[This was written November 2017. I was in a dark mood and needed to unload some of it. Having done that, I felt better and left it. However the dark mood has been returning. Twice now I’ve been triggered by being taken back in time, as you’ll see in this and the next post. The previous post, To Armageddon on Automatic, was on a topic long brewing that I struggled to find words for. There may be more. These are not bright times.]
That was before we turned decisively to the dark side, before we learnt to stumble through the gritty, coal-dusted moral gloom, mocked by boofhead bully politicians, conditioned to fear others and to destroy innocent lives, cloyed by Big Brother in our pockets and purses, taunted by visions of robot workers, android dreams and a baking planet. That was before the colours faded.
There were troubles back then, there always are, but there were also bright slashes of hope cutting through the dark shadows cast by a decade of ‘economic rationalism’. The excesses of deregulated, debt-addled ‘entrepreneurs’ had brought on what is still the worst Australian recession since the Great Depression, throwing many older white men permanently out of work and cementing Pauline Hanson’s fringe constituency. But the Labor Right was fading and Keating would not last too much longer. We would have to put up with plodding John Howard for a few years but that would give Labor a chance to remember why it existed.
As it turned out Howard imposed the highly unpopular Goods and Services Tax and by early 2001 he was desperately far behind in the polls. In August he co-opted Pauline Hanson’s rhetoric and blocked the Tampa. In September some Saudis cooperated by knocking down the Twin Towers in New York, ramping up the fear. In October a lie was allowed to run that some legal asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, ramping up the loathing. In November Howard fell across the line. We had crossed to the dark side. Labor merely collaborated.
But before all that, knowledge was publicly valued, rather than being seen as part of a leftist-greenie conspiracy, as cultural Marxism (whatever the hell that is) and as a target for further budget cuts. Informed comment was still a thing. People could put public views without the risk of copping a vicious and sustained personal vendetta from the Australian.
Free speech did not just mean free for Andrew Bolt to vilify anyone but not free for Jassmin Abdel-Magied, who is too brown, too Moslem and too female. There was an arms-length arts council, set up in the sixties by liberal Liberals, not yet raided by George Brandis. Even Paul Keating liked Culture, in the form of old French clocks.
The ABC was a little bloodied but generally standing its ground as perhaps the most valuable cultural asset of the nation (believe me, I’ve lived in the USA). Now it is a Liberal Party colony churning out more and more pap and propaganda, weeding out the ‘lefties’ under the guise of transitioning to new technologies.
People still knew there were other possibilities. Most adults in the nineties had clear memories of a time when selfishness was not so glorified, when compassion and empathy were not political dirty words. A time when governments, for all their imperfections, were not vilified just for being governments. Many had clear memories of the reforming Whitlam era and of the social upheavals of the sixties that left the world a better place.
The internet was a new thing, and giving us glimmerings of a global public space unrestricted by governments and big corporations. Ha!
There was a growing consensus to do something about global warming at a time when it would have made a big difference. Instead we are set to lose most of the Reef, and the fragile global industrial system is in peril. Billions of lives hang in the balance, the safer path forward is clear, but we are captured by coal.
Australia during the postwar decades had been growing more tolerant, more diverse, more self-confident, more culturally assertive, regaining some of the boldness of the early Federation years.
Then it all reversed and we are again consumed by fear of others, divided, hateful and cringing. We still have not had the courage to face up to the stain of dispossessing and nearly exterminating the First Australians.
We hide our faces and the darkness intensifies. Soon we will lose sight of each other.
Czech intellectual and former president Václav Havel understood that only if we are willing to speak the truth, to ourselves, to each other and in public, can we hope to keep or extract ourselves from the mire of oppression. He risked his life and suffered imprisonment for doing so.
Writer Jane Goodall noted at the time of his death in 2011 ‘Havel spoke always from a conviction that civic intelligence is the most valuable commodity in any nation, and its erosion is the greatest danger.’
* The Red Heart by Rosie Scott (Vintage, Auckland, 1999).