Current Issue #488

Modern Times: When we next fight, what values will we be fighting for?

Modern Times: When we next fight, what values will we be fighting for?

Australians are often called to combat to defend our ‘values’ for which so many young lives have been lost. Our values are considered so superior that we are willing to consciously destroy theirs, and eviscerate their towns and cities in the process.

In April, our Prime Minister announced that ‘Australian values’ component will be introduced to the citizenship test. Yet no one can succinctly describe those uniquely Australian values used to justify exclusion and sacrifice.

When pressed to identify the values on which citizenship applicants would be tested, Prime Minister Turnbull mentioned democracy and rule of law. Neither is unique to Australia. Could it be that the rise of nationalist, anti-immigration politics in Europe, Japan and the United States prompted this new emphasis on Australian values and ‘putting Australia first’?

It is ironic that, as we suddenly discover the importance of our values and way of life, we spend so little time seeking progress in either. We ask not if our beliefs and values have merit, or if our systems are valid. We assume that our society is superior, without so much as asking whether we have made progress from one generation to the next. Are we building communities, the sum of which constitutes our nation, that are worth defending?

One day after the release of the US global trends report, President Barrack Obama gave his farewell address. He asserted that “protecting our way of life, that’s not just the job of our military … just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, must guard against the weakening of the values that make us who we are”. Public discourse – in Australia as in America – should provide this opportunity; this contest for values. But who believes that it currently fulfils this purpose?

What values would be worth fighting for – physically or even rhetorically? Diplomacy was once exercised in defence of human rights, but Australia has lost all virtue in this respect. We now condemn asylum seekers to detention centres. We ignore the reality that they are humans with rights; under international law, they have a right to statehood and to seek asylum. The recent treatment of young miscreants in youth detention centres in Northern Territory, and the parlous state of Indigenous peoples living in remote communities, is also a rejection of the notion of human rights.

Australians once celebrated egalitarianism. It is a value worth defending – but in Australia wealth inequality soars, evidence of upward mobility is scarce, and the gap between the market wage and social value of our labour increases. These values are under attack, and their defence requires only an active participation in our democracy rather than a far greater sacrifice on the battlefield. Their defence is not just the job for our military.

Debate has been silenced on many of these issues and members of our national polity are, to borrow from Marcus Aurelius, “just a different cast” repeating lines from the same play. The same man reflected on the need to “consider each individual thing you do and ask yourself whether to lose it through death makes death itself any cause for fear”.

We do not place enough value on what we are, and on each individual thing we do. As the drumbeat of war grows louder, we should reflect on what we are willing to defend with our lives. When next we send our young people to war in defence of our values, will anyone be able to define what they will be sent to defend?


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