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On politicians and the age of cruelty

Last night for bedtime reading I was flicking through the philosopher Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic.

Seneca was born in Roman Spain about the same time as Christ fetched up in a stable, and for balance, on the back of the book cover there’s this:

Seneca may well be history’s most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles.

Be that as it may, Letter XC in part considers the character or lack thereof of politicians. It’s striking that Seneca refers to a “Golden Age” in which politicians were chosen for their character, and in which government was in the hands of the wise:

They kept the peace, protected the weaker from the stronger, urged and dissuaded, pointed out what was advantageous and what was not. Their ability to look ahead ensured their peoples never went short of anything…To govern was to serve, not to rule. No one used to try out the extent of his power over those to whom he owed that power in the first place.

But with the gradual infiltration of the vices and the resultant transformation of kingships into tyrannies, the need arose for laws…

Reading this gives me some perspective on our current political plight: we are by no means in a unique political situation, though its manner of expression is peculiar to its context. Seneca didn’t have social media, for example from which platform heads of state threaten one another and life on earth with extinction. But the same moral dilemmas are in play. Abuse of power, tyranny, self-interest, contempt, greed, arrogance, stupidity, cruelty and all the vices. Was it ever thus? Is Seneca’s description of a Golden Age nothing more than a doomed attempt at wish fulfilment? It does read like a fairly tale, or a child’s dream of fairness and justice.

It’s difficult to choose, but if I had to single out one dominant characteristic of the Turnbull government, I think it would be cruelty. I was going to write intentional cruelty, then I realised that cruelty is by its very nature intentional, whether that intention is acknowledged or not. I think we have had governments of which this could not be said, and perhaps that was a relatively Golden Age.

Governments such as ours are not only cruel to individuals and groups, they are cruel to the earth in their exploitation of her resources, and their indifference to the catastrophic consequences of this exploitation.

Each new cruelty is justified by the government as an economic necessity, necessary, that is, for the furtherance of the interests of the already comfortable.

For the Turnbull government, power is cruelty. Its members have no other understanding of power, such as that favoured by Seneca and likely regarded by most of us as, after decades of desensitization, as a laughably unattainable ideal. Cruelty has largely become normalised. There are scattered groups who continue to hold out for kindness, but obviously not enough to ensure a government that performs according to those ideals.

I have no idea how we get out of this most ungolden age, this age of cruelty, but I do think the first step is calling it what it is, consistently and unflinchingly. The cruel rarely enjoy being named as such. As Malcolm Turnbull once complained, it hurts when mean things are said about them.

Cruelty isn’t strength, and it is born of weakness. The Turnbull government is synonymous with cruelty. Let’s not call it, or the politicians in it, anything less than weak and cruel.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.



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  1. Steve Laing -

    I am personally of the opinion that members of the Coaltion believe they are on some kind of God inspired crusade, and that Labor is the anti-christ. They rationalise their cruelty by believing that by undertaking it, they are somehow saving others – a necessary evil – I guess it is the same rationalisation that allowed the Nazis to do what they did. Whether terrorists, or refugees, and now those receiving social security, and particularly those caught up in the latest systems debacle at Centrelink who are being threatened with providing pay slips from years ago, or face fines AND collection fees, despite evidence that the system, not the claimants, are usually at fault.

    You are right. We need to call it out for what it is. Inhumane cruelty.

  2. Frederick Froth

    This essays provides a template for the applied politics of systematic cruelty as practiced and advocated by right-thinking christians. And of course in the very near future under the new orange haired helmsman in the USA, and his not-so-merry band of christian no-fun-damentalists.
    Note the unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter film being reviewed in this essay.

  3. Niall McLaren

    George Orwell: “Fascism is the inevitable fate of the sentimentalist. At the first brush with reality, all his opinions change to their opposites.” (Road to Wigan Pier, p139). “Even the fascist bully at his worst, with rubber truncheon in one hand and castor oil bottle in the other, doesn’t necessarily feel himself a bully.” (p187) (This was in about 1937, when fascists were just getting into their stride; I think he was talking about English fascists).
    But: “…no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” (1984)

  4. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Even Malcolm Muck and Rabid Abbott will have to face their own grandchildren one day and explain why they allowed their Australian neighbours to get brought down and trampled on by unjust and illegitimate rules.

  5. Niall McLaren

    PS to Frederick Froth: that link doesn’t work. It goes to Logos but says the article doesn’t link. Can you provide author’s name etc? Thanks

  6. Miriam English

    Excellent suggestion Jennifer.

    Steve is right too. I’m sure they think they’re doing the right thing. They probably think hardening their hearts against the suffering they create is a strong and noble thing to do, and that the sympathies of the Left show how weak we are.

    After reading your article I looked online for Seneca’s letters, thinking that they’d likely be in Project Gutenberg, and though a few of his writings were, not his letters. I checked where I found just one letter, and LibriVox where I found 64 of them as audio. After looking many other places I finally found on WikiSource (part of the WikiMedia project that operates the Wikipedia) all 124 letters in 3 volumes. The pages are online, which makes them a bit inconvenient, however they now have a service that lets you compile an ebook from their pages so I painstakingly selected all 124 pages and got it sent to me as a free epub ebook so I can read it sitting in bed. Lovely.

  7. lawrencewinder

    We are entering the fulfillment of the ideology of the IPA…. a new medievalism and an economic replication of the dark ages where serfdom, bondage and even slavery will be the order of the day. Governments, military and police forces will just be the control agents of the populace for the various multi-national oligarchs of Energy, Finance, Agriculture, Propaganda/ Entertainment and Health.
    Not a new idea being expressed but I never thought I would see the day when this dystopian future is staring us in the face.

  8. wam

    the question is rationalising. Tents on nauru vs camps in Africa, Europe and middle east?

  9. MichaelW

    But aren’t the coalition government all Christians? Looking after the poor and destitute?

  10. Miriam English

    MichaelW, yep, Christians, like the Inquisitors who tortured people to death to save their immortal soul. Christians like the Crusaders and Nazis and Conquistadors who murdered, raped, and pillaged people who they saw as subhuman heathens, which of course is okay because heathen subhumans are, by definition, less important than good Christians.

  11. Max Gross

    “The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.” And there it all is, from Adolf to Donald, writ large.

  12. Jennifer Wilson

    I’m surprised to hear how difficult it is to find Seneca’s Letters online, Miriam – an indication of their perceived lack of relevance?

    I think it’s so important to maintain the historical perspective in which to position current times – nothing that is happening now is new, only the context changes, and the technological ability to distance the individual from his or her acts of barbarism.

    An interesting year ahead, everyone! May we all find some times of pleasure, joy and calm amongst the turmoil.

  13. wam

    Howard’s hatred of the surfies of the sixties drives the Australian conservatives and workers view of welfare.
    To get the ‘dole bludger’, who lives next door, or the pensioner who likes a fag or a port, Australians are prepared to accept putting all welfare recipients at risk in a system where the equivalent total of every man woman and child in Australia of phone calls to centrelink go unanswered.
    These people are at the mercy of a computer with instant retribution and no practical recourse.(recognised by training in dealing with angry people) They are subjected to instant payment for medical services and slow reimbursement from centrelink. Any attempt at education is met with VET/TAFE debt. These people are vilified every day in the media as bludgers, gamblers, drunkards and, if they happen to be Aboriginal men, as women bashing pedophiles.
    It is thought of as a crime for any use of the system to the advantage of a welfare recipient. Yet the people who use the system to avoid tax, like trunbull himself, are lauded as roll models and companies who pay no tax by rorting the rules do so with impunity.
    The people who leave school functionally illiterate or with no exam experience are welcomed by vicechancellors and rabbott-released ceos with open arms and $billions of debt.

    With that scenario, anyone worrying about men who leave women and children home are in avoidance mode?

  14. Miriam English

    Jennifer, interestingly, an enormous amount of his work can be found translated into German.

    I ended up finding an easily accessible, though inconveniently formatted, source of his letters at the Stoics website. I never even knew such a thing existed.

  15. townsvilleblog

    Of course I am not as educated as you people, however I do know right from wrong and my slant on their party and their government is that they do not go against their principles, as they have none, no scruples at all in their selfish quest to make and supply more and more money to other people, the global 1% who have mental illness of insatiable greed.

  16. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    You might be onto something there, townsvilleblog.

    Insatiable greed is a form of mental illness.

  17. helvityni

    Where does this cruelty originate, cruelty towards nation’s poorest, towards asylum seekers, Dutton seems to thrive on it, and Turnbull prefers to be the all powerless leader…what’s the point of this government…?

  18. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Dutton thrives on it like mould thrives on rotting food.

  19. Harquebus


    “If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. . . how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more. That’s the way you keep societies efficient and healthy from the point of view of the corporations.” — Alan Greenspan


  20. Egalitarian

    helvityni: Where does this cruelty originate, cruelty towards nation’s poorest?

    Most of this Ideology originates from the USA early Capitalist’s, Religious Fundamentalist Land Barron’s.

  21. Miriam English

    The cruelty seems to come from the Puritan Christians. The first I heard of them was in Scotland. They believe that it is good to suffer — that we are redeemed through work and suffering and that pleasure is bad. Talk about a screwy philosophy! But this was extremely useful for the owners of factories, so it was self-servingly spread.

    Puritans genuinely believe that people don’t deserve pleasure, and that they are doing good through cruelty; that to achieve anything worthwhile you must first suffer. This idiocy pops up all over the place in our culture (idle hands are the devil’s playground, and taking your bitter medicine, and so on). They honestly feel that the dole is bad for people and will often refer to the Biblical instruction to be like the industrious ant as their rationale for this. (Unfortunately for that belief, entomologists have recently found that ant colonies maintain large populations of idle ants — up to a third of the colony if I remember right — apparently as insurance against calamities. These ants do nothing except eat and wait.)

    Puritanism spread to the USA where it found an eager welcome. The Quakers are puritans and many other austere Christian groups come from the same thinking. Many (most?) conservatives are puritans.

    Our culture has become so immersed in the ideas of puritanism that many people accept without question its fundamentals. For instance they believe that people are rewarded for hard work. When you examine this carefully it actually makes no sense either logically, or in practise. A great many people work hard all their lives and die in sickness and poverty. Conversely, there are many idle rich people. Most of the truly great ideas, inventions, and breakthroughs have come from idle people or from people in their idle times — without them we would be struggling along in a pre-industrial existence. Biologically, we are wired to do things because they are pleasurable — this is evolution’s way of choosing behavior that makes us fit to survive. Puritanism turns all that upside down. It denies reality and causes untold damage along the way.

    I just now looked them up on Wikipedia (I should have done that at the beginning). It makes very interesting reading.

  22. Egalitarian

    Mariam Is there any resentment towards these idle ants in the ant world?

  23. Miriam English

    I’ve just been reading further on the subject and found that my long-held belief that Quakers are puritans is wrong. Interesting. A large part of the early settlements in USA were puritans and they persecuted the Quakers. Puritans seem to have always been extremely intolerant of other religious people.

  24. Miriam English

    heheheh 🙂 It would seem not, as the idle ants are fed and cared for by the active ants.

  25. helvityni

    I just read an excellent article on asylum seekers by Australian photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson. It appears on John Menadue’s site, It’s heading “I am ashamed to be Australian”. She has since left Australia and this article was first published in the New York Times Sunday Review of December12, 2016…

    Read and weep.

  26. corvus boreus

    “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    ― H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

  27. Egalitarian

    Miriam : So does each ant choose their roles or is it a dictatorship?

  28. corvus boreus

    It seems there was a ‘lazy ant study’ in the 1980’s that first published findings that showed how little contributional effort most ‘worker’ ants made to the workings of the colony (details somewhat sketchy), but a study from 2015 had some fairly firm findings about rates of ant inactivty.
    No solid conclusions were reached regarding the reasons and motivations of the shirking ants, nor whether such idleness was chosen or assigned.

  29. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Yes Helvi,

    Ashley Gilbertson captures the empty, devoid hopelessness of the asylum seekers detained on Manua, as well as the anguish and frustration that compassionate Aussies feel knowing that Gilbertson is right to accuse the Australian People generally of heartlessness and lack of integrity for letting that happen in our name.

  30. Gangey1959

    Miriam. Is not ”good christian” by definition an oxymoron ?
    One only had to watch the current pontif making his christmas blessing of his and his cardinals’ feast, with the table dripping with golden candelabra and plates and goblets etc, and with the brethren all dressed in newly minted golden robes to mark the occasion to realise that there is something severely wrong with anyone who believes in all of that crap. Drip down economics is just table scraps.
    I believe in Heaven, but not in god. Not in just one ”true”god anyway.

    Kill them all. Let St Peter sort them out.

  31. Miriam English

    Egalitarian, an ant colony is not a dictatorship. It is closer to ordered anarchy. The “queen” ant isn’t ruler, just the mother. Each ant does what it feels is best. Nowhere is this more apparent than watching several ants bring home a morsel of food. They often work against each other, but enough form a majority that things simply get done. Each ant performs its function, not because it is told to, but simply because it wants to. If an ant is hungry it asks another for food. If the other has surplus it regurgitates a drop for it.

    The whole colony works brilliantly. They achieve extraordinary things. They look after one another and their babies and build magnificent structures.

    Some species grow enormous underground fungal gardens which grow nowhere else on Earth except the tree leaves specifically prepared by the ants for the purpose of growing their fungal food.

    Others farm aphids, defending them against predators. They even move the aphids to other plants when the little sap-suckers have pretty-much killed a plant, and in colder climates will even bring the aphids down into the warm nest and placing them on the roots of plants.

    Some ants are physically unable to care for their young because of large, wicked pincers. Instead, they raid other ant nests and steal young ants and babies to raise them within their own nest as “slaves” to look after their young. (They’re not slaves in the human sense though, as they’re perfectly free, and can leave the nest at any time, but are content to live their lives out there.)

    Pretty-much all ants, as far as I know, “hate” termites and will conduct massive wars against them.

    Termites are another species I adore. They are essentially social cockroaches. Like some ants, termites farm fungi. Their castles are absolute masterpieces. They can drill down hundreds of meters to find water, and they maintain their structures with exquisitely efficient air conditioning at a constant temperature and humidity regardless of the weather outside. The Eastgate Center in Harare, Zimbabwe, modeled its air conditioning system on that used by termites and saved $3.5 million dollars in not needing to install a conventional air conditioning system and saves millions more in operating costs.

    Forgive the diversion. I adore ants, wasps, bees, and termites. They have societies without rulers, depending entirely upon cooperation, where everybody is cared for, and they largely avoid anything like cruelty. Termites are especially gentle.

  32. Egalitarian

    Well I’ll be.Miriam Though it is sad to hear that the Ants hate Termites.I don’t suppose you know why this is? I thank you for time and effort .

  33. Miriam English

    Gangey1959, I’ve met plenty of genuinely good Christians. Granted the religion as a whole is awful — a terrible impediment to civilisation, but individually they can be good and honorable people, just as most atheists, Muslims, Hindus, Jainists, Buddhists, etc are.

    It scares me that Trump may be found to be unfit for the office of President and be replaced by Mike Pence, his Vice President — a thoroughly detestable white supremacist Christian — a Nazi in the deepest sense of the term. Scary.

  34. Miriam English

    Egalitarian, I don’t know why. It may be that they actually “love” them… in the sense that I love salted cashews.

  35. paulwalter

    Watching it on 730 Report, after a disgraceful effort from Centrelink boss Hank Jongen earlier today, I discovered on 730 that recipients are given three weeks to respond, but this is Christmas, when many staff are off on holidays.

    If they go to the Centrelink office to sort it, they are told by staff that the computers can’t be accessed and they must phone Centrelink, and of course no one answers the phones.

    This is calculated and sadistic persecution from psychopathic ideologues, isn’t it?

  36. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Yes it is, paulwalter.

    It is a system set up to fail the most vulnerable in Australian society: the unemployed and under-employed on Newstart, pensioners and single parents.

  37. Harquebus

    Andreas Bimba
    Thanks for that. Much appreciated.

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