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The very model of a (post) modern Prime Minister

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Wednesday, 19 September 2007


A few years ago John Howard needed to “kill” further speculation about when he might retire. So he told us he’d serve as long as his party wanted him.

The statement was absurd on its face - what political leader lasts longer than their party wants? But he wasn’t deceiving because we all knew what he really meant. Behind the humble “body language” of the words was the quite different meaning “I'll resign when I want”.

With his party keen for him to stay, had Howard resigned 12 months ago, the media would have been too busy with punditry, drama and reminiscence to give much prominence to this thought: “So much for ‘as long as my party wants me’.”

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In fact in clinging to office against the wishes of Cabinet, indicating that he’d only depart after a bloody battle he traduced the original words more comprehensively than seizing the more graceful alternative previously might have done.

“As long as my party wants me” was just a “form of words”. The new form of words is that quitting isn’t in John Howard’s nature. That the new words mean the opposite of the old words is neither here nor there. In this sense a form of words is something you tell people to smooth things over, like small talk, because silence seems unfitting, even impolite - too peremptory.

The actual words chosen, both for the previous and the current form of words were, to speak precisely, bullshit - as in “tell them any old bullshit”.

In an essay first published in 1986 and republished in 2005 to become a bestseller in times that suited it even better, philosopher Harry S. Frankfurt helps us make a bit of sense of all this.

The title of his essay? On Bullshit.

As Frankfurter explains, the liar has some concern for the truth if only in order to deceive. The bullshitter doesn’t care one way or the other.

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One might deduce from the increased popularity of Frankfurt’s essay that bullshit has increased in significance in our society. One might conclude the same from the fact that we now have a comedian laureate of bullshit - John Clarke.

Clarke first came to our attention (well mine anyway) as Fred Dagg. Dagg’s high silliness was different to the surrealistic silliness of, say, the Pythons because of the way in which its style grew out of a certain matey antipodean pomposity. Dagg’s history of Western philosophy looked askance at Rene Descarte’s scepticism as to the reality of his existence - “the French were a jumpy bunch of garçons” - and observed that “The Russians experimented with the thickness of the novel and discovered that it could become very thick indeed”.

His style matured further as the anchor of the farnarkling reports on the Gillies Report: a sports report of high hilarity in which the reporter’s overbearing and desperate assertion of the utter seriousness of his absurd words was the essence of the gag. This morphed very easily into his current format. Farnarkling was pure bullshit.

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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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