Saturday, July 23, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - Managing the politics of fear

A friend commented after the news from Nice and then the attempted Turkey coup: "The news is really all worrying".

While I have been otherwise preoccupied, the world does seem to have become a darker place. As I write, news is breaking of the attacks in Munich. The story is not yet clear, but it adds to the gloom.

One of the points I have tried to make on this blog from time to time is that we cannot always control events, we can only control our reactions to events.

Take Donald Trump as a case in point. He may or may not become President of the United States. I would have said not, but then I didn't think he could win the Republican nomination in the first place, it seemed inconceivable. I cannot control whether or not Mr Trump becomes President, I can only manage my reactions and responses to the event.

Clearly, if Mr Trump becomes President the world will change. Based just on his statements to this point, there are likely to be significant reshapings in the global alliances of which Australia is part and on which Australia depends. I cannot control that.

As an observer, the showbiz, the performance, side of US politics has always been interesting. Like most of us, I can get caught up in the theatre of it all, responding to immediate events, interested in the game. As an analyst, I have to stand back from that when I am trying to work out what it all means.

As an analyst, I haven't tried to work out the implications should Mr Trump become President. At this point, Mr Trump remains a random factor. I am interested in the reasons for his success, these link to things that I have been writing about for many years if usually from a minority position, but the possible implications of a Trump presidency are not something I need to address just now. I will do so when it seems relevant.

The politics of fear is deeply embedded in Australian politics. I don't necessarily mean this in an extreme way, nor am I referring just to former Prime Minister Abbott. Consider the obsession with law and order as a political theme, one that has been present for a very long time to the point that it has become encapsulated in Laura Order, a term capturing Australia's tendency to slur words together. A later term with a similar derivation is Lauren Forcement.

In Lauren Order you have the fear that there is a problem on one side, crime, and the belief that it is government's job to do something about it. Political parties play to that fear by emphasising Lauren Order, promising that they will use Lauren Forcement to fix the problem. They do so regardless of the reality of the problem. One outcome of the emphasis on Lauren Forcement as a solution has been a rise in police numbers, police paraphernalia and indeed the size of police stations to the point that police stations are the biggest buildings in some towns. A second outcome has been a rise in prison populations.

The use of fear, the appeal for laws and Lauren Forcement to fix problems, can be found across the political spectrum and covers a vast expanse of issues. The climate created makes it really difficult when there is a genuinely difficult problem that is not actually amenable to a Lauren Forcement solution or, if amenable, one where the cost of the solution greatly outweighs any possible gains.  

Total avoidance of terrorist acts is a case in point. It's not possible, while the attempts to do so will certainly impose costs that far outweigh any potential gain.

I said earlier that we cannot always control events, we can only control our reactions to events. Australian TV personality Sonia Kruger is a case in point. She was expressing a genuine fear in calling upon Australia to close its borders to Muslim immigration to prevent terrorism and had every right to do so. Becoming involved in controversy led her to restate her views.

Ms Kruger is not an expert in public policy nor the Muslim faith. Her prescription was actually plain silly, although a reflection of popular sentiment. She was attacked for her prescription, not challenged on its basis. If with a somewhat unfortunate use of wording, she was saying that she was worried about her children and this was her response. One has to respect that.

Outside certain countries, the chances of being killed in a faith related terrorist attack are statistically tiny. In the relatively benign discussion on deaths connected with swimming pools or absence of bike helmets, I argue that our desire to avoid risk has led to regulation whose costs far outweigh any prospective benefits. How, then, should I react when we have an emotive discussion on an issue where, objectively speaking, the statistical chances of harm are very low.

The likelihood of being killed in a terrorist attack in Australia may be marginally higher than the chances of drowning in a swimming pool, although I'm not sure of that. Actually, thinking about it, it's probably lower at this point. In any event, its very low. Why, then, are we obsessing?

It comes back to the fear element and that, in a way, is the whole point. Those perpetrating attacks cannot win in an absolute sense. They have to rely on fear to create the social disruption they want. And here, I think, they may be winning.    


2 tanners said...

We have to put fences around swimming pools. Some people simplistically think the same should apply to Muslims.

It's the media gone mad, and anyone who is prepared to pander to a viewpoint will get reported and often rewarded.

Trump is pandering to the disillusioned poorly educated white minority, many of whom lost their jobs years ago as the US became more and more unequal. The sad irony is that they are trusting a billionaire who has used chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code four times and who made his fame by telling people "You're fired!" to somehow care and to fix things.

Anonymous said...

Jim, being polite, this post is tosh. Was it Keith Miller - Aussie cricketer - who, when asked about his fear of facing the English bowling, said something like "fear is having a Messerschmitt up your arse"?

Fear? Let's tone it down a bit. Maybe 'occasional vague concerns' is what we have here in Australia, nothing more. But I can see how a post about 'vague concerns' might not get the clicks, so ....

tanners, you really need to work out how somebody (disliked, buffoon-ish, non-PC, as he is) is presently commanding just slightly less than 50% of the vote of those people actually able to vote. Otherwise you just come over as yet another snide elitist, mouthing the progressive line - which quite honestly, I believe, has resulted in Trump getting so close in what should have been a lay-down for Her.

Could it be that slightly less than half the American voting population is slightly less than enamoured of the slightly less than pure alternative?

Who cares! Let's pontificate - from our far removed perch.


Anonymous said...

tanners, since you raised the Trump, I'd find it interesting to read your reactions to the issues raised in this post:

- hope that link works :)

It seems to me that we have been deluged with anti-Trump information, and little on Hillary - to the point where it is simply not possible for any rational evaluation of the relative 'worthiness' of either of the nominees. And all this ignores the simple fact that the President is just one arm of the government; we've all seen just how hamstrung Obama has been for eight years (thankfully) yet we are talking as if a Trump victory would be the end of the world as we know it.

That referenced post is not the be-all of information, but it at least raises (and links) some of the primary issues with both candidates - to which you add the fact of Trump's four Chapter 11's - to which I could respond "well, if you have upwards of 500 businesses carrying your name, some are bound to have failed".

It's all an overblown nonsense; how come WaPo can proudly announce a 100-man investigative unit for Trump, and not the same for Hillary? And yet hold itself out as the seeker/purveyor of truth? And here we sit in Oz, reading curated cut and pastes from dodgy sources of known bias, and are expected to form an opinion?


Anonymous said...

The other thing I keep forgetting to make a note of here is a throwaway comment I read a while ago about countries, cultures and civilisations.

I accept that it is a gross generalisation, but there seems to be one part of the world (western) driven largely by guilt, and some others (Middle East, China, India as possible examples) driven by honour/shame.

These two basic attitudes in some way seem to drive a lot of our inter-relationships and government policy positions - much more basic than 'fear' I would suggest.

I'd be interested in anyone's comments on this; even "complete bollocks" would be illuminating :)


2 tanners said...


I don't use the biased cut-and-paste Australian media to examine Trump. My major source is whose strength is statistical analysis. Your claim that nearly 50% of voting Americans support Trump is tosh ALTHOUGH Clinton's support is not much greater (both in about the thirties). In fact they are the two most hated candidates in decades. The current assessment that Clinton has a 75% chance of securing the White House is because the polls show her as being about 6-8% in front of Trump.

Your implication that I support Clinton is unfounded. It was just irrelevant to my comment on fear. She's a privileged person from a privileged family and society, marketing herself as the friend of poor non-whites. Just as sad an irony, but not the politics of fear. It's no wonder that Sanders did as well as he did in the democrat race, and he's not and never has been a democrat himself!

I read the piece you referred to - I found it inconsistent at best. Trump is as much a beneficiary of the US billionaire welfare system as Clinton and her clients are. Calling an entire ethnic group rapists and murderers is not "starting a conversation". He does the opposite to what the article suggests - he twists and turns and says something then kind of retracts it and goes on to the next outrageous statement. His clear, clever strategy is to stay on the front page. The fivethirtyeight crew interviewed many Trump supporters and it was clear that they were taking whatever message they personally had been waiting for and ignoring the rest. Because they are so sick of, and disillusioned with the present crew which inevitably includes Clinton. Reread the article and start from NeverHillary as an *original* mindset, then it becomes a lot more coherent.

It doesn't matter who gets elected; America is in for a rocky 4 years.

But Trump was an example only. I'll bet the Australian TV non-entity who stirred up the media with her comment about wanting ban Muslims to be safe not only does nicely out of it, but has an inbox of people fiercely agreeing with her.

I think your last comment, about guilt and honour, is wrong. I never suspect moral motives when incompetence (and egoism) serves equally well. I do not sit in the councils of the high and mighty, of course, so that's only a point of view.

Anonymous said...

Hi tanners, and thanks for responding.

From five38 site, right now it seems on popular vote that Hils gets 46.3 and Trump 44.1 with Johnson 8.3. Who knows where J's support might flow (I suspect more to Trump, but anyway) give half each to H&T and you get Hils 50.4, Trump 48.2.

This was my simplistic basis for saying he's "presently commanding just slightly less than 50% of the vote". And yes, I accept that certainly doesn't translate to electoral college, or 'chance of winning' analyses.

Secondly, I did not say you were a Clinton supporter; what I said was that your last para in your first comment was "mouthing the progressive line". I can't find anywhere on five38 where you might have got that information? Looks remarkably like most of the MSM blah on Trump to me, but I will stand corrected re five38 if that was your source.

Third, I also thought the post I linked was full of holes (not least by his use of good old anecdata re muslims and trans people) but what I did think worthwhile was topic-headers. That's all I wanted to get out there, hence my "reactions to the issues raised in this post", and repeated request for comments in next para.

Is this not how we each debate?

I accept (with great interest :) your closing comment regarding 'guilt and honour'. I'm still struggling to express what I'm trying to get at re this.


Anonymous said...

And the thing is tanners, if you can provide me with five38's opinion (you say your go to source) which I phrased as "mouthing the progressive line" then I would be disappointed.

I had thought it a reliable site for cold statistical analysis, but if they are now into political editorialising, I think that diminishes their value.


2 tanners said...


I'm still failing to see where I am mouthing the progressive line, when I express similar opinions about Clinton, and don't start me on Sanders. The article "Why Donald Trump?" written before he had secured the numbers for the Republican nomination, contains polls, interviews and similar, and is an attempt to understand the Trump phenomenon, not to castigate it.

They have done a statistical analysis of Trump's supporters - overwhelmingly white, poorly educated, lower income and disillusioned with the current system. The first three were in a recent article (it may be in the essay on where the GOP will go in Trump's wake), the last in the Why Donald Trump article.

I note with interest that Hillary's campaign theme appears to be "Reject fear, use courage" which is more or less what I was suggesting the *themes* would be. And that's all I was talking about. BTW, I think fear mongering is a more powerful headline grabber and Trump will continue to get his free publicity. Fivethirtyeight estimated the value of his free publicity during the Republican campaign as being at over $2 billion.

I hope I've made it clear that I'm commenting on the campaigning and the themes, not on Trump and Clinton per se. If that is the "progressive line" then I'm not sure where we take this.

2 tanners said...

A very tangential point. Your post, Jim, reminded me of something and it's taken me this long to tickle it out. IBM used to use FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) to sell their product. They didn't have the best product and certainly not the cheapest, but "you never got sacked for buying IBM".

Until knowledge got out, and people understood more. I'm typing this comment on a Lenovo, the Chinese manufacturer who bought out IBM's near defunct PC business.

But there was a buck in bringing IBM down. Who knows if there will be a similar incentive for bringing a sense of proportion to 'terrorism'?

BTW, Jim, some sketchy research indicates that more Australian died in swimming pools over the last three years than died in terrorist related incidents here AND overseas in the last 30. Pity the senate inquiry focused on bike helmets and guns, not personal liberty and privacy.

Jim Belshaw said...

Briefly, I want to come back to other stuff later, just 40 children died in NSW in the five years before the swimming pool legislation was introduced. That suggests you sketchy research is not on good ground.

Jim Belshaw said...

This will give you full Australian drowning stats for 2015 -

2 tanners said...

Um, Jim, Australia wide the figure was over 70 deaths (not only children) in pools in the last two years.

But taking your figure, how many children died of terrorist related incidents in NSW (you picked the geographical area and age group) in the same period? How many people of ALL age groups in the whole of Australia died from terrorist related incidents while 40 children died in NSW alone?

Anonymous said...

tanners, you said "more Australian died in swimming pools over the last three years than died in terrorist related incidents here AND overseas in the last 30" - which I ignored as some sort of weird typo, but I think that was what Jim was responding to.


2 tanners said...

According to Bernard Keane, ( )and I did say sketchy, the best estimate of terrorist deaths since the 1978 Hilton Hotel bombing, including deaths overseas was 113. This may exclude the Turkish ambassador and certainly does not include the Lindt deaths. The best I could figure out from the Royal Lifesavers annual reports was that for the last three years the number was a little north of 120 for pools alone.

Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, I was responding to the broader coverage, but 2t's point about proportionality is a valid one. We need some comparative examples.