By Warwick McFadyen
They lie, the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet
My window sill is level with the faces in the street;
(And later on)
I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor?
Faces in the Street, Henry Lawson
First the anger, then the hope.
It’s the sentiment of the naïve and the dreamer that all men and women, when confronted with inequality, will react in the same way. That is. with:
It is not the truth. Not all do. History shows this. The present shows this. It goes against logic, and the past, that those responsible for putting a class of society, a section of a nation, indeed an entire nation, in a certain position to better their own status, to enrich themselves, increase their power and confirm and bolster their own beliefs would feel bad about it.
Heaven forbid, to do that would be to censure their own actions and pour guilt upon themselves. Even more, it would degrade their self-righteousness, and close the gap between themselves and the lesser people.
One likes to believe in the brotherhood of man and woman, of the common wealth of virtue, but for every pool of trembling hope, there is a storm surge of greed or a high tide of indifference that swamps the shore. One needs to be a determined optimist. As an eternal state of mind, can there a harder thing to maintain?
It is axiomatic as Newton’s third law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, that a winner cannot exist without their opposite, the loser. In Lawson’s day these were the faces in the street. A century later, “the men who tell us in a loud decisive tone” are still here. And still their declarations are hollow. They lie, and yet sleep well at night because they rationalise it as an alternative view, a fact seen from another angle, if you will, that it is as legitimate as any other. Indeed, more legitimate because they are propelled by a will to power.
What could an example of this be? Let’s see. Introducing Donald Trump. Actually, there is, of course, no need to introduce Trump. He is the leader of the most powerful and wealthiest nation on Earth.
He is power and money. He is privilege and entitlement. He is the most dangerous type of demagogue because he has no ideology. What passes for political belief is merely venality. What he meant by saying he’ll make America great again is that he will make America great again for business. And Donald Trump is, if nothing else, a businessman. He spends billions on the military and cuts funding to welfare, health, the environment and the arts. The faces in the streets are just numbers to him, unwanted numbers, and these types of numbers, to him, add up to nothing.
He is a piece of work.
Australia does not have a Trump-like equivalent. We are Trump-lite. There are little bits here and there. We suffer the attitudes of Cory Bernardi, Peter Dutton and Pauline Hanson, for example, on racism and refugees. If we didn’t have the ocean, we’d be building a wall. Our government cannot bring itself to embrace love and marriage for all. Our politicians are timid creatures, scared by loud noises. However, if the politics suits, we kick the down and out and vulnerable when they’re down and out and vulnerable and cosset the big end of town with tax benefits. Policy in this country is the perpetual motion of electioneering. And the goal of electioneering is winning.
We love winning. What’s that about winning? There’s always a loser. It was Harmony Day on Tuesday. The federal government’s harmony page says the day celebrates the country’s cultural diversity. “It’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone.”
Except refugees. Except Aborigines. Except Muslims. Except gays who want to marry each other. A point of difference in these frightened times is akin to carrying a rocket launcher. It is a credit to the determined optimists in the population that we have succeeded multi-culturally as well as we have.
Lawson was born 150 years ago this June. He grew up as Australia plunged into the depression of the 1890s after an orgy of land and property speculation and unbridled corruption sent the country into a fantasy of boom times that ended with the country on the edge of ruin.
Faces in the Street was published in the Bulletin in 1888. Lawson was 21. A plaque at Petersham train station in inner Sydney commemorates that it was there on a platform one rainy night the muse came to Lawson.
As he waited for his train, no doubt he saw the world as a battlefield, society, too. Indeed, the man himself was an early casualty of a hard, benighted life. What would he have made of his being given a state funeral?
What would he make now of the faces in the streets here and in America? He would, most likely, have turned away. He most likely would have gone bush.
Warwick McFadyen is a freelance writer and editor