A friend of mine argues that the reason old white guys are so anxious about the Fall of Western Civilisation is that there’s no longer much content to it. Whatever culture we had, it has been replaced with the blandest and cheapest form of capitalism. Our education system is about preparing people to exchange their labour for sub-poverty salaries. Our ability to enjoy nature is tempered by our desire to dig up whatever might be profitable underneath. And school children read Harry Potter because they can always watch the movies and buy the merchandise if they struggle with the prose.
So when former Prime Minister Tony Abbott gets up to the podium and praises Western Values, we know — even without hearing the speech — that there is something not serious about his claims. Back in May, Abbott’s account of Western Values somehow necessitated the amendment of s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Apparently, creating a safe haven for people to say the ‘N-word’ is an essential part of our cultural heritage. More recently, he claimed that Indigenous Australia prior to colonisation by the Bristish was ‘prehistory‘.
‘Western Values’ should not be a cloak for racism. One of my concerns, as a conservative, is what conservatism looks like in a multicultural society following the colonial period. How do you reconcile an Anglo-Australian with their cultural heritage when their prosperity depends upon extremely recent atrocities against Indigenous populations? How do you encourage everybody (regardless of cultural background) to connect with the best and most inspirational of their cultural heritage to shape their ongoing identity and contribute to the ongoing development of contemporary multicultural society?
Worse, ‘Western Values’ should not be treated like a monolith of pap liberalism. The same enterprising spirit of individual values was the same motivating force behind the global slave trade. John Locke wrote the Californian Constitution which defended the rights of slave owners against interference from the legislators. It’s the dynamic energy of Western Values — the constant synthesis of theses and antitheses — that makes it a fertile place for innovation and expansion. Sure, our conception of the individual was an interesting creation of Western culture, but our concept of the community is even more interesting. It is the tension and how we — through historical accident — conceptualised them and reconciled them that created our present condition. That’s the bit that’s worth both celebration and critique.
Here are five policies that Abbott would back if he were serious about promoting Western Values.
Holy shit! Who would have guessed that s 44 of the Australian Constitution would bite as hard as it has over the past year or so? Rod Culleton (One Nation), Bob Day (Family First), Scott Ludlam (Greens), and now Larissa Waters (Greens) have all fallen victim of s 44, either through High Court intervention or through voluntary resignation to inevitability. Technically, Bob Day was twice ineligible under s 44. And there’s another case on the boil: National Party MP, David Gillespie.
What I find interesting — really interesting — is how difficult it is to intuit the purpose of s 44. It’s a provision that excites popular imagination. Perhaps it’s a relic of a racist past. Perhaps it is a protection against foreign interference. Perhaps it should be amended. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.
But perhaps it’s not the technicality of the provision that we should consider, but bigger theories about constitutional democracies. Why should there be restrictions on who can become a parliamentarian? Shouldn’t we be able to elect whomever we want?
There is no good argument to ban the burqa. It’s a racist proposal, pure and simple. There is a smokescreen that racists use to hide their racism: they argue that we need to be able to see faces because it helps with security. This is not a reasonable argument, and it flows from an intuition that anonymity is a threat and that everybody should present themselves for scrutiny at all times.
Senator Jacqui Lambie has introduced a Bill to the Senate to ban the burqa. Senator Pauline Hanson has proposed some amendments. It is helpful to understand what is being proposed and debated by our Parliamentarians.
I remember being weirdly religious when I was a child, but not specifically religious. I knew for an utter certainty that there was a God and we should pray to Him, but this rock solid conviction that I believed as a child was born of nothing in particular. My family life wasn’t religious. My mother was some kind of eclectic hybrid of ‘spiritualities’; my father fell asleep during mass and would wake on cue to stand, mumble the recitations, and then fall back to sleep. When my parents separated, I remember there being a very beautiful picture of St Francis of Assisi in my mother’s cupboard that belonged to my father… but my father didn’t seem to want it, and mum never seemed bothered to just throw it out. I know now that it was St Francis; at the time, I had no idea. It was just a very beautiful piece of religious art that stirred within me all those things that good art should stir: awe, marvel, and interest.
When I was very young, my mother would encourage me and my younger brothers to pray each night before bed. I would later wonder why she would do this; I was an extremely difficult child and wouldn’t explain why I was angry and frustrated. The ritual of prayer was hijacked to get me to sit down and list all the things I was anxious about.
Shortly after the Centrelink fiasco — in which Centrelink overzealously pursued the possibility of debts to the Commonwealth regardless of the quality of its evidence — Australia was served a fresh helping of ‘Politicians spending any money at all is an outrage’ in the media. Journalists love these stories because they practically write themselves. Take an example of a politician spending money, strip all the context away from it, and then sit back and watch the outrage engine do the rest.
There is a reason why conservative female politicians are always the ones who suffer the brunt of this kind of public discussion.
Many hack journalists have tried to link the Centrelink fiasco with the political expenditures discussion. The two feed into each other naturally: on the one hand, the government is pursuing debts that do not really exist while, on the other, politicians are wasting taxpayer funding on travel and meals.
This sort of analysis only works on the most superficial levels. Perhaps that is why so many of Australia’s journalists are peddling it.
In good news, my altercation with Centrelink over an alleged overpayment is nearly at an end. In bad news, there is a lot of terrible advice circulating on social media. It should go without saying: don’t take legal advice from Twitter accounts with ‘knights and dames’ still in their handles, and don’t use template letters unless you’ve checked in with a lawyer who can explain the template to you.
But I’ve also taken to thinking about the relationship between the public service and the broader public. One of my frustrations was the lack of intellectual leadership from legal theorists in the discussion, but another was the lack of critical engagement with why people were upset (above being chased for money that they neither have nor owe). Put another way, even if Centrelink’s actions were perfectly legal, people seemed to intuit that there was a deeper magic that made their actions illegitimate — a deeper magic based on moral and political norms.
By calling it ‘magic’, I don’t mean to be disparaging. I’ve been reading an article by Jeremy Waldron which engages with some discussion about whether particular concepts — like the separation of powers — are legal concepts or are instead situated in some other normative space. It reminds me a lot of Aslan being executed on the Stone Table: he comes back from the dead because deeper magic softens the sharp edges of the White Witch’s legalism.
This provides a nice segue into the content of this post: the literature that informs our intuitions about the relationship between the government and the state (especially when things go pear-shaped). Thus, Brazil (dir. Terry Gilliam), Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (dir. Garth Jennings), V for Vendetta (dir. James McTiegue), and the novel, 1984 by George Orwell.
A few times a year, I would go and hang out with Alfred Deakin. His portrait hung in Kings Hall at Old Parliament House. It was a little bit like a religious experience — after reading a book either about Deakin or by Deakin, I would go and try to reconcile my ideas of what a good leader was with the man I saw captured in the portrait. How much of what I saw in the picture was influenced by what I’d read about him; how much was the other way around? When it is impossible to know the man directly, to what extent are the virtues or vices I attribute to him merely imaginary? What is the practical difference between an historical figure and a fictional one, and what is the effective difference of the same when we start to view Deakin through the framework of virtue ethics?
Anyway, I can’t wrestle with those ideas in the same way any more because Bronwyn Bishop decided that the official portraits would no longer be on display in Old Parliament House. It might be unfair to blame Bronwyn Bishop personally for the decision, but she presided over the decision to remove the portraits as Speaker.
With no debate, consultation, or fanfare, the portraits were gone.
War on Everyone opens with two corrupt cops running down a mime with their car. It was therefore difficult for me not to enjoy this movie. That is definitely my jam. It also helps that the film is extremely beautiful, an aesthetic that feels 1970s while the characters talk about XBoxes. The performances are flawless — even Theo James shines (which is why it took me ages to realise he was the plank of wood from the woeful Divergent series).
The script, on the other hand, does not match the film. It is hideously inconsistent. When it is bad, it is tone deaf and in poor taste, confusing being simply politically ‘incorrect’ with being funny. The worst of it is a transphobic piece which neither advances the plot, and feels wildly out of place. It’s not clever or intelligent, and yet the vast majority of this film is both.