Acting from belief

Most people when they act with any consideration do so from their beliefs. Those beliefs may be immature or well developed. They may be uninformed and ill-considered – if at all, and subject to personal prejudice; or they may be the result of reading, observation, personal experience and deep consideration.

It’s reasonable to expect that the leaders in our society fall into the second camp. In many instances I think that is true, and historically very much the case. In general this has provided us with leaders who are nuanced, humane and of an intelligence far beyond the norm. That’s as it should be.

Though I don’t question the intelligence of our leaders today, I believe we are going through an era where raw belief is secondary to shallow jingoism. The emphasis has shifted from acting from our beliefs or ideals, from some sort of moral bedrock, to a shallow, opportunistic and ultimately transient re-action to the days events.

There are different reasons for this. I think in general we have dumbed down as a society. Our attention span is shorter, our patience limited. Sound bites rather than informed discussion are now the norm. Our political leaders deal in bold and controversial statements, often with little relationship to the facts, tailored for the evening’s news, and tomorrow’s headlines. That often they have little relationship to the facts is immaterial, and barely commented on, which is symptomatic of our time. With some exceptions our media standards have radically declined. Bald misrepresentations masquerading as opinion have become the de facto standard, particularly in the tabloid press and radio. For way too many Australians these bitter and pre-digested ‘opinions’ are how they come to understand the ‘facts’. Their opinions are not theirs, but rather have been received from others – and generally those who make the biggest noise and create the biggest headlines. It’s all of a piece: sensation over consideration; slogans over discussion; abuse over civility. Even much of our advertising I’ve noticed has become tainted. I wonder where the standards are that should be controlling these excesses.

Given that this is the society today is it any wonder that our political leaders are what they are? The truth of the axiom that we get the politicians we deserve has never been more evident.

Our leaders are curious. As I said, I don’t doubt that either Gillard or Abbott are intelligent people in basic terms. The problem is, one is weak, and the other corrupt.

Gillard doesn’t strike me as an intellectual (a much derided term these days unfortunately). She appears like a woman who has given little thought to the broader canvas, more inclined as she is to calm good sense. She is a sturdy type, a strong nature even if she has been weak politically. I don’t know enough about her to know if she is a student of history or society, if she reads or doesn’t. She strikes me as an occasional reader, too practical to indulge in things of the past. With that though is a stolid lack of imagination. That is her greatest failing as a leader I think. As a deputy she is supremely competent, but from a leader you need qualities that will carry us forward, to follow, to lift us from the bitter rut we have fallen into. Foremost amongst those qualities is imagination. Because she has little imagination there are few ideals that colour her perspective. She acts, not from belief, but from narrow pragmatism.

Abbott is different. He is a reader, a writer, clearly a student of many disciplines. Though he has always been far to the right of where I sit I once quite liked him. In a junior portfolio I was able to dismiss his occasional extremism as harmless Abbott-isms; in many ways he seemed an affable character, and more thoughtful than he portrayed himself to be. His books are well written and well received. Somewhere inside him is a thoughtful man.

Perhaps that’s why I now so despise him. I called him corrupt before and I meant that in the sense that he has happily disregarded the ‘better’ parts of himself in the quest for political power. As an avowed Christian he does little, if anything, to embody Christian virtues, and no Christian charity. A smart man he has resorted in opposition to diss everything. He gives the strong impression that he would oppose initiatives even if he himself agreed with them. He is a man who has happily separated what he believes from how he acts. He is a leading contributor to the hostile political environment we are now subject to. Politics, and society, have degenerated together and if he is one cause of that it is because he has latched onto the tenor of the times. He speaks in violent shorthand, with dubious respect for the facts – the media lap it up, and he reaps the rewards.

I’m an idealist, but I’m not naive. I know being in power is much more challenging than commenting on it. I realise that there are pragmatic realities that must be bowed before, that shortcuts and compromises must be made. I’m also of the belief that occasionally the end might justify the means – but also that both the end and the means must be carefully weighed. The problem with Abbott is that the end for him is to be Prime Minister of this country, and any means will justify it.

It’s a philosophy that has infected our parliament, which has become a bitter and mean spirited place. Just yesterday, Joe Hockey, a fundamentally decent man I think, launched himself at the government with a diatribe that was disgraceful and borderline racist. There is no society in our politicians, and little civilisation.

Curious it is to consider the men standing in the wings on either side of the divide, the former leaders, Rudd and Turnbull are both thinkers, intelligent men with well-defined beliefs. Turnbull I would vote for in the blink of an eye – a reasonable, urbane politician of the old school, inclined to do the best for the national interest than his own – and with some sophistication and intelligence. Rudd had his chance and lost his nerve, but at least he stands for something. I’d vote for him ahead of Gillard.

I should finish by saying Australia is by no means unique in this regard. This is a worldwide phenomena I think. In Obama the Americans have a leader they seem to under-value from afar, a man decent, intelligent and acting from the altruistic desire to civil service. And he believes in things. Opposing him though are the ratbags, the Rupublicans in political disarray as the rabid extremism of the Tea Party raises it’s very ugly head. I have more faith in the good sense of Australians than I do that the Americans will be able to hold off the Tea Party. The Tea Party spells doom to the American state, but that’s an opinion for another time.

After the furore

At about 5 this morning Rigby came nosing up to the side of my bed wanting to be let out. I let him out and returned to bed. I was far from sleepy and lay in bed comfortably thinking about the Socceroos match the previous night, and then inevitably back to the race row sparked by Hey, Hey last week.

I've been been stewing on this ever since. On the one hand I felt a kind of outrage at the over the top and ill informed international reaction to the event. Like many Australians I figure I got to the point where I felt like flipping the bird to international opinion. On the other hand there was a sense of dissatisfaction about the discourse it had provoked, mostly shallow and clichéd drivel from a variety of commentators.

This last week has highlighted to me how inadequate our thinking about racism is. People react with shock and horror, but with little real discernment. Few stop to look deeper, not just at what it means but at how it shapes our society. Racism is rightly abhorred, but for most part our response is reflex.

I'm a believer that any healthy society must have a voice of dissent, and the louder the better. I'm not against opinions being rowdily expressed whether I agree with them or not, and think the status quo is there to be challenged. We should never get too comfortable with ourselves, and should never shy away from the tough questions needed if that society is to progress. Somebody needs to ask those questions though, and the questions have to be heard.

In a funny sort of way that controversial little skit has acted as a lightning rod for discussion and dissent on the subject of racism. Far from being a bad thing I think it's a positive. It was certainly not the intention of those suburban doctors to make a political statement, but the result is that their act has opened up a conversation everyone was too afraid – or too polite – to speak of.

One of the first things I felt last week in the wake of all this outrage was a sense of offended innocence, as if in another world we might have been able to say sorry mate, didn't mean to upset you and moved on from there. And of course that is a trivial reaction on the surface until you begin to look a little deeper.

One of the things we have lost as a society in recent generations is our innocence, our naivety. What small pockets of it that remain ultimately die a nasty death. With everything broadcast all around the world and with information instantly available at our fingertips there is little excuse for ignorance any more. At the same time much of what we receive as information and news has been pre-digested for us. Commentators, editors, fashionistas put their spin on the news until it becomes received wisdom. This is what you wear, this is what you think, this is what you believe, and even if you are a truly independent free-thinker you live in a society shaped by this.

This is why dissent is important. This is why we need to ask why: to upset conventional wisdom and look deeper, to question cultural mores rather than blindly accept them.

Naivety is a much underrated quality. Our children have it and they are beautiful because of it. A child feels and it acts. It sees and it responds. A child doesn't think twice about expressing what it feels; there is no thought of conforming to a standard. A child is yet to be laden with the baggage our society will pile onto it, whether it be cultural or personal. A child is transparent and natural.

Now I don't advocate we become like children – that's asking too much – but we would do well to recall those qualities.

I believe in basic concepts, in liberty, in equality, in a fair go for all. They are the bedrock of belief for any fair minded person, but as a society we have built upon that a shanty town of disparate habits and attitudes and dos and don'ts that grows with every minute. We no longer see things just as they are, but rather qualified by these constraints. We have wandered a long way from our child like ways.

This is not just about race: it is about many things now. We have drawn so many lines trying to do the 'right' thing that there is little room left to move between them, and the lines too easily over-stepped. 

The outcry last week served to do the opposite of what it represented: it drew attention to our differences, and not to what binds us together. Well intentioned people across the world climbed aboard their soapbox and declaimed what had happened, but in so doing made it all about 'us' and 'them'. Well intentioned as it was it was also a kind of discrimination by drawing attention to our superficial differences: don't do that because you'll offend them.

I may be a cock-eyed idealist, but rather than us and them shouldn't it be we? Isn't that the ideal, what we should be aspiring to? A colour of a persons skin should be as relevant as the colour of a persons hair or the size of their foot. Each time we make this distinction we draw another line, we travel further from where we want to be, and put something more between us. Each line we draw is another boundary between us at a time when those boundaries should be removed.

I'm sorry if people were offended by that little skit. We don't want to be the cause of discomfort or distress. Yes, we acknowledge the ugly past – but are we condemned to repeat it? In the end it was just a silly skit and nothing more than that. That it can't be seen as that points to something seriously wrong with our society. We have to undo much of what we have done, clear away the ramshackle set of beliefs we have built up over time. In it's place our society should be such that we can look each other in the eyes and be open, and recognise things for what they are rather than what our darkest fears would have us believe them to be.

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