Directions on misdirections at the Festival of Ideas

Phillip Adams and Barry Jones are two of the grand old men of Australian culture (and I know some people will have sniggered at that phrase; to one I say ‘see you in the divorce court, love’).

For over fifty years they have fought the good fight – against the death penalty, against censorship, for science (especially on ‘the greenhouse effect’ as climate change was known, back in the 80s), for the film industry and much else (it’s a really really long list).  Jones went down the more explicitly political route (he was Minister for Science from 1983 to 1990, Australian Labor Party chair etc), while Adams has been a writer, advertising exec and has had an extremely well-regarded late night radio programme that’s been running since about five minutes after Marconi’s first message.

They made the perfect couple, therefore, to open the ninth Adelaide Festival of Ideas, which runs until Sunday.

In front of a gerontologically-advantaged capacity audience (300 people? 500?) the two bounced ideas and anecdotes off each other like the raconteurs they are.

Jones introduce Adams with aplomb, reminiscing about Adams work with the visionary SA Premier Don Dunstan (Jones is delivering the Don Dunstan Oration tomorrow)

In explaining how they met, Jones quoted extensively from a Patrick White article ‘the Prodigal Son

“In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.”

On reading that quoted by Jones, Adams got in touch and they formed a close bond, that saw them as influential arts figures during the Holt, Gorton and especially Whitlam governments.    Jones told a very funny anecdote about a car accident in the Soviet Union, sans papiers, and the unexpected power of the sentence ‘Nyet, apparatchki!”, before quoting Eric Beecher on Adams

“He’s been around the media for decades, he looks more like a priest than a radio jock, he talks proper, he has an amazingly retentive memory, he’s accessibly cerebral, he wears his biases on his skivvy, he polarizes opinion and opinion-makers, he applies historical perspective to his views and discussions, he attracts by far the most significant interview subjects from around the globe to his program, he probes and banters with them as an equal, he gets himself properly briefed on the detail, he gives his subjects time and space to be discursive and therefore, often, illuminating, he breaks all the rules of talk radio, he is an Australian institution and an international-calibre broadcaster who would distinguish the airwaves of any radio station anywhere. He is Phillip Adams”

and handing over to the man himself. Adams’ central point  (there were others – there are always wonderful digressions with Phillip Adams – think of him like the Ronnie Corbett shaggy dog sketches in ‘The Two Ronnies’, only with detours to Fellini, Hegel and whatever else you care to imagine) was of the importance of paying close attention to the right things, especially when someone is trying to bamboozle you.

To this end, after mentioning  CSICOP, he recounted a story of the US myth buster James Randi, who had been invited to Australia by entrepreneur Dick Smith.  Randi managed to get a whole room of journalists and cameramen to not see that he was moving a cigarette on a table not by ‘static electricity’ or wiggling his fingers but … by blowing on it.

This Adams described as a eureka moment for him, around mis-direction in politics. He compared the public to bulls who are being stuck by picadors but run futilely at the matador’s swirling cape; he compared Donald Trump and the magician David Copperfield, both cleverly making the Statue of Liberty disappear.  It was a classic Adams’ display, referencing the Kardashians, Hitchcock’s MacGuffins and much else.  His warned of strawmen and false binaries (around asylum seekers – ‘razor wire or red carpets’) and closed with a plea that neatly came back to the James Randi anecdote, while bringing in George HW Bush – even when we know they are lying, we should watch their lips intently.

There was then a very entertaining discussion between Jones and Adams on the latter’s memory and craft.  Adams likes the New York Review of Books, but I think Jones is right in bigging up the London Review of Books (I had a subscription for years, and still have a pile from 2008 to 2010, when Manchester Climate Fortnightly took over my life but I still couldn’t bring myself to cancel).  He particularly cited two articles by Elliot Weinberger. Adams told very funny stories about Gore Vidal, a Buddhist monk who spoke not a word of English, a couple of Dunstan anecdotes and a Gorbachev anecdote (it sounds like name-dropping, but it wasn’t).  Adams was in mordant form though, and Captain Hook and his alarming alarm clock got the last tick tock. Time’s winged chariot and all that…

Overall verdict – a very fine evening.  The organisers deserve praise (but not fulsome praise)

And now, immodestly, three Concepts that I think would have helped-

Agnotology (the deliberate creation of ignorance)

Laura Tingle’s Political Amnesia, a Quarterly Essay on the inability of bureaucracies, political parties and the media (and, I would add social movements) to have a working memory that stretches back before the week before last.  Fwiw, Tingle is a staggeringly good political journalist and really should be the next dedicatee of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.

And finally – this from Oliver Sacks essay ‘The President’s Speech’

Among the patients with tonal agnosia on our aphasia ward who also listened to the President’s speech was Emily D. , with a glioma in her right temporal lobe. A former English teacher, and poetess of some repute, with an exceptional feeling for language, and strong powers of analysis and expression, Emily D. was able to articulate the opposite situation-how the President’s speech sounded to someone with tonal agnosia. Emily D. could no longer tell if a voice was angry, cheerful, sad-whatever. Since voices now lacked expression, she had to look at people’s faces, their postures and movements when they talked, and found herself doing so with a care, an intensity , she had never shown before. But this, it so happened, was also limited, because she had a malignant glaucoma, and was rapidly losing her sight too.

What she then found she had to do was to pay extreme attention to exactness of words and word use, and to insist that those around her did just the same. She could less and less follow loose speech or slang –speech of an allusive or emotional kind– and more and more required of her interlocutors that they speak prose -‘proper words in proper places’. Prose, she found, might compensate, in some degree; for lack of perceived tone or feeling.

In this way she was able to preserve, even enhance, the use of ‘expressive’ speech-in which the meaning was wholly given by the apt choice and reference of words-despite being more and more lost with ‘evocative’ speech (where meaning is wholly given in the use and sense of tone).

Emily D. also listened, stony-faced, to the President’s speech, bringing to it a strange mixture of enhanced and defective perceptions —precisely the opposite. mixture to those of our aphasiacs. It did not move her –no speech now moved her– and all that was evocative, genuine or false completely passed her by. Deprived of emotional reaction, was she then (like the rest of us) transported or taken in? By no means. ‘He is not cogent,’ she said. ‘He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.’ Thus the President’s speech did not work for Emily D. either, due to her enhanced sense of formal language use, propriety as prose, any more than it worked for our aphasiacs, with their word-deafness but enhanced sense of tone.

Here then was the paradox of the President’s speech. We normals—aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooied, were indeed well and truly fooled (‘Populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur’). And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.


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