By John Armstrong, University of Melbourne
We can readily be forgiven for thinking that these are the worst of times: our collective institutions seem feeble in the face of our needs and hopes.
The Christian churches – which were once powerful and noble in intent, look deranged and broken. Government seems preoccupied by short term advantage and factional squabbling; the capitalist economy is (in many parts of the world) in disrepair; the media is fragmenting, in financial trouble and driven downmarket.
These troubles share an underlying logic. It is easy to imagine things going better, yet all plans to make them better run into the same obstacle. We can imagine a bank that puts people before profit; a party that was devoted to truth and the long term; a university that cared only for intrinsic value; a media organisation that simply reported the facts; a church that was truly devoted to human welfare and free of mystification.
But, the reverie is punctured: we can’t really believe that the bank would survive, the party get elected, the university get funded, the media organisation compete successfully against tabloid culture, or that the church would win millions of adherents. The obstacle is always human nature. Anyone is free at any point to initiate noble institutions; but initiating isn’t the problem.
It is always tempting to blame poor leadership, greed and corruption. But the underlying fear is what we see about our collective appetites we’d rather gossip, entrench our prejudices and ogle the suffering of others than understand and solve our problems; we’d rather vote on the basis of immediate self-interest rather than a distant public good; we’d rather find a good job than contemplate the truth.
The few can pursue the good – buy organic vegetables, read The Guardian Weekly or Die Zeit, become archaeologists, vote Green, renounce credit cards, undertake psychotherapy and eschew conspicuous consumption. “All the trouble in the world,” wrote Blaise Pascal, “comes from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Human nature, in other words, craves excitement, distraction, comfort, narcissistic gratification, pleasure, drama and will seize the opportunity when it arises to satisfy these longings.
Starting from low expectations – rather than from ideal hopes – changes the picture. The modern world, with all its defects, is a tremendous achievement. Australia is astonishingly decent and sane, in comparison with what might have been. Historically, it seems more likely that a society should look like Czarist Russia – with the minority enslaving the majority – than like today’s Copenhagen or Canberra.
The point is not so much to pat ourselves on the back as give us a clearer view of our task. The good needs to be pursued with a clear eye on what we are normally like. Rather than berate ourselves for being feckless, greedy, selfish, focused on the short-term, perverse – we should take this for granted.
The question is then – if this is what we are like, how can we work upon ourselves to improve our nature? What is the pathway for people like that to become – as Goethe put it – “noble, helpful and good”? How can we aspire to the ideal without being broken on the rocks of human nature? Politically – to speak in the most general terms – this is a left-right issue. At present, in Australia, the right is the voice of human nature. It is honest about our preferences.
On the whole, people care more about self-interest than the public good. While the pure left is the voice of an ideal that presupposes immense resources of generosity. In a recent article, University of New South Wales law lecturer Alecia Simmonds describes (with only slight exaggeration) the broadly anti-intellectual atmosphere of current Australian life.
But interestingly, there is little suggestion of what – if anything – could be done to put it right. The implication is that “they” (the public) don’t appreciate “us” (intellectuals) – and that’s their fault. But if we start from the assumption that people hate being bored, hate being humiliated and can’t stand being talked down to we have the basis for hope.
Simmonds’ counter examples – Slavoj Zizek writing for The Guardian, or philosophers in Le Monde – are interesting because they do not show intellectuals reaching the general public. Rather, these are public-free zones (unless we equate “the public” with the one percent who read these publications).
They help define the problem – we have come to the point where intellectuals imagine that the extreme end of refinement is populist. This is like the rich being amazed by ordinary life: there are Bulgari toiletries at the Ritz-Carlton in Geneva, so why not at the campsite too? Because intellectuals tend to be middle-class the economic parallel doesn’t leap to mind but in educational terms intellectuals are 1%ers.
Some 60,000 people – one-third of 1% – in Australia have savings of more than A$1 million, on top of property and superannuation: approximately similar to the number of people with PhDs. The required roadmap is one that shows how to get from where we are to where we want to go. Simply lamenting that we are where we are does not accomplish this. We need to study the early steps. Someone who moves from earning $40,000 a year to $60,000 has made immense progress in their life, but it won’t look impressive to someone who has inherited millions.
The progress from, say, liking Alan Jones to liking Andrew Bolt may be equally real, but will appear as nothing to someone who enjoys Le Monde. So instead of hating people who like Andrew Bolt, we should get interested in understanding what is going well there: the desire to hear an argument (even if a not very good one), the realisation that you can put two and two together and make something (even if the wrong something). The real question is: suppose you start from there, how would you take someone to the next level?
This detour via the lamentations of intellectuals teaches a general lesson. We need institutions that are “seductive”. That is, that embrace and like people as we are (with our serious flaws) and at the same time, want us to be better. They make the good appealing, given where we are starting from. We need the good to be glamorous, carnal, understanding of our fears, sympathetic to our foibles.
The outstanding example of doing this is to be found in the world of celebrity chefs. Jamie Oliver, first in the UK and now as a global brand, shows how to combine friendship with our ordinary selves and the longing for noble ideals. He wants people to be healthy, eat organic produce, work hard, care about quality. But he does not hate, or look down on, people who are not like this.
In his blokey, sweary, cheery way it’s clear that Jamie Oliver identifies with the people he wants to educate. But his love for them does not stop with endorsement of whoever they happen to be. It is a true love that wants people to be better versions of themselves, but works from sympathy rather than disdain. This is the model we need to institutionalise.
John Armstrong does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.