25 March 2022
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair
A Tale of Two Cities 1859
These opening lines of Charles Dickens’ great historical novel, set against the violent upheaval of the French Revolution, offer us a remarkable insight into humanity’s current predicament.
Few words better describe the contradictions of our world precariously poised between noble aspirations and sordid politics.
As I write, we are witnessing Russia’s military thrust into Ukraine, and its appalling consequences, with no end to the fighting in sight.
Russia may have legitimate grievances fuelled since the end of the Cold War by five waves of NATO expansion that have brought the US-led military alliance right to Russia’s doorstep. The coming to power of a hostile government in neighbouring Ukraine, intent on joining NATO, has added fuel to the fire.
But none of this can excuse or justify the suffering the Russian invasion has inflicted on the people of Ukraine. The United Nations estimates that in the first three weeks of fighting at least 816 civilians were killed, 1333 wounded, and some 6.5 million people displaced. To this should be added the wholesale destruction of infrastructure, and untold military casualties on both sides.
The response of the West, led by the United States, has been less than satisfactory. The vitriol levelled against Putin is hardly conducive to a negotiated settlement of the conflict. Accusations of war crimes would carry greater moral authority, if they had been levelled with equal force against Western leaders responsible for the destruction showered upon the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for the draconian sanctions imposed on Russia, they are more likely to hurt ordinary Russians than the oligarchs. Nor will Western economies escape the inevitable fallout. Rising oil prices are a foretaste of things to come.
If we turn our attention from the Ukraine to Afghanistan and Yemen, the situation is no less alarming. US sanctions aimed at the Taliban regime have helped create a humanitarian catastrophe, and this after a traumatic 20-year war.
All of this points to political and military establishments that have scant regard for human security and wellbeing.
Closer to home, the picture is no less troubling. China remains the target of undisguised and often ill-informed political and media vitriol. Militaristic jingoism and recourse to military solutions are now centre stage in Australian politics.
Our climate change policies proudly announce support for renewable energy sources, while busily authorising new coal projects. Asylum seekers continue to languish in detention centres, and 250 years after the European invasion of this land, repeated calls by our First Nations for constitutional recognition, truth telling, and a treaty remain unheeded.
And yet, the possibilities for renewal are ever present.
Intellectuals, artists and scientists around the world, religious leaders, small media outlets, countless advocates and engaged citizens toiling away on different fronts offer an inspiring alternative to what is.
Our capacities to communicate and connect with others, not just in our personal networks but nationally and internationally, have never been greater.
Sadly, these possibilities have yet to be realised. Trump-style falsehoods abound, and our mainstream media often seems strangely disconnected from the truth.
Clearly, we must recognise the ailment which afflicts the body politic in Australia and elsewhere. But it is not enough.
If the public conversation is to rise to the challenge and generate more effective engagement, we must go beyond symptoms and explore what lies behind the ailment.
Nor can we stop there. We must think through what a healthier condition, a preferable state of affairs might look like.
If substantial change is envisaged – let’s say a substantial shift in current security policies, or effective media regulation, or a climate friendly energy policy – it will soon be apparent that the path to the preferred future is not an easy one.
There may be more to this than short sighted or incompetent leaders. Powerful interests or deeply entrenched community mindsets may be resistant to change. Some of our institutions may no longer be fit for purpose. How are these roadblocks to be overcome?
These are issues that call for a sustained and wide-ranging public conversation within and between countries.
As a modest contribution, Conversation at the Crossroads is hosting a seven-week series beginning late April. It will be my privilege to present the series, which we’ve entitled The best of times, the worst of times: Navigating life at the crossroads.
Joining me will be several distinguished guests from China, Hong Kong, the UK, Greece, Russia, Australia and elsewhere, bringing to the discussion diverse interests and perspectives.
We have identified seven interlinked, thought-provoking themes which together constitute a microcosm of the complex social ailment we presently experience.
Our challenge at this critical moment is to find ethically insightful forms of communication that enable us to share our hopes and anxieties and enhance our collective capacity to make a difference.
Joseph A. Camilleri OAM is Emeritus Professor at La Trobe University, a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and founder of Pax Christi Australia.
For more information on the series mentioned above, including registration details, visit the website bit.ly/3KXBpqq.