Monday, July 12, 2021

Can historical injustice be redressed?

 


This question arose as I was reading about the theme of this year’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC week, held this year from 4-11 July, celebrates the history, culture, and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The theme for NAIDOC week this year is “Heal Country”. The role of traditional management practices in protecting land from bushfires and droughts is mentioned specifically as part of the theme, but “country” encompasses all aspects of Indigenous culture.

The NAIDOC committee explains that “Healing Country means embracing First Nation’s cultural knowledge and understanding of Country as part of Australia's national heritage”. Australians, from all walks of life, have shown increasing concern to protect Indigenous cultural heritage. For example, when a mining company blew up an aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia last year, I found myself among the many people who felt that something significant to Australia’s national heritage had been destroyed.

The NAIDOC committee mention redressing historical injustice specifically:

“To Heal Country, we must properly work towards redressing historical injustice.”

However, that follows a statement implying that fundamental grievances would not vanish following “fair and equitable resolution” of “outstanding injustices”:

“In the European settlement of Australia, there were no treaties, no formal settlements, no compacts. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people therefore did not cede sovereignty to our land. It was taken from us. That will remain a continuing source of dispute.”

Working toward redressing historical injustice will not extinguish fundamental grievances. It would be na├»ve to expect that it would. Few humans find it easy to let go of their grievances, even when they accept that their personal interests would be better served by viewing historical events as “water under the bridge”.

Some readers may be thinking at this point that it is futile to attempt to redress historical injustices if such attempts cannot prevent those injustices from being viewed as an ongoing source of “grievances”. I don’t concur with that view. As I see it, the central issues of concern in redressing historical injustices are about justice, or fairness, rather than about attempting to assuage ongoing feelings of grievance felt by descendants of victims.

Historical injustice to Indigenous Australians stems from the failure of governments to recognize and protect their natural rights following colonization. It is arguable that current governments have an obligation to remedy adverse consequences flowing from the failures of their predecessors.

However, it is no easy matter to assess the extent to which opportunities currently available to Indigenous Australians have been adversely affected by historical injustices. A better understanding of history is a necessary step in the direction of any such assessment. It is pleasing to see the NAIDOC committee express the view:

“While we can’t change history, through telling the truth about our nation’s past we certainly can change the way history is viewed.”

The truth includes dispossession of land over much of the country, but it is difficult to generalize about what followed. Jim Belshaw, who knows more about history than I do, describes it recently as involving “uneasy co-existence, resistance and then survival and now, hopefully, recovery”. Even those broad stages might not be equally relevant in all parts of the country.

The truth also includes the existence of the “grave social and economic disadvantage”, referred to by the NAIDOC committee, but that cannot be wholly attributed to historical injustices.

As discussed in my recent book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, there has been massive growth of opportunities for human flourishing over the last 200 years in Western liberal democracies, including Australia. I suggest in the Preface:

“Those of us who have the good fortune to live in Western liberal democracies have opportunities that we might crave if we lived elsewhere in the world”.

I think that applies to the Indigenous people of Australia as well as to other Australians. The opportunities we all currently enjoy should be sufficient to offset any ongoing social and economic consequences of injustices suffered by our ancestors.

So, how can I explain the relatively poor social and economic outcomes of many Indigenous people in Australia? It seems to me that anyone seeking the truth about this should consider the adverse consequences over the last 50 years of extending unemployment benefits and other welfare support to Aboriginal communities in remote areas. Ongoing social and economic disadvantage may be strongly linked to well-meaning efforts during the 1970s to remove discrimination against Indigenous people in access to government welfare support.

That is not a novel idea, but governments have found it difficult to implement welfare policies with more appropriate incentives. There has been little progress toward “closing the gap” in social and economic outcomes. Hopefully, greater involvement of local communities will result in better outcomes in future.

In my view, as discussed in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, the flourishing of humans is intrinsically a matter for individual self-direction, rather than something to fostered by human development experts, or social planners. Social and economic context influence opportunities available, but the capacity of individuals for wise and well-informed self-direction is of central importance to their own flourishing. It is inspiring to see increasing numbers of Indigenous Australians achieving outstanding success in their chosen fields, despite injustices suffered by their ancestors and the limited opportunities currently available in their local communities.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Does Kahlil Gibran's prophet present an inspiring view of human flourishing?

 


The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, seems designed to appeal to people who are looking for inspiration. That is why I have dipped into it at various times in the past – and it may explain why I have previously put it aside after reading one or two of the 26 poems it contains. My mind does not seem to be capable of being inspired more than a few mystical messages at a time.

The Prophet, published in 1923, made Kahlil Gibran the best-selling American poet of the 20th century. I have previously thought of Gibran as a Lebanese poet and artist, but he apparently lived most of his life in America. Although The Prophet was hugely popular, its “earnest, didactic romanticism” found little favour with America’s literary critics.

While dipping into the book recently, it struck me that Gibran had been successful in reaching a large audience because he used mystical poetry to put words into the mouth of Almustafa, an imaginary prophet. That technique did not appeal to literary critics, but it helped make the messages seem profound to many other readers.

However, I have struggled to get a clear overall picture of the views Gibran was presenting. In an attempt to come to grips with the main themes, I have identified what seems to me to be the main idea in each of the 26 poems and then allocated each idea among the following six categories: physiological needs, personal relationships, psychological well-being, self-direction, living in harmony with nature, and transcendence. The first five of those categories correspond broadly to the basic goods of a flourishing human, as identified in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

What follows is a summary of what I see as the main ideas in the book. As far as possible, I have tried to use Gibran’s words.

The main ideas

Physiological needs

The activities involved in meeting basic needs should be seen to have a higher purpose. Eating and drinking has potential to be a process in which “the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man”. Work has potential to be joyful, “love made visible”. Market exchange has potential to serve a higher purpose because “it is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied”.

The “lust for comfort” can be harmful. A desire for comfortable housing “murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral”. Those who seek the “the freedom of privacy” through excessive clothing “may find in them a harness and a chain”. It would be preferable to “meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment”.

If we must measure time into seasons, “let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing”.

Personal relationships

You should “let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit”. “When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market-place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.” If love is accompanied by desire, let that desire be:

“To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness.”

Marriage partners should give their hearts, “but not into each other’s keeping”:

“For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Psychological well-being

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”

If you “wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy”.

If you want to know the secret of death, “open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”

When you make gifts, “it is life that gives unto life - while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.” People have different motives for making gifts. Some “give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”

Self-direction

No teacher “can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge”. You seek self-knowledge because “your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge”. … “And it is well you should.”

“Pleasure is a freedom-song.” … “Even your body knows its heritage and its rightful need and will not be deceived. And your body is the harp of your soul, and it is yours to bring forth sweet music from it or confused sounds.”

“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”

People view the law in different ways. Some “delight in laying down laws”, yet “delight more in breaking them”. Some “see only their own shadows, and their shadows are their laws” because they stand “with their backs to the sun”. … But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?”

In order to be just it is necessary to look upon all deeds in the light of knowledge “that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self.”

You can only be free “when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment”.  … “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?”

You do not own your children: “They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

Living in harmony with nature

[Respect for nature pervades the book, but the prophet is not asked a specific question about living in harmony with nature.]

Transcendence

When asked to speak of religion, Almustafa asks: “Have I spoken this day of aught else?” … “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.”

When you pray, “God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.”

When you have spoken of beauty, “you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied”. “Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy” … “a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted”  … “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil.”

“You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good. You are only loitering and sluggard” …  “In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.”

“To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy. … And though in your winter you deny your spring, Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended.”

Comment

There are at least two major themes in The Prophet.

One theme encourages readers to ponder how all aspects of their lives can be directed toward purposes beyond survival and personal comfort. Religious traditions have long promoted similar ideals.

Another theme is the importance of individual self-expression and self-development. Individuals are urged to recognize their own potential for good and to express that potential in their relationships with others.

I cannot defend all of the messages of Gibran’s prophet. However, I support the broad themes of his teachings, while recognizing that those themes are not original.


Saturday, June 26, 2021

What does "A Dream of Red Mansion" tell us about place-seeking culture in China?

 


A Dream of Red Mansion, which was written by Cao Xuequin in the 18th century, is often claimed to be China’s greatest classical novel. The book is sometimes also referred to as Dream of the Red Chamber, or The Story of the Stone.

After reading the novel it is easy for me to see why it is considered to be a great novel. It is impossible for translations to capture everything conveyed by Chinese characters but even in translation (I read Gladys Yang’s version) this is one of the best novels I have read.

What is the book about?

The book is about many aspects of life of a wealthy aristocratic family living in the Chinese capital. It follows the life of the central character, Jia Baoyu, through childhood to early adulthood. Baoyu spends most of his time playing with girls – his cousins and servants. He is spoiled by his mother and grandmother, but is frequently reprimanded by his father.

In terms of broad structure, the novel is about destiny – the story of a piece of jade, with prophetic inscriptions, that miraculously appears in Baoyu’s mouth at the time of his birth. The novel is also a story about love and arranged marriage. While suffering from some kind of mental illness, Baoyu is fooled into thinking he is being married to the person he loves during the ceremony in which he is being married to a different person.

One of the features of the novel is the author’s obvious admiration of girls and young women. Baoyu’s cousins have greater skill in composing poetry than he does, and provide the competition he needs to improve his performance. The novel suggests that females in the Jia household had somewhat idyllic childhoods, but were at great risk of suffering from heartbreak, disease (particularly TB) and early death, or from spousal abuse if they survived long enough to have a marriage arranged for them.

The novel is also a story about the role of place-seeking in a family of government officials whose fortunes were declining. In that context, Baoyu is under pressure from his father to study hard and to learn to write essays in a manner that will enable him to perform well in the imperial examination. Baoyu, however, is more interested in engaging in poetical activities with his female cousins. Those tensions were of particular interest because of the role of civil service examinations in China’s place-seeking society.

The civil service examinations

By comparison with Western Europe, in China the accumulation of wealth over several generations seems to have depended to a greater extent on securing an official position and maintaining favor with government authorities. Emperors of China seem to have been more readily able to confiscate the property of wealthy people who fell out favour than were the kings of Western Europe, who often had to share power with barons and popes.

I turned to Linda Jaivin’s book, The Shortest History of China, for background information about place-seeking in China. In writing about the Tang dynasty (618-907), Jaivin emphasizes the links between inherited wealth, education, and official position:    

“Unlike the hereditary aristocracy of Europe, China’s landed gentry owed their influence to a fluid mix of lineage, wealth (including land ownership), education and official position. It was a stable identity insofar as inherited wealth made it easier to get an education, making it easier to secure an official position, making it easier to accumulate wealth.”

Civil service examinations had ancient origins, but were reformed under Empress Wu Zetian. The principle of meritocracy was advanced by making the examinations accessible to candidates of humble background and by using blind marking to eliminate favouritism. She mandated that the examinations were to be held regularly and to focus on subjects she deemed useful for governance, such as history and rhetoric, rather than the ancient classics. However, the ancient classics once again became the basis of the civil service examinations during the Song dynasty.

Civil service examinations did not remain a constant feature of government in China during subsequent centuries. They were effectively abolished during the Yuan dynasty, following the Mongol invasion. During that period, top appointments went to Mongols and were made hereditary.

During the Manchu Qing dynasty, the civil service examinations were upheld by Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) who had studied the Confucian classics as a child. The tradition was continued through the reign of his grandson Qianlong (r. 1735-1796). It was during that period that Cao Xuequin wrote A Dream of Red Mansion.

Baoyu’s predicament

Baoyu’s father, Jia Zhen, did not expect Baoyu to perform spectacularly at the imperial examinations. When he saw that Baoyu was not fond of study, but had some understanding of poetry, he decided that this “did not really disgrace their ancestors; for they themselves, he recalled, had been the same, and although working hard for the examinations had never distinguished themselves”.

However, that didn’t stop Jia Zhen from threatening his son with dire consequences if he did not study hard:

“I’ve also heard that you spend all your time in the Garden playing about with your girl cousins and even fooling about with the maids, forgetting your studies completely. You may write a few lines of poetry but it’s not up to much, nothing to boast about. After all, when you come to take the examinations, it’s essay-writing that counts; but you’ve neglected that. Here’s what you’re to do from now on. Stop versifying and writing couplets, and concentrate on studying eight-section essays. I give you one year. If you’ve made no progress by the end of that time you can stop studying, and I shall disown you!”

Baoyu loathed the eight-section essays, “taking the view that as these were not written by sages or worthies they could not expound the wisdom of sages or worthies and were simply ladders by which later examination candidates climbed up to bureaucratic advancement”. He had a low opinion of place-seekers. In commenting on his meeting with a person who had a strong physical resemblance to himself, Baoyu says:

“He talked and talked but said not a word about seeking for truth, just holding forth on scholarship and the management of affairs, as well as loyalty and filial piety. Isn’t such a person a toady.”

Baoyu was fond of the Zhuangzi, one of the foundational texts of Taoism, which tends to promote carefree attitudes. In Chapter 21 of the book he is delighted by a passage suggesting the existence of some weird paradoxes, for example that “all men under heaven will learn skill for themselves” if the fingers of deft artisans were to be cut off.

By the time we reach Chapter 118 of the book, as the examinations are approaching, Baoyu disturbs his family by hinting that he intends to renounce the world. At that point, he is absorbed in reading the chapter “Autumn Water” in the Zhuangzi. The author does not tell us what passage he is reading. Perhaps it is the passage about what the “truly great man” does:   

“He struggles not for wealth, but does not lay great value on his modesty. … The ranks and emoluments of the world are to him no cause for joy; its punishments and shame no cause for disgrace. …”

When his wife, Baochai, sees what Baoyu is reading she takes this to mean that he is seriously considering “leaving the world of men” and giving up all human relationships. This leads them into a heated exchange in which Baochai emphasizes Baoyu’s responsibility to his family. The exchange ends with Baochai giving some final advice:

“Since you’ve run out of arguments, my advice to you is to take a grip on yourself and study hard; because if you can pass the triennial examination, even if you stop at that, you’ll be paying back your debt of gratitude for your sovereign’s favour and your ancestor’s virtue.” Baoyu nodded and sighed, then said, “Actually it isn’t difficult to pass. And what you said about stopping there and repaying my debt is not far wide of the mark.”

Baoyu does study hard. He performs exceptionally well at the imperial examination and then disappears to become a Buddhist monk. The emperor decrees that the brilliance of Baoyu’s writing must be due to his being an immortal, and the whole household is overjoyed.

My view

The struggle that Baoyu experiences in coping with parental expectations is no doubt heightened by the Confucian culture in which he lives. However, individuals can feel conflict between their personal values and a desire to meet the expectations of parents even when they grow up in a culture with little reverence for sovereigns or ancestors. The novel can be read as an account of how a young man was eventually able to reconcile his Taoist values with the Confucian culture in which he lived. As I see it, the novel has wider relevance as a story about personal development and the need for individuals to take responsibility for directing their own lives as they approach adulthood.

Friday, May 28, 2021

How does it feel to be holding a copy of my new book?

 


It feels good!

I am one of those people who extols the virtues of eBooks. They don’t take up space on bookshelves. They don’t collect dust. They make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for by searching for particular words, rather than relying on an index. Their production probably does less damage to the environment. And they are often available at a lower price - that is certainly true for readers who are eligible to purchase the Kindle version of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing from Amazon.com.au.

However, there does seem to be something special about being able to hold the book I have written in my own hands. I think there is more involved than just being able to have one’s photo taken holding the book as a physical object. I could have had my photo taken displaying an electronic version on my iPad. It is a mystery to me why I feel that there is something special about holding a physical copy of my own book in my hands. Perhaps I should consider acknowledging that I have a deep-seated attachment to the idea that books are physical objects.

Enough of that!

In the preceding post on this blog, Who should read “Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing”? I briefly outlined the contents of the book and some responses by reviewers.

The main purpose of this post is to acknowledge the fine work of the publisher, Hamilton Books, an imprint of the Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group. Readers wishing to purchase my book from Hamilton will find it here.

When I was writing the acknowledgements in the book itself, it seemed premature to acknowledge the excellent work of the staff at Hamilton books. Now I have seen the results of their efforts, I have no hesitation in praising them.

I can’t claim great expertise in assessing the quality of the work of publishers, but it seems to me that the standard of publication of my book compares favorably with that of many of the books on my bookshelves. I was pleasantly surprised that publication of the book has occurred on time, in May, as the publisher foreshadowed.

The people I have dealt with at Rowman and Littlefield who have been particularly helpful include Julie Kirsch (Senior Vice President), Nicolette Amstutz (Director of Editorial), Brooke Bures (an editor I have been dealing with throughout the process), Mikayla Mislak (who helped me meet formatting guidelines), Catherine Herman (production editor), and Ashley Moses (Customer Service Department). These people were all friendly and helpful, and responded promptly to queries. I am also grateful for the efforts of other staff, with whom I have not had direct contact.