There is no doubt we live in strange times.
Those of us who live in Western, liberal democracies are probably enjoying the most congenial circumstances that citizens of this earth have ever experienced. We enjoy representative democracies and elevated standards of living beyond the dreams of our ancestors.
Yet, despite these indisputable facts, many are today decrying our Western heritage and are urging that we should be apologetic about our history. They maintain that our exalted position is dependent upon the indignities of colonialisation, racism and paternalism of our forebears.
But these critics are reluctant to recognise that these historically unique outcomes of freedom and prosperity have only ensued because of a prolonged struggle by our ancestors who ensured that, as we progressively grew more enlightened, our democracies have acted against racism, sexism, paternalism and so forth.
The social critics of Western democracies only exist because those democracies allow internal criticism. In those autocratic and theocratic countries where religious intolerance, sexism and racism thrive, contesting the ruling regimes on such matters is a very dangerous occupation!
We are told that our young people now don’t hold democracy in high regard. This is probably because our home grown “progressive” critics of our democracy are disproportionately noisy (in contrast to Morrison’s “quiet Australians”). They are also dominant in our schools and universities. They are thwarting the proper education of our children in Western culture which ensures that instead of our children seeing Western civilisation as the triumph that it is, have been taught that it is a travesty built on oppression, slavery, colonialism, paternalism and so forth.
Now I am not proposing that Western civilisation was achieved without imposing significant indignities on sections of the populations of both the colonisers and the colonies. But in our modern Western democracies that has largely passed and surely those that want to champion the dignity of individuals and fight for equality, however they might want to define it, must have more fertile ground to plough in those countries where human rights are constrained by religious and cultural considerations. But no – rather than attack the gross violations of human liberties in such countries, these progressive liberalists don’t have the courage to confront these appalling abominations but would rather champion the assault on minor transgressions in our liberal democracies because they are “safe” in doing so. It sullies their reputation both with respect to their lack of integrity and their cowardice. The countries that are the major transgressors get little or no attention from these social justice warriors.
But the point I want to make is that if you understand the history of Western civilisation the path to liberal democracies has been a long and tortuous one. If you were to accept that for example the first faltering steps from feudalism (which had long displaced tribalism in England) to democracy began with Magna Carta which was an agreement between King John of England and his nobles at Runnymede in June 1215, it is clear that the journey to representative democracy took at least 700 years!
Much of the momentum towards democracy was gained during the Age of Enlightenment which flourished in Europe in the 18th century. In this short period of time a plethora of philosophers began to construct the principles that began to define human nature, liberty, capitalism, economics and deism. Among this esteemed body were notaries such as Voltaire, Rousseau, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, David Hume and Adam Smith.
Just as this period presaged a monumental surge in technology it also heralded a surge in social and political thinking that would ultimately steer us towards democracy. But this was a particular development in Western society which was not mirrored elsewhere.
Now the problem that Western democracies often face is that they believe other societies not only desire to participate in our democratic way of life but they are ready to adopt democracy as the foundation of their governments should the opportunity arise. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
This was starkly illustrated during the so-called Arab Spring.
Almost ten years ago a series of anti-government protests, uprisings and armed rebellions spread across the Islamic world in the Middle East. Many countries were affected including Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq, Bahrain, Libya, Kuwait, Morocco, Mauritania, Lebanon, Saud Arabia and Syria.
It was said that the disquiet was magnified by the access of citizens of oppressed regimes to social media which allowed citizens to compare themselves unfavourably with those in democratic states. And social media was also instrumental in the dissidents being able to organise themselves to protest against the strictures of the autocratic and theocratic states they inhabited.
Western commentators were optimistic that these citizens’ revolts would ultimately lead to more democratic forms of government in the Middle East. But in the end nothing like that happened. There was a minor shuffling of the dominant autocrats and theocrats and with a few exceptions these countries returned to similar governments to those that the dissidents had initially protested against.
Now why would this be so? We in the Western world believed that having shaken off the shackles of their oppressors the citizens of these countries would surely turn to democracy. But this was not the case.
In contemplating this, it occurred to me that no matter how we might promote democracy, some people are just not ready for it.
I read something lately (and I am sorry I can’t remember the source) where it was said that democracy can only work when participants can accept they need to bow to the wishes of the majority. So when the vote is taken even those who had an opposing points of view need to accede to the will of the majority. It is the willingness of the minority to accept such an outcomes that provides the platform for a successful democracy.
[It is troublesome that even in established democracies we are seeing evidence this is being challenged. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump are democratic decisions that many have decided to rail against.
So democratic principles, even in well-established democracies, are now being challenged.]
But if we return to those Middle Eastern states that had a chance to embrace democracy but chose to do otherwise, I believe another factor was involved. As I related above Western democracies had a long history that eventually led them to embrace the notion that citizens in general could improve their lot by adhering to democratic principles.
But most of the Middle Eastern States influenced by the Arab Spring are largely tribal societies or at least near-tribal societies where strong tribal allegiances underpin their societal structures. In such societies any initiative will be rejected unless it benefits my particular tribe and will be stoutly resisted if it benefits my enemies in another tribe. Hence the prime requirement for democracy – that minorities must concede to the opinions of the majority – can never be met.
When I put this to one of my e-mail correspondents he responded thus:
Not just tribes but clans as well. Maybe thirty years ago, I read an account of politics in Ethiopia (I think) – our country against all others; our region against all others; our tribe against all others in the region; our clan against all other clans in the tribe; our family against the others in the clan; us children against our parents, particularly our fathers; younger brothers against older brothers; me against everybody else.
So no, not much room for democracy, for conceding that a majority should have the power even if we didn’t vote for it – more of a naive idea that democracy means that whoever you vote for, wins.
Thus, it seems to me, that it is indisputable that the values embedded in tribal societies are generally inimical to democratic processes.
Now, I believe we are seeing some of the elements of that dilemma playing out in Australia.
After a process of consultation with indigenous leaders in May 2017 the Uluru Statement from the Heart was issued outlining the aspirations of indigenous people with respect to recognition in the Australian constitution and the desire to have an indigenous “voice” to parliament which would enable indigenous people to express an opinion to our lawmakers on policies and laws that affect them.
Whilst the government has been lukewarm about amending the constitution in any way that could be seen to favour one racial grouping over another, they have charged Indigenous Australians Minister, Ken Wyatt with managing a process which would, after consultation with the indigenous community, lead to a proposal being developed to take to parliament about how such an indigenous “voice” might be constituted.
Now, it seems to me that gaining consensus of the indigenous community on such contentious and complex matters is very difficult and perhaps impossible. A reflection of this difficulty is often seen in the various disputes among indigenous people over the resolution of Native Title issues. Even when a majority position has been attained minority groups often resist the will of the majority.
This, I believe, is a reflection of the tension between tribal societies and democratic principles as I have argued above.
Now this tension is not felt by all indigenous people. There are largely two cohorts of indigenous people in Australia.
The first cohort comprises indigenous people who have assimilated into Australian society at large. This demographic is virtually indistinguishable from other Australians. Parents in this cohort are providing caring and nurturing environments for their children. They are largely employed, well-educated and responsible. Their children are attending school and moving onto universities. Their health outcomes are similar to non-indigenous Australians and they are basically law abiding. Those that so desire, can still maintain the customs and cultural trappings of their forebears but they do not allow this to weaken their obligations as citizens to their families and the community at large.
In many respects the members of this cohort are like those in our immigrant communities who are happy to partake of the benefits of Australian citizenship but preserve their cultural heritage.
The second cohort of indigenous people is more problematic. They belong to a separatist group who instead of integrating with mainstream Australian society have sought to live according to their traditional cultural norms (even though these are not well understood) almost in a parallel society to the rest of us. It is mainly the members of this group who suffer “indigenous disadvantage”.
The move to encourage separatism occurred when “Nugget” Coombs convinced the Whitlam government to set up remote communities where indigenous peoples could return to their traditional lands and pursue the hunting and gathering practices of their ancestors. It was assumed that with a little help from tourism and the sale of indigenous art and artefacts these communities would be self-sufficient. That of course never happened and most of these remote communities have no real economy at all and their residents rely entirely on government welfare for subsistence.
[This highlights an ongoing difficulty of identity politics. The indigenous people in this separatist group believe that their sense of well-being is dependent on their identification with their traditional tribal associations. But we know from psychological research that a sense of personal well-being normally comes from a broader sense of contribution to the human condition. It is a rather pathetic statement to say I am a proud (enter tribe of your preference) man or woman. As I have written before, these are mere accidents of birth over which none of us has any control. How can we feel pride for this? And just as surely why would we be ashamed of it? Research indicates our sense of self-worth should be more aligned with what have I contributed to society, rather than assuming the accidental qualities of identity like race, gender or nationality. Our sense of meaning and purpose (which determines our sense of self-worth) is generally underpinned by contribution, altruism, gratitude and tolerance.]
There is dramatic contrast between the outcomes of the assimilated indigenous people with those of indigenous people in our remote communities where children are neglected, school attendance is low, substance abuse is high and health outcomes leave much to be desired. But in these communities it is claimed that traditional culture has been maintained. Now I suspect it could be debated whether traditional culture is being maintained or a manufactured version of culture is being propagated. Nevertheless it could hardly be argued that whatever is being propagated is beneficial for the people caught in these hell-holes.
But reverting to the main theme of my essay, the effort to maintain indigenous cultural traditions might provide a sense of importance and belonging to some indigenous people but the reinforcement of the prime roles played by tribes and clans (as we have seen above) would suggest that democratic processes will struggle among such people.
Ken Wyatt has been given an almost impossible task if he is to gain any sort of consensus amongst indigenous people about what the “voice” should constitute and how it should be composed.
Some cynics have even implied that the Morrison government has embarked on this initiative in this way knowing that the venture will fail and the “voice” movement will self-destruct enabling the government to avoid dealing with this issue. That sentiment was somewhat reinforced recently when it was announced that Marcia Langton was to be added to the team under Wyatt investigating the “voice” options. Langton is an academic and indigenous activist with a reputation of being divisive and confrontationist. Some have suggested that her presence won’t help Wyatt gain consensus on a way forward.
I don’t subscribe to this conspiracy theory, but I do believe that the process to define and then legislate to establish the so-called “voice” is fraught with difficulty and is unlikely to succeed. Part of the reason for my pessimism is the reluctance of those unassimilated indigenous people to accept the legitimacy of the democratic process.
I can’t but help believe that, like many other tokenistic efforts to appease the identity aspirations of separatist indigenous Australians, our resources are being wasted and our efforts to make a real difference in indigenous lives are being side-tracked.
The best outcomes for all Australians would be for all of us to be equal under the law. The best outcome for indigenous people would be to step up and take their rightful place as citizens and participate in our representative democracy. That should be the goal of all of us whether we are indigenous, an immigrant from China, India, Sri Lanka or Turkey, or descendants of the original European settlers.
We should harken back to the words of Martin Luther King who in trying to overcome endemic racism in the USA said he looked forward to the day that his children “would be judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin”.
If all indigenous people chose to become participating members of our society, inevitably that would lead to more of them being elected to parliament and that would result in a more legitimate “voice” to parliament. But of course it would still have to compete with all the other legitimate “voices” in parliament, but then that’s how democracies are supposed to work!