CITIES, how the world works

Of dogs and people

On Mother’s Day, Maria Tumarkin wrote what I thought was a beautiful, heartfelt and effective plea for a less hysterical immigration policy, describing aptly what a horror it was not to be able to take care of your parents. It was published in The Age, SMH and on National Times.

The comments have since closed after reaching the count of 82, and they depict a truly frightful Australia. Even subtracting a large number that must have come from Andrew Bolt’s blog (he called her confused about who has actually done the abandoning), the sheer concentration of vitriol, xenophobia and selfishness shows a society that appears to have truly lost its moral compass. One person called it an expression of “a very australian thing: to put money ahead of not just compassion but human decency”, and I would love to defend my adopted country, but in the face of this it is very hard.I am writing about it not to add much commentary, but because we are living in truly frightening times if reactions like these are not worth dwelling upon, reactions I would call obscene.

Tumarkin’s biggest rhetorical mistake was to take for granted that family bonds matter:

“Kevin Rudd can argue that the family is ”the most critical social institution of all” but be blissfully unaffected when the institution of ”migrant” family is ripped to shreds by the children’s inability to take care of their parents – a sacred duty in most cultures, perhaps even in Australia’s.”

But the comments show another, very different place, in which people proudly boast of not giving two hoots about their own family, let alone someone else’s. It’s a collection of statements ranging from the garden-variety selfishness of my-problem-is-not-your-problem/why-should-the-taxpayer suffer (“old people are expensive, and living longer” and “I dont want your parents, I want my own kids”), to the proud assertions that other people don’t matter, not even when they’re one’s own family (from the highly privileged “[i] would not presume to impose my elderly parents on Australia. If I feel the urge to care for them, I’d go back to America to do so” and the “People who accept citizenship to Australia should be ready to accept to costs, and they should let their citizenships of their former countries of origin expire” to the curious “The relatives can visit and go back. My child was very scared from some of them dressed in a tribal wear on a few cases”). As summarized by one of the commentators:

“The ties to one’s parents are not sacred in Australian culture, nor is it dinned into our heads that children’s lives are predestined to be spent looking after them. Far from it. Perhaps people wanting to come here should think of that first. The friend mentioned here sounds like a case of the youngest daughter being expected to act as unpaid carer/companion for the parents – something that died out in Anglo-Celtic culture decades ago.”

If the picture of Australia presented on this website is anything to go by, then it is of a place in which the social contract holding people into something resembling a ‘society’ has truly fallen apart, and all we are is a bunch of small-minded, selfish individuals interacting with each other just to the bare minimum, through a shared legal system, taxes, traffic and supermarket inventories. No wonder it’s a country in which every moment of your everyday life in public is legislated – what guarantee is there that we would function on consensus and cooperation otherwise, by our own free will?

How different this is from a country like Croatia, in which the Constitution makes a note that “every member of the society must take care of the young, the elderly and the needy” – providing that fundamental benchmark against which certain behavior, such as not helping a person attacked on the street, can be judged morally wrong. The presence of such clauses in European legislation probably explains the fact that they are missing the entire complex of public risk and safety laws that plague Anglo-Celtic countries, with their ‘long-ago died-out’ social ties. If everyone is supposed to look after the children crossing roads, the ill, the pregnant, the elderly, because they too fulfill a role in the society, then the whole question of who is responsible if something bad happens to them becomes superfluous. If we have collective responsibilities, we also have collective faults and collective achievements. If we don’t, like we apparently don’t in Australia, then there is no collective fault for, say, Tampa or the Stolen Generation, and no collective achievement of, say, excellent public schooling or universal maternity leave.

We become just a lot of people who don’t like their neighbours, their relatives, their fellow citizens.

It is symptomatic that this article comes a mere week after Catherine Deveny’s column for The Age was replaced with Graham Reilly talking about the transcendent joy of owning a dog, a hobby which costs Australians about $25,000 per dog in total, the same newspaper recently reported. What makes that sum somehow understandable, rather than wasteful of our scarce resources (because of which we cannot take more useless people on board), is that the bill is footed privately. You can have meaningful relationships with whatever form of life, as long as you pay for it yourself, the moral of the story seems to be.

But if you are trying to include your family in this, sorry, you are just not being Anglo-Celtic enough.

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