The only hope

Perhaps it is St Paul’s fault; many things seem to be. But in this case it is his superlative rhetorical power that has led readers astray, rather than the logic of his argument. The ‘problem’ lies in the great peroration on love and leaving childish ways, that ends with ‘So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love’ (1 Corinthians 13.13; RSV). Yes, love is the greatest, but the flow of the rhetoric encourages us to underestimate faith and hope, especially as we live in the shadow of the 1960s assertion that all you need is love. If recent history (national and global) is any guide, we need more love for our fellow humans, but to live well together, love is not all we need.

Faith doesn’t receive much attention in Ghassan Hage’s provocative new book, Against Paranoid Nationalism. What he has to say about hope is, however, fascinating, and is a powerful comment on the strange and distressing mental state we as a community are in. The starting point is crucial:The most important thesis developed in this work is that societies are mechanisms for the distribution of hope, and that the kind of affective attachment (worrying or caring) that a society creates among its
citizens is intimately connected to its capacity to distribute hope.

Society is not merely about the distribution of goods and services, ‘equitably’ or ‘productively’, depending on the brand of economics you subscribe to. It is about the circulation of hope, about individuals’ need to be able to place their lives in an optimistic or at least consoling narrative.

That is what is so bitter about living in the present compared to the postwar boom years. In material terms, nearly all Australians live better than they would have in the 1950s; we have even reached the historically bizarre point where obesity is a fairly reliable marker of poverty rather than wealth. Economic growth has delivered an unprecedented, if uneven, distribution of goods in Western countries, and yet we are ungratefully grumpy, to the bewilderment of economically liberal politicians and commentators. Hage suggests that, with the efficiencies, the productivity, the flexibility, and the global flows of capital, goods, and labour, have come anxiety and paranoia.

This makes a lot of sense to me. Most of the organisations I deal with, and especially the university where I work, are gloomy not because their members are, objectively, doing it particularly tough. It’s just that we can see no plausible reason to hope for a better tomorrow. The looming threats of terror, ecological disaster, social meltdown, economic decay, falling standards in education, ageing populations, especially in churches—they congregate over the next hill, and the rumbling we hear when we pause for thought or worry comes from those threats, not from thunder.

Without social and institutional hope, we become paranoid about potential loss. Our own existence feels perilous, so we guard our borders, refuse to acknowledge Indigenous rights, and hoard our sympathy.
Hage asks provokingly: ‘What kind of people believe that a parent (even an animal parent, let alone a human from another culture) could actually throw their child overboard? Perhaps only those who are unconsciously worried about being thrown overboard themselves?’

Hage’s angry and focused book traces the psychology of Australia’s present paranoia about otherness and calls readers to account for their prejudices, particularly about race and class. He acknowledges that our condition is a symptom of wider global flows of paranoid anxiety set off by the warring fundamentalisms of religion and economics. However, it is particularly Australia’s condition, and particularly the Howard government’s role in enflaming it, that Hage calls to account. Nowhere have I read a better explanation of why John Howard’s mean-spirited projection of Australian values renders me apoplectic. The punchline of the chapter on ‘the rise of Australian fundamentalism’ asserts satisfyingly that Howard’s ideological ascendancy ‘signals the rise of an unprecedented political narcissism: a numb and dumb sense of self-satisfaction with the national self and a refusal to hear any voice other than one’s own’.

So there! But don’t rush to the bookshop expecting a neat affirmation of all your kind, liberal assumptions that the powerful are villains and the victims the salt of the earth. Hage is honest enough to make enemies on all sides. For example, he names Israel as a colonialist nation, and explores the condition of Palestinian suicide bombers as if they were human beings with intelligible motivations. His deepest formation is as a social scientist, always asking the question, ‘What kind of social conditions must prevail and what kind of history must a people have internalised to make them lose [the] capacity of seeing the other in his or her humanness?’ But he never mistakes explanation for justification. Consequently, he also rejects the despair and fundamentalist machismo of the bombers and the politicians who manipulate them. The main difference he sees is that the Israelis have more power on the ground to act effectively on their paranoid racist fantasies. Why, after all, should we expect Palestinians to be ennobled by their sufferings?

And why should Australians expect immigrants, Aboriginal people, asylum seekers, or any exploited group to be ennobled by, or patient in, suffering? Hage argues that what we call xenophobia is more often the fear that the ‘others’ are really just like us, and would want what we have were they given the opportunity. White Australia’s history, in his account, goes back to the original deprivation of the Aboriginal people. Particularly ‘since Mabo reawoke in us the memory of our original theft’, we have been in a state of panic about others taking our land and ‘our way of life’ from us.

The paranoia is more a fear of sameness than of otherness, and it makes for hopeless politics in every sense of the word. Hage hopes that, by acknowledging these histories, we will be able to outgrow our paranoia, to deal generously and respectfully with others. I hope so too. 

Robert Phiddian teaches English at Flinders University, and is on the advisory committee for the Adelaide Festival of Ideas, to be held in July on the themes of Hope and Fear.



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