April 4th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The world has changed: Now for the new order

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Move to curtail underage online porn epidemic

CANBERRA OBSERVED ScoMo's delicate balancing act in extraordinary times

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Time and timing are crucial to Cardinal Pell's appeal by Peter Westmore

NEW ZEALAND Political divisions polarise across the Ditch

NEW ZEALAND Victorian Road Map smooths way of NZ anti-life clique to abortion 'reform'

FREE SPEECH Intolerance brigade at UQ attacks professor of Law

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Victoria lifts moratorium of gas exploration

CHINESE HISTORY The Soong Dynasty: Three sisters who rules China

LAW AND SOCIETY Guilt by accusation: The kangaroos are roaming freely through Australia's legal system

GENDER POLITICS Dr Quentin Van Meter's Australian talk is opening eyes in the U.S.

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia is not safe in the borderless globalised world

SHOPPING AND SOCIETY The Ubermensch in the aisles

MUSIC We seem to have lost the point of counterpoint

CINEMA The Current War: Industrial miracle workers

BOOK REVIEW A dark trade that continues unabated worldwide

EBOOK READ THIS Both sides to this old story



NATIONAL AFFAIRS Use detention centres to help deal with covid19 epidemic

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Justice at last: Cardinal Pell set free

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The Ubermensch in the aisles

by Brian Coman

News Weekly, April 4, 2020

As tempting as it might be, it would be vulgar and crass to suggest a direct, instrumental relationship between Nietzsche’s philosophy and toilet paper, so I will proceed in another direction and with a different sort of association.

The extraordinary scenes we have witnessed in recent weeks – video footage of muscular-looking ladies fighting over dwindling supplies of toilet paper in supermarket aisles – might cause us to reflect a little more deeply on the nature of the human condition and that thin membrane separating modern, secular society from savagery. To be sure, there have been many other such irruptions of irrational behaviour in the past – panic at the Stock Exchange, the Great Tulip Bubble, stadium stampedes, and so on.

But we are supposed, in this modern “liberated” society of ours, to have risen above the gross errors and ignorance of our ancestors, near and ancient. We are, as they say, “the Woke Generation”, fitted out with all the scientific, data-rich explanations and algorithms that will deliver us from the obscurantism of the past.

How then, to explain the extraordinary stampede of panic buying occasioned by the possible prospect, for an unknown (but likely small at this stage) percentage of the population, being asked to stay at home for a fortnight in self-isolation? And all this for a disease whose likely fatal victims (so we are told) will largely be from the ranks of the aged and infirm – the very people who cannot fight their way down the supermarket aisles for the few meagre provisions they require for basic sustenance.

Three-ply, hypoallergenic toilet paper is, I suspect, not high on their list of priorities. They are grateful, not for toilet paper, but for the ability to go to the toilet, and to be blessed with continence (a thoroughly modern word – it once meant nothing more than good, old-fashioned self-restraint).

It is worth noting, too, that both governments and retailers were entirely unprepared for this episode of panic buying. They clearly had some sort of expectation that people would behave in an orderly manner with due consideration to the needs of their fellow humans. After all, had we not shown just how caring, inclusive and compassionate we were as a society by voting for same-sex marriage, for allowing abortion on demand, and for championing the idea of gender fluidity?

Ah, yes, but such matters we could “virtue-signal” from a distance. It required no sacrifice on our part. Covid19 is different. Suddenly, the decisions are on our very own doorstep and real compassion, with real consequence, is needed. Suddenly, the ugly prospect of some measure of self-sacrifice is thrust upon us.

The answer to my question concerning this irrational and selfish behaviour has, I think, a great deal to do with that paradigmatic modern type, the hyper-individual. And that hyper-individual is, in turn, the very type of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

Such a person, fitted out with a notion of freedom that knows no boundaries and accepts no limits, has a moral imagination so atrophied as to disregard almost entirely any notion of human charity, of human pity, and of the responsibilities entailed in the privilege of belonging to a civil society. The one great imperative is “Me, Now”. As Nietzsche says, the old Christian moral order is simply a demonstration of a slave mentality: the Übermensch is “beyond good and evil”.

But, of course, when you abandon all notions associated with a traditional moral order, it is you who becomes the slave – the slave to your own irrational impulses, animal urges and primal fears. Viewers of commercial television (most News Weekly readers are probably exempt from this desperate category) will be familiar with an advertisement for Tattslotto that says, “Play by your own rules”. Here is the very type of the comprehensively liberated, woke, Newperson.

Few stop to ask where such “rules” might come from in the absence of some transcendental moral order. If they cannot come from above, they can only come from below – from our mere animal natures.

Of course, the secular humanists will protest: “But we do have a secular moral philosophy.” And they will quote some version of Mill’s utilitarianism or John Rawls’ rights-based approach, and so on. But to all such approaches, we can answer as Nietzsche himself answered: “Why should I obey your rules?” And he has a point.

Apart from all this, it is reasonable to ask just what proportion of our population – of those crowds surging around the supermarket aisles – has any awareness let alone real understanding, of Locke or Kant, or Mills or, indeed, of any post-Enlightenment moral philosopher. They are much more likely to form their moral choices on the basis of whatever is “trending” (that awful word) on Facebook or Twitter.

I have to say that, in my own few excursions down to the local supermarket in a fruitless attempt to purchase a couple of rolls of toilet paper, most of the people I spoke to were genuinely dismayed and shocked by what was happening. A total stranger turned to me and said: “We are all going mad – what the hell has happened to us?”

This at least indicates that a residuum of the old moral order is still in existence. Perhaps that old sense of natural law that has sustained the West for a thousand years has not been entirely extirpated by the new “Me Now” moral order.

Time will tell. Who knows? Maybe even the ABC will self-isolate for the good of all. That, in itself, might decrease the demand for toilet paper.

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April 4, 2018, 6:45 pm