The march of post-modern irrationalism through our democratic institutions continues unabated. The latest example of how the extraordinary achievements of the Enlightenment – in other words, the twin pillars of science and reason, and their corollaries justice and material progress – are being undermined, is Australia’s shadow minister for foreign affairs, Penny Wong, stating that ‘Labor will deliver a First Nations foreign policy that weaves the voices and practices of the world’s oldest continuing culture into the way we talk to the world and in the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’. The claim that reason is one way of knowing the world and is no better than traditional knowledge is a pillar of postmodern philosophy.
In support of this extraordinary philosophical change in the foreign policy of a member of the G20, Penny Wong cites the Uluru Statement from the Heart that consists of a mélange of feel-good platitudes mixed implicitly with quasi-mystical claims of wisdom, which are linked in some unexplained way to Aboriginal culture. Nowhere in the document is anything as tangible as the insights of Machiavelli, Talleyrand or Bismarck cited to support a change of this magnitude in the foreign policy of one of the world’s foremost democracies. And nowhere, as far as I’m aware, is another document cited, which outlines, in detail, what the change in foreign policy will mean in concrete terms. The nearest expression of a policy is a claim to have a ‘First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution’, which means that, in contrast to every political and rights-based advance made in the last two to three hundred years, Australia would make one section of the population, who no longer live a traditional, premodern existence, and hence have little relationship with the material conditions of pre-European Australia, a cultural and economic elite, whose rights would supersede those of other Australians.
The problem, though, at a philosophical level, is that irrationalism is at the core of premodern society. In fact, a contradiction at the heart of the Uluru statement both stresses the irrationalism and undermines a key part of the statement’s political agenda. If contemporary Aboriginal Australian culture is heavily influenced by ‘sixty millennia’ of lived experience, then there has to be a link between the high rates of Aboriginal crime – which the statement says ‘proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet’ – with Aboriginal culture and present-day criminality. You can’t pick the parts of your culture that suit the agenda and ignore the rest. How can the Australian government criticise the actions of other governments from a First Nation’s perspective when their own First Nations are dysfunctional?
For most of modern history, Australia’s foreign policy has been understood through three simple concepts: protect the territorial integrity of Australia, look after the material conditions of the Australian people, and support liberal democracy and its growth throughout the world. Even apolitical Australian citizens intuitively understand these concepts.
Penny Wong’s statement, irrational as it is in relation to foreign policy, though, is even more important in how it points to an overarching attitude, a zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in other words, about how progressive elites are attempting to change Australia’s attitude to itself and how this is fundamentally damaging to liberal democratic values.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of your culture, but all cultures contain both good and bad parts, and every culture, if prosperity and human rights are important, must leave behind its most impractical and worst aspects, or else silo as entertainment the cultural beliefs that are inimical to the maintenance of liberal democracy. Ancient Egypt is an old culture, but no country cites the ideas that animated Cheops or Cleopatra as a logical approach to modern diplomacy.
Irish people dress up as leprechauns at sporting events and on Saint Patrick’s Day and Austrians celebrate Krampus, but neither of these nations’ children are educated to believe that these pre-modern ideas hold any definitive truths about the world, or that these cultural myths should inform their everyday behaviour, never mind their nation’s foreign policy. Yet pervasive in Australian culture is the idea that Aboriginal Australia can teach modern Australians, and the world, how to behave. It’s nonsensical because every person alive today is the descendant of murderers, rapists, colonisers, invaders, and every other ugly facet of human behaviour. We’re all, in this sense, anyway, scarred by original sin. But we’ve managed, incrementally, through accidents of geography, climate, economics, warfare, and the insights of great men and women, to leave our superstitious and irrational pasts behind. We understand that even when (using folk wisdom), people made ostensibly rational decisions (for example, when Aboriginal Australian’s burnt the bush which regenerated growth and limited the extent and ferocity of bushfires), they didn’t know why it worked, just that it made things better. But that’s not enough to navigate our modern technological world. Contemporary Aboriginal Australians cut and mutilate the penises of young boys in initiation ceremonies, leaving many of them with lifelong sexual, medical and relationship problems, and this practice is based on the same epistemological premise that informed every pre-modern society: we don’t know why it works, but it works. In other words, if she floats, she’s a witch, or, to put it another way, without modern rational norms, we can destroy the mean girl. Some women in the Labor party should know this better than most
Perhaps Penny Wong and the leaders of the Australian Labor Party should watch the movie Being There, which stars Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardiner, whose only knowledge of the world is platitudes about gardening and watching television, and who, through a series of adventures, ends up advising the American president about policy. ‘Growth has its seasons. There are Spring and Summer, but there are also Fall and Winter. And then Spring and Summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well, and all will be well’.
This piece of wisdom from the inimical Chauncey is as insightful as any example of pre-modern Aboriginal, Irish, Austrian, or any First Nations wisdom. Being right about something by accident is not wisdom, it’s luck.
And informed, deliberate ignorance is no way to run the foreign policy of a sophisticated nation like Australia.
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