GEORGE BROWNING. Alternative facts & fake news – the lubricant of conservative politics.

Aug 31, 2018

We are spending an inordinate amount of money on ‘defence’ and ‘security’ to protect ourselves from an enemy without, but it is now clear that we face a far greater threat from the enemy within, revealed through ‘alternative facts and fake news’, the lubricant of conservative politics.  In the disgraceful power struggle between so-called conservatives and liberals in federal politics we have seen a championing of the Trump brand and the heinous connection between evangelical Christianity and individual rights.  A right-wing commentator has revealingly lamented that the trouble with Turnbull is that his natural home is within the ABC not Sky News!  What more needs to be said about the extraordinarily destructive and binary world into which we have fallen.

‘Alternative facts’ first made its unwelcome intrusion into our vocabulary via a spokesperson for Trump, following his inauguration, to explain how he could claim it was the largest inauguration ever when photographic evidence clearly said otherwise.  That the population at large can be led to accept ‘alternative facts’ as authentic, is a dangerous and undermining reality for democracy and the survival of civil society. There can of course be a variety of opinions, but facts are verifiable truths. But where does truth lie?   Pilate asked: “what is truth”?

Funnily enough, this issue was wrestled with in the Genesis creation narrative, the first chapters of the bible.  The narrative begins with the naming of all humanity – Adam – from the Adamah – the earth.  We are all relational beings, we live in relationship with the whole created order, not over it, or apart from it, but within it.   The narrative then goes on to focus on the individual, (Adam of the garden), and the terrible mistake made when the individual decides he, or she, has rights above or inconsistent with the order of the whole.  Our problems begin when, as individuals, we decide self-interested rights can prevail without cost to common order: wrong, harmony and equity upon which we all depend is then lost.

The narrative then flows into the story of Cain and Abel. Like the Adam narrative, the story of Cain and Abel is not an obscure and childish pre-history folktale, but a narrative about each one of us.  We are all Abel, while Cain also lurks within each of us. ‘Abel’ takes us a step beyond ‘Adam’ in defining human nature. The name infers we are to be life focused -relational; we are not simply flesh and blood but share the spirit of the creator.  “The wind blows where it chooses, you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (Jn. 3:8).

‘Cain’s” etymology is connected to ‘Canaan’. Canaan in biblical narrative is about possession, control, manipulation, exactly what fake news or alternative facts are all about.  This creation narrative concludes that when Cain takes over, Abel dies. Unfortunately, there are many prevailing examples of the death of Abel in Australian national life, as well as in the tragic lives of many individuals. Alan Jones has recently visited western NSW with the message that foreign aid should stop and the money be redirected to drought-affected farmers, as if these are alternatives.  Peter Dutton continues to insist that holding refugees on Manus and Nauru despite the appalling damage being done to their physical and mental health, is a matter of pride in the security of our borders: as if somehow proven capacity to prevent unwanted maritime arrivals would then be lost.  The Murdoch press gives print space to the view that climate science is a fiction and refuses to countenance any connection between the existential reality of extreme weather conditions all over the world and human-induced global warming. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells resigned this week from the ministry to put pressure on Turnbull on the basis that the coalition has swung too far to the left, without providing logical examples to justify her claim and despite the view of most Australians that the opposite is the truth.

This is the sad and frightening reality.  Sheeplike we have followed the US pattern. How has it become possible that the controlling, manipulative and wrecking views, of Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley, Andrew Bolt, et al could become acceptable, even mainstream and be called ‘conservative’?  Simple: they have nurtured a populist view that living in a self-interested bubble we can somehow be isolated from the problems that beset others.  Conservatism has become the art of self-interest and disengagement, while at the same time claiming a Christian pedigree.   Christianity is about relationships, engagement, about understanding and serving a good that is common. What now passes for conservatism is the very antithesis of Christianity and should be exposed as such.

Following the end of the Great War, Archbishop Randall Davidson of Canterbury called the 1920 Lambeth Conference. Europe had needlessly lost a whole generation. Loss of life was on an unimaginable scale. Brutality in the name of pride for king, empire or country was quite shocking. The Bishops, gathered at the conference, were understandably in a very sober mood. Their salutary refection on the war is as much, if not more relevant to-day than it was then: “national self-interest is more dangerous than individual self-interest”. The pigheaded pride and self-interest of European leaders had resulted in this utter devastation; needless devastation that because of the Treaty of Versailles would not be over until the end of WW2.

And yet, refusing to learn from history the ‘conservative’ element in politics is taking us down the same track.  Erdogan in Turkey; Trump in America; Netanyahu in Israel; Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; Dutton, Abbott and their entourage of media supporters in Australia are taking us down  this most dangerous route on the lie that in a global world it is possible to follow national self-interest without doing great harm to the global best interest upon which the prosperity let alone survival of all humanity depends.

Fake news and alternative facts must be called out, as must those, like Trump, who use this tag to challenge reality that should be beyond challenge.  Christians must also call out the conservative narrative for what it is. It is not a defence of Christianity, it is a misrepresentation of Christianity and a 21st-century consequence of Enlightenment thinking that disavowed relevance to meta-narrative and allowed for the possibility that right could be whatever an individual decides it to be.

This article was published by In Service of the Common Good on the 28th of August 2018. Bishop George Browning:  Retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

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