Victorian Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Asia Engagement, Mr Hong Lim, meeting Malcolm Fraser in 1981 to discuss Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees arriving in Australia. He praised Mr Fraser for his humanity.As I write a horrifying humanitarian disaster, entirely made by successive Australian governments, is looming on Manus Island.
As a child I came into political awareness in the 1970s. The Fraser government’s open armed response to the plight of Vietnamese boat people – with the full support of the ALP – is etched in my experience as a defining feature of who we then aspired to be as a people.
We were leaving the white Australia policy permanently behind. We were strongly adhering to our UNHCR obligations and had a profoundly humane and compassionate immigration policy towards boat arrival asylum seekers.
Growing up in cosmopolitan Melbourne, we were a people open to the world and most of my best friends were – and remain – from migrant families. What happened to those cosmopolitan, human rights upholding, warm and welcoming values? What changed to make us a people fearfully protective of our (apparently threatened) ‘national sovereignty’?
In all the analysis of what has changed and how we should respond to this deep shift backwards towards the politics of prejudicial fear and a disregard for our UNHCR obligations, I have not seen anything written about spiritual warfare.
But I think this is central.
Spiritual warfare is the ongoing battle for communally assumed first loyalties – public worship. What our highest collective object of worth is, is our god. Crudely put, our god is now “the economy, stupid.” Well, it’s not the economy actually, it’s the pursuit of personal wealth – what the New Testament calls Mammon. The post-war boom came to an end when Nixon dropped the gold standard and sent the 1970s into a global economic tail spin. But at that time we had grown accustomed to a steady rise in living standards, which was remarkably evenly shared, due to some hard-headed restraints on high financial and corporate power.
Liana D'Amico poses for a photograph with One Nation leader Pauline Hanson during a walk through Willows Shopping Centre, Townsville, November 10, 2017 on the Queensland election campaign. DAVE HUNT/Press Association. All rights reserved.But stagflation was no fun, and the need to recover the standard of rising prosperity that we were accustomed to became a key feature of the political landscape. The unshackling of Wall Street and the City of London from tight regulation, the revitalization of global financial secrecy jurisdictions, and the flourishing of transnational corporate power in a race to exploit the resources and labour of what was then called the third world, did indeed steady our prosperity ship in the 1980s (whatever it did to Australian manufacturing and workplace expectations). At this point – hardly noticeable by most – we were quietly dropping collective core values defined by post-war universal human rights, commonwealth and common-man wellbeing, and we were moving towards the relentless and increasingly unrestrained pursuit of competitive personal advancement.
The hedonism of the 1960s also produced a profound demographic collapse in Australian churches. God, humanity and commonwealth became old hat as common value definers.
Far be it from me to suggest that John Howard’s golden 1950s of respectable white bread “Christian” decency – so called “Australian values” – was anything other than a convenient cloak for the self-enhancement of an upwardly mobile status quo set on very material comforts and ambitions.
I don’t think the swing to Mammon happened in the 1980s. It’s the postwar Boomers who have defined the present neoliberal era; the children of the 40s and 50s. But however it happened, we have lost a transcendent and intrinsic moral horizon to our common objects of value, and the result is, amongst other things, the disaster on Manus Island.
The flat pursuit of personal advantage
It goes like this. Mammon permits no transcendent or intrinsic horizon. This god gives its acolytes a flat vision of reality where money is power, and power gives the freedom of self actualization and the means of procuring tangible physical benefits. Money, power and political rhetoric are all interchangeable tools that serve the purpose of amoral self-advancement to this outlook.
If you have read Plato’s Republic, Thraysmacus is a wonderfully sketched exponent of this metaphysically flat politically pragmatic outlook. When these values define the collective power environment, then all intrinsically moral commitments and all essential values become relativized and pragmatized, which is to say they become unrealistic in substance and of purely rhetorical and manipulative use.
Astonishing incongruities become normalized as a result. Hence, out of a merely rhetorical concern (saving people from drowning and being exploited by people smugglers) we can pursue a policy of unbending inhumane deterrence, defined by the complete abrogation of our UNHCR signed commitments. This works in the public arena because substantive moral truths, essential values, and any transcendent conception of the highest universal good are now functionally meaningless notions.
There is a bipartisan commitment to astonishingly incongruent moral rhetoric that has no substantive commitment to anything other than the management of electorally significant fear and greed nerves in the body politic, as stimulated by our pragmatic political party machines. Ironically the appeal of Hanson and Trump is based on their maverick status as regards those machines, but not on any substantive moral or metaphysical difference to the flat pursuit of personal advantage.
The ‘real’ game of power is now defined by mere electoral victory, as produced by a ruthlessly pragmatic political ‘realism.’ This ‘realism’ manufactures PR technologies for manipulating electoral fears and desires centred around an entirely instrumental and spiritually flat conception of self-advancement. In this context there can be no genuine moral courage or humanity expressed by our political class.
This situation does not illustrate a sharp divide between us the people and them the politicians, to the contrary. What this illustrates is the common frame of civic worship shared by both our politicians and our people. That is, there is always a deeply embedded spiritual dynamic to politics and public life, but we functionally secular materialists (whatever our ‘religious’ convictions may be) are so daft in our articulation of the religious dynamics in which we actually live, that we can’t even see spiritual dynamics when we are smashing the vulnerable – and ourselves – with the mother of all idolatrous sledge hammers.
Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison and daughter Lilly lay a wreath at a Remembrance Day event in Martin Place, Sydney, November 11, 2017. DANNY CASEY/Press Association. All rights reserved.The people who get this and the people who don’t is highly instructive. There are conviction atheists – such as Phillip Adams – who are profoundly morally outraged by the violations of intrinsic human dignity done in the name of national sovereignty, and who are flabbergasted by the inhumanity expressed in the bipartisan support shown by our central political parties to offshore deterrence. Phillip has not bowed the knee to Mammon; he has higher gods. And then there are card-carrying right wing Christians – such as Scott Morrison – who do whatever humiliating and soul destroying antics his party asks in inhumane and secretive power games with vulnerable men, women and children in Australian-funded indefinite offshore detention. Here Scott is operating on the same religious level as two of our four major public cults: militant nationalism and hip-pocket self-interest (footy and horse-racing being the other two). Worshipping at the altar of political pragmatism and personal advancement, at whatever cost to the globally marginalized, is - alas - mainstream in both our political parties and the Australian electorate.
Things are not going to change for the better for we Australians, without some sort of national repentance and the casting off of our hideous idols. We need to change our gods if we are going to get a more morally adequate approach to the vulnerable and displaced peoples of the deeply troubled globe.
We are going to need more than a flat metaphysical immanence if we are to build a commonwealth and a shared way of life that has dignity and genuinely humane purpose to it. This won’t happen without sustained, courageous and intelligent spiritual warfare. But… do we even have the first clue as to how we might go about engaging in such a struggle for The Good?
Manus refugee protest with the Refugee Action Collective (Victoria) outside the State Library of Victoria, November 4, 2017. MAL FAIRCLOUGH/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Views expressed in this article are Paul Tyson’s own opinion and do not represent any official position endorsed by Emmanuel College.