People die of course. Terribly. Sadly. Men, women and children, swallowed alone in the wet wasteland of the Indian Ocean.
That's an unarguable reality.
Then we come to the politics of it, which have an unreal tinge.
There's the outright fantasy of precisely what "national security crisis" can be constituted by a sequence of soggy desperates whose hired craft can barely withstand the 500 kilometre voyage to Christmas Island never mind the next 1, 560 km to Exmouth, the closest - and by coincidence quite militarised - point on the Australian mainland.
If 80 dehydrated Afghans on a foundering fishing boat constitute some sort of territorial peril then we should probably be asking hard questions of our defence establishment.
And then there's a slightly more calculated half truth, a sleight of hand that places the politics of asylum seekers in a position of occasional dominance and constant high profile in the national discussion.
The conventional progressive shorthand sees this political obsession as a sop to western Sydney's mass-xenophobia, the sort of subtly played, dog whistle to race politics that might lead John Pilger to conclude that, "This barbarism is considered a vote-winner by both the Australian Government and Opposition. Reminiscent of the closing of borders to Jews in the 1930s, it is smashing the facade of a society advertised as benign and lucky".
But to pass asylum politics off as disguised racism is both flattering to the foetid little rump of true Australian racists and an underestimation of the issue's broader impact, as both a proxy for all manner of uncertainties and policy failures and as a distraction from them.
The boat debate can be taken at face value but also read at another level, as a two-part political play that both speaks to ill-defined senses of foreboding and unease in the electorate and goes some way to absolving government of direct responsibility for precise policies that might address them.
At face value it is of course an invidious and wicked problem: how to deal compassionately with a globally swift human tide while at the same time saving lives at sea, a balance that by necessity must be part stern, part welcoming. Any approach - from left or right - that favours either above the other seems wrong-headed and fraught, and likely to end in either an unmanageable flood, or some sort of slow death of the national soul.
But it's the other political function of the asylum discussion that is more curious and subtle; and in its way more profound. It is here that a relatively trivial trickle of boat arrivals is amplified. Not because of its intrinsic qualities as a threat to borders and orderly migration, but because of its usefulness as a broader political proxy.
In outer western Sydney, one in seven people aged 15 to 24 is looking for work. In Melbourne's outer west the figure is one in five.
Tonight across the country, one in 200 Australians will be homeless, 105, 237 people in total.
Median rents in Sydney, the country's least affordable city are $500 a week, making it the third most expensive city in the world in which to find a home.
Fold in diminished access on the outer fringes to high quality education, the lifestyle hampering consequences of serially underfunded infrastructure, the poor access to healthcare services that the affluent take for granted, the long congested freeway jams to insecure work from highly leveraged homes ... a general sense of besieged otherness in our outer suburbs, a quiet, nameless foreboding that stems from entirely reasonable but slightly nebulous insecurities and actual comparative disadvantage.
This is fertile ground for a national debate by shadow-play and proxy, where first a villain is created, a body of people who might strain already depleted resources, place stress on welfare and housing, give a sense of unfair competition for the scarce prizes of the jobs market.
And having created that sense of unfair imposition, our politicians can build empathy through their toughness towards the imagined foe.
This is not dog whistling to race but dog whistling to uncertainty.
It acknowledges that at some deep and fundamental level the system is failing many of its citizens, building cities too fast to cope, building economies unheeding of the need for work. Building education where money can buy performance.
In the way of modern political gaming the response is not through an acknowledgement of the system's deep and imponderable flaws, but by the creation of a reassuring impression, a rhetorical device that creates a sense of empathy and shared realisation of the problems at hand.
Getting tough on the boats might do nothing to create jobs for the young men and women of Broadmeadows and Parramatta, but it will still give them, and their families, a sense that government is keeping competitors at arm's length, others who might otherwise flood the market and extinguish all hope.
Which explains the strange disconnect in the observable political effect of the asylum debate in the polls.
The ALP's standing as preferred asylum party has leapt significantly in the past fortnight. Last weekend'sGalaxy polling shows the ALP leading the Coalition for the first time on the question of which party is best placed to prosecute the asylum issue.
But the primary vote still rattles, all but untouched, within the margin of error.
Because dealing with asylum seekers itself is not a vote swinging issue. But it is a proxy for issues - like the economy, housing and employment security - that are.
It's an empty game of charades and impressions, but it seems almost the best modern politics can offer.
By ABC's Jonathan Green
Aug 1, 2013