Epistles of Nobody: Part Three

It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief – forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. 

While efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis.

Robert Kennedy

Dear John,

I ended the last letter to you by saying that I believed I knew what our great-grandchildren might say about us as they shook their heads in disbelief long after we are gone.  I would like to think that they will shake their heads over how we let economic matters dictate to us the destruction of our environment, and the diminishment of the idea and the actuality of a fair society both at home and around the world.

What I am telling you is that I think we have quietly gone in the wrong direction for a long time, and the longer that we go that way the more damage we do to what is important.  It is not your fault that we are in this situation, but you do currently represent what I am talking about.  I believe you are a relic.  To me you represent the idea that people are mostly powerless before the economic forces that we ourselves create, and that economic forces – if they wildly savage the planet, or the notion of democracy, or create wreckage in human life – well, so be it.  After all that damage, which you assure us is necessary and can be managed, we will be in a better place.

Essentially, I believe the problem comes down to how we look at the world.  Is money or love our core belief?  Now I’m sure when you read that last sentence you smiled.  Love?  But if you think love is a sentimental or weak way to run a society then I think you need to broaden your understanding of what the word love means.  Love is an extremely powerful force, and a very sound basis for a society.  A society, I might add, that we, not economic forces, are in control of.  We are hopeless if we allow ourselves to be rendered helpless.  I believe that people acting out of love are a tremendous lever for positive change in the world.

If you believe purely in money you view the mechanism of society and its institutions economically.  This has been increasingly true in our society since 1984.  From the mid-80s until now we have more or less been encouraged to assess every aspect of our civic life by its cost, and its financial outcomes, and our environment purely by the possible revenue it can generate.  In many parts of life this initially made a lot of sense.  New Zealand before 1984 was too regulated and controlled by governments which spent enormous sums maintaining many redundant or over-staffed and grossly inefficient departments engaged in the meaningless work of administering a pointless bureaucracy.

But those days are long, long gone.  What the state should control has come back to quite a sensible level although there is always room to debate points around the edges.  And yet you are still locked in that game, that mentality.  We have been trained by people like you to view our civic institutions not by their value to our society, but by their cost.  We have stopped being called citizens and are usually called, in the outraged headlines: tax payers.  We are not citizens interested in good institutions of government, we are tax payers calling every decision to account by its cost to “us” financially.  As a result the idea of civil service has been eroded.  People don’t want to serve society, they want to have careers with transferable skill sets and increasing financial recognition of their abilities and experience as they rise to the heady heights of two houses, three cars, and four tvs.  All of which represents the goal of an economic view: economic prosperity for all.  There are two problems with this.  Capitalism has never achieved economic prosperity for all, and we now realise that infinite economic growth is not possible on a planet with finite resources.

Worse, in the short-term, an economic analysis of everything fragments and divides society.  Almost every time there is an important court case now the media feels obliged to tell us how much justice “cost us”.  In important cases the cost is always high.  I am happy to pay for justice.  What is the alternative?  To reduce the cost of justice we should do what?  Decrease the amount of time both sides have to make their case?  Reduce access to expert witnesses?  Pay judges tasked with making complicated and far-ranging decisions less?  Make justice user pays?

And what should we do with those who are found guilty?  Shall we incarcerate them as cheaply as possible for as long as possible?  Shall we add clauses to laws that allow dangerous offenders at the end of their sentence to be kept on after their sentences indefinitely?  Shall we cut corners on food?  Shall we double-bunk in converted containers?  I feel that if you degrade the degraded, and humiliate the outsider then they will never come back into the fold of society.  They will never find themselves, heal themselves, and find a way to fit.  Which is what we want.  People commit crimes.  Aside from a handful of people who will always be a danger to society, most of those people who go to prison have similar stories to tell about their early life.  What did we do in their early life to help them?  What are we doing now that they made a mistake, to help them back?  Those people, the people some call mongrels and animals, they are not dogs, they are our brothers and sisters.  Like it or not.

Do you see what I mean about money?  It bleeds into everything John.  Look at us on the world stage.  Of course we need trade, and it is not an appealing characteristic in a visitor to lecture the host on the morality of their house, but I would expect a decent, civilised person and a representative of a people to express his concern about the injustices been carried out against the people of Russia when he visits that country looking for business.  If we just want to pluck one hot issue from Russia let’s look no further that Pussy Riot.  A band that sang “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away” in a Russian Church as a protest action have had three of their members sentenced to two years in a Siberian prison.  In the last six months 2000 prisoners have died en route to these prisons.  Should we shy from even making the mildest comment on that for money?  And let’s not even begin on China’s record on human rights.

Why are we in Afghanistan?  It appears that we are there for political reasons.  Since 2001 the number of civilian deaths has mounted higher and higher.  Something in me revolts against this, and the tragedy that ripples out from each one of those deaths.  And now we are sending “logistical support” for what looks a lot like revenge for our handful of combat deaths.  Why are we there?  To curry favour?  To join hands with the oppressor in the land of the oppressed in exchange for a possible trade deal, or better military relations?  America long ago ceased to be seen as a force for justice in the world by those without power.

And because in this country we are rich, whether we like to admit it or not, we should be on the side of those without power in our own country and overseas if we believe in the happiness and fulfillment of those we share this time and place with.  Those without power are the poor, or the disenfranchised, or the disempowered.  They are children, and the very old, and the disabled, those sick, or out of work, or in despair.  They are the colonised peoples of a land called some new name by some other people who overwhelmed them, the countries once ruled by and now spat out by empires, the people under occupation, or pushed to the margins.  Those people are our brothers and sisters too, and when they flee horrendous conditions in a last chance high risk gamble for asylum we should do what we can, not pass laws that permit mass detention without trial and treat people outside our borders as if they are not people with human rights.

Martin Luther King said that we would have to learn to live together as brothers, or we would all perish together as fools.  Nowhere is this more evident than in our approach to our environment.  Just as we should act in a spirit of love to our brothers and sisters, so we should act towards the Earth which houses and sustains us.  Shouldn’t we be protecting what we haven’t already sullied?  Under an economic model, trying to expand coal mining, and looking to exploit national parks makes sense.  Under any other model it is wrong.  Wrong to sell pollution to other countries, and wrong to attack the principle of a national park.  As it is wrong to attack the principle of a state asset. To sell something the people own back to a small group who can afford it divides society further by increasing inequality.

As it happens, over the last two years I have been trying to think what I could do to make my society a better place.  I thought about donating food to a foodbank, and I started on the process of volunteering to help refugees, but then I stopped.  I was dissatisfied with both of these responses.  Just last week I realised that I don’t need to find something to do.  I am already doing it.  I am a teacher, and I have the potential to help 100 people a day.  In some ways I can’t believe I was so stupid that I didn’t see what my opportunity was before, but in another way I am not surprised.

Unfortunately, over the last few years I have felt attacked by the government.  I have felt that my opinion was not important, and that for some reason the government wanted to label teachers and schools as failures.  They certainly didn’t want to talk to us.  We have been sneered at and diminished.  Teachers are not above criticism.  We listen to it everyday.  Our working environment is not one that encourages arrogance or complacency.  You don’t get into teaching to develop a big head.  You also don’t get into teaching to be a doormat to political agendas which have little proven worth to education, or to give up on things like your internationally admired curriculum.  When we defend education we usually do it for the students and the community, and not out of self-interest.  And yet we are sneered at and diminished.  How does this benefit society?

Of course teachers have not been alone in being dismissed and unconsulted.  It must feel quite similar in Christchurch, or if you are Maori.  As if you are under attack.  Using the word consultation as Bill English or Hekia Parata or Gerry Brownlee uses it promotes cynicism about one of the foundations of democracy: consent.  True democracy doesn’t seek consent once every three years, it seeks consent through consultation continually.  John, if you treat all impediments to your plans in a high-handed way you erode the faith of people in the system that runs our country, and if you do that you reduce the chances that people will participate in our society for the good of us all.

Passing an economic ruler over all of our problems and opportunities is the laziest possible response to complex problems.  Telling people in Christchurch that they need 21st century schools instead of community schools is awful.  Just awful.  An important part of life is continuity, of a sense of history within a community over time.  Also important to a place is being able to walk to school with friends, and for parents to meet each other in the playground, and again in the shops, and again in the library.  This happens with small, local, community schools.  It’s one reason private schools reduce community.  They exist as dead blocks inside suburbs, drawing people from all over, but not being connected with their location.  They are also worse for the environment.  Not many people going to private schools walk there because they live too far away.

But none of this matters to you.  To you it makes economic sense.  It is about getting bang for your buck by constructing a few “21st century schools” to train people to be successful at making money.  As if this were the sole definition of success.  As if you can convince parents who daily act out of love for their children whatever the cost that they should reverse that logic, and consider cost first in all their family decisions.  As if we as a nation should decide how we handle the sick or unemployed by their lifetime cost to us.  I don’t doubt that this is economically efficient.  I don’t doubt that it is hard-headed.  Money matters.  But not first.  We can live behind the walls of a divided society on a ruined planet counting our money, or we could try and climb the hills of the Acropolis.

Which will it be John?

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14 thoughts on “Epistles of Nobody: Part Three

  1. It’s too easy to just say that this is brilliant. It speaks to the heart of the lost soul of our current world view. And it does so with such wonderful eloquence that it took my breath away.

  2. It was thought provoking to be reminded that we are citizens first and tax payers second. That we as teachers should be growing citizens and not workers to feed the economy. The next time I hear the word “taxpayer” instead of Kiwi – look out.

  3. Thanks. That’s very generous…. I do appreciate your thoughts, and I apologise for being a poor correspondent.

  4. Thank you. It’s a step for me. I’m not sure where these steps are taking me, but they make me feel more confident about teaching as a valuable action in the service of society. Which is good for the soul.

  5. Citizens lets us all play the game. Taxpayer seems to cut out a few people as in headlines likes: “Beneficiaries cost taxpayers”. Sounds different from “Number of citizens needing benefits rises”.

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