Monthly Archives: February 2014

Are we willing to question our assumptions about self-interest and economics?

It was announced this week that Poverty Reduction has been officially removed from the goals of Australia’s foreign aid. Many people have asked, quite fairly I think, if reducing poerty is not the goal of foreign aid, then what is? There are some possibly good answers to that question, but my fear is that the real answer is either self-interest, economics or politics (which may or may not all be one and the same).

Now perhaps it is naive and idealistic of me to think that it has ever been any way but thus. After last year’s election, the new federal government changed the status of AUSAid from a separate agency to part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which seems a fairly clear indication that our aid goals are subservient to our political or diplomatic ones. It has recently emerged that our previous government gave specific amounts of aid to certain countries as “incentives” for votes to secure us a UN Security Council seat, which also makes a fairly blatant statement about our priorities.

It seems to me that the government knows that most people won’t care and will just accept that this is of course the ways things work. That a government’s role is always political before it is humanitarian. However, I find the priorities this reflects, and the assumptions it makes about what our community wants, quite frightening.

This week I also listened to a radio interview with the Premier and Opposition Leader in the leadup to our state election. They were asked about their plan for the state, and both gave answers solely about the economy. Now, I don’t want to deny that economics is important, but the assumption that economy = state is similarly one that I find problematic.

Surely there is more to what it means to be a community than how much revenue we can generate. Surely life is not valued in dollar terms alone. Surely we look for more in a government than simply who can make us have the most money in our pocket, like for starters, perhaps, oh I don’t know, … maybe who can govern well?!

Both these examples seem to be symptoms of a wider issue, where political decisions are being made on the twin assumptions that money is the only indicator of success, and that self-interest is the only motivation for people to act.

As a follower of Jesus, I do not share those assumptions and priorities. I follow the life and teachings of a Man who says, “Love your enemies, do good, lend, expecting nothing in return“(Luke 6:37-38) and “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

But I’d also challenge those in my community who do not share my Christian faith to consider whether those assumptions really reflect the kind of nation they want us to be. When we strip away the details and debates and niceties, is that really a bottom line we are comfortable standing for?

I am reminded again of a question asked by my favourite fictional politician, one which caused him to reflect on his assumptions and actions. The context is a conversation with one of his staffers about foreign aid, and aid in particular to the fictional nation of Equatorial Kundu.

President Bartlet: Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?

Will Bailey: I don’t know, sir, but it is.

The West Wing, Episode 4 x 15, Inuguration: Over There

I worry that in Australia today not only does it seem we are unwilling to consider the answers to those kind of questions, but that apparently it doesn’t even occur to us to think of asking them.

Today would be a good day for me to be in Las Vegas … for a reason you may not expect

I’m aware my Monday travel posts can get a little bit “gushy” as I talk about places I’ve visited and what I loved about them. Today is not going to be like that. Because to be honest, I really didn’t like Las Vegas. I’m sure it’s different for those who live there, but in terms of the ‘tourist’ centre, the Strip, I found it a difficult place to be, and I’m not sure I’d ever really want to return.

Welcome sign

But I had an experience there that I sometimes think about, perhaps because of its unexpectedness in that place, or because of the stark juxtaposition between the images Las Vegas conjures up for many people and the strongest image I took away from the place. Revisiting that experience challenges me about the way I live in and respond to this world, a challenge that I think I need to reminded of today.

New York in Las Vegas
New York in Las Vegas

I hadn’t really planned on visiting Vegas, but I went there on my way to the Grand Canyon. I know many other people love it so I figured I should spend the weekend there and see what all the fuss was about.

Looking down on the Strip
Looking down on the Strip

It was the middle of winter and so it was freezing outside. But that doesn’t matter in Las Vegas. You can pretty much make your way from one end of the four mile long Strip to the other and back again without ever having to step outside, and that’s what most people do. From brightly lit casino to brightly lit casino, with shows and bars and zoos and buffets and hotels lining your path. You are totally unaware of whether it is light or dark outside, cold or warm. Time becomes irrelevant. There is constant noise and movement and entertainment and lights and money and food and excess . And it made me feel, for the first time in my life … claustrophobic. I was desperate for some fresh air, and it was like a maze trying to find a way out into it.

Paris in Las Vegas
Paris in Las Vegas

When I got out onto the street, things could not have been more different. Hardly any people around, as it was cold and getting dark even though I think it was mid afternoon. Who I remember seeing on the street were two different kinds of men. First, there were those flicking their little cards advertising ‘escorts’ at you as you walked by. Second, there were those begging for money. I walked outside down the Strip in Las Vegas that day, and I found myself crying. I’ve been to villages in Africa and Asia where people have literally nothing, and yet this felt to me like the saddest place in the world.

Egypt in Las Vegas
Egypt in Las Vegas

I went to get dinner at a Chinese takeaway. After getting my plate of food, I was still feeling stifled, so I went to the tables outside. No other patrons were crazy enough to be out there eating in that cold! As I sat down at the table, a man came up and began to go through the garbage bin nearby looking for food scraps. I didn’t think about it, I didn’t question it. It was somehow instinctive and perhaps even involuntary. I just got up, walked over to him, pointed him to my full plate on the table, and walked away. And that is my abiding memory of Las Vegas.

Monte Carlo in Las Vegas
Monte Carlo in Las Vegas

That’s what I learned from Las Vegas, and why I sometimes wonder if I need to go back there. Somehow what I saw and felt there led to this completely spontaneous and natural act of compassion, and it has stuck in my mind ever since. Because to be honest, that’s not normally how I respond to situations like that.  I tend to analyse everything (some would say over analyse!) I’m the person who passes the beggar on the street and then thinks, “I could have helped them. Should I? Can I go back and give them something? What do I have? How much is right? What if they use it for the ‘wrong’ kinds of things? Is it better to try and fix the systemic issues rather than give money to an individual?” For many years those questions would paralyse me, or I wouldn’t even think of them until it was too late. As I get older, I’m learning to go back quicker, to turn around when I get the first thoughts of “I could have done something to help.” But it’s still not always the case for me that a compassionate act just comes so automatically and spontaneously. So why did it happen that way in Las Vegas?

Chinese Garden in Las Vegas
Chinese Garden in Las Vegas

Perhaps it was the stark contrast between money being thrown away at the gambling tables and people rummaging through garbage bins for food. Perhaps it was the subtle sense of people being bought and sold on the street. Perhaps it was seeing so clearly the excess with which some of us in the world live (myself included) side by side with the reality of poverty that many more face every day. Perhaps it was realising that all the glitz and the glamour I saw there, as displayed in these photos, is a façade. What might look impressive is not actually real.

Italy in Las Vegas
Italy in Las Vegas

Whatever it was, sometimes when I find myself caught up in the materialism and consumerism and selfishness of my world, I think maybe I need to go back to that moment in a freezing Las Vegas fast food courtyard, and to look the ugly contrast directly in the face again, and so to hopefully be moved with compassion to take some small act to make a difference, even if it’s just for one person in one moment.

No Room for Nuance

Recently a colleague commented to me (in person) about something I’d said in one of my blog posts. What I had written was a bit of a throwaway line, and while it wasn’t inaccurate, his point was that it needed greater nuance. I agreed, and mentioned that I am more than happy for those kind of things to be pointed out in comments – I love getting responses and differing ideas to what I share! But I take his point that in this format it can be very difficult to offer a nuanced perspective without being seen as disagreeing with or undermining the wider point.

One of the challenges with blogging is keeping posts short and readable. What gets sacrificed is the ability to provide nuance, details, explanations, caveats. Obviously this is even more so with platforms like facebook or twitter – it’s very hard to leave room for nuance in 140 characters!

When what is written on a blog or tweet is seen as a thought starter or a distillation of key ideas, and there is space to reply, comment, question and interact, it’s a great format. The problem as I see it arises when ideas expressed in these forms are taken as full and final statements, or when we assume that what someone has said is the only thing they think about a topic, or that they are not open to further discussion, or that new information would not change their perspective.

What really bothers me, however, is that this inability to leave room for nuance seems to be taking over in our national political climate. We demand full and final answers from our leaders, but we demand them in catchy sound-bites. In response we get slogans instead of policies, and leaders who are trying to govern by living up to those slogans.

Don’t we want the leaders of our nation to be people of nuance? People who change their mind when they receive new information and evidence, people who understand complexity and varying perspectives? People who grow and develop in their thinking and practice?

When our national political debate is reduced to un-nuanced, simplistic slogans, I think we all suffer. I am reminded of a quote from my favourite fictional politician,  given in the context of a political debate where people are looking for a “ten word answer” which can form the headline or sound-bite for the next news cycle.

“Every once in a while, every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”

President Josiah Bartlet, “Game On,” The West Wing

Photo by Marcia Reed NBC, via The West Wing Continuity Guide (Unofficial)
Photo by Marcia Reed, NBC, via The West Wing Continuity Guide (Unofficial)

What do you think? How can we make room for nuance, whether on social media or in political discourse?