Politics, simulacra, narrative and the election

As people, we seem drawn to narrative. We like to find order, to find a flow of events, and don’t particularly like chaos. While Evcricket muses on the beauty of chaos, mostly it makes us feel uncomfortable and we search for patterns. If we don’t find them, we weave them in to narratives of our own making, just as we turn the chaotic disorder of our dreams into linear narratives.

We don’t make up the narrative patterns and structures into which we shape the random happenings around us. There are character archetypes, there are forms and patterns of story telling which are ancient, but which are updated and changed and evolve, but retain their basic structures. These permeate our culture, from the stories we learnt as children to the movies we see now. And increasingly they seem to be constructing even political reportage. What is seen in the way that this election is being covered is the shaping of events into a coherent narrative, a narrative which things like policy facts just get in the way.

Character archetypes frame the manner in which politicians are discussed. Is Kevin Rudd the hero betrayed, or the martyr or the failed and defeated? Is Julia Gillard a bold heroine or a scheming betrayer? Is Tony Abbott the comic relief, the bold challenger or the threatening presence? The manner in which the key players are constructed depends not really on the events, but on the particular narrative that is being created, by the story that is being told.

While Grogs and others since him have been totally right to point to the lack of policy questioning or consideration that has occurred in this campaign, I think that what it really points to is the fact that political journalism has given any pretence of being about policy per se, and is now about the soap opera of politics. As Annabel Crabb pointed out, journalists covering the election live in a “bubble” and that serious analysis tends to be done by specialists. This unreality adds to the view that everything can be constructed in terms which would fit the melodramatic imagination, narratives forms which are comfortable and familiar. Policy doesn’t usually help to tell this story. It is hardly surprising that as soon as something was said about “the Real Julia” the minds of journalists and others immediately went to The West Wing. Our politics is about as real as a television drama; just as constructed, but slightly less pleasing.

Coincidentally, I am currently reading Interface by Neal Stephenson and Frederick George. About a Presidential campaign in the US, and even written in 1994, it capture this idea about campaigning to some extent. Political media director Cy Ogle says:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas. But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas. In the 1800s, it was all about character. But no one will ever have as much characters as Lincoln and Lee. For much of the 1900s it was about charisma. But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam….

So what’s it about now?

Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media…Like the medieval trial by ordealm the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are decptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like a Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces but by groping through the steamng guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidate’s fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and counting the number of times he blinks his eyes in a minute….

All I would add here, is that now the media uses the tropes we know to construct its own story which tells the tale of what this scrutiny reveals; a tale which should be familiar to us as the characters are those we are know from any soap opera. Unfortunately, this soap opera is meant to be what decides our government.

An open letter to the Australian media

Dear Australian media

As you will have noticed this week, something momentous, and potentially paradigm shifting has happened. We (finally) got ourselves a female Prime Minister. Now it was certainly important that we noted this fact, celebrated this and embraced the fact that it opens a new door of possibility for every small girl who is ambitious and smart. However, it will not become a paradigm shifting moment unless the way we think about it moves on from this celebration.

Firstly, our Prime Minister is a person. Let us not always think in gender binary terms. Just as every Prime Minister before her has not constantly had his gender mentioned and commented upon, neither should she. She does not bring a “women’s style” or a “woman’s touch” or a “woman’s perspective” because guess what? There really is no such thing. My perspective is different from that of Miranda Devine. It is also different from that of a refugee woman or a woman who grown up in a rural town. Just as every man has his own perspective on the world, so does every woman. There is no hive mind. Julia Gillard’s views and approach are coloured by many things: her education, her parents, her experiences, and, no doubt, by the fact that she has grown up in a society which was dominated by men and by sexist views about what girls and woman can and can’t do. But this does not mean that her view should be discussed as if it was solely coloured by her gender. Yes, she has the views of a woman, but not all women. And just as it never seemed important to mention that her predecessors had the views of a man, neither should it be important to mention that she is a woman all the time.

Secondly, let’s not be patronising. She may be “as intelligent as any man” but have you noticed what this implies? That men are more intelligent than women. She is as intelligent as anyone in politics is probably what was meant. Let us not be surprised that she is, or can be tough/uncompromising/intelligent/ruthless or any other characteristics which you in the media might have previously designated as being “men’s” characteristics. And if she is those things, let’s not say she is really like a man. You know, there were many things about Margaret Thatcher that I didn’t like or didn’t agree with. But her callous indifference to the plight of the working classes did not make her a man – she was and remains the first female PM of the UK. So let us not give our new PM monikers like “the Iron Lady” which imply that toughness is a contrast with what her gender requires.

Thirdly, can we get over the endless commentary on her clothes/hair/make up etc. Honestly, if she is wearing something hideous, but still talking sense, does it matter? I know that some commentary is inevitable, and that some commentary even does apply to men – John Howard’s eyebrows for instance – so we can cope with a teeny tiny bit of discussion of her appearance so as not to appear precious. But not every day. It is incredibly disappointing that we already had articles about the PM and the “style police” on day 2 of her being in office. Think about the rule: would I comment if she was a man? Would we care? Think how outraged you all got when the former Prime Minister commented on the clothing of one of you, rather than treating her words seriously, then reverse the situation. I think you get my drift.

Fourth, can we avoid feminising Tim? Can we avoid making jokes that imply that he is less of a man because it is his partner who is the PM? He’s not a handbag, he’s not somehow less masculine because he is a supportive partner who does his share and has helped the person he loves achieve her ambitions. These things are good, and they don’t make him un-manly. I know how tempting it is going to be, what with him being a hairdresser and all. But, similarly, being a hairdresser does not bring his sexuality or masculinity into question. So please, can you just not. Can we celebrate him and his role, not slyly deride him?

Fifth, not having children does not make you less of a woman. And career-versus-children is not a binary scenario. Let us not advance the idea that childlessness is a pre requisite for career success, or that the only reason you would not have children is because you want a career. There are many successful women with careers who have children, and there are plenty of unsuccessful ones who don’t. People chose to have or not to have children for many reasons, and sometimes it is not a choice. Let us not create another binary which limits women and men and their opportunities. Also, not having children does not make you hostile, unsympathetic or un-empathetic towards families. And let’s face it, many of the advisors, colleagues and public servants who will surround her and advise her and support her will have families. So let’s not jump on the she-is-being-anti-family-because-she-doesn’t-have-one line if the opportunity arises.

Finally, being female does not determine a policy position.

All this does not mean that I think that the fact of her gender will not impact the way she is Prime Minister. It will, but so will so many other things. It is not the only, and possibly not even the most influential, factor that will shape her approach to policy thinking. So let’s think about the diversity of things that impact, not isolate the one that is most obvious. And I don’t mean the red hair.

I’d like my sons to grow up understanding and believing that it is appropriate and right for anyone to be Prime Minister: that gender does not make it surprising or unusual, that it is a matter-of-fact. The presence of a female Prime Minister could do that, but not if we always treat the fact that she is female as a matter of constant comment. My biggest fear in this change is the misogyny that might follow it. That has followed a number of the other women who have made it to leadership positions in politics.

Please media, prove me wrong.

Update: If you want to keep an eye on how badly the media is failing this particular test, check out Julia Gillard Sexism Watch for a bit of a flavour. There is something pretty much every day. Sadly.