‘Progress’ and the 2020 Australian bushfire crisis

Australians are currently experiencing a whole lot of stuff that doesn’t reflect the suggested consequences of the economic tack that the West has taken, over the last two-hundred years. As time moves forward, we increasingly see that technological advancement alone cannot solve society’s problems: we need to also understand how to function collectively to benefit broadly from those capacities.

Conquest; progress; expansion; advancement are words that we associate primarily with the nineteenth century and early twentieth, in this rhetoric. More recently, arising out of US political discourse, the verbs deployed by our government in Australia are militarised. In this vein, the imagery that we see in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s ‘informational’ videos, this week has drawn out the objections of the Australian Defense Association.  The ADA has emphatically articulated the importance of the convention of not involving our defense force in political posturing. Click here for a Guardian article on this.

Old White Dudes, progressing. Some of it was really useful.

I am interested, though, to recall what people were getting at when they first articulated these ideas of progress and advancement, in association with early scientific inquiry. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Church and State were closely intertwined across Europe, in various configurations. In Germany, particularly, in the 1830s and early 1840s, Hegelian theologians like David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach were writing about what faith was, in light of scientific progress at the time. Both posited that any belief needed to be grounded in perception, and that science was an important means of honing our perceptions in our understanding of the world.  Contemporary thinkers are mostly on board with these assertions, now.

More controversially, both also ventured to make statements that–indirectly but fundamentally–weakened the social legitimacy of leaders who leaned hard on religious doctrine as the established, exclusive framework for perceiving the world. We see an emphatic resistance to this tendency in contemporary Australian culture, which unfortunately sees faith groups drawn in to conflation with political leveraging of faith statements. These conflations alienate us from one another. Readers will have diverse positions about this (with my blessing), but the fact remains that we Australians are culturally resistant, for the most part, to having our leaders decide on our behalf that a particular set of doctrines is that of our whole nation.

In contrast, in 19th century Germany, both Strauss and Feuerbach, as theologians and therefore custodians of Church doctrine, were Staatsdiener, or public servants. At that time in Germany, theologians were part of State mechanisms for social cohesion and regulation. Feuerbach, in particular, was inadvertently quite influential on the young Karl Marx, and so it went, that these theological standpoints became enmeshed with political shifts that permanently changed the political landscape on the world stage. There were far more moderate responses to Feuerbach in the mix, and it shouldn’t be assumed that this was Feuerbach’s expectation in any way.

Both Strauss and Feuerbach studied G.W.F. Hegel’s work, gleaning from him the idea that community beliefs and values shift over time, adapting themselves to each cultural moment. This adaptation is how society grows and adapts… How we progress, you could say.

Marx’s revolutions were a violently abrupt shift to draw the disenfranchised and oppressed working classes back into conversations about what cultural beliefs constituted progress. While I wouldn’t presume to press Marx’s contribution onto my readers as some gold standard of social outcome, Marx does, nonetheless, serve as a strong warning about what can happen when the experiences of the community come to be at odds with what their leaders ask them to accept in their day-to-day lives (for the record, in my own work, I gravitate more towards George Eliot’s contribution of social regeneration via peacefully connected and collaborative community).

Let’s take a brief beard appreciation break:

The reception of these theologians in England occurred in the same circles as the early evolutionists that led up to Charles Darwin’s 1859 book, On the Origin of the Species. The idea that we respond to the conditions within which we find ourselves, and over time we adapt and change to flourish, resonates with the theologians who also spoke about progress and growth as attributes of the very basis of existence.

Returning to the Australian context, we are again finding ourselves out of step with what we are being asked for by our leaders, in many sectors of the community. We are, as Europeans in the 1830s and 1840s were, contemplating what it means to grow as a society at a time with no precedent. Many of us are dissatisfied with the deteriorating quality of public healthcare, wages have stagnated, towns are being vacated because their water supplies have been given/sold, instead, to large corporations that are not being held accountable. We also have the very distressing experiences of fire refugees who have been displaced. We bear a heavy burden of collective trauma. As a nation, we need to make some decisions.

It’s at odds with my values system to suggest that violence can be the solution under these conditions. I see that our community discourse is fundamentally uncoupled from the values of our current Prime Minister, and the (rapidly shrinking) collective who have supported these transgressive decisions about our collective well-being. A rift is developing in the community, as decisions are made that don’t serve the full community, but only those who the government has decided are well-enough resourced to fight back if they’re left out. Speculations about another Libspill are wafting through the rafters. Either way, we remain as a community, empowered to decide our collective values and culture for ourselves.

It’s simply historical fact that hungry people, burned people, displaced people, people dying of preventable health conditions… people in impossible circumstances, being asked for impossible things… eventually disengage from collaboration with the leaders creating those conditions, and there is always a proportion that get very angry. It is also a historical fact that leaders that are sufficiently out of step with the people they lead/rule, don’t get to keep being the leaders unless they engage in Really Nasty Behaviour. But society rights itself over time: the mechanisms for this vary between systems, ranging from the guillotines of the French, to the preferable mechanisms of elections and the like.

To use the latter in Australia, we’ve got a bit of a wait to go… a few years. In the meantime, progress and advancement actually belongs to us, just as it will after the next election. If I’ve noticed anything in the responses to Prime Minister Morrison’s recent pyro-bumbling, it’s that we, as a nation, are coming together to articulate what is and isn’t acceptable in how we respond to our collective needs. We are, together, stating our beliefs, in the legacy of thinkers like Strauss and Feuerbach who (somewhat inadvertently) helped initiate some of the cultural shifts that have led to the separation of Church and State. We get to choose what we believe (the history of our democratic system is peripheral to those guys, but not completely uncoupled), and we make fairly unencumbered choices about living out those beliefs, in community.

So, what do you believe you need to do now? What do you need? What do the people you live alongside need? It is up to you, and it is definitive of what happens next. Our systems, relationships, and processes consist of us, not our leaders. We survive; we grow; we rebuild; we learn. And we decide what we believe in, and what constitutes progress. Let’s evolve.

To my Mind (poem)

I can’t tell you
What I am.
I can tell you
What I hope to do
And how
In my backyard
The hens and the sparrows
Both eat the wheat
That I bought.

That the chestnut hood
Of the male sparrow
Is a glory to me
And that the cream-grey
Of the females
Is a fitting colour for a wedding gown…
To my mind, at least.

The industry of those hens:
Their cackling
They dig craters
And bathe in the dust
The sparrows among them
The ground stirring…
I don’t mind the eggs
But they’re here for the sheer beauty…
To my mind, at least.

I can’t tell you
What I am.
I can tell you
What I hope to do:
That if you were here,
In my backyard
I would see you
And you would be beautiful…
To my mind, at least.

Touching Faith (poem)

I do not need to touch
The hem of your robe
To know how much like Christ you are,
Emperor Nero.

I do not need to hear you
Close to my ear
Your breath on my cheek
To feel the shudder of your size
The churn of fear
At your immobile faith.

If we did touch
If you stepped so close
That I froze, and didn’t run
I am sure your cold coal heart
Would chill me
No matter how much heat
Was trapped beneath our smoky sky.

But,
If you took my hand
A spark would ignite us
And I would burn you to the ground.

Sway

I have heard tell
of your mighty systems
Your steel-bright resolve
and your blind old eyes.

Your oratory echoes
but does not resound
We murmur
and we sigh.

What, though,
if you sway for us?
What if you bend,
and together
we dance?

Breath (poem)

Hold me awhile
Later
I will hold you
And the dance
Will ebb and sway
As always.

Breathe out
What you hold
Take in
New breath
Full and empty
Once again
Repeat
Repeat
Repeat.

We are swelling
And pouring out
We are weeping
And hoping
Renewed
And deadened
Sprouted
And wilting.

Hold me awhile
Later
I will hold you
And the dance
Will ebb and sway
As always.

I Thought We Would Scream (poem)

We all know the moustache.
The straight arm
The barking Heil-cough.
If he came again,
I thought we would scream.

We all know the plague masks.
The death carts
The weeping widows.
If they came again,
I thought we would scream.

We all know the coalfields.
The black lungs
The buried children.
If they came again,
I thought we would scream.

The war-brokers, despots
Fascists, racists,
Slave-lords, pimps…
I thought we would scream
But
The water has warmed
So slowly
That we wait.

Faith

You can sing to me
You can rock me to sleep
My legs along
The furrows between
Your fingers.
My body across your palm
My head
Resting
On the heel of your thumb.
You can lift me
Can cradle me, unbruised
I am smoothed-out
Soothed
I can sleep again:
We both breathe
In your breath.

Us

I can smell burning.
I think it’s us.
It’s not the windows shattering
Not the door beaten down
Not the skyscrapers tumbling
As planes strike them.

I can smell burning.
I think it’s us.
Not GDP plummeting
Not the supply chains failed
Not the shelves empty
From “looters”; from “aliens”.

I can smell burning.
I can smell it
Our musk
Our stench
Our uncleanness.

I can smell burning
When governments guns
Protect miner’s bombs
When I work from dark to dark
The week of a death
(just casually).

I can smell burning
I think it’s us.

Dear Friend

Dear friend,
We stand together
Not ‘together’ together
But at the photocopier
And sometimes
In the hallway.

Sometimes
I bellow
In the corridor
Sometimes I sprint away
For no reason
After a short exchange
About not much at all.

Dear friend,
We stand together
In the days upon days
Share space
Share breath
Walk towards and apart,
Towards and apart.
We dance
Through life’s meandering quiet
At the photocopier
And sometimes in the hallway.

Boy

My son,
You are always as you should be
Always have been
Always, in these hard spaces:
This soft kindness; this mighty mercy.

My son,
Every kindness you radiate
The warm silence
‘It’s okay,’ you say to us
‘It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.’

But this sweet sturdiness,
My son; my son;
Is too much on your shoulders
Too much for you to fairly bear
And in the cool of the night
I wonder at your warmth
And all I can think to do
Is kiss you as you sleep.

The Courtyard

My daughter noticed
(Weeks ago)
That the magpies here
Are very fat.

This afternoon,
Between paragraphs
(Well, after the realisation
That I wrote down
The wrong page number
And ranted
‘Who the hell is Harrison?
I can’t find the letter!’
And skulked out
To the Social Sciences Courtyard)
I stood beneath the flowering tree
The russet-salmon pendants
With fatted bees bumbling among them
The bulbous trunk
Whispering to me
That I could write
That it would be ok
That I am part of the long story
That I belong.

Walking back,
I saw hollowed green walnuts
Scattered across the path
A pile, swept aside
A sign of industry and resignation
And wondered if perhaps
In the night
Rats chew them.

I went to leave
But the flower-tree called to me
And I turned back and stood on the grass.
Shells and kernels speckled my shoulders
My gaze rose to the sulfur-crested dissident
Quietly chewing through the full, young crop
And I thought, ‘Ah: even the loudest voices
Come here and are stilled.’

I knew, then,
That the silent rhythms of this place
Fatten magpies
And build wonder
In the woman my daughter will become.

Flotsam and Jetsam (poem)

There’s nothing left of that home feeling
There is no bed-remembrance
No warm waiting space
That calls a person back
When abroad; when visiting

There’s no clean pillow
That smells the same as yesterday
And the week before
Fresh and new, fresh and new
The same, the same, the same

There is no chair;
No place at a table
No rhythm
Nothing is where it used to be
Nobody is the same face
As yesterday morning
And last year
And all those birthdays

Drifted into the ether

Evaporated
Into the wind;
Flotsam and jetsam
Split into pieces
You cannot buy your place again
Once you have become nothing
To anyone
Anywhere…
Once you have fallen away from the wholeness of things
And yet

There is still a body
Tumbled through the open spaces
Wedged into the un-home gaps that were
Designed to be in-betweens, and daytime, and outings
These spaces are everything; all of it
And always
And nowhere at all.

Headspace (poem)

Old City Square, Prague

So, you’ve stopped me,
To talk.
I’ll listen,
For a little while.
Unless you give me something
Unless you pay rent
For this precious peace
Of headspace.

What are you wanting
To put in there?
What manner of structure
Are you seeking to build?

This mind is a busy city
German-engineered
Poets live here; painters
Physicists, geneticists
George Eliot’s summer residence
Overlooks Strauss and Kierkegaard
Sitting gently beside each other.

So sure, speak to me.
But for God’s sake
Say something.