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A society like Australia and the United States in which depression is rampant in young people is a society in trouble, a society that may lose its production, its physical health; and the main effect of course is that it’s always wet weather in the soul when you’re depressed.

Professor Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, on ABC Television’s Lateline


A generation ago, parents could depend on the popular culture to support and reinforce their moral values. Now they can’t. A generation ago, parents (typically the mother) had more choice about whether they would work outside or inside the home. Now they don’t; many who would like to be at home when their kids come home from school can’t afford to be. A generation ago, I suspect, more families lived closer to grandparents and relatives than they do now. So children are unconnected, turned loose, exposed to a relentless and invasive televised onslaught - and parents are told, by the very people who are concocting the swill, that they need to exercise more “control”. To tell parents that parental “control” is the only answer is unimaginative - like saying that gas masks are the only answer to air pollution, or that bulletproof vests are the only answer to drive-by shootings.

Ervin Duggan, president of the US Public Broadcasting Service, in First Things journal, January 1994


It was just three days after the horrific Paris crash that killed Princess Diana. I was with my family in a rental car, speeding along the Pacific Highway in glorious spring weather at the start of a long-planned Gold Coast holiday. It was still that mind-numbing period following the tragedy when everyone believed that intrusive paparazzi cameramen pursuing Diana had caused the accident.


The middle-aged manageress of the rental company was driving. “What do you do?” she asked.


“I’m a freelance writer.”


She took her eyes off the road for an instant and glanced at me, then smiled grimly. “It’s lucky you didn’t say you’re a freelance photographer. I might have had to kick you out of the car.”


Then she paused and reflected. “But I guess we’re all to blame. We all buy those magazines with the photos in them.”


She drove on in puzzled silence, clearly unsure as to whether she, personally, was really to blame for the death of the world’s most popular woman.


Her perplexed state was understandable. Indeed, in the nearly five years since my family had come to live in Australia I had noticed, repeatedly, that so many Australians seemed to be afflicted by a similar confusion about ethical matters.


It was a bewilderment that sprang from the traumatic pace of change in a country where life was once easy. The concerns came through most forcefully when parents were talking about their children. There was a feeling that something had gone wrong; a fear that kids were not turning out as well as they ought, despite their parents’ best efforts; a perception that life had moved into a period of moral ambiguity.



For me, it was sadly ironic. I had lived in Tokyo for 17 years, first as a journalist, and then as a securities analyst with an investment bank. I was highly paid and we enjoyed a fine life in one of the world’s most exciting cities. But with the elder of our two boys reaching school age, and a third child on the way, we had resolved to find a city that promised a more relaxed and congenial family environment.


I was a New Zealander and my wife was Korean. But the brochures I picked up from the Qantas office in the building next to mine, in Tokyo’s Marunouchi business district, made Melbourne really seem the world’s most liveable place. And so we arrived, at the beginning of 1993, in the middle of a heatwave, not knowing a single person in the city but confident that we would make a good life for our kids.


We moved into an upmarket suburb. But scarcely had we been invited to our first barbecue than we realised that others did not share our intense optimism. We started hearing stories about the drug problem, the youth suicide epidemic, a divorce explosion, growing crime, a gravity-defying level of unemployment, ethically-challenged business leaders, and more. We learned of surveys that suggested startling levels of dishonesty among teenagers. It was enough to make you drop your glass of Shiraz and phone Qantas for a ticket out.


We stayed. Our family - all five of us - are Australians now, and as buoyantly optimistic as before. But we are realistic too, and it is clear there are problems.


In particular, there is a sense of nihilistic despair among too many young people, a feeling that life holds little hope.


The US child psychologist Professor Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child, in an appearance on the ABC’s “Lateline” television programme in 1997, pointed to an epidemic of depression among children in the West - some as young as eight or nine - which he blamed on over-indulgence by their parents, and the pervasive influence of the self-esteem movement.


“Our spiritual furniture has become threadbare,” he told interviewer Jennifer Byrne. He added that unless steps were taken to break the cycle of the epidemic, Australia would lose its economic position in the world, and would become filled with “a generation of pessimistic older people who then teach their children further embedded, entrenched pessimism”.


His gloomy forecast seemed to be endorsed a year later when a researcher told a meeting of the colleges of physicians and paediatricians that mood disorders had become so endemic that up to 20% of Australian children would experience serious depression before leaving school.



During my stay in Tokyo, I learned that the Japanese language takes many English expressions and turns them into strange-sounding words. An example is batontatchi, from the English “baton touch”. It is an important concept, as it refers - among other things - to the manner in which ideals and values are passed down through the generations.


This is clearly an area where Australian parents feel something is lacking in our culture. No matter how hard they work at passing on to their children the ideals and values they hold dear, and which they believe are vital for a properly functioning society, they feel those ideals and values are no longer fully supported by that society.


Ask any group of parents their priorities, and you will certainly hear that providing economic security for their children is crucial, together with passing on certain moral values – notably, a sense of what is right and wrong. Yet the institutions of our society - the media, book publishers, government agencies, private companies, community groups - at times seem to have conspired to work against parents, to the extent of sometimes even claiming that fixed moral values no longer exist.


It is like running a relay race but being forced, at the moment of passing over the baton, to negotiate potholes in the track and dodge objects being hurled by an abusive crowd. Or like a high-wire act at a circus where the acrobats are forced to use rusting trapeze equipment and a weak and fraying support net.


Our kids may know in minute detail what is “cool” and “uncool”, but in many cases they no longer know what is right and wrong. Even their parents, who once were pretty certain about what was correct behaviour, are becoming increasingly less sure themselves.


We clearly live in an age of moral uncertainty, and, while it can be healthy to question antique beliefs (the persistent questioning of the old ways of doing things is one of the strengths of Australia) it sometimes seems that we have thrown out the bathtub while trying to retain the water. The old moral absolutes are gone, and we are feeling the consequences.


The thoughtful children’s-book author Sophie Masson wrote a letter to The Australian in which she warned that our young people might be like the canary in the mine - the first to warn of danger, and the first to die of it:


The danger lies in the culture itself, a culture that has displaced or deconstructed the ideals of honour, integrity and courage in public and private life - ideals that young people have always responded to. Those are ideals that belong to everybody, of whatever sex or sexual orientation or race or ethnicity. No matter how loving the family, if the dominant images of the culture in which young people live are of rancour, nihilism, apathy and rage, the most fragile young people will succumb. This does not mean things were better in the past, because they weren’t; but even if ideals remain ideals, at least they’re there. If they are submerged under a flood of negativity and dishonour, then young people will drown with them.


That letter seemed to me to express some important truths. Travelling around Asia, I saw that many countries there have more than their share of social problems: gross inequality in some, while others experience a rampant materialism far worse than anything in Australia. But at least there is a positive support structure for kids. They are forever being presented with heroes and role models. They are given challenges. They are taught the difference between right and wrong. The entire society works together to pass on the values of the culture to the younger generation.


By contrast, it often seems that in Australia the whole culture has turned against people struggling to raise their kids decently. And it has done this at exactly the time when it has become harder to raise a family than at any time in recent memory, with parents forced to work harder than ever just to get by, and a surge in single-parent families.


Indeed, it seems at times that the culture has turned against precisely those with special needs: the poor, the sick, the one-parent families, the unemployed. It is almost as if these people are being blamed for their troubles.


How on earth could this have happened? Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, was never shy to speak out when he sensed something amiss in the West. He sometimes went over the top in his criticism. But I think he was onto something quite important in a long interview he gave to the American Foreign Affairs magazine in 1994.


Speaking about life in the West today, he commented that there has been an erosion of the moral underpinnings of our society and a diminution of personal responsibility. He said that some basics about human nature do not change, and that people need a moral sense of right and wrong. “There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the result of being a victim of society,” he said. “You are just an evil man, prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them. Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society.”


And that, I believe, is where things have gone wrong. We have forgotten the reality of evil and suffering in our world. We have forgotten that human beings are not perfect; that we may strive our darnedest to be good, but that we keep getting tempted to do things we know are wrong, and sometimes we succumb.


In other words, we have forgotten that we live in a fallen world; that we are fallible.



To talk of a fallen world is to use old-fashioned language. It is the language of the Bible, and of Adam and Eve. Yet sometimes when things are going wrong it is unwise to keep pressing forwards in the hope of muddling through. Rather, we need to step back a few paces and try to take stock of our situation. A bit of “old-fashioned” vocabulary might, paradoxically, provide a freshness of thought and a directness that we need to understand our predicament.


Australia may never have been a strikingly Christian country. But at least in the past most people adhered more or less to Christian notions of right and wrong, and of justice and morality. They probably accepted the church’s teachings on the necessity of duty and service and moderation for a well-functioning society. And they would, most likely, have agreed with religious leaders that in raising children we should strive for the development of good character - that is, we should emphasise traditional virtues such as honesty and justice. But now that we have evolved into what some term a “post-Christian” society, we are suffering a spiritual malaise.


In any case, it is not just the Bible and Christianity that talk of a fallen people. Most religions and many ethical systems view evil, suffering and temptation as realities of this world.


Countries like Japan or Korea would not allow giant casinos to be built in the hearts of their largest cities. It is not that the municipal authorities wouldn’t welcome the extra tax revenue. But the national governments know how alluring a glittering gambling facility would prove to many people, and recognise the social disruption that would ensue.


When I lived in Tokyo, most working people commuted by train, and most train services stopped at midnight. In such a giant metropolis, there was plenty of demand for later runs. But the government knew the temptations of the city’s estimated 100,000 bars and other nightspots, and it wanted working people home at a reasonable hour.


Taxis were plentiful, though between midnight and about 2:00am was a peak period for Tokyo taxi drivers: sometimes you had to wave two or three fingers in the air - to indicate you would pay double or triple the rate on the meter - if you wanted one to stop for you. Anyway, with most Tokyo working people living more than an hour’s drive from the city centre, taxis home – in the daytime or at night - were a luxury.


(One side-effect was that just before midnight, service from the hostesses at Tokyo’s bars became overwhelming, as the mama-san worked to keep her customers. She knew that once you missed the last train, she had you for another hour or two.)


But when we forget that people are not perfect - that we are subject to temptation - we encounter all kinds of problems.


After Princess Diana’s death, there was huge controversy about the role of the paparazzi photographers who had been harassing her and taking intrusive photos. They were blamed for her death, and there was anger, too, at the magazines that were paying increasingly inflated sums for the pictures.


Yet there was a realisation that we, the readers of the magazines, might also be somehow to blame. Hence the bewilderment of well-meaning individuals like my rental-car company manageress.


The problem again, of course, is that human beings are human. Give us the chance to see a snapshot of a famous, bikini-clad princess kissing her new lover, and of course we want to see it. And later we want something more explicit. A generation or so ago, publishers accepted this basic fact and restrained their photographers. Today such a view is derided as censorship, as a restriction on our freedoms, or even as hypocrisy.


So the Princess Diana tragedy - devastating though it was - has served a purpose, in alerting us to an elemental fact of human nature. It has forced us to step back and reconsider problems affecting our society. Magazines have toned down their use of celebrity photos. In other words, one of our institutions has taken steps to strengthen the undergirdings of our society.


But this was an exceptional case. (And even as I write intrusive photos of celebrities are creeping back into magazines and newspapers.) Increasingly, society’s institutions do not support the values and ideals that parents wish to pass on to their children. These institutions have forgotten that we are fallible; that part of their duty to us, therefore, is to operate within certain limits, and to provide guidance.


In this book I have tried to take a few steps back from the problems in our society, in order to observe them in a better light. I am not a child psychologist or other kind of expert. I am a writer (and a father). My primary aim is to help readers understand what has happened to our society. I have tried to do this in a readable, stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining fashion. From understanding can come change, and I hope this book can contribute to change in our society. 




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