My cousin Alison was something of a family celebrity. Being the first grandchild born to a family of 10 siblings (God knows how many cousins there were eventually), she was a legendary figure from a very early age for one who was the child of the second-last in that brood of squabbling brats. Therefore, it was inevitably no chore when my mother hung it on me to drive Alison and her husband back to the airport after her only visit to Sydney in my lifetime
Her husband, Gilbert, must have been in his late-60s by then because he didn’t waste time in getting to the heart of those matters, which clearly bothered him. Or, maybe, the thought of having his prey, a card-carrying journo, no more than half a metre away, had got the combative juices working overtime. Because we would not have driven a kilometre before he informed me that a) the world was in a “damn mess” and b) it was all the fault of the women’s movement.
Now, it must have been in 1993 that this remarkable exchange took place, because my reply seemed to be informed by the Queen’s then recent public description of 1992 as an “annus horribilis”. It will be recalled that 1992 had seen several, very public, very ugly marriage implosions among her royal children, with her despair culminating in Windsor Castle becoming a small bonfire in November of that year.
At that time I didn’t follow the news too closely, being preoccupied in far more personal matters, but I must have followed it closely enough to blurt out this reply — with words to the effect that I couldn’t imagine the women’s movement having so much power and influence that it could wreak massive damage on a sovereign nation without even a murmur of protest from the powers that be.
I went on to suggest that if the world was in as profound a mess as Gilbert believed then perhaps the culprit might more realistically lie among our old heroes — the powers that be of yore, perhaps — having been exposed as possessing feet of clay. Particularly, I pointed out that the role models and mentors of my youth, like the Royal family, were a joke, while many of the great business entrepreneurs we had been told throughout the 1980s (the ‘Decade of Greed’) to admire and emulate, were in jail. Hardly role models for anyone, except possibly Carl Williams.
I was thinking about this conversation and the power of role models recently while trying to digest the Federal Government’s about-face on the ‘Robodebt’ issue. Not only did the responsible minister try to smooth over an embarrassing back-down as the inevitable result of an in-touch government keeping its finger on the pulse, but so did all the apologists and clones who subsequently paraded before the TV cameras mouthing the soporific platitude of the age: Nothing to see here.
Of course, I didn’t expect the minister to fall on his sword, Marcus Junius Brutus-style, before the assembled reptiles of the Fourth Estate and nor did I expect to see the studio walls spattered in a frenzy of wrist-slashing self-loathing — that only happens in sentimental movies. But, naive fool that I am, I suppose I expected something. After all, people have suffered grievously over receiving letters of demand from an algorithm to make restitution they didn’t owe and which they could not possibly meet. Surely a role model would show a little more politeness, a little sensitivity, given the pain this abominable scheme had caused.
Where does it begin and end, this question of the chicken and the egg? Is it the role model behaving like a lightweight or is it the lightweight script that society hands to the role model?
Here’s a thought. When I was in first and second class at Gladesville Public School, aged about six or seven, we were taught the rudiments of arithmetic and spelling and grammar, upon which we would build when we went into ‘big school’ the following year. However, most of our time in class, I remember so well, was in learning the skills necessary to survive in a complex, inter-dependent world.
We learned how to cross the road safely and sing in unison, we learned how to handle matches and hot water without scorching ourselves to a crisp, but most particularly, we learned how to get on with other people. That is, we learned the polite words and implicit understandings that enable the world to function decently, like the use of ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘sorry’ and ‘excuse me’. In other words, ‘to do unto others as you would have them do unto you’.
When my own children started school right after the Decade of Greed, none of that ‘stuff’ was ever taught; instead, little kids were stripped of their childhood and the right to mature at a child’s pace and were, instead, thrust headlong into a modern, corporate-style world, by forcing them to do competitive homework in kindergarten. No need for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ there.
These days, whenever a window-pane envelope with Department of Human Services in the top left-hand corner arrives, my instinctive Orwellian black humour kicks in: Is this, I ask, the ultimate letter demanding that I present myself forthwith at ‘Room 101’ for ‘examination’ by an invisible ‘authority’? Yet, it wasn’t all that long ago that the receipt of an official-looking envelope was not necessarily a cause for concern, let alone anxiety.
Because in my young adulthood, it was customary for government departments to reply to citizens’ correspondence as a matter of course.
The most scrupulously polite of all was AB ‘Alec’ Milne, secretary of the Public Service Board in Canberra, who personally signed a letter acknowledging every single item of correspondence sent to his department, promising that the issue raised would be investigated thoroughly and responded to in a timely manner. And then did so. Can anyone imagine that happening today?
When the cousin-in-law Gilberts of this world cast their mind over the state of the world, don’t like what they see and demand to drag the culprits out from hiding into the revealing light of day, should not they pause a moment to reflect on this: What did they do — or did not do — that allowed the good manners we all grew up with, to be discarded as so much useless tosh? But then threw up their hands in horror when consequences they didn’t expect spread over our lives like so much toxic sludge?