Proposition: the pomposity of self-satisfied elites serves to normalise the unthinkable. Edward Herman, writing about Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil", says: "This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as 'the way things are done’."
To puncture pomposity, wherever it is found, is a worthy and longstanding tradition of newspapering. Journalism should comfort the afflicted, one early exponent wrote, and afflict the comfortable. Irony, wit, cheek and sarcasm are all ways to empower readers to look over the shoulder of groups of anoraks, exchanging jargon with each other, and have a laugh at their expense.
It is in the media-fuelled rise of "security", as a governing concept in our lives, that these two observations intersect. When I was a student, "security" meant the men in ill-fitting dark suits on the door of the Union building on a Friday night. Now, no self-respecting campus is complete without some form of "security studies". Its influence coils through government departments and the corporate sector, no less than universities. There is wisdom in this branch of scholarship, of course, but a "securocratic mentality" – the term was coined in Northern Ireland – can also lead us into folly.
Talking of folly, the Australian government remains committed to the war in Afghanistan, despite longstanding opposition from a majority of the public, in the name of our security. The claim that, if our troops pull out, the next thing we know, Al Qaida will have re-grouped and be preparing to attack us, has been comprehensively demolished, not least in the latest annual survey from that well-known bunch of peaceniks, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Such insights seldom perturb politicians here, however, because media coverage generally ignores any perspective on the conflict from outside the two main parties, and the military establishment. (Another obvious missing element is any voice for Afghans themselves).
Exempted, in effect, from proper media scrutiny, Australia's security and foreign-policy-wallahs generally rub along, unperturbed, serving the interests of their members and clients. Another example was the government's pusillanimous response to last year's violence in Sri Lanka, and international efforts to raise the alarm over what appeared to be serious and large-scale violations of the laws of war.
The military defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels brought further concerns in its wake, over the human rights of thousands of detainees, and the still-deteriorating political situation. These are well understood by political and media circles in much of the watching world, but have often seemed to fall strangely flat in Australia. There has, instead, been a ready reception for apologists for the Sri Lankan government, to put forward a Panglossian picture of post-war conditions on the island, of "stability and inter-ethnic reconciliation".
When the author of those remarks – from a column in the Australian newspaper – was invited to speak on "counter-insurgency lessons from Sri Lanka", at a prestigious security conference in the capital, Canberra, it therefore seemed a good opportunity to let a bit of hot air out of the self-serving elite security discourse, by making merry at their expense, and pointing out a few home truths.
However, the column that follows these introductory remarks proved impossible to place in the Australian written press, where the tradition of puncturing pomposity seems ill-understood. The humour struck an "inappropriate" tone, one editor sniffed. Too many journalists here are still trying to write – or edit – by numbers, and remain, as a result, trapped by political orthodoxies like the excessive seriousness with which some in the security community regard themselves and their nostrums. The reader is too often reminded of George Orwell in Politics and the English Language: "orthodoxy of any kind seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style". There is an excess of literalism and linearity: not so much dumbing down as dulling down.
Thankfully, there are abundant creative responses to this state of affairs, notably by independent media such as the enterprising web-based news and comment service, Crikey (www.crikey.com.au), where the following column first appeared:
What Can Australia Learn From Sri Lanka About security?
The cream of Australia's security establishment are gathering in the plush surroundings of Canberra's Rydges Lakeside hotel for their annual shindig, the "Safeguarding Australia Summit".