Do Values Matter in Public Life?
It has been a trend in OECD nations for some time to see politics as a largely a-political exercise in budget management and fiscal policy settings. The only real policy debates are about Keynesianism versus free market, and how to divide up the goods delivered by the market. The rest is the nuance of social policy. This week’s budget blew that out of the water. Stripped back to bones it is a statement about the sort of society the corporate right want – essentially a first step in the march back to the social conditions and class relations of the nineteenth century. Values are back on the agenda.
How significant is this? Consider the following photograph. It is perhaps the most extreme example of what the values held by a ruling elite can do to a country. Taken by a NASA satellite at night, it shows the bright lights of South Korea and the bright lights of China. The dark gap in the middle isn’t water, it’s North Korea.
Photo sourced from Huffington Post
North Korea is one of only two remaining Communist monarchies, the other being Cuba. South Korea is a thriving industrial democracy in which approximately a third of the population identify as being born again Christians. China is a State directed capitalist economy with a unitary government. North Korea is, well, North Korea. There are an estimated 80,000 -100,000 Christians in concentration camps there who refuse to worship the revered leader. Go figure. In short, values determine policy, and policy determines whether the lights stay on or the lights go out. In many more ways than one, North Korea is in darkness.
In Australia we like to elect governments we think will give us the most consumer goods – Christmas goodies if you will. In all the marketing hype it is easy to forget that we give presents at Christmas to celebrate God giving his son so that we could be forgiven. The message of Christmas, apart from chocolate, is that it is better to love unconditionally, walk in forgiveness and live a generous life. Folk with a religious or (Western) traditional bent will be familiar with the nativity.
However there is another side to the Christmas story that is never publicly acknowledged and seldom referred to even in church; and that is the massacre of innocents. After the Eastern Maggi (they are the dudes on the camels with the frankincense and gold) visited the local provincial Roman dictator and told him they were seeking the Jewish boy king in response to the celestial signs and Jewish prophesies, things got a bit messy. Herod didn’t want prophetic Jewish kings rising up on his watch so he ordered the massacre of all boys three years and under in Israel. History relates the event but not the death toll because no one was counting. What we can reasonably infer is that Roman soldiers kicked down everyone’s door, tore toddlers from their mother’s arms, and murdered them. This atrocity failed in its object. Jesus and his family were already refugees in Egypt. The Bible records “A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachael weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted because her children are no more.”
Herod continued to live into old age. This massacre could happen without censure because the Roman Empire didn’t exist to benefit its people. After-all, the majority of people were slaves. Only citizens had any rights at all, and only a very small percentage of people were citizens. In the later Roman Empire it was possible to buy citizenship, but it was prohibitively expensive. Rights and freedoms were things you bought with money or inherited based on your social class. The Empire existed for the fame, wealth and dignity, of probably less than one per cent of the population. Is any of this sounding familiar?
This budget has taken a step away from the message of Christmas. If goods are not shared, if opportunity is not shared, if freedom is not universal, if a society stops being about benefiting its members and starts being about the fame, wealth and dignity of the elite, bad things happen.
Some social systems are demonstrably worse than others. North Korea probably takes the prize for general lunacy. It really doesn’t matter though whether a country is a communist dictatorship, a fascist dictatorship, or a democracy in which the elite own the media, the education system, the health system, the phone system, the electricity system, the water supply, and dictate social policy. If society is about those at the top, that society will be in darkness.
Let’s remember Christmas and shed some more light.