Stay alert, ye nameless, toiling animals

Hindsight is wonderful. When we look back at, say, World War II, TV documentaries cover the rise of Hitler in a few minutes. It’s easy to forget that Hitler was head of the National Socialist Party from 1921, fully 12 years before he became Chancellor in 1933. And it was another 6 years before WWII officially kicked off with the invasion of Poland.

I’ve often wondered what that all looked like for people living it in real-time. And oddly enough, three articles in the Sydney Morning Herald this weekend got me thinking about how that relates to the big global issues today.

My guess is that for the vast majority of people the rise of Hitler had very little impact on day-to-day life — just as today the distant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have virtually no discernible impact on my life in Sydney. Nor do the many minor changes to our laws which increase the powers of central government without any balancing increases in our own ability to hold that government accountable.

In the summer of 1932, a few politically-aware people sitting in sunny cafes might have discussed that odd Mr Hitler’s failed run for the presidency, but I doubt anyone would have seen it as heralding global war.

Hindsight allows us to join the dots in ways which just aren’t possible in real-time.

Which brings me to Clive James, who in an interview in Good Weekend (the SMH magazine) says the original title for his forthcoming book Cultural Amnesia would have been The Reef after the Storm because, as he explains, civilization and culture are an accumulation of minor achievements that can no longer be individually identified.

A lot of small, toiling animals do their thing, then die. Then another layer of small, toiling animals forms along the top of them, do their thing and then they die, too. And this vast construction is based on death, on wastage, but that doesn’t mean the dead creatures’ lives were meaningless. On the contrary, without them there would be nothing.

James says that one of the greatest achievements of our civilization, liberal democracy, is never as secure as we might imagine.

There is a danger inherent in liberal democracy, which is a very successful political system, that its citizens will, generation by generation, forget that its construction was achieved against great opposition. It was by no means a done deal that liberal democracy would emerge victorious at the end of the 20th century. Hitler had other plans and so had Stalin.

Cultural Amnesia teaches us, James says, things we need to know so we remain alert to any threat to intellectual freedom.

As various politicians have said, The price of freedom is eternal vigilance — though it takes so much effort to stay vigilant when we’re constantly reminded that the important decisions in our lives are which mobile phone to buy and whether it’ll be NCIS or CSI on a Tuesday night.

Then in the “News Review” section of the Herald, I read the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, the British treasury official whose 700-page report outlined the true cost of global warming.

My father’s generation’s crisis was fighting fascism. Ours is fighting climate change. It is much harder because you can’t see it, it is not an obvious threat, but the solution is in our hands.

I disagree with Stern. The threat is obvious, and has been for at least a decade. But too many people with “vested interests” have distorted the science and wailed about “the economy” — as if “I won’t make as much money” is a valid excuse.

“Sir, you can’t keep your workers in cages, that’s slavery.”
“But I won’t make as much money!”

“You can’t sell crack to children, it’s illegal.”
“But I won’t make as much money.”

“You can’t keep burning coal and ignoring the pollution you’re creating.”
“But it might affect the economy.”

It doesn’t really stand up. And yet that’s precisely the “no regrets” policy pursued by the Howard government. As former environment minister David Kemp explains, “It meant, where it is possible to take action without damaging Australia’s economy and without adding to the inefficiencies of the economies, then action should be taken.”

This illustrates the essential immorality of the Howard government, and its essential hypocrisy.

There’s stern talk of “mutual obligation” while harassing welfare recipients barely capable of taking care of themselves. But any talk of the nation’s obligations to the planet — or to international law or human rights or plain old common decency — are ignored because they might affect “the economy”. Or interfere with the racist scare tactics that keep it in power.

“Cultural Amnesia” indeed.

And so, fellow nameless toiling animals, this is why we must stand up and say something when we see this immorality, this hypocrisy. We must resist the slow erosion of our liberal democracy, though the threat be harder to see even than that of global warming.

8 Replies to “Stay alert, ye nameless, toiling animals”

  1. Nice post – reminds me of the Government’s dubious commitment to comply with human rights obligations ‘where consistent with the Government’s immigration detention policies’.

    Must go track down that Clive James book.

  2. @Adam F: No, I wouldn’t bother with the book. I was bogged down maybe 150 pages in and abandoned it. It was just so goddam turgid.

    As Guy Rundle said in Crikey only a few days ago:

    The Kogarah blowhard was well on the way to being the most appalling man ever, with his post 9/11 dullard conservatis jeremiads on terrorism etc, his return to serious poetry – which amounted to terrorism – all capped off with Cultural Amnesia, a 1000-page groaner in which the world was berated for falling short of the standards of Sophie Scholl and Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who were, unbelievably, its dedicatees.

    Yes, Clive James’ poetry is terrorism. Rundle drinks more than I do. And he owes me a bottle of scotch.

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