Miscellany: Jefferson and the media

Jefferson and the media

The health authorities’ policy of preventing fish and chip shop owners from wrapping their products in yesterday’s papers has removed, sadly, one of the last constraints on journalistic ahistoricism.

At least fish and chip consumers could test whether the 24 hour world view of the average journalist stood the test of some time. But now, opinions of one moment are superseded a moment later and the ahistorical rules OK.

Nothing illustrates this better than the coverage of the recent election and its aftermath. The brilliant campaigner of a few weeks ago is now a narcissistic lunatic and the little guy on his last legs is a genius.

It reminds one of Thomas Jefferson’s view of the media when he said: “The man (Jefferson may have been a child of the Enlightenment but didn’t quite get equal opportunity, even for Sally Hemings) who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehood and error.”

Of course, a good test for the coverage of the post-election aftermath is historical. Simply dig out the old coverage of the Keating-Hewson aftermath and just randomly substitute names of people and parties from today and then try to pick the differences in analysis.

While life is probably too short to bother, it is perhaps worth looking back to that time to try to make some sense of the present and the future. For all those arguing about whether the ALP is facing despair or deep despair and/or destruction or total destruction it is worth remembering that the last Labor government was in power for 13 and a half years and – despite the predictions at the time – that wasn’t the end of the Coalition. In fact, another historical comparison may even provide some hope. In Jeff Kennett’s first election as Premier he got a swing to him in the marginals and a swing against him in his safest seats. Fast forward to October 9 and the same phenomenon applies. Some small indicator of some future trend?


Barry Cohen thinks the ALP is becoming anti-Semitic; the US Government introduces a law to monitor world-wide anti-Semitism; and, a Liberal candidate accuses Michael Danby of being soft on Israel.

Is there a tide of rising anti-Semitism in the ALP and the world and, if so, what caused it? It’s difficult to say for certain, but what seems clear is that the focal points of anti-Semitism are experiencing significant change.

For most of the past 2000 years anti-Semitism has been firmly associated with the Christian Church. The Christians – while routinely hating, persecuting and murdering each other and other religions always saved their worst excesses for Jews. Gore Vidal, in his novel about the Emperor Julian the Apostate, summarized it well in a scene where Julian invites in all the bishops to tell them they are free to continue persecuting each other but forbidden to persecute followers of other religions.

In contrast, for much of the past 1000 years, the Jewish communities which lived under the most tolerant situations tended to be in Muslim lands. A thought experiment illustrates the validity of this generalization. Imagine for a moment a European Muslim or Jewish community which suffered almost no persecution in the past 1000 years. Then consider the same question for Muslim controlled areas. There are none of the first and plenty of the second.

Today Israel’s strongest supporters are the religious right in the US and the most virulent anti-Semitism comes from some fundamentalist Muslims (stressing the some and the fundamentalist naturally).

The change is a product of many things. In most Christian countries old-fashioned shame and guilt have played a significant role. But a more interesting trend has been the rise of fundamentalism.

When Oliver Cromwell reversed Simon de Montfort’s expulsion of the Jews from Britain there were many reasons for the decision. But one argument was that the Second Coming would be preceded by the conversion of the Jews and it was a bit hard to convert them when they were not about. There was even a London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews which that delightful rogue, Trebitsch Lincoln, later managed to defraud during his many adventures.

By the late 20th century it was not just conversion but the imminent prospect of Armageddon, the Apocalypse and conversion which featured large in the thought of US fundamentalists. For those, by the way, who imagine these people are a small, mad minority it is recommended they watch a Bush election rally and read Garry Wills’ Under God. Sadly, as Wills shows, secular humanists have been completely ambushed by the growth of fundamentalism in western society, partly because they just didn’t take it seriously.

So now we have Christian fundamentalists wanting Israel supported at all cost and some Muslim fundamentalists wanting it destroyed – a total reversal of the historic position.

This is not to say that traditional Western anti-Semitism has disappeared. Under any rock in Central Europe or Russia the old nationalist Right still flourishes and still espouses the same old madness. This particularly virulent form also hasn’t disappeared from the US either. In the past decade B’nai B’rith statistics suggest that that in most years there were more anti-Semitic incidents on US campuses than there were throughout all France – a nation frequently accused of being one where the strain was re-emerging. There is also still the same casual, low-level anti-Semitism in Australia and other countries which could be found in the 1930’s in Buchan, T.S.Eliot, London clubs and British business circles.

Of course, the other danger is the logical mistake Barry Cohen makes – of equating anti-Semitism with opposition to Israeli Government policies. If opposing Ariel Sharon and his Government is anti-Semitic then there are an awful lot of Israeli citizens who fail the test.

In the 2004 Leadership Victoria Leadership Report (Different Galaxies) we examined the extensive AustraliaSCAN data to find out who Australians regarded as the nations who were their best friends and those they were least friendly towards. Most friendly were New Zealand, the UK and Canada. Least friendly were Libya, Israel, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Libya was less negatively regarded than Israel!

Clearly this is not symptomatic of rampant Australian anti-Semitism but concern about global risk and/or Israeli government policies.

However, when the Cohen logical mistake is left unchallenged the biggest danger is that anti-anti-Semitism simply becomes another version of the political mistakes of anti-anti-Communism. The parallels become more pronounced when you compare the work of – say – Arthur Koestler and Christopher Hitchens in puncturing anti-anti-communism with Peter Novick’s deeply considered, The Holocaust in Collective Memory, and Norman G. Finklestein’s polemical rave, The Holocaust Industry.

The FT and conventional wisdom

After extolling the Financial Times the other day it was sad to see them fall into the old conventional wisdom trap and claim that Harvard was America’s oldest university.

Some years ago, trying to persuade my then-staff to avoid conventional thinking, I posed a conventional wisdom quiz. It worked by asking questions with seemingly obvious answers to challenge conventional thinking. One of the questions was: Which university is the oldest in America? The others were:

  • Which company is the largest producer of software in the world?
  • Which country is the largest exporter of software in the world?
  • Which Australian State grows most apples?
  • Which nation – France or Australia – lost more dead at Gallipoli?

The aim was to encourage people to challenge the quick conventional assumptions we tend to make – the assumptions which aggregate into conventional wisdom, those profoundly erroneous views which are shared by many.

The quiz also acts as a useful indicator of voting intention. If you get them all wrong you probably voted Green or Family First. Some right and some wrong you probably voted Coalition or Labor. If you got them all right you probably left the country to avoid the campaign altogether.

PS Answers next week.