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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

More myths in the culture wars « Previous | |Next »
June 19, 2003

Here is another example of the distortions being deployed by right wing journalists in public debate. It is Greg Sheridan this time. The distortion is fast becoming a standard line. It is being recycled with a straight face. However, you would think that they would lift their game to avoid being seen as mediocre, shallow or a joke. Or maybe the crude distortion is a tactic of spitting in the eye of the educated public.

Sheridan makes a general point about the (presumably Australian) left as an ideological movement:

"...the construction of certain defining myths that determine the orthodox interpretation of key events is a critical task....In this way the Left, which normally loses the election, can win the symbols. This process has the incidental result of making our history perpetually disgruntled, as actions overwhelmingly approved at the time are later interpreted as dishonourable."

Well, yes. Culture is important. It is about making sense of something through interpreting various historical events from our particular situated perspectives. History is contested.

Sheridan then illustrates his symbol claim with the war on Iraq:

"In the aftermath of the Iraq war, we can see this process unfolding. Our troops performed magnificently in a just cause, liberating 25 million people from a murderous dictator, ending his program of weapons of mass destruction and enhancing our prestige.

But that's not going to be the commentariat's orthodoxy. Two myths are being constructed. One is that Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction. The other is that our participation in the war damaged our standing in Asia."

Take a moment to read that again. Therein lies the distortion. The left is saying that Saddam Hussein never had weapons of mass destruction. Goodness me. This is beyond shallow and mediocre. What we have is a figment of Sheridan's feverish imagination.

The left (who is this monolith?) never denied that the Iraqi regime possessed weapons of mass destruction. That is a straw dog created by Sheridan. The various voices on the left pretty much supported the UN and accepted the judgements of Hans Blix. Blix maintained that the Iraqi regime had maintained an active chemical and biological weapons program up to 1998 (when the UN inspectors left Iraq); and that it probably continued it thereafter. We can add that the WMD's are probably in Syria.

Having created his straw dog Sheridan then proceeds to destroy it with much gusto. So it is Greg who is creating the myths rather than engaging in public debate.

Now notice the reason Greg gives for invading Iraq. It was a just cause as it was about liberating 25 million people from a murderous dictator. But the neo-cons threw out the just war theory, and the Howard Government only used the liberation argument after the war began. It gave them a moral omph and it played better in the persuasion of public opinion stakes. But it was a post war justification for going to war. See John Howard's Speech to the National Club.

Sheridan's strategy marks a failure to engage with what is being said: that the evidence publicly presented about the existence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction did not justify going to war. Iraq was not the imminent threat that it was made out to be. The prime reason for going to war were geo-political considerations, which were not laid out before the public. As Hugh White says:

"my unease.... arises from the fact that all the talk of WMDs was anyway much less central to the coalition's reasons for invading Iraq than they made out at the time. It was evident a year ago that Iraq's WMDs were at most a secondary reason for regime change in Iraq. So was the destruction of Saddam's admittedly dreadful dictatorship. America's primary reason was much more ambitious: to turn Iraq into an American strategic asset, and a starting point for the democratisation of the Arab and Islamic worlds."

And Australia and Britain tagged along as good allies doing what they needed to do to remain the good friends of America.

So why cannot a journalist like Sheridan put these reasons on the table? Why does he engage in cover up and deceit instead of openly discussing the geopolitical considerations? Why does he not address the accountibility issue of the executive misusing the intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction? This is hardly whingeing as Catallaxy Files suggests. It is, as the editorial in Australian Financial Review(subscription required, 19 6 2003, p.62) suggests, allowing Parliament to play its proper role of making the executive properly accountable to the Parliament. That is a suitable role for the Senate---acting as a counterweight to a powerful executuive government.

By not addressing these issues Greg is not participating in a rhetorically informed debate as is Huge White, who provides good reasons for why Howard used the arguments he did. He thought they were the best ones to persuade public opinion and probably thought they had some truth content. But persuasion was the name of the game, and Howard has a track record of pulling the wool of people's eyes when it suits him. (eg., the Tampa affair).

Sheridan, in contrast to White, is engaged in mass deception whilst pretending to be informed and knowledgeable. The commitment to the professional standards of journalism--objectivity and truth-- has been tossed overboard by this warrior in the culture wars. This journalist sees himself as engaged in a battle in the culture wars that has to be won.

Sheridan's text is also a poor use of rhetoric, which is form of effective writing that aims to persuade readers to adopt a point of view. Sheridan's understanding of rhetoric is that it is a form of deception. Deception at this level is not an effective way to persuade public opinion. Hence it is probably spitting in the eye of the educated public reader. If not, then it is simply spinning for the Coalition.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:29 PM | | Comments (1)


I think Sheridan is adopting a tactic used by the Australian itself. That of pre-emptively creating and then shooting down Myths.

On 28 Aug 02 The Australian editorialised on the upcoming war that "Australia's debate will be bedevilled by the myths that surround this partnership [with the US]". And it goes on to spell out three Myths that are all actually the same. that Australia has become a patsy to the US.

What is being done by both Sheridan and the Australian is an attempt to pre-emptively smear dissenting viewpoints as being more predictable guff from the typical whingers.

Does it work? I don't think it makes any difference. The Australian public have already decided where they stand. On this issue. They will let the Government off the hook, like they did with Tampa. The 'left' will never get traction on the Tampa and the Iraq issue because Australians are on the whole happy with the outcome.

All Sheridan is doing is getting a lazy free ride by telling people what they already believe. He's sounding more like Tim Blair everyday.