Slogans and Nonsense

5 March 2021

“What, announce a policy without a slogan? Are you mad?”- overheard from Scott Morrison’s office, presumably.

There’s a problem with slogans in politics: when political slogans age into accepted wisdom and the taint of ideology is forgotten, political partialities can be passed off as facts of nature. Of course, arguments are much easier when your opinions appear to be cold, impartial facts. Thus, for politicians who use language like Play-Doh in pursuit of this charade, the slogan is often their preferred technique. It’s hardly a revelation that politicians have a way with words. With fantastic intricacies, we can say things that we would ideally avoid. 

Two-time(ing?) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s “detailed programmatic specificity” was presumably straight out of some Observational Behaviour exam notes he found on the net. Yet, it allowed him to imply that no substantial action on climate change would come out of the Major Economics Forum, without actually saying so. Linguistic alchemy is a fickle art. Where Rudd dazzles with obscurity, Liberal Party MP Stuart Robert fails through sheer nonsense. Robert revealed his inner philosophy undergrad in this tweet: “a whole of govt architecture allows us to build an ontology of capabilities across govt.” When parsed with the most conventional use of ‘ontology’, we get this delightful nonsense: “a whole of govt architecture allows us to build the study of the nature of being of capabilities across govt.” When failure in the art of words is so easy, the deceit of slogans in shrouding nonsense is rarely revealed. 

Some slogans manage to become household names. This is a problem when they are utter nonsense used to justify one’s political prejudices. Slogans do have a time and place. If one was employed to increase the consumption of rodents, “Save Trees Eat a Beaver,” might be a starter. And going to the polls without a slogan probably isn’t a great idea. Malcolm Turnbull’s “Continuity with Change” is a lesson for the wise. “Continuity with Change” is the essence of government; all political parties plan to change some policies and continue others. 

The most cunning work of words and slogans is wrought when politics and the economy meet. “The market” becomes the panacea of choice when lobbyists and “special interest” are making things awkward. “Policy must be guided by the market,” says the politician, even if the market is in fact a cartel. Political analysts Clarke and Dawe explain the energy “market” at work:

“Clarke: It was hopelessly inefficient and a few years ago it was privatised.

 Dawes: Who said it was hopelessly inefficient?

 Clarke: The people who wanted to buy it, Bryan.”

As terms like “the market” can mask the bankrupt reality that they stand for, so can slogans, hiding nonsense behind folksy wisdom. The term “trickle-down economics” lays bare its lack of appeal to those who won’t be getting first dibs. Who wants to live upon a trickle, one sip at a time, your thirst never to be quenched? Such is living on the fourth or fifth pressing, on whatever seeps out in the last pressing. “Why wait until everyone else has had their fun with the olives?”. One slogan is almost umbilically linked with trickle-down economics: “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” How could one deny this paragon of reason? Or the extension of this logic to economics? Must we not bow to its sway and fall in step to the Reaganomic tune? Let the wealth trickle down and the tide rise all around. Or maybe not? Perhaps behind this fine veneer, there is nothing but utter rot? Which boats benefit from a higher tide? It’s not the dinghy which runs aground, but the super yacht. The super yacht, which can now come closer in shore or cruise further upriver. Nor is the tide known to improve the quality of one’s boat. Shouldn’t we ask why the tide is rising? Perhaps the tide rises because the super yachts are bigger, there are more of them in the sea, or they are riding lower beneath the weight of riches. Wealth does not rise like the tide. Instead, the dinghy rides on the same level as the yacht beside it. The hedge fund manager soars and his shoeshine rises little. But what can one expect when the wealth only trickles down? 

The slogan ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ is not some impartial fact of nature, but an ideological belief, which passes off one’s political desires as neutral facts of life. Yet, it is literal nonsense.  Like many other slogans, it naturalises opinions, so that they seem the solemn dictates of nature and reason. William Blake was wise to this “naturalising” of opinions 200 years ago –

“And form’d laws of prudence, and call’d them 

 The eternal laws of God.”

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