The Man in the Mirror

Are we at an historic turning point?


ADELAIDE - There are moments in history when its future course is altered by a single event.

These turning points, while seemingly innocuous or unremarkable at the time, may have profound consequences.

For example, the arrival of a handful of Spanish adventurers in Mexico in 1519 was, in itself, not especially remarkable. It initially attracted no great interest in Spain or anywhere else for that matter.

Yet within a few short years the great Aztec empire was in ruins, its people enslaved and the course of history was changed forever.

In a somewhat similar way, the appearance of Captain James Cook at Botany Bay on 29 April 1770 probably caused no more than slight anxiety to the handful of Aboriginal people who witness the event, yet is was truly a moment of profound significance for their future.

60,000 years of undisturbed occupancy of the Australian continent by its indigenous population was about to be irretrievably ruptured by the arrival of an utterly alien culture.

In a similar way, the first Europeans who arrived in Papua New Guinea would have been regarded as curiosities to be either killed or, at best, tolerated. Few among the Melanesian people would have grasped the true significance of the appearance of these outsiders.

Now, of course, we are witnessing the arrival of a new and virulent communicable disease which seems likely to permanently disrupt our lives. Coincidentally, it has already revealed a great deal about both the strengths and weaknesses of those nations which it has afflicted.

I got to thinking about this last night as, perhaps unwisely, I watched the television news.

It was, as you might imagine, not a joyful or edifying experience. Death, economic dislocation and political muddling seem to be in great abundance right now and this is all grist to the media mill.

A moment came when there was a report about the latest doings of President Donald Trump, an ever reliable source of contentious and sometimes truly bizarre pronouncements.

I listened to him spouting excuses for his appalling failures as a national leader in a time of crisis. He was, as usual, blaming someone else for his own failings.

This time it was the Chinese government upon whom he vented his wrath. In them, Trump has at least chosen a target whose own egregious behaviour of late makes his accusations seem at least plausible to many Americans.

I have no liking at all for the Chinese government, whose policies are clearly designed to allow it to achieve political, economic and military dominance of those nations whose unhappy fate is to lie within what it regards as its legitimate sphere of influence.

Despite this, I could not help but feel great unease at the sight and sound of a US president castigating a foreign power for his own personal political purposes and doing so in terms calculated to cause the gravest possible offence.

It was then that I realised that I was very possibly watching an event of profound historic significance.

It was not Trump himself, much less anything he had to say.

Fantasy painting
Trump sits among  Reagan, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon and other Republican presidents in a picture that now hangs in the White House (Andy Thomas)

Rather, it is what he symbolises, which is the awful and I think irretrievable decline in what was once held out as the world’s greatest democracy.

I cannot imagine past Republican presidents like Abraham Lincoln or Dwight D Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon behaving as Trump has behaved.

They would have been far too conscious of the burden and dignity of their great office and the fact that they had a moral duty to represent America, and by extension the democratic world, in a way that was measured, rational and calm.

Yet in Trump we have a person whose demeanour is that of a spoiled child and who resorts to evasions, half truths and outright lies to justify his actions or inaction.

This is not the behaviour of a person who truly understands power and knows how to wield it effectively. It is the behaviour of a demagogue whose like we see all too often across the world.

Such people routinely evade, lie and hurl accusations at others in order to deflect attention from their own failings and weaknesses. This is a strategy of the weak and fearful, not the truly strong and unafraid.

Bluster and bullying can get you a long way of course but, eventually, there comes a time when such leaders are exposed. The results are usually very ugly. The violent demise of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu springs to mind as an example.

Anyway, here we have a president of the United States who resorts to the tactics of a demagogue in order to attract or retain the support of sufficient citizens to stay in power.

Astonishingly and appallingly, there do indeed appear to be many Americans who respond favourably to these tactics. Trump invites them to be their worst selves and they respond with enthusiasm.

When I see a Trump rally I am reminded of an observation by an ABC journalist who spent four years in the USA. In his final piece to camera before returning to Australia, he observed that no-one should underestimate the ignorance and parochialism of most Americans.

Americans are educated and encouraged to believe that they and their republic are truly exceptional and thus need pay no attention to the rest of the world. For them, America is the proverbial light on the hill, to which all eyes must naturally and inevitably turn.

Trump’s claim that he will make America great again is a clarion call to this sense of exceptionalism and so resonates powerfully with many Americans. They apparently are willing to overlook his painfully obvious failings in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic and much else besides.

To many outsiders at least, Trump’s every utterance reveals him as the proverbial hollow man, for whom words are merely wind, lacking in any true substance or meaning. By this means Trump has succeeded in materially diminishing America’s prestige and influence in the world even if his supporters think otherwise.

Surely we have reached a turning point in history, where we are witnessing the diminution of our once great and powerful friend from the status of the world’s sole superpower to merely that of a great power as that latter term was understood in the late 19th century?

If this is so, then the world’s democracies are being collectively cast adrift in a world where what was once certain and secure is no longer so.

In the absence of a generous, benign and selfless America, there is no longer a recognisable leader of the free world, only a mere facsimile of it.

As in the 19th century, I fear that the new world order will be composed mostly of predators and prey, where bribery, blackmail and force are used to secure compliance with the demands of the powerful, not persuasion by reference to facts and truth, let alone collaboration freely entered into to allow humans to meet the many challenges of the future.

This type of world was supposed to have been finally vanquished with the demise of, first, Nazi Germany and then the USSR. Instead, a new and even more powerful anti-democratic force is now asserting itself in the world.

DemocThe USA was supposed to be the ultimate guarantor of peace, freedom and the rule of law yet it seems to have now given up that role, preferring to put America first in a futile effort to recreate its supposedly lost greatness.

That greatness was never a function of what America did for itself, but of what it did for the sake of others. It cannot be restored or enhanced by simply putting America first. Trump does not appear to understand this, unlike his predecessors.

If I am right then lesser powers like Australia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand and other even smaller Pacific nations need to draw closer together so as to provide mutual support and protection against the actual or potential depredations of the ugly, greedy and dangerous manifestations of authoritarian global capitalism which we now see at work in Papua New Guinea and many other places besides.

Our great and powerful friend of the past is still powerful but no longer great, so it seems that we must fend for ourselves as best we can.


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Bernard Corden

When transhumanism, artificial intelligence, big data and suprasurveillance fails the next step is eugenics:

O Brave New World

Philip Fitzpatrick

If Trump is re-elected in November there will be no corner turned. Things will get considerably worse as an unhinged president with a triumphant ego gets back to work destroying America.

What needs to happen is for Joe Biden to chose a sensible running mate, win the election and then die.

It will only be then that America can attempt to claim its place as the leader of the free world.

Even then I don't think a progressive president will be able to affect the change needed.

Obama couldn't and eventually succumbed to vested interests.

If America cannot change I have my doubts that syncophant leaders like Morrison will have the guts to go it alone.

Bernard Corden

"Every country has the government it deserves" - Joseph de Maistre

Bernard Corden

I can recall passing through customs at O'Hare international airport in Chicago many years ago and was asked whether I was carrying any firearms.

I replied, "No" and the official handed me his revolver and replied, "Take this, you might need it".

Chris Overland

I would like to take up Robert Wilson's important points.

First, as he correctly asserts, there are worse leaders than Trump, some of them a lot worse. The current presidents of Brazil and Turkey spring to mind immediately.

The only reason I do not rank Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin with Trump is because they appear to be rational actors most of the time. This is not to say that they are necessarily nice or good men, merely that they appear to be competent.

Second, I again agree that Donald Trump is not the worst person in the world although he may well be amongst them.

Third, I agree with him that it has become very nearly impossible to have a polite and civilised debate about just about anything.

We live in an era where political opinions are often very deeply polarised and hysterical shouting has replaced quiet and earnest debate.

This tendency is very evident on both the left and right extremes of politics. It has harmed our democracies by damaging confidence in the political process.

So, why is Trump really so bad?

This is the case for several reasons.

He has held himself forth to be a calm, stable genius when it is patently apparent that he is none of those things.

He frequently lies, at a level that would bring shame and embarrassment to most of us.

He is self-aggrandising in the extreme, in a way that makes Benito Mussolini look positively modest, although I do detect common facial expressions between the two, notably the jutting jaw line.

He always seeks to belittle, humiliate or otherwise demonstrate contempt for any critic.

He can admit no fault, always blaming others. He has boasted about doing this.

But worst of all, he epitomises the very worst aspects of American exceptionalism, but none of its considerable virtues.

In doing this, he betrays the astonishing legacy of the USA as a force for good in the world.

Instead, by his words, behaviours and action he has reduced the USA to a state that attracts ridicule and contempt, as well as pity for those of its citizens who manifestly suffer great deprivation.

As the putative leader of the free world, the office of President of the United States makes demands upon its occupants and sets standards for them that greatly exceed those applicable to the leaders of vastly less powerful and important countries.

Most people elected to that great office rise to meet those standards and demands, at least most of the time.

Those of us living in other democracies therefore are entitled to hold Trump to the generally high standards of most of his predecessors, the worst of whom have usually been moderately competent and generally benign.

Trump has, in my judgement, never risen above the standards of a two bit demagogue and never will.

He has disgraced himself and his office far too often to be judged more kindly, with his egregious failings in relation to the COVID 19 pandemic perhaps being the absolute proof of this if any further proof was required.

Ed Brumby

I can't but agree with your assertion that the US 'Empire' is in decline, Chris.

With around 800 military bases in 70 countries and its extant and longstanding threat to use force to assert its will, it remains, nevertheless, strangely impotent.

It has not prevailed (in the true sense of that term) in any major conflict since WW2 and has, for the past two decades or more, been in a constant state of prevarication: think Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

And whereas the US applies rock logic in its international dealings and assertions, China, as one would expect, applies the subtlety and flexibility of water logic and simply, metaphorically-speaking, moves around (and beyond) the US rock.

(There is a delicious ambiguity in the use of the term ‘tributary’ to refer to the relationships between China and many other states prior to the end of the Chi’ing dynasty in 2011.)

Thus, whereas the US uses the rock logic threat of force, China uses the more subtle (and flexible) form of debt.

And the one effective non-military weapon that allows the US to assert its will: financial sanctions (and/or the threat thereof) is under severe threat as China develops its digital yuan – which may well supplant the US dollar’s supremacy in international finance and trade.

Robert Wilson

Hi chaps, if you are going to dump on Trump again how about some balanced diatribe that also names some of the other appalling leaders who are actually true despots who are responsible for awful actions such as genocide of their own countrymen, destruction of their countries economies, curtailing the freedom of their own people etc.

Unfortunately it would appear many people view Trump as the world's worst person!

It's a little like the constant harping about how carbon (CO2) is destroying our climate through climate change, the world is heating up, sea's are rising etc.

Let's forget about the record snow and lows now happening around the world and also how BOM are fiddling the temperature records to support their view we are heading towards disaster!

Alas, no more polite debate where people can put their own view and not be vilified, ridiculed, threatened by people who do not like to be challenged or have their views questioned.

Apart from my little rant, I love PNG Attitude because its always good to catch up on others who I know or at least know by name, their stories and that like me, age is catching up.

Keep up the good work!

Paul Oates

What you say about the US gun culture is quite true Phil. Instead of banning guns to stop mass murders, US citizens are encouraged to actually buy more guns to defend themselves. To someone in Australia, that sounds like lunacy.

Touring the US a few years ago, we visited Amarillo where amazingly, the local sheriff was also the local gun shop owner. A number of our group, excluding me, went to see his shop. The Sheriff reportedly asked them what the hell was going on in Australia where we had banned all sorts of military style firearms and severely restricted ownership and licensing arrangements? He couldn't see any problem in his own backyard.

The gun culture starts early and used to be based on the old 'cowboys and indians' programs in films and in the early TV shows. Now it's cops and robbers and then spy dramas.The bloke with the gun is always right. But is he or she?

Gun culture, like that of any weaponised culture is basically tribal in nature. It starts from when we are young and is reinforced as we get older. It takes a mass murder to overturn what has been accepted for generations. To be properly outfitted, a Scotsman should have a 'Skein Dhu' in his hose top yet that is now classed as a concealable weapon and plastic imitation handles are only allowed. My father and grandfather always had a penknife in their pockets yet that too is now forbidden. At what point do we draw the line and who makes the rules and enforces them?

If you don't have a need for a firearm, why have one? When I sold the farm, I got rid of my firearms and license.

On the other hand, if we are forced to prepare to defend our nation, what happens to those people who have never been trained to operate a firearm or weapon system? Will they then refuse to be trained?

There needs to be a balance but I ask again, who decides on how that balance operates?

Jim Moore

"....spouting excuses for his appalling failures as a national leader in a time of crisis. He was, as usual, blaming someone else for his own failings."

Who was it said, you can fail over and over again, but you only become a failure when you start blaming others for what you did.

Trump is a classic example of that.

Philip Fitzpatrick

After writing the article on guns in American society it occurred to me that America is a deeply fearful society and that guns are part of their response to this fear.

I doubt very much that they actually know what makes them so fearful but it creates a fertile ground for politicians of the ilk of Trump.

The irony, of course, is that if they rid themselves of their guns and the attitudes they provoke they would become a less fearful society.

In Australia we are seeing a slow and barely noticeable creep in the rate of gun ownership since the Port Arthur massacre. I suspect that here too a correlation can be drawn between the fear in our society and the rate of gun ownership.

Peter Dutton's paranoia about security feeds straight into this scenario.

As despots like Trump trash the world order I suspect that guns, and ipso facto, wars will dominate the years to come.

Australia should perhaps re-visit gun ownership and Papua New Guinea should stop talking about the proliferation of guns in its country and actually do something about it.

Failure to do that will only produce a more fearful society and a spiral downhill.

Paul Oates

What has changed?

If we look at human history, we have a fair idea of what can and will happen in the future. It appears humans are not able to escape their genetic makeup.

All the human empires of the past have reached a point where they implode. Perhaps some of these implosions are more dramatic than others. Mostly the well-trodden road to the eventual implosion starts with good intentions but soon follows a consistent pattern.

As each society develops, there tends to be a polarisation of wealth and power. Those with wealth proverbially tend to get richer and the poor get poorer. A final tipping point is then reached where the poor have had enough and overthrow the rich. Whether that overthrow is by internal revolution or external invasion and conquest.

No mater how much wealth is distributed by so called rich philanthropists, their share of the world’s wealth never seems to diminish, while those who receive the ‘giveaways’ don’t seem to enjoy any long lasting improvements. Why is this so?

Well it goes back to basic human nature. Some people are prone to have different personalities and personal traits that, given opportunity and the circumstances of life they find themselves inheriting by either opportunity or chance, exhibit what they find comfortable and in line with their own personality.

When you look at most people who had been recognised in history as making significant achievements, most of these people have either been fortunate to be able to use the skills they were born with to make good through sheer effort and hard work. Abraham Lincoln is a classic example. Yet who knows how many other potential and ethically minded people never got the opportunity to exercise their abilities due to poor health, poor nutrition, lack of education, lack of recognition and premature death?

In response to Chris’ contention that we may be at a pivotal moment in world history, that may well be true. However, human history unfortunately only shows us that we haven’t yet found a way of moving past the eventual stumbling block of human nature. Greed, tribalism, slothfulness and a lack of imagination always seem to find ready converts, for some inexplicable reason.

Yet there are sometimes those people who can rise above these seemingly inevitable weights that keep the human species from further evolving. We just need to recognise what these attributes are and encourage them to develop further. Perhaps we could even think about designing systems that help perpetuate and assist these attributes and allow them to overcome those other human attributes that have hitherto prevented this from happening.

But then again, wouldn’t that be regarded as revolutionary by those who are in power and can’t see any need to change?

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