I really like Australia. It is a great country. It could be better. Sure, it’s better for me than it is for many others, but I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.
The Left struggles with patriotism. It smells too much like racism. It whiffs of conservatism. It looks too much like a relic of a colonial past where we cared about the Mother Country or the Fatherland, a concept which made people fight pointless wars in foreign countries and steal resources. Isn’t it just irrational jingoism about the place where you were accidentally born?
The issue has raised its head in public policy again due to the Turnbull Government’s decision to tinker with the Citizenship Test: ‘Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia‘.
So let’s do a quick tour of the policy questions and the underlying philosophy of patriotism.
In the red corner, Prof Margaret Somerville, a professor of law and bioethicist. In the blue corner, Nikki Gemmell, a columnist and author (mainly of the fluff-piece for Baby Boomers variety). ABC’s Q&A thought that this would result in a constructive discussion about euthanasia. It didn’t.
It is worth exploring why it all went wrong, because it reveals something about our intuitions about the role of experts in public debate.
The Guardian published an article by Simon Gathercole about whether there was an historical Jesus. The article is depressingly terrible and it’s annoyed me for a full day.
We should start with who Gathercole is. He is an outstanding theologian who is pushing the development of several areas of inquiry about early Christianity. When we talk about wanting Richard Dawkins to engage with serious theology, we’re talking about people like Gathercole.
But that doesn’t mean Gathercole isn’t sometimes afflicted by bouts of sloppy thinking, as evidenced by the Guardian article.
I spend far too much of my life thinking about the control of Executive power (70% of this is due to me having eleven thousand words on the topic due in a week so I am procrastinating hard). It is an extremely complex question that ultimately boils down to our basic intuitions about the relationship between the community and the State. That sounds more simple than it really is: the way you express that intuition in language affects the way you think about it.
Jeremy Waldron gives an example of this: should we talk about limiting the State, or should we talk instead of empowering the State? Well, that depends on what you think the State is and whether it begins its life omnipotent or impotent. Reasonable people can disagree on this point, and it’s not mere semantics. Back to Waldron: we can frame constitutions in ways that restrict the lawful use of State power or we can frame constitutions in ways which compel the State to use its power in particular ways.
I spend far too much of my life thinking about what the Executive power is and how we can control it. Every school child is taught the Separation of Powers like they’re taught triune theology. There’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the angry one from the Old Testament. God the Son is Jesus the hippy who liked fish. God the Holy Spirit is… the… other… one… maybe. Similarly, there’s the Legislature (which creates the law!). There’s the Judiciary (which interprets the law!). And there’s the Executive (which… administers the law? Whatever that means).
And then people map these three branches directly on to particular institutions. The Legislature is the Parliament, full of parliamentarians who create laws by passing legislation. The Judiciary is the Courts, full of judges who read the legislation and tell us what it means to resolve disputes. And there’s the Executive who is… like… maybe the public service… maybe?
Anyway, this all gets me to what a shitfully bad idea MiVote is.
Remember the classic Beauty and the Beast from 1991? Remember how good it was? Go watch that.
We are in a dark age of recreating animated films as live action movies. Cinderella a few years ago explored new areas of body horror with footmen and coach drivers screaming while transforming back into farmyard animals. Last year, we had The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon remind us of animated movies that were really great and didn’t need gritty remakes in the flesh. To a degree, Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent also fit into this category.
But Beauty and the Beast is perhaps the most confusing entry to date. For 70% of the film, Hermoine is interacting with an entirely CGI world of dancing pots, pans, and candlesticks. What meaning do we get from watching an actress not make eye contact with any of the people in her world? What new is created?
What if women were actually robots? Ghost in the Shell — a film based on the ideas of the 1989 manga — explores this idea… again. And it’s pretty boring.
A few weeks ago, Australia’s chattering classes were gripped in an unedifying discussion about the Rule of Law. The new head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus, was asked by ABC’s Leigh Sales if she believed in the Rule of Law (she did) and if that belief was inconsistent with the amount of law-breaking undertaken by unions. It was an asinine series of questions and the resulting conversation covered nobody in glory. I pointed to it as yet another example of legal theorists letting down the wider community.
What might surprise some people, perhaps, is that the same discussion points raised by the questioning of Sally McManus also arise in the recent decision to smack Assad with the tomahawk missiles.
It has been alleged — not unfairly — that I’m routinely more critical of conservatives than I am of progressives and radicals. One person has suggested that this is because I’m after a pat on the head: the vast majority of my friends and colleagues are progressives, so it is socially profitable to go after conservatives than the alternative. This greatly underestimates what an atrocious dinner guest I am.
The answer is less sinister. I have more invested in an improvement in right wing politics than I do in the left. I am like the theologian who wants to improve understanding of Christianity regardless of how many atheists I convert.
So why am I conservative?
For about ten years, there has been a spectre haunting pop-conservative rhetoric: the spectre of conservative punk. The rise of the alt-right and the desperate attention-seeking of pop-conservatives has returned the phrase ‘Conservatism is the new punk rock’ back into circulation. In Australia, this rhetoric seems to be anchored with Daisy Cousens, whose entire schtick is saying outrageous things for the lulz.
Needless to say, I’m far from impressed by pop-conservative dominance in Australia, and my kind of conservatism is distinctly more art rock.
But if our current crop of pop-conservatives did release a punk album, what would it look like? Here’s my guess at what their first album — Are You Triggered? — would look like:
Imagine that you’re a soldier fighting in a war properly authorised by the United Nations. You find yourself face to face with a soldier from the other nation and you are legally allowed to shoot them. As you’re about to shoot the enemy soldier with your ordinary gun with lethal bullets, a magical goblin appears and offers you a different gun: one that will not kill the other soldier, but will incapacitate them with searing pain.
Which gun should you use?