Praise for investigative journalists like Marian Wilkinson who have a way of joining the dots without taking detours in diplomacy.
“Courageous” is an apt word to describe Marian Wilkinson’s The Carbon Club —a gritty portrayal of a sinister network of bullshitters masquerading as politicians acting in the public interest.
Over the 400-plus pages of her book, from the corridors of Canberra to global campaigns, Wilkinson forensically investigates the insidious endeavours of a coalition of conspirators to discredit the world’s best climate scientists. In short: how a group of egomaniacal men, wilfully obstructed or unwittingly bungled, genuine climate change policy designed to address a “larger-than-life” problem.
I first heard about The Carbon Club on the ABC’s Bookshelf back in August (see also Poppy Johnston’s book review last month), and touched on it in an article a couple of months ago. I thought it sounded like a profoundly pragmatic account of the endeavours of the dark side of our democracy to subvert a genuine response to catastrophic climate change.
And if you’re thinking, “not another climate change conspiracy story” … forget it! Marian Wilkinson’s book is an absolute “cracker” and deserves distinction in the ongoing annals of Australia’s calamitous climate change affair.
Men in dark suits masquerading as honourable politicians and ethical businessmen
Although we are already suspicious of those men in dark suits that lurk in the shadows and fund crude but coercive naysayers that have made a career out of denouncing the science-based data published by organisations like the IPCC, CSIRO, and BOM, Wilkinson doggedly delves into the greed, self-interest, and dirt that underlies it.
Few of our purportedly honourable politicians – past and present – survive this investigation with their reputations in intact. Australia’s climate change affair, despite the decades of analysis, reports and recommendations, is a never-ending story defined by its sheer deviousness. Much of what has been said and done was nothing but a litany of lip service designed to thwart, confound, and counter.
The continuance of which is no better demonstrated than by Scott Morrison’s abject refusal to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the Labor Party’s advocacy for coal and gas on the one hand, and genuine climate change action on the other. The former contracted to a contingent of unscrupulous climate change conspirators. The latter having lost its way: you can change your policies but not to the point that it contradicts your principles.
And although Australians are not ultimately averse to the political bullshitters that have plied the pathways of our nation’s capital for decades – limiting our choice to the lesser of two evils rather than a champion of the people – there comes a time when what’s at stake holds precedence. Surely we have reached that precedence!
Mastering the art of the political bullshitter: Lippman to Orwell to Herman and Chomsky
After reading Marian Wilkinson’s masterful account of deceit and betrayal, I thought it worthwhile to delve a little deeper into the language of politics – or “bullshit” as you might prefer to call it – that for more than two generations has successfully sabotaged efforts to establish a coherent national climate change policy.
From the early 1900s, writer, journalist, and political commentator Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) brought attention to the conscious adoption by politicians of sophisticated framing techniques complicit with the power of mass media to “manufacture consent”.
In the 1940s, George Orwell’s exceptional talent for turning political writing into a covert art of satirical imagery was personified in his totalitarian vision depicted in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Among other things, Orwell was a harsh critic of politics and political language. He viewed “truth in language” as a political act in itself – a conscious resistance against the insidious nature and pervasive manipulations of political rhetoric and politicians.
American economist Edward S Herman, and the prominent linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, endorsed this sentiment in their 1988 book Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. Central to government spin is creating stories and then convincing parents to pass those stories onto their children and so on. They called it the “propaganda model”, arguing that the politico-elite fix the topic of discourse and its interpretation by filtering out what they deem as unnewsworthy, in accord with their socio-economic and political agendas.
All of which might be generously defined as an institutionalised set of learned framing conventions. These framing conventions consist of counterfactual arguments, non-answers, half-truths, and hyperbole. “Shameless outright lying” is the latest addition to this list.
Fake news and sociopathic tendencies
Writer Jennifer Howard, in her 2016 article Internet of Stings, takes this a step further to describe our times as the “post-factual, truth-averse era”. Truth-averse implies choosing a falsity by default, even if choosing a truth is an option. As if somehow the truth has greater repercussions than does a lie.
The recently-former US president-elect Donald Trump is an exemplar of this, shamelessly disseminating information that appears to be coming from an alternative reality to the one we live in. One might reasonably suggest that Trump has also inspired a growing sociopathic trend among politico-elites to maintain a claim even though it has been proven to be false. His refusal to accept the reality of his defeat in the US presidential election exemplifies this.
Climate change denial: the original fake news
In recent times, politico-media bullshit has taken on a more subtle savoir-faire. Often defined as “fake news”, wherein no endeavour is made to mask the bullshit and make it stick because it proliferates on all sides of the argument – the physical and the virtual.
Award-winning journalist and editor Eric Pooley wrote in Time Magazine in 2017 that “Professional climate change denial is the original fake news”. But call it what you will, in its unadulterated form, fake news is fundamentally bullshit. And as strange as it seems, research indicates that we have become more intrigued by bullshit than we are by the truth. As Cecil Graham quipped in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892): “Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality.”
The influential political theorist and philosopher, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), wrote in her 1971 article Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers: “Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings…. Hence, when we talk about lying … let us remember that the lie did not creep into politics by some accident of human sinfulness. Moral outrage, for this reason alone, is not likely to make it disappear.”
Like the rest of us, Arendt wrestled with the betrayal we feel with every revelation of the misuse of taxpayer funds, pervasive pork-barrelling, gross ineptitude, outright lies and unacceptable behaviour, and corruption per se, perpetrated by those we have elected to be our civil servants. Although this is commonly accepted as a malignant norm that has proven inoperable, we nonetheless try not to dwell on our disappointment and downright disgust.
Likewise, we know how frustrating those non-answers are as politicians dance around a question hoping that the interviewer will eventually wane in his or her pursuit. As the widely-read and influential American poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich (1929–2012) wrote in her 1979 book On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: “Lying is done with words, and also with silence.” Although seemingly a paradox, silence is also part of the bullshitter’s repertoire – along with evasiveness – and the advised tactic for a bullshitter with a bad memory.
A professional bullshitter—aka a career politician—endeavours to fashion a furphy into an actuality. Much like an artisan fashioning a vase out of a lump of clay, but without the finesse and integrity.
According to Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University, Harry Gordon Frankfurt – the author of the 2005 book On bullshit – the most striking feature of modern society is the proliferation of bullshit. According to Frankfurt, “Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” This is because the liar rejects the authority of the truth, whereas the bullshitter pays it no regard at all. Frankfurt highlighted two main traits of a bullshitter: a complete lack of concern with the truth and the intent to mislead listeners by conveying something false as a pretext to pursuing his or her interests. Sound familiar?
Bias news broadcasting is no longer a subliminal affair
Of course bullshit is not limited to our politicians. Through story selection and pseudo-factual reporting, the left-and-right-wing leanings of news media networks have, in recent decades, revealed themselves as belligerently bias.
Distributors of propaganda like Fox News in the US, and Australia’s Sky After Dark, would be hilarious if some parts of the public didn’t mistake them for legitimate news broadcasters. I mean it looks like news, it’s presented in a newsy-type format, but after a few minutes, you get the feeling that something’s not quite right: the subject matter, the facts, the objectivity, the inference and opinion seem unrepentantly contrived. In short: it sounds awfully like bullshit!
Watching Rupert Murdoch’s Sky After Dark, you might be forgiven for thinking it was a rehashed skit from the BBC’s Not the Nine O’clock News(1970s-1980s). The actors are not quite as clever and funny of course, but picture Andrew Bolt as Rowan Atkinson, Peta Credlin as Pamela Stephenson, and Paul Murray as Mel Smith, and you’ll get what I mean.
In all seriousness though, the propaganda dispensed during the US presidential election went well beyond any satirical TV show. A bevy of bullshitters led by a now-defunct Donald Trump, and initially backed by Fox News, annihilated the truth to the extent that it will only survive as essential reading for generations of students of political science and comedy scriptwriters.
Was Fox News guilty of bias propaganda or blatant bullshit?
Although the purpose of both propaganda and bullshit is to convey a message or idea devised exclusively to serve the interests of the conveyor—in this case, the media Tycoon that sustains the network and pays the wages—they are different.
The bullshitter’s message has no concern for, or connection with, the truth. Whereas propaganda is information of a biased nature designed to promote or discredit a cause, a person or a group of people, or a point of view. In this instance, Fox clearly breached the limits of their regular propaganda and dove headlong into the propagation of bullshit.
But which is the most devious: propaganda or bullshit? Philip M Taylor (1954-2010), a Professor of International Communications, viewed propaganda as deeply sinister. He described it as a “dirty trick” used by “hidden persuaders”, “mind manipulators” and “brainwashers” who subliminally control our thoughts, and thus our behaviour, to serve their interests.
Political bullshit, however, might be simply brushed off as just that. Providing of course, that it’s recognised for what it is. And if it’s not, well, democracy takes another beating. The same might also be said of political propaganda, but propaganda is usually more clandestine and far-reaching, and thus more insidious, as in the case of The Carbon Club. In short: bullshit might be less sinister and more easily detected than propaganda, but this also depends on who’s telling the story and how gullible the audience is.
In a truth-averse world, a bullshit detector would come in handy
The question of whether the public is able to detect bullshitting by politicians and act accordingly by adjusting their voting preferences remains mostly unanswered.
Drew Westen, a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University, observed that with voters, emotion wins over reason with feelings toward party principles and their respective candidate’s persona clearly trumping the efficacy of party policy. However, we are commonly confounded by a mismatch between party principles and party policy as members rally around a transgressor one day, only to denigrate a party member that has exercised his or her democratic rights the next.
All that said, before the 2020 US presidential election, one might fairly have believed that the best bullshitter wins—Trumpism wins over truth—which might still be the case in the future? But, although what constitutes a fair and democratic process might be forever tainted, what has become patently clear in the aftermath of the US election, is that you can’t bullshit all of the people all of the time.
Dr Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.