Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Through the looking glass

One of the most vexing questions in all philosophy and social sciences is how language interacts with, shapes and perhaps even creates our observations of the world before us. As Berkely, Kant and others noted, we can never know the thing in itself. We only know our experiences of the world, and as they change, so does the way we view the world.
Usually however, we can be pretty sure that the words in our head correspond to reality, at least allowing us to navigate our way around and survive. If I tell you to get out of the water to avoid a shark, your views about them or even lack of any knowledge of what a “shark” is, wont actually prevent you seeing the moving beast or having it take a bite out of you. We might not know whats really there, but only the (engangered) skeptic would doubt there really is a shark there.

But what if I started calling all fish as “sharks”. You’d be hopping in and out of the water every few minutes, and end up probably ignoring my claims if not wanting to throw me to the “sharks”. Hence our desire to be as specific as possible in our labeling, our survival depends upon it. This applies equally to human constructs. You can’t touch, taste, see, smell, hear or feel a Nation-State, but you can still be significantly harmed by it. Hence our need for accurate reporting. Unfortunately the Internets latest rising star in Political Journalism Politico seems to be betraying that duty. Take this headline post:

Class Warfare returns to Washington

President Barack Obama has spent months recasting Democratic goals on climate change and health care reform from liberal-leaning moral imperatives to hard-core economic necessities.
But when it comes to paying for them, Obama’s creative juices seemed to run dry as he turned Thursday to his party’s most predictable revenue enhancer: taxing the wealthy.
The result: an instant revival of an old and predictable Washington debate.
“This budget makes clear that the era of Big Government is back, and Democrats want you to pay for it,” said House Republican leader John A. Boehner.
And right on cue, Obama defended his $1.3 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years with a little class warfare.
“I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington, who think our budget and tax system is just fine as it is. No wonder — it works for them,” the president said. “I work for the American people, and I’m determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November.”

There is however absolutely nothing in Obama’s actions that could even uncharitably be classified as Class Warfare. Whilst we use the term “war” far too often (war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty etc) the idea of class warfare has specific meanings from the Communist and Socialist take on the importance of class in shaping the substructure of society. To undertake class warfare you have to actually believe in an idea of not just clashing classes, but that its a zero-sum fight between two rival sides. Obama’s plan on the other hand offers tax cuts to 95% of Americans and a decision to let the Bush tax cuts lapse in 2013. All for the purpose of trying to create a system of universal health care, and drastically reduce a $1.75 Trillion dollar deficit. All at a time where the income inequality gap has dramatically widened and middle class wages virtually stagnated over the last three decades.

Unless there are two classes, the top 5% and the entire rest of the American population, and that 5% finds ideas like deficit reduction and health care a smear on its values, then this is not by any means class warfare.

So what is to explain such a approach to writing the story. We could simply put this down to biased journalism. The writer may be a Republican or fiscal conservative and hence wanting to cast the Presidents actions in a negative light, as the House Republican leader John Boehner does in the article. But there’s a better explanation at work: A journalists reliance on cliches to explain the world before them.

Internet political journalism is tough. There’s thousands of competitors (like this blog) who happily do it for free, and typically they have been frozen out by the Mainstream cable and newspaper organisations, or by political administrations who are yet to warm to the un-tamable world of the internet. Like all journalists they probably need to write a half dozen articles a day, if not before lunchtime. And so they cut corners in taking the time to describe the world before them, and rely on clichés to quickly pump out articles, but in this case it serves only to distort and obscure the world before us.

Politico was a great resource during the election, and Ben Smiths Blog on the site, is great for keeping up with the days events and current distractions of Washingtons political class. But as a source of journalism, the site itself is descending into cliches that are distorting the world they are claiming to bring us unfiltered and clear observations of. It’s difficult enough to know what’s actually happening without accepting second rate efforts by others. At least with bias you can correct for the writers (conscious or unconscious) distortion of whats happening; with those claiming to be offering objective journalism, its just unacceptable.

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  1. A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks