Tony Abbott and the ‘Desire to Sacrifice’

Tony Abbott’s Address to Australia’s Regional Summit to Counter Violent ExtremismJune 11, 2015.

In the end, though, the only really effective defence against terrorism is persuading people that it’s pointless.

We have to convince people that God does not demand death to the infidel.

Over time, we have to persuade people that error does have rights.

We need everyone to understand that it is never right to kill people just because their beliefs are different from ours.

Above all, we need idealistic young people to appreciate that joining this death cult is an utterly misguided and wrong-headed way to express their desire to sacrifice.

I don’t really have much of a comment on this expect to note that Tony Abbott’s political theology is both enigmatic and misunderstood – as evidenced by the two phrases in bold.

A Poem – Australia. May God

Australia [cartographic material]. 1860. MAP RM 3092. http://nla.gov.au/nla.map-rm3092

Australia. May God

Killing in the name of God is never right

Mistreating others in the name of God is never right

everyone should be free to live their own life, to worship their own god

.

to kill in the name of God is almost unimaginable

I can’t give an absolute categorical assurance

there won’t be an act of God at some point in time

.

thank God that there are so many people who have put so much aside…

thank god, they have succeeded

…so that they are not a burden on the taxpayer

.

God speed on the way to Hobart

an iconic surfing spot, a beautiful piece of God’s own country

to sell a good product for a competitive price and thank God

.

that long paddock system and look, thank God we have got it

but thank God it’s gone to be replaced by this truly magnificent building

and thank God that’s what there is

.

thank God there are a multitude of different voices

thank God that’s stopped

so far, thank god, they have succeeded

.

May God bless you and welcome home

this is no way to serve God

stop the boats and thank God

.

what they are doing is against God

Nothing to do with religion

The only god they worship is death

.

god we want to be exporting plenty of foodstuffs

This country has not flourished because success was inevitable or ordained by God

thank God so many of our food manufacturers are very good at it

.

God knows there’s been an absolute semitrailer load of funding over the years

it’s important that people join the team and thank God

make the most of the good things that God has given us

.

may the God of justice answer all our prayers

thank God the boats are stopping

may God bless the country you are helping to protect

.

It is not about God

The only god they worship is death

and thank God we won the Federal election.

by God, that our country is so much better than this

.

Words by T. Abbott

Arrangement by C. Mayes

Ivan Illich and the Idol of Lifestyle

Ivan Illlich, the Austrian philosopher, Catholic priest and iconoclast, was asked to give a lecture to a group of American Lutheran pastors on the topic of life. Rather outlining a philosophy of life, Illich called life an idol.

Illich said the pastors were dismayed by his characterisation. After all Jesus is the ‘bread of life’, ‘the way, the truth and the life’, and promises abundant life.

"Ivan Illich" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

“Ivan Illich” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg#/media/File:Ivan_Illich.jpg

What could it mean to call life an idol?

For Illich, life is an idol worshiped and used by marketers, theologians, politicians, scientists, journalists, and activist to motivate, reveal and hide all sorts of responses, actions and emotions. Yet, there is never any attempt to provide an adequate definition.

In his acerbic style Illich says ‘when I used the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit”’.

For Illich, life becomes an idol because it is an empty signifier that can be filled with whatever meaning an authoritative and persuasive speaker gives. In his terms, life is an amoeba word. A word that when thrown into a conversation ‘makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely’.

Other amoeba words could be freedom, family, democracy, race, secular, or gender. Illich was not suggesting that the things these words signify or represent are necessarily unimportant or shit. Rather they tend to hide or assume what is at stake.

Amoeba words are imprecise yet produce deep cultural and emotional resonance. Perhaps the more important a topic is the more amoeba words appear.

The use of lifestyle is a case in point. Despite its banal appearance it is a divisive word. It divides lives as “in” and part of “us” from those that are “out” and part of “them”. Sure, lifestyle is used to market insurance or sell funeral packages, but it is also used to identify what is valued and can be disregarded.

The idol of lifestyle is used to justify the careful inclusion of some lives and in the same movement violent exclusion of others.

George H.W. Bush infamously told the 1992 Rio Earth Summit that the American way of life was not negotiable. The rest of the world may burn, but the American lifestyle has such a high value that it will not be compromised.

Tony Abbott’s recent comments about lifestyle choices and remote Aboriginal communities reveal the divisive nature of the term.

“What we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”

There are lifestyles that ‘fully participate in the life of our country’ and there are lifestyles that are outside of “our country”. Being “inside” grants security, celebration and flourishing, while being “outside” leads to abandonment and exposure. Of course, to be outside is a choice and therefore removes responsibility for care from the “inside”.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 18.26.22

Like Illich’s observations, the idol of life and amoeba words continue to abound in political and popular discourse. Perhaps coughing or saying shit in their stead may interrupt the pronouncements of false prophets and disrupt the flow of worshiping these false gods.

See – Cayley, David. 1992. Ivan Illich in conversation. Concord, Ontario: House Of Anansi

Don’t be surprised by Abbott’s comments about ‘lifestyle choices’

By Christopher Mayes, University of Sydney and Jenny Kaldor, University of Sydney

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claim this week that people living in remote communities were making a “lifestyle choice” that taxpayers shouldn’t be obliged to fund was not just the result of an unguarded moment. Rather, the phrase reveals an underlying view that social circumstances are the responsibility of individuals, rather than societies.

Commentators as well as Abbott’s top advisers on Indigenous affairs were quick to criticise the characterisation. Others suggested it was just another prime ministerial gaffe that shouldn’t distract us from the real issues.

Abbott is infamous for his gaffes and “dad jokes”, but this was not one of those moments. A day after he made the remark, the prime minister defended his use of the phrase on the Alan Jones Show.

“Lifestyle choices” was not a gaffe but a neoliberal mechanism of government that adopts a consumer logic to: i) shift responsibility for ‘closing the gap’ on to individuals; ii) trivialise Aboriginal ontological connection to land; and iii) ignore the effects of colonization, while “continuing settler colonial ‘logic o elimination’“.*

Continue reading →

Lifestyle choice: a brief note

I’m currently completing a book manuscript called ‘The Biopolitics of Lifestyle’. So when Tony Abbott made his comments that Aboriginal’s living in remote communities are making a ‘lifestyle choice’, I thought “great, I may need to write another chapter”.

This is not simply a poor choice of words, but reflects a governmental rationality that seeks to place responsibility on to individuals. Education, health, welfare, employment all become ‘lifestyle choices’ for which the individual is responsible.

The affluent, gainfully employed, highly educated sections of society make good ‘lifestyle choices’, while the poor, sick, Indigenous and asylum seekers are characterised as making bad ‘lifestyle choices’.

Abbott is not the first to use this phrase to justify . In 2002, Philip Ruddock described asylum-seekers as making ‘lifestyle choices’.

“In the main, people who have sought to come to Australia and make asylum claims do not come from a situation of persecution; they come from a situation of safety and security,” he said.

“They may not be able to go back to their country of origin but they are making a lifestyle choice.” The Australian, ‘Ruddock blames “lifestyle” refugees’ by Alison Crosweller and Megan Saunders

This governmental rationality shifts responsibility away from governments and communities, and on to individuals. It also serves to trivialize some claims (living in a remote community or seeking asylum) by comparing them to frivolous consumer lifestyle choices (Pepsi or Coke, holden or ford, apple or pc).

Of course, when we talk about the Australian Lifestyle of ANZACs, footy, beach, sun, boats, and weekends, things get very serious. Governments use this notion of lifestyle to build monuments, go to war, and demonize minorities. But that is another matter all together.

In the current context the rationality of ‘lifestyle choice’ shifts responsibility onto individuals in remote communities and justifies the Western Australian government’s decision to cut services and remove people.

Depoliticising Indigenous Health via Consensus and Statistics

‘Politics’ has become a dirty word in Australia. To ‘politicise’ an issue is regarded as obfuscation. Good governments ‘govern’ and make ‘policies’. And good oppositions should work with governments to produce policies not debate endlessly, or so we’re told – usually by sitting governments.

While a lot of the ‘politics’ has devolved into oppositional tactics, political debate is essential for democracy.

At a minimum political debate should reveal the reasons and justifications for a particular policy. However, false consensus and the use of statistics are increasingly used to depoliticise debate of important issues. A recent example is Indigenous health.

Dangerous Consensus

indexIndigenous health is an area where “every opposition wants the government to succeed”. However, perhaps it is this consensus that has resulted in continual failure.

The 7th Closing the Gap report was presented in Parliament earlier this month. Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave a sobering speech, noting that most targets were not on track “despite the concerted effort of successive governments since the first report”.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, however, called on the Government to reverse the budget cuts to social services that disproportionately affect Indigenous populations and compound existing inequalities. Coalition MPs were unhappy with this suggestion. Some walked out and others said Shorten was playing political games on an important occasion.

The focus on consensus – that everyone wants to Close the Gap – has reduced Indigenous health and education to a national human interest story. It is bracketed from the realm of politics and serves either to inspire or a cathartic release. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu writes that “human interest stories create a political vacuum. They depoliticize and reduce what goes on in the world to the level of anecdote and scandal”.

In breaking with the ritual bipartisanship, where Opposition and Government solemnly agree that “more should be done but it is all so very difficult”, Bill Shorten re-politicised Indigenous health, if only briefly.

While liberal political philosophy values consensus established via publicly justifiable reasons, when consensus is assumed, publicly justifiable reasons become redundant. The presumption of consensus between the two major parties on indigenous health (and anti-terror legislation and asylum seeker policy) lowers the expectation of rigorous political arguments for or against certain positions.

Shorten broke with the consensus game and exposed the gap between Abbott’s rhetoric of “concerted efforts” and the first budget he delivered. Budgets are not simply economic documents, but reflect political and moral decisions about the lives that are valued.

Politics of Life Expectancy

Not unrelated, last month Treasure Joe Hockey attracted ridicule with his comment in a 3AW interview ‘that somewhere in the world today, it’s highly probable, that a child is being born that is going to live to a 150’.

Close-the-Gap

Hockey’s comment received some support from Professor Peter Smith who points to advances in medicine and public health as reasons to expect a continued increase in human life expectancy.

Professor John Quiggin however suggested that these claims are highly dubious and ignore the fact that the extension of life expectancy in the 20th Century ‘came from a reduction in death rates for the young.’

Will Cairns also pointed to the success of reducing death rates. Writing in the Medical Journal of Australia that

our numbers plummet as we approach 100 years of age because all of these interventions [public health, disease treatment, nutrition] make no difference to the reality that we eventually wear out and die. Apart from the odd unverified outlier, only one person has ever been confirmed as living for more than 120 years.

Hiding Politics in the Statistics

Like the assumption of a consensus, Hockey’s use of life expectancy statistics to justify changes to the health system hides the political nature of these decisions.

Altering the financing of the health system through strategies such as co-payment schemes may appear reasonable. We are told Australia’s population is ageing and more people need to use the health system. However, what these statistics hide is the disparities of life expectancy in Australia.

While a child may be born today to live to 150 120, the latest ‘Closing the Gap‘ report reveals that Indigenous Australians born today can expect to live more than a decade less than non-Indigenous Australians.

The reality of significant gaps in life expectancy should be the cause for alarm and inspire the creation of a more equitable health system. Yet often population statistics hide the details. As Professor Mick Dobson notes, ‘Statistics of shortened life expectancy are our mothers and fathers, uncles and aunties who live diminished lives. We die silently under these statistics.’

Statistics: measuring and managing people

Vital statistics have been used to govern populations since the 17th century. But it’s important not slide over the word “statistics” too quickly as its literal meaning is hidden through repeated use.

Statistics is not simply about numbers but “state craft“. By knowing birth and death rates, and the incidence of disease it is possible to establish probabilities of epidemics, movement of people, and to order the State in a rational manner.

Vital statistics also enable the segmentation and division of populations. We see this all the time in professional sports. The explosion of statistics about batting averages, field goal percentage, or a players historical probability of kicking a goal from a certain angle against a certain team all help coaching staff to know who is performing and who is not.

Divisions in the details

Despite appearances, the use of statistics as political tool for governing a population is not neutral. Historian and philosopher Michel Foucault notes the way vital statistics introduce a power over life or biopolitics. The increased knowledge about nutrition, physiology and sexuality in the 19th century lead to the creation of norms from statistical averages that allowed political strategies to regulate human life. Close-the-Gap-005

Statistical analyses are used in public health to show the distribution of disease and enable interventions in populations. But as Foucault notes, these techniques also allow the identification of lives that are healthy and should be fostered and which lives are not performing and can be neglected.

A danger with the celebration of a statistically increasing life expectancy, is that it masks the very real health inequalities faced by many Australians. This is seen in a number of areas:

  • allow for certain health issues to be prioritised (e.g. ageing population), while others marginalised (e.g. health inequalities)
  • enable the allocation of funding towards some research (e.g. Medical Research Future Fund), while moving it away from other areas (e.g. preventive health)
  • suggest a particular financing models for the health system (e.g. co-payment), yet discount others (e.g. progressive taxation).

These are not simply economic decisions, but political and ethical decisions about which lives count. For too long the supposed neutrality of statistics and the assumption of consensus have allowed the political reality of Indigenous health inequalities to be hidden. To close the gap we need to recognise the historical and political processes that have made it and maintain it.

The Nightmares of Tony Abbott

In promising a new approach to government Tony Abbott has reverted to the well-thumbed pages of the politics of fear playbook that dominated domestic and international political rhetoric between 2001 – 2008.

In a speech to the nation he repeated his four step plan for terrorism – ‘a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim‘ – but also drew bizarre links between ISIS and people who “cheat” the welfare system.

It’s clear to me, that for too long, we have given those who might be a threat to our country the benefit of the doubt.

There’s been the benefit of the doubt at our borders, the benefit of the doubt for residency, the benefit of the doubt for citizenship and the benefit of the doubt at Centrelink.

And in the courts, there has been bail, when clearly there should have been jail.

We are a free and fair nation. But that doesn’t mean we should let bad people play us for mugs, and all too often they have: Well, that’s going to stop.

In connecting immigration, welfare, and the judicial system to ISIS – or as he prefers “the Islamist death cult” – the Prime Minister bundles complex and disparate institutions and policies under one banner of “national security under threat”. In using this politics of fear that equates the people on welfare or bail with ISIS, Abbott hopes to swiftly pass new legislation that purports to secure us from these fears and neuter any opposition.

The rise of the Islamist death cult in the Middle East has seen the emergence of new threats where any extremist can grab a knife, a flag, a camera phone and a victim and carry out a terror attack.

As a nation we are responding to this threat. Abroad, Australia is working with allies to disrupt and degrade the Islamist death cult. At home, we have provided our security services with more powers, more resources and stronger laws.

We are currently considering additional legislation on data retention that’s before the Parliament – and this will make it easier to keep you safe and we want to get this legislation passed as quickly as we can.

But this is an old trick and a trick that further reveals that Tony Abbott (and most senior Australian politicians) are bereft of ideas. There is no vision other than more freedoms and less threats.

As the BBC documentary ‘Power of Nightmares‘ shows, politicians in Western liberal democracies following September 11, 2001 no longer offered visions for a grand future. They, and we, have grown cynical of dreams where “the only fear is fear itself”. Instead, the focus is on nightmares. Whoever can portray the greatest fears, yet also assurance of deliverance, is king.

This tactic arguably receded with the elections of Rudd in 2007 and Obama in 2008. Both had optimistic visions. Rudd had his “2020 Summit” and Obama his “Yes We Can”. However, with financial crises, widening gaps in economic equality within nations and between them, as well as the return of Islamic terrorism with ISIS, these optimistic slogans rang hollow and arguably reinforced cynicism. Today, there is a return to a politics of fear.

With his leadership in question Tony Abbott is resorting to a tactic he knows well from his time in the Howard Government. He may not be able to answer who he is or what he stands for in positive terms, but he is able to conduct an orchestra of threats and fears – Labor, ISIS, debt, welfare fraud, radicalisation of youth, ‘inter-generational theft’, and lenient bail laws. In orchestrating these fears, he is able to give us this assurance: “As a country, we won’t let evil people exploit our freedom.”

Abbott is hopeful that this new tough line of government will save his leadership. Perhaps it will. But maybe this time we will recognise the old negative tune and demand something new – something more courageous and imaginative than borders and laws to protect “us” from a fictional “them”. Perhaps we will recognise the folly of jumping at nightmares and spectres that we help create and sustain.

See Tony Abbott’s full message here: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-02-15/message-prime-minister-0