Over the last decade or so, there’s been a marked shift in western politics. And while it’s easy to assign the blame for this shift in behaviour on the politicians it’s really pandering to what they have seen in society. By tapping into the politics of fear and self-interest, political parties in many democracies have been able to gain and retain power. And they are taking advantage of a broken world to further fracture and divide in an almost Orwellian way.
I recently re-read George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, about a dystopian future where the surveillance state was all powerful, personal freedom was extremely limited and society was kept in a state of perpetual war with a distant enemy in order to foster a sense of reliance on the government for safety. The surveillance apparatus is used to ensure potential bad influences are discovered and “re-educated”.
Orwell went further saying “freedom is slavery” and that “ignorance is strength”.
All three of those phrases resonate strongly in today’s “democratic” world. And I use the word “democratic” advisedly as the use of gerrymanders to manipulate electoral boundaries and the marginalisation of voters to discourage or ban them from voting helps ensure the status quo is maintained.
War is Peace
Governments have learned over the last couple of centuries that the best way to ensure power is to stay stability is required during a time of crisis. And what better crisis than to declare a war. George W Bush’s “war on terror’, the resulting conflicts in the Middle East and Asia have all but ensured conservative rule in the United State. Sure, the presidency might have flip-flopped between the Democrats and Republicans but control of the other branches of government have been relatively stable.
Australia’s conservative government confected its own war during the Prime Ministership of arch-conservative John Howard. Howard kept it closer to home with his war on refugees – specifically those arriving on creaky and dangerous boats from across the world. His party went to so far as to lie about refugee-seekers throwing children off boats in order to get them onto Australian rescue craft.
Australia, to its great shame, now keep refugees as hostages on Manus Island to deter others fleeing countries that have been torn apart by Western governments “helping” them in their own conflicts.
Those “wars”are great for headlines and help keep people distracted from other matters like offering humanitarian aide or bolstering universal healthcare.
Stay in conflict off-shore – keep people at peace with what’s happening at home.
Freedom is slavery
Have you noticed how our civil liberties are being eroded? There are surveillance cameras “for our protection”. Social media allows many of us to be tracked easily by both malicious and less-obviously malicious parties. Almost every financial transaction we carry out is electronically recorded.
Of course, the government’s response to increased surveillance and local legislation such as metadata retention for access by law enforcement and attempts to weaken to application of strong encryption on communications is to say that if you are doing nothing wrong you have nothing to fear.
However, the definition of “wrong” can change. In the course of my life we’ve seen corporal punishment in schools banned (and rightfully so!) as well as the attitude to drink-driving, seatbelts in cars and numerous other things change. Society’s view of right and wrong changes over time.
So, by curtailing our freedom, governments are, so they say, doing us a favour. In a sense, they are saying our freedom is a negative that we need managed for us.
Ignorance is Strength
Two things have happened over the last 40 years or so in my observation. We have been exposed to greater degrees of complexity in government policy and education standards in the west have been under attack. That’s allowed politicians to simplify their rhetoric and pander to populist sentiment. That’s created a shift where rather than serving the public interest, politicians are now serving their parties and their own will to stay in power.
By keeping people the dark about the detail of policy, governments are able to reduce complex issues into short slogans.
If we take the issue of asylum seekers, the government in Australia did the following.
- They changed the language from “asylum seeker” to “illegal immigrant”. They got away with this because not enough people were able to argue that it is not illegal to enter a country in any way and seek asylum.
- They turned the argument towards people smugglers and away from the conflicts and persecution people were fleeing. Rather than talk about religious persecution on war, they focussed on an issue that was easier to articulate and less lily to be attributed to them. That’s important as our role in the “War on Terror” was a major exacerbating factor in creating those conflicts people are fleeing.
- Members of the government blatantly played the racism card, using the phrase “African gangs” and escalating the rhetoric around religious extremists, particularly muslims, even though crime statistics show other groups, mainly white Anglo-Saxon males, were more likely to commit crimes.
All of that resulted in three small words; Stop the boats.
It’s little wonder that a marketing executive with a spotty past has ended up as the Australian Prime Minister.
By obfuscating information, omitting it or manipulating data, the government was able to create a new narrative by keeping enough of the electorate ignorant of the facts in order to maintain its own strength.