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Contemporary politics and the retreat from reality

Sandy Hook kids

The Bush administration bequeathed a toxic legacy for contemporary politics. Most obviously in their mobilisation of war with Iraq, Bush and Cheney decided policy first and then manipulated intelligence to fit their framework. They weren’t the first politicians to mould facts to ideology, but the deep-rooted cultural disdain for the “reality-based community” exuded by their conservative political apparatus is something we continue to suffer under. And we can see disturbing traces of it in different national contexts.

Prior to Christmas we were horrified by the slaughter of 20 children and six adult staff at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. For those of us not beholden to the power of American gun culture (so well pictured in Zed Nelson’s Gun Nation), the obvious first thought was that surely this massacre – on top of the Virgina Tech shootings or the Aurora cinema killings or any of the gun crimes that leave 12,000 Americans dead each and every year – would finally lead to substantive change. Obama has been praised for finally taking a bold stance in opposition to the NRA and others, but how radical is banning automatic assault rifles and limiting ammunition clips to a mere 10 bullets? When handguns, the number one weapon in US gun crime, are not even mentioned in these new proposals, reality seems to have gone missing once again.

BoM map

In Australia it is the devastatingly hot weather and resultant bush fires that show how up conservative contempt for reality-based policy. Australia’s climate has changed sufficiently that the Bureau of Meterology has had to extend its temperature scale to 54C and illustrate this extreme with an “incandescent purple” on its maps. After Sydney recently recorded its hottest day in history, few doubted that the international scientific consensus on climate change was being played out in the increasing probability of extreme weather events, even if climate change couldn’t be tied to singular happenings. Few that is, except the conservative opposition who are likely to win government in a landslide later this year. While whole towns burnt, the acting opposition leader Warren Tuss followed his absent boss Tony Abbott (ironically off volunteering for his local fire brigade) and declared no one should jump to conclusions about the role man-made climate change had in these catastrophic fires. Tuss was voicing the long-held belief among Australian conservatives that “climate science is crap.”

Tories

In the UK the conservative disdain for data is most evident in the coalition government’s ruthless economic austerity programme. While the Tories love to berate others for engaging in “class war” when they seek a minor redistribution of wealth from high earners to those who need a social welfare net, they have no hesitation in deploying their own class rhetoric – ‘shirkers, skivers and scroungers’ versus the ‘hard working’ – to divide the working poor from those who have lost their jobs or suffer disability. And yet any rational assessment of where money goes – the lost £70 billion through tax evasion versus the £1 billion of welfare waste – shows the cynical nature of the conservatives approach (aided and abetted by so-called liberal democrats of course).

All of this paints a bleak picture for 2013. How can the conservative ideologies of contemporary politics be contested? And how can they be contested visually? We live to a large extent in a political culture where denialism is a powerful force, and it is a force that too much journalism, still beholden to false notions of objectivity that require balance between competing viewpoints even when one of those viewpoints has at best a tenuous relationship to evidence, either furthers or allows to fester.

It would be good if this were the year that visual journalists redoubled efforts to take on the big issues with powerful pictures supported by clear evidence for the larger stories that need to be told. It would be great if visual journalists read and followed the critical ethos for a new journalism espoused by Jay Rosen:

The outlines of the new system are now coming into view. Accuracy and verification, fairness and intellectual honesty – traditional virtues for sure – join up with transparency, “show your work,” the re-voicing of individual journalists, fact-checking, calling BS when needed and avoiding false balance.

Of course, there is – especially for those of us with post-structuralist philosophical commitments – no easily discernible, singular, uncontested reality. There are no facts beyond dispute or arguments immune from contestation. No group has privileged access to the truth. Reality has to be narrated and narratives are inherently constructed. But some stories have more support than others, and the “concordance of evidence” favours some positions over others. When anyone flies in the face of such evidence it’s time to get angry and insist that we won’t stand for such BS.

Photo credits: 

Sandy Hook: Photo provided by the Newtown Bee, Connecticut State Police lead children from the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., following a reported shooting there Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Newtown Bee, Shannon Hicks), via Business Insider.

Australia: Bureau of Meteorology, via Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog, The Guardian

UK: Conservative poster via @billybragg