 ‘If the Right are wrong why are they winning?’) – even in the Australian context:

    Gilens and Page – “Testing Theories of American Politics”

    Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of
    majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually
    have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features
    central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association,
    and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated
    by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s
    claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

    To summarise:

    1. “They” are winning because we have lost our democracy, not because anybody is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’;

    2. We have lost our democracy because our politicians have allowed Rupert Murdoch (at least in the Australian context) & the PR industry to have an effective monopoly on dissemination of information to the general public;

    3. As a result, we do not have a functioning democracy.

    Just looking at recent comments, the fact that anyone could pretend Obama is “left” proves that we have no democracy. That is as laughable as suggesting that CIA informants like Shorten, Carr, Arbib and Howes are “left”.

  26. @Sancho
    “Achieving clarity on a scientific issue is difficult when one side of the
    debate fundamentally believes that obeying the wealthy without question is best for society”!!!!

    You are having a lend aren’t you?

    You don’t strike me as a great advocate for “clarity” but suppose we replace “clarity” with “scientific truth” so we’re dealing with something of ultimate importance what on earth is the value of the kind of “debate” you are talking about? Is it more than a pub brawl between passionate (or drunken) ignoramuses?

  27. @Megan
    Many years ago heard and applauded a neat little speech designed to both tease and entertain some sophisticated but characteristically insular Americans of which the theme was Thank God for America saving the world from democracy. Its point was that Australian style democracy with its compulsory voting and nearly everyone registered and voting wouldn’t have allowed the free trade policies of the 90s by which the US, intentionally or otherwise, helped China and other Asian economies to rise.

    A nice provocation, from memory, went something like this “America is a plutocracy, moderated by meritocracy within a framework of law and flavoured with the rhetoric of democracy” [I must find the nspkin I wrote it down on].

    So you can see why I might argue that you are far too rigid and absolutist when you almost define democracy so as to be a dud here.

    It is of course fallacious to speak as so often is done about the people having spoken or voted for x, y and z (apart from motherhood and hot dinners) or to treat the “mandate” as more than a rhetorical stick with which to beat the opposition. (It made a little sense when used against the Lords in the early 20th century after a general election had been called to resolve a single issue, but even then it only had moral force impressed by rhetoric).
    Our democracy consists essentially in there being a regular way for an approximate majority of voters claiming to be alive and sentient to kick out governments they are sick of.

    A strong middle class is probably, as conventional wisdom has it, also an important element in a successful democracy (both economically and politically).

    You have a problem because you see the voters as a mob of sheep, or at best ignorant sods who can’t tell what is really in their interests. I think you overlook how little you (we) know about their interests and how much we tend to undervalue their inherited, intuited and otherwise acquired values, perceptions and (largely unarticulated and implicit) worldview. There is no doubt that temporary panics can be dangerous. Before general literacy they were frequent,deadly and irrational. No doubt newspapers did much to both provoke and to calm panics. TV is said to be very potent still in Russia in making sure that the viewers are inflamed by lies told about the Ukraine. Now the Internet and social media seem to be taking over – but perhaps you don’t think that has yet caught on with your lumpen proletariat that suffers “false consciousness” still under the influence of Uncle Rupert.

    I recall reading an analysis of the evidence for News and other media groups influence on election results. The big conclusion was that Murdoch, in particular, tended to back winners and didn’t have nearly as much effect as politicians feared.

    You would say perhaps that it wasn’t just at election time that influence was important but that people picked up their ideas on important subjects which were not central to their everyday lives from the mass media. But I think you grossly exaggerate the influence of the small part of what the average citizen takes in and accepts that you know about. What strikes you is the small part of the daily output of radio, TV and newspapers (?social media and blogs and advertising) which you remember as irritating on matters that are important to you.

    Of course I can imagine you or someone suggesting that there is widespread false consciousness about the case for free trade or vaccination or whatever it is indeed hard to find contrary views about inthe MSM. Has it ever been different? Isaac Newton had no doubt about the existence of God and most people brought up as Christians still are….

  28. @Sancho
    You are not one to use a big word like “inarticulate” safely. But since you have chosen to be offensive, let it be clear that my questions were rhetorical – with just a minor qualification.

    While most literate people would have recognised the elements of satire or mockery in what I wrote in response to what struck me as barbarous flummery they would also have seen that it also articulated, at least by implication, that you might, as a matter of logic come back with a lucid exposition of a valid point with or without apology for your previous obscure emission.

  29. It’s nice to see you backing away from previous positions that were irrationally held, John, because this paragraph:

    There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.

    completely disagrees with the link to your post that precedes it. You previously claimed that concerns about economic control of resources were “bogus” (your term) and tried to argue that all of Greenpeace’s opposition to GM was based on health concerns. Nice to see a bit of rationality entering your position on this – although you still cling to the anti science argument even though you don’t have a proper definition of it.

    I like your point about the implications of the tu quoque argument for the people making it. So true!

  30. JQ: “But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.”
    There’s an additional reason not to treat Greenpeace specifically as representative. Organizationally, it’s Leninist, like the far from lefty IOC. There’s a compact co-optative leadership that isn’t accountable even vaguely to its members – it doesn’t really have these, only emanations and supporters. The hyper-centralised structure allows quick decisions, strategic and tactical focus, and the secrecy essential for high-profile media stunts. It also leads to mistakes, like the ultra position on GMOs. Another one was the odd campaign against deep-sea burial of a disused oil platform in the North Sea, when the oceans are awash with floating plastic.

  31. It’s not a year ten essay, Midrash. You don’t have to pad out a word count. Try saying what you’re trying to say in the simplest way you know.

    Thereby, given the fortuitous insight conferred by having benefitted from pedagogical tuition regarding interpretation of Cyrillic graphical records, one might infer a deliberative rationale and proceedingly formulate an apposite, explicatory agendum apropos the initial, nigh-indecipherable exclamation.

  32. Another one was the odd campaign against deep-sea burial of a disused oil platform in the North Sea, when the oceans are awash with floating plastic.

    Greenpeace ironically scuttled their own ship in a marine park claiming it would become a natural reef. Hypocrites.

  33. Waleed Ali has written in the past that there is too much sport in our politics and too much politics in our sports. So the concept of tribalism fits in neatly with his viewpoint as well.

    On the precept of anti-vax, anecdotally my experience has been that people hold these positions irrespective f the way they vote. That is voters from the Greens, ALP and Liberals hold the anti-vax view. And for the life of me I cannot understand why – the only thread seems to be this belief that they do not know what will happen in the future (duh!).

  34. @James
    When you talk about an ‘attempt to enforce silence’, you are referring to something that does not exist outside the imagination, yours and that of George Brandis and other like-minded people. In reality, nobody is trying to prevent anybody from saying whatever they like about climate change. Things are in fact just as you say they should be, so your complaints have no validity.

  35. @TerjeP

    “So when JQ talks about the “left”, in the US context, he is not referring to Democrats?”

    I am not sure. But when I talk of the left I certainly am not talking about the Democrats today. The last time the Democrats were genuinely left in any way was probably under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

  36. I would remind posters, who may not be familiar with it, of the meaning of the term, “midrash”


    In part …

    Some Midrash discussions are highly metaphorical, and many Jewish authors stress that they are not intended to be taken literally. Rather, other midrashic sources may sometimes serve as a key to particularly esoteric discussions. Later authors maintain that this was done to make this material less accessible to the casual reader and prevent its abuse by detractors.

  37. That’s appropriate. It other words, it’s statements from the Ministry for Making Things Up.

  38. @ElPoppin

    There is also a streak of the libertarian in anti-vaxerism. Anyone who resents being told to “conform or else” can’t but help to be at least a little sympathetic to them. Speaking as someone who went through school being, amongst other things, perversely non-conformist — a kind of insistent ‘devil’s advocate’ — I totally get the impulse.

    The problem arises when you forget that this is a statement of the right to resist being ordered about for no good reason and think it’s about the warrant for vaccination.

    The impulse to resist unaccountable authority is a good one. Throughout childhood, all manner of adults are telling you what to do “because I/god said so”. When you approach adulthood you begin to understand that it’s not all about you and your feelings, but about a far more complex and nuanced thing — the wellbeing of the community of which you are a part and from which you also form your concepts of identity. You begin to understand John Donne’s point all those centuries ago — that no man is an island — and that one’s challenge to authority must go to its warrant in the common interest or lack thereof.

    I found this initially quite hard, because, much as did many of my ethnic peers, I was the victim of ethnic animus and exclusion, and denied membership of their community, despite my earnest initial efforts to join by learning their language and understanding their culture, had little good alternative but to “other” them right back. If they said nay, I said yea and vice versa.

    After one feels secure in one’s own identity and finds a coherent paradigm within which to situate one’s impulses, one can move on.

  39. @Ikonoclast

    Kind of … homiletics are parables, intended as illustrating moral claims by packaging them as narratives. They are fictions with a point.

  40. @Fran Barlow

    For sure. I am not a cultural philistine (tautologous expression?). IMO Ecclesiastes is the greatest existential philosophical poem ever written (except for the epilogue*).

    NB: I know Ecclesiastes is not a homily. I also know wisdom and literature can come from the religious traditions. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish making things up from empirical enquiry. Probably the worst thing is when literalism is applied to metaphorical and homiletic teachings.

    * NOTE: “Most, though not all, modern commentators regard the epilogue (12:9–14) as an addition by a later scribe, and some have identified certain other statements as further additions intended to make the book more religiously orthodox (e.g., the affirmations of God’s justice and the need for piety)” – Wikipedia.

  41. To return to the topic. Perhaps characterising the right as anti-science is not accurate. It is rather that they are selectively pro-science and anti-science. They love science that gives them weapons and tools of control and surveillance. They hate and reject science that calls their program into question. Thus science that suggests endless growth is impossible or that we must stop using fossil fuels or that more wealth equality leads to a more stable and sustainable society is science that must be rejected and denied.

    Of course, if you understand what science is about, you understand that you can’t pick and choose only the bits you like. If any set of data is objectively, demonstrably and repeatably true to a high degree of probability, after many tests, then you have to factor that reality into your calculations. If you don’t, you are much more likely to make serious, perhaps life threatening errors.

  42. @Fran Barlow
    Regarding the political philosophies of the anecdotal circles, none of them would classify in any way as libertarian, and with the exception of one individual their belief of non-conformism is to leave the bathroom lights on.
    Having said that I do get the point about resisting authority (indeed your little bio resembles mine).
    Perhaps today we have so much information available that I do have to trust others blindly as I don’t have the time to investigate all aspects of life to a degree of depth that would be required to make a proper informed choice. After a health scare last year I am finding out how ignorant I was regarding medicine, diet, etc. although I would consider myself reasonably well informed. If I were to extend that level of research to all areas of life (eg internet security, the maths behind climate modelling, climate science, etc) I would not have time to exist. So perhaps one response would be to simply ignore it all and not trust what anyone says.

  43. @Gary Lord

    “After more than 10 years arguing futilely with right-wingers, I believe this concept of TRIBALSIM is the key to understanding them”

    Let’s not pretend tribalism is exclusively a right-wing characteristic. I recall any reasoned criticism of Julia Gillard was reliably rebutted by one tribe with angry accusations of chauvinism and sexism. In similar fashion, I have occasionally corrected factual errors in left-leaning posts and been met with a flurry of reactions amounting to “who cares, ‘they’ do it all the time”.

    It’s interesting, and perhaps more than coincidental, that the descent into tribalism on both sides of politics has been accompanied by diminishing partisan commitment on the part of much of the population, as evidenced by the increasing number of swinging voters in Australia and registered independents in the USA. Indeed it may even account for some of the general disenchantment with the whole political process; sensible people will instinctively distrust those who claim to have the absolute truth about everything while being incapable of competently managing even the ordinary business of public administration.

  44. @John Quiggin
    I don’t think I agree with everything Midrash says (to tell the truth I can’t claim to have read all his/her rather long contributions though or because they seem to be obsessively careful at the expense of using quite a lot of words – if not enough for Kevin1 who wanted some authors’ names spelled out). However, isn’t it a bit rough to tick him off for the consequences of mocking that bit of rhetorical nonsense which Sancho inflicted on your blog (I refer to the first one not his clumsy attempt to recover his dignity most recently) especially when Sancho calls him “inarticulate” in the course of demonstrating that he is living mentally in a separate universe?

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