Uh… John…? Where are we heading?

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After seeing a contemporary dance piece last week, based around the stories from people who lived through the war in Bosnia, I was part of a conversation with the director and someone who had come from the same area the story-tellers were from. One of the things that the piece was wanting to explore was asking how it had happened… how had normal human beings been drawn into such a mash of factions warring against each other – with different alliances between the factions depending on which villiage you were in.

There wasn’t a single definitive answer to the question but some of the factors that were brought up drew some parallels in Australian society with the conservative government. It’s something incremental that people don’t notice through any individual piece of change that happens but if you step back and look at the bigger picture, you can see the trend and add things together. Such as all this going on about Australian “Values” and the suggestion to require anyone who enters the country to undertake an oath to live by and defend these self same ‘values’.

Here’s a piece of commentary from a former County Court judge from last Saturday’s Age:

Nothing concrete in PM’s ‘values’
By Peter Gebhardt
September 23, 2006

Australian rules football has been an evolving game and sometimes the evolution offends those who look for certainty. The pursuit of certainty is an understandable, but hopeless, chase.

It is in the context of the pursuit of certainty that the current debate – or debacle – about Australian “values” has arisen. I had a good friend, a valued theologian, who used to shudder when people resorted to “values”. He would, were he alive today, be shuddering in a convulsive way. Of course, the current Prime Minister and, latterly, the Opposition Leader, have sought to capture the populist imagination, limited as it is, by trying to codify the values in a way that will satisfy the fears, prejudices and intolerances that the electorate has been fed unashamedly for the past decade. First, you create insecurities. Then you feed them to such a point that reason is displaced by unwarranted irrationality. And only this week Andrew Robb said that the Australian value-based regime is designed to give the community a sense of security. “In a sense we have become more tribal as we have become more global.”

Last week, I saw The Wind That Shakes the Barley, the film about the Irish civil war over which the English right-wing press was apoplectic and director Ken Loach was deemed unworthy to be a citizen of England. What the film does demonstrate is the need to keep alive the historical memory and imagination so we are not driven into a kind of present-centred amnesia where we have forgotten what our pasts were about and how, like Australian rules, there is a continuum of change.

Respect for dissent used to be appreciated, now it is usurped by sedition, mostly practised by “the chattering classes” and “the cultural elites”, whoever or whatever they may be.

It is the absence of conversation that is most destructive of the present. The philosopher Michael Oakeshott (and he’s no soft leftie) in a marvellous essay, The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind, says: “As civilised human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”

What he says is that there is a multiplicity of voices and they all need to be heard, to be a part of the public discourse.

“Multiculturalism” was an unfortunate linguistic appellation to use to reflect what was a growing concept to demonstrate that, after the end of the White Australia policy and the demise of the language test, we were able to accommodate a stream of migrants to help us build our society and to enrich the diversity of it. Consider eating.

I live in an area where many Greeks came. Many of them still do not speak English, but who would ever begrudge their contribution to the expanding nature of our society? Do we forget our name-calling of and our attitudes to wogs? Reliance upon “mateship” and “a fair go” is a brutal contradiction of the spiritual and democratic underpinning of those now beleaguered and battered war cries, mantras.

Respect for the law, respect for diversity and variety, respect for divergent views, respect for the environment and the future we bequeath, and respect for the rights and responsibilities citizen-to-citizen – the mutuality of relationships: none of these is the breeding ground of dull conformity as now would be imposed upon us in a none-too-subtle form of slavery.

If governments pre-eminently espouse policies and practices that appeal to the baser motives – greed, fear and prejudice – then there can be no doubt that the engendered outcomes will lead to civil disengagement and the growth of self-centred and aggressive individualism which cuts neighbour off from neighbour. Trust is usurped by distrust, love by hate.

I can understand that individuals may have moral or immoral dispositions, they may hold to certain beliefs. How a “country” can have “values” is beyond my comprehension and I suspect it is a jingoistic and/or xenophobic nonsense. We are told about “the American way of life” but, having lived there for three years of my adult life, neither I nor any American I met understood anything of the abstraction.

In an address to the National Press Club in January this year, the Prime Minister talked of social cohesion, which in my view cannot exist if there is no reciprocity. He also said: “A sense of shared values is our social cement.” Pretty fluid sort of cement, where lying is now part of its make-up and, worse, that it is lying that doesn’t worry anyone. So much for witnesses of truth!

Peter Gebhardt is a writer and former County Court judge.

I get the feeling that our politicians see a certain political expediency, at this moment, in being just a little racist to pick up what I guess is a big enough slab of the electorate to make a difference. The sad thing is they may be right and the sadder thing is what that says about our society.

  • September 29, 2006