2015: A carnival of cognitive dissonance
Having experienced power, how do you relinquish it? What happens when your conviction is compromised or antiquated – or your services unwanted? What happens when your ego is no longer the thrust of your talent, but a camouflage for your failure? Do you rage against the dying of the light – or do you concede it?
AFL great James Hird – whose curls and soft syllables disguise an enormous will to success – was finally sacked this year by Essendon Football Club as its coach. It was preceded by a disastrous administrative failure, one that permitted a charlatan to influence its medicine regime, and an interminable legal process that has destroyed club morale. Meanwhile, Tony Blair – 12 years on – partially admitted to the destructive farce of the 2003 Iraq invasion. Neither moment was voluntary.
And nor was Tony Abbott’s sudden demotion to the backbench. Was Abbott bravely independent, or ruinously insulated? A cultural sentinel, or a cultural clot? A visionary, or a blind man? A great majority of people felt one way – Abbott still feels another.
Our former prime minister’s fetish for the past was eccentric in its ferocity. His anachronism may have been bemusing if its prosecution was not so vindictive. Abbott is not the only politician to have seen enemies everywhere, but his commitment to eternal combat was disastrously enclosing – he spoke tirelessly about present dangers, but the future was locked out of the discussion. In Abbott’s rhetoric, it didn’t exist.
Abbott’s concept of danger and salvation made for strange priorities. His contempt for a televised talk show eclipsed his attention to economic atrophy. We spoke for weeks about the spectre of media bias at the ABC, but little about an ageing population, a decrepit tax system, the ramifications of a contracting China. The culture wars seemed to enliven him, but they dispirited the rest of us.
Daesh was a perfect foil for Abbott’s grand conception of danger, but the greater threats to Australia were more prosaic. One wonders if they even interested him. Yet even the great and sustaining theme Daesh provided – a clash of civilisations – didn’t translate into a clear enunciation of strategy. Abbott’s preferred designation for the group – “death cult” – was accurate and memorable, but its witless repetition drained it of power. And the description would almost entirely substitute for explications of history, culture or military design. Abbott’s once-notorious verbosity had been replaced with slogans.
I thought, during the 2013 election, that no matter how weird or ideologically fervent a leader might be, their leadership would be constrained by Australian moderateness and the strength and independence of our institutions. I was wrong. We were taken, almost immediately, very far to the right. And it was a strange right – one that abandoned austerity, and had a lack of care or interest in competition and ingenuity, most notably in its vituperative attitude to renewable energy. It appeared vindictive and inchoate, a government given clarity only by the bizarre bloody-mindedness of its leader. Abbott’s stubbornness – reinforced, one imagines, by his insistent reading of Churchill – was another key to his unwinding. Leadership should resemble a skyscraper – strong, functional, conspicuous, but built with a flexibility that allows it to sway at the very top lest it be broken by winds. Anthony John Abbott had a design flaw.
Malcolm Turnbull said at least two notable things on the day of his promotion – one before the ballot, and one after. At 4 o’clock that afternoon, Turnbull made his pitch for a leadership that “respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues … We need advocacy, not slogans.” Then, speaking after his success, he promised a “thoroughly liberal government committed to freedom, the individual and the market”.
But the next day Turnbull modified his characterisation, and described his party as a “broad church”. It was a necessary compromise. On the night of the leadership ballot, an incredible 30 people voted for Kevin Andrews to replace Julie Bishop as deputy. It was a symbolic repudiation of Turnbull – for surely they could not have believed they had the numbers for Andrews’ promotion – and an indication of the size of dissent. Turnbull may be a liberal, but he will have to govern in two languages – one that might speak to his beliefs and the Australian centre, and one that might mollify his internal enemies. All will be lost if he can’t engender party unity. And yet the agitations rumble on.
In Canberra, this year confirmed for most that too many of our elected are representing themselves. As treasurer, Joe Hockey promised an end to the age of entitlement. When it all fell apart, our high priest of rectitude was rewarded for his mediocrity with the biggest plum there is – the ambassadorship to the United States.
Bronwyn Bishop had her own issues of profligacy and, having enjoyed the bizarrely rigorous support of the prime minister during her expense scandal, became bitter when it was finally, inevitably, revoked. That support came at great cost to Abbott, but she returned the favour by voting against him in the spill. Bishop now tells us she will seek an eighth term as the member for Mackellar, in order to fight terrorism. What no politician can ever say is that they are often fighting against the twilight of relevance. It is ripe fruit for satirists, but the rest of us slump into angry torpor.
Then there was Ian Macfarlane, broken and thwarted when his old mate Turnbull dumped him from the frontbench. Macfarlane expressed his sense of betrayal by attempting a defection to the Nationals, but it backfired when his membership was rejected. The plot was both failed and distasteful, and his political career now appears untenable.
It is childish to pretend that the ambition and self-regard of politicians can’t be useful or necessary; and nor should we desire their egoless participation or uniformity in public life. But there’s a dark side to this moon, and the public are wise to it. We hear scripts about sacrifice and public service – but we see acts of vengeance and self-promotion. “Leadership changes are never easy for our country. My pledge today is to make this change as easy as I can,” Abbott said in his last speech as prime minister. “There will be no wrecking, no undermining and no sniping.”
Our capital is a carnival of cognitive dissonance.
It’s been said that any perceived difference between the new PM and his predecessor on national security is a matter of style not function – that the apparatus of national security remains untouched. But on the substantive matter of troops in Syria, the two men differ greatly.
Abbott’s mischief has been most voluble when the PM is overseas, and it was during such an absence that he led his choir of dissidents in a hymn for combat boots in Syria. Turnbull was of a different mind, and agreed with the US president, whom he had just met. “[Obama’s] view is that the presence of foreign armies in that theatre at the present time would be counterproductive given the lessons of history, relatively recent history,” Turnbull said.
It is a great difference between Abbott and the new prime minister, and not merely as a point of military strategy. Abbott wears his reading of history like a magic cloak, one brightly embroidered with heroic examples of British power – Churchill’s repudiation of Chamberlain’s appeasement, Thatcher’s swift reclamation of the Falklands. These are sustaining stories for Abbott – they offer light and certitude. But Bush jnr saw light and certitude, too, and deployed troops with an ahistorical optimism. It resulted in a rolling calamity that has long outlived his presidency.
It is as if Abbott views Daesh solely as an existential problem – an evil that floats above history – and one that can be expunged with unburdened force. If only it were that simple. While the world would celebrate the erasure of these goons, there are few experts who do not stress the conditions that birthed them, nor the inadequacy of troops in correcting those conditions. Daesh exists at a bedevilled crossroads of history, to which Western force has laid its own path.
Turnbull is more pragmatic. The humbling legacy of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya is obvious to him. History is not a grab bag from which you can pluck your inspiration. While Abbott dreams impotently of Churchillian strength, the more pressing issue is stopping kids at home from emulating atrocity. The easy ubiquity of terror’s seeds is the modern problem for intelligence services, but arresting warped teens on laptops doesn’t offer the same frisson as the Blitz. And yet you can’t fight this by recasting former battles.
Which is not to say that we don’t have a problem. We do. Reclaim Australia, Jacqui Lambie, and the recently exhumed Pauline Hanson – thugs and demagogues, respectively – have offered the left an intellectual foil. They provide flatulent proof that concern for Islamist terror is racism by another name. If only it were that simple.
Global insecurity, the threat of terror, 60 million displaced persons – these have been rapturously exploited by Donald Trump in his quest for the US presidency. Trump’s bid was once dismissed as quixotic and vain, but an opportunity for the rest of us to watch this fatuous exhibitionist falter. No more. Trump handsomely leads the Republican pack, his popularity surviving awesome vulgarity and a near-complete absence of policy. His campaign has been a frightening revival of an older kind of populism, and those who were expecting the rough pleasure of schadenfreude are now experiencing a distressed bafflement. No one, it seems, saw this coming.
In The New York Times, columnist David Brooks expressed optimism that Trump’s ascendancy was the work of an early and fickle flirtation. It is one thing to express commitment in non-binding polls more than a year before the election; it is another to formally register that commitment in the voting booth.
Maybe. But should Trump fade in 2016, his ideas will remain. Almost half of Trump’s supporters – and there are many – believe Islam should be outlawed in their country. He has served as a resonant spokesperson for America’s id. The lid is off.
Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders also found a surprising popularity this year, despite – or because of – his rejection of classically centrist policies. Sanders is a plain-spoken socialist, perhaps the closest thing the US has to Jeremy Corbyn, and the style of his campaign has been almost as unusual as Trump’s. At 74 years old, he resembles a humble college professor – crumpled suits and crumpled posture. The style is not resignation, but a rejection of the expensively vacuous gloss of modern campaigns. Few believe he can beat the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, who comfortably leads the polls, but it is tempting to view Sanders and Trump as avatars of a great American loss of confidence.
Clarke calls stumps
A year passed since the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, helmets were modified, and Australia’s chief mourner from that time retired. Michael Clarke was publicly dignified in grief, offering a counterpoint to a long reputation of callowness and self-absorption. But in the subsequent year, the captain remained unpopular in the dressing room; out in the middle, his form vanished. The triumphant World Cup in March seemed the perfect time to pull stumps, but Clarke’s ego couldn’t glimpse the inevitable and he led his country to a spectacular capitulation in England. World champions of the one-day form, the Test side had reached its use-by date. In one magical spell, Stuart Broad – 8-15 – exposed Australia’s frailty and triggered the retirement of nearly half the team.
A hunger that outlasts the body is a signature of many athletes, and Clarke ended his career ignominiously in a dead rubber at The Oval rather than the exaltation of a full MCG. There are worse things, and for all the tears and recrimination he bowed out with a near-great Test average of 49.10. He was a natural batsman. Another natural, Steven Smith, replaced him and became Australia’s third-youngest captain. He now leads a team in transition.
This year, Australian sport lost another Phil. Walsh’s death was sudden, startling and brutal, and a family and a footy club were robbed of a uniquely thoughtful man. We may never see another football coach discuss strategy by way of Vincent van Gogh. A man who, via a near-death experience in Peru, was liberated from the aggressive myopia of pro-sports. As for his club: the Adelaide Crows made the last six, and did so by winning one of the great finals games. The Adelaide/Western Bulldogs elimination final was a revival of brilliantly ebullient football and no doubt, after the final siren, the boys wished Walsh had been there to see it.
Elsewhere, the obdurate Football Federation of Australia (FFA) clashed with its fans and players and replaced its chairman, Frank Lowy, with his son, Steven. This is, of course, the same FFA that ran a disastrous 2022 World Cup hosting bid, of which stories continued to emerge this year. Lowy, one of the world’s wealthiest shopping magnates, pegged the failure to a naive belief he could run an honest campaign in a dishonest world. Yet it was the same campaign that employed the shadowy Peter Hargitay, a man enmeshed with the FIFA hierarchy and one simultaneously working for rival Qatar. So vexed and suspect was his employment that the FFA refused to publicly acknowledge it – until, that is, a journalist got wind of it. Our bid was but a calculating acceptance of the status quo.
Vale David Carr
The losses didn’t stop. In 2015 we mourned one of my favourite journalists, The New York Times’ media reporter David Carr, who collapsed in the newsroom at the age of 58. In his final years it was his job to report the structural sicknesses of his own profession, and he did so with gruff alacrity. It was a miracle that he was even there. Years before, Carr was a hopeless crack addict – abusive, sick and spectacularly negligent. In his memoir, The Night of the Gun, Carr unsparingly applied his investigative skills to his own past. He knocked on the doors of old lovers, friends and dealers, and reported the awful revelations he found behind them. Carr’s history was even worse than he thought, and he painfully unpeeled the protectively distorted layers of his memories. There was never a request for our sympathy – he was as hard on himself as he was on any other subject.
The memoir’s prose was rough and beautiful – bracingly candid, muscular but melodic. He was aware of the risk of artfulness transfiguring his rottenness, and so he hemmed to honesty. His writing had absorbed the spirit of the Minnesotan punk and garage scene in which he was once so deliriously embedded. If Paul Westerberg were a journalist, he might’ve sounded something like David Carr.
Lennon and women
In 2015, 35 years after the murder of her ex-husband, Cynthia Lennon succumbed to cancer. As fans built anniversary shrines to their hero, the woman who might have had something to say about their sentimentality was buried.
Contrary to the revived hagiographies of John Lennon this December, the former Beatle could be violent and ruthless – a point he often made himself. Lennon was acerbic, cynical and torturously self-aware. His wit was often deployed caustically, a weapon used against himself as much as others. He was alternately bemused and irritated by the myths that surrounded him and his old band. Which is to say, he was both worse and more interesting than the saccharine mark we forced him to leave on our popular memory.
In a televised interview with Dick Cavett in 1971, Lennon squirmed, smoked and chewed gum. He seemed tired of his celebrity and its attendant demands and duplicities. He joked tartly about the blindness of his teachers, who had overlooked his latent genius. But he would become blind himself – his giant soul untethered to McCartney’s talents – and later would beseech us to “imagine no possessions” while playing piano in his mansion.
“John scared me 75 per cent of the time,” Cynthia wrote in her first memoir, and in an interview just months before his murder, John would tell a journalist: “Hitting females is something I’m always ashamed of and still can’t talk about – I’ll have to be a lot older before I can face that in public, about how I treated women as a youngster.”
Imagine would be produced by another genius – Phil Spector – a formidably twisted man who was convicted of murdering a woman in his own mansion in 2003. An appeal on his conviction was rejected this year.
Progress and compromise
Certain obduracies dissolved this year. By popular vote, Ireland ratified same-sex marriage, while the US Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to outlaw it. NASA told us that our planet’s 10 hottest years have all occurred since 2000 – with the exception of 1998 – and this month the Paris climate talks surprisingly reversed the bitter failure of Copenhagen six years previous and cemented the commitment of nearly every country to a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
It is beyond my competence to reconcile this progress and compromise with a globe that is experiencing wild fissures. Since 2000, the number of displaced persons has increased by 20 million, and a principal cause of that – the Syrian civil war – is being sustained by a modern, byzantine replication of the Cold War.
Back at home, our hope for the new year might be that Turnbull keeps his promise to speak to us as adults. Debt has increased, and so too our inadequacy in speaking about it. Debt has become the hot potato in a child’s game – always a bad thing, but rarely yours – and Turnbull’s self-possession, one hopes, is the thing to break this cycle of intellectual inanity. The inanity is a symptom of a vain tribalism, and it has infected most aspects of our public life.
Our future will be – as it always has – both shaped and clouded by fevered egos. But how do you stop and concede the dying of the light?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 19, 2015 as "2015: A carnival of cognitive dissonance". Subscribe here.