Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Trouble With Normal

I've been finding myself singing this Bruce Cockburn song to myself a lot lately.


Strikes across the frontier and strikes for higher wage 
Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage 
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights 
What did they think the politics of panic would invite? 
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

 Callous men in business costume speak computerese 
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees 
Their single crop starvation plans put sugar in your tea 
And the local Third World's kept on reservations you don't see 
"It'll all go back to normal if we put our nation first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

 Fashionable fascism dominates the scene 
When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means 
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream 
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream 
Brings us men in gas masks dancing while the shells burst 
The trouble with normal is it always gets worse 

Cockburn wrote this song in 1983.  Reagan was in the White House, Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, Andropov and Chernenko in the Kremlin.  The Cold War seemed fully entrenched, being fought out in bloody proxy wars around the globe.  Global poverty was rife, unemployment and inflation were troubling the developed nations and the rich seemed to be getting richer while the poor starved.

In the intervening years, there were times when it seemed like he might be wrong.  Not that things ever looked like becoming perfect, but there were real signs of hope.  The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and Gorbachev oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet empire.  The Cold War ended and we were promised a "peace dividend" as military spending could be redirected to more useful purposes. The right wing ideologues gave way to moderate social democrats - Clinton in the US, Blair in the UK, Hawke and Keating here in Australia.  The Oslo accords gave real hope of a solution to the long running Israel/Palestine conflict. A series of campaigns on global poverty bore real results, with the international adoption of the  Millennium Development Goals and the Heavily Indebted Poor Country initiatives.  The Kyoto Protocols showed that at least there was some chance we could address global climate change before it got beyond addressing.

In the 2000's, though, it all started to fall apart.  The World Trade Centre got destroyed, and suddenly we were in the midst of a global terrorism panic that has been with us ever since.  From 2001 to this day security agencies only have to say "terrorism" and they get what they want.  This evening we heard that the Australian government is about to pass a law requiring all phone companies to keep logs of users' phone calls for two years so security agencies can access them.  A recent US review found they were not much use in preventing terrorism, but the Australian foreign minister was not interested in discussing that fact.  What was that the man said?

Planet lurches to the right as ideologies engage 
Suddenly it's repression, moratorium on rights 
What did they think the politics of panic would invite? 
Person in the street shrugs -- "Security comes first" 
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.

Because despite all our efforts at combating terrorism (if that's what they are) extreme militant groups keep growing.  Ten years after we helped the US invade Iraq on the false premise that the Baathist regime had weapons of mass destruction, an extreme Islamic militia calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has taken over the northern part of the country, showing little mercy to Christians, Shiites or women of any faith.  A dozen years of occupying Afghanistan on the pretext of  destroying the Taliban has left them as strong as ever, biding their time until the last US troops leave and in the meantime destabilising neighbouring Pakistan to the point where that country seems on the brink of collapse.  Almost 20 years of undermining the Oslo accords on the pretext of rooting out Hamas has left it with more influence in Palestine than ever, and the conflict more brutal and intractable than it has been for decades.  Elsewhere, repressive regimes are popping up all over the place and minorities are being targeted.

 Callous men in business costume speak computerese 
Play pinball with the Third World trying to keep it on its knees...

Meanwhile at home, and elsewhere in the developed world, we are finding that instead of spending the wealth of the boom years from 1990 to 2005 on better services and social infrastructure, we've spent them on tax cuts for the rich.  When the crash came in 2007 and suddenly there wasn't so much to spend, did we ask the rich to re-shoulder the burden?  No, their tax cuts are somehow sacrosanct so first our governments borrowed and then, when it became clear that the good times were not magically returning, they decided that the poor would just have to tighten their belts.  Rich people obviously can't do the same, ostensibly because they are the ones creating jobs for the poor but actually because they are simply too fat.

When ends don't meet it's easier to justify the means 
Tenants get the dregs and landlords get the cream 
As the grinding devolution of the democratic dream...

So now in Australia, and in every State here, and in so many countries around the world, we have a "budget emergency" which is used as a justification for cutting things like pensions, health entitlements for poor people, unemployment benefits, social services, environmental protections or overseas aid (there go the Millennium Development Goals!) .  Yet it is not used as an excuse to raise taxes, or cut corporate concessions, or reduce defence spending (terrorism! they cry).

I could go on.  The collapse of global efforts on climate change despite mounting scientific evidence; the rapid downward spiral of Australia's asylum seeker policies which now make us abusers of human rights on a par with places like Sri Lanka,  Iran and Myanmar; the abandonment of any vestige of self-determination in Aboriginal communities and its replacement with management by white bureaucrats and  mainstreaming of services (because that worked so well last time we tried it!); the adoption of law and order policies that imprison more people for longer and target unpopular minorities like bikers and young people.

So it turns out that Bruce Cockburn is a prophet after all.  The trouble with normal is, it really does get worse.

I guess I'm a bit of a glass half empty kind of person in general but I've always been able to sustain some level of hope and optimism.  I've been able to look at seeds of growth around the world, or small successes in my own line of work, or little pieces of peace and justice in my own church or community, and see that it's worthwhile keeping on trying. Lately, though, I've been finding it harder than usual.  Wherever I look, things seem to be falling apart at the seams.  In my own work, things I and my friends worked for for decades are in danger of being turned into the opposite of what we intended, or of vanishing overnight at the whim of a cost-cutting government.  Globally, all the good work of aid agencies and government programs risks being swamped in a tide of war and greed and a global climate catastrophe.  How can I keep going in the face of this?

I know my pious friends and family tell me I should have faith in God and I know they're right, but while that might keep me hopeful in a general way, it doesn't really give me a reason to keep going.  If my work is a waste of time and I just need to wait for God to right it in his time, then in the meantime I may as well just eat, drink and be merry and not worry about all this activism and politics and so forth.

Fortunately, in my time of need I still have the prophet Bruce, and if he expresses my despair he also encourages me to keep hoping.

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight...


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