What the poets tell us about Tony Abbott

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Tony Abbott walks both sides of the fence, writes Michael Aiken — his buffoonish image assuages fears battleground voters might have about his Rhodes scholarly, politically manipulative, self.

'The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.'
~ George Orwell

Tony Abbott: playing the fool? (Caricature by John Graham / johngraham.alphalink.com.au)

IN THE quote above, Orwell captures a common view that the more tricky or clever a speaker’s words, the more slippery they must be. His argument resonates for many people, particularly those who don’t have the same command of language or vocabulary as that of the clever speaker.

Writing about the Irish poet and politician William Butler Yeats, Orwell said:
'...there must be some kind of connection between his wayward, even tortured style of writing and his rather sinister vision of life.'

The ‘sinister vision’, according to Orwell, was Yeats’ enthusiasm for anti-democratic regimes.

But Yeats knew Orwell was wrong.

Yeats had learned from William Wordsworth the overwhelming power of plain language. Each of them was concerned with harnessing language to create powerful art and each recognised the peculiar ability of simplicity to evoke a sense of direct experience and conviction. But both poets also came to realise that such moments of conviction were on their own meaningless — plain language could make a listener feel, but it couldn’t make them think.

Yeats went on to realise that this power could be harnessed by a political agenda — not to educate, but to convince.

'The Conditional Man,' he wrote, the 'statesman who accepts massacre as historical necessity… is strong, full of initiative… [and makes] little use of argument, which requires a long train of reasons… for his power rests in certain simplifying convictions… He needs intellect for their expression, not their proof.'*

When Tony Abbott called the conflict in Syria “baddies vs baddies”, Christopher Pyne applauded him as “plain speaking” and “sophisticated”. The plain speaking sophisticate is just what Yeats was warning of — the man who knows how to develop complex arguments, but doesn’t bother doing so because he is more concerned about appearing earnest than appearing intelligent.

Earnestness appeals to the frightened and the uneducated, hoping for a ‘strong’ leader who believes in what he’s saying. This was part of Pauline Hanson’s appeal. She set herself up as the least sophisticated speaker, not just in Australian politics, but in Australia. The subsequent flood of support for her was in part fueled by her plain style and willingness to admit she didn’t understand big words.

Abbott’s plain speaking is a direct appeal to the supposed ‘Labor heartland’ of lower socio-economic, less-educated masses, who lack the time or inclination to wade through a complex argument, but who are worried about job security, physical safety and the strength of Australian society in a time of global instability. By making simplistic glosses out of complex international situations, Abbott reassures the cowering public that he has an answer. The very simplicity of that answer drives support for him amongst those fearful of their own security and desperate for a confident leader.

The parable of Paul and Pauline

Remember when Pauline Hanson was ridiculed for admitting she didn’t understand the word ‘xenophobic’? Suddenly every smug Good Weekend reader postured as if it were an everyday word for any ‘normal’ person.

True, Hanson was exhibiting some kind of lack of education by failing to know a word that her own policies pretty clearly evoked. And that demonstrable lack of education also acted like a validation for the many people who saw her wider attitudes towards Aboriginal people and immigrants as symptoms of severe ignorance.

But to her credit, she was also far more honest than most of our politicians (or ‘educated’ public) when she willingly acknowledged she didn’t understand a word, and that also resonated with those in the electorate who are sick of the endless posing and spinning by journalists and politicians alike.

Several years earlier, the country got similarly wound up about another politician’s understanding of a polysyllabic word. That time it was Prime Minister Paul Keating; the word was ‘recalcitrant’ and the ridicule was focused not on his failure to understand the word, but on his use of a word that other people didn’t know. Following his description of Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed as a recalcitrant for refusing to attend APEC, Keating was the brunt of ridicule in the Australian media for what seemed like weeks. Despite (or because of) his correct use of the word, his opponents and the ‘educated’ public in general seemed almost hysterically incensed that the PM had spoken in a way some (imagined) listeners wouldn’t comprehend.

The discrepancies are a warning not to reach too far above your place: Keating was pilloried for being too clever for public comfort, while Hanson was depicted as a failure because she dared aspire to a position for which the public demands utilise a certain degree of sophistication.

Tony Abbott, meanwhile, walks both sides of the fence. His (currently) much more public profile of buffoonery assuages worries the battleground electorates might harbor about his Rhodes scholarly, university politicking manipulative self. His capacity for sophistication is well hidden behind a talent for powerfully reassuring simplicity which Yeats would no doubt applaud.

* The author says he is indebted to David Rosen’s book Power, Plain English and the Rise of Modern Poetry for his explication of the plain language inheritance from Wordsworth to Yeats. Michael Aiken is a postgraduate researcher in English literature and historiography. You can follow Michael on Twitter @feicksdevice.

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