Life of Riley: Self-evident truths

November 13, 1996

Politicians have talked about democracy for 300 years and now people have come to expect it. Ask any American and they'll tell you that democracy is a self-evident truth. It's even written down somewhere.

The authority of the state is so tarnished that it doesn't impress or intimidate any more. Popes aside, if someone's authority ultimately derives from god then that's impressive. But no one would expect that god's son — if he chose to visit us again — should grow up to be a member of the Liberal Party.

In the main, we don't demand that sort of moral charisma any more from those who rule us. Why? Because we don't believe in it. Now and then we may allow ourselves some excitement and bank on a Ghandi, Kennedy or Whitlam to make a difference. But generally there's no reason why they shouldn't be working for us. We no longer believe there are other people who know better than us how we should live and work. That's what democratic notions do to a population.

That doesn't mean that everything we do is practical common sense. Where's the sense of voting in John Howard or re-electing Bill Clinton?

The essential thing about acting responsibly is to have responsibility. Then you can learn from experience. And the time to take responsibility is when the people who've already got it can't make it work — and that's our situation now.

It takes a lot of effort, years of false education and lies, indignity, shabby poverty, economic insecurity, (or the insecurity of dishonest privilege), to accept this unjust world. No matter how they sell it to you, our social order is not a means of defending justice but of defending social injustice. That doesn't make our world absurd, but it sure makes you wonder if we could create one that's sane and rational.

You can't do much by just deciding to be happier, saner or wiser yourself. That depends on society, and you can only change your life by changing society and the role you have to play in it.

Our problems won't vanish just because a few of us gain enlightenment and yearn for a brighter future. There is no way we can step straight into a rational society without struggling for it. But rational processes will be brought back into society so that problems are solved and not compounded. I call such a society a socialist one.

We have to chose a new rationale for society, even a new culture. There is a counter-culture already and it's been developing for hundreds of years: it is democracy.

So if you think what we've got now is the long and short of it — and the best we can afford given the state of our national accounts — then maybe you should think again. If ending up with Billie or Johnnie is the best we can expect from the democracy we have then we all need much more responsibility than we've got now.

That you're unlikely to be given that responsibility without a fight tells a lot about the society we live in. But that's another self-evident truth that I'm sure is written down somewhere.

Dave Riley

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