The West is staring down Chinese power — but do we know what's worth fighting for? – ABC News
The West is staring down Chinese power — but do we know what's worth fighting for?
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On ABC Radio this week I was reminded of another time, another Australia. We were discussing Australia's place in the world after former prime minister Paul Keating's National Press Club appearance criticising our handling of the rise of China.
Many of the callers were lamenting Australia's recent record on climate change, refugees and racism. We were on the wrong track. We were alienating other nations like France. One man said he had returned to Australia after living abroad to find we had, in his opinion, gone backwards.
Then a lady called in to remind us it was Remembrance Day and asked why, amid the criticism of Australia, no one had thanked those who had paid the ultimate price and given the greatest sacrifice for us to enjoy the freedom of living in a liberal democracy and building the country we have become.
It was a clear-eyed moment of reflection that added a much-needed sense of perspective. Yes, we are free to criticise our country but should we also not be mindful that others have paid for that freedom with their lives.
People like my great uncle; an Indigenous man who signed up to fight in World War I and never returned from the fields of France. His body lies there still.
His brother, my grandfather, fought in World War II, a Rat of Tobruk. Aboriginal men who defended our country abroad at a time when they were not fully recognised as equal citizens at home.
Often shunned by an Australian society that did not recognise their service, Indigenous veterans are now getting overdue recognition.
My cousin has continued the tradition. A lifelong army officer who served in Iraq.
They believed that if their fight for justice here was going to mean anything they would also have to fight for their country alongside other Australians.
Where is that self-sacrifice today? Where is the belief that there is something bigger than ourselves?
Such virtues can seem out of step today. Worse they are often derided. Family, duty, service, nation, faith — how often are they mocked in a world that values identity or personal liberty above all.
It is a flimsy basis for a society. And it reflects a slow unravelling.
In his book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, religious scholar Carl Trueman argues we have swapped an honour society for a dignity society.
It is an inheritance of the European Enlightenment, the elevation of the individual above society. He traces it to thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau whom he describes as "one of the strangest geniuses in the history of Western society".
Rousseau famously declared people are born free, but everywhere are in chains. The chains are society: community, religion, kinship. In Confessions, Rousseau says all he needs to do is to "look inside myself".
That encapsulates our age; the inner life, the importance of the self. Being our "best selves" or "real selves" matters above all. Recognition and identity are supreme. Society becomes a contest for recognition.
It more often resembles an arm wrestle: whose identity matters more?
Trueman points to a philosophical tradition that dispenses with notions of objective truth. Philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who said there is no truth only interpretation.
Without truth what holds us together? Is one's "personal truth" all that matters?
Trueman argues we live in a therapeutic age; we reach for words like grief, trauma, suffering to buttress our identities.
As he writes: "The big political questions of our time are those of identity, and modern identities have a distinctly psychological aspect."
The Angel of History is a warning to Australia that we cannot look to the future when our eyes are fixed so deadly on the past.
Trueman is indebted to the late sociologist Phillip Rieff, who in the '60s described the rise of "therapeutic culture" — or as he put it "anti-culture".
Rieff, himself agnostic, believed faith anchored society. It formed a "sacred order", a set of what he called "interdicts" prohibitions – thou shalt nots – that framed culture.
The modern West upended that order, cast off those interdicts, becoming, Rieff believed, unmoored. There is no "sacred order", instead a "social order" that can easily descend into a free-for-all.
Society ceases to have inherent meaning and meaning becomes a matter of feeling of personal choice or individual belief.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor sees this as the rise of the self. We are all "expressive individuals" unbound from a greater sense of responsibility or duty. Economic growth, technological change, globalisation all have eroded the sense of hierarchy or culture.
As Trueman argues: "Notions of honour no longer fit the patterns of social engagement and therefore recognition in today's society. That role is now played by the notion of dignity …"
He poses this question: "How does society understand identity, and what range of identities does it consider to be legitimate?"
Does pluralism, liberalism, democracy, freedom of expression and rule of law shine a way forward or obscure a dark past that still haunts us today?
So we arrive at the endless culture wars. We form our tribes and arm ourselves for battle.
To talk about notions of honour or society can seem hopelessly conservative today. Even reactionary. Indeed some of those old "shalt nots" that ordered society were terribly oppressive and entrenched exploitative relationships of power. They are well rid of, but the question remains: what do we replace them with?
There are parts of Trueman's arguments that I'm uncomfortable with. But he and other thinkers like him, challenge us to take stock of where we have come.
In a West too often preoccupied with cancel culture or Twitter pile ons, orders to stay in our lanes and shouting matches rather than civil discussion, we have to ask where does this leave us?
And this matters right now. We live at a time when democracy is being eroded. It is in retreat. Populist demagogues exploit fear and anxiety. Deep inequalities, legacies and lived realities of sexism, misogyny and racism diminish the West's moral standing.
The United States — the self-declared beacon of democracy, the shining city on the hill — has descended into often violent rancorous tribal warfare. It is a deeply divided, almost ungovernable society where mobs trashed the Capitol Building — the seat of democracy itself.
This at a time when China poses a direct challenge to a Western liberal democratic order. China under Xi Jinping certainly gives no sign of self-doubt. Xi unapologetically and brutally imposes his order on society, and he believes history is on his side.
As he says, the West is waning and China is rising.
November 11 is observed around the world as a day to remember the sacrifice that countless of people have made in service to their country. Here is how Australia commemorates Remembrance Day.
Now Xi is all but ensconced as president for life. The Communist Party has declared Xi's world view as the "essence of Chinese culture".
That's what the world faces now: a confident rising China and a West that seems unsure of what it even is, let alone whether it is worth fighting for.
That caller to the ABC was right. Surely while we criticise — legitimately — our society, we can also give thanks. And this week I have remembered and given thanks for my great uncle and my grandfather; Aboriginal men who would have had reason not to fight for Australia, but believed it was their duty anyway.
Men of dignity, yes, but who believed that honour mattered more.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight on Monday at 9.35pm on ABC TV, and Tuesday at 8pm on ABC News Channel.
We acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Australians and Traditional Custodians of the lands where we live, learn, and work.
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