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Let us now praise (less) famous men

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 20 October 2006


Karl Marx famously characterised the executive of the modern state as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”.

Take away the pejorative connotations of the word bourgeoisie, and a great many people now seem to agree with Marx that the central task of government is managing the economy, where successful management depends on the protection of private commercial interests.

As Alan Bond, in his heyday, replied when criticised for his contacts with government leaders: “As far as I’m concerned they are businessmen like myself. I see them as managing directors of Australia Incorporated.”

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However, governments also perform tasks apart from economic management. Governments also instruct their citizens in what to praise and what to blame, or in Platonic terms, governments instruct citizens in how to exercise their judgment. Governments do this through the laws they make.

They also do this through bestowing honours and awards to recognise meritorious actions and those who perform them. Such honours pay homage to those who have themselves honoured the world by their character and their conduct, and who have graced it with their deeds. This homage is not paid in monetary or material benefits, but takes the form of recognition by one’s fellows. Hence the bestowal of honours also serves to recall a community to a sense of its common values.

Bestowing honour in this manner is an appropriate way to praise (and in some cases, to mourn) not people of fame or notoriety, but those quieter but dutiful spirits whose righteous deeds should also not be forgotten.

At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in 1993, the then Prime Minister P.J.Keating honoured the “free and independent spirits” who gave us a lesson in true nobility and grandeur by teaching us “to endure hardship, to show courage, to be bold as well as resilient, to believe in ourselves, to stick together”.

The creation of a distinctively Australian honours system in the 1980s was also animated by this sense of our democratic and egalitarian traditions, whose values are, as the former Governor-General Sir William Deane noted, “courage, and endurance, and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds”. The bestowal of honours reminds us to watch over and attend to those values, as well as the men and women who embody them.

These values are by their very nature not narrowly national, but have an openness to the world. To be a good Australian in the sense of Deane’s speech is necessarily to be at the same time a good citizen of the world.

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Similarly, the philosopher Will Kymlicka, in an exploration of the meaning of being Canadian, has argued that one of the foremost aspects of Canadian identity is a generous cosmopolitanism. By this Kymlicka means that the people who live in that area of the world think that they are being good Canadians by living up to cosmopolitan obligations, for example, by giving aid or supporting the international human rights order.

And conversely, says Kymlicka, indifference to the obligations one has as a citizen of the world is seen as in some sense “un-Canadian” (to use that rather unfortunate term).

Kymlicka’s view is that Canadians for the most part are not people who place their global obligations above their national obligations; rather, he points out that an important part of their understanding of themselves as Canadians involves their sense of themselves as having these cosmopolitan obligations.

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About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

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