Friday, February 17, 2012

4 Angles on Morality

I'm constantly wanting to write about morality, about how we need it to be a body of facts that we draw on but we doubt that it can be.
I want to write how it looks to me that our emotions more than our reason underpin our morality. Some days that makes the precious edifice of right and wrong seem frighteningly fragile. Somedays I feel that's more robust and resilient than any other way it could be.
I never quite know what angle to approach this from. So I wrote this poem.... 

4 Angles on Morality. 
We are going on a drive. When we come to a bridge you notice a gap in the middle. “Stop,” you scream, but I reassure you, “It’ll be fine.”
We keep driving. Your knuckles whiten. Your face drains of colour.  We pass over the gap as if it were solid road and I laugh, “See.”
You punch my arm and I am genuinely surprised to find that you are not smiling. You make me promise you that we will never drive that path again.
You hold her in your talons to your breast. Your wings beat as fast as hummingbirds though they are as wide as an eagle’s.
Then you are pierced and you can’t figure out how to bring pressure to the wind anymore. It’s impossible but you’re not going to make it.
It still feels impossible the following year and the next.
You see a body in a bed. It is your own and I stand over you but we are so much older. A minute passes and beneath my occasional sob it’s my breathing you notice first and your lack of breathing next.
When you see the pillow in my hand you remember struggling to find air against it. You can’t remember if you asked me to...what. You can’t seem to care about what you’re seeing.
You are made of mesh. Four hands hold your corners and fling you out across the sea. You drift down, salt water moving through you. “This is what slicing something feels like” you think, recalling idly observing your hands and a knife in another life.
You hear the throaty chuckles of success from above you as you bear down on living things. You feel the panic of the fish you trap. When one escapes it takes your guilt with it.
You celebrate the fish’s freedom which feels traitorous, which feels wonderfully wicked, which feels contrived. You keep sinking until the sun vanishes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Don't Get Sick in the U.S.A.

I planned to write about the Catholic church’s attempts in America to oppose women’s access to contraception. To understand that this is what they are doing requires an understanding of the U.S. Health care system. Basically Australian women access contraception directly through their doctors so the Catholic Church can’t restrict contraception here except through disinformation or working to ban it. In the U.S. Health care is often dependant on your employer and prohibitive outside of employer sponsored insurance programs. This puts employers, including the Catholic church, in an awkward chain of responsibility for womens’ access to contraception.
I realised however that if I cram an explanation of the U.S. health care system into a post that is already about Catholicism, contraception, feminism and rights theory it may never end. On the basis of good advice to make my posts about fewer points (thanks Mum) I’m going to write just about the U.S. health care system. I can then use this post to refer back to when I write on the issue of contraception in the U.S.

I wont go too much into the gross inneficiency of the U.S. system. You can find much of that information here. My intent is to illustrate as comprehensively as possible how the U.S. works and is being reformed.

In writing this I found the way the U.S. does health care to be fascinating. I feel much more up to speed on the whole “Obama-care is tyranny” claims of American politics too.  So you may enjoy this piece on its own merits.

Don’t get sick in the U.S.A. is one of the best pieces of travel advice you can ever receive, up there with not toasting the English Queen in a Dublin Pub. Compared to Australia the United States has a fend for yourself health care policy. There is no regulation or restriction on what is charged for health care. Consequently residents of the U.S. spend more per capita on healthcare than any country in the world, and half of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are attributed to medical costs.
The vast majority of resident Americans fend for their health through private health insurance. 27.8% of U.S. residents howerver are covered public insurance schemes including Medicaid or Medicare and similar smaller programs. Medicaid is a means tested government health insurance for people in poverty. Eligibility for Medicaid is also restricted to citizens who are pregnant, disabled, children and/or parents of eligible children.  Medicare is a national insurance program for citizens over 65 and people with permanent disabilities, paid for by Social Security payments. The Military is also a major provider of public insurance to those serving and their families. Lastly the 2009 Census listed 16.7% of U.S. residents as uninsured. These people effectively rely on Red Cross free clinics and other charities or bankrupt themselves.
Only 9% of U.S. residents obtain private insurance directly. 60% purchase it through an employer. Bulk purchasing of insurance by large employers enables reduced premiums in three ways; improved purchasing power, economies of scale in health provision, and a shared risk between healthy and unwell policy holders. (Yes, everything a public system gets you and less.) But the greatest incentive for employer provided health insurance is that health insurance costs are not treated as taxable income (since 1954) and so employers can offer a higher take home pay by bundling health insurance with wages. Employer contributions are also exempt from salary taxes. In 2008 over 95% of employers in the U.S. with more than fifty employees offered health insurance.
The tax-free status for health insurance costs for employers and employees only applies if a health insurance policy complies with the Section 125 of the I.R.S. code. This provides the Federal Government with a powerful policy lever to affect most U.S. residents’ health care. However this is not the only impact the Federal Government has on health care. Effective from 2014 two federal laws passed in 2010 will make significant changes to U.S. Health care policy. These changes are called the 2010 Federal Health Care Reform package or, colloquially by Tea Party advocates, ObamaCare. Their most significant effects are;
·         Expanding eligibility for Medicaid to 133% of the poverty line (where applicants meet the other criteria mentioned above as well).
·         Subsidizing insurance premiums for all people making up to 400% of the poverty line.
·         Penalties for employers with over 50 employees who don’t offer health insurance.
·         Prohibiting denial of claims or denial of insurance based on pre-existing conditions.
·         Prohibiting annual coverage caps.
·         Requiring the uninsured to buy government health insurance (unless eligible for Medicaid and Medicare)
·         Requiring insurers to spend a minimum of 80% of premiums on either health care or quality improvement.

Surprisingly these changes are estimated to reduce the public cost of health care in the U.S., according to the Congressional Budget Office by $138 Billion over 10 years. This is partly due to the inefficiency that comes with delivering health care to people in emergency situations, which is more prevalent when people are uninsured. In 2008 an estimated $43 Billion was spent on unreimbursed emergency services for the uninsured. More substantially the savings come from correcting overpayments for providing Medicare from the government to private insurers. Under a faulty contract made during the previous Bush administration $177 Billion would have been lost over ten years in payments for nothing. Basically it’s on the back of this correction that a reduction in overall health spending via the reform package is being claimed.
None of these changes however address the most critical issue of the U.S.A.s health system, namely the high cost of treatment however it is paid for.  A study of the five top selling pharmaceutical products in the Maryland District showed that uninsured U.S. consumers paid almost twice as much as their counterparts in Mexico or Canada for the same product. This was higher still for less commonly sold drugs. This is under a pricing policy which charges the uninsured more for outpatient medications due to their far lower purchasing power. In both Mexico and Canada prices are regulated to prevent such discrimination. Studies have also shown that even insured U.S. citizens are paying on average 78% more than Canadians for their medication. (Prescription Drug Pricing in the 7th Congressional District of Maryland. An International Price Comparison. 1999)
To address this issue the conversation has to shift to price capping or even more radically the public provision of health care not just public purchase of it at market prices. Imagine the reaction to those proposals if the Obama administration is already being labelled both socialist and national socialist for their changes so far. Indeed the U.S. is weathering a political storm of their modern Tea Party who are particularly incensed by the penalties for the uninsured to take out insurance. Reading through the rhetoric it seems that debates over health care in the U.S. occur in an abstract universe of high principles and dichotomous thinking; it’s either the Wild West or Stalinist Russia. Only an ideologue would keep things going as they are yet in 2008 45% of U.S. residents surveyed by the Harvard School of Public Health thought the U.S.A. had the world’s best health care system. That’s a lot of ideologues.

Australians can be smug if we want that we have been far more successful in keeping health care costs under control. Our Public Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme subsidises medications chosen according to their proven efficacy in relation to their price. That price is determined by negotiation at a national level. Effectively the government purchases medications wholesale. However we shouldn’t deny our inability to rein in dental costs through a public system. Further asking the U.S. government to show some spine to their pharmaceutical industry by reining in prices is a much bigger deal than us taxing the super profits our unwilling large mining companies. So smug may not be appropriate.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Problem with Atheism

I want to write about Atheism and specifically about what is wrong with Atheism. However I feel certain that I will be misunderstood. Basically I am opposed to the Atheist project but not atheism in particular. See that probably didn’t make sense to you.

Firstly I am not saying there is a God. I am not disputing the facts of Atheism. This is exactly where it feels most people are at in this conversation, trading proofs of Gods existence or non-existence. I think the conversation has to move on from this. It is fruitless and boring and unedifying. 
I understand that Atheists may find saying “No sorry, but not for me” about someone else’s God is so frustratingly difficult that moving the conversation on from whether God has to exist is premature. “I’m still trying to gain some wriggle room here,” may be their thinking.

Alternatively evangelical Atheists may not want to move the conversation on just yet because their opponents haven’t been convinced (or humiliated). Stopping now feels like halting the Crusades before they even get going, to which I reply “Yes, that would be a good idea.”
This kind of silliness has been recorded for centuries. Arguments over God’s existence make a glacial progress which is far outstripped by the pace of our forgetfulness.  Once in a thousand blue moons someone actually says something different and it’s usually a reworking of something said previously. I quite fancy the argument from Divine Hiddenness but it’s not much more than the argument from suffering rejigged.

Furthermore it is all, both arguments for God and arguments against God, arguing from plausibility while pretending you’re arguing logic. To do so, is sneaky and malicious debating.  The honest thing to do is not to say “You are all a pack of idiots because you can’t see that clearly obviously due to X and Y God exists or doesn’t,” but instead to say “I think this because of this. Sure it could work the other way but that makes less sense to me.” I believe that almost everyone involved in these debates knows this but denies it. At least I hope they are just being sneaky; I shudder to think that so many high profile Atheists and theists are so colossally stupid to be genuinely unaware that plausible and logically necessary are not the same thing.

For example the splendiferous universe is sometimes given as proof of God, whereas the Atheist instead puts forward the terrible wastefulness of the universe as proof of no-God. For the theist the finely tuned balance of the laws of gravity and the time it takes to soft boil an egg (a minute! That’s bloody convenient!) proves a cosmic designer. For the atheist the countless witless deaths of individuals, whole species, even whole solar systems, just to deliver the Quran between 610 and 632 AD is so inefficient the cosmic designer is more likely to be someone’s idiot nephew than God. But neither of these supposed arguments compel logically.  Both sides can shrug their shoulders at the others point of view and say “I see it differently,” because these arguments are only compelling personally. They are narratives which take credibility from plausibility.
 God is a conceptual squirrel. I’d wear that on a t-shirt. The whole point of (some) Gods is that they are different from us and certainly within the monotheistic traditions followers are beholden of God to tell us what they’re like. Consequently as ludicrous as God might seem to me there is no way to reason from that ludicrousness that God doesn’t exist. They may squirrel themselves into some path of reasoning we can’t perceive. Hence both the mystic and the atheist sing together that God makes no sense. Case in point is Jesus’ return. Is two thousand plus years enough to conclude he’s not coming back?  What ever you think, it should be obvious that not only one conclusion can be drawn.

The above may sound like criticism of Atheism and a (as in any one) theism equally but it’s not.  The arguing for God’s existence is only a small part of any theistic religion – the part that directly engages with Atheists. Meanwhile Atheism has little else going on. Consider the following free associations with Christianity and Atheism; 
  • Free Lunches
  • Into Singing.
  • Believes Jesus is the Son of God.
  • Into marriage but not for gays.
  • Burnt witches (while ago now but witches remember).
  • Op-shops.
  • Doesn’t believe in God.
  • Has conferences and speeches about not believing in God.
  • Writes books about not believing in God.
Now as a contrast let’s look at Buddhism; 
  • Into Meditation.
  • Stories about washing rice bowls and what not.
  • Vegetarian
  • Believes in reincarnation.
  • Supposed to be calm all the time.
  • Doesn’t believe in God. 
I think the above illustrates how the inanity of arguing about God’s existence is a little more crippling for the Atheist movement than it is for Christianity. Of course I’m being facetious, these are not poll results and certainly not objective facts (not all Buddhists are vegetarian, there are defacto Christians, most atheists don’t go to atheist conferences). Certainly there is nobody however much a part of the Atheist movement who would only do the three things listed above under Atheism in their life. However regardless of the many activities an Atheist gets up to atheistically (making cheese for example) all that gets badged as Atheism is the above. Meanwhile Buddhists, while being atheists themselves (some of them that is), have a lot more going on under the name of Buddhism. The effect of this is that making a big deal out of being an Atheist (the Atheist project) functions as celebrating a myopic obsession with pointless and often malicious debate.
This isn’t entirely the Atheists fault. You see Atheist is not originally an atheists’ word. It is a theist’s word for those people outside of its fold and its function has always been to slur. Even the early Christians were called Atheists by the Romans for not believing in Roman Gods. This was in preparation for lunch time for lions. More closely linked to the modern Atheist movement, European empiricists and materialists were marginalised or silenced through the 18th and 19th centuries by the charge of Atheism. Atheists have merely reclaimed the word, effectively saying “Where’s the insult?”
Reclaimed words are a great source of power for resistance movements. They blunt your enemy’s worst verbal attack. I embrace Queer, Wog and Freak at times in my own life. However they are also dangerous. Definition is a very important power and ceding it to others even if you separate out the pergorative aspect should have its costs recognised. The definition of people who don’t believe in God as Atheist is not tautologous but says something important. It says that this issue of God’s existence is the primary basis of their identification. It gives them only the face that fronts on to theism. 
But how is an Atheist supposed to escape being an Atheist when they are surrounded by theism that seems to force just such a definition? It’s not uncommon in my experience to be engaged in conversation with someone who talks about God, not as a belief they hold but as a present and matter of fact reality. In such a situation it feels appropriate, almost necessary to mention that I don’t believe in God. The moment I do, snap, I am presenting myself in terms of unbelief in contrast to their belief.
The answer is to understand the religion game. Religions are answers to “life’s great questions” of what’s it all about and why should we bother with anything.  When a Christian says they’re a Christian they are saying that somehow Christ (and everything that concept drags in to a conversation) answers those questions. When a Buddhist gives their descriptor they mean that Buddhahood or awakening is the answer (the root of Buddha is a Sanskrit word meaning awaken).  When an Atheist says they are an Atheist it sounds like they are saying that being an atheist is the answer; that somehow realising Gods non-existence reveals what it’s all about and why we should bother with anything.
I think that’s deeply weird and I’m an atheist. Further despite the noise of Atheist trumpets selling books like hotcakes I think most Atheists feel the same way. God’s non-existence is a fact for us. Any answer to lifes’ great questions we have will therefore have to incorporate that fact but knowing God’s non-existence isn’t the answer itself. That distinction is important.
So when someone tells me about their God the appropriate response is to recognise our conversation as one in which we are sharing our answers to life’s great questions and respond with mine. If I don’t like the conversation that’s fine to say. If I have no answer then that’s fine to share too. If I don’t believe there is just one answer but that everyone has to find their own calling then that’s also fine. If I believe it’s just about comforting each other on this strange blue orb in space then that’s good enough. If my companion chooses to scoff at these and say “That’s not much of an answer,” I can point out that I didn’t criticise their answer and hopefully they’ll apologise.

But if I say “I’m an Atheist” then I’ve misunderstood the conversation. In return I’ll probably be misunderstood myself – as myopically obsessed with a fruitless debate in lieu of any engagement with the great questions of life. Because that’s what I’ve just said.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Charles Dickens and small “c” christianity.

“Remember! – It is christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.”
-        THE LIFE OF OUR LORD written especially for his children by Charles Dickens
When I reviewed Alister McGrath’s history of Protestantism, I was surprised that though he discussed protestant novels there was no mention of, to my mind the greatest Christian author, Charles Dickens whose 200th birthday has just passed. I think that Dickens is genuinely overlooked as a Christian author because his definition of Christian is so radically different from the standard. I want to explore that difference with this post.
Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist
- Dickens darkest villian.
Dickens’ definition of a Christian can be understood through his villains and heroes. Dickens villains are bitter, miserly, violent, bullies and “needless to say cowards”. They respond to the suffering of others with a cold heart or even with a cruelly glad heart. Dickens’ heroes are generous, joyous and honourable. Most importantly they respond to witnessing suffering with instinctual kindness. Their hearts are warm and they feel tenderly towards others. The distinction between these two is Dickens’ christianity.
It is rightly spelt with a small “c” because Dickensian christianity is not so much something you either are or you are not (a type of person typified by a capital “C” Christian.) It is much more something you embrace by degree. The most famous of Dickens’ conversions Ebeneezer Scrooge endeavours to be more christian much more than he does to become a Christian. Of course this can also be described as a qualitative change – Ebeneezer going from wanting to be less christian if he can to wanting to be more christian is a dichotomous reversal – but it’s the quantitive aspect that excites me.

What excites me about quantitive small c christianity is that it paints a radically different picture to big C Christianity. Many non-Christians and Christians alike understand Christianity a bit like a place you enter, an ark would be a fitting metaphor. Outside the ark is one fate (“Is that rain?”) and inside is another of spiritual preservation. To enter you need to firstly believe what Christians believe; Christians believe in a Trinity of divine persons, one of whom is Jesus who rose from the dead. Most Christians believe in Heaven and Hell and that sin (which is universal) will land you in Hell but that God’s forgiveness gained through the death of Jesus can gain you access to Heaven. Many Christians would add believing in the authority of the Christian Bible as a requirement too.

Belief itself won’t make you a Christian however.  Keeping your place on the ark requires a commitment beyond belief. Before Jesus died and rose again it required keeping the law and making sacrifices through the temple. After Jesus it requires something else. Primarily you only have to recognise the sacrifice Jesus made and your spot on the ark is secure. In practice though this can be quite difficult as there is recognising Jesus’ sacrifice and really-fully-absolutely recognising it which is incompatible with any sense of personal merit. In fact certain Christian theologies argue we are so inherently sinful we simply can’t meet this requirement adequately but must be chosen by God to do so. This description glosses over many differences between Christians but the ark metaphor is generally apt. Even those Christians who criticise the in-out model of Christianity acknowledge its existence.

In Dickens’ christianity there is no true out group. To be christian is one’s natural state and it is still visible in dim fashion in many of his worst characters. The whole joyous nature of Dickens’ christianity can be found here. The christian approaches their fellow human expecting a kindred spirit in regards to warmth and kindness. Like a naive child they envisage it buried under the worst exteriors – they seek to awaken it, to thaw it out. They put their hope in it. Small “c” christianity is everywhere, can’t be killed (or will only rise again) and belongs to us all as a birthright. Wherever it is curtailed is therefore a tragic and unnatural affair. Conditions which might crush this native christianity (such as the workhouses of Dickens’ time) are the ultimate manifestation of evil.

The big “c” Christian by contrast is theologically obliged to expect sinfulness from others. It is their common bond with every other human – that state of warranting punishment. Inside the ark is no better – sinners reside there too - however compliance with God’s perspective gives them at least the behaviour of goodness. Acknowledgement of their sinfulness is also a significant distinction. Christians sometimes make a big deal out of how there is no in group with Christianity – all are sinners. Non-Christians don’t generally think this is the case hearing in language like saved and unsaved, repentant and unrepentant a clear in-group out-group division.  As someone who knows both groups I’d say the truth is somewhere inbetween.
The ark is also a container for its passengers. The primary way the ark serves is to give boundaries and place limits lest you get your feet wet. It keeps you safe on your journey to your afterlife. Dickens’ definition however explodes the ark. In fact whoever flees their natural christianity in Dickens world flees into a container, a prison of their own self-interest, like one of the anchored prison ships of his time, not entirely dissimilar to an ark;
“ shutting out the light of day, she had shut out infinitely more; that in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker; I knew equally well. – Great Expectations Chapter 42
Breaking out of that prison, blinking at the light and getting connected to other people (not just other Christians) is crucial to Dickens’ christianity.
I think Dickens’ christianity is unpopular today for two main reasons. Firstly Dickens can be spectacularly inventive with his metaphysical beliefs, for example the nature of the afterlife;
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free.
Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep- The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever. – A Christmas Carol Chapter 1

This kind of poetic licence has a long and valued tradition within Christianity. The Drummer Boy is a late invention in the Christmas tradition for example. However Christians are also taught through churches build on doctrinal fault lines to cherish precise doctrinal positions. Dickens seems to rush on to the broader active implications of imprecise doctrine instead. He therefore has the freedom to use metaphysical descriptions that make his point rather than treat biblical metaphysical descriptions as bodies of fact from which doctrine must derive. Interestingly some modern scholars think this is truer to what the Bible itself is. It is probably though what costs Dickens inclusion in official church reading lists.
In addition to this theological liberality Dickensian christianity is also unpopular because of the contemporary political landscape. Dickensian christianity is foremost common decency inspired by the stories of Jesus. Secularists are engaged in separating common decency from religion altogether. Despite his de-emphasis on theology Dickens can’t be easily brought into such a project. Quiet statements of faith are not the same as absent ones. Dickens merely noted (like Mark Twain and, you could argue, Jesus) the least christianity in the most schooled theologians. But the heart Dickens considers more important than the head is clearly a Jesus inspired heart.
Neither does Dickens give any support to contemporary public leaders (such as Mitt Romney) claiming God and our basic moral principles are intertwined. Dickens’ values are just too different. Instead of relative abstractions such as the underpinnings of democracy, the intrinsic value of human life or even capitalist economic principles, Dickens talks about “gentleness, mercy and forgiveness.” It’s hard to galvanise righteous fury around these values, or to demonise your opponents from them. Subsequently Dickens is irrelevant to both sides of the “culture wars” between conservative Christians and secularists.
Despite this unpopularity I know many people that I would consider Dickensian christians. They are people for whom their childhood understanding of Jesus as the lover of the excluded is still their most treasured inspiration. They don’t abide theology or manners that separate them from that naive perspective. They are often not confident defending their definition of Christianity against other more sophisticated models. I hope this post will show them they have a champion.
But he was always merciful and tender. And because he did such Good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, he was called Our Saviour.
– The Life of Our Lord Chapter 3.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Australia Day. Less is more.

On the 26th of January just passed we had our Australia Day. Since 1935 this has been our countries official production of the modern nation’s obligation. According to Wikipedia only Denmark and the U.K. have no official national day while Pakistan, compensating for its dwarf size next to India perhaps, has three.

Australia day is mostly an exercise in vacuity. This is unlike an event like Christmas which is overflowing with content; Jesus, Santa, Christmas trees and so on. The absent content of Australia day is revealed by its greeting “Happy Australia Day”, a platitude of desert like emptiness. We mean nothing by it other than that we noticed the date. There are no stories or songs connecting one Australia day with another. The only and recent traditional element is a barbeque meal which in Australia is almost like saying we drink beer to mark the occasion. Most especially there’s no Australian Day nativity – no original Australia day to give the day any meaning. 

That’s not entirely true. Australia day is actually on the date on which a Commander Arthur Phillip ran the predecessor of the Union Jack up a flag pole in Australia soil in 1788. This act established a New South Wales prison colony for those first convicts who landed with Phillip, the unfortunate passengers of the First Fleet. This day doesn’t mark the first great disregard for indigenous property rights in Australia. They had been officially extinguished in 1770 by Captain Cook and remained so until the Australian High Court overturned the legal fiction of “terra nullis” (empty land) in 1992. Nor does the day mark the first discovery of the Australian landmass by Europeans. The Dutch were here briefly in 1606. Neither does it have anything to do with Australia the nation. New South Wales was its own separate colony until 1888. 

Quite deliberately I haven’t said Australia day celebrates 1788 or even remembers it; I stated it is “on the date”. Our peculiar history is deliberately and forcibly not reflected upon by most Australians on Australia day. It really is fairer to say that the day has no “ancient” origin in our celebration of it; two hundred years ago rightly or wrongly is “ancient” history to most in this young nation. 

If the complete emptiness of Australia Day is in any doubt then just consider the days’ aesthetic. This is entirely a replication of our flag (a quarter of which is the Union Jack) onto everything from paper serviettes to children’s bodies (in the form of fake tattoos and face paint). The flag is an image which says nothing most Australians want to acknowledge. It says we are a British (ex?) colony. It says we have seven states, ignoring our two territories. It’s only non government related feature is a constellation of stars, the Southern Cross, which is difficult to spot from the brightly lit cities where most Australians live and which makes the impactless point that we are in the Southern Hemisphere. I was told this year that the flag represents “all of us” however that only makes sense with such a low standard of representation that a blank page would do just as well. In fact a blank page would do better.

With nothing really behind it or inside it, it’s predictable that Australia day is not a spontaneous outpouring of Australian emotion. This is a heavily government sponsored event. It is difficult to work out exactly how heavily it is sponsored as all levels of government (Federal, State and Local) throw money at it. Our Shire (local council) allocated a paltry $9,200 to this years Australia Day festivities. However this is likely replicated by every local council in Australia (approximately five hundred and fifty nine) and combines with state and federal government funding. 

Federal funding includes a direct grant of $3,388,000 per annum. In what may be standard dodgy accounting the National Australia Day Council also receives about that amount again as “payment for services”. I suspect that much of this will be services to other Government departments such as Tourism but can’t be sure. If it is that’s more than six million dollars for Australia Day at the federal level alone. I have been unable to determine the State Funding (sixty seven pages of an Annual report and not a dollar figure to it) but have emailed the government hoping to find out more. (If you can help, please comment below.) This government cash is in addition to a range of corporate sponsorship of Australia Day events that will get you a nice tax deduction along with your advertising across public space. I would be surprised if the total national public subsidy of Australia Day isn’t at least ten million dollars and I only mean direct funding (not extra police at festivities for example).

No amount of money however buys any meaning to the day. All the fireworks in all the cities that bother with them are simply the very best sound and fury signifying nothing. But politics as well as nature abhors a vacuum. So we try and say what Australia day is or should be about. Father Bob Maguire, speaking at my local Australia Day council event, (with tongue in cheek) said “It reminds us of Anglo Saxon supremacy” That is an inevitable danger as any celebration of Australia has the same capacity to turn nasty as, say, a celebration of masculinity. It’s only a beer from celebrating something to denigrating its’ other. The other in Australia Days case is those with less real or imagined connection to that first Australia Day – the less Australian.

But no meaning of Australia Day ultimately sticks. The concept stays empty and is therefore up for grabs. As a very recent example the Shake It Up foundation wants people to connect their Australia Day barbeques with raising money for curing Parkinsons. It’s a noble cause but it could just as easily be saving tree frogs for all its relevance to Australia Day.

Personally I remember Australia Day from about fifteen years ago as a home-made affair without any publicly organised joy other than tea cake at the town hall for new citizens. I joined in with those who sought to make the day an opportunity for advancing indigenous rights. That particularly meant the recognition of land claims, compensation for members of the stolen generation and a treaty. The day was unofficially renamed “Invasion Day” with enough success that many Australians have heard the term. Very few would embrace it though. 

I think reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is a more historically apt use of Australia day than finding a cure for Parkinsons particularly. However while I wouldn’t have admitted this in my younger years I don’t think reconciliation is the legitimate use of the day. It is just as much spin doctoring as any other Australia Day meaning. 

Certainly many Australians have convict heritage and I see nothing wrong with this day being an opportunity to remember that. There are some amazing stories. These are stories which have amongst others bled into this country. We should listen to them. So long as owning those stories doesn’t make you more Australian than other stories they should definitely be remembered. In fact given the date Australia Day is on perhaps we should rename the day Convict Heritage day.

Writing this piece has made me nostalgic for Australia Day before the wash of government money swept over the day. The history of that subsidy is really only very short, beginning in earnest in 1988 with the bicentenary. The Australia Day Council only incorporated in 1990. It seems to be continually growing too. The effect has been so much white noise drowning out quieter conversations about Australia’s colonial, penal and indigenous past. Perhaps my biggest concern is that along with the money, flag waving nationalism is being normalised in a country that for the most part has celebrated Australia Day as just any holiday we could get. Whatever Day; now that has a nice ring to it.
A little variety next year perhaps? So much flag.