Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Having a national conversation

I have just finished reading Lois Banner's insightful account of the lives of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict in 'Intertwined Lives'.  Both were scholars of outstanding merit so it's a pity that they have both slipped, somewhat, from contemporary view.  Today was a good day to finish  this book as it coincides with heightened media interest in Australian Treasurer, Wayne Swan's essay exposing the threats to democracy that can arise through the actions of vested interests and by the abuse of wealth.  Although the general theme is not new it has needed saying (or resaying) in Australia for some time.  So good on Swan.  It is a pity he and others in government did not make this case to the Australian people before they began the process of introducing a mining tax, a key factor in the undoing of  Kevin Rudd as PM.

Ruth Benedict, amongst other contributions, developed typologies based on her anthropological studies  that attempted to account for the 'good society'.   According to Banner her work was described by Abraham Maslow 'as the most viable, post-Marxian theory of the good society'.  She talked about 'funnel' societies which 'chaneled wealth into the hands of a few men who had little concern for anyone else, while 'siphon societies' constantly spread wealth throughout the community' (p. 425-6).   For Benedict the Blackfoot of North America epitomised a 'siphon society'.  They were optimistic, free from violence, 'operating to an ethic of care: leaders identify with followers, the wealthy make certain that everyone is provided for, and leadership positions are opened to talented individuals. True freedom, Benedict asserted, means not only individual independence but also taking responsibility for others'. (p. 426).

Both Benedict and Mead were struck by the level of cooperation that occurred during war time (WW 2) in the US. They both worked hard to try to make that spirit persist in the peace as a necessary part of civil liberties.  Benedict worried that the US 'ran the risk of becoming a 'funnel' rather than a 'siphon' society' and that democracy would falter in the US because 'its system of government was based on reconciling special interests at the expense of the individual' and that 'its economy benefited the few over the many.'   Whilst undoubtedly worse in the US (see this posting) the place of special interests in formulating Australian national policy needs much more critical scrutiny and to be added to the national conversation that Swan has launched.

However we want a conversation of quality based on listening and mutual respect. I for one was sickened yesterday morning to hear on ABC radio Mitch Hooke gloating about his role, and that of the Minerals Council of Australia (of which he is CEO), in defeating  the government's original mineral tax proposals.   I also thought  the ABC's Emma Alberici's interview of Swan, heard on ABC News Radio this morning, discourteous and disengenouous.  To paraphrase  Margaret Mead, upbringing not race produces the differences between national groups.  So if Australia is to conserve its egalitarian nature then we need to attend to our manners of living together and, thus, the upbringing we provide to the inheritors of our culture.

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