Monday, June 25, 2018

Australia reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society by Hugh Mackay Macmillan 2018 PB 336pp $32.99

For decades, Mackay has warned in mild tones about the social costs of our retreat into consumerism: now he is calling us out more stridently.
It’s been a while since I reviewed one of Hugh Mackay’s books, and when I heard him being interviewed on Radio National about his latest work of non-fiction, Australia Reimagined, I realised it was about time I reviewed another. The voice of this moral philosopher and social researcher is oracular, and it has accompanied me, one way or the other, sort of like a soundtrack, my whole professional life.
Hugh Mackay has always written about his fellow Australians from an impressive base of knowledge, born of decades of work as a social researcher. This knowledge is tempered with a distinctive kindness and wisdom which is the reason, I suspect, he has such devoted following. I am a fan. Nevertheless, I have sometimes longed for his books to offer up less reportage and more in-depth discussion. I am pleased to report that Australia Reimagined succeeds mightily in this regard. It contains many long riffs about gender, religion, politics, and, interestingly, public education. These are well-argued, although I was not persuaded by his thesis of ‘convergence’, by which Mackay means that we are moving into an era of ‘merging, melding, blending, intersecting, and overlapping’, where similarities will be seen to be greater than traditional differences.
I couldn’t help but see the thesis of convergence as a triumph of foolish hope, given that the first part of Mackay’s book paints such a gloomy picture of fractiousness. Things are much worse in our country, he says, illustrating judiciously with statistics and references to well-regarded experts, than they were when he wrote Reinventing Australia 25 years ago:
The melancholy truth, as we have seen, is that we are a society increasingly at risk of fragmentation and division. In politics, gender relations, religion, education, housing, income distribution and in the functioning of our local neighbourhoods and communities, we are less cohesive, less trustful, less cooperative – and less optimistic – than we once were.  
Not only is our society less cohesive, it is in the grip of an epidemic of anxiety, he notes. At least two million of us suffer from anxiety every year, and if we were to add to this the number of people suffering with depression, our count of the unhappy would be higher still. In the 19th century, Emile Durkheim related rising rates of suicide and ‘anomie’ to the decline in the integrating strength of organised religion. In this book Mackay is not arguing anything as coarse as causality, but he certainly sees a link between personal and communal health.
For decades, Mackay has warned in mild tones about the social costs of our retreat into consumerism: chiding us, for example, for our preoccupation with the sorts of taps we might buy for our bathroom renovations. Now, in what he clearly sees as a social crisis, he is calling us out in a more strident tone for our self-absorbed Quests for the Perfect Latte. It is time, he reckons, for a course correction:
Silently, insidiously, the effects of anxiety on individuals become societal effects as well, partly because anxious people are less likely to want to engage with those around them. The healing task is therefore a task for all of us, and it begins with a determination to offer comfort, companionship, kindness, compassion, reassurance, support and encouragement – especially by being prepared to be a patient listener – to the people in your own circle of family, friends, neighbours or work colleagues who are obviously suffering and may be acting quite erratically as a result. To help them is to help us all.
The task of healing will require the cultivation of compassion and the exercise of what Mackay calls moral muscle. Compassion is a discipline requiring practice, including in challenging situations where it isn’t easy to muster but, as Mackay encourages, ‘how we contribute to the miniatures of life in our own house, street, suburb or town will ultimately help to determine the big picture’. His book is full of helpful suggestions and information about things to plug into and/or initiate, such as ‘social streets’, Neighbour Day, and the Australian Kindness Movement. I read with surprise about a cross-generational friendship group begun by one of my parents’ friends in Canberra. Apparently, such groups are springing up all over town, inspired in part, no doubt, by the recent arrival of the author of this book. Hallelujah, Hugh Mackay has settled in Canberra. Already, I can feel our stock of social capital rising.

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