Thursday, December 31, 2009

Banalities of life... “an inability to think”

Banalities of life... "an inability to think"

Torrey Orton

December 31, 2009


"…What shocked her most was the human capacity for looking the other way…"

Ian Buruma on Helene Berr in NY Review of Books p. 30; Dec. 17, 2009


Much of my life is banal…isn't yours?
I mean by this no disrespect, for you or for me. It is only to note the foundational importance of the routine, the habitual and everyday in all of our lives. It is also to note the small pleasures and confidences which arise from effective pursuit of daily banalities, and, even more so, the sharing of them with likeminded banalitists.


Where humans can't leave and mustn't complain

There some will emerge who enjoy giving pain.

Les Murray on (his own experience as subject of) school bullying in Killing the Black Dog, Black Inc.; 2009; pg. 50


What I am on about, as they say, is the banality of greed, indulgence, defensiveness, bullying, and group think among those in power and their followers (the rest of us in various configurations much of the time). Or, rather, on about the conditions which render the extraordinary, the ethically dubious, the morally endangered, an OK response to challenges – in fact, the ordinary response. The point here is not to construct an exit plan for the morally disencumbered leaders and followers among us (who will be among the subjects of the history of our time). Rather it is to note the slips and slides by which we all contribute to the conditions for morally outrageous ends and means.


This is treacherous ground already scouted by Hannah Arendt and elaborated in the fierce dispute over her expression "the banality of evil" – subtitle of a book on Eichmann. It is not that no one saw that evil coming, but few including the greatest victims saw it soon enough to stop or escape it. My concern is that we all have in various degrees "the human capacity for looking the other way". It is a capacity that is learned from repeated experiences hardening into 'how things are done around here', which then seem the natural way. Timothy Garton Ash argues this vigorously here reviewing recent events like the thieving of Arbeit Macht Frei, and the struggle to remain clear about the Holocaust in the face of our joint weakness in matters of morals.


Check it out: here are some signs of our banality. They are for me members of a family of matters with a likely negative ethical drift which can be housed under the umbrella of banality. Many (all?) may be disputable. My aim is to get us noticing potential members of the family and sharpening our observations to found better action in response to them. These will probably be daily matters, not apparently world historical ones. So, …


  • Isn't it banal that "the best and brightest" of the last 30+ years made their ways into financial engineering, where pure mathematics meets no empirical objects (don't say money is one; check your economists; yes, it's achieved a value-in-itself lately but that's chicanery; check economists again - oh no, I forgot: they are banal, too)? And not just from MBA programs. PhDed astrophysicists and other scientists rushed in with glee, as did the greater part of the graduating classes of the wonderlands of US education, the Ivy League (Harvard, Yale and their brothers/sisters).


  • Isn't it banal that Tony Abbott in his first ABC Kerry O'Brien interview already was spinning answers, unable to just say 'I don't know now, or yet'?


  • Isn't it banal that nothing unmediated by PR comes from governments of any persuasion or level in Australia and that this is so advanced that even one of the beneficiaries and purveyors of spun material – The
    AGE – complains about the constraints of this information regime? "These days governments and their PR machines are so intertwined it's hard for journalists to tell where the spin starts and ends."


  • Isn't it banal that the TBTF financial institutions in the US are ploughing up bonuses out of public subventions and lobbying against controls which the public officers who gave them the money never required as a condition of the bailouts? This is the beginning of a linguistic industry ("TDFU [too difficult to fail and unwind] or TBDA [too big to adequately discipline]") through which only the lonely could make way (by having time to Google the stuff dayandnightly as it arises in the ether and masters level finance backgrounds to make it readable). See preceding banalities of spin.


  • Isn't it banal that Metro's second act after taking over Connex's failed franchise is to rebrand their stock (that which they haven't 'retired")? What's the first act you wonder? Oh, yes the trains didn't run on time again, or at all, and so on and on. You know.


  • Isn't it banal that the Financial Planning Association thinks it can train people and educate them to give good and disinterested service without changing the conflicting interests of the incentive system (commission for sales) which drives the so-called industry? See the (021209) Australian Higher Education Business Education section for another marvellous back-to-back – the business schools talking "ethical routes to profits" for young white collars and the FPA hoping to get on board with universities to give themselves a better look ('professional' I imagine they are thinking). Really, we know that if we want behaviour change, courses without coercions (i.e. – painful incentives) won't do it. And even then we've never found the coercion or incentive that guarantees ethical behaviour. A good upbringing has a hope, but decliningly in a society going the other way.


  • Isn't it banal that the average size of new houses in Australia is now the largest in the world, about 2 times greater than of their European equivalents…just as the call for more efficient ones is louder and louder?


  • Isn't it banal that the growth of the luxury car market has nearly swamped one of my major arteries – Swan Street, Richmond - and that the market in V8 sound effects for 1.2lt two-door runabouts is surging, backed by surging promotion and sales of muscle cars to those who the V8 sound effect buyers aspire to become?


  • Isn't it banal that the high end housing market in Melbourne is sustained by exorbitant exec remuneration which can't be changed because it would collapse the upper market, except for pecunious foreign buyers on the way to residency visas? …and, that the growth in the income gap between executives and workers is approaching the geometric?


  • Isn't it banal that being young is a primary life objective of uncountably large numbers of men and women who should know better (professionally educated, groomed for management) – big enough numbers to found a gathering host of tanning, whitening, botoxing, fat sucking, hair implanting, multi-modally wellbeing-improving businesses, some of which will soon be 'industries'?


  • Isn't it banal that marketing, PR and lobbying specialists can be bought to sell the interests of industries affected by climate change as if their work were disinterested science? Remember the banality of the tobacco industry for decades hiding with hired academic and PR guns the death dealing effects of smoking.


A final note from just around the corner: John Birmingham on New South Wales in The Monthly, Dec. 2009; pg. 32

Isn't it banal that…

… "There is a terrible sense of things being wrong, right down at the core, when you read deeply into all of the available reports of corruption, maladministration and pure criminality in New South Wales – it's as though a trickle-down theory of malignant ethics is at work. This is because the motivations of all those public servants, business people and private citizens who appeared in the recent corruption findings of the ICAC seem modelled on the selfish impulses of those much higher up the food chain….."


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