Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Had it too good for too long? Closes your heart and mind, probably.

"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."
 - Samuel Johnson.

Recently I've become a little perturbed by the pervasiveness of fear about immigration, asylum seekers, border protection and the like.  Not just in Australia mind you, but it does seem to be rather concentrated here right now.  And the thing is, this fear is manifesting itself in unexpected ways and in unexpected people.  A friend sent me an email forward all about how the author came to Australia on a boat from Europe 45 years ago full of different nationalities - but the "all from Europe" was stressed heavily - with 48 pounds in his pocket and never once did he put his hand out for help yadayada and so it goes on.  There were good points badly made in there, about the need to fit in to and respect a society you choose to enter, but overall it was laced with invective and anti-Muslim sentiment, and resentment that this guy's taxes are supporting people who come here and have the gall to complain about their treatment or ask for flexibility to accommodate things from their original culture that are very important to them.  The author never makes a distinction between different classes or circumstances of immigration.

Short memories?

The email was sent from a friend I may have voted amongst the least likely to jump on this bandwagon.  The sort of person who has a high spiritual sense and otherwise tends to live the notion that "we are one."  Maybe he didn't read it properly, I don't know.

Vietnamese "boat people" late last century.  Mostly turned out to be one of our best human imports ever.  
Vietnamese Aussie faces are now for the most part icons of the successes of multiculturalism in Australia.

The above sort of fearfulness is just one example of what I'm seeing.  There seems to be a willing disconnect between the genuine human compassion most of us hold dear as part of our identity and the thought of people arriving on our shores "illegally" having made great sacrifices and taken great risks to get here.  So far, I've not heard a reasonable or rational solution put forward that respects the human rights that you or I would expect and hope for if we were in a similar situation.  I don't have the answer either, but I may have some thoughts that we could start working with.  Ideas that really don't have a lot to do with refugees.


I deeply love my country, this land, and will happily tell anyone that I consider it the best place in the world to live, bar none.  I accept that others think that about different places and I think that's wonderful too.  Everyone's different, which is just as well.  When Samuel Johnson made his famous remark in 1775 that "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" he was not in fact bagging the notion of love for and loyalty to one's country.  He was specifically referring to what he called "self-professed patriots" who use the term in a self-aggrandising way, or to cover for ill-begotten motives.  You know, the sort of politician who uses the phrase "unAustralian" to put down someone with a differing viewpoint from theirs.

Look, I'm not a major fan of our flag but I don't hate it either, and for now I'm totally happy just to leave it as it is.  It speaks of our post-invasion history and place on the globe, and the only change I'd really go for is some visual acknowledgement of the Aboriginal Australians, who have been here so much longer than most of our families.  The sacred spirit of this land is more important to all of us than is commonly considered.

But our poor old flag has had all manner of iniquities heaped upon it of late, and I'm not overwhelmed with joy about this.  With the Howard years and the rise of the militarisation of Australian history through increased myth-making about ANZAC, Gallipoli, Fromelles, Kokoda and so on through the changes to how we 'celebrate' Australia Day, and on past the Cronulla riots we have seen our flag stand increasingly for white, Europe-sourced Australians only - even the word "Aussie" has been taken in so many contexts (like the Cronulla riots) to stand for 'white folks' as opposed to Australians who come genetically from other stock.  Many subcultures of non-white immigrants here use the term to mean locally-born white folks, which is sad.

So many Australians do not want to see themselves as insular, fearful, or racist; but standing by as those who espouse greater social (cultural/physiognomic) homogeneity and a push to see ourselves as 'sons of ANZAC' (ie founded on a white militaristic heritage) take our most recognisable and unifying national symbol for their own - co-opting all who wish to adorn their car or wave a flag on Australia Day as one who professes such retrograde, racist hopes and desires - well, it's not a good feeling for me, at least.  How would you feel about your flag being subsumed by stealth as a white supremacist symbol?

There's a thought.  Couldn't happen if there was some overt Indigenous imagery there, eh?

For those elsewhere, the image replacing the Union Jack in this possible future flag is our Aboriginal flag.

It's like this, people.  It might well be time to stop hoping your neighbour or family member of friend or colleague just eventually gets over their latent or overt racism, sexism, homophobia, and general bigotry - and start helping them out with it.  We've got this terrible habit of just saying nothing, which only serves to reinforce their belief that we agree with them.

The government cannot change this.  Only you and I can.

I'll tell you something else, it takes no courage whatsoever, and here's why.  Apart from the few rabid in-your-face overt hateists you hear on talkback and similar ranty fora, no-one actually wants to admit to - or even be - an intolerant bigot.  So if you can point out that they've just made a sweeping generalisation based on a race prejudice, for example, without judging them as being inferior to you, then you can help them think and feel through why or how that might be and whether they wish to be part of the thoughtful and caring Australia, or more aligned with the fearful and regressive.  If they take offense at your polite non-judgemental observation, then maybe it's time to back off and let them feel their fear alone.  It's not your job to help them feel better about being stuck in fearful hateism.  Maybe they need to go through it the hard way.  That's OK.  Just let them know that such words and consequent deeds are not OK with you.  You can still be friends, if you want.

Howard and the culture-wars gang sort of imported the flag-centric thing from the United States; we've never been real flag-wavers prior.  It's worth noting that the history of the USA's relationship with its flag is very different to ours, and theirs stands for a bunch of stuff they achieved through struggle, conflict, conquest, debate, and the very best and at times ignoblest of intentions.  We just made ours up when we needed one, remembering to pay obeisance to Mother England.  Over time we got used to it.  The Americans ejected their absentee landlords by force, and then over time kicked and heaved themselves into a more or less unified nation, complete with God complex and myths of divinely ordained destiny, and the flag they now have is a simple yet masterful iconographic summation of their post-invasion history.  So I get their flag mania, I really do.  It is a thing that has developed along with their national identity (to the extent that such exists) and makes sense in their context.  It just doesn't suit us, at all.

The concept of sovereign nations will be with us a while yet, I suspect.  But it's time to stop hiding behind xenoprophylactic phrases like "the national interest" as an excuse to behave inhumanely to our own kind.  Unless, of course, you think you belong to the master race - then, well, good luck with that.

I don't think xenoprophylactic is a word.  But I like it, so it stays.  Think of it as an immigrant.

Anyway, this idea I had.  I floated a two-sentence version of it on a comment thread on the ABC news site, below a story about the domestic politics of boat-propelled asylum seekers coming to Australia (as opposed to the far more numerous ones that arrive every day by plane and claim asylum), and the vehemence of the responses I got somewhat took me aback.  Mainly they fell into two camps, one which could be described as just calling me a totalitarian fascist, and the other saying I'd clearly not though very much about it.  The latter camp was right, and I've thought just a little on it since.  Not too much, mind, just a little.

National Service

(But not compulsory military service - let's get that clear right away; military conscription is a Bad Thing.)

I'd like you to come on a voyage of imagination with me, to suspend your judgement as far as possible to the end, to sit apart and behold the whole picture if you can.  Snacks will be served at points along the way.

Have a pretzel, they're fresh and crunchy on the outside.

Imagine we're in my idealised small valley village scenario, of 20 or 30 families living in a mutually interdependant, sustainable way but where everyone is free to follow their own star.  Lovely, things mainly in balance, not too much conflict or worry, and a secure-enough feel for the future.  Now let's see what happens when a new family wanders in, homeless, due to a catastrophe far away, seeking a new life.  In this village, we have a fairly simple approach.  We outline to these folks the most important communal aspects of our way of living, underline the importance of mutual contribution and good neighbourliness, and assuming this is not part of a massive influx that would very seriously threaten our own survival, we offer them a space and some help to build a new home.  But there's more.  We expect in the first couple of years that in exchange for set-up and survival help that all of their work beyond building their own new shelter be directed at projects that benefit all - like maybe infrastructure stuff, working common food gardens, and so on.  Just as we expect our young adults who come of age and decide to stay on in the village to do.  Seems only fair.

But the important factor is that everybody does work at times for purely common goals, without any striving for personal gain, is what makes this work.  Otherwise it's just exploitation and would create a class divide that is not conducive to a harmonious social life.

Do try a spinach pakora.  Great with a drink when guests drop by.

Now let's scale things up a bit, and bring it all closer to current reality.  One of the greatest tensions in the West, or in capitalist democracies in general, is that between individual liberty and utilitarian (ie the "greatest good for the greatest number") ideals.  It has been fairly amply demonstrated that complete laissez-faire diminishes group security and fosters social divisiveness and conflict - all good preconditions for the undesirable state of war.  On the other hand, centralised control towards a utilitarian ideal state tends to squash individuals' pursuit of happiness and typically  requires oppressive methods to endure.

But imagine a setting in which people had every opportunity to observe that by contributing willingly to cause of the common good, without though of personal gain beyond an equal share in common benefits, would make your life happier and your freedom to pursue your own individual dreams and desires even greater?  In the words of Sam Kekovich, "You know it makes sense."  We can get there, but it will take some time, and some legislative direction, for the culture to catch up.

Here's a bit about how such a scheme of Civilian Service might work in Australia.

DISCLAIMER: this is not well thought-through at all.  I welcome debate and suggestion about how stupid I may be, or how  this could be made to work better.  My aim is to get it to pass the 80% rule:  where 80% of us would happily agree to "Sam Kekovich" the idea.  Viz, to say "You know it makes sense"

Upon reaching voting age, every Australian citizen or permanent resident is expected to undertake 2 years, probably consecutively, of Civilian Service, at some point in the next 10 years.  For this (at the basic level) they will receive only a basic wage and housing allowance as necessary and reasonable.  Service can be in such areas as health, environment, public works and maintenance, aid projects, and also military service.  A participant will normally be able to choose from whatever program is available in their area, and the timing of their service.  Certain levels of service will require qualifications and experience already gained through study and work (so will necessarily be later in the 10 year window rather than earlier) and may require special entrance screening, such as for the military.  With the exception of military service, it should be designed so that jobs performed require a minimum of training to do well, thus maximising the common return.

There would be another level of Civilian Service (I'm going to start calling it CS now) however, with different pay and benefits.  This would be in two streams - military service and 'high need' CS.

I'd suggest that military service be bona fide military service, and not the sort of halfway thing that the National Service Act and similar things initiated, where the original stated intention was to have those 'Nashos' only serve in direct defense of their country, on home soil, if needed.  Like a National Guard.  I think you have to be honest about it and have exactly the same entrance parameters and training - and expectation of service if called - as you would if you joined up the regular way.  Pay would be higher, but not at the full military equivalent scale, except for in certain circumstances, like active deployment.

The other stream  would be for 'high needs' areas, such as might be the case in an acute shortage of, say, nurses, where people with the existing skills who are either not working in the field currently or are due to do their CS (eg they've turned 26 and haven't done it yet) can opt to work in that capacity at regular pay and have it count as CS.  this may also apply if for example the government wished to embark on a massive national rollout of renewable energy generation systems, and there was a big shortage of certain skilled labour types available.  They may mandate that X number of people with these skills can apply to have say a 3-year contract at the going pay rate for that job count as their 2 year CS.

Newly minted Australians - those granted refugee status or residency - must do their CS immediately.  For some reason, this seems fair to me right now.  Let's pause for another treat,

Tasty, tasty popcorn, mm.

So obviously there will be exceptions.  New immigrants with poor social skills (like English) will be doing some training as well that counts towards CS, and I'd like to see the family reunification thing stay on, so we'd have an age cutoff for those much older arrivals to be exempt.  Certain major disabilities will naturally mean some Australians are entirely unfit for any type of service, and we might just have to wear that.

What of conscientious objectors?  Well, we're talking about finding a balance between utilitarianism and individual liberty so we might have to just accept that somewhere in the infinite spectrum of human possibility someone has a genuinely held moral certitude that they have a right never to be compelled to be told what to do ever.  Or something.  Anyway, I would suggest the Swiss option (they have military service).  An extra 3% income tax until they reach a certain age.  In Switzerland it's 42, the standard age for early army retirement from active duty.

I did say I hadn't though this through clearly, didn't I?

Details, details.....what it's all about is what matters.  It's a means to several very good ends.

M&Ms, working together, but sort of randomly at the edges.
Go on, crunch one or several.  They've made their beautiful point.

It would be a great way to get a nation like ours thinking a bit more like a self-sufficient village.  I do believe the days of the nation-state as we know them are ultimately numbered, but we'll only get to move on either through catastrophe or by mastering a better way to live together.  Working with what we have now is realistic.

So imagine the national conversation about all the details of such a scheme.  Controversies, amazing achievements, debacles, unexpected benefits, rorts, countless stories of selfless acts......we do need a forum to develop a conversation about being a nation.  So we can be a global citizen more powerfully than we each are on our own at present.

It also brings the focus back closer to earth - to nationhood being about looking after our people and just as importantly our land - and for this to be somethng we are all involved with directly, not solely at arm's length through this bizarre fantasy we call the economy.  It would necvessitate the government doing a whole nuch of nation-building type stuff, like energy infrastructure, environmental improvement and so on, and because we'd all have a stake in it we'd all be far more interested in having a say about what we want for our collective present and future.  It will help shift the balance back away from over-reliance on market capitalism to provide for future needs, and back to our own thoughts and feelings as the foundation of our nation.

We are the perfect nation to go down this path for so many reasons.  We like to think of ourselves as egalitarian, so let's put money where mouths are before we change our minds.  That $2000 an hour lawyer does know what it's like to mop hospital floors 8 hours a day, just like all of us.  And he can still be who he is now, that's fine.  We are an island nation, yet seem to not be noticing our current path of action relies on transport of every kind to distant parts.  We mine soil.  All of that.  CS will bring us necessarily into a discussion about how we want our country to be for yet another resaon;  because everyone, at some point in their lives, sacrifices 2 years worth of seeking personal gain for the good of our nation.  No-one wants to see that sort of investment of time and energy just frittered away.

Last chance finger food.  Amazing combo of balsamic-roasted brussels sprouts with toasted pine nuts.  Can't grow these if you ain't got soil now can you...try one, they're delicious. It's the pine nut cruch that really does it.

See, it's about moving past the apathy that comes from having had it too good for too long.  In a world beset by the sorts of tensions and inequities we currently have, it's entirely naive to expect we can continue to be as isolated from sharing in the shit as we have been.  There can be no pulling up of the drawbridge now, short of us becoming a nuclear-armed, entirely self-sufficient, xenophobic totalitarian state.  That might work.

We are chasing the ghosts of young soldiers who died in an attempted invasion of foreign soil, at the behest of a nation we felt ourselves to be a subordinate of, for our sense of national identity.  As if those diggers didn't have enough on their shoulders already.  We're too young for that.  Something traumatic and terrible that happened to us when we were such a tender child, by our parent's hand, no less, is not the appropriate thing to build a sense of pride upon.  If we want to see ourselves first and foremost as brave and foolhardy folk who prevail despite overwhelming odds in situations we should never have allowed ourselves to be in, then we will very neatly cause history to repeat, and live the nightmare over and over, every time our 'luck' runs out.

It might be better to start involving ourselves in some positive action to create the nation we want to be, not just debate about what we don't want.  Your thoughts on this?

Lastly, just imagine again how differently we might feel helping out some people arrived from far worse places, knowing that the first few years of their lives with us consist of building themselves a foundation, with our help, as committed, contributing citizens, not solely motivated by purely personal gain.  Guests who give of themselves, as we share of ourselves for their sake.

We're mighty quick to pat ourselves on the back when we rally together to help victims of a natural disaster, but not nearly as willing to kick ourselves in the bum when we behave like a bunch of hard-hearted elitists with a born right to a better life than others.

Thanks for your imagination time, I hope you enjoyed the snacks too.

I'm hungry now.


  1. Fantastic article. I know that as a modern 'nation', we are bureaucracy built. Don't have much faith in bureaucracy though, even so. Very expensive way to mitigate our worst fears of 'other people', in some ways. Also, don't agree that financially successful people are completely self-motivated. Not only do they tend to take on their clients' needs very strongly on a personal level, if they have a business (depending I guess on the structure of that business and the industry costs / labour required) they will probably generate much more for the government in tax receipts than they take for themselves.
    I guess digging holes and filling them in again (which we be amongst the other, more useful jobs that such a civil service will indulge in) is a great way to develop a fellow feeling as a community though!

  2. Such a thoughtful post :) will share!

  3. Such a thoughtful post :) will share!