Wednesday, 25 April 2018

12 Rules for Life

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has flooded our consciousness over the past few months.  Snippets of his talks keep popping up on my social media.  His book tour attracted national interest.  People on the right love him, those on the left hate him.

None of this is accidental.  He has been carefully curating his public profile for years, posting prolifically on his Youtube channel, speaking publicly and making himself available to media outlets of all kinds.  He has a devoted following and earns a decent income from Patreon via donations from viewers of his long and complex videos.  

His reputation is as someone who thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the significance of ancient mythology for the problem of Being.  However, he has been pushed into the mainstream in the guise of a champion of the Right courtesy of his embroiling himself in a rather strange and silly war in his university over the use of pronouns.  In the process he has become a champion of that most favoured and misused slogan of the Right, freedom of speech.  Right on cue, he has published a book.

I'm not one to listen to endless hours of people talking on Youtube.  I lose concentration after about 10 minutes.  Frankly, for a person with a reputation as a deep thinker Peterson's politics are surprisingly conventional.  Freedom of speech divorced from any care about which vulnerable people you might hurt, the equation of anything progressive and collective with Marx/Stalin/gulags, the glories of strong individuals.  The usual guff you hear from conservative, privileged white men.  

Fortunately his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not much about politics and a lot about his actual area of expertise, clinical psychology.  This meant I could read it right the way through and quite enjoy it, not to mention find a lot of food for thought.

If you were to assign 12 Rules for Life to a genre, it would be self-help, or perhaps pop psychology.  You know: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus; The Five Love Languages; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Games People Play.  These books aim to take the findings of psychology and communicate them in simple language in a way that might help readers towards self-understanding, improved relationships or greater success.  They typically revolve around a simple idea and use this idea to analyse a range of situations and dilemmas.  They are sometimes helpful, but often they are illustrations of the old adage, 'when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail'.  Accessibility can slide into vacuity.

Peterson's book certainly looks like this kind of book.  Its title promises you a finite and manageable number of things you should do to make your life better.  His introduction outlines a simple idea - that human life represents a tension between order and chaos, and the secret to an authentic life is to walk carefully along the boundary between the two.  

The chapter titles (the 'rules') also promise simplicity, helpfulness and sometimes a little bit of fun.  Some have a 'motherhood and apple pie' feel to them - stand up straight with your shoulders back, treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping, make friends with people who want the best for you, tell the truth, assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't.  Others promise a bit more fun - do not bother children when they are skateboarding, pet a cat when you encounter one in the street.  And there is just enough there to hint at something a little more challenging - do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them, pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient), be precise in your speech.

However, once you dive in, you quickly realise that this is not your normal self-help book.  He draws from a wide range of sources - the stories of the Old Testament (especially the story of the Fall and of Cain and Abel), the history of 20th Century dictatorships, the lives and experiences of his friends, neighbours and family and, of course, his own specialist area of clinical psychology.

Much of the attention in my social media circle has fallen on his sympathetic use of stories from the Bible and other ancient mythologies.  His only other book is a detailed exploration of the meaning and use of such mythology and he talks about this a lot in his lectures and interviews, as well as in 12 Rules.  However, he is not an orthodox believer.  His use of the stories most reminded me of Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand  Faces drew on a wide selection of mythical stories to outline an archetypal 'hero's journey' which ordinary people could use as a guide for living.

When you draw on mythology in this way you are not taking the stories on their own terms or trying to discern what their authors meant by them.  Rather, you are using them to illustrate conclusions you have already reached, often from quite different sources.  In Peterson's case, his primary source is his own field of clinical psychology, in particular the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and Jung and their philosophical predecessor Nietzsche, with additional references to evolutionary psychology.

This yields a lot a valuable stuff.  For instance, 'stand up straight with your shoulders back' provides a fascinating description of the prevalence of dominance hierarchies in the animal world and ultimately also in human societies.  'Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them' is a common-sense explanation as to why we should teach young children self-discipline and the results when we don't.  'Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't' discusses the value and importance of listening genuinely and sympathetically to others, not just in formal counselling sessions but in our day-to-day lives.  'Treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping' shows us ways to guard against self-sabotage and to allow ourselves to grow and develop as people. 

Yet there is more to it than this.  Psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, has a long tradition of shading into philosophy.  If you spend your life trying to help troubled patients adjust to reality, sooner or later you have to ask yourself what exactly is the nature of this reality and whether it is truly worth adjusting to.  The centrepiece of Peterson's exploration of this question, and for me the high point of the book, comes right in the middle - 'pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)'.  This chapter is worth the price of admission on its own.  He explores the way our systems of meaning collapsed in the 20th century as our religious certainties were stripped away by the advance of science and reason.  This left us dangerously close to the edge of chaos.  He talks about the life-denying thoughts of people as diverse as the Columbine killers and the academic he shared a platform with who described humans as cancer on the face of the planet, and the tragic effects of the attempt to rebuild order through the all-encompassing secular philosophies of fascism and communism.  For Peterson, this is not a simple problem.  We can't retreat to the earlier certainties without colossal self-deceit.  However, in his view we need to take up the challenge and find a way to live authentically, identifying what is meaningful and fulfilling for us and doing this as opposed to simply the thing that is easiest, most likely to please those around us or most likely to earn us a good income.

Other chapters follow on from this theme.  For instance, 'Tell the truth - or at least don't lie' is far from a simple exposition of the commandment about bearing false witness.  Rather, it explores the way what we perceive is not 'the naked truth', it is a highly processed and filtered interpretation of that truth.  New information, particularly shocking or traumatic information, doesn't only add to our knowledge, it changes our perception of reality itself.  For instance, a woman might see herself as a good dutiful wife in a happy marriage, but then discover her husband is having an affair.  This information is not simply tacked onto what she already knows, it puts the things she previously thought she knew into question - not only about her husband and her marriage, but also about herself and the people she thought were her friends.  Hence our task is not simply to 'tell the truth' but to discover it and rediscover it, and allow our discoveries to shape us and help us grow.

There's a lot to like here.  Peterson is indeed a deep thinker and a skilled, thoughtful psychologist.  He wants us to be better people, and provides us with a lot of insights that can help us achieve that.

However, he's not immune to the hammer-nail problem, and with him it takes the form that it takes for so many of his fellow psychologists.  A life spent thinking about and practicing the disciplines of individual growth and psychological wellbeing can make them think that this is the answer to everything.  If you think you are oppressed, stop letting people oppress you.  If you are offended, examine why and let the offence strengthen you.  If you are bowed down by past traumas, let those traumas teach you and contribute to your inner growth.  

It's all well and good but it's not enough.  People do need support to overcome the effects of trauma, but we should also act to prevent the trauma itself, for instance by not enabling sexual abuse and doing our best to avoid war.  We do need to be less thin-skinned, but it wouldn't hurt privileged white men to watch their words a little more carefully.  We do need to avoid gulags but not everything socialist or even Marxist is inevitably oppressive - and gulags are much more universal than Peterson seems to think.  We even have them in Australia.

Along with this classic psychologist's mistake, Peterson often allows himself to be seduced by various forms of the 'is/ought' fallacy - what is, must be.  Hence, the fact that men and women are unequal in almost every society leads him to assert that this is the natural order of things and we try to change it at our peril.  The prevalence of dominance hierarchies in nature leads him to think that inequality is natural and good and egalitarianism is a perversion of nature.  Along with his professional individualism, it's a recipe for not only conservatism but the kind of libertarian individualism that would do both Ayn Rand and his own hero Nietzsche proud.

I have seen recently (generally re-posted by right-wing people) that Peterson himself says he is not right-wing.  He can say what he likes, the cap fits, and perhaps he would do well to apply his own lessons and assume his progressive critics know something he doesn't. Still, none of us likes to be put in a box and such labels are clumsy at best.    Just because someone is on the right this doesn't mean they're always wrong.  Those of us on the left could also learn a lot from Peterson about self-examination, authenticity and careful listening, not least to people like him.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Is David Warner the New Moses?

For a short time, David Warner's Aussie cricketing mates called him 'The Rev', short for Reverend, after he announced his intention to moderate his combative on-field behaviour.  Over the last year that's gone out the window, and now he has been caught cheating along with some other team-mates and banned for 12 months.  So definitely not 'the Rev' now.  Much less a prophet.

Still, I can't help noticing the resemblance with Moses, the Hebrew stolen generation kid who ended up leading his people out of their Egyptian slavery.

There's a lot to Moses' story but you could see it as a spiritual journey in four phases.  In the first, he is oblivious to his true identity.  Not that he is necessarily ignorant of his Hebrew heritage, but he has grown up in a high-status Egyptian household and can confidently look forward to a career in the Egyptian hierarchy and a comfortable, successful life.  

In the second phase, he is awakened to the plight of his people, identifies with them and attempts to respond to their oppression.  He begins to understand that his life has a purpose beyond himself.  However, he goes about it all wrong.  He murders a lowly Egyptian official, becoming a dangerous pariah in the Hebrew community and a fugitive from Egyptian justice.  He ends up having to flee for his life.

In the third phase he lives in exile with a Midianite priest, looking after his sheep, marrying his daughter and learning to be humble and patient.  After his years in the wilderness he is called by God to return to his people, this time as a mature leader, and help free them from their oppression in earnest.

In the final phase, filled with the Spirit, he confronts Pharoah himself, with the backing of his people and with a clear strategy for negotiating their release, and leads his people out of Egypt and to the border of the promised land.  

Despite being 'The Rev' Warner may not understand himself as being on a spiritual journey, but he is on one nonetheless.  We all are.  The question is, what sort of journey will it be?  Will we do the good in the world that God has appointed for us?  Or will we refuse the call and instead end up floating in the sea of danger and chaos, or living a life of selfish oblivion?

Like a young Moses, Warner has just reached the gut-wrenching, fear-inducing transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3.

As a young man, he had prodigious gifts and used them as he pleased.  He attacked the ball with gusto, abused his opponents with gay abandon, and enjoyed all the perks and temptations of a travelling sports star.  It seemed that his talent and good fortune meant that he could essentially please himself.

As he got older he started to see himself as having responsibility to others and so entered Phase 2.  He met his wife Candice and became a dad, so he had a responsibility for the lives of others.  He shifted from young up-an-comer to senior player, and started to seek and fill leadership roles.  He coveted the role of captain.  He became, along with his brother-in-arms Steve Smith, the abrasive, combative face of the Australian cricket team.  

However, like Moses he he went about it all wrong.  He thought his responsibility was to win at all costs, for both his team and his family.  On the field he became increasingly aggressive and abusive to opponents.  When his wife was subjected to personal attacks as a form of retaliation he thought his responsibility was to aggressively defend her, with his fists if need be.  He decided that any measures, even cheating, were justified to bring his enemies down a peg or two.

As a result, like Moses, he now has to go into exile.  His own team, and the country he tried to represent, has rejected him.  He will no longer play alongside his team-mates, with whom he is now apparently persona non grata.  He will no longer enjoy the luxury of his huge income as both his playing contracts and his various product endorsements are withdrawn.  It is likely he will have to sell his harbourside mansion and move to the suburbs, where he will need to get an ordinary job.  Like Moses, he will become a nobody in a strange land.

The question is, what lessons will he learn in the wilderness?  Moses found a wise mentor in the Midianite priest, and eventually he encountered God himself and came to understand his mission more clearly.  He left a well-intentioned hot-head, he returned a wise, Spirit-filled leader.  We are told little of the process he went through to get to this point, but we know his time in the wilderness was essential for the success of his subsequent mission.

This is the case with so many prophets.  Elijah had to flee to the desert to escape Ahab, and to suffer through drought and famine.  Jonah had to get thrown into the sea and be swallowed by a giant fish.  Jesus had to fast for forty days and forty nights, after which he had to face the Devil himself.  Muhammad and his followers had to go into exile in Medina before they could triumph in Mecca.  This testing was essential to strengthen them for what was to come.  John of the Cross tells us we must pass through our Dark Night of the Soul before we can emerge into the light of God.

Warner will have to discover this for himself in the twelve months or longer he will spend in exile.  Right now all he will be feeling is bitter grief and regret, but life must go on.  When one pathway is blocked our eyes can be opened to many more we never knew existed.  What is important is that he doesn't shirk the challenge.  It would be easy for his life to spiral downwards from this point, in which case he would be of no use to anyone, even himself.

What will emerge in the fourth stage of David Warner's life?  No-one knows.  Warner himself doesn't know yet.  It could be that he will return to the top of the cricket world a chastened, more mature person and become the type of leader and role model who does genuine good in the world.  It could be that he and his young family will do something completely different, away from the spotlight.  Perhaps he will even become The Reverend in earnest.  Whatever the outcome, I wish him well, and trust he will learn, grow and prosper.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Low Carbon and Loving It

There is one thing that keeps me awake at night - climate change.  I don't worry about it in the abstract, I worry very concretely that my two little grandsons will inherit a world that is hostile to human habitation.

I spend a day with my grandsons every week, and they are cheerful, innocent little people.  They enjoy life in the moment, trusting that the adults in their lives are caring for their needs.  But I think, perhaps we are not.  What if we are taking away the possibility for them to have peaceful, prosperous lives and storing up hardship and danger for them?

It keeps me awake at night.  Which is silly.  Not because the anxiety is irrational or unjustified - the science is quite clear, my worries are absolutely within the possible future consequences of our current behaviour.  It is silly because it achieves nothing.  My tossing in my bed does not save a single gram of emitted carbon, does not take a single micro-meter off the projected sea level rise.  I may as well sleep soundly, for all the difference it makes.  But what can I do that is more useful, more constructive?  I feel powerless in the face of the forces that drive us onward and the scale of the problem.

Mark and Tom Delaney have written a book on this very dilemma.  You can check it out here.  Don't expect me to be objective, they are my friends.  But I think it's a fantastic book, so let me tell you about it.

Mark and Tom are like me in a lot of ways.  They are both well-educated people, but neither is a climate scientist.  They are lay people who are deeply concerned about the future of the planet.  Mark is about my age and was once a lawyer.  His son Tom is in his early 20s and part way through a university degree.  Along with the other members of their family, they have spent most of the last two decades living in poor urban communities in India, with intermittent visits to Australia to reconnect with family and friends.

Their plan is to provide a simple introductory guide to climate change.  There is no technical language here, no complex statistical analysis, just plain English and straightforward concepts which non-scientists can understand.  Nonetheless, they are careful in providing references for each point and the end of each chapter has a 'Want to learn more?' section with references for further investigation. This is a book you could confidently give to, say, a teenager who wanted to understand climate change, but it's also useful for more mature people like me in the way it brings together a lot of different strands of information in a simple, accessible way.

The early chapters introduce the science of climate change.  They explain how the release of greenhouse gases warms the atmosphere, and how we know this is happening.  Along the way, they respond briefly to some of the common climate denial myths.  Take home message: climate change is definitely happening folks!

They then move on to summarise the consequences of climate change - in brief, rising temperatures, changed rainfall patterns leading to changes in agricultural productivity, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, species loss and the likelihood of greater social conflict and unrest brought on by large scale population displacement and food insecurity.  Take home message: it will not be pretty!

Up to this point, I was mostly reading things I already knew about, and it wasn't making me sleep any easier.  However, although they are uncompromising in their call for action they are much more focused on discussing solutions than alarming readers about the scale of the problem.  To introduce the type of solutions needed, they contrast the carbon output of a typical Australian with that of an Indian neighbour of theirs.  Overall, the average Australian produces 23 tonnes/year of carbon emissions, while one of their typical poor Indian neighbours produces just over two.  The sustainable level if we are to avoid catastrophic warming is between 2 and 3 tonnes per person, so as Australians (and rich people generally) we need to get closer to the Indian level than our own.  How is this possible?

They focus on two types of solutions - 'big picture' economy-wide responses which focus on the major sources of emissions; and 'small picture' personal changes which each of us can make.

At the big picture end, our emissions basically come from four sources - transport and travel, power generation, agriculture, and manufacturing and mining.  Hence we need policies and technologies which lower our emissions in all these areas.  In transport, we need to shift to more sustainable modes - walking, cycling and electric cars and trains rather than petrol cars, diesel trains and aeroplanes.  In power generation, we need to shift from fossil fuels to renewables, primarily solar, wind and hydro power.  In agriculture, we need to stop the process of land-clearing and shift away from methane-belching cattle.  In mining and manufacturing we need to improve technologies to reduce and contain emissions.  In most of these areas there are technological solutions available and in many cases - like power generation and transport - they are now at the point where they are affordable and scaleable.  However, we are adopting them slowly as a result of short-term politics, powerful vested interests and social inertia.

It's tempting to think that the problem can be solved with such technical fixes, and that we can leave it all up to the government and corporations without doing anything ourselves.  However there are two reasons why this won't do.  The first is that the technological changes will only come if politicians and corporations see it as in their immediate interests to make them - and this will only come from an engaged populace who show with their voices, votes and wallets that this is important.  Secondly, we shouldn't kid ourselves that we can get through the transition with our current lifestyles unchanged.  We are living unsustainably, and each of us needs to reduce our own impact on the planet.

These personal changes can be scary but it is largely fear of the unknown, a failure of imagination.  Mark and Tom already live a relatively low carbon life, both in India and in Australia, and as the book title suggests they find it more liberating than burdensome.  Hence the final chapters of the book outline practical things that ordinary people in the West can do to reduce our carbon consumption.  And indeed, there is so much that is easy and achievable - cycling or walking instead of driving, catching the train instead of flying, buying less stuff and using it until it wears out, eating less red meat, generating electricity on your roof.  You could be completely radical like them, living in a single room, not owning a car and not eating any animal products.  However, they don't recommend you try to start there if you are a typical high-carbon Aussie.  Take small, achievable steps and build up (or down) over time.

Where this book left me was with a sense of tentative hope.  We face a daunting task, and no matter what we do there will be climate change - it's only a question of how much.  There are powerful forces which want to keep things on their current mad trajectory.  Yet there are also solutions which can greatly improve our chances, if only we will use them.

Importantly for my own state of mind, this book provides an alternative to fruitless anxiety.  Instead of lying awake worrying about the state of the planet there is something concrete I can do.  I can lie awake, if I must, planning the public transport route to my meeting that week, or what else I can do to reduce power use around the house.

It's not world-changing stuff, but I shouldn't kid myself.  The world will not change much because of what I do.  It will change because of what we all do.  Low Carbon and Loving It provides a signpost towards what we should do together, and what each of us can do for ourselves, for each other and for our children and grandchildren.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Guns and All That

Another day, another US massacre by a problematic person with a licensed, high-powered firearm.  We have seen so many of them, and the aftermath is so tired and predictable, that they all become a blur.

Right now, in the wake of the Florida school shooting, there is a lot of hope. The survivors are young, intelligent upper middle class adults, and they are prepared to use the sudden media attention to push for change.  No politician, even Donald Trump, dare trample on their grief by dismissing them out of hand.  Perhaps they will succeed in making change.  Perhaps they won't.

As Australians we tend to feel a bit smug about this.  In 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre, the Howard government introduced tough new gun controls and there have been no mass shootings since.  Our crazy school attacks are carried out with knives, and no-one dies.  Then again, there were not many mass shootings in Australia before 1996 either, once Europeans stopped massacring our first peoples.  Conservative Americans look at our gun laws and think we are crazy. 'What, you mean you let your government disarm you, just because some fruitloop went mad and shot a bunch of tourists?'

Australia is different to the US in many ways, most of them superficial.  We are a little less individualistic.  We don't have a strong culture of gun ownership.  We didn't have a civil war where one half of the country imposed its will on the other half by force.  But we share a lot of common base assumptions which can help us understand the gun issue.

In other words, it's time for another World Diagram!

This one is modeled on the original World Diagram and its descendant, the diagram on Islamic terrorism.  This time it summarises the dimensions of the argument against gun law reform in the US, digging down from the overt politics to the underlying assumptions.  I would suggest that while the more overt layers of this - the top two segments of the pyramid - are distinctively American, the bottom two are commonly held across many societies, including our own.

Politics and Money
At the top level is the obvious play of political forces.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) is one of America's most powerful and cashed up lobby groups.  It donates a lot of money to political candidates, including Donald Trump, who switched views on gun control in order to court its funding and favour during the Presidential election.  It purports to speak on behalf of gun owners (and perhaps even does represent the views of many of them) but its money comes from the arms industry - gun manufacturers and dealers who stand to lose a lot of money if there are stricter gun laws.

This is politics as usual - the tobacco industry spruiking the benefits of smoking, the fossil fuel industry opposing climate change policy, the Business Council of Australia supporting company tax cuts, the development industry opposing housing affordability measures.  Wealthy lobby groups will always support their own self-interest.  The question is, why does the wider population buy it?  Why are many ordinary Americans so adamant that gun control is anti-democratic, in the face of repeated preventable atrocities?

What I think drives this agreement or acquiescence (depending on your viewpoint) is a robust level of individualism.  All Western cultures are individualistic to some extent, but the US represents the pinnacle.  Australians were so shocked at the Port Arthur massacre that there was very little resistance to Howard's tighter restrictions and a high level of compliance with requirements to surrender firearms.  People recognised a level of shared responsibility, and that agreeing to tighten gun controls would make others safer.

Many Americans I have discussed this issue with don't buy this.  They are equally shocked at the killings, but they don't take collective responsibility for them in the same way.  'I've always owned guns,' they say, 'and I've never killed anyone.  Why should I be punished for the crimes of some crazy/bad person?  Guns are not the problem here, crazy/bad people are.'  This is individualism talking.  Each of us is responsible for our own actions, we need not take responsibility for the actions of others.

Now of course I disagree with this.  I agree that my debate partner is not a murderer, but easy availability of guns, and a huge surplus of them circulating in the community, enables those who want to kill to do so on a large scale.  This is not 'punishment' of innocent people - it is people of good will making some compromises to fix a collective problem.  But then I would say that, I'm both an Australian and one of those lefties.

Goodies and Baddies
Supporting this individualised approach to responsibility is a very black and white approach to people.  The world is divided into good people (like us) and criminals (them).  Criminals will get guns whatever the law says because they have no respect for the law.  It's fine for good people to have guns because they won't use them to harm others.  In fact, since criminals will have them anyway, it's better for good people to have them to protect themselves and others.  Hence the suggestion, recently taken up by President Trump, for teachers to go to school armed to prevent further shootings.

My four-year-old grandson views the world in these terms.  In his imagination, the goodies (generally the police) deal with the baddies by biffing them with cricket bats and locking them up.  He, of course, is or will become a police.

This is fine when you are four, but adults inhabit a far murkier world.  It is not always easy to tell goodies from baddies.  The Las Vegas shooter had no criminal history to speak of.   A seemingly nice quiet family man or a sweet gentle kid can rapidly turn into a psychotic mass murderer.  All of us, in moments of anger or grief, can do things we regret later.

And then, of course, the good can be simply incompetent.  If his story is to be believed (which by the way the police did not), Oscar Pistorius thought he was shooting at an intruder when he shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.  Adam Lanza, who shot and killed 26 people (including 20 children) at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, did not own a gun.  The guns he used were owned by his mother, who was apparently a good person.  She was his first victim.  If she had not owned guns, or had stored them safely, she and 25 other people would still be alive.

Even the police, surely the goodies if my grandson is to be believed, frequently shoot and kill innocent people by mistake.  And they are trained for the job.  Imagine what armed teachers might do.  Especially on a rainy Friday afternoon the week after the teacher has discovered his or her partner is having an affair.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence
Beneath these considerations is a phenomenon deeply embedded in most human cultures - what Walter Wink describes as the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  According to him, this myth 'enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right.  It is one of the oldest continuously repeated stories in the world.'  The world is full of evil and chaos, we are told, and this can only be restrained by good people (us) using force to control and repress it.

This myth informs so much of our approach to order and security, from 'tough on crime' policies and the criminalisation of drug use, to our approach to terrorism at home and abroad, all the way up to the idea of nuclear deterrence (if we don't have nukes, our evil enemies will get them and use them against us).  It also informs much of the debate around gun ownership.  'If I give up my guns,' the argument runs, 'I will be prey to all those evil people who also have guns.  How then can I defend myself against the chaos that will result?'

The problem with this myth is that it is untrue.  If we attempt to use violence to restrain violence we end up mirroring the very thing we fear.  Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte attempts to eliminate the drug trade by allowing the summary execution of suspected drug dealers - exactly the behaviour he deplores in the criminal gangs who run this trade.  In our efforts to eliminate terrorist organisations in the Middle East we bomb innocent civilians including children - the very thing we fear and are trying to prevent.

Part of the reason we do this is that we can't imagine a world run any other way.  We have been blinded by the myth.  Yet this is precisely the type of world the prophets of Israel encouraged us to imagine.  The prophet Micah provides a good example.

Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between many peoples
    and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.
Everyone will sit under their own vine
    and under their own fig tree,
and no one will make them afraid,
    for the Lord Almighty has spoken.

Micah urges us to believe that a better future, a future without fear and violence, is possible.  Jesus urges us to make a start right now.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat (or your under-garment) as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 

Wink makes it clear that Jesus is not advocating passive acquiescence to evil. He is not suggesting we lay down and let our oppressors roll over us. Instead he is asking us to resist our enemies while loving them, to stand up to them and shame them without becoming like them. He is calling us to a better way.


As long as we are trapped in the cycle of individualism, simplistic morality and redemptive violence we will struggle to make meaningful change. We may improve things at the margins. We may reduce the number or power of the guns in our community, and that will make us a little safer. But we will not learn to resolve conflicts peacefully or to build true redemption and reconciliation until we learn the skills to love our enemies not only in theory, but in the practical ways we interact with them.

This is just as true in Australia as in the US or anywhere in the world. We may be a little better in some respects, but we share the same fundamental problems and are addicted to the same non-solutions. We keep doing more of the same, hoping for a different result. We need to fundamentally change the game.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Jimmy Barnes

Jimmy Barnes won't need any introduction to my Australian readers.  He's been in our ears since the early 1980s, first as lead singer of Cold Chisel and later as a solo rocker.  He has played big stadiums, he performed to an audience of billions at the Sydney 2000 Olympic closing ceremony, and his voice is never far from our radios.

He's not everyone's cup of tea.  Often he's not mine.  He tends to scream rather than sing.  Yet I also have a sneaking admiration for him, like a kind of dirty musical secret hidden amidst my supposedly more cerebral tastes.  When he has great songs to sing, for instance those written by Don Walker for Cold Chisel, or singing Andy Durant's 'Last of the Riverboats', he can pull back the intensity and deliver as well as any singer in the country.

Lately his musical output has dropped off, and instead he has written and published two volumes of his memoirs - Working Class Boy, which tells the story of his childhood, and Working Class Man which covers his adult years.  It is a difficult read, not because he writes badly but because the story is so confronting.

Jimmy was born James Swan in 1956, in a poor suburb of Glasgow, son of Jim and Dorothy Swan and one of six siblings.  In 1962 his parents decided to leave their problems behind and emigrated to Australia, ending up in a Housing Trust home in Elizabeth on the outskirts of Adelaide.  Unfortunately, although they left Glasgow behind they couldn't leave themselves.  Jim Swan was an alcoholic and bar-room brawler, and Dorothy, already traumatised by a difficult childhood, had to choose whether to fight back or run.

Initially she fought.  Their home descended into choas, with many nights starting out with the parents yelling at each other and ending with Dorothy bruised and bloodied while the children cowered in a dark wardrobe.  In between, their home became party central with drunken, drug-fuelled orgies in which various of the children were sexually abused.

Eventually Dorothy realised that it was leave or die, but this didn't help the children because she left without them.  Their father, always largely absent, gave up completely.  He travelled between work and the pub and only came home to collapse in a drunken stupor.  The oldest sister, barely into her teens, was left to try and keep the others alive as best she could.  While her father slept she would go through his pockets for any loose change and then buy whatever she could afford.  Perhaps some potatoes or bread which she would stretch out for as long as she could until next pay day brought more loose change.  To supplement this meagre offering Jimmy would hang around friends' houses at dinner time hoping to be invited to stay, or failing that would shoplift.

This is all bad enough, but it could have ended up so much worse.  Apparently the South Australian child welfare department paid Dorothy a visit and told her that if she couldn't provide a safe home for her children they would have to step in.  There was no sole parents benefit in those days and women were paid less than men.  How could she possibly provide a home for six children on her own?  She was sitting crying in the kitchen when Reg Barnes popped in for a visit.  The two weren't an item, just friends, but of course he asked her what was wrong and when she explained he offered to marry her and help care for the kids.

Perhaps Reg was a saint.  Jimmy thinks he had been planning to enter the priesthood.  In any case, for the first time in his life Jimmy had a safe home.  Reg took the kids fishing and to the movies, supported them through school, did his level best to make up for the father they never had and the mother who was only partly there for them.  Nothing shows the value of this more clearly than the fact that Jimmy uses his surname to this day.

Not a stable home, necessarily.  Reg did his best, but both mother and children were highly traumatised.  The older kids were rebels, with big brother John (now in his early teens) devoted to his father and resentful of Reg.  Dorothy herself was assailed by periodic anxiety which led her to shift the family from place to place with Reg tagging stoically along.  They ended up back in Elizabeth and Jimmy and John ended up as street hoodlums, drinking and fighting the evenings away in their respective gangs.

As I say, not for the faint-hearted.  Working Class Boy ends with a kind of transition to adulthood.  Jimmy joined Cold Chisel and the band decamped to Armidale so pianist Don Walker could finish his science degree.

But really, this is an illusion.  Jimmy didn't grow up, he just got older.  As you read through the second volume, Working Class Man, you see that his adult life is just an extension of that wild youth in Elizabeth.  He travels around the country, and around the world, like an out-of-control 15 year old, mixing alcohol with speed and cocaine so that he can be both blind drunk and super-hyped at the same time.  He fights with everyone, sleeps with nearly everyone and generally sabotages his own life and the lives of those around him.

It wasn't until 2003 that he finally started to get serious about growing up, and it wasn't easy or quick.  He went to a rehab centre in the Nevada desert where he dried out and took part in programs.  But when they gently suggested he attend a trauma group he reacted angrily, at first refusing and then, when he did attend, sabotaging the group with a violent outburst before it was his turn to talk.  No trauma here, he was screaming to himself.  So although he managed to get clean and spent a number of years largely drug-free, the underlying issues went unaddressed.

Of course there were advantages to not taking drugs.  Apart from the money it saved and the fact that it was possible for others to live with him, he found to his surprise that you can sing a whole let better when your nose isn't stuffed full of cocaine.  It also meant that when he was diagnosed with a serious heart problem in 2007 he didn't die.  The downside was that he had to face himself sober, and he didn't like what he saw.  The trauma of his childhood was compounded by hundreds of hurts he had caused his friends, his family and himself.  He gradually started using again and before long he was as bad as ever.  It was only when he tried to hang himself in a hotel room in 2011 that he finally realised that he had to change or die.  The memoirs are the result, his way of finally facing his past.

Why is Jimmy still alive, and why is he a celebrity and Aussie icon, not in jail?  There must be a certain amount of good genes and plain good luck, but along with the trauma and dysfunction he also had some things going for him.  First of all he had people who loved him - two in particular.  His step-father Reg, and his wife Jane.

He married Jane in the 1980s and they are still together.  God knows why she stayed.  Jimmy doesn't tell us - perhaps one day she'll write her own book.  It's tempting to think that like Reg she must be a saint, but such details as Jimmy tells us suggest that she was also a co-addict, doing her best to keep up with him when she joined him on the road and preceding him into the Nevada clinic by a month or so.  Nonetheless, she is still there, still watching his back, still encouraging him to be a better person.

Then through his story you see that along with the anger and destructiveness there is a strong base of love for others.  You see it in his relationship with Cold Chisel, which despite some rocky times is still going strong - he refers to them as his first family.  Even more so, you see it in his tenacious love for his children.  Although he reprised his father's addictions he seems to have avoided the child abuse.  He has four children with Jane, and three others from teenage liaisons.  Many of them are musicians and they often play in his concerts.  The most famous, of course, is the singer David Campbell, the product of a relationship between Jimmy and a young Elizabeth girl when they were both 16.

There was no way that Jimmy or his girlfriend could parent a child, and David was adopted by his maternal grandparents on condition that his paternity be kept secret.  Despite this attempt to freeze him out Jimmy stuck with the relationship, turning up to visit a baffled David (who was told he was a 'friend of the family') whenever he was in Adelaide.  When he married Jane she was adamant - a son needs his father, Jimmy should not give up.  The result, of course, was not easy - who wants an addict for a father? - but the two have grown closer over the years.  Jimmy also speaks proudly of the other two daughters he has discovered (or who have discovered him) in recent years.

Finally, of course, Jimmy had a gift to give the world.  Along with his destructive addictions, he also developed an addiction to work.  He has a clear, simple vision of the music he wants to share with the world (music designed to be so loud it pins people to the back wall of the venue) and he has produced it time and again.  It's not subtle or philosophical but it is about love and hardship, about the life on the edge that he has lived himself for so long.  His fans love it and even people like me can respect it.

We all need someone to love us, and someone to love.  We all need something worthwhile to do with our lives.  Jimmy Barnes story tells us that if we have those things, we are a chance of getting through even the toughest times.  Of course it would be better if we didn't have to have the tough times to begin with.  No-one would choose to grow up with an abusive alcoholic.  But flowers can grow in the poorest soil with water and fertilizer.

As I say, I don't love everything Jimmy does but here's one I love.  It's called Largs Pier Hotel, a tribute to the tough Adelaide pub where Cold Chisel played some of their earliest gigs.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Healing the Heart of Democracy

Thanks to my friend Tricia, I've been reading a great book by Parker J Palmer called Healing the Heart of Democracy: The courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit.  Although this is a book about the US, it has a lot to say to Australians and others in democratic societies.  He writes simply and elegantly so that you think what he is saying must be obvious, but he covers territory that is not often discussed in 'political' books and debates.

Palmer is an American Quaker activist, now in his late 70s.  This book, published in 2011, arose out of what he describes as a 'season of heartbreak - personal and political heartbreak - that soon descended into a dark night of the soul'.  This arose partly out of his awareness of his personal mortality on turning 65, and partly from feeling increasingly out of step with wider American culture.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had deepened America's appreciation of democracy and activated demons that threaten it, demons still at large today.  Wounded and overwhelmed by fear, we soon went to war with a country that had no direct connection to the attacks.  Many Americans seemed willing to abandon their constitutional rights along with our international treaty obligations.  Some Americans, including elected officials, were quick to accuse protesters and dissenters of being unpatriotic or worse, fragmenting the civic community on which democracy depends.

His perception of this peril led first to his own heartbreak and then, as he emerged from this, the writing of Healing the Heart of Democracy.  This book is his own prescription not so much for his own heartbreak as for addressing a heartbroken society, a community in which democracy is at risk.

At the core of the book is the notion that democracy is not simply a matter of the institutions and structures of government.  It depends fundamentally on its citizens being prepared to make it work.  It does not, however, depend on us all agreeing, unless it is to agree to keep talking.  In any functioning democracy there will be diversity - not only ethnic and religious diversity but diversity of political views and priorities.

The survival of democracy does not depend on us being able to resolve these tensions - resolving them can often be the death of democracy as dissent is suppressed - but of living with them and managing them.  This can be frustrating because questions ultimately remain open which many of us think should be closed.  The fact that we have regular elections can mean that policies see-saw from term to term.  In addition, the separation of powers in democracy can mean the parliament can thwart the executive, the judiciary can thwart the elected government and so forth.  Tension is built into the system.

For this to work, it is not enough for politicians and parties to do their thing.  Ordinary citizens need to engage.  Palmer says, 'I believe in democracy as long as we understand that it is not something we have but something we do.'  This is where it gets complex, because we are complex beings.  He uses the term 'heart' as shorthand for this complexity, not to just denote our emotions but our whole being - emotions, experiences, beliefs, attitudes and relationships.

I believe in the power of the human heart to do evil as well as good.  The heart leads some to become terrorists and others to serve the hungry and the homeless.  The heart leads some to blow up federal buildings in order to 'bring down the government' and others to see that we are the government and must work together to fulfil democracy's promise.  The heart is a complex force field, no less complex than democracy itself, maelstrom of conflicted powers that we ignore, sentimentalise or dismiss at our peril.

Given this complexity, how do we navigate the territory of the heart to bring what Abraham Lincoln calls 'the better angels of our nature' into play?  Palmer suggests that in our public lives as in our private lives, heartbreak is an inevitable reality.  Just as in our private lives we suffer setbacks and losses, so in our public lives we suffer disappointments - projects we back wholeheartedly come to nothing, policies we regard as inhumane are enacted, our social identities are threatened.  The question is, how will we respond when this happens?

He suggests that a brittle heart, one that has not been exercised, may well shatter and not be able to be re-built.  Such a person will become angry or withdrawn.  On the other hand a heart that has been exercised and exposed to the rigors of democracy will be supple and instead be broken open, able to learn, grow and take on new challenges.

So how can our hearts be exercised in this way?  He discusses a number of practical ways which involve different types and levels of engagement.

The first is in the public sphere, where we encounter members of the community who may differ from us in many respects but who live in the same community.  We meet people in all sorts of contexts - in shops, parks and libraries, in our workplaces, on public transport and so forth.  As our society privatises, the number of public opportunities for engagement reduces.  We buy our books online instead of at the bookshop, our public high streets are replaced by private shopping malls, cinemas and theatres are replaced by TVs and home theatre systems.  It is important, in this context, that we make the most of what we have left so that we don't confine ourselves to circles of people like ourselves.  In public we need to be able engage with those with whom we disagree, often fiercely, and find what unites us as well as what divides us, refusing to be driven into competing corners of mutual incomprehension and loathing.

Second, he talks about our key places of learning - our classrooms and our congregations (given how many Americans practice some sort of faith).  In classrooms, he sees it as important not to simply teach students some facts about how we are governed.  Too often students are given information about democracy but forced to operate within an authoritarian structure.  For schools to help in fostering the development of citizens, students need to be supported to think through their own response to important issues and be given opportunity to participate in meaningful decision-making.

In congregations, we are all aware of the potential of religion to breed bigotry and even violence.  For Parker (and for me) these are distortions of religion.  He quotes Anne Lamott: 'You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do'.  On the contrary, for Palmer the heart of religion is compassion, defined by the imperative to treat others as we would like to be treated.  Often churches can be about producing and enforcing conformity, the preacher up front telling us how to think and behave and the congregation passively accepting it.  This may lead is to think that everyone in our congregations is the same, but Palmer suggests this is an illusion.

What I know about the low level of trust in some Protestant churches is helpful when clergy ask me to help their 'homogenous white congregations' embrace more of the diversity that characterises our society....  My response to the requests I get to help such congregations 'diversify' is simple: 'There is no such thing as a "homogenous white congregation"'.  There are only groups of white people pretending that they have no critical differences among themselves for fear that their 'community' would crumble if they opened their lives to one another.

He shares a number of processes based on his experience as a Quaker which can help churches to build more trust and engagement and learn the habits of the heart that build compassion for those who are different to us.

The final sphere for building the habits of the heart that make for functioning democracy is what he calls 'safe spaces'.  These are deliberately created settings in which people are free to express their longings and dilemmas in the knowledge that they will not be criticised and that what they reveal will remain confidential.  These can take the form of Circles of Trust, retreats, public narrative processes and a number of others, each with their specific rules and techniques which have been developed by organisers and activists over the years.

In his final chapter, he pulls these threads together by discussing what he calls 'the unwritten history of the heart'.  History tells us about externals - who did what when.  What it cannot get access to is the inner dynamics which lead to these events.  How do the imperatives of the heart translate into social change?  He suggests there is a disconnect between our national myths and the realities of life in our community.  This disconnect is most strongly felt by those at the bottom of our society - the myth of equality is at odds with the experience of the poorest, the myth of non-discrimination is at odds with the experience of racial minorities, the myth of gender equality is at odds with the experience of women, and so forth.

Movements of social transformation are sparked by people who are isolated, marginalised and oppressed but who do not fall into despair.  Instead, they respond to their condition by taking the poet Rilke's advice that we go inward and 'do the heart-work / on all the images imprisoned within' us.  Having released those images, they return to the world of action resolved to live in a way that will help it become a place in which their humanity is honoured.  Under the right conditions, their witness can tap a collective yearning that contains enough energy to move the world closer to the heart's aspirations.

As an example he cites Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who, in 1955, refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger.  This action sparked nation-wide protests which kicked off the American civil rights movement.  While her action was, in a sense, spontaneous - she did not get on the bus that day intending to act as she did - it grew out of her participation, along with many others, in discussion groups where African-American community leaders examined their social situation and talked about how to change it, preparing the ground for both Parks' action and the movement that grew out of it.

Parker charts four stages involved in such movements.  The first is as described above - the realisation by marginalised people of their own situation.  The second is the formation of what he calls 'communities of congruence' - groups of people who experience the same thing and discuss how to change it.  This is what energises people to act, knowing that they have one another's support.  The third stage involves 'going public' - the members of the movement making their claims in the wider social and political sphere.  If a movement does not go public, it becomes a conspiracy and risks becoming exclusive and authoritarian.  By going public it both invites critique, with the potential for further learning and testing of its message, and invites more support which can build the power of the movement.  In the fourth stage the movement there are signs of success - both external 'wins' (however small) and internal confirmation for its participants that they have made the right choice.

I can't think of a better way to finish this review than to quote Palmer's own closing words.

Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives.  We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light.  We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace and justice for everyone.  Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys.  It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Fatal Shore and Alexander Maconochie

It is now thirty years since Robert Hughes published his brilliant history of Australia's convict period, The Fatal Shore.  The fact that it is still in print shows just how compelling it is.

Years ago I bought a battered copy at a Lifeline book sale.  I put it on my shelf, and there it stayed until a couple of months ago when I took it with me on a holiday to Tasmania.

Hughes tells the story of the Australian convict system from the first planning to the end of transportation nearly a century later.  He alternates between official records and the individual experiences recorded in letters, memoirs and case notes.  The result is a vivid portrayal of colonial life.  If you haven't read it, please do!  Let me just give you a little taste of its riches.

Although Hughes doesn't ignore the tragedy of Aboriginal Australia during these years, this is very much a British story.  Britain in the late 18th and early 19th century was a troubled society.  The Industrial Revolution had led to rapid urbanisation, while economic downturns and the Napoleonic Wars led to huge rates of poverty and destitution.  Crime was the inevitable result.

However, the British ruling class did not make the obvious connection between poverty and crime.  Instead, they saw crime as very much an individual problem.  Criminals were morally defective, and Britain's poor communities were infested by a 'criminal class' who needed to be dealt with firmly.  Harsh punishment, including execution and exile, was necessary both to remove the criminals from society and deter others from taking the same path.

The working classes did not necessarily agree.  The list of capital crimes was long - you could be hanged for crimes that included forgery, petty theft, cutting down an ornamental shrub, appearing on a high road with a blacked face or impersonating a gypsy.  Hence hanging, seen as a firm deterrent by the rulers, was a subject of wry humour and pathos in folk culture.  English slang was full of euphemisms for hanging, folk songs featured brave men and women going to their deaths at Tyburn, and the hangings themselves, a popular form of entertainment, were often occasions for the condemned to perform for the crowd and thumb their noses at the law.

In practice, more than half of those sentenced to hang never made it to the gallows.  Instead, their crimes would be commuted to long periods of imprisonment.  Britain's jails were full to bursting.  Many prisoners were confined for years on rotting ships in terrible, squalid conditions, becoming more and more crowded as prisoners kept pouring in but none left.

Transportation provided a safety valve for this overloaded system.  At first prisoners were sent to North America, but the revolution there sent Britain scurrying for an alternative.  Sydney ended up as the winner, for reasons that are somewhat confusing.  There was much official discussion about securing a base in the Pacific to protect Britain's access to sea lanes, but Sydney was useless for that purpose.  It seems that they simply chose to send convicts to a place guaranteed to be isolated and inhospitable.

In the beginning New South Wales certainly worked as a place of terror.  If prisoners survived the voyage (far from guaranteed) they would arrive ill and dispirited to a tiny community where food often ran short, punishments were brutal and the only chance of escape was to run off and starve in the bush.  Yet by the 1820s things were not always so terrible - the voyage was still risky, although far less so, and the initial imprisonment and work on the chain gang still harsh, but there was also a growing agricultural industry fuelled by free settlers, and the towns were starting to become hubs of commerce.

There was a huge demand for labour and convicts were assigned to free settlers as unpaid labourers.  A cruel master could be worse than prison, but if you got lucky you could have a decent life.  Then once you had your ticket of leave wages were high, especially if you were literate or had a trade.  For many of the English and Irish urban poor who had been exported from the slums this was paradise.  Reports from released prisoners worried the colonial authorities who saw their deterrent slipping away.  New terror needed to be injected into the system before poor urbanites started to commit crimes just to get free passage to this land of milk and honey.  So new colonies were created.  There was Part Macquarie, Moreton Bay (now my home town of Brisbane) but the most terrible of all was Norfolk Island.

This little dot of earth in the Pacific, 1000 km from Australia's east coast, is not a terrible place in itself.  Captain Cook sailed past it without going ashore and painted it as a naval gold mine, with tall straight pine trees that would serve as ship's masts and naturally growing flax for sail-making.  It was the next place to be settled after Sydney, but like so many other glowing reports Cook's assessment turned out to be an illusion.  The timber of the Norfolk Island Pine is too brittle for ship-building and flax requires skilled weavers.  To complete the disappointment the island turned out to be infested by rats which eagerly ate any crops the settlers tried to grow.  Before long the settlement was abandoned.

A perfect place, then, to punish those who had committed fresh offences in the colony.  No-one would escape because there was nowhere to go.  There would be no urban luxury, no free settlers to be assigned to.  There would only be prisoners and jailers, labour on behalf of the government and never-ending punishment.  It was also a place guaranteed to bring out any sadism, latent or open, in its commandants and officers.  The list of its commandants is a catalogue of psychopaths.  Its first ruler on resettlement in the late 1820s was Lieutenant-Colonel James Morriset, a veteran soldier whose face had been disfigured by a shell in the Napoleonic War and whose mind turned out to be as twisted as his face.  It's last, John Price, was so wantonly cruel that his behaviour sparked the final closure of the settlement, and he entered the Australian literary canon as the sadistic, duplicitous Maurice Frere in Marcus Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life.  Those in between were no better.

Prisoners could receive 100 lashes or more for crimes such as 'smiling while on the chain', 'singing a song', 'insolence to a soldier' or 'neglect of work'.  The island had its own specially reinforced whips because of the heavy use to which they were put, the prisoners taken down from the triangle with their backs flayed to the bone and streaming with blood.  As if this were not enough they could be subjected to a range of medieval tortures - labouring in heavy irons, weeks of sensory deprivation in an underground cell, months of solitary confinement, chaining to the wall, gagging with an iron bit.

The aim was to break their spirit and it worked.  Prisoners would put their own eyes out to escape hard labour.  Afraid of eternal damnation if they committed suicide, some of them entered into murder pacts - a group of half a dozen prisoners would draw straws, with the one drawing the short straw murdered by the others.  Since there was no judge on Norfolk Island, the perpetrators would be sent on the next ship to Sydney along with any witnesses, where they would be hung if they could not escape first.  Others sank into despair, made bargains with the devil or persisted in their truculence and dared their jailers to flog them more.

Yet in the midst of this cruelty and suffering there was one remarkable exception - Captain Alexander Maconochie, a Scottish officer who served as Commandant between 1840 and 1843.  Maconochie had arrived in the colony as private secretary to Sir James Franklin, the famed Arctic explorer who replaced George Arthur as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land.  He developed a passion for prison reform and proposed a radical new system.  In place of punishment, he aimed to reform.  To do this he proposed what he called the Mark System.  Instead of sentences being defined by the passing of time they should be defined by the earning of a fixed number of 'marks'.  These could be earned in a variety of ways - good behaviour, hard work in their prison labour, gaining new skills or education.  While earning these marks, prisoners should be treated with mercy and fairness, and once the marks were earned their sentence would be over.

Maconochie was permitted to trial this system on Norfolk Island.  It is hard to imagine a more difficult environment for an experiment in prison reform, but he was not given a second option.  Possibly his master Governor Gipps and his colonial overlords feared a backlash from the colonial aristocracy if they tried it on the mainland.  Norfolk, at least, was a place no-one really knew or cared about.

Maconochie's optimism about the possibilities of his system must have seemed almost delusional but his zeal and, it has to be said, arrogance had a way of sweeping problems aside.  He was under strict instructions to confine his experiment to new arrivals, keeping the existing system in place for the 1200 'old hands', but as soon as he arrived he extended the system to everyone on the island.  His first act was to declare a public holiday for all prisoners in honour of Queen Victoria's birthday which fell just five days after his arrival.  The occasion was marked by all hands being given a tot of rum, excused from work and treated to plays, concerts and other forms of entertainment

For the prisoners, what followed was a glorious relief.  The whips were destroyed, prisoners were unchained and released from solitary.  Instead they were introduced to a system of promises and rewards - extra freedoms and privileges, meaningful work and, at the end, the opportunity for freedom.  Maconochie built up a library for the use of prisoners which included the works of Shakespeare, which he encouraged the prisoners to perform.  He spent money on musical instruments and formed bands and choirs.  He erected headstones for those who passed away and allowed proper funerals and memorials.

The results were remarkable.  The prisoners embraced the system enthusiastically.  The prisoner memoirs and letters that survive refer to him as an angel, a deliverer.  Ill discipline, crime, assaults and insubordination dropped dramatically.  Productivity improved, the lash turned out to be unnecessary, punishment cells sat empty.  Maconochie was generous in distributing praise and 'marks' and before too long many had qualified for their ticket of leave.  Sadly, Maconochie's remit didn't extend to the mainland, so they only gained the freedom of the island but even this was better than chains and the lash.

One celebrated case was that of Charles Anderson, a former naval seaman who suffered brain damage while on active service and under stress became uncontrollably violent.  Anderson ended up on Norfolk Island after a long history of counter-productive punishments which included two years chained to a rock on Goat Island in Sydney Harbour.  He was 24 when Maconochie arrived on Norfolk Island but already looked old and was subject to relentless bullying by prisoners and jailers alike, treated as and acting like a wild animal.  Maconochie started out by putting him in charge of a herd of half-wild bullocks and permitting him to sleep in the field with them rather than return to the jail and further bullying.  When he did the job well Maconochie praised him and promoted him to the management of  remote signal station where he lived cheerfully and productively.  When Gipps finally visited the island in 1843 he could hardly believe the change in the 'wild man of Goat Island'.

Gipps almost immediately regretted his support for Maconochie, repeatedly ordering him to separate the new prisoners from the old, to be stricter, to punish more, to be more stingy with his rewards.  Maconochie responded with long, sanctimonious memos on the benefits of his system and urgings for Gipps to approve the actions he had already taken, send him more equipment and so forth.  Gipps forwarded these to his masters in England with notes expressing his own doubts about the possibility of success, and was variously given leave to remove Maconochie if he wanted (he didn't) and instructions to limit or modify his system.  Maconochie zealously ignored any orders he didn't like, writing even longer memos explaining why they needed to be rescinded.  He was three weeks journey from Sydney and in practice he could do whatever he pleased.  His psychopathic predecessors and successors would simply lie about their abuses, but Maconochie did not have that skill and his guilelessness surely hastened his downfall.

Finally, after three years of doubts and misgivings, Gipps decided to see for himself.  In March 1843 he turned up at the island unannounced, fully prepared to sack Maconochie on the spot.  Instead, he discovered that his own criticisms and those of the commandant's detractors were unfounded.  The system wasn't perfect, but it was working.  He changed his tune, writing to the colonial office that he believed the experiment should be continued after all, but he was too late.  As the letter expressing his change of heart sailed north, the one ending Maconochie's tenure was already sailing south.  At least his tickets of leave were ratified and those he had freed were allowed to move to the mainland, but for the next 20 years the island returned to its state of ever-increasing cruelty.

In the end, Maconochie's system was not abandoned because it didn't work, but because it worked too well.  It set out to improve the prisoners' lot and turn them from criminals to citizens.  Yet the English aristocracy and their pale imitators in New South Wales didn't give a fig for the prisoners.  What they cared about was the effectiveness of the deterrent.  The worse the stories filtering back from this hell on earth, the stronger the deterrent.  The prisoners themselves were merely pawns in this big game of crime and punishment, their lives a necessary sacrifice to a greater good.


It's strange how little some things change.  Maconochie was so far ahead of his time that his contemporaries could barely understand him.  These days, many of his ideas are standard practice in prison management - a prison library, bands and theatre troupes (even, here in Queensland, one that specialises in teaching prisoners to act Shakespeare), opportunities for education and trade training, a graduation to full integration back into the community.  Maconochie would have felt much more at home in a 21st century prison than in a 19th century one.

Yet when it comes down to it, we are still willing to send people into exile on distant islands in an attempt to send a message to the wider world.  They are not subject to the lash or the gag bit, but their torment is nonetheless real.  They find themselves branded as the worst of the worst and subjected to inhumanity, and then we are asked to be shocked when they resist.  Many consider ending their lives as a better option than their indefinite detention. They may, perhaps, gain some limited freedom on the tiny island to which they have been banished, but they will not be permitted a normal life despite the fact that they deserve it and it is essential to their wellbeing.  Their wellbeing is not the point. 

We are in urgent need of a reformer like Alexander Maconochie, someone with the courage and pig-headedness to brush aside opposition and do what they know is right.  He points us to our better selves, to the possibilities of mercy and generosity in the midst of fear and cruelty.  He says it can be done, but he is long gone.  Now it is up to us.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Being Out of Step

In the wake of the marriage survey and parliamentary vote with its 'freedom of religion' shenanigans, it has become a bit of a thing for Christians to talk about how out of step our society is with the Christian faith.  Conservative Christians are now battening down the hatches in readiness for attacks on their religious freedom, which may possibly take the form of being forced to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

Of course the Christian faith itself is a diverse thing.  I can hardly speak for the Christian faith as a whole.  All I can do is tell you what I think it means.  Still, there are plenty of Christians who, like me, think opposition to same sex marriage was a mistake.  Even some who were uncomfortable with same sex marriage were not fans of the Coalition for Marriage's homophobic TV campaign.

Still, I think there is something in the idea that both our society, and much of the church, is out of step with a Christian view of what society ought to be - the Kingdom of God, if you like.  I just don't think the legalisation of same sex marriage is the thing that shows it.  In fact, our focus on this issue is one of the things that shows how out of step we are.  Here are some reasons I think our society, and much of the church, is out of step with the Kingdom of God.

1. We fete the rich and neglect the poor
In Luke's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus talks clearly about the poor and the rich.

Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied....

But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.

Jesus is reflecting the teaching of the Hebrew prophets.  Isaiah 5 says:

Woe to you who add house to house
    and join field to field
till no space is left
    and you live alone in the land.

The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:

“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
    the fine mansions left without occupants."

I could go on to quote many other passages but the point is this - God's desire for his people is that we act justly, that we refrain from amassing riches and instead show generosity to the poor.  The Kingdom of God is not for the rich, it is for the poor, and if you want to join it you have to be on their side.

Yet our society is firmly committed to the rich.  The accumulation of wealth is seen as a virtue, rich people have inside access to the corridors of power, we cut taxes for the rich and try to pay for it by cutting support for the poor.  The Game of Mates ensures public resources are funnelled into the hands of wealthy private interests.   We tolerate entrenched homelessness and demonise desperate refugees, imprisoning them indefinitely to signal clearly to the wider world that we are not a compassionate nation. Meanwhile, a billion people around the world live on less than a dollar a day and we cut overseas aid.

Now, there are many in the wealthy Western church who are generous and who share their wealth and work for justice.  Yet there is a lot of truth in the famous quote from American preacher Tony Campolo.

I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

As Christians, we are too often complicit in our society's glorification of wealth and its neglect of the poor.  So often, missionaries who work to relieve poverty are treated with suspicion because they are not focused on conversion, and we support charities which make us feel good not those which actually address poverty and injustice.  If our society is out of step with God, the church is often more in step with society.

2. We make war, not peace
In Matthew's version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says,

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

Later on in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about this in more detail.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace, but our society is increasingly turning to war.  In recent years, our governments have decided to increase our spending on arms and armies, and to send our troops to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.  How have we paid for this increase?  In addition to cutting programs for the poor here at home, we have slashed our overseas aid programs - the very types of programs that build positive, peaceful relations between nations.

Yet this has not made us safer.  Despite the recently trumpeted defeat of Islamic State in Iraq, and the billions spent on armaments, our terrorist threat level remains high as the anger of Muslims around the world grows.  We find ourselves in a classic spiral of violence, our armed interventions drawing retaliation which lead to us tooling up further.

Many in the church are complicit with this cycle of violence.  Our churches, as much as anywhere else, preach a suspicion towards Islam which builds support for wars overseas and suspicion at home.  We are silent on the suffering in the Middle East and other war zones.  We feel, perhaps, that it is not our business, but peacemaking is the job of the sons of God.

3. We exploit the earth instead of caring for it
In the account of creation in Genesis 1, God makes humans to rule over the earth.

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

In the second version of the story, in Genesis 2, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

With great power, as they say, comes great responsibility.  We have been given the ability to control the earth, but also the responsibility to tend it and take care of it.

If you read the Hebrew prophets, as Jesus did, you see that fertility, a stable and helpful climate, orderly seasons and lush fields are signs of God's favour.  On the other hand, drought and desolation, plagues and crop failures are signs of God's disapproval.

So how are we going with our great responsibility?  Our power to impact on the environment is greater than it has ever been.  Our sheer numbers, our technologies, our ability to generate power and use natural resources, far exceed anything in human history.

Yet there is mounting evidence that we are failing in our responsibility to tend and care for the earth.  We are on a path to significant warming with its associated sea level rises, weather extremes, crop failures and human displacement.  At the same time, our chemical and plastics pollution continues unchecked, we are destroying habitats and causing extinctions at an unprecedented rate.

Much of this is irreversible, but our overall course is not.  We can switch to renewables, curb our resource use, distribute our resources more fairly, moderate our excessive consumption.  But our society is moving slowly, and powerful forces are trying to push us in the opposite direction, undermining the shift to renewables, promoting unrestricted land clearing and keeping us on the path of never-ending growth.

Where is the church on this profound contradiction of God's kingdom?

4. We are focused on the individual, not the community
It is no accident that all the things on this list are about collective responsibility, because God's vision for his people is about solidarity and service.  In Mark 10, as his disciples jostled for power and prestige in the coming kingdom, Jesus called a meeting and told them this.

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

Paul puts these ideas into the practical context of church life in 1 Corinthians.  After criticising them for flaunting their inequalities in the Lord's Supper, allowing some to go hungry while others gormandised, he presents as an alternative the image of the body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

The vision of the kingdom of God, and of the church as we try to live out its mandate, is of a community where we are all part of something larger than ourselves, where we give ourselves in service to one another, and where the most vulnerable are treated with the most care.

Our Western society has tried its hardest to throw this concept out of the window.  We focus on individual achievements, individual autonomy and individual responsibility.  Our responsibilities stop at ourselves and our families, increasingly atomised into struggling nuclear units.  A little charity is a good thing, but not necessary, and if people are poor this is likely their own fault.

In the church, we have very much fallen into this mind-set.  We follow an individualised spirituality, a focus on individual conversion, prayer and study.  Little wonder that our primary concerns are not with the suffering of our fellow humans or the destruction of God's earth, but with our private family life and our sexual behaviour.  So many of us have lost both the mental tools to think about collective responsibilities, and the structures and processes to act on them.  This is why saying 'shit' is a big issue but mass starvation leaves us unmoved


So yes, I do think we are out of step with God, both in our church and in the wider society.  Our focus on sexuality is merely a sign of this disconnect.  We are so out of step on the big issues of peace, justice and the wellbeing of the planet that we do not even realise how out of step we are.