At the Milton Hotel in Newtown in inner-Sydney, near the corner of King Street and Missenden Road, a young man, Daniel Ryan, consumed four beers on a Saturday afternoon. An altercation with some other patrons ensued, Daniel was king hit, and he was probably unconscious in the seconds before he lay dead on the street. Daniel Ryan was my great-great uncle. He died on December 10th, 1904.
As the rhetoric surrounding the dangers of alcohol and violence permeates the political sphere, stories like Daniel Ryan’s remind us that by viewing the present in isolation, we distort reality. Australians have a tendency to be ahistorical and to create false nostalgia. A key moment of John Howard’s political demise was his assessment in 2007 that ‘we have never been better off’. His entirely correct assertion was at odds with public sentiment, and he was voted out.
Last week, the NSW and ACT Alcohol Policy Alliance (NAAPA) launched their 2015 NSW state election platform. They set the impossible goal of ‘not one more’ alcohol-related cancer death, violent incident, brain damaged baby, pub open beyond 3am, or advertisement for booze. In short, they want prohibitive legislation, and cash, of course. By setting themselves up with an impossible aim, they will always be on hand to criticise and to ask for more.
Nobility of sentiment is not good enough, and the basis of their platform requires examination. Crime statistics are the plaything of state elections. State governments continue to have their powers eroded, and state elections have become little more than law and order auctions. We expect politics to produce results – any results – only we fail to appreciate that by almost every measure, our lives continue to improve.
More than hallucinating a problem, the key to creating a successful panic is hallucinating a trend. Traction is gained by creating nostalgia for what once was, to which truth is incidental. Overall, acts of violence and the harmful consumption of alcohol continue their long-term downward trends. Regulations, such as the lockout laws introduced in NSW earlier this year, merely shift statistical brackets: violence in licensed venues has decreased in line with patronage; violence on the streets and inside homes has increased when people are ‘locked out’.
Traditionally, the custodians of moral panics see the issue at hand as a threat to the status quo – however anyone with an eye to history understands alcohol use and misuse, and a small number of violent individuals, are nothing new. The base appeal of their language is so familiar as to be dull: children, community, safety. Our social authoritarians are driven by a KPI mentality: we must always look to do something: to ‘call for’, raise awareness, or shift a statistic. It is not about empowerment but conformity and control.
At the launch of the NAAPA platform, a director of the Wake Up Foundation, Rob McEwan, told us that by definition, a successful society is a moderate society. He’s wrong twice: in his understanding of the etymology of success, and in his projection of his personal desires on to a society. Moral entrepreneurs have no interest in proportionality, as they know rage can’t be sustained at an effective level. They need to get their laws on the books while they still have the ability to generate a headline.
The most pernicious aspect of the NAAPA platform is their use of other issues as a front for their campaign. They repeatedly invoke domestic violence, political donations, and community involvement in planning laws as justification for their policies, cleverly tapping into the zeitgeist. Underneath this, it doesn’t take a long review into their campaign material to find the core of their objection: a distaste for advertising, and a distrust of others. Yet the proponents of NAAPA expect us to believe that they alone are not susceptible to the dark forces of marketing, and that their motives are the only ones to be trusted.
The secret of the custodians of morality is to position themselves so as to be irrefutable. They used to have the pulpit, now they have other uniforms. A coalition of doctors and police, NAAPA know that their unions are exempt from scrutiny. We must be instantly suspicious of those who claim to know of or speak for ‘the community’. It is a timeless device for imposing one’s views on others. The desire for power, no matter the altruism in which it is cloaked, must always be called to account.
To counter the arguments of organisations such as NAAPA presents its own difficulties. Freedom is tough to articulate; its practice is visceral and defensive. Economic interests are easier to quantify than moral interests. In the age of managerialism we foster a culture of blame and consequence, and the appeal to our collective instinct for accountability is strong. Perhaps its tentacles go longer and deeper than we may like to think: Australia was not founded on revolution or frontier spirit but bureaucracy. Our impulse to appeal to authority outweighs our scepticism of the extent to which we can regulate conduct and culture. Eradication of waywardness and violence is impossible, but public debate is consumed by aspiration.
NAAPA and their peers are classic moralists, driven by their convictions, and keen to impose them on everyone. They indulge in a secular spiritualism of the perfect self and the virtues of self-denial. The political class follow, fearful something could happen on their watch. The state may even question the basis of the happiness of its citizens, and expect them to pursue their happiness in moderation.
Our relationship to excess is perhaps our most innate hypocrisy. Ultimately, drunkenness is an expression, not susceptibility to advertising or a failure of policing. To protect themselves from their conscience, vice becomes the enemy those confronted with the limits of their ability to coerce others to conform to their views. For their best intentions, governments can’t stop young men being young men; doctors can’t cure death; police must react to crime rather than prevent it.
The pursuit of happiness and the dignity of personal responsibility form the basis of our existence. We are not fragile but fallible; we need not protection but experience. The destructive gratification that infects us is not violence or drunkenness, but the quest for perfectibility and dominion over others.
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