The land of unlikeness

I have refrained, during the lead up to the recent Australian federal election, from blogging on politics.  Not only because it isn’t my area of expertise, but because it seemed to me that the internet was already cacaphonous with analysis, comment, debate and other wordy angst.  I didn’t feel I had anything constructive to add.

But now that the election has been and gone, and the country is settling into being bitterly disappointed or much encouraged, depending on individual political outlook, I am still thinking, not so much about policies and promises, as about process.  I read a quote from the author Terry Williams, who described democracy as “an insecure landscape,” one which demands our participation and “civil dialogue” in order to offer us any safety at all.  She describes this civil dialogue as requiring us to “vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act ultimately on behalf of the common good.”

I’ll come back to that shortly.  For the moment, since I’ve decided to comment on politics, let me tell you that the greatest disappointment to me this election wasn’t the outcome (although I didn’t vote for the new government).  Nor was it the cheap, shallow discourse offered to us in the lead up, where it seemed more important to vilify an opponent than offer a positive policy of one’s own.  These things, while saddening, I expected.  But what disappointed me most was that come election day, there was not one party offering a policy platform I could wholeheartedly endorse, even on just the “big” issues.  I had to bargain hard with my conscience to put a number one on the ballot paper.  And it leaves me disappointed, angry and frustrated that the exercise of my right, responsibility, and indeed legal duty to vote should feel like such an unethical action.  I feel the Australian public deserve better than what we were offered.

Anyway.  Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let me return to considering the “insecure landscape” that is democracy.  I do very much agree that it requires our participation and civil dialogue.  I’m very glad that I live in a country which has compulsory voting; where this bare minimum standard of participation is required of our citizens.  It seems the very least we can do to contribute to our common life.  But I think that’s really only the start of our responsibility, not the end of it.  It behoves us as citizens to be informed, to read the work of those who are expert in their fields, to do the hard work of thinking.  Even beyond that, though, there are the other things Williams mentioned above; to sit lightly to our own convictions, be willing to listen and engage; to become aware of our blind spots, and to make an effort to take into account the needs, hopes and dreams of those who are not like us.  This is a high standard; it is demanding.  It is costly.  But in the insecure landscape of democracy, it is the way to build a country and a future which is safer, not just for me and those just like me, but for all of us.

That phrase, the insecure landscape, reminded me of another, from St. Augustine, who described his experience of being away from God as being in a “land of unlikeness.”  Democracy, too, can be a land of unlikeness; where voting compromises conscience and winning parties claim a mandate for injustice and oppression.  I note that some of my Christian brothers and sisters, in America particularly, where voting is voluntary, resolve this problem by removing themselves from the land of unlikeness, refusing to vote, and withdrawing from this and other important expressions of public and civil life.  I sympathise with that point of view, but at the end of the day I think it’s a cop out, a refusal to wrestle with the hard realities which face us in playing our part in the world.

Centuries after Augustine, Auden wrote a Christmas oratorio which picked up on this idea of the “land of unlikeness.”  Its chorus runs thus:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

I suspect that here there is more wisdom than in renunciation and withdrawal.  I offer it as something of a counterpoint to that discourse, and as food for thought to all those who have reason to feel disappointed with our current politics.

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