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Read this in the Australian today. Unusually good article for a Murdoch paper!

Poison of the ‘I don’t want to know’ syndrome

26aug03

WE all know it’s happening.

A slow-motion catastrophe is afflicting Western democracy. A growing indifference to politics deriving from feelings of futility and cynicism.

For example. People are inured to scandal. They expect duplicity from the political class – on all sides of politics. And they don’t seem to care. In fact, they’re beyond caring. They’ve learned to live with the duplicitous and dishonourable. Scepticism may be healthy but cynicism like this is carcinogenic. It kills the body politic.

There’s a feedback loop that has politicians and their spin doctors driving the opinion polls while the opinion polls drive the politics. Consequently, faith in the polity, the media, the system, in democracy itself, is rapidly eroding. In the US, symptoms include fewer and fewer citizens feeling compelled to vote. In a nation where it’s non-compulsory, even presidents are elected by a depressingly small percentage of the electorate. It’s approaching the point where only the white middle class bothers to pull the levers in those voting machines.

And you see it – or rather you don’t see it – in Australia. In a phenomenon rarely discussed. Here we’re driven to the ballot box by the threat of a fine. But although compulsory voting ensures a high turnout, it’s low energy. People vote with indifference rather than enthusiasm.

The fact that a prime minister might have a 55 or 65 per cent approval rating doesn’t prove that that approval is particularly approving. It simply demonstrates that, when forced to make a choice, voters go for what they perceive as the lesser of evils.

John Howard’s ratings don’t prove that Australia likes him very much or holds him in high regard. The figures simply mean the voters cop him. Had approval ratings been available in the era of a Chifley or a Curtin they’d have measured something different than the approval rating for a Keating or a Howard. The figures might look similar or identical, but they don’t indicate the same depth of feeling. It’s like the devaluation of the dollar. A dollar still looks like a dollar, is still symbolised by the “$”. But a dollar isn’t what it used to be. And nor, necessarily, is the “%”.

We live in a devalued democracy where, increasingly, people are disengaged. Disengagement. A term that social researcher Hugh Mackay detects again and again in his political seismology.

Compounding this detachment is the paradox of living in a society that boasts the quality of its communications, either remaining or becoming ignorant on almost every issue. Thus recent polls show that legions of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein and his secular Baath Party were in bed with al-Qa’ida, that Hussein was one of the architects of the September 11 attacks. Millions are convinced that those WMD were used against US troops as they moved towards Baghdad. And, moreover, that the weapons have been found.

All evidence and information to the contrary is filtered out – and the finest filter of all is, yes, disengagement. Those Ridley Scott images of brave lads in great lumbering uniforms and great lumbering tanks are all you need to know.

Of course, the modern state has weapons of mass distraction at its disposal – knowing that the attention span of the media, even the quality media, is about a fortnight – while that of the public seems to be shrinking to nanoseconds. The state knows that the media bombardment means we rapidly forget; that today’s great dollops of news bury yesterday’s news, let alone the news of the month before. People live in a constant state of now, with decreasing historical understanding or context.

Best of all, governments know that, by and large, people don’t want to know. Australians didn’t want to “know” the truth of the boatpeople. They wanted to “know” that they were queue-jumpers, illegals or even terrorists. They wanted to know that the dangers posed by Hussein’s WMD were sufficient reason for going to war – and even if they now know they were conned, they don’t want to know. They’re more interested in what goes on in The Block, Big Brother and the shopping mall than what’s happening in the hallowed halls of government.

And because voters seem increasingly indifferent to the moral and ethical issues that not so long ago galvanised public opinion, politicians believe they can get away with more. With murder. What does it matter if you’re caught over “kids overboard” or WMD or back-room deals on ethanol? No worries, no trubs. You’ll get away with it.

Thus our leaders are leading us – and we are leading our leaders – further and further down that road of disengagement. And political leadership becomes followship as, like ducks in a row, governments acquiesce to the US. The best that can be said about Australia is that it takes a leading role in following.

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