Lucky? Not Likely!

10 September 2008

On Australian Exceptionalism

Of the many defining characteristics that Australians cling to in an often uncertain search for national identity, the notion that they live in the Lucky Country endures with little effective criticism. The precision with which the term is used – Australia is the Lucky Country and not just a lucky country, one fortunate land amongst many – precludes not only a comparative appraisal of whether it really is a reasonable description at all, but also any historical understanding of how the term came into being, what it might have obscured and the extent to which it will influence the future as that uncertain time forms on the edge of the present. The country is lucky, always, and there’s nothing else to say.

Of course it’s not uncommon knowledge that the term in popular usage is something of a misnomer. When Donald Horne used it in his book of the same name in 1964, it marked the epilogue of an extended inquiry into a mindset and a manner, what it meant to be a particular type of person at a particular time. As Horne’s subtitle read, he was writing about ‘Australia in the Sixties’, less nationalistic than it had been, somehow different than what other people thought of it, but a little forlorn, worried at the edge of Asia. He described a people content with their lot, but not imaginative enough about others, or even about how things could be different for themselves.

What worried Horne the most was the absence of a public life, a debate about what might happen next, what just might be happening now. In a sense that’s not surprising because the Liberal-National coalition had been in power since 1946 and Prime Minister Robert Menzies had only just retired after 17 years in his second stint at the top. It could well be a maxim of Australian political history that federal governments both create and maintain public discourse, gently prodding much of the populace to speak of certain things now and ignore other things then.

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On Freedom

6 August 2008

For Yayah and Beth

What is freedom? That seems like an easy question, but it can never be answered without equivocation, the implication of limits to protect some-one or something else. We tend to think of freedom as an absolute, as unconditional liberty, but who would be prepared to grant free choice over life and death, the freedom to harm as well as to help? At the dawn of the Philippine Revolution against Spain a new word entered the Tagalog language to capture this ambivalence, to speak both of liberty and obligation. The word was kalayaan, which implied cooperation for liberty and its rewards.

Freedom is a fundamentally social concept, with tension between the individual and the group, or between the group and yet other groups, always at its core. By their very nature groups contain, condense and consolidate. In doing so they force their members to relinquish something, even those members who have the greatest influence over others. A group needs a focus at best, or an alibi at worst, and not all members are prepared to accept that under all circumstances. Ultimately, some members attempt to negate the compulsion to belong, which is as often born of necessity in one form or another as it is of coercion.

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On Playing Politics

4 June 2008

The Case for Grass-Roots Ideology

365.035, by r5d4, with Creative Commons licencePolitics is all too often seen as a dirty game, an exclusive sport with privileged winners and disappointed, disenfranchised losers. If we think of formal politics we imagine the accumulation of power and influence, the control of society. That certainly happens, but politicians don’t get their way without networking, convincing, demonstrating and deterring. Even in societies that lack democracy there is still a great deal of these things going on. I’ve written about this before, labelling it populist governance here in Hong Kong – the pseudo participatory politics that happens when choices are limited. Not much changes, but formal politics is often more about activity than substance.

And then there are the reactions to situations in which not much is happening – grass-roots politics most people call it. For some, working at the social rather than institutional level is what really matters. Forming alliances where and when you can to support a cause seems pragmatic – we don’t all need to be career politicians. But even then the very notion that attention might focus on just the wrong aspect of an event is frowned upon.

Someone is always ready to claim that someone else is ‘twisting’ a situation for their own gain.

Negative Revolution, by Grim Reaper With A Lawnmower, with Creative Commons licenceRecently, an accusation of playing politics was levelled against some of the people concerned with the wider implications of the mysterious disappearance and death of Vicky Flores here in Hong Kong. When I mentioned this to James Rice, a fellow member of the Justice for Vicky concern group, a former lawyer and currently an Assistant Professor in philosophy, he said quite enthusiastically, “guilty as charged!”

What does it mean when we play politics – who really stands to gain? Many times corruption and the naked abuse of power answer that question with ease. But returning to the grass roots, down closer to the dirt of life, there really isn’t much to gain personally from entering the game. It takes up a great deal of time, effort, energy and often money for little reward. In steering a limited issue toward a broader focus, by showing that one event has a context people should care about, the grass-roots player is necessarily ideological, but rarely partisan.

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