A wire rope is made to support a load under tension and composed of many woven steel strands. But wire ropes sometimes break, the best policy being to conduct regular examinations and, just in case, never to place any part of your body near the rope in case it fails. When the first strand goes the load and strain on the remaining wires intensifies until, most likely sooner than later, the next-weakest wire fails, and so on. There is nothing that can be done to stop the deterioration or, eventually, the catastrophic failure that sees the severed rope become a whip-lashing peril to all unlucky enough to be nearby at the time. Many a tilt-truck driver has been grievously injured when his winch rope’s unnoticed deterioration became suddenly and catastrophically apparent.
You’ve probably guessed that I’m invoking a metaphor about society. In Australia right now even the most cursory inspection reveals strands whose integrity is either partially or wholly gone. Let me identify some of these strands; I am sure readers can add their own.
Discipline: Today, discipline appears to be absent or marginal in many areas: the schoolroom, the home, public behaviour, even our parliament. Don’t like a former prime minister? Well head-butt him because, well, why not! Arguing your case requires thought and effort and logic. It’s so much easier (and far more satisfying) to make your case with a forehead to the nose. Yes, you might end up in court, but it will be to the cheers of your Twitter admirers and urgers.
Respect: This seems to be regarded as one of yesterday’s virtues, as we see in almost all areas of public and private life: customer service, attitude to the elderly, simple gestures such as opening a door, road rage. Or think of it this way: you are Australia’s greatest tennis player but hold unfashionable views about re-defining the word “marriage”. Expect your center court achievements to count for nothing as activists push to remove your name from the stadium built to honour your sporting achievements. Why extend respect when a public burning is so much more fun?
Education: Where does one start? In no particular order: lack of emphasis on the three Rs; the inclusion in the syllabus — indeed, elevation — of lifestyle advocacy. Even as Australia slips ever further down the international rankings, the amount poured into “education” grows, yet teacher unions and bureaucrats insist it is still not enough. And it gets worse at the tertiary level. Universities now focus on generating revenue rather than promoting academic excellence. To be fair, this is all they can do, as the schools system delivers every year a fresh crop of minds either half-formed or so polluted by approved doctrine that the critical thought once seen as the essence of university life is beyond them. Ever wonder about the popularity of gay studies, womens studies and all the other make-it-up-as-you-go-along “studies”? The explanation is simple: useless courses are the perfect vehicles to keep the fees flowing and bums on lecture room seats. That a degree in, say, feminist film studies is unlikely to enhance job prospects is never mentioned.
Law and order: In Victoria almost one billion dollars every year is shaken out of motorists who travel just a whisker over the speed limit — respectable citizens for the most part whose only crime is to have money in the bank the government thinks should be better used underwriting its education system (see above) and other follies. Meanwhile teen gangs rampage through the late-night suburbs and police warn that any homeowner who defends home, life and property against push-in invaders risks being charged with vigilantism. Nevertheless, sporting goods stores sell out of baseball bats.
Sport and leisure: Everything in sport is overlaid with money, gambling, razzmatazz, and success at all costs. Sport is pervasive: it has become one of our new, secular religions. Sporting personalities who are held up as role models are too often brought down by drugs, dope, sex and dubious conduct. Oh, and don’t mention the tattoos.
Procreation: In the Sixties, the Pill was the first unnatural technique to change the procreation game. From there we have moved at an exponential rate through IVF, surrogacy, donor sperm, multiple donors and cryogenic storage to name a few current procedures. In addition, because modern feminism insists jobs and careers are far more satisfying than kitchen-sink motherhood, women are conceiving well past the recommended age. I know all of these aspects can wonderful in certain individual circumstances. But simply because something can be done does not mean there will be no consequences: there simply has not been sufficient experience to predict long-term outcomes.
Family: What has happened to the family, that bastion of society and the nation: mother, father, and children? Parents are often there in name only. Mum and Dad both work so that their taxes can subsidise child care, allowing them to keep on working to pay more taxes for more child care. Once in Australia it was possible for families to get by on just one income. No longer. The pressures of work and life in general are sapping the strength and capacity of the nuclear family to function effectively and children are suffering.
Morality and spirituality: Australia was born under a Judeo-Christian umbrella: the Ten Commandments, ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’, self-sacrifice, and the manners, morals and graces that flow from these principles. Since then we have folded the umbrella and put it away. We worship at the altars of hedonism and materialism, of sport and leisure. It is a significant shift and religion’s vanishing from the public square is telling. Christian thought can be instructive in appreciating and understanding many things, including the beauty of a sunrise, literature, music, art, an attitude, a thought. But do we find the time and have the mind to appreciate these today? In an insightful recent article, (‘The Death Throes of Common Decency‘) Quadrant‘s Peter Smith highlighted the sad results of this shift.
Digital Technology: Forty years ago this strand was not present but today cannot be ignored. The genie is out of the bottle and there is no controlling it. Yes, digital technology can and is doing much good, but with it come other consequences: pornography on a massive scale; lack of personal relationships; bullying; identity theft; mental stress; personal worth and employment. Worse than that is the digital “echo chamber”. Once, back when newspapers were the chief vehicles of expressed opinion, both sides were given a guernsey to one extent or other. Today, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, bodies of thought divide into mutually exclusive and abusive camps. Express the view that Donald Trump might not be Satan incarnate and you will be “unfriended” in short order, meaning those of like mind reinforce each other’s views and, rather than engage in debate, self-polarised online communities fling abuse at each other.
At the outset I cited the strands of a deteriorating steel rope. What are the consequences of the breakdown of the above strands and others? Well, lack of common sense for starters, plus an inability to make effective and realistic plans. On top of that, moral decay, poor “systems thinking” and weak leadership.
The eventual outcome of these deficiencies will be long-term, but I suggest we are witnessing some of the early results today. Consider the performance of the successive federal governments over the past ten years: the NBN fiasco; the ruinously wasteful pink batts/school halls response to the GFC; NDIS funding for lawnmowing outfits; money as the solution, the only solution, to the education’s systems worsening failures.
And what of the parliamentary citizenship debacle? Is that not a manifestation of the attitude that rules apply to some, but not all?
Or how about blowing $50 billion — it will be much, much more than that by the time of the first boat’s delivery — on submarines conceived not for defending the nation but to save the seat of an alleged conservative who turns to GetUp! for help in white-anting members of his own party. Then there is the power crisis and the absurdity of an energy-rich nation facing blackouts while being burdened with some of the world’s highest electricity tariffs. I could go on, but will leave readers to expand the list with their own favourite failures of will, principle and leadership.
Can this deterioration be reversed? Brand me a pessimist but I doubt it. Essentially, what we are witnessing is the collapse of a nation’s capacity to cope with the increasingly complex world we are creating. The strands are popping, the rope coming apart. Where will this end? In tears, I’m afraid.
Safety note: If you have to cross a wire rope that is under load and of disintegrating integrity, keep your fingers crossed. If you’re lucky it will be a repairable injury, rather than a fatal gutting when all the separating strands give way suddenly and at once.