By Henry Johnston
Auguste Rodin’sThe Thinker is universally regarded as a symbol of science and philosophy. But Rodin originally called it The Poet as a detail of a larger work known as The Gates of Hell to be used as an entrance to a Parisian museum. Neither the museum nor the bronze doors — the Gates of Hell — were built.
Rodin was born in 1840 and died in 1917. In 1848 eight years after his birth, Karl Marx wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the year of Rodin’s death in 1917, communism swept away the Romanov dynasty and changed the world forever.
For more than a century scientists, philosophers, poets and artists – like The Thinker — pondered these and other events. But a strange phenomenon which evolved in the 1970s, irrevocably changed the way citizens think.
A coterie of American business people came up with an idea to outsource critical thinking. Though not new, the notion was informed by free-market philosophy. Decades on and think tanks impact our lives almost without our knowledge.
George Lakoff an adviser to the U.S Democrat Party published a book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff has also penned at least seven other books, but Don’t Think of an Elephant goes to the heart of the conservative think tank movement.
Lakoff traces the history of modern think tank to Nixon-era America. The US was wracked by the obscenity of the Vietnam War, and capitalism in genuine peril. During this seminal time, America’s best and brightest turned away from traditional conservative business pursuits.
Lewis Powell, a doyen of the conservative movement, wrote to the US Chamber of Commerce encouraging the business community to endow professorships and institutes at major American universities. Powell also called for the establishment of lavishly funded private foundations for hand-picked scholars. These foundations would provide their ‘fellows’ the tools to conduct research for subsequent publication in journals and magazines. Powell argued the US business community should own the means of publication and take control of media and communications. Sound familiar? The model has boomed over the last 50 years.
So how does a think tank work? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff is an expert in the mechanisms behind the framing of public discourse. Consider a ‘frame’ as a conceptual structure. Lakoff uses the simple notion of a bottle. Look at one and you think liquid. No real effort involved. Next, frame a public discourse, let’s say, ‘we must follow the law,’ or as Malcolm Turnbull said, “and the court shall so hold”. But before the discourse is unleashed, a phalanx of media and communications strategists, book expensive TV and radio airtime and ensure acres of coverage in the slower print media. Behold. The rationale is rolled out to an unsuspecting public. Consider programmes such as Q&A and The Drum on ABC TV, talk shows on 2GB in Sydney and its equivalents around the country, or The Project on the TEN Network, not to mention different radio programmes on ABC Radio National and Sky after Dark.
Nowadays the media is awash with think tankers. Gerard Henderson, Parnell McGuinness, Georgina Downer to name a few from the right. From the left, we have Jenny Hocking, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Margaret Wilson, and in the centre, Ben Oquist of the Australia Institute There is the Sydney Institute, the Whitlam and Chifley institutes and Tom Switzer of the Centre for Independent Studies. But the stellar performer of Australian think tanks is the Institute of Public Affairs led by its Magister Ludi, John Roskam.
The IPA website proclaims it, “accepts no government funding, and is supported by thousands of individual members and donors; your tax-deductible donation to IPA research will ensure the IPA remains a loud voice for freedom in Australia”.
The IPA which, like its American counterparts, recruits the best and brightest, (IPA staff list here https://ipa.org.au/people-ipa ) is in my opinion, a defacto policy arm of the state and liberal governments. Over the years Liberal government sacked independent public servants who routinely applied SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to policy development.
The IPA is the antithesis of Rodin’s vision of science and philosophy. If you are sceptical about my claim, read Jennifer Marohasy’s critique of the Bureau of Meteorology. This clap-trap is just one missile in the institute’s arsenal of weapons deployed in the on-going war against climate change science.
The nation’s greatest publicly funded think tank the Australian Broadcasting Corporation remains in the crosshairs of the right. And Australian universities are not far behind. Somehow the Australian National University managed to survive a right-wing onslaught led by Tony Abbott on behalf of the Ramsay Centre, to establish a degree course in western civilization.
Expect more of the same.
If think tanks continue to presume to dictate the national philosophical and scientific agenda, it is only fair their financial backers are exposed to public scrutiny. Thus if the IPA’s Darcy Allen is prepared to argue The Case for Personal Income Tax Cuts (IPA, 5 December 2015) it follows the status of think tank tax-deductibility should be scrutinised by the Australian Tax Office. Consider this gem by Darcy Allen, albeit out of context; Australia would do well to make our income tax system more simple and transparent – clearing out our attic of special interests. Special interests indeed!
The time is at hand for Australians to think for ourselves rather than outsource our cognitive discourses to privately funded institutions, which do the bidding of unnamed and unseen patrons.
Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here https://tasmania-40-south.myshopify.com/products/last-voyage-of-aratus-the-by-henry-johnston-pb