Sunday, July 07, 2013

Inside Waleed Aly's mind ...

There are many, many reasons that the pond rarely bothers with The Monthly, but if you wanted to find a single reason, then the piece by Waleed Aly, Tony Abbott's Mind, is as good as any.

Aly has in the past, somewhat cruelly, been dubbed the smiling face of Islam, and it's true that as a token moderate representative of Islam, he's been given an easy time at Fairfax and the ABC.

He's certainly been adept at making a career as an apologist, and he manages to teeter between the moderate and the conservative in a way which is wholly admirable if you want to have some sort of veneer of appeal to all sides.

His exercise for The Monthly,  allegedly delving into Tony Abbott's mind, is the classic work of an apologist, with defence lawyer twist, and it's when we come to the matter of climate science that we see where this leads:

It’s easy to mock Abbott’s changing positions on climate change. It’s also easy to see the streak of denialism in him. Battlelines rehearses several classic denialist arguments: we’ve had radical changes in climate before industrialisation; future changes in climate are “unknown and perhaps even benign”; climate change used to be called “global warming” until particularly cold winters in Europe and North America demonstrated that the alarmists were wrong. He cites approvingly Bjorn Lomborg’s declaration that “a narrow focus on reducing carbon emissions could leave future generations lumbered with major costs, without major cuts in temperatures”. It’s a deceptive line. The point of carbon-emission reduction isn’t to reduce global temperatures: it’s to limit the inevitable temperature rise to a level that isn’t catastrophic. 
The truth is that Abbott’s beliefs on climate-change science don’t govern his political actions. He supported an ETS under Howard, then opposed one in Battlelines. He supported one again under Turnbull’s leadership, then unseated his boss and took his job in order to defeat it. Now he rails against the carbon tax. Clearly, he opposes an ETS or a carbon tax as a matter of principle. Whether or not he supports one as a matter of policy is, at all times, a matter of political judgement. If he thinks it is inevitable, if he thinks the argument against it is ultimately lost, then he will acquiesce. That’s what led John Howard to adopt one just before his political demise. It’s what led Abbott to go along with Turnbull, who famously declared that the Coalition would be “wiped out” without one. But, in the end, Abbott was convinced that “the politics of this issue have changed dramatically”. He was right.

He was right?

This is, amazingly enough, even more cynical than Abbott.

It starts with the "it's easy to mock" and then it ends with "He was right", and in between, we can see the apologist at work.

Try to break down these contradictory thought bubbles:

Clearly, he opposes an ETS or a carbon tax as a matter of principle. 

Uh huh. A principled man.

Whether or not he supports one as a matter of policy is, at all times, a matter of political judgement. 

Uh huh. An unprincipled man.

If he thinks it is inevitable, if he thinks the argument against it is ultimately lost, then he will acquiesce. 

Uh huh. A man utterly without principles.

Or perhaps a deluded man by name Waleed Aly who thinks that life is just one long political judgement, and whatever you can get away with, is right.

Now you might think it unfair to ping Aly in this way in relation to Abbott and climate science, but by column's end, he does exactly the same thing in relation to Abbott and abortion:

In Battlelines, he makes an explicit distinction between “deploring the frequency of abortion and trying to re-criminalise it”. From his time as Howard’s health minister, and from Battlelines, we know his approach will be to try to “nudge the abortion rate down without affecting women’s right to choose”, probably by tailoring support services accordingly. But he’ll also be extremely wary of taking any steps that will unleash a backlash. For Marr, this is because Politics Abbott won’t have the numbers and wouldn’t risk the political cost of doing anything more coercive. I suspect his reasons are more philosophically considered. His political conservatism means he understands the folly of trying to re-create the past. He knows that any attempt at regressive change would probably create a bigger problem than it is trying to solve.

It's almost criminal to use the words "philosophically considered" in this context, unless you happen to think that Machiavelli was philosophically considered.

We already have a guide to how Abbott related to the matter of abortion, in his behaviour as Health Minister when the matter of the RU486 pill came before him.

And we still have an indication of Abbott's attitudes in a speech which remains on his website here, under the header The ethical responsibilities of a Christian politician.

As Abbott ostensibly remains a Christian politician, we can assume his position remains much the same:

Christian faith is not an essential pre-condition for serious worry about where this type of tilitarianism might lead. The problem with the contemporary Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience. Aborting a first trimester foetus is not morally identical to deliberately killing a living human being but it’s not just removing a wart or a cyst either. 
Even those who think that abortion is a woman’s right should be troubled by the fact that 100,000 Australian women choose to destroy their unborn babies every year. What does it say about the state of our relationships and our values that so many women (and their husbands, lovers and families) feel incapable of coping with a pregnancy or a child? To a pregnant 14 year old struggling to grasp what’s happening, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It’s hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations. 
What seems to be considered far less often is avoiding situations where difficult choices might arise. Our society has rightly terrified primary school children about the horrors of smoking but seems to take it for granted that adolescents will have sex despite the grim social consequences of teenage single parenthood. If half the effort were put into discouraging teenage promiscuity as into preventing teenage speeding, there might be fewer abortions, fewer traumatised young women and fewer dysfunctional families. Why isn’t the fact that 100,000 women choose to end their pregnancies regarded as a national tragedy approaching the scale (say) of Aboriginal life expectancy being 20 years less than that of the general community? No one wants to recreate the backyard abortion clinic (or to stigmatise the millions of Australians who have had abortions or encouraged others to do so) but is it really so hard to create a culture where people understand that actions have consequences and take responsibilities seriously? 
As a local MP, I am regularly challenged over the Government’s policy on the detention of boat people. “How can you live with yourself as a Catholic”, the argument runs, “when your government treats women and children with such cruelty?” When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boat people, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion which is. Oddly enough, no local Christian has ever asked me how, as a Catholic, I can preside over a Medicare system which funds 75,000 abortions a year. 
I fear there is no satisfactory answer to this question. Christians are not required to right every wrong. Christian politicians are not required to promote policies for which there is no constituency. As it happens, the Government gives nearly $1 million a year to “pro-life” family planning groups (but $13 million to “pro-choice” groups) and provides a quarter of a million dollars to the Federation of Pregnancy Support Services. Still, as a gesture of support for traditional values, this lacks even the drama of King Baudoin of Belgium’s abdication for a day rather than sign an abortion bill into law. 

What's astonishing is the disapproving tone in relation to discouraging teenage promiscuity. This, it should be noted in passing, from a man who had unprotected sex, such that he wasn't certain at the time whether he might have fathered a child. (Paternity shock for Abbott - might cost you a Fairfax hit).

Keep that in mind as you run a few of those lines back over again:

To a pregnant 14 year old struggling to grasp what’s happening, a senior student with a whole life mapped out or a mother already failing to cope under difficult circumstances, abortion is the easy way out. It's hardly surprising that people should choose the most convenient exit from awkward situations.

The easy way out! The most convenient exit! As if abortion is easy or a convenience, whatever the age. And then this presumptuous line:

When it comes to lobbying local politicians, there seems to be far more interest in the treatment of boat people, which is not morally black and white, than in the question of abortion which is.

Abortion is morally black and white!

Which is why in the end that Waleed Aly's apologist piece on behalf of Abbott, whether his celebration of Abbott's cynical position on climate science or his "philosophically considered" opinion on abortion is in reality contemptible.

In the end, it's easy to stand back and affect a position of analysis, without taking any sort of position.

It’s easy to mock Abbott’s changing positions on climate change...

You could just as easily propose:

It's easy to mock Abbott's unchanging position on abortion ...

The result?

Well it's pretty easy to mock Waleed Aly for being an apologist for Tony Abbott on issues which have serious consequences for the planet, and for the rights of women.

Aly has been at this sort of soft rhetoric in other contexts, most notably when it came to the Boston bombing.

Now most people, when confronted with the loss of randomly involved life, would condemn terrorist acts as reprehensible, whether in Boston or Iraq or Afghanistan or Norway or a picture theatre or a plane, but not your apologist wanting a fresh angle and scribbling Bomb response refreshingly honest:

Let's clear something up: our responses to terrorism are not about the loss of innocent life. We think they are because that's the first thing we talk about. We use the suffering of victims to emote, and we look at the attacks through that prism. But it's never really about the victims. It's about us. It's about the magnetic trauma of watching these attacks repeat on our news services. It's about the fact each of us is entirely interchangeable with the killed and injured; that we can so easily transpose ourselves into the situation. It's about the brutal unpredictability of the violence.

Actually the pond's response to terrorism is about the loss of 'innocent life', which is to say the ready identification with people who have lost their lives for no discernible meaning.

It's called empathy, and trying to walk a mile in someone else's shoes and trying to imagine what it might be like living with a killer drone flying overhead on the way to the killing fields, night and day. Or being blown away by someone with a gun or an out-of-control car.

You see, it's possible to hold several thoughts in the head at any one time:

(Click to enlarge, more Tom Tomorrow here)

Anyone with any experience of life knows about the Under Toad, and knows it's rarely a good experience.

So what's Aly's real point?

Well it's to ease anxiety, to sooth and pacify, to offer up a verbal smiley:

The most encouraging one is that we're finally maturing in the way we handle terrorism. Gone is the triumphalist rhetoric of the ''War on Terror'', with its ridiculous promises of a terrorism-free world and the ultimate victory of freedom over tyranny. In its place is a far more sober, pragmatic recognition that terrorism is a perpetual irritant, and that while it is tragic and emotionally lacerating, it kills relatively few people and is not any kind of existential threat.

A perpetual irritant? Not an existential threat? It doesn't kill many people?

Easy for someone lurking in comfort in the bowels of the ABC, or scribbling for Fairfax to say. Harder if you happened to be in the twin towers, or attended the wrong wedding in Afghanistan, or got caught up in the drug wars in Mexico.

And yet we're all entwined with those things, from the person sniffing Mexican drugs in a night club toilet in Sydney to anyone who voted for a colonial adventurer to hold power.

Now the pond doesn't mind being in the company of Tim Blair, in Reluctance to blame extremist Islam a sign of our 'maturity', because in reality Aly is a lawyer and a correspondent for all seasons and cases, capable of making soothing noises about Abbott for readers of The Monthly and equally capable of making soothing sounds about radicals, terrorism and Islamic extremism for readers of Fairfax ... (where the pond parts with Blair is his reluctance to talk about extremist drones).

Doing this sort of even-handed dance about terrorism or Tony Abbott is an exceptional skill, and a deadly one, but with hindsight it's easy to see how this sort of tosh can take air of unreality, as when it came to Aly's interim conclusion about Boston:

We won't know until perpetrators come to light. Does the act become more heinous if it is Islamist? Does terrorism cease to be a fact of life, and once more become an existential threat? If so, it cannot be about the attack itself, which, after all, is the same either way. It must be about the politics, the prejudices, we bring to it. That could be very revealing. Watch this space.

Actually the pond watched that space, and it turns out that it's not just about the politics or the prejudices, it's about the stupid reality of fundamentalists bombing a harmless sporting event, as meaningless and as catastrophic as Obama droning a wedding party or Abbott thinking he can take a judgmental view of the rights of others while having sown his own wild oats in his youth, or even worse, that somehow climate science is a matter where you can be called right by calling climate science crap, or be called "philosophically considered" by saying a 14 year old seeking an abortion is taking the easy way out.

Sometimes you just have to say enough already, and when it comes to the half-baked legalistic equivocations of Waleed Aly, the pond feels ready to say enough, already ...

And now, since we raised the matter of the Under Toad, a reading from John Irving's The World According to Garp:

"Duncan began talking about Walt and the undertow- a famous family story. For as far back as Duncan could remember, the Garps had gone every summer to Dog's Head Harbor, New Hampshire, where the miles of beach in front of Jenny Fields' estate were ravaged by a fearful undertow. When Walt was old enough to venture near the water, Duncan said to him - as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan- "Watch out for the undertow." Walt retreated, respectfully. And for three summers, Walt was warned about the undertow. Duncan recalled all the phrases. 
"The undertow is bad today." "The undertow is strong today." "The undertow is wicked today." Wicked was a big word in New Hampshire - not just for the undertow. And for years, Walt watched out for it. From the first, when he asked what it could do to you, he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea. It could suck you under and drown and you and drag you away. 
It was Walt's fourth summer at Dog's Head Harbor, Duncan remembered, when Garp and Helen and Duncan had observed Walt watching the sea. He stood ankle deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water's edge to have a word with him. 
"What are you doing, Walt?" Helen asked? "What are you looking for, Dummy?" Duncan asked him. "I'm trying to see the Under Toad, " Walt said. "The what?" said Garp? "The Under Toad," Walt said. "I'm trying to see it. How big is it?" 
And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years, Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad. 
Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad. 
Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code word for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt ("Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!" Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy- when depression had moved in overnight - they said to each other "The Under Toad is strong today." 
"Remember," Duncan asked on the plane, "how Walt asked if it was green or brown?" Both Garp and Helen laughed. But it was neither green nor brown, Garp thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an automobile.

Or perhaps the size of Waleed Aly of saying Abbott was right to make a political meal of climate science ...

(Below: the pond goes religious)


  1. Dorothy Walid is not the only commentator on the ABC making excuses for Abbott their is a list as long as your arm Jon Faine saying Abbott is so charming, The IPA the part owners of our ABC praising his ideas and that master of thought processes Sally Warhart now I am not sure of her expertise of wasted hours at university but i do believe it was in anthropology imagine that and she takes part time employment at the ABC when she could be following her career choice what a waste. But the sad part is that the poor old tax payers have to pay to listen to the rubbish they dream up.
    Where have all the trained and experienced radio journalists gone certainly not to the ABC that is for sure.

  2. Where does IPA get their money to pay all these so called commentators?

  3. Although I've come across your site before, it was a contributor to Independent Australia who linked this article.
    It is a good piece, argued specifically and well. You show this equivocating minion Aly.

    You are way wrong on that historically important revelator on power, Machiavelli.
    In these dark ages, someone with your capacities for elucidation should know better. Machiavelli WAS "philosophically considered", VERY philosophically considered. He was writing not as perpetrator but as victim. For his apprehension of his circumstances,and the ways of power, I commend him to you. Don't depend on the common, ignorant use of his name.

  4. Until now I was starting to believe that Aly is a protected species that none can criticise, so what a refreshing change to find a reasonable critique of this media favourite and all round toady.

    Thank you for this excellent article.

  5. I , as well found the link to your site from Independent Australia. I couldn't agree more with your logic. he is a light weight and should stick to channel 10.


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