Selfishness is political poison

Amid the contemporary chaos of national and international politics do you wonder what's behind it all?

Is there a common factor that might explain our own federal government’s failures, its incompetence, and its appalling behaviour?

Is there an explanation for the words, behaviour, and punitive actions of Donald Trump?

Is there a common theme that explains Brexit, and the rise of extreme right wing and conservative movements across Europe and in America?

This piece argues that selfishness in all its forms is a deadly poison that infiltrates, damages and eventually destroys a nation’s political principles and values. It is a lethal poison because it places self-interest ahead of the common good, and thereby brings in its wake inequality, unfairness, disadvantage, disentitlement, dispossession, disenfranchisement, repression, hopelessness, poverty, despair, and eventually destruction.

Long ago philosophers and clerics spoke of the Seven Deadly Sins. They are: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

Their origin is attributed to the ‘Desert Fathers’, early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD.

If you reflect on their nature, there is a common thread running through them – selfishness. Those who lust, want what others have; those who exhibit gluttony, want more than is reasonable; those who are greedy, want more than their fair share; and those who show envy, want what others have. Selfishness is at the core of most of the Seven Deadly Sins.

We don’t have to look far to see selfishness at play in politics the world over.

Let’s begin with the most grotesque example: Donald Trump.

In his adult life Trump has exhibited selfishness. He has lusted after money; he has lusted after fame; he has lusted after power. He now has all three.

Of these, power is the most intoxicating. We have seen him wielding it ruthlessly in public, showing off his signature on Executive Orders, the most potent of all being his Immigration Order that bars for 90 days refugees and people from majority-Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya) from entering the US. Last week Trump signed an Executive Order barring Syrian refugees indefinitely, and halting the US refugee resettlement program for four months.

He has issued several other orders, but his Immigration Order is the one that has evoked the most reaction from the public in the US and overseas. Massive rallies in the US and around the world continue to protest against its unfairness. US public officials have challenged the constitutionality of his action. A federal judge in New York granted an emergency stay, temporarily halting the deportation of people detained under Trump’s Order. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates defied Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration. So, as he was wont to do on his TV realty program The Apprentice, he fired her! Yet Trump may find that the legal challenges to his power - the law versus executive power – may be what bring about his undoing. America values its laws.

Overseas governments have expressed dismay at Trump’s Immigration Order, describing it in derogatory terms. A notable exception is our own PM, who has ‘declined to comment’ in public, an action consistent with his timid behaviour. He says he will comment in private to Trump, but who believes that when he’s beholden to Trump to take our Manus Island and Nauru refugees.

Trump’s punitive and selfish behaviour masquerades under clever framing designed to appeal to his supporters: ‘Put America First’, or simply ‘America First’. To the unthinking that seems reasonable. Already our own Treasurer is mouthing ‘Australia First’, and now our Opposition Leader is talking about 'Aussie First', both hoping to entice those who find that an attractive proposition, and in the process draw One Nation supporters their way.

But it’s the other side of the coin that offends. While on the superficial face of it putting one’s country first might seem reasonable, the corollary is that all others are second or lower down the pecking order. It distracts the electorate from the distress, the pain, the dispossession, and the desperation of hundreds of millions around the world who through war or natural disaster have been rendered homeless and destitute. What does putting one’s country first mean for them? Already we see the answer in Trump’s suspension of the US resettlement program and his indefinite barring of Syrian refugees.

Human beings are innately tribal at all levels of society. So looking after oneself and one’s own first seems natural and reasonable. But much of humanity has moved beyond that. It has recognized that those less fortunate deserve our attention, respect and support. Trump’s actions erode those worthy ideals, principles espoused by the great religions of the world. His actions have rekindled tribal instincts among many. A contemporary survey in the US reports that over 40% of respondents supports Trump’s immigration stance.

Yet there are hundreds of thousands who do not. They are out in the streets in the US and elsewhere, shouting ‘Let them in’. They despise Trump’s actions. They see the selfishness of his Orders, the arrogance of his actions, and the ruthlessness of his demeanour as destructive of the moral fibre of the US. They see him leading compliant Americans down a path of self-interest: US first, and to hell with the rest of humanity no matter how much suffering these people are enduring. Despite his quasi-religious words, his actions and behaviour are anti-Christian, but equally anti-Muslim, and anti all the great religions of the world that show concern for the poor, the dispossessed and the destitute, and seek to improve their condition.

Trump is leading his nation, and dragging compliant nations along with him, down a path of extreme selfishness and concomitant disregard for all others. It is the antithesis of responsible and caring behaviour. It is reprehensible. It is destructive.

Is there no one, no leader, no nation that will stop him?

Justin Trudeau has spoken out. He has made it clear that Canada welcomes refugees.

Most other nations are mute. Some European leaders have condemned Trump’s action, but have fallen short of renewing a welcome to refugees. They are terrified of the electoral consequences. We are witnessing the emergence of extreme right wing groups in France, Germany, and now even in the Netherlands, so that the contest at their next elections will be between the right wing and the extreme right wing. The progressives are being left behind.

Why have these extreme groups arisen? Selfishness again. They resent the levels of immigration from the Middle East and Africa that has seen millions of refugees trudging into Europe or arriving on the overcrowded boats of people-smugglers. The Brexit outcome demonstrated the unexpectedly high level of anger and resentment many Britons felt at the high level of immigration to the UK from Europe. They wanted their country back again.

We here are not immune from these sentiments. From Abbott to the arrogant Morrison to the loathsome Dutton, the anti-immigrant sentiment has been handed down, echoed by our timid PM, and applauded all the time by Pauline Hanson and her supporters. Collectively they have garnered the support of much of the electorate.

Wherever we turn, we see the ugly face of selfishness, an attitude of ‘me-first and too bad about the others’. Politicians have it within their power to counter this but few chose to do so. Justin Trudeau has. But our weak lily-livered PM and his conservative puppet-masters have chosen not to. Their self-interest is incompatible with concern about the common good.

If decent people feel despairing about the morality of governments around the world; if they feel deserted by our own federal government, it is because of selfishness, obsessive concern for personal survival, disinterest in the principles so poignantly expressed in the actions of the Good Samaritan, all the time accentuated by weakness and ineffectiveness in caring for anyone but their own.

Is selfishness the ultimate Deadly Sin?

What do you think?
Do you agree that selfishness is the root cause of most political conflict and discord?

If not, name what you regard as a more basic ‘sin’ in politics.

Let us know in comments below.

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Comments (10) -

  • Casablanca

    2/5/2017 3:37:29 PM |

    We have denigrated, demonised and detained those who sought refuge in Australia and yet we are outraged when Trump does the same.

    Angela Merkel has spoken out against Trump and so has Prince Charles, but I agree, the list of principled leaders is very short indeed. Theresa May only came out and criticised Trump after the British Press called her 'Theresa the Appeaser'. Several journalists have drawn the obvious parallels between the world's disregard for Jewish refugees from 1930s Germany and the targetting of present day refugees on the basis of religion and race.

    Michelle Grattan has urged Turnbull to walk away from the Refugee deal but only on the grounds that Trump will most likely come up with a compromising quid pro quo.

    I read a tweet that echoed this article in pointing out that In avowedly Christian America they don't seem to realise that Jesus spent his life in the Middle East and among folk of different religions.

  • Casablanca

    2/5/2017 4:00:43 PM |

    Canada, Leading the Free World. Nicholas Kristof
    Canada’s leaders nurtured multiculturalism into a sacred part of the country’s identity. As the rest of the world bangs the doors shut, Canadians celebrate their openness — and, polls show, now take more pride in multiculturalism than in hockey.

  • 2353NM

    2/6/2017 10:23:12 AM |

    Casablanca - I love your link regarding Canada's multiculturalism.  I was in Toronto around 6 years ago and witnessed Palestinians and Israelis on opposite sides of a main street in the city protesting over additional housing in Palestine.  There was a  large Police vehicle presence, a couple of officers watching proceedings from each side of the street and the rest were on the top floor of the McDonalds eating lunch.  Both sides of the street nicely cleared a path fro me and others to walk through as necessary.

    A couple of days later I was in Toronto's Chinatown.  The Fulan Gong (sp?) were doing a rather colourful street march up and down the street.  Again a few Police were there but had nothing to do, an inspector for the public transport system arrives to help reorganise the routes of the vehicles affected and the world went on.  

    They are mad about ice hockey and passionate about acknowledgement that different nationalities bring enrichment to all.  They even make wide shoulders on country roads in Mennonite areas to ensure safety of those in vehicles and those in horse drawn carriages.  Yes, practical but at the same time respectful.

  • Ad Astra

    2/6/2017 3:02:20 PM |

    Casablanca, 2353NM
    Thank you for your comments.

    The way refugees are being treated by many nations around the world (Canada is a stark exception) is a classic example of selfishness. It’s an ‘I’m OK, to hell with the rest of you’ approach, which we see expressed even more stridently among far right wing groups as they pursue their anti-migration cause.

    It was the driving force behind Brexit, and threatens to bring down moderate leaders, such as Angela Merkel (who has been supportive of migrants) in favour of right wing anti-immigrant extremists. We have such people here in Australia – Cory Bernardi is flexing his ultra conservative anti-immigration muscles right now.

    Trump for his part is exacerbating the anti-immigrant anger with his punitive ‘Executive Orders’ on immigration. We can be grateful that at least some of the US judiciary (Trump’s ‘so-called judges’) are standing up to his outrageous intimidation by pointing out that despite his massive ego, and his bullying behaviour, he is not above the law, nor above the US constitution.

  • totaram

    2/6/2017 6:59:34 PM |

    The increasing selfishness did not come from nowhere.  It has been systematically promoted as part of the neo-liberal program since the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Whole armies of "researchers" in think-tanks funded by the rich have used every trick at their disposal to change people's thinking, so that the neo-liberal agenda would become more palatable to people -  in fact "self-evident". If you dig diligently you will find that there were think-tank members even writing children's books to spread the right kind of message.  And given that the current mass-media is owned by people with money, the chances that they will oppose this wave of brain-washing is minuscule. In fact, they have actively contributed to this brain-washing and continue to do so. So rolling it all back will take a very long time - not likely in my (admittedly limited) lifetime.

  • Ad astra

    2/7/2017 3:57:21 PM |

    You are right. Conservative think tanks are continuously working away devising different ways of spreading the conservative message, even to children. Indoctrination is their stock in trade.

    They are more active by far than left wing think tanks and are therefore a jump ahead of the progressives as Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out many times. They are experts at framing, which is what this is all about.

  • Ad Astra

    2/8/2017 12:10:24 PM |

    How would you categorize the action of Cory Bernardi in leaving the Liberal Party yesterday to form the Australian Conservatives? Is this an example of selfishness? Or is this selfless adherence to the high principles of conservatism, irrespective of personal considerations?

    Opinion is divided among the commentariat. Some believe that at the end of his remaining years as senator, Bernardi will be a spent force with few supporters, with little chance of re-election. He will have lost in pursuit of his principles.

    Others believe that he will attract votes from other right wing groups, notably Pauline Hanson, giving conservative voters disenchanted with the major political parties an alternative. His drawing power may depend on the extent his new party is funded – will Gina Rinehart fund him as rumoured? If so, perhaps Bernardi sees personal advantage in his move.

    It’s always hard to ascertain an individual’s motives – more so the motives of politicians where self interest and party interest play such prominent roles in political decision-making. On the face of it Bernardi seems sincere and idealistic, but who knows what he really thinks and believes?

    What do you think?

  • 2353NM

    2/9/2017 8:48:48 AM |


    Bernardi leaving the Liberals is another example of politicians overwhelming belief in their own self importance.  Either he will wither on the vine or become another DLP.  Either way (in the short term at least) I bet Turnbull is happy for him to go.

    Personally, I hope the door hits him hard on the backside on the way out.

  • Ken

    2/9/2017 2:40:41 PM |


    As I indicated in my article looking ahead in 2017 I didn't expect Bernardi to jump ship quite so soon.  I read that some suggest it was partly caused by Abbott leaking information to the The Australian about a conversation he had with Bernardi.  A deliberate ploy by Abbott to further destabilise Turnbull?  Anything is possible.  Wheels within wheels.

  • Ad Astra

    2/10/2017 11:38:27 AM |

    Since his departure from the Liberals, we’ve heard little from Cory Bernardi; perhaps that predicts his future – political oblivion.

    I thought his wife’s comment this morning was classic: “Our marriage is good – we are both in love with the same man” At least he has a good marriage to fall back upon!

    We know that Abbott is still skulking in the background, still burning with anger at being upended by Turnbull, still entertaining a belief that his return to prime minstership is possible. He harbours both anger and selfishness. What he lusts for is power and prestige. We cannot expect him to ever give up on that.

Comments are closed