The better angels of our nature

Yeats more downbeat verse, as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole said recently, is increasingly used to characterise our contemporary problems. Perhaps, given that context, it is unsurprising and sad that another famous quote, from Abraham Lincoln and which inspired Walt Whitman, is less often heard today.

That’s ‘the better angels of our nature’, from Lincoln’s first inaugural address. It was used as the title of Steven Pinker’s 2011 book on the decline of violence which was much scoffed at but which has compelling arguments starting from the genocide god incites in the Old Testament to the levels of violence in countries post-WWII. But since then it has been used, perhaps understandably in the Trump era, much less

The blog thought of the phrase again in the context of the recent Victorian election which the Andrews Government won in a landslide and which, from early indications, may only need a couple of extra votes in the Legislative Council to get legislation through.

On election night the Premier Daniel Andrews spoke about the success of a positive and optimistic campaign. Unspoken was the implication that this contrasted with the negativism and fear used by the Opposition and successive reactionary governments around the world. Trump is merely the latest of them from the fake Zinoviev letter in the 1920s in the UK; to McCarthyism and its local counterpart under Menzies; to the forerunner of modern racist campaigns against immigrants with Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech; and to their pale imitators Matthew Guy and Peter Dutton.

Needless to say we also ought not overlook in all this the US South’s ongoing exploitation of racial fears, from Nathan Bedford Forrest’s terrorist undermining of Reconstruction, to the disgusting advertising used by the Bush Snr campaign against Michael Dukakis.

And we can expect that the forthcoming Federal election will be the mother of all Australian negative campaigns. Terrorists under the bed; pretences that ALP proposed changes to franking credit policies will damage ordinary people even though beneficiaries affected have millions in assets which they will merely pass on to their next generation; spiralling energy costs because Labor is promising to make a modest start on addressing climate change; and, of course that all children will be forced to become transgender.

The Victorian Liberal Party tried almost all of these assisted by the Murdoch media with help from Peter Dutton saying we were all too frightened to go out at night because of Sudanese gangs. His colleague, Christopher Pyne, when asked while visiting Melbourne about whether he was frightened to go out for dinner, simply looked puzzled before he realised the question’s context. For perhaps the first time in his political career – from his university days onwards – he was unable to spout an immediate torrent of words and instead just giggled.

Dutton is an ex-Queensland copper with nine years in the drug squad starting three years after the Fitzgerald Inquiry – meaning there is no doubt that he accumulated any wealth he has by conventional means even if some of it is alleged in Parliament to be through payments from the Crown thereby possibly disbarring him from office. But what might play well with some of his ex-copper mates in Queensland – like the one that got a visa for his family’s nanny – didn’t play so well in Australia’s progressive capital. In contrast Daniel Andrews, two days after the election, promised to tackle what was really the country’s greatest law and order problem – domestic violence. After all, more Australian women are the victims of fatal domestic violence than there are Australians of all sexes who have been killed by terrorists.

The first problem, however, with negative campaigns – as practised by Dutton and Scott Morrison – is that they aren’t that subtle. In contrast John Howard was a master who had learnt at the feet of George W. Bush’s advisors. Howard admitted to a senior NSW Liberal, who was sufficiently embarrassed by it to mention the fact to the blog, that Howard came back from meetings with Bush US Republican apparatchiks committed to wedge tactics designed to separate blue collar workers from their natural party. The Tampa affair, with the benefits of some lies and Kim Beazley’s wishy washiness, was the first major example of this strategy.

The second is the need for some authenticity in the proponent – a quality clearly lacking in Morrison. On its regular Sunday morning beachfront walk the blog ran into one of the regular City of Port Phillip garbage collectors with whom the blog has chatted over the years. The garbo, as well as driving the Council street sweeper doubles up from time to time on Sunday morning beach cleaning and is also an expert on Nepalese cuisine – so much so that he has written a recipe book for which the blog has sadly not managed to help him find a publisher. Both he and the blog are of ages to remember the Bluey and Curley comic strips and laugh about Scott Morrison’s resort to phrases from that era and the fake nature of his ‘authenticity’. By the way, the blog wrote a while ago that Scott Morrison may resemble a character in a Bluey and Curley comic strip but was not quite a Barry Humphries’ Les Patterson character. The blog apologises – given Morrison’s Pamela Anderson comments which the Government Minister for Women (miraculously with this Government a woman) sort of tried to write off – there is obviously a little bit of the Les Patterson as well as Bluey and Curley after all.

The third problem is that, other than catering to a narrow-minded bigoted ‘base’ they simply don’t resonate with the six out ten Australians who voted to support same sex marriage and support other progressive measures. The blog’s local electorate, Albert Park, is a good example. For the past two elections commentators have been suggesting that the incumbent, Martin Foley, was vulnerable because of the influx of young professionals and downsizing retirees who were supposedly more likely to vote Liberal or Green. In reality Foley achieved a massive swing made possible by those very same young professionals and retirees.

All in all reactionaries need to get out of the echo chamber and late night Sky News bubble and confront reality. The sad fact, while the blog is reluctant to dredge up yet another old famous quote (also possibly un-PC these days), their form of reality probably constitutes a suitable case for treatment.

And the final word should go to Frank Vincent AO – a distinguished jurist and a stalwart and extremely eloquent supporter of the annual Port Melbourne Whittaker commemoration event. Remarking on the Victorian result he said: “It is increasingly apparent that the employment of ultra conservative and essentially primitive rhetoric to engender fear and the adoption of policies of the Trumpist kind are not being accepted across a wide demographic in this country. We are showing ourselves to be better than that.”

Indeed, it is clear sign that being better than that we should hark  the better angels of our nature.