Tuesday 22nd of September 2020

from the nets .....

from the nets ........

From a purely political point of view, the most interesting thing about travelling to Europe (which I have just done) is the extraordinary contrast with the stopover in Singapore on the way home.

Singapore is all go; huge reclamation works, extraordinary construction projects on the same scale as the futuristic erections in Shanghai, but a good deal classier. Almost everything works and what doesn't is being ruthlessly discarded.

There is evidence of planning on an almost totalitarian scale, and the result is a clean, green city state exuding vibrancy and confidence. And almost nobody smokes. In Singapore, it is easy to believe that we are heading into the Asian century.

Europe on the other hand is packed with gloomy smokers, harking back constantly to the past. It remains fascinating, crammed with interesting sites and wonderful art, redolent (often quite literally) with history.

But there is a tired, almost despondent air about the place, relieved only by the occasional injection of bread (although, frankly you can eat better and more consistently in Australia these days) and circuses (currently the European soccer championships). Which made it all the more serendipitous to pick up an article in the Singapore Straits Times by the Sydney Morning Herald's international editor, Peter Hartcher, lamenting the decline of the West.

We are, all of us - Europe, America, Japan, even Australia - going down the gurgler, Hartcher maintains, the victims of a long bout of overindulgence. In Europe, the symptoms are already obvious; in America and Japan, they are becoming more so as a result of gross overspending by governments. And in Australia, they are the product of a feeling of entitlement that has grown up through the profligate vote-buying of the Howard government through buckets of middle-class welfare.

Even after Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have reluctantly begun to wind back the worst excesses, seven out of 10 of us are on some kind of government handout, and we regard any attempt to reduce or remove it as an attack on our basic human rights.

And of course at the same time, we continue to bay for lower taxes. It isn't sustainable, and deep down we know it, which is one of the reasons we have grown to resent our politicians - especially the ones in government - so violently and irrationally. The alternative would be to accept the blame ourselves, a final step we are not ready to take.

The evidence of our overindulgence is not yet as dramatic as that of ancient Rome - our circuses are not yet as lethal or our orgies as public and even our flashest restaurants have not yet installed vomitoriums. But it is there, so it is worth developing Hartcher's thesis a little further. If overindulgence is one of the symptoms of a society in decline, what are the others?

Well, there are at least two, and the first is an obsession with monument building. Almost every civilisation on the wane tries to build itself out of trouble by erecting huge and useless memorials to its apparently eternal triumphs - what might be called the Ozymandias complex.

Tony Abbott would no doubt like to put the National Broadband Network in this category. But the NBN, while huge, is far from useless - it is actually a sign of progress rather than decline. The previous government's construction of the Alice Springs-Darwin railway would be a better example, although even that may prove to have its uses. Australia has so far been mercifully free of this portent of doom.

But the second is far more prevalent and worrying: an increasing tendency to believe in, and rely on, the irrational. In Rome, this manifested itself in the proliferation of strange religious cults and a rejection of science which led, ultimately, to the dark ages in Europe. And the rejection of science is arguably the most important social problem in the Western world.

Its epicentre is, of course, the United States, in which more than half the population reportedly rejects the theory of evolution in favour of a particularly batty form of Christianity in which an obsession with sexual morality is combined with the drug-induced fantasies of the book of Revelations, with more than a touch of astrology, numerology, iridology and you name it thrown in.

Australians have not yet gone to this extent, but we are definitely moving in the same direction. The trend manifests itself in a variety of fringe groups - opposition to vaccination, fluoridation, and other scientifically proven public health measures is apparently on the increase.

So-called "alternative" (a synonym for untested, irrational, unscientific) medicine is embraced with growing fervour by otherwise sensible citizens. Religion, already based on faith rather than reason, is becoming either totally dumbed down (the happy-clappy churches) or reinvented in ever more bizarre sects and cults involving everything from the worship of trees to the channelling of archangels.

And then there is the clearest indicator of all, denial of climate change.

In the past, this was the domain of those with a vested interest, such as coal owners, and the barking mad, such as Cardinal George Pell and shock jock Alan Jones, each of whom has his own reasons for believing in fairy tales. But doubts (for which there is no basis at all) are now spreading among the general public, to the extent that Julia Gillard (and Tony Burke, when a petty-minded opposition will let him go) will appear at the Rio Summit with their own well-thought-out measures to deal with the problem (the carbon tax and their marine parks network, for starters) both deeply unpopular within their own country.

And Rio, of course, has already been marked down for failure: the West, in particular, is more concerned with saving itself from decline and fall than with the preservation of the planet. And yet it is precisely this selfishness, this short-sightedness, and yes, this overindulgence and irrationality, that has got us into the mess in the first place. Over to you, Asia.

The Decline & Fall Of Reason