Staring into emptiness

By Warwick McFadyen

Friedrich Nietzsche once observed that “if you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss will look back into you’’.

This year the abyss came to town. Everything has fallen over the edge. And having settled into this chasm life goes on as if its nature and meaning has not changed. We hardly blink at the altered light of events or the hollowed out gaps where decency and fairness and conscience used to line the political and social world. Labels have become meaning and meaning has become labelled. The pursuit of power and the cementing of ideology thrive within this and, with each day, the abyss grows larger within us. One cannot climb out of it; one can only puncture it. It is both emptiness and empire.

Elections bring it into sharp relief. Then you can see its shape and it makes you want to weep. Welcome to the campaign, Australia, America.

They are campaigns of very different style and substance. Ours is somnambulism at 20 paces, America’s is street fighting.

In Australia, it’s hard to know who is dozing off more: the players or the public. Both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten exude the vigour of a vanilla slice.

It is apposite, however, that one of the memorable images (an easy choice in a small field) has been that of the blackhole. It may have been mentioned in the context of budget figures, but one can apply it in wider context. These weeks have been one blackhole, one from which no light emerged. And turning physics on its head, just as the arguing did, there will be blackholes within blackholes. The level of debate and leadership also means that physics has been turned on its head in another way, for there has been no sudden explosion of a star to create the blackhole. It has happened gradually and insidiously.

It is the rising of mediocrity, an almost unnoticeable buildup of what is deemed the usual sort of thing, the normal way of travelling, and then one day we open our eyes and see? Blackness. We’re in the hole. Over the abyss. In trouble. And why? Because we do not know what we stand for. No one can argue that we’re compassionate when we consign people to indefinite detention for the ‘crime’ of boarding a boat that they hope will take them to a new life. Asylum? There’s more than one meaning to that word, mate.

As there is to fascism. It’s a word being thrown around left, right and centre, both here and in America. It’s heard on the streets of Coburg, and wherever and whenever Donald Trump speaks. George Orwell, back in 1944, (a year before the death of Benito Mussolini, leader of the Italy’s National Fascist Party) wrote that using the word fascism “is almost entirely meaningless’’.

“In conversation, of course, it is used even more wildly than in print. I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley’s broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs and I do not know what else.

“Except for the relatively small number of Fascist sympathizers, almost any English person would accept ‘bully’ as a synonym for ‘Fascist’. That is about as near to a definition as this much-abused word has come.”

Trump has been mentioned many times in relation to fascism. In an interview with Isaac Chotiner in Slate, Robert Paxton, professor emeritus at Columbia University said: “The use of ethnic stereotypes and exploitation of fear of foreigners is directly out of a fascist’s recipe book. ‘Making the country great again’ sounds exactly like the fascist movements. Concern about national decline, that was one of the most prominent emotional states evoked in fascist discourse, and Trump is using that full-blast, quite illegitimately, because the country isn’t in serious decline, but he’s able to persuade them that it is.

“An aggressive foreign policy to arrest the supposed decline. That’s another one. Then, there’s a second level, which is a level of style and technique. He even looks like Mussolini in the way he sticks his lower jaw out, and also the bluster, the skill at sensing the mood of the crowd, the skilful use of media.”

Trump has blown all his Republican rivals out of the water. Barring a seismic shift at the party convention, he will be running for the White House against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. If he wins the White House that will be the abyss personified. Trump is no leader of all people of his nation. He is a divide and conquer type of creature. His bluster is the screech of a will to power.

And having evoked the ghost of Nietzsche, I offer this quote. It could have been written for Trump, for this moment, on the edge:

I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.”

German writer Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote that to exercise power was to threaten death.

Of course, it’s hard, even absurd, to pass a hard-working local candidate at the shopping mall and think the preceding. “Christ I’m not voting for you. If you win, I’m dead.” Or perhaps so.

Follow the leader is a children’s game. We follow the one ahead of us, we mimic his or her actions. If we don’t, we’re out of the game. But life is not a game, is it? And shouldn’t he or she who leads a nation be the best of the best? Should they not have qualities to inspire and improve the lot of fellow countrymen and women. Or else, what is the point? That nothingness you can hear, that’s the silence of the abyss.

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