There are two new features on our political horizon, which in a sense come together right now.
The first is the astonishing event of a former leader of the Labor Party, in Australia, publishing diaries which dump the most remarkable vitriole on this own colleagues and almost everyone else around.
Whatever political misfortunes he has suffered (I am not here talking about his illness, about which I am of course symphathetic), Mark Latham seems to have lost any sense of the public interest, and is acting in a completely self-obsessed way.
His diaries show, however, that party politics so easily becomes nothing more than —as Graham Richardson’s book some time ago said, ‘Whatever it takes.’
The Latham story is the logical outcome of a party machine and a political system that has lost any contact with fundamental values. In the name of justice, all sorts of injustices can be done.
Exactly the same principles, I hasten to add, were expressed from the other side, when recently the Prime Minister, John Howard, told his incoming parliamentarians that they have no loyalty higher than to the party room. Excuse me: Not to their electors? Not to the truth" Not to the nation? Not, for those who may affirm some religious conviction (as he says he does) to God?
Here, political power has become God.
This appaling situation, on both sides of politics, I have to say has come as a real challenge to me.
I guess I had always thought that it was possible to have some kind of decency and morality without a necessary recourse to religious values.
What is evident in recent times is that when people, individually and collectively, move beyond any fundamental belief in a system of values, and any fundamental convictions about the meaning and worth of life, and the world, — in other words, when people have no basic ideas about something like a ‘god’, a ground of meaning and values — then there is actually nothing left, other than power, self-interest, money. And that is what has happened to my community, my nation, my people.
Even more staggering for an educator is the realization that after fifty years of publically funded universal education, when the whole nation has attended school for a minimum of ten years, we have become a nation seemingly bereft of critical thinking. We are entirely at the mercy of an uncritical press. We are either unwilling or unable to ask the difficult questions, about truth, meaning, justice.
We allow criminal actions, such as the lies about the ‘children overboard’ affair, or the deportation of our own citizens, to go unchecked. Critics are silenced, or deported.
What has become of us? How will we ever find our heart again? How will we ever come to terms with what is on our conscience?
Then comes the new phenomenon of the ‘right wing Christians’ in politics. Everywhere the press is interested, as if this has snuck up on them. Who would have imagined that this could happen in Australia? — they seem to imply.
I hope that through this new development the media, and the political parties, might begin to understand that in fact there are many sorts of Christians in politics. There are the classic positions, such as the Catholic commitment to social justice, along with a conservative ethics. There is the classic position of the Tories, with their support of business and the established church (as one particular church imagines itself to be, at times). There are also the left-liberals (theologically), presently disillusioned in their support of Labor, or wondering where they can go. But there are new groupings, and of course variations on all the old caricatures. There have always been Christians committed to religious liberty, to social justice and to ‘family values’, which do NOT in fact support the free market economy, but rather wish to protect workers’ rights and so on.
In addition to all this, perhaps there is a new challenge to what people thought was the direction of postmodernism. Many claimed that postmodernism meant the end of any values framework. Some continually called it nihilistic. (I never saw the basis of this claim, but it has been made often enough.)
But it just might be that the postmodern situation is in fact a critique of the nihilism of much of modernity, as evidenced by the things described above. Maybe now there is a new opportunity for values in politics, but not through state churches or official structures dictating party policies, nor through the much feared dictatorships of the so-called ‘moral majority’.
Surely there is another option.
Maybe now it is time for people to determine what is right, true, just and worthy, and what will build genuine community. Maybe, in this postmodern context, we are free and responsible for what we are and what we do. This may be scary, but it is also a great opportunity. How can we become a community of respect, in which values and diverse beliefs can be acknowledged, shared, and actually translated into politics —the life of the community?