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?