Thursday, February 08, 2007

Hicks, blogs and our view of the past

Yesterday Richard Glover on ABC 702 Sydney had a session on the wisdom of the elders in which he combined a studio audience of those in their seventies and those in their twenties.

He also combined interviewees into pairs - one in their seventies, one in the twenties - talking about the differences between now and 1957 in particular areas. So a teacher who was teaching in 1957, a new teacher today. As part of this, the ABC has an on-line poll asking people whether things have got better or worse since then.

I loved the program because it covered so many of the issues that I have tried to cover on this blog when talking about social and cultural change.

I was interested to discover that the perceptions of the gains and losses since 1957 among the two age groups were remarkably similar. We can summarise the key losses as seen by both groups as an increase in fear and insecurity combined with a loss of manners and a rise in self-centered approaches.

Interestingly, those I heard interviewed from both age groups thought that today was better than 1957. However, this is not reflected in the still open on-line poll. Here, as of this morning, 71 per cent thought that 1957 was better, only 29 per cent thought that today was better. The numbers bounce around a bit as more people vote, but so far the pattern has been quite consistent.

Just for the record, I agree with the common view of the losses. I also voted yes for improvement, primarily because of the gains that have been made in reduced sectarianism (I remember the Roman Catholic/Protestant split very clearly), in greater opportunities for women and in sexual tolerance.

One of the points made in discussion on Richard's program, one that I agree with, is the decline in the standard of general reporting and of parliamentary debate, an increase in trivialisation.

One simple example to illustrate what I mean.

In 1957 the Commonwealth Treasurer's budget speech went for several hours, was broadcast in its entirety, and covered the entire budget. Few people listened, but those did got the whole story detail and all.

Today, the speech has to be fitted into the television spot, with all the details left out. It is no longer possible to properly understand the budget from the speech. Further, the speech has to be crafted to provide the following headlines, rather than the provision of information and argument.

We now depend upon those who have seen the full papers in the lock-up for informed analysis. Frankly, I would prefer to rely on my own judgement.

There is a silver lining in this, and that is the influence of the on-line environment and especially blogging. Now this is where I want to bring David Hicks in.

With David Hicks we have seen the long, slow, sweep of changing public opinion, a sweep that has now built into a wave. To a degree, the truth or otherwise of the allegations made about him no longer matter, what now matters is the building consensus that he has been badly treated, that we have failed him as a country, that none of us would want to be treated in the same way.

Last night I watched the face on my eldest as the Prime Minister said that the US would have released Hicks at any time had the Government asked.

Then watching Minister Ruddock we appeared to have the position that Hicks is not guilty of any Australian crime, that the Government did not act because they wanted him tried under US law where a crime had, apparently, been committed. Crudely, since Hicks has not broken our law we wanted him tried elsewhere.

Unlike younger Clare, Helen has tended to favour the Liberal party. As I watched her face and listened to her gut reaction to the PM and Minister Ruddock, I could see what I suspect is the final switch in her position as she tracks into her first Commonwealth vote later in the year. I do not know what Helen's friends think, but will try to find out since my impression is that they are more conservative than Clare's friends.

Now what has all this to do with the on-line environment? Now here I am responding as a social commentator regardless of my personal views on David Hicks.

In Don Aitkin's book on the NSW Country Party he pointed to the slow process that was involved in building a common set of views, in creating an organisation, in a world where most communication went by mail and people met rarely because of distance.

Just to introduce a complete red herring here. I was fascinated and indeed pleased to discover that for alphabetical reasons Don was the first ever student admitted to the University of New England after we gained autonomy from the University of Sydney back in 1954!

Now we live in a very different world.

The on-line environment makes for far faster cooperation and also allows people to find out more information more quickly. This helps people who want to create new movements, but also helps those like me who want to find out facts without the filtration process provided by our media or political leaders. This means that things can build faster.

Within this mix, blogs are coming to play a very particular role, one still only partially seen although the macro effects are coming to be recognised.

A little while ago, Lexcen and I talked about the role of blogs and bloggers. Bloggers, today, have become the commentators in place of the main line media. I can see this in a small way in my own case.

Neil (Ninglun) put up a story on David Hicks. I followed with my first story, then several more. I am not pretending that I had a profound effect. But when I look at the pattern of hits, I can see that dozens of poeple have visited, searching on Hicks. Because I provided links, at least some of those have gone on to look at other evidence.

Today Neil ran a new story including a cross link to my posts. That story triggered this one. I know that Neil's story will lead to new hits on my past posts. And then there are those who will read this post. So we have Neil's readers plus mine.

Multiply this blog by hundreds, and you can see why blogs are now becoming important as a source of information and comment that cannot be easily controlled, at least in a free society.


Lexcen said...

Jim, it's always reassuring to see that public opinion has influence on politicians. This indicates that our democracy is still alive.

Anonymous said...

It is a shame that our politicians are so out of touch with us that our representatives feel they can do things that then create public outrage.

There is a growing movement, in the US, that could make the representative government obsolete.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen,I think that our democracy is alive. However, I would follow a different track to you in that I think that our polies often pay too much attention to short term public opinion as defined through polls and focus groups.

In a lot of cases they try to tell us what they think we want to hear rather than trying to articulate a broader view, so we get tweedledum and tweedle dee. Then, once locked into positions, they can be slow to respond.

David, I found your comment interesting. The constitutional differences beyween Oz and the US are quite profound. Australia has parliamentary rather than representative government. This makes for very different dynamics, one of the reasons I so much enjoy West Wing because of its view of a different world.

Whatever its weaknesses, I greatly prefer the Australian system. It's so much simpler and, I think, more effective.

Take the annual Govrnment budget as an example. There is no equivalent to the horse trading that goes on in the US between President and both houses of congress. This makes it easier, among other things, to run a budget surplus.