Death of a luncheon
On the fragility of human judgments.
A typical Saturday: morning walk; spot of gardening; café luncheon; The Weekend Australian.
(I would never ruin my little treat on sacred Saturday by opening the pages of the SMH, even less The Age, still less The Canberra Times.)
I’ve been reading The Oz since I was 17 and I know the current crop of leading reporters and columnists almost by heart. I hear their familiar voices rising up before me as I spread out the paper over the coffee table. It’s a comforting roundtable nattering, even if I find myself getting, little by little, out of tune with the company of my usual lunch companions.
As I bear down on the coffee and food - mind, it’s not only a Saturday ritual - I hear them around me sounding, unusually, dismayed. Convictions carefully polished by thousands of column inches suddenly appear without their trademark gloss. Stuff is happening. There’s Russia alarmingly back in the game. (Brett, the foreigner at the table, just can’t stop slamming it.)
There’s the flailing EU. (Greg is sounding vindicated. After all, like Henry, he’s among the few who understood the contradictions in the European experiment.)
There’s the Syria of countless sorrows and a “red line” crossed without consequence. Bang! (Brett, again.) There’s the Brexit none saw coming. End of progress! (Paul.)
There’s Trump, the unexpected President. Cacophony, confusion, spluttering. (All.)
At each turn, every prediction vaporised, every nostrum smashed. One voice, however, eschews alarums and proffers a caution against the consequences of a Trump driven rising dollar. (Henry.) A solitary figure, meanwhile, pokes silently at his chick pea salad. Did I fare better in the forecasting stakes than my voluble company? Not a bit. It’s not that I trusted too little in my own instincts. Truth is, I sacrificed them – a votive offering to the greater professionalism of my lunchtime colleagues. To their wider and deeper grasp of affairs, to their imperturbable self-confidence, I deferred.
So there will be no mocking of my discomforted gurus. I feel their pain. Though I fear that an unworthy, inward smile could flicker across my face: I detect (or so I imagine) among the discombobulated band a sudden scrambling to get on board.
Just a few weeks back there were warnings of a Trumpian ‘end of civilisation’. Now “perfectly mainstream” is one of the phrases I pick out of the din. As the crescendo rises and falls, and as the wise men recover their briefly shaken wits, I stare over my coffee at the paper:
“The prices of coal and iron ore, Australia’s two biggest mineral exports, have soared against all expectations …” “… against all expectations…”
Our predicament, exactly. Had we only taken “The Donald” seriously, we all would have dived into coal and iron ore futures. He gave us a tip: when he’s President, he’s going to spend big on US infrastructure. But we waved this aside as braggadocio. Poor fools us.
“… against all expectations…”
Ah, so it was. We of the ‘know it all’ Centre - and Centre-Right - were also swept along by the media tide of outrage at the very idea of a Trump candidacy, let alone at the prospect of a President Trump. The frequency with which I hear the term “populism” around the table - the casualness of its use; the confidence in its meaning and explanatory power – suggests a thought. Maybe, from the voters’ perspective, we are as much part of the problem as parties and movements and “our colleagues” on the Left? Don’t we belong to the commentariat? Don’t we (unlike Richo here) condescend to “the mob”? Of course, we’d never dismiss them as “deplorables”, but aren’t we, in class terms, nearer to Hillary than to them?
We agree, don’t we, that the “the mob” really doesn’t share our higher understanding of certain things? Such as about the EU; about globalisation, free trade and the virtues of free-ish people movements; about multiculturalism? We feel, don’t we, that “the mob” is tainted: its narrow attachments to place and to kind make them susceptible to things that make us blush, even fear: to prefer their own people, their own country, their own language and culture over others?
For all our barking at the ABC, the Fairfax press, The Washington Post and The New York Times, isn’t our bite really reserved for the distasteful people? Taking to a post-prandial glass, the noise of conversation drifts further off and thoughts become dreamy. Rising upon the waves of distant voices, some things said here on other days, float back into the present:
“Isolationism has been given a great boost in the US, as evident in the demented responses of Donald Trump … “ … the rise of Trump, like the rise of the far Right in Europe, reflects not only an emotional response to terrorism, it also reflects the failure of mainstream politics.” (Greg)
“You’d have this sense of US disengagement – not going any further West than Hawaii …” (Peter)
“… serious harm [has already been done] to America’s standing as a global leader and alliance partner. “It is folly to think that the damage begins only if Donald Trump wins the Presidency. Damage has already been done with Trump a genuine contender for the Oval Office.” (Paul.)
“On the eve of his second televised debate with Hillary Clinton …
“ … Can Trump do it?” “I don’t think so, and I hope not, because American democracy needs Trump to be defeated.” (Greg.) “… it is surely impossible to view the ghastly freak show of the US Presidential election without apprehension that we are witnessing the decline of civilisation and the death of the virtues that made America great.” (Paul.) “ … a crisis for all US allies and for Western civilisation.” (Greg.)
“Don’t expect Trump to follow through with massive troop reductions in Asia… “Far from the alliance being at risk, Australia is becoming more important to the United States …” (Peter.) ‘Trump will stand up to Beijing …’ (Paul.)
Suddenly I snap back to the present. A stentorian voice rings down the table: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Trump could be good for us.” (Greg.) The whole company falls silent. I stare intently at the last chick pea and try to fork it up. I miss. It spins off the plate. Everyone avoids each others’ glances for an uncomfortably long time.
“Radicals, populists and frauds,” broke over the table like an Olympian thunderclap. (Paul.)
Fearing the onset of a storm, my mates suddenly scatter.
Suddenly alone, I emptied a second glass, folded the paper and, pondering the fragility of human judgments, headed home.