Graceless politics affects us all

One of the many dispiriting but remarkable moments of the Trump presidency occurred when he met German chancellor Angela Merkel at the White House on Friday.

After photographers asked the two to shake hands, Merkel leaned in and quietly asked: 'Do you want to have a handshake?' But Trump continued to hold his hands together between his knees.

Trump and Merkel not shaking hands

In his short time in office, Trump has set a new tone that has replaced civility and grace in politics with a calculated bluntness that diminishes the propensity for bridge building between political adversaries. This has taken root elsewhere.

When we watched it together, a friend remarked on incoming WA Premier Mark McGowan's acceptance speech on election night just over a week ago. Instead of congratulating his defeated rival Colin Barnett for a 'hard fought campaign', he paid tribute to the people for rejecting the 'stupidity and ignorance' that, in his view, Barnett represented.

Barnett's campaign was not hard fought, but that's not the point. You find something positive to say about your rival because civility in politics contributes to making the world a better place to live for all concerned.

I think this new standard of division has also affected my own attitude.

Recently I told this friend - slightly tongue in cheek - that I liked to be 'politically correct'. It was a stupid thing to say, but I said it instinctively, to distinguish myself from the likes of Trump and The Australian newspaper, who often use that term to put down their rivals.

In characterising myself as 'politically correct', I wasn't thinking of my support for positive values such as social inclusion, which are ridiculed every time this pejorative term is used. I was playing the nasty game of political division that is more interested in point scoring and crushing rivals than in action to improve people's lives.

My friend said that he wished there could be more 'civil conversation'. He was speaking in the context of our discussion of the Bill Leak cartoon satirising negligent indigenous fathers. I continued to be outraged by the cartoon, while he hoped that its publication and notoriety might lead to productive discussion.

I can see that he might be the one to shake hands with Bill Leak while I would look the other way.

Selfishness as the new moral norm

Many people were relieved this week because President Trump finally gave a speech in which he tried to be nice rather than nasty.

I’m not relieved. It’s merely a change of tone in his behaviour and rhetoric. He’s not moving away from his ‘America First’ philosophy that makes a virtue out of selfishness.

The most unfortunate thing is that because he’s finally learning how to be presidential, he could end up a two term president rather than a ‘mistake’ one-term president.

We will have a generation of young Americans growing up thinking that it’s good to be selfish. Moral aspiration will be focused on keeping Americans safe rather than making the world a better place to live.

To this end, on Monday Trump signalled a $54 billion increase in defence spending and a corresponding decrease in foreign aid.

There is no question that Australia will follow America’s lead. Within a week of Trump taking office, Scott Morrison was uttering the phrase ‘Australia First’.

Yesterday – Ash Wednesday – was the beginning of the Project Compassion Lenten Appeal of Caritas Australia, the international aid and development agency of the Catholic Church.

I thought that the ‘Love Your Neighbour’ pitch of the giving campaign was sadly out of step with modern times.

Instead of ‘$10 a month during 2017 could provide 110 children in Cambodia with anti-malaria treatment and vaccines’, it could have been ‘$10 a month could power a border patrol vessel to prevent refugees entering Australian waters for one hour’.

Caritas Australia and other aid and development organisations such as Oxfam have always put a lot of their resources into education. Caritas has worked hand in hand with Catholic schools to teach young people to be good neighbours. That is why graduates of Catholic schools have often had a strong sense of social justice.

This is at odds with the Federal Government’s new emphasis on good citizenship that means putting Australia first at the expense of our neighbours.

 

 

Meeting Russian aggression with an open mind

Last night I went to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Kent Street Sydney for the launch of Tony Kevin's Return to Moscow (UWA Publishing). The book explores the complexities of Russian history and identity in an attempt to understand Putin's aggression towards the West.

Tony is a former diplomat in Moscow and Ambassador to Poland and to Cambodia. When I was editor of Eureka Street, I would always rely on him to quickly produce a quality article on international affairs or Australian Government asylum seeker boat rescue (or non-rescue).

That was the subject of two of his previous books, Reluctant Rescuers (2012) and A Certain Maritime Incident (2004). Last night he nearly got sidetracked into talking about Australian Government atrocities when challenged on why he didn't devote more space in his book to addressing Russian atrocities.

He was making the point that 90% of our media makes a sport of demonising Putin, and in the process we miss the true story of Russia's attempt to regain self-respect after the monumental disaster of the Communism of the 20th century and the impotence of Boris Yeltzin after the fall of Communism.

To counter our media's line on Russian aggression in Ukraine, Tony talked about 'regime change' by the US and NATO, in their efforts to prop up the anti-Russian nationalists who look to the West.

My imagination produced absurd thoughts of Trump attempting regime change in Australia by propping up Pauline Hanson. Then I wondered how many US attempts at interference in the complex affairs of other nations are in fact just as stupid. I had just been chatting with my friend Jan about clumsy US mis-steps to create the perfect regime in Afghanistan, where she'd worked. 

Tony's message is that we must treat Russia with respect and study Russian history and culture. In this he was warmly supported by the Russian consul Sergey Borisovich Shipilov, who said that there is so much to learn that he is still studying Russian history at the age of 62.

During the height of the Cold War, I remember listening to an old Jesuit who was fixated on the excesses of Russian Communism to the extent that he visited Moscow when he got the opportunity. But with a closed mind. 'I knew what I'd find and I found it,' he would say. Tony's return to Moscow last year was of an altogether different order.

National Portrait Gallery an antidote to ugly nationalism

I made a snap decision to do a day trip to Canberra yesterday. It turned out that eight hours in an air-conditioned train was a good way to beat the heatwave.

Last May I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London. I liked it, but essentially it just made me more determined to see our own National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. I'd heard about ours but had never visited. It was established in Old Parliament House in 1998 and moved to its present dedicated building next to the National Gallery of Australia in 2008.

I'd sometimes wondered why it was necessary to have galleries dedicated to portraits. I don't know whether this Wikipedia list is exhaustive but there are National Portrait Galleries in London, Washington DC, Edinburgh, and Mariefred (Sweden). Then there's the Portrait Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Why don't they have a National Still Life Gallery or a National Landscape Gallery?

My theory is that it is an effort to define ourselves as a nation by our people. We want to highlight images of Australians whose achievements and presence in our midst we have valued materially and spiritually, and cherish emotionally.

If we don't focus on the people, we default to abstract and potentially dangerous notions of nationalism, or the use of particular legends or stories that some Australians feel more at home with than others.

Recently I was talking with a friend who is a foreign-born non-Anglo Australian citizen. I asked him whether he felt Australian. He said no. I felt sad and did not want to dwell on it by asking him to elaborate.

But I don't think Waltzing Matilda means much to him, let alone the Anzac legend. On the other hand, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery, with its representation of the images and stories of Australians of diverse cultures, might make him reconsider his answer to my question.

Years ago, somebody I regarded as a mentor told me that he had a strong dislike for flags of nations. I didn't fully appreciate what he meant until the Cronulla Riots of 2005 and I saw the Australian flag as a symbol of ugly nationalism. Since then I have taken the position that we should not change the flag to lose the outmoded Union Jack. Instead we should minimise its use.

I did not notice an Australian flag at the National Portrait Gallery, and there it is no Australian flag on the Gallery's website.

The ABC's Australian Story TV program has done a great job over 20 years putting people at the centre of various preoccupations. Tonight the program begins its 2017 season, the first without its own mentor figure and contributor Caroline Jones. If I was disappointed by anything at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday, it was that they have in their collection two portraits of Caroline but neither is on display.

What does Australia owe Trump for taking Manus and Nauru refugees?

This morning I read Antonio Castillo's article in Eureka Street 'US-Mexico relations are officially off-the-wall'. The expression 'off-the-wall' refers to something that is so crazy it defies rational explanation.

The US is making a fast u-turn into isolationism, and 'off-the-wall' could be applied to America's relations with just about any country including Australia. The difference is that with most of the others it's crazy-bad but with Australia it is crazy-good.

In quite an unexpected development, Trump has told Turnbull that the US will honour the Manus and Nauru deal stitched up in the last months of the Obama administration despite the ban on the entry of refugees into the US.

There are not many things Trump does out of the goodness of his heart, and he didn't have to do that. I'm surprised that our media commentators and the Labor opposition are not busily speculating. If the Australian summer has dog days, these are them, and journalists and the opposition appear to have succumbed.

I didn't notice anything beyond Michelle Grattan's headline in The Conversation: 'Trump gives Turnbull refugee deal green light but government provides no detail'. Grattan herself provided no detail about her reference to no detail. In Fairfax, Mark Kenny is way too gentle in his 'wait and see' depiction of Turnbull's 'soft-shoe shuffle around Donald Trump'.

Elsewhere I've seen commentary pointing out that the Trump-Turnbull relationship is somewhat unique among Trump's pairings with world leaders because of their common background in business. They both speak the language of 'the deal'. With Trump, there's no appeal to better angels, and leaders will get nowhere if they persist in speaking about shared values such as democracy and human rights.

So what's the deal here? What is Turnbull giving Trump in exchange for Trump's green light on the refugee deal? In the short term, there's Turnbull's refusal to condemn Trump's anti-Muslim executive order. He said in his media conference yesterday that it's 'not his job' to comment on Trump. In this he is alone among his peers. Even Theresa May, Trump's new best friend of last week, eventually criticised Trump for issuing this order.

We will have to wait to find out what else Turnbull owes Trump in the wake of the Manus and Nauru deal. But I would guess that Australia is not going to be pursuing a foreign policy independent of the US any time soon. Which is a pity, because now is the time to do it because we're at the crossroads.

In December I wrote about attending a gathering of retired Australian diplomats who all believed it was time for Australia to let the ANZUS alliance fade away in favour of an independent foreign policy. They pointed out that there are a number of things the Australian Government is being quiet on.

Most notable of these was America's heavy reliance on the Pine Gap defence intelligence facility in central Australia. This would probably be an early target in the event of a nuclear conflict involving the US, and the fallout would impact Australia's population centres including Sydney and Melbourne.

Is this the price we are paying for Trump's green light on the refugee deal?

How I can be both pro-life and pro-choice

I have just read Catherine Marshall's powerful Eureka Street article 'Trump moves against vulnerable women'. It is about his recent executive order that health organisations receiving funding from the US must not provide abortion services or advice, even if the money is not used to fund these services.

It has reminded me of my own inner struggle with regard to abortion. I am resolutely - but not proudly - pro-life.

In my own personal world, I cannot accept that any human being has a right to choose when to end the life of another (born or unborn) human life. That is God's prerogative.

But I am in favour of the current civil laws permitting early term abortion if the mother's physical or mental health is at risk. These are the vulnerable women that Catherine is talking about in her article.

I also think that it is perfectly acceptable for a Catholic publication like Eureka Street to advocate pro-choice positions in this way because they are pro-tolerance positions.

Tolerant Catholics - including me, I hope - do not impose their religious views on others. That is what religious extremists do. I accept that my particular religious views are out of step with the common sense reality of the community I live in. I don't mind that. In fact I cherish it. I like living in a multicultural, multifaith society.

Why I am not proud to be pro-life is that those who are proudly pro-life are often intolerant of the views of others. They are bigots. I like to think that I am not a bigot.

I might try to pretend that abortion is not my business. That it's for women, and perhaps couples, who are having to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. But if I think of it, that's not fair on unborn human beings, who are defenceless. They need the state to advocate on their behalf.

The only point of contention is a big one. It's when human life begins. My religious belief is that this point is the moment of conception. But I don't have a right to impose that on anybody else. In reality, I support the common sense definition that life begins when the foetus is at an advanced stage of development, as determined by the state.

Without considering myself an expert, I think the state - Australia - has got it about right. Until a week ago, America had it about right. That this has changed is reason for protest and civil action.

My Australia Day in New Zealand

For the past two or three years, I have fantasised about being out of the country for Anzac Day. It hasn't happened, and it won't happen this year.

But yesterday I was really pleased to be in New Zealand for Australia Day.

I woke up not thinking of Australia.

We went out and had breakfast. Then we took a short walk to the Wellington City Gallery, where we very much enjoyed the exhibition of the works of American 'selfie' photographer Cindi Sherman. In the afternoon I visited my uncle and my aunt - both facing the challenge of ageing. I was then taken out by my cousin, who was in good spirits and an excellent companion for the rest of my afternoon.

In other words, I had a very happy Australia Day away from what I understand was the ugliness of the day at home. In itself my own protest, with Cindi Sherman's clowns providing a fitting backdrop. If I had been in Australia, my form of defiance would have been just as real, but very different, and a bit unusual. I would have attended an Australia Day citizenship ceremony.

I contemplated doing that last year, did the research, but in the end indifference got the better of me.

A citizenship ceremony would have allowed me to take part in the welcoming of 'new Australians' and to affirm my strong belief in a multicultural Australia. I would like it if Australia Day was all about the freshly minted new Australians. Not the (European) less new Australians like me, or even the (indigenous) old Australians. That is why I am happy to ignore what some of the vocal European and indigenous Australians want Australia Day to be about.

I was proud to grow up in a community that included many people we called at the time 'new Australians' (the term was later dismissed because it was thought to conflict - I believe erroneously - with the idea of multiculturalism). It was in Albury-Wodonga, close to the Bonegilla migrant reception centre, which was still operating when I was a child.

In 2015 I had a piece of art made to commemorate my family's personal connection to the new Australians from the Bonegilla centre (pictured).

I also felt good that my 'family' at the dinner table this past Christmas Day was a group of six friends who were all new Australians. I was the only Australian born person at the table.

In Sydney, I love getting the train to a suburb with a concentration of new Australians - walking around and enjoying the food. Recently I had a Persian meal in Auburn with a new Australian friend and her mother in law who was visiting from South Africa.

I would like to think that New Zealand has it right and is able to avoid the ugly politics of nationalism when it celebrates its national day Waitangi Day in ten days time. But sadly my cousin tells me otherwise.

The fragmentation of our attention since 1983

I recall attending a late afternoon history lecture in one of the large theatres at Melbourne University. It was 1983 and the lecturer Dr Donna Merwick interrupted her delivery and glared at a student sitting in one of the tiered rows towards the back of the room.

He was indiscreetly holding up and reading the afternoon broadsheet newspaper The Herald while listening to her lecture in the background. She asked him for his undivided attention and quickly got it.

In 2010 I was doing sessional teaching at Sydney University and faced a similar, but by then impossible, battle for the undivided attention of my students.

Most of them had their laptops open, ostensibly taking notes. But it was obvious that they were listening to me in the background while focusing on whatever online activities they would be engaged in if they were somewhere other than in this room attending a compulsory class.

Short of having mirrors installed on the wall behind them, there was not a lot that I could do about it. And in any case, it was the age of multitasking, and it had become normal for anybody - not just students - to focus their attention on several activities at any given time. What was regarded as insolence in 1983 had become de rigeur by 2010.

I am thinking about divided attention in the context of hyperlinks on web pages. Earlier this week I wrote a piece that referred to an online article in The Guardian. I linked to that article in my first paragraph. One of my readers told me that he didn't get beyond my first paragraph because he clicked on the link and read the Guardian article instead.

The next day - yesterday - I also referred to an article online. But I didn't link to it, instead including enough information about it to make it easy to Google. The reader suggested that I should have provided a link to the article, but I was unmoved. 

In fact I will isolate myself from the flow of information around the web if I don't provide links. This is because Google rewards links with higher rankings in search results with its increasingly sophisticated search algorithms. This has led to the fragmentation of our attention on an industrial scale. Back in 1983, the idea of linking was more or less confined to footnotes in academic articles. Even with footnotes, it was necessary to go to the trouble of consulting the card or microfiche catalogue in the library before your attention was diverted.

Lack of focus is a major explanation for why governments can no longer do anything substantial. With the release of Keating era Cabinet papers at New Year, we were reminded of Paul Keating's ability to command attention and how this made him able to achieve significant economic and other reform.

Certainly Keating's magnetic personality had a lot to do with it, but the real reason it could be done then and not now is that 1992 was several years before widespread use of the Internet arrived and changed everything.

A time of peace and goodwill and breathing awareness

The words 'peace on earth' encapsulate the message of the Christmas season. But peace on earth is looking more remote this Christmas than at any Christmas I can remember.

In thinking about what to do about world peace, I think first about politics. I inform myself. I'm convinced that Australia must decide whether to get closer to America as the power that protected us during World War II, or pursue an independent foreign policy more open to a continuing relationship with our biggest trading partner China.

It is interesting, and it matters. If we choose the US, we will probably be a target in the event of a nuclear war because of how crucial the Pine Gap facility is to American defences (that is a reality about which our media are largely keeping us in the dark). If we choose China, we will ultimately have to dance to its tune because it is so much bigger than we are and becoming more inclined to throw its weight around.

Breathing aware Fitbit watch

I know that there is an important link between our concern for the health and wellbeing of the world and our own health and wellbeing. I have a hunch that many people who have given up caring about world peace have also given up caring for their own physical, mental and spiritual condition.

My thoughts about politics are actually a preamble to what is really my interest at this moment, which is the importance of stillness as the lynchpin of our wellbeing and a major factor in our ability to think clearly. By stillness, I mean a stillness of the mind (not the stillness of the couch potato watching the Boxing Day Test on TV).

Yesterday a friend sent me an extract from a Christmas meditation by the spiritual writer Richard Rohr. My friend is not conventionally religious but values the message of Rohr, who urges us to wait for a quietness within ourselves so that we can see the image of our God 'reflected in [our] own clear waters'. But only if 'the disturbing turmoil of thoughts dies down'.

The chatter of the mind is what disturbs my clear waters. It can make me angry and misdirect my passions and decision making. I am working at becoming still.

I'm finding that focusing the mind on my breathing rather than thoughts is a good start. My Fitbit fitness tracker watch has guided breathing sessions that monitor my biorhythms and give feedback. They can be helpful in training my mind to focus on the pattern of my breathing.

The stillness that this breathing awareness promotes allows a peace in our hearts that can gather pace as we mature. Another friend recalled yesterday that he was previously 'fuelled with rage and despair' but has now 'matured to a point where [he] can appreciate the humanity that connects us all'. I would guess that he now has more moments of stillness in his life.

Surrealism will make America great again

I was intrigued and then dismayed and then intrigued again after I read this week that 'surreal' had been named Merriam-Webster's Word of the Year. It's a word associated with the early 20th century intellectual movement that gave artistic expression to Freud's theory of the unconscious.

It turned out that the popularity was more about finding a word - any word - to describe the astonishing nature of Donald Trump's election win in November. 'Surreal', it seems, has been hijacked as a stronger alternative to words such as 'bizarre' or 'oddball' that were considered inadequate to describe the unprecedented nature of the Trump victory.

Salvador Dali The Melting Watch 1954

It's true that it has tended to be used in a grasping or dismissive manner that diminishes the precision of the original meaning. That was the source of my dismay. Also it is obviously a publicity stunt by the American dictionary company, based on nothing more than statistics of the volume of word lookups on its website.

But I was curious to explore further and went to The Conversation, where I found an excellent explainer article. It was from February and predated the spikes in lookups for 'surreal' on the dictionary website.

The article depicts surrealism as a 'revolution of the mind' that freed the mind from rational and utilitarian values and constraints, in favour of the 'transformative possibilities of the imagination'. It has surrealism 'reconciling the contradictory states of dream and reality into a more potent form of reality'.

This does ring true for me, and indeed it is very exciting. It could be used to introduce compassion into Australia's asylum seeker policy. But I am more disturbed that it is being exploited to affirm the Trump victory as a good thing.

According to the new logic, America and the world are freed from the odious system that Clinton represented and have entered an imaginative transformation that will reconcile the dream of 'making America great again' with the fearful reality of a civilisation that lost the War Against Terror instigated by Trumps opponents. That is surreal.