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Clinging to the wreckage

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Some things stick in the mind, like when I heard John Howard, then Prime Minister, talk about the "national interest". I am not sure what the context was but suspect it was concerned with the boat people.

It occurred to me at the time that a new thing had occurred, that the national interest was now the basis of all policy. What more do you need? Now, of course, it is a common phrase and competes with the phrase "national security", that other vacuous entity that excuses anything.

To quote Robert Jenson; "When communal vision of transcendent destiny fails, temporal values become demonic". This is when all we have to say to justify any action at all is to say that it is in the national interest or it pertains to national security. China has learnt the language and uses it against us.


What happens to a people when this short circuit argument runs the country? We become a zombie nation, or rather an inanimate machine that grinds along following its programming. The machine grinds on despite cries of injustice or calls for compassion and it smashes everything in its path. And then, because we love our country and are patriots of the lukewarm, Peter Allen sort, we praise ourselves and declare that we are truly a great country, indeed the envy of the world. Such an attitude mistakes Donald Horne's title "The Lucky Country" as a statement of blessedness rather than the irony intended; that our luck has not been earned.

If we applied this sense of meaning to an individual, we would be appalled. We would describe a complete narcissist who cares for nothing but his or her own interests and safety no matter what the cost for others. Is a country like a person? We certainly talk historically as if countries have desires, aims, various personal characteristics. That is an abstraction, of course, but it is commonly accepted that countries act in the world in certain ways that we may describe in moral terms as we would describe the actions of a person. We can talk about, for example, Germany making a full acknowledgment of its role in WWII and Japan being unwilling to do so. We can talk about the ruination of Russia and China during their communist period and their failure to join the nations in truth telling. Britain behaved like a greedy child in the colonial era, Australia has been blind to the existence of its indigenous peoples. Countries are judged by their actions and these judgments are judgments that can be made of individual human beings.

When there exists in our mind nothing other than the immediate, we become enslaved to the immediate, to the things that are at hand. That is the limits of our horizon. Thus, education is defined as an exercise in job preparedness, politics is all about the economy (jobs and growth). We admire pragmatism because it undercuts ideology, that troublesome child of political life. But pragmatism is not ideology free. There is no such thing as neutral ground, actions are chosen for many reasons, not least being how they will play politically. Pragmatism is just another name for "the ends justify the means". We want to stop the boats, so we lock up people who have come by boat to act as scarecrows placed on our shores as a warning. In darker times they would be heads on spikes.

The American founding fathers that landed at Plymouth arrived there because they could not see the Reformation being completed while James I was king and sought a new land that would become the epicentre of Christ's return and the establishment of the kingdom of God. The story of how that all went wrong involved deficiencies in Puritan theology mixed with bad Enlightenment philosophy (the pursuit of happiness) and resulted in American civil religion that saw the merging of God and the Stars and Stripes. Nevertheless, America began with a transcendent vision of its future, no less than the coming of the kingdom to which all nations will look; a city on a hill. American exceptionalism has deep roots! The failure of the American experiment is obvious now in economic inequality, political partisanship and general greed that leaves a worrying underside to American life. The kingdom of God has become the kingdom of mammon.

Australia escaped such nonsense. It inherited no high-flown theological base and has been from the start a nation centred on the present seculum with little looking to a future that was not the price of wool and wheat. Perhaps this is the origin of Australian larrikinism, as shown by the lack of respect diggers showed their commanding officers. A "she'll be right" attitude permeates the national psyche. There is something attractive in this, the willingness to "take the piss" and not take authority too seriously. It marks us off from the more regimented nations, the Teutonic seriousness about small things, the English respect for "form" and the Asian obsession with "face". We do belong to the new world and this underlies our affection with America.

This is the lighter side of the Australian character. Underneath this there often lies, in individuals, a terrible vacancy that may be described as nihilism. We are not alone in this as the period of late modernity deepens in its characteristics. We find it in American life despite its hype-religiosity. David Jenson again:


The post-Vietnam generation contains persons barely aware even of their personal pasts. With no hopes at all, not even able to grasp what a hope would be, they are human molecules moving at random in moral space, giving no more than pragmatic allegiance to any community whatever. In this they but mimic their parents, in whom nihilism was concealed only by the last tatters of the success ethic.

While Australia has not plumbed the depths of political chaos that America has under Trump, the seeds lie close to hand. Jenson may as well be describing almost any Western country including our own. We are as blinded by the image of mammon as any. The GFC was precipitated by individual and corporate greed, our commission into the banking industry reveal similar moral failings but on a smaller scale. We have experienced the big miners transferring profits overseas in order to avoid the full payment tax in Australia and individuals scurrying to the decreasing opportunities to evade their tax bills.

There is no doubt that Australia represents a sweet spot among the nations. It has, by and large, avoided the kind of religiosity that has crippled American Christianity and the hard patriotism that melted blood, soil and fatherland into the substrate of fascism and that dreadful amalgam of the British Empire of God King and Country. We owe this to an accident of circumstance in that we owe our first founding to a brutal social system in England in the 18C in which many of the lower classes had to steal simply to survive and were caught up by the law and crowded the jails. Transportation to the colonies was a pragmatic arrangement that showed that English Christianity was an instrument of the aristocracy as if the Beatitudes did not exist. This is why Australia, in general, was saved from the high-flown religiosity as was seen in the New England Puritans of Massachusetts and their amalgam of those ideas with the destiny of the nation. We have, by historical accident (Horn's luck) escaped the grip of inadequate religious formulations and the hard patriotism that leads to all kind of ills.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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