The Politics of Percy II – In the End, there was some conclusion.

January 16, 2009 at 10:31 pm (Percy) (, )

For part one, please click here.

I have a vivid memory of sitting in assembly, shuffling my feet and trying not to die of boredom, when the Head’s rambling roamed towards the topic of Magic: the Gathering. This meant one of two things – either he had some Christian message to impart to us, and thought that Magic provided a metaphorical richness to speak “on our level”, or far more likely, it was about to be banned. Sure enough, he had heard of one too many cases of kids losing their cards or having them stolen, so they were now banned from campus. “If you can’t use them responsibly”, he intoned gravely, “then you can’t use them at all”.

Having just lost one of the (very few) lunchtime activities I enjoyed through no fault of my own, I had a minor political epiphany. Why should I be denied the right to play Magic because others had done wrong to people like me? Why should sport, with its injuries and fights and exclusivity continue unmolested, but my chosen pastime be removed? The conservative movement was encapsulated in that decision to ban – new things are to be feared, for we do not know what may come of them, whilst old, well-established modes of fun (such as sport) had a place in society. And more importantly, it was the duty of the many to punish new modes of interaction that attract a criminal element through no fault of their own; as a means of fighting crime, of course.

This idea is best illustrated by another example. Around this time, the Tampa ‘children overboard’ scandal was just breaking (check out some great footage here), and the hot topic of the day was illegal immigration. I recall the crux of the conservative’s argument was that these immigrants were jumping the queue, so to speak – they were not following the proper channels, abusing the system, and so should be refused on those grounds. When sympathy for their plight began to stir, the government rolled out their deception and attempted to make these immigrants into an evil, unpredictable, unAustralian menace, an immediate threat to you and me. I remember instead that my attitude was more curious and sympathetic – if someone was so desperate to escape wherever they came from that they would endanger the life of their child, trusting our goodwill, then we should listen to them and help them. Thus was my alienation from the Liberal party complete.

(The immigration debate continues today, with doubt and uncertainty constantly circulating about who we’re letting in, but it never seems to be phrased in a way that acknowledges the humanitarian aspect of allowing refugees or even those unhappy with their current country to live here instead. It seems to revolve around whether we should stop allowing anyone in to prevent allowing an undesirable in, where undesirable is defined by whatever buzzwords the politicians and shock jocks are throwing around.)

This attitude only intensified when the 9/11 attacks happened later that year. I knew by that point that, just like my headmaster, the government would take away our nice things (read: civil liberties) in exchange for some form of supposed safety. I also knew that just as banning Magic and keeping rugby would help the school to control the way its students spent their leisure time, fostering a premeditated ‘school atmosphere’ that us Magic players had been unhappy with to begin with. Thus it was an attack on everyone, but most severely on those who questioned the government or wanted change. I saw how quickly critics of the government became dangerous citizens, willing to gamble with people’s lives for the sake of those who want to harm us. The fundamental right to privacy, something I believe in very strongly, was twisted into “well, what have you got to hide?”.
I must confess at that point I became very interested in the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 (I particularly liked Zeitgeist, though now only pay attention to the first third). I saw how perfectly the attacks fit into the United States’ foreign and domestic policy agenda, and thought there might be a hidden hand, just as the terrorist attacks in V for Vendetta. Later, I read Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine (a book I highly recommend – READ IT DAN), and I realised that a conspiracy wasn’t necessary – they were simply exploiting the panicked atmosphere that was present at the time for their own ends, and that was how capitalism functioned best. The more you were able to make decisions for other people, the more control and money you got.

I wanted to let all the immigrants in. I wanted to ban no movie, book or show. As my fascination with the internet grew, I realised the power of allowing humans to interact without imposing a social structure, instead letting one develop organically – but more on that in another post. The point is, I thought that constantly governing for the small percentage of lawbreakers, criminals and undesirables, increasing our responsibilities while taking away our rights, was perpetuating the problem rather than solving it. If you treat someone like a child, then they will act like a child. If you expect someone to shoulder the responsibilities of an adult and enforce social norms without giving them the means to enjoy free expression, you’re trying to homogenise people, trying to make them more predictable, at the same time as making unpredictability and inhomogeneity more of a problem.

People do not have a right to not be offended. I cannot stand it when someone attempts to defend their opinions by saying “well, it’s just my opinion, OK?”. Opinions and statements do not deserve respect unless they have earned it through reasoned argument. Any other system of idea exchange is corrupt in the extreme. The conservative movement, however, could not function without the moral outrages and panics, the arbitrary values that accompany being “Australian” and what boxes they prefer people to fit in.

It was with eager anticipation that I awaited the results of the 2007 election. I honestly believed that Kevin Rudd would bring anything-but-conservatism, and that was enough for me. Today, we stand more than a year in, and what have we seen? More “fiscally responsible” approaches to climate change and dogmatic, knee-jerk reactions to moral panics conjured up by small minded people. Specifically, I’m referring to Kevin Rudd’s reaction to Bill Henson’s photography, the Rudd government’s refusal to review Marijuana legislation, and my number one favourite, the internet filter. My thoughts on these topics will wait for another post, but what I thought I would be liberated from – attempts to control my social and intellectual interactions with concepts, people and objects – remains a cornerstone of policy under Labor.

Perhaps it was not the fault of poor policy or poor systems of governance, but of the concept of ‘government’ itself, I thought while I drifted in this sea of uncertainty and broken promises. I explored anarchism, even cyber anarchism and cyber democracy (again, I think cyber modes of governance is something I’ll address in another post). I thought for a time that the sheer scale of the problem government deals with will result in failures all the time (such as social workers being unable to prevent THIS, which would never happen in a small community). Modern day economic theory seems to state that the best way to conduct business is to take money from many and puts it in the hands of the few. We hope that these people will use it responsibly and for the good of all of us, because after all, that’s where their power comes from. In reality, people on the stock market overinflate commodities, buy things just because they’re complicated and have concern only for themselves. We hope that the trickle down effect will work, but the only thing that ever really trickles down is the responsibility to clean up the mess and shoulder the burden of these self-interested failures. The bigger the market, the more this occurs, and that’s what truly frightens me about globalism.

So perhaps smaller communes were better – an idea quickly dismissed by the horrible practises that can go on in an insulated environment, from the family and up in size (Scientology, anyone?). The problem was more fundamental than that – the problem with government was a problem with human nature itself.

I think things tend to go wrong when people interact with ideas in a manner that is Stupid, Lazy, Hostile, Stubborn or Scared. I’ve found that most ideas (political or otherwise) that I find repulsive are either motivated by or cater towards one of these five human emotions. But there’s more to it than that – each of those things are very tempting to a lot of people. The “Institution of Marriage” is a great example where the majority of people don’t really know what they mean, don’t really care to quantify it, would find it wanting on anything but a cursory examination as a motivation for homophobia, and yet assume that it’s a well established social principle that must be defended – just look at the recent campaign for Yes on Proposition 8 in California.

The tendency to abdicate the responsibility of reviewing the current system of government, social interaction or whatever and beg to be told what to do, what to like, what to think is incredible to behold. Most children begin with thoughts that the government, police, businesses, church authorities and so forth all have our best interests at heart. Robbers go to jail, priests are nice, businesses make nummy food (even better than nature, of course – carrots taste better in MacDonalds wrappers), and any counterexamples are either hidden by the parents or naively rejected. Many adults, unfortunately, continue to hold this attitude and have faith when it is no longer warranted, never developing a sophisticated moral or political compass.

This justification-by-the-system idea has recently cropped up in the media with the HSC special exemptions rorting that’s been going on in private schools. I’m amazed at how many people seem to think that it’s a virtue to exploit a system put in place to help those genuinely in need, or even those who don’t care about virtue at all. Even if it’s simply the case that 30% of all students need it and you can only get it with private school levels of administrative support, you still have a failed system on your hands. Something is rotten here, and yet there are many who somehow conclude differently.

I’m watching Mad Men, a truly excellent show about advertising executives in New York in 1960, and it’s amazing how they don’t just cater to want, but create it. So many cultural icons we so often take for granted were crafted by very intelligent people who wanted money and control for their clients, and were willing to take the thinking off your hands. They are master manipulators, fantastic at getting you to celebrate your free will by doing exactly what they want. The power that these people wield is incredible, and it’s at least in part due to the human tendency to exploit the stupid, lazy, stubborn, hostile and scared, and for those people to want to be exploited.

I’m still not sure, at all, about what kind of governmental style will best do what I want, but at least I’ve sorted out my principles. People should be given personal, not collective, responsibility towards their community. They should see the results of their own personal work, and be rewarded or punished accordingly. People should be inspired to become Smarter, more Curious, more Open, more Accepting and more Understanding. Legislation should both be motivated by and foster these things in the community. Censorship’s aims should be to inform, not to restrict freedom; to enable personal decisions rather than prevent ‘bad’ ones.

I want government to acknowledge that people associate Different with Dangerous, Unpredictable with Horrifying, and to never act based on such gut instincts. If something is unknown, then a well defined moratorium is an appropriate response – banning it, and feeding misinformation to the public to justify your reaction, is not.

I hope this blog and my interactions with my wonderful audience will help me clarify the best way to bring these principles to life in a system of governance. People suck, but people can be awesome – the more we emphasise the latter rather than fear and prepare for the former, the better.

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1 Comment

  1. juliadactyl said,

    One of the biggest problems I have with democracy (and you know I love democracy) is that it DOES mean that everyone gets a vote. So it means that you have to worry about people in Ipswitch, and Dubbo, and what’s important to them and how they think. Governments have to try to re-win votes. Also, sometimes a government is held hostage by the senate.

    Check out Gough Whitlam, he had all these cool plans that he made happen, like medicare and free university. Pretty awesome, right? But then the senate decided they didn’t like his plans, and then it was double dissolution time, and Kerr abused his powers and it was the Greatest Shame since, well, the Great Shame.

    I sometimes wish we could get all metritocracy up in this shit, but I also realise that the majority of the time, when some parts of the population are denied suffrage, it’s often people like me.

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