Sunday, July 27, 2008

Duffy and the Hollow Men

The case of Michael Duffy, purported intellectual of the right, grows curiouser and curiouser by the week (well perhaps not of the right, a simplistic label, but certainly not of the left, nor of the centre, but rather of Duffy land, and perhaps not intellectual, since that implies anti suburban elitist thinking, and what would the inhabitants of Kellyville make of that).

Every Saturday it's the task of SMH readers to decipher the runes, to work out in the tea leaves of Duffy's column exactly what is meant, and each week the task grows harder.

Duffy was once an anti global warming, anti climate change sceptic of a fierce enough kind, and every so often he still affects the position. But in his latest offering "Forced to join the hollow dance"  Duffy provides only ambiguity.

The hollow dance of the title of the piece is the first clue - what does it mean? Since his article is about the failings of climate change strategies in Australia, is it just a neat reference to the ABC sitcom The Hollow Men, about the ways of bureaucrats in Canberra? Duffy certainly makes reference in the text to the hollow men, and concludes that "The way things are unfolding, the war on carbon will be another war of choice. And it's the hollow men who make those choices".

But wait, if you don't actually believe in global warming and climate change, what does this matter. What's wrong with choice, and what's wrong with hollow men making choices? None of it matters, so let them go to it in their own way. Does the title of the piece actually refer to a deeper charade, a more absurd dance, which we all must join - Duffy included - just to keep the deluded citizenry happy, and avoid moral panic? Is this the real meaning of climate change?

Or might it just be a simple matter of hypocrisy on the part of Duffy? Sure the references to the hollow men are easy, glib and facile enough - it's the easiest of jobs, sending up bureaucrats and politicians trying to guess community attitudes and sail with the breeze. Yet at the same time Duffy seems to take a grim satisfaction from these failings, which seem to promise an avoidance of economic catastrophe - since whatever is going to be done will have only a marginal impact.

What does all this actually mean? What does Duffy actually now believe about climate change?Is it truly a problem? Must we take steps? Provide a plan of action? (A very bold choice Minister, a plan of action which proposes that things actually happen). A close reading of the holey writ is necessary, but doesn't bring enlightenment, except of the 'nothing is but what is not' kind.

At first it seems Duffy believes climate change is now a real problem - if so, this is news to me and news to the world, so bring it on.  "... the Federal Government's response to climate change is spooky ... a 'bold' response that will produce much activity but do little to address the problem or offend anyone too much."

So definitively it's a problem. But it seems that the proposed measures "are too modest, the exclusions and compensations too generous". It would seem by definition that what Duffy seeks are immodest solutions, with no exclusions and miserly compensation. Surely not. And at least there's an upside - for a few weeks before, Duffy had written a piece explaining just why the prescriptions advocated by climate change guru Ross Garnaut would be harmful to the economy. Well if you're a Duffy, you can embrace contradictions, as part of the sport of being a columnist.

But of course there's a sting in the tail of the logic. The remedies being proposed are ill considered and will be illogical and ineffective. The real problem is population growth and by extension immigration, running at 180,000 a year, as proposed by demographer Bob Birrell (never mind Peter Costello's injunction to have one baby for yourself, one for the Treasurer, one for the country and one for the little old lady who lives down the road). No, by a sleight of hand, suddenly having all these Asians and Islamics flooding into the country is the cause of increased carbon emissions and the failure of global warming  policies. Yep, it's all just a straw dog so Duffy can have a rant about the peril flooding into the country. I guess it's more sophisticated than the way The Bulletin approached the job in the early years of the last century, but it suddenly makes Duffy sound like an old Tammany Hall politician of the Labor kind dedicated to keeping Australia white for the whites. Of course there's no mention of race or ethnicity, but we know where the immigrants come from, don't we Kellyville?

Well we can look forward to Duffy's crusade to keep Australian families to one child - since any population growth must be a problem, by his logic, right? - and to arguing for a zero growth, or even a reducing economy, along with his fierce anti-immigration campaign. If he doesn't, one can assume he's displaying the same cynicism as the government he berates - with easy point scoring and arguments which fail in terms of logic, consistency and effectiveness.

Duffy does a little detour along the way, to have a go at the way Australia constructed its armed assistance in Iraq to ensure that as few Australians as possible died while fighting 'shoulder to shoulder' with the United States. This was a policy of the Howard government, which wisely decided it wanted to sound like it loved Bush and was willing to act as his deputy sheriff, but didn't want a body count or coffins coming home. Flip this, and you can see Duffy, armchair general, thinking that a high body count would be evidence of Australia's real standing in the world, its real commitment to suffering and death. Not sure how that would fly in Kellyville, since chocolate soldiers understand that staying alive is a much better proposition than dying in a hail of glory.

But for Duffy it's evidence of hypocrisy in government, and so the war on climate change will be conducted like the war in Iraq - on Australia's terms and in an ineffectual way. We need bodies on the floor and a high corpse count if we're to be convincing, we need the country's economy fucked over and the world at near collapse.

The apocalyptic implications are interesting, in terms of Duffy's psyche, but what does it all mean?

Where does Duffy stand, what does he actually believe? Is climate change a serious issue, worthy of war and major suffering? Or is he too one of the hollow men he berates? Saying things illogical and contradictory simply for the pleasure of saying them? And does he wear his trousers rolled?

The bottom line, it seems, is that Duffy is incapable of writing a column from a deeply held and deeply considered position, but rather will lash out at whatever comes his way. The cynicism he ascribes to government, bureaucrats and politicians, is the least of it; his incoherence is the real worst of it, since government will make no changes if only hollow men are berating their hollow choices.

We are however left with some considerable insight into Duffy, partly because of his unwillingness to actually say what he thinks about climate change and whether it's real. It means he can pose glib solutions (such as reducing immigration) without thinking it through. It's the simple display of anger and posturing that will satisfy him, and by the way, in the hard copy edition, earn him an illustration (wooden puppets dangling on strings) and a prominent top left hand space while poor old Alan Ramsey yammers on about ninety year old Sydney novelist Jon Cleary in a diminished right hand of the columnists' page. Such things used to matter in the newspaper game - the promotional hand of the editor at work as Duffy backs the ramblings of an editorial about the perils of immigration and rental crises.

So to this week's scorecard for a truly excellent column - in the sense that so much irritation must produce a pearl:

Glib illogicality and incoherence: 11 
Capacity for irrelevant carping about Iraq: 11
Capacity for facile reference to a television sitcom: 11 (what an amp he's got)
Insights into the world, whether global warming is
real and what sensible things we should be doing about it: 1
Insights into Duffy: 8

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Duffy and the Evangelicals

Michael Duffy is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, and is also offered up on a regular basis as a token alternative to the perceived 'left wing bias' of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

His column on US evangelicals, published in the Herald in the Weekend Edition July 19-20, 2008 is typical of a desire to provide 'counter-clockwise' spin, though for what purpose and ultimate sense of the way the world works frequently remains a mystery.

The heading says it all - 'Strength of US evangelicals is one of the big myths of our time'. To arrive at this position, Duffy recycles the work of Christine Wicker, a Christian, former evangelical, and some time religious reporter for the Dallas Morning News. There seems to be two major payoffs for Duffy in Wicker's work - "The myth of a resurgent and incredibly influential evangelical movement allowed opponents to portray these presidents (Reagan and Bush) as nothing more than the glove puppets of superstition'. This is of course the political left's doing, embracing 'the exaggerated picture fervently' because it fitted their sense that Reagan and Bush had been 'irrational and anti-modern'.

Instead the truth - according to Duffy and Wicker - is that the fastest growing belief category is non-believers 'to which so many on the left belong'. (But why, if you follow Duffy's logic about evangelicals - to which, he claims, social progressives like Jimmy Carter and others belong - to prove that evangelicals are not what they seem, or what the left might conjure up. You might just as well say, if you were in a light hearted, Duffyish mood, that this group of non-believers - 'to which so many on the right belong' with Machiavellian relish, and perhaps throw in a few non believing right wing names to make it sound so much more meaningful and relevant).

Here then is the counter-spin. If you read Duffy right, the converse must be true - Bush and Reagan are not the glove puppets of superstition. Typically Duffy conflates Bush - who is a well known born again - with Reagan, who paid lip service to religion, but left it at that (and left Nancy to believe in all kinds of wild superstitions). But Reagan doesn't save Bush, who has given every sign during his presidency of being a glove puppet, not just to superstition, but to fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Of course it's wildly fashionable to discount evangelicals, now that the Rovian dream of a thousand year empire based on their uneasy support, has begun to fall apart, and we are in the last days of a discredited President's evangelical ministry to the world.

But why go the whole hog and start to revise history to discount evangelicals and their role in the United States? It's not that evangelicals don't have an ongoing capacity to organise and influence. Put it this way - Duffy (and Wicker's) reference to the growing category of non-believers is a blind. The day a publicly out non-believer becomes President of the United States is likely to be the same day an Islamic warrior is sworn in on a cold winter's day in Washington.
Evangelicals - and Christians in general - are an organised and potent force in the United States, whereas it's fair to suggest that non-believers couldn't organise a chook raffle in a speakeasy. The likes of Hitchens and Dawkins are simply too eccentric to constitute a movement, and non believers have nothing like a museum showing humans and dinosaurs roaming the earth together - we simply take it on faith that Raquel Welch wore no clothes when it happened.

When you get down into the depths of Duffy's article - and Wicker's methodology - it gets even more suspect. Wicker gets down to there being only 7 per cent of the American population being evangelicals by conveniently using an exclusionist definition - 'attendance at some sort of prayer group is necessary before a person can be categorised as a fervent conservative of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories of the evangelical dominance of politics'. Well that's handy. By our own hastily conjured up definition, you can't really be a fervent non-believer, of the sort conjured up in the lurid stories by evangelicals of atheists bringing Satan to the fore in politics, unless you happen to be a card carrying member of the Christopher Hitchens drinking support club (membership now open) or perhaps more marginally a geek with a computer who regularly attends Dawkins online.

So where does Duffy get with all this, potentially one of the 'big myths of our time'. Well as usual with Duffy, he doesn't get anywhere near the truth, or interesting ambiguities. But he does manage to generate a touch of fear (can non believers really be growing so fast in such a wonderful week in Sydney when the Papists frolic and dance at the race course instead of the horses and the gamblers) and he does manage to exonerate Bush as a glove puppet and he does make all that Rovian delusion about evangelicals tipping the balance in the last two election campaigns seem like a left wing conspiracy. As a bonus, I guess the tilt of the US Supreme Court to the right under Bush is no more than the kind of tilt you'd apply to a pin ball machine to make the game come out right.

Nowhere does Duffy mention the most obvious point - counting numbers is no sensible indicator of influence. Even seven per cent well organised, especially in an election where voting is optional and the margin might be a few hundred thousand, can be a devastating play. Rove was right to get on side with the evangelicals, and he and his cohorts won two elections pursuing this and like strategies. It makes no sense simply to argue that the evangelicals exaggerated their own importance, and got a lot of publicity and behaved in an entrepreneurial way beyond their real size. Rove certainly thought they were important, but I guess now he's a loser, his views don't count (perhaps one of the biggest myths of our time was that Rove's views had popular support whereas now statistical studies suggest he makes a club with one member).

If this is the best Australia can do - a columnist recycling without insight or understanding - one commentator's work on US religion - then there's little hope for intellectual life in the country. Duffy does counter-spin as a matter of habit, but as usual, his insights are driven by his bete noirs (the hysterical left as opposed to the rational libertarian). It's neurosis as commentary, and slowly we can begin to form a deeper understanding of the Duffy angst. In the meantime, perhaps it's better to read David Brooks in the NY Times and be done with it.

Our rating for Duffy and the evangelicals:

Amount of recycled thoughts: 10
Capacity for spin: 10
Insights into the world, and specifically US politics and the role of religion within it: 2
Insights into Duffy: 7