Follow by Email

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Dealing with moral panic and why concern with"values' gets us nowhere

Simon Barrow continues to be on target with his commentary on contemporary public debate about morals and values.

I like the following passage from a column that he wrote for the Guardian recently discussing a BBC poll which found that 83% of people in Britain thought that society was experiencing moral decline.

One of the galvanising agents for this used to be religion, something that has clearly shrunk in terms of affiliation and receded as a shaping force in social life in modern Britain. It is interesting, therefore, that while nearly a third of people reject religious purpose as having a constructive role in moral formation, 62% still say it can be a guide for us.

Because "religion", in a plural society, invariably takes many shapes and sizes - a fact that spiritual hardliners and new wave God-bashers alike tend to ignore - it is hard to determine what this actually means, short of a generalised yearning for more "rooted values": things such as a concrete feeling of social obligation to neighbours, personal rather than purely instrumental reason, civility, a sense that freedom requires the cultivation of self-restraint, and the nurturing of traditional commitments (in contrast to "the contract culture").

However it is equally evident that institutional religion (the kind that grew up under Christendom's alliance of church and governing authority) finally failed to deliver such things. By imposing its interests, it took away people's ability to develop a deeper moral sensibility, something that grows out of voluntary mutuality rather than rule-based prescription.

So where from here? The inchoate sense that "something is wrong" soon collapses into a welter of different hypotheses and prescriptions. The clinical psychologist Oliver James terms the problem "affluenza"; John Gray blames too much idealism; Richard Dawkins points accusingly at a tide of irrationalism and residual superstition; Zealous Christians and Muslims believe their way is the only one; and politicians of all parties fail to persuade many of us that they hold the managerial key to a better life in a post-ideological environment.

In these circumstances, trying to reach some theoretical "moral consensus" is increasingly unpromising, and talk of "shared values" rapidly becomes vacuous. What creates commonality is not an idea of "community", which we are then expected to inhabit, but concrete and realisable deeds that point in the directions we want to go. We act, therefore we are.

So, in the face of violence, we need more people willing to experiment with non-violence and take risks for peace. Confronted with selfishness, we need those who can cultivate new possibilities of sharing. To combat xenophobia, we need gestures of hospitality. Instead of waste, we need more people willing to conserve. Where bitterness disables us, we need forgiveness, and so on.

I'm not suggesting that such voluntary "alternative" behaviour diminishes the need for large-scale structural action to combat the gross moral affronts of poverty, war, terror, environmental destruction, sexual abuse, and so on; rather, that a culture of civic action creates the climate for pressing collective responsibility."

This is a passage that could usefully be thought about by leaders from the conservative wings of the Christian church before opening thei mouths in public on the issue of perceived moral decline. Much of their commentary around this topic betrays a wistfulness for a Christendom approach and top down solutions.

Indigenous Stolen Wages

ANTAR have just released a national survey, Hard Labour, Stolen Wages: National Report on Stolen Wages by Dr Rosalind Kidd that provides a comprehensive survey on what is known about indignous stolen wages in every state and territory.

Ther report can be downloaded for free from the ANTAR website. Read it get angry and chase your local member on the issue.

Each chapter of the report provides a narrative account of the history of controls over indigenous people particularly as it related to their participation in the labour market and what is known about the handling of funds that were managed by pastroal stations, missions, other employers and the state and territory governments.

The detailed account of the conditions of near slavery and the fraud, mismanagement of funds, negligence by public officials and cost shifting by state governments, witholding of Commonwealth govrnment payments to individuals and using those funds to reduce state expenditure on spport of indigenous communities is worthy of the wrath and vocabulary of an Old Testament prophet. Micah or Amos could probably do a good job on this issue. There is an unbelievable amount of grist for their mill in this report.

"In 1934 the government was notified that ex-workers were starving to d death, but it refused to supply rations arguing this was the responsibility of station management" (p.73)

The amount of money that has been ripped out of the indigenous community over the past two centuries cannot be calculated precisely but is likely to run into several hundreds of millions of dollars at bare minimum and probably several times that amount.

And now we are heading off again down the track of government withholding payments to indigenous people. If the lack of recognition of the history of this sort of enterprise were not a matter so laden in pain and marinated in suffering for the indigenous community there might be space for black humour. History repeats itself (Marx said, I think) first as tragedy and then as farce, or was it the other way around?

Saturday, 15 September 2007


The following comments from Simon Barrow's excellent blog Faith inSociety.

I am still workng out how to get the links to work - using the Safari browser seems to be part of the problem. Working on switching to Firefox


Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting Iraq’s war surge to trickle towards peace (Ekklesia, 10 September 2007) Talk of the efficacy or otherwise of the US 'surge' is a smokescreen, says Simon Barrow. There is no long-term military solution to Iraq’s nightmare. But behind the scenes viable alternatives are being sought within civil society - and in conversation with those who have faced the uphill tasks of peace and justice in Ireland and South Africa.

The Daily Star in Lebanon adds: Ironically, Al-Qaeda in Iraq faces some of the same dilemmas as coalition forces in Iraq, though there is certainly no moral equivalency between the two. Both are driven by ideologies that are for the most part alien particularly to Sunni tribal sheikhs. Neither advocates of Western-style democracy nor the champions of strict Islamic orthodoxy offer an appealing vision for Iraq's future. Both sides are led by foreigners and viewed by a majority of Iraqis as occupiers, not liberators. Both are condemned for what is viewed by locals as the indiscriminate killing and brutalization of a civilian population caught in the crossfire of a conflict over which they have little say. Both are well financed and view Iraq as the battlefield for a global struggle that leaves no room for compromise.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

SIEV X memorial - grieving, art and affirming a common humanity

The memorial to the people who died in the sinking of the SIEV X in 2001 has been erected again, for six weeks in Weston Park in Canberra.

The location iof the memorial is on a long finger of parkland fringed by the lake. Each person who died when the SIEV X went down is represented by a pole with artwork, a label of the name of the person, where known (AFP are still not releasing the names of some of the victims), and the name of the group who provided the artwork.

I went out there this morning with my wife who had been present and deeply moved on the previous occasion when this memorial had been erected.

To walk along the line of the poles up the hill from the lake's edge, reading the names on the memorial and responding to the artwork on each pole was a profoundly moving experience. I was reduced to tears.

The background of tall gums, the cheerful call of crimson rosellas and the imposing presence of Black Mountain provided a reflective and respectful setting to remember the deaths of these asylum seekers. Leaving aside the question as to whether political considerations made the difference between living or dying for the people on this boat (noting that the event took place in the run up to a Federal election in 2001 that gave us the Tampa and the 'children overboard' affair), something happened for me as I walked from pole to pole.

I was struck by the reality of each pole as an acknowledgement by Australians of shared humanity and a willingness to join in the act of grieving and of giving these people the dignity of being remembered, through the works of art that were carefully and lovingly prepared by children in schools,students in university colleges, by church communities and community groups families and neighbourhoods across the country.

In a world of abstractions for which we are called to struggle, democracy, australian values and of which we are called to be afraid such as terrorism, 'boat people" and given the overwhelming large numbers of people suffering from poverty, terror and violence, whether at the hands of non-state actors, or states, those officially authorised to kill, there was here a moment of naming and acknowledging the reality of individual human beings.

The quality of attention that was paid by the peopel who prepared these poles was astonishing in the diversity of style and the care paid to the paintings and mosaics.

One pole in particular caught the attention of both my wife and myself. Included in the painting was the following proverb:

"How do we know when it is dawn?
When we have enough light to recognise
in the face of a stranger ... that of our sister."


That proverb seems an appropriate summary of what the memorial was all about.
Those who designed this memorial and those who painted the poles had enough light to recognise, in a time of public and political darkness and moral confusion, that in the face of these strangers there were the faces of our brothers and sisters.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Approaching APEC

The public language used by NSW government ministers and the police in the run up to APEC has had a distinctly aggressive edge to it. There has been an assumption that deonstrations will be violent and a "bring it on" tone.

There has been no attempt to recognise the democratic character of public assembly and no substantive public statement of a willingness to engage in good faith with those people who are committed to the democratic process as manifested through non-violent protest.

Indeed the public stance of the authorities has given great comfort I would judge to those elements that see no difficulty with violence by unwillingness to engage with elements from civil society who wish to use APEC to raise there concerns with a variety of issues. The setting up of an alternative media office by a range of NGO's is an important attempt to engage serously in democratic debate. This too has been greeted with a notable lack of enthusiasm. the presence in this group of faith based age and development agencies like TEAR Australia, who engages with a wide constituency in the evangelical churches should give pause for thought.

A positive approach to engaging with civil society elements who want to raise issues of deep public concern in the context of APEC would have demonstrated a practical commitment to democracy that would have encouraged many people across the world and left those comfortable with the "ultimate forgetfulenss of violence" (Bruce Cockburn "Night Train") isolated.

Instead the militarisation of language and the threat of counterviolence by those in authority (not the upholding of justice be it noted) has proceeded apace.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Stanner on indigenous policy

Rereading WEH Stanner's 1968 Boyer lectures "After the Dreaming" I came across the following comments that forty yeasr laer seem to be relevant to assessment of recent 'policy initiatives' by the howard government on indigenous affairs.

There is he observed "... a certain inability to grasp that on the evidence the aborigines have always been looking for two things: a decent union of their lives with ours but on terms that let them preserve teir own identity, not their inclusion willy-nilly in our scheme of things on a fake identity, but development within a new way of life that has the imprint of their own ideas." (pp.27-28)