Tapu Misa on current affairs

Tapu Misa is a Herald columnist focussing on Pacific affairs

Tapu Misa: Values that matter lost in the worship of wealth

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Materialism and the consumerist culture infuse every important debate we have.

Alesana Tuilagi's branded mouthguard drew a $10,000 fine from the IRB. Photo / Getty Images
Alesana Tuilagi's branded mouthguard drew a $10,000 fine from the IRB. Photo / Getty Images

When the IRB fined Samoa $10,000 last week for a mouthguard infraction, while letting off England for twice switching the ball in one of its games, it sent a very clear message: cheating is okay, but messing with the IRB's income stream is a sin too far.

If we didn't already know it from the stacking of the tournament schedule to favour the advantaged rich and powerful top-tier nations, we know now. Talent, flair, and big hearts only get you so far. In rugby, as elsewhere, money counts.

Those who lament our changing values almost always obsess about sex and the lack of piety and manners.

But, arguably, the cultural shift that's had the most impact in recent decades has been our unabashed worship of money and those who've amassed lots of it.

It infuses every important debate we have, from what we should pay taxes on and how much, to inequality, welfare reform, education, and the provision of services that promote the public good.

It's not money itself but the love of it, as the biblical teaching goes, that lies at the root of all evil, and if we needed proof of that we need only look at the past three decades and the way our materialism has threatened values we like to think we still hold dear.

Gareth Morgan and Susan Guthrie, authors of The Big Kahuna, are standing on one side of that values divide when they argue that our tax and welfare system has "veered a long way from its original intent, which was to effect a redistribution of income and guarantee that everybody could live in dignity".

That proposition used to be acknowledged as an inalienable human right. Now it's up for debate. Much like the idea that a civilised state should afford a last supper to a human being it has condemned to death.

Alongside Morgan and Guthrie are children's lobby groups like the Child Poverty Action Group here in New Zealand, a staunch critic of successive governments' obsession with paid work at the expense of vulnerable children, and Unicef in the UK, which in a recent study identified the UK's "materialistic culture" as one of the underlying causes of the recent riots.

That consumerist culture "embeds inequality in our society, affects family time and relationships, and has a negative impact on children's wellbeing". It contrasts starkly with countries like Sweden and Spain, "where family time is prioritised, [and] children and families are under less pressure to own material goods".

Morgan and Guthrie say we're headed down the same path as the UK. While the Key Government's "welfare reform" consists of "stepping up efforts to coerce people without paid work into paying jobs, denigrating unpaid activity and reducing further the status of these folk", we have a tax system that is "riddled with loopholes that the well-off have exploited for so long we now have an entrenched view that not paying tax is our fundamental human right".

How sick is that, they ask. "So long as compulsive consumerism bewitches us as the epitome of success it seems that no income is high enough."

It wasn't always this way. Before GDP measures made prisons more valuable to the economy than raising one's own children, we had different priorities (or at least aspired to them).

Cambridge professor Stefan Collini writes in the London Review of Books that in the middle of the 20th century, "'a decent standard of life' was the goal of all parties and almost all policies". But, since the 1980s in particular, official discourse has become "increasingly colonised by an economistic idiom".

"British society has been subject to a deliberate campaign, initiated in free-market think-tanks in the 1960s and 1970s and pushed strongly by business leaders and right-wing commentators ever since, to elevate the status of business and commerce and to make 'contributing to economic growth' the overriding goal of a whole swathe of social, cultural and intellectual activities which had previously been understood and valued in other terms."

At the same time, "the extension of democratic and egalitarian social attitudes has been accompanied by the growth of a kind of consumerist relativism". Thus, "the claim that one activity is inherently of greater value or importance than another comes to be pilloried as 'elitism"', while the only value with any indefeasible standing is "value for money".

How much our values have changed is well illustrated by American writer David Sirota in Salon, who points out that many of the institutions Americans take for granted wouldn't stand a chance if they were proposed today.

Someone who tried to promote the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want them to treat you), "an idea, which undergirds the concept of human rights ... and is a proud basis for America's dominant Judeo-Christian traditions", would be dismissed as "a radical left-wing ideologue".

The Statue of Liberty ("a symbol of welcoming warmly the world's refugees to America"), Labour Day ("a national holiday to honour unions"), and the 40-hour working week, wouldn't survive a conservative onslaught either, "with corporations dominating our politics so completely".

As for the Bible, "it's hard to imagine it not being the target of a censorship campaign by Fox News, which would bill it as a new and dangerous Communist Manifesto".

- NZ Herald

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