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The new normal.

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Monday 23 October 2006

Barry Jones, former Minister


The new normal

Despite the exponential increases in public education and access to information in the past century, the quality of political debate in the United States, Britain and Australia, appears to have become increasingly unsophisticated. This is appealing to the lowest common denominator of understanding, in sharp contrast to the subtle and nuanced words used by Abraham Lincoln nearly 150 years ago.

On 27 February 1860, Lincoln delivered a very complex speech about slavery and its political implications at the Cooper Union in New York City. It was his first speech in New York and its impact was dramatic. He concluded with the words, which may seem anachronistic now, 'Let us have faith that right makes might...' Four New York newspapers published the full text, all 7500 words, and it was reprinted in hundreds of different formats. The speech rapidly transformed Lincoln from being merely a Mid-Western 'favourite son' to a national figure, and was a major factor in securing him the Republican nomination for President in May.

In 1860 the technology was primitive but the ideas in Lincoln's speech were profound and sophisticated. In the year 2000 the technology was sophisticated but the ideas uttered by the Presidential candidates Bush and Gore were primitive and over simplified: it would be easier to imagine a mantra, such as 'We have made America stronger", being repeated a hundred times rather than to have a complex argument presented once. George W. Bush's central theme was essentially an inversion of Lincoln's: "Might makes us right. If we can do it, we must'.

On 21 October 2001, Vice- President Dick Cheney, in justifying use of Executive power to restrict civil liberties, limit access to courts, restrict debate and cripple Freedom of Information legislation told The Washington Post: 'Many of the steps we have now been forced to take will become permanent in American life, part of a new normalcy that reflects an understanding of the world as it is'.

In the United States, writers are now adopting, and some promoting, the term the 'new normal. In this view, the 'old normal', where decisions might have been based on evidence, analysis, reason and judgment, using techniques refined by the Enlightenment of the 18th century, had come to an end on September 11. The 'new normal' depends on instant decisions based on 'gut', 'instinct' and 'faith'. Increasingly, policies have to be 'faith based'.

On 17 September 2006, the Google search engine listed 614,000,000 citations of the 'new normal', but the term has had virtually no currency or recognition outside the United States.

Under the 'new normal' a belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was enough to justify invasion and the priority was for immediate action, not for understanding or judgement. Control of Iraq's huge oil reserves, which would have been a completely rational (but not morally uplifting) reason for invasion, was never mentioned. If Iraq had been the world's greatest producer of broccoli, Saddam, for all his hideous cruelty, would not have been disturbed.

Under the 'old normal' before September 11, 2001, I assumed that our side, the democracies, never began wars (although, as in Vietnam, they were prepared to intervene in existing colonial struggles), even where our opponents were brutal and corrupt and when a pre-emptive strike might have been to our strategic advantage. This assumption no longer applies, and the moral basis for action is now displaced by sheer opportunism adventurism. Torture is now routinely justified instead of being outlawed. The arguments 'We only torture in a good cause' and 'If they can do it, so can we...' should have been dismissed out of hand, but were not. We should have asked: 'How are torturers recruited? Self-selection? Going with the flow? Does the Eichmann defence of 'superior orders' apply?'

Albert Camus wrote: 'Man's greatness lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way of overcoming it, which is to be just himself'.


Barry Jones  

former Labor politician