Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

Poem: Nouriel’s Shoes

The following poem is from my Burning Archive collection.

It had its origins in a strategic leadership program I attended some years ago at the Australian and New Zealand School of Government. We, the participants, sat in a large circle of maybe 30, and were invited by the facilitator to declare something about ourselves, some thing we aspired to do, but had not. It was an exercise in getting out of our comfort zone, and into the kind of psychodynamic group space beloved by the Tavistock Institute.

There were some dull confessions and rote ambitions, and then it came to my turn.  I said, “I had always wanted to be a poet, but never had fully given myself over to it.” I was teetering on the verge of the perpetual crisis of my career – a dichter  lost in the maze of power. I heeded the call of the strange gods that I serve, and set out on my unique path.

Later in the leadership program, we were asked to develop a policy response to the immigration and refugee problem in Australia. We were shipped around Melbourne to meet various stakeholders, including one remarkable community leader of the Afghani refugee community in Melbourne. Nouriel was her name – I have forgotten her surname over the years.

When we presented our proposals to the group we were invited to be as imaginative as possible. I closed out our presentation, with an improvised story about Nouriel’s shoes, the gifts she gave to her home country in the hope that women would be educated, and her society would find peace and no longer need to be a source country for refugees.

Here is the poem.

Nouriel’s Shoes

 

Nouriel does not know time wasting.

She does not know carelessness.

Asylum seekers – she cannot forgive them,

For buying their way to freedom,

For walking past crying millions in the camps.

And the lawyers, who parade

Their bookish rights, like flash cars,

She despises.

 

She fled Kabul in ’79,

An educated woman in a liberal society

that just did not take.

Paris schooled her for a time –

Just like Khomeini, another exile –

Before the Great Southern Land

Gave her freedom,

But not a home.

 

She remembers Kabul:

Its ordered streets and fruit-trees,

The women laughing in the sunshine,

The children dressed in fine cottons,

Playing in the gardens.

Then, the tanks, the shells, the war, the hatred

That brought Afghanis to this kitchen,

At the other end of the world.

 

Here she returned the gift:

Making scarred men into kitchen hands;

Running English classes for the women;

Outwitting the men who would wrap

Their women in silent ignorance

To cocoon their cards and drink and faith;

Nouriel’s freedom must be worked for.

To those many who do, she gives all that she can.

 

Now she returns to Kabul,

after the Taliban

Have fled her city for now.

In abandoned parks, children play bare-footed

Between rubble and shells.

Schools barely hold their girls against poisoned faiths.

To these schools she decides to give;

So no more Afghanis will flee to her wealthy refuge,

But stay in her remembered home.

 

She buys the children shoes,

Hundreds of boxes of shoes.

One summer she visits a school with her gifts.

Watching as the children begin their long walk home,

She sees one girl carrying her box,

Still bare-footed, in the hard dust of the street.

Nouriel asks: “Why don’t you put them on?”

The girl replies: “I must wash my feet first.”

 

Jeff Rich

 

Image source: Getty images

From flashbacks to testimony – reflections on the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse

In September last year I delivered a paper to a conference sponsored by a major research centre on the history of emotions. It was a step away for me from the hidden bureaucrat who never speaks in public or who does not share the depth and range of his thoughts. Perhaps I hoped it might take me on the path not taken, and leading me back to my early career aspiration to be an historian.

But that was not to be. But I did receive a pleasing response to the paper from the conference attendees.  The paper concerned the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Childhood Sexual Abuse, which has since 2013 been inquiring into the many cases of child sexual abuse in the churches, in schools, in government institutions, in the entertainment industry and so on.

It has been a remarkable event in Australian public life. At a moment when public institutions are locked into a degrading tit-for-tat spiteful conversation about all that is petty, this Royal Commission has found a way to speak in the most dignified, profound way about issues that are distressing and difficult. It was this enigma that I wanted to portray, and I sought to connect it to the history of emotions.

Martha Nussbaum has written of the use of emotions in public and political life, and of the importance for democratic societies of tragic spectatorship, and providing a form for the difficult social emotions that can bring public life down. Here, she speaks in a timely meditation on finding a better way to be angry – surely a task for our times. And it was precisely this way of giving form and art to difficult emotions was at the foundation of the Royal Commission’s achievement.

I still think I might write a short book or a long essay on the Royal Commission, which will complete its report soon and publish it just before Christmas this year. But in the meantime I am posting my talk at the conference on Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia.

*****

The remembered child who speaks of trauma – reflections on the Child Abuse Royal Commission.

Jeff Rich

Paper to conference held by ARC Centre for the History of Emotions

Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia

Session – Voices that testify

September 9, 2016

The Children’s Voices in Contemporary Australia Symposium explored the status of children’s voices and their ability to tell their own stories. The symposium heard from neuroscientists, historians, legal scholars, literary scholars, mental health and child welfare practitioners, and most importantly children and young people themselves.  My contribution is a little different since it looks not at the voices of today’s children, but the remembered voices of children, as spoken by the adults who have testified at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Children’s Voices and Royal Commission Testimony

Sometimes during the many survivor testimonies at the Royal Commission, you can hear summoned from the memory of a 40 year old, a 60 year old, even an 80 year old, the voice of the traumatised child. Though spoken by adults, they are children’s voices nonetheless, even if filtered through all the prisms of memory, later experience and narrative reconstruction. To attend so carefully, at last, to these voices is one of the great achievements of the Royal Commission.

Although they are not strictly contemporary children’s voices, the way the Commission puts them on the public stage is demonstrating new possibilities for how we all respond to children today. Indeed, the example set by the Royal Commission through its inquiries, public hearings and most significantly its private sessions is reshaping community attitudes and institutional responses to children. Fragile, sometimes dissociated, remembered voices of traumatised children are no longer brushed aside as sob stories from too long ago. And so the Commission has borne witness not just to the facts, but also to the emotions carried in these voices.

More than that – and here I think the ARC Centre for History of Emotions could play a role – the Commission is reshaping our emotional responses to trauma – even inventing a new emotional regime (to use the term of William Reddy, the historian of emotions).

There is in historical writing a booming field of the history of emotions. This field has diverse  origins in the study of the mass psychology of crowds and irrational irruptions of violence in civilised societies. The field has explored contrasts between modern rationalised societies and their medieval or anthropologically remote counterparts, the birth of manners and civility, the emotional experience of family, art and many quotidian experiences. Since the 1980s, the field has received great impetus from discoveries and borrowings from the life sciences, as many disciplines learn from new understandings of how the nature of the brain, cognition, emotion and culture are intertwined in human evolution and history. Socially, too, it has been spurred by the diffusion of self-help groups across many social movements and health concerns, and this practice has prompted historians to ponder the existence of “emotional communities” – affinity groups of akin styles of expressing and acting on emotion. This opening out of historical writing to felt experience, and its examination of how emotions are shaped and adapted over time, how cultures and institutions give rise to particular patterns of emotional life, and how they enable particular ways of understanding, expressing and acting on the shifting impulses of feeling. It has led to a boom of studies of fear, anger, shame and violence that can deepen our understanding of the community response to the Royal Commission, and go beyond general arguments about social attitudes or indeed lazy clichés like “moral panic” which, in the past, have been tagged to people concerned about child sexual abuse.

William Reddy is among the most distinguished practitioners of the history of emotions.  In a strange irony, Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling was, in fact, published the day before the terror attack on the twin towers buildings in New York on September 11 2001, and the history of emotions has ever since perhaps spoken to the anxieties of our time. Reddy has coined two terms “emotives” and “emotional regime,” which can be used to examine the articulation of emotion through the Royal Commission. “Emotives” refers to a certain characteristic of utterance of emotion – mid-way between an unacknowledged instinct and a fully intentional expression of a known self. It is an exploratory and incomplete articulation of feeling, whose point is its own experiment with expression, not revelation of truth or purpose.  In an interview, Reddy explained:

“Emotional expressions, in this sense, are neither constative nor performative, in Austin’s sense. They are a third kind of utterance: this is why I coined the term “emotives” for them…. An emotional expression is an attempt to call up the emotion that is expressed; it is an attempt to feel what one says one feels. These attempts usually work, but they can and do fail. When they fail the emotive expression is ‘exploratory’ in the sense that one discovers something unexpected about one’s own feelings.” (Plamper, “Interview”, 2010, p 240)

Reddy defines “emotional regime” as “the set of normative emotions and official rituals, practices and ’emotives’ that express and inculcate them.” In the Navigation of Feeling he explores contrasts between the emotional styles or regimes of Revolutionary France and later nineteenth century France, and argued that each regime led to different qualities of emotional suffering, with the regime in nineteenth century France offering more choices and hope to the individual.

This way of thinking about how societies shape and use emotions, or indeed how emotions shape and use societies, is of profound importance to understanding the Royal Commission. It is a truth commission that is not solely investigating documentary and analytical truth, but the truth of felt emotion. It is cultivating ways of speaking of the intimate shame of victims, bringing to light new truths about the failures of our social institutions, and new truths about how we can go beyond them. Shame is not an emotion that has been extensively investigated in the history of emotions, but it is central to the more philosophical work of Martha Nussbaum. In Hiding from history: disgust, shame and the law she explores how responses to shame and disgust are profoundly revealing of social and political distinctions, and through “projective disgust” can readily lead to derogation of the rights of others. By accepting our embodied, vulnerable and animal states, we become more accepting of others, more compassionate. But if shame leads to the separation from the strange and disgusting other, then it leads to some of the worst cruelties of humanity.

Nussbaum also explores systematically the role of emotions in public political institutional and cultural life. Her argument is that there are two main tasks of political emotion in liberal societies. The first task is to cultivate love,  sympathy, and strong commitments to worthy projects that require effort and sacrifice. So, a prime example is to cultivate the compassion for others that underpins paying taxes to support others in a full range of activities, and to redistribute some resources to the poor and frail. The second task is to hold at bay “tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others,” especially on how societies handles fear, disgust, envy, and shaming others. (Nussbaum, Political Emotions,  p. 2)” Emotions do not simply exist as passing feelings within an individual’s psyche. They find cultural and symbolic form to motivate, and they become embedded with institutions, and so become intrinsic to the institutional responses to common human dilemmas. Hence governments need to craft the use and institutional form of emotions carefully along two tracks. Nussbaum writes:

“In other words, government may attempt to influence citizens’ psychology directly (for example, through political rhetoric, songs, symbols, and the content and pedagogy of public education), or it may devise institutions that represent the insights of a valuable type of emotion— as a decent tax system, for example, could represent the insights of a duly balanced and appropriately impartial compassion. …. the motivational … is always in dialogue with the institutional” (Political Emotions, p 20).

The Royal Commission would perhaps have made a more stirring example in support of Nussbaum’s argument than the tax system.  The Royal Commission is establishing institutional arrangements to support victims, perpetrators, and bystanders to speak of their difficult emotions. And by its example, and in response to the widespread public discussion of the many stories from the Royal Commission, it is triggering a change in our history of emotions, prompting the formation from thousands of individual and institutional responses a new emotional regime, in William Reddy’s terms. It refers to the modes of emotional expression and thought that are dominant in a particular time period and cultural context. An example of changes in an emotional regime is the turn to a more effusive emotional style in the decades before and during the revolution  associated with sentimentalism and Rousseau’s writings, including his Confessions.

And, I think, unless we do create a new emotional regime to respond to trauma – we will not be able to really succeed in establishing the flexible, robust and supportive responses to children’s voices that we aim for. It is part of the practical genius of the Royal Commission that it is not only focussing on a new regime of laws and policies and systems, but developing practices, stories and changes in heart that can support such a new emotional regime.

About the Royal Commission

For three and a half years – since April 2013 – the Australian public have grown accustomed to the stories from this Royal Commission being a regular news story. Over that time we have heard many moving and distressing accounts of child sexual abuse in every major social institution with responsibility for children. 45 of 70 case studies have been heard. The most widely known cases involve Cardinal Pell and the Catholic Church – which for a week earlier this year put the Commission in the global news spotlight. But the Commissioners have investigated poor responses by many other institutions – various faiths, churches and their affiliated welfare services, schools for the elite and the disadvantaged, orphanages, disability services, hospitals, health regulators, sports organisations, State child welfare departments, youth justice centres, the YMCA, child care centres, and the police; still more institutions are to come.

It has been an extraordinary reckoning with a troubling past, ongoing failures, and some difficult questions of why? Why did this occur, and can it be prevented in the future? Why do people do these terrible things? Why do children not speak up or are not listened to? Why can it take decades before a person can disclose abuse? Why do good people fail to act when they know about them?

How I became connected to the Royal Commission

I was introduced to the work of the Royal Commission from an unusual perspective. For about two years I was coordinating the responses of the Victorian Health Department to the Royal Commission – including examining our archival and historical records for documentary evidence of any past failures in Victoria’s health institutions.

While there was some abuse in health institutions, it appears to have been much less common than in orphanages or out-of-home care, religious institutions and schools. As a result, my work refocussed on the broader interpretation of the Royal Commission – what was the significance of this public event, and what impact was it having on the community, especially the health of the tens of thousands of survivors of abuse?

Now, I am no longer in that role, but I left the role remaining curious about what the Royal Commission told us all about our shared emotional life, and those difficult questions of “why?”.

The Royal Commission seemed to be like a great rolling scandal that revealed the spirit of the times, like the Dreyfus case in nineteenth century France. So I conceived the idea of writing a book about the Royal Commission. It would share the remarkable stories from all the people who appear at the commission – the victims, the perpetrators, the bystanders, the leaders of institutions, and try to explore some of the perhaps unanswerable questions that the Commission, with its obligation to develop careful legal argument and actionable recommendations, could not address. And this paper is a first public venture of some of the ideas for that project.

Silencing children and the context of abuse

The Commission has exposed so many failures by so many institutions. As Justice McLellan has said “there has been a time in Australian history when the conjunction of prevailing social attitudes to children and an unquestioning respect for authority of institutions by adults coalesced to create the high risk environment in which thousands of children were abused” (Speech, 2015). The actuarial assessment is that 60,000 survivors will come forward to seek redress. We do not know how many have already died from suicide, crippling shame, alcohol and drugs. This great tragedy was a “system failure” [to use the term the Royal Commission prefers] in which “those in responsible positions who failed to provide appropriate policies to guide the institution and practices to inhibit the actions of offenders.” (Speech, 2015)

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with in the Royal Commission was how perfectly ordinary and common this failure was. It was not just evil doers or a dark Vatican conspiracy; but good people who did good things, and yet failed to respond effectively to this great epidemic of human suffering. The hearings show over and over again, that “well-intentioned people did not understand and did not respond to failures which should have been obvious in the institutions of which they were part.” (Speech, 2015)

This failure cannot be explained without thinking about the history of emotions, and how emotional regimes drove responses to the children who spoke of their abuse. So, if as Julia Gillard says the Royal Commission will “change Australia”, it will be change not only in what we do – the policies and laws and systems we put in place – and but also how we feel, how we express and act on those emotions – especially shame and the difficult emotions provoked by childhood trauma and abuse.

We need an emotional regime in which difficult emotions in tragic situations involving vulnerable children do not drive people – victims, perpetrators, bystanders, witnesses – into frozen, silent shame that can ignore any rulebook of good policies and procedures. I do not see much evidence yet that the history of emotions as such is on the radar of the Royal Commission although as it completes its final report perhaps it should be. In some ways, however, the Royal Commission’s practice is ahead of its theory on this issue. In its most important role of bearing witness to victims, the Commission has shown a remarkable sensitivity to emotional truth and developed several practices have created a safe stage on which the remembered voices of childhood trauma can be spoken.

The Commission has devised a certain way of speaking trauma to power through its private sessions, its case studies, its preparation and support for witnesses, its publication of a hundred anonymized stories of abused individuals, and through the respectful conduct of the Commissioners and the lawyers representing all parties. It has instructed victims in simple forms of retelling their stories that have brought these private histories of trauma safely into the public discourse. Yet in doing so, it has not tampered with the fragmented, dissociated and vulnerable voices of trauma. It respects the conflicted emotions. It honours the lapses and faults in memory. It stands as a guardian for the voice of trauma that can now speak despite its fears, and the threats and the intimidating authority of the courtroom, and indeed of the Royal Commissioners as the supreme representatives of investigative powers of the state, of the symbolic blessing of the Crown. The courtroom is transformed from a site of retraumatisation to a place of healing where victims can speak of their difficult histories.  In so doing these voices are heard beyond the private and become a public cathartic drama for us all.

Parramatta case

I want to give just one example of the appearance of this remembered voice of trauma. It is from case study 7 which examined the Parramatta Training School for Girls and the Hay Institution for Girls.

Both institutions have a quite shocking record of abuse – they were subjected to harsh discipline, which went to extremes at the Hay Institution – As the Royal Commission reports:

“Witnesses said that girls were subjected to military-style discipline and forced to march everywhere with their eyes to the ground. They were only allowed to talk to each other for 10 minutes a day.  At both institutions, girls often faced severe punishments for disobedience. They might be deprived of food or told to scrub floors. But the worst punishment at Parramatta Girls was being sent to an isolation cell. (Report on case study 7, pp 5-6)”

Here girls were sent for periods of weeks in an underground isolation cell, known as the dungeon, where girls were regularly physically and sexually abused by staff, including the superintendents running the facility. Again I do not want to focus on the details of the abuse, but as we are now learning to expect, this abuse has long term and devastating impacts on life opportunities and mental health – ex-residents all experience ongoing psychological trauma, including depression, stress disorders, flashbacks, trust issues, relationship issues, problems feeling any belonging to community, and suicide attempts.

One survivor the 65 year old Coral Campbell gave evidence on the final day of the four-day hearing on Parramatta. There she said: “I walked through the big green door of Parramatta Girls as a little girl and I came out of its big green gates a slut and a prostitute” (Campbell, Transcript Day 50, p 5141, lines 43-46 )

She still suffers flashbacks and horrible memories. These flashbacks are often triggered by the number 11, as she told the Commission, because number 11 was her nominated number at the institution – that was how she was spoken to. Like many victims, she did not tell anyone in authority or the police about the abuse because she did not think she would be believed. Indeed, like many she did not say anything about the abuse until much later in life when she was 55 years old, 43 years after the events. Whenever she heard the word Parramatta or 11 she would freeze in a flashback –

“It opened up that Pandora’s box that I tried not to think about. Little things would click and I’d go back. I’d go back…. From the dungeon at ground level sat a little girl at night-time, looking through those bars. You could see the hospital. Very frightening to be on your own, not knowing what to expect next time or what’s coming up.” (Transcript Day 50, pp. 5143-44)

The abuse led to great confusion in her mind – was she a good girl, was she a bad girl? She went on “And I’m still confused today. When I first reported my statement, wrote my statement, for the Royal Commission, I was scared. I was scared. Will they believe me? Would anybody believe me? I never even told my mother and father what happened to me in that home.”

What happens next in the courtroom is both moving and revealing of the changes in practice that the Commission has introduced. The Commission did indeed gain Ms Campbell’s trust through a private session where she received the welcoming attention of two Commissioners, and therapeutic and legal assistance with preparing her statement. Nonetheless, the Counsel for the Commission wanted to draw attention to the topic of redress, or financial compensation as one of the systemic issues being investigated by the Commission. Had she ever applied for compensation?

“Oh, Mr Atkinson asked me that in the private session. I said to him, “I don’t want compensation. All I want is a funeral by the State, a wake for my friends and family and a headstone saying that Coral was a good girl. That’s all. What can money buy? What can any financial situation – if you did get it, what can it buy? It can’t bring back that little girl that I was looking for but could not find.”

To me, this testimony shows the exceptional thing about this Royal Commission; that this voice of the remembered child – both very strong and very fragile – is allowed to speak, without challenge at this Royal Commission. Indeed, this voice is given greater respect than all the lawyers, government officials and senior church figures who traipse through the court, still unable to speak with quite this raw vulnerability.  There in front of the assembled silks of NSW, in front of a long table full of over-briefed barristers, this remarkably brave woman seeks only restitution of the shame she suffered as a child.

In this way the Royal Commission is, I think, doing some of the work of staging public emotions that Martha Nussbaum discusses in her Political Emotions: why love matters for justice and her book on shame and disgust, Hidden  from humanity: shame, disgust and the law. In Political Emotions, she describes this work as “tragic spectatorship” and argues it is essential to form bonds of compassion, love and justice within a community.

So, by sitting together the voices of power and recalled trauma, the Royal Commission is bringing about lasting change. This “tragic spectatorship” can dissolve authority’s frozen shame about its dark history of child welfare. By creating institutionalised practices that can cradle the voice of traumatised children, at whatever age they choose to speak, and by cradling the difficult emotions of shame and voicing these tragic stories of remembered children on the public stage, the Commission achieves an important task – for thousands of survivors now it has sensitively and justly turned their insistent traumas of childhood into safer histories of abuse. Together with the survivors, the Commission has turned flashbacks into testimony.

 

References

Nussbaum, Martha, Political Emotions: why love matters for justice (Cambridge Mass./London, 2013)

Nussbaum, Martha, Hiding from Humanity: disgust, shame and the law (Princeton, 2004)

Plamper, Jan, “The history of emotions: an interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein and Peter Stearns” History and Theory 49 (May 2010) pp 237-265

Reddy, William, The Navigation of Feelings: framework for a history of emotions (Cambridge, 2001)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Report of Case Study No. 7: Child Sexual Abuse at the Parramatta Training School for Girls and Hay Institution for Girls (October 2014)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Redress and Civil Litigation Report (August, 2015)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Interim Report (June 2014)

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Speeches, accessed from http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/media-centre/speeches

Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Transcripts of Public Hearings for Case No. 7, accessed from http://www.childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au/case-study/f5e0f634-5670-4abf-bdf6-c7d8a58d677f/case-study-7,-february-2014,-sydney

 

 

On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

On tyranny or terror?

On tyranny or terror?

The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous  as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.

His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.

The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.

Now I am no ingénue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.

It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.

He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.

That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.

Commuting fragment: Julia sets

Commuting fragment: Julia sets

When people speak to me about complexity, I often pause and consider the synonyms that they might have used, if they were to be precise. Complexity can register perplexity, while posing for control. It may blow mists of befuddlement, a common response to getting lost in  big data. It often stands in for obfuscation, or at least muddies the waters on the values that inform any response to the usual murky predicaments those who govern must devise. And at times it can mean messy, intricate, gloriously defiant of human explanation in mere words, or just too big for figures of speech.

The paradox of complexity, which so many who wear it like a pinned icon on their lapels do not know, is that it can be described quite precisely, with mathematical formulae and even striking fractal graphs. It emerges from repeated iterations of sometimes simple operations. The simple formula for repeated iterations give rise to the strange, complex beauty of the Mandelbrot set or the Julia set presented here. 

So when next presented with a rush to cage complexity in a 4-by-4 checkbox chart, pause and reflect on the unpredictability of simple actions, as pictured in the Julia set

Why is alcohol policy difficult?

About 10 years ago I took a job running an alcohol and drug policy unit in the minor provincial government in which I serve as a lowly under-castellan.

It turned out to be a very rewarding experience, at least if you count the intrinsic rewards of work as the most important. I met some remarkable people – Robin Room, Stefan Grunert, David Best – and also struggled with some of the hardest questions, so it seemed at the time, of public policy.

Alcohol, so my colleagues kept telling me, was one of those wicked problems. For me though, coming to terms with the difficulty of alcohol policy was something more of a personal journey of recovery.

Serving the wayward and the drunken, it turned out, did very little for my career. I plunged deeper and deeper into a kind of career crisis, in a smelly eddy far away from the flow of success. But I also accomplished many things, and not the least of those things was a kind of understanding of my conservative disposition in which grew my attachment to the ethos of my institution.

It was that ethos that I saw forgotten and dishonoured all around me. It was the realisation that I had fused my identity with a culture that was disappearing from the world that would in time lead me into despair. About a year or so after leaving the alcohol and drug policy job, I wrote a conference paper that tried to make sense of it all. I gave this conference paper to the Kettl Bruun Society conference.

You can read it here:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265728731_Why_is_alcohol_policy_difficult_Reflections_of_a_bureaucrat

Or if you don’t want to bother with research gate, try this Why is alcohol policy difficult Kettl Bruun conference September 2014

Some time later, a student interviewed me about the experience when another great city took fate in its hand and succumbed to the grand follies of controlling the availability of alcohol.

Turn and face the strange…

Turn and face the strange…

About a year ago I wrote a post Time might change me, but I can’t change time. It was prompted by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s A foot in the river: why our lives change and the limits of evolution, and frustration with a dose of bland management rhetoric about change.

Today I finished rereading Fernandez-Armesto’s book, again prompted to reflect more deeply on change by a defiant reaction to urgings from senior bureaucrats to change with change. I also learnt that I had misheard the refrain from Bowie’s song, and substituted one “change” for the more mysterious “trace”.

What more might I say about change beyond the slightly dyspeptic remarks of a year ago?

Fernandez-Armesto’s book is valuable because it is a deep reflection on what is really meant by change, and how change happens, especially in the realm of culture. Organic change occurs through evolution, selection and inheritance. But cultures do not evolve. The changes that occur in cultures follow no uniform pattern of descent, progress, or adaptation for survival., He rejects the common stock of metaphors that give shape to changes in cultures over time, and in their place portrays a chaotic, pluralistic world, with vectors of change shooting in all sorts of direction.

But he does agree with our bureaucratic leader friends that the speed of change is quickening. He speculates however, that these changes may slow or even cease. The great successful cultures, he remarks, are those that have endured with little change for thousands of years. Those cultures that have run furiously after the lure of change have brought on their own collapse. Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s ruin.

The striking thing about these reflections is how they emerge from a deep reflection on biology and culture, and an attempt to think on change across those disciplines, so long divided. He presents the now well-established evidence that culture is not a uniquely human treasure. Other creates have culture, especially our fellow primates. No other species has yet imagined such a bewildering diversity of cultures. And to differentiate in culture is to change chultures.

It might interest readers to note the chain of propositions that Fernandez-Armesto sets down so helpfully at the outset of his book.

  1. “culture is a by-product of faculties of memory and anticipation evolved in some species”
  2. “those faculties predispose cultures to change”
  3. “humans’ faculty of anticipation is exceptionally developed and contributes to making them highly imaginative”
  4. “humans are the most mutable of cultural creatures because in their case peculiar features of memory and imagination make them fertile in ideas (which I understand as ways of re-imagining the world)
  5. “ideas are the main motors of change in human cultures”
  6. “the pace of change is a function of the mutual accessibility of ideas: the more that ideas are exchanged, the more new ideas ensue; and cultural instability increases accordingly.”

Our biology, especially our brains, bestow on us a faculty of imagination; and with that imagination we unleash a crowd of change on the world. Imagination feeds on its own artefacts, its misprisions, its deceits, its delusions, its random deviations. Change is not a driver. It is not the final cause of external reality. It is culture’s wild child.

“Culture stimulates imagination further still, partly by rewarding it and partly by enhancing it with psychotropic behaviour. We praise the bard, pay the piper, fear the shaman, obey the priest, revere the artist. We unlock visions with dance and drums and music and alcohol and excitants and narcotics.”

Change is not an external necessity, to which we must loyally submit, but the coils of the “imaginative animal.”

Imagination is the motor of culture. We look around us. We see the world. In our mind’s eye we see it differently – improved or made more conformable to some imagined model or pattern ideal of order; or, if our taste so inclines us, we envision its destruction or reduction to chaos. Either way, we recraft our world imaginatively. We act to realise the world we have re-imagined. That is how and why cultures change.”

So we come to a more genial response to the stern lectures from managers on changing with the change that beset us. These changes are so often so petty, and yet insisted upon like a martinet commander demanding conformity with some new marching order. But they are but one imaginative reordering of the world. I choose another dream with less fury, less tempest, and deep roots in the great world-tree.