A famous American once wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .” No, it wasn’t Donald Trump (I said “wrote”!). The quotation, however, is a nice introduction to my theme: that politics is inimical to consistency of opinion.
Barack Obama is a secret Moslem who wasn’t born in America. Donald Trump is, wittingly or not, a Russian agent. If you find one of those statements plausible and one not, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re a human being with some sort of an interest in politics.
It is almost irresistibly convenient to believe the worst about our opponents, and not just in the limited sphere of formal politics. We all know that those on the other side of the fence – in politics, work, sport or family dynamics – are not only morally inferior; but also unfairly favoured by the gods, referees, the electoral system and Rupert Murdoch.
All too often political abuse is characterised by an insane lack of judgement and proportion. You can accuse an opponent of any silly thing, no matter how implausible, confident that some of your allies will accept, embellish and reproduce it. For instance, Bertrand Russell – a ferociously intelligent man – described John Kennedy as much more wicked than Hitler. I’m sorry, Bertie but you should get out more. The comparison between Kennedy and one of his successors, Bill Clinton, is more apt because, although neither of them could keep his dick in his trousers (a quality they shared with Bertrand Russell, incidentally), fashions in public indignation had changed by the time Clinton came to power. Kennedy was lucky enough to be famous at a time when root rats were glamorous and the Press could be relied on to keep its mouth shut. Clinton, on the other hand, was condemned as a sleazebag. Admittedly Kennedy’s … er … conquests seem to have included women of genuine distinction: Mafia harlots, for instance; prostitutes; film stars. Poor old Bill, on the other hand seems to have been fated to link up with second raters. He even found himself married to a woman who couldn’t beat Donald Trump in an election.
Donald Trump is, by the length of the straight, the most ludicrous U.S. President in history – a constant source of embarrassment to his fellow citizens and amusement to me. However he’s not photogenic enough to be the Beast of the Apocalypse and doesn’t even have enough integrity or personality to be the second coming of Richard Nixon. Yet to hear his supporters tell it he’s the authentic voice of the people (a frightening thought given that most of them are allowed to vote). Barrack Obama, perceived by his enemies as an alien betrayer of US interests and by his supporters as a paragon of virtue was actually a bottomless reservoir of metronomic platitudes and not much else. He won the Nobel Prize for Blandness, didn’t he?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, John Howard, a suburban lawyer with the charisma of an accountant, was disguised, for a time, as the Australian Prime Minister. He ended his career, much to my enjoyment, by losing an election to an ABC wind-up toy. Howard was described as an unflushable turd by a person (Mungo Macallum) who apparently made a living by providing political commentary. Epithets such as “racist” and “war criminal” almost passed for moderation among Howard’s critics. Abuse at that level no doubt, boosted his ego but reflected badly on the critics’ sense of proportion. We weren’t much better off after Howard departed: he was succeeded by the abominable Kevin Rudd, who is famous for eating his own ear wax in Parliament. You don’t believe me? Look here
stabbed in the back succeeded by Julia Gillard. She was the most embarrassing Australian Prime Minister in my lifetime, beating Biddy McMahon by a short half-head, but that’s all she was. She wasn’t capable of doing anything on a grand scale, either good or ill. After all, there isn’t much novelty in a politician being a treacherous liar; I doubt if anybody has ever become Prime Minister without it. To hear her critics tell it, though, she was a combination of Messalina and Myra Hindley. I shall always remember fondly her entertaining habit of leaping to her feet and squeaking “Misogyny!!!”, to roars of applause from the Fairfax press, every time somebody disagreed with her.
The point is that Joe Ordinary’s reactions to these politicians were predictable and depended almost entirely on Joe’s own political allegiance. Most politicians, of any party, have no personalities other than those invented by their hired liars with the aim of deceiving you. That won’t inhibit you from the most disgusting excesses of adulation or vituperation at the next election.
Has this always been the case? Or can I blame “social media” – almost as ridiculous a concept as “reality television”- for the decline of civilisation. (I realise that all fulminations against Facebook should be done in a Walter Brennan voice but I have a sore throat.) Abraham Lincoln was described by some of his contemporaries as “an idiot”, “a Yahoo” , “the original gorilla” and other endearments. The vows of many Clinton supporters to emigrate if she lost the 2016 US election were foreshadowed by the determination of a prominent abolitionist, who disagreed with some of Lincoln’s policies, to move to Fiji if he was re-elected. She seems to have turned out just as much a bullshitter as they did; see evidence here A good article about anti-Lincoln feeling can be found here
So why are our judgements so unbalanced? Why do political affiliations lead us into inconsistent opinions? Is it a variant of the Endowment Effect according to which we value goods (and, presumably, people) more highly if we feel they are “ours”, that we have some proprietary interest in them? Is it just that we feel unable to express an opinion on a public subject without a crowd to shelter in? Are we afraid to hold a nuanced position? Are we more comfortable with a simplistic view of the world? If any of these explanations are true why the hell are we allowed to vote?
Oh and who was the American who inspired the title of this post? It was Ralph Waldo Emerson (no relation to Roy as far as I know).