I had the fascinating experience of having the author of The Lucky Country lecture me back in 1974. It was a moment when I started to realise that really important information can be given very dryly. But maybe that was just me trying to understand this thing called ‘university’, given that none of my family had been there before.
However, this idea of the ‘lucky country’ did keep me interested. I read different authors over the years who celebrated, questioned and at times groaned about this land where I grew up. Sometimes what they wrote made sense, even if somewhat ‘poetically overstated’ – King’s Waltzing Materialism comes to mind. Sometimes, it was just confusing, like reading that Roman Catholics and Protestants were two classes of Australians opposed to each other. My personal reality was that RC’s (lovingly described by Edmund Campion as Rock Choppers) and Baptists got along famously – why? It was because I have nothing but fond memories of going next door and stirring the mashed potato pot for ‘Mrs Fitz’. Its size was a wonder to behold given their family of nine, compared to our own of four.
Bruce Wilson started writing about spiritual shifts in the 1980s. Having become a social scientist, his work on The Human Journey caught my interest. In it, he reviewed the impact of Judeo-Christian modes of thought on our heritage, and what might happen if they weakened.
By the turn of the millennium, we had Paul Sheehan warning of the ‘dividing of Australia’ in his Among the Barbarians, Hugh MacKay suggesting we had a growing tribalism and David Tacey was describing a rise in spiritual interest at Australian universities. He also started to explain what can happen if you are game enough to write about such topics.
And then, less than ten years ago, we came to Nick Cater. The subtitle of his book caught my attention because I had lived long enough to see that what he described was real, rather than theoretical. The Lucky Culture: And the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class summarised significant slabs of lived reality for me.
The observant Cater compared what Australia was like in the late 1980s when he arrived from England, and some of the critical subsequent developments since that time. A point that he described that I had also observed was that Australia’s social culture had moved from an egalitarianism where everyone could ‘have a go’, to a division along lines of ‘who knows best’ – or as Cater put it, a developing elite expressing a new ‘puritanism, although this time without divine authority’.
As Cater explained, if you did not understand this new orthodoxy, then the ‘ubiquitous sneer’ came your way. This was some time in coming. I remember in my undergraduate classes in the 1970s asking questions in psychology and sociology about the nature of personhood (‘Are we only physical matter?’) and raising issues about human motivation in economics (‘What are the assumptions behind capitalism and Marxism?’). The answers were boringly similar: ‘We are not here to discuss those kinds of issues, Stephen.’
Cater masterfully followed the implications of such thought movements into the themes that capture the social imagination of the elites – ecologism, sustainability, the ‘bunyip alumni’, the shift in the ABC, compassion over obligation, a division along ‘religious attachment’ and worst of all, the ‘dialectic of catastrophe; the implication that the alternative to their radical solution is not merely a less-perfect world, but no world at all’.
What we now see in our current health crisis is these patterns writ large. The goals of the health bureaucrats seem incoherent because they are self-referential. Without any commitment to the dignity of all human life as an agreed absolute outside of our politics, we have lost the capacity to discuss and ascertain relative risks. Instead, our leaders bleat general motherhood phrases like ‘We are just keeping you safe’. If we understood the unique dignity of all people, these public servants would understand that the decisions they get to decide are also decisions every person has the right (and obligation) to decide, in terms of basic freedoms and responsibilities.
This foundation of Western thought and life (from either the Judeo-Christian or Enlightenment schools) is now being trampled. A key evidence of this is the lack of transparency of modelling and data that is available to the general public. One can only assume that those in leadership believe that ‘the public’ (the non-elites) would not be able to handle the information responsibly. Instead, they come out with childish, incoherent playground rules and regulations and then wonder why they then have to use the police to harshly enforce the fear on which they insist.
Similarly in education, it is the elites who ‘drop down’ curriculum based on ideology whose presuppositions remain unstated. The latest example is another case study of Cater’s ‘ruling class’. The balanced review of 2014 by Wiltshire and Donnelly has been routinely ignored. The ruling class does not see the need to engage with such thoughtfully expressed deeper issues. They ignore them and insist, in the same boring way that I experienced in the 1970s, that ‘we are not here to talk about that’ (note that this kind of phrase was recently stated by a couple of chief medical officers).
And it seems that the ‘meekness of the mob’ (as Chesterton described it) has meant, as Cater foreshadowed, that civic responsibility has been increasingly relegated to the state. This avoids the obligation of all of us as moral agents being involved in building community. In contrast we build a soft totalitarianism. As Rod Dreher (in Live Not by Lies) has warned us:
It is a form of government that combines political authoritarianism with an ideology that seeks to control all aspects of life… it exercises control, at least initially, in soft forms. This totalitarianism is therapeutic. It masks its hatred of dissenters from its utopian ideology in the guise of helping and healing.
Will our so-called Liberal governments have the courage to ‘bell the cat’? Our Prime Minister has shown a subtle tilt at it a couple of times – will he grow in confidence, or will the regressive elites in his party successfully continue the movement to a more fractured society where we live with less dignity, not more?
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