Between compassion and delusion

The problem of the boat people is the perfect Rorschach test for the narcissim of the “progressive” side of politics. Remember Narcissus, that beautiful young man who famously fell in love with his reflection in the waters of some ancient pool, neither eating nor drinking until he faded away.

Just like this, the bien pensant of progressive politics (read the Greens and pre-KRudd2.0 Labor) gaze imaginatively upon those lonely stretches of Indian Ocean that finally wash onto the shores of Christmas Island and other far flung Australian Territories. The wretched tide of asylum seekers that they read about in The Age provides the essential foreground, behind which they spy an achingly beautiful reflection of their superior humanity. There is a delicious frisson at the apprehension of this shimmering reflection of their boundless empathy, their loving-kindness, which is almost too much to bear.

Yes, this stuff is so much better than an awkward fumbling for a gold coin or two when that annoying Red Cross lady rattles her tin – standing strategically between you and the first double-shot latte of the day. Or the pesky-but-perky girl with the RSPCA bib, beaming when she catches your eye and asks, “Can I just ask you a question?” A gold coin or two is certainly worth it to get past the charity spruikers and reach that trendy little coffee spot (Fair Trade, of course!) and you arrive with your conscience buffed, but not sparkling.

The problem with that hurried grappling for small change from the trouser pocket or the purse is that you know deep down there is a $20, even a $50, in there somewhere. Better not look too hard. Even better not to open up the wallet so everyone can see how much is in it. But don’t be too alarmed, the nice save-the-animals-girl is hardly going to turn up her nose and say: “Is that all? That won’t even treat a koala with chlamydia if you’re interested)” This is the grubby flip-side of giving – it’s called choosing. Ultimately it’s about limits.

The difficult thing about asylum seekers arriving daily, sometimes in their hundreds, is that you can’t just hand out a few coins and say, "Sorry,  that’s all the change I have."

At some point, if you’ve got more integrity that a Greens politician, you have to say how many you are willing to take. You have to say — and it’s not nice, and it doesn’t feel good —  that, yes, "I’ve got more space but I’ve reached my limit. God have mercy, but I’m selfish alright!”

You have to be able to say that you like your current standard of living, that you like deciding what kind of society you want. You have to be able to say that you want your great Aunt Mary to have her expensive dialysis, even though she is old and cranky and you have been reading in the papers of the asylum-seeker children infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Those kids are at the start of their lives and would benefit more from the expenditure, but just trying looking Aunt Mary in the eye and telling her that.

Those who can’t set limits are like teenagers who post notice of their parties on the internet and end up with 400 uninvited guests and a riot when the police arrive. But it’s barely a trickle of boats, the conspicuously compasionate say, even as the dribble of arrivals becomes a constant stream, often adding with a sneer that Australia is big and fat and rich and selfish and bigoted.

Well, we are fat and rich and selfish, and there’s no denying it. We shouldn’t shy away from this sort of analysis.

But it’s not good enough to say how wonderful it makes you feel to open the gates to asylum seekers if you lack a semi-coherent notion about when you’re going to shut them again. If you are not prepared to set a date, to nominate a point at which you will not handle any more, then you must begin drawing up a list of the things you are prepared to do without if the tide of boat people is double, treble,even  ten times what it is today?

And after that, you must decide when will you shut the gate and on whom you will shut it? What if it’s a baby who comes knocking when all the available spots are filled? Too cruel? Then what about those under twelve. Are they still too young to be turned away. 

This is the problem with the compassionate side of politics. Those who wear compassion on their sleeves cannot and will not answer these questions because, enamored of their empathic reflections, they refuse to make hard decisions. Much better and far easier to denounce others they regard as less exquisitely sensitive than themselves. So the grown-ups have to bear the burden of those decisions for them.

Prime Minister Rudd recently asked us to heed the great parable of the Good Samaritan. But that fable was about personal giving. The parable didn’t go on to say, “…and then the poor people of the neighboring towns, desperate for something better than their impoverished lives, all rushed to get their share of the Good Samaritan’s alms and hospitality, courtesy of his endless denarii.” You see, while the Good Samaritan was undoubtedly generous, he quite liked his wealth and was prepared to pay for just so much wine and olive oil and bandages. Had he placed no bounds on his largesse it would not have been long until his wealth was gone and he found himself incapable of helping anyone at all.

The moral of the boat people mess is this: If you want to set policy, tear yourself away from the reflection in the pond and say for the record what you will do, how many will you take and when your will be no longer prepared to burden patience and pockets by accepting any more arrivals. Above all, you must know how will you close the gate and on whom?

Until you can answer those questions, linger by the pond and stare lovingly at yourself. That will assist others attempting to deal with the crowds at the gate.

Dr Murray Walters is a Brisbane pyschiatrist

Leave a Reply