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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 17-Sep-2009

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 768

Deformities flourish with tribalism

Elizabeth Farrelly

If, like me, you always thought dog-breeders were a bit weird but never could pinpoint why, last week’s BBC doco, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, helped explain. But that’s not all it did.

The story unpicked how 150 years of canine eugenics, shaped to the official “breed standards”, has produced entire generations of champion dogs beset by such a cornucopia of genetic deformity that many breeds may soon be extinct.

The show explained the icky feeling you get from the dog breeding scene. It’s the same ickiness exuded by creationism, phrenology, Hillsong and internet retailers of horny goat weed, and it derives from the stubborn and sometimes manipulative elevation of a belief-based rule-system over education, reason and science.

But another bell ringing was in my pattern recognition department. What is it that keeps reminding me of NSW politics? Is it the obvious – some might say puerile – likenesses of Sartor to pug, Rees to airedale, Tebbutt to daschund and Koperberg to bloodhound? Tempting, for a laugh. But no, that wasn’t it.

The deeper likeness was what happens when tribalism takes hold.

The stud-champion pekinese that needs artificial cooling just to breathe; the pedigree German shepherd so club-footed it can barely walk: to the outsider, the grotesque breed-caricatures that populate contemporary dog-shows often look, as an RSPCA vet said, “a parade of mutants.” Yet this dramatic divergence between breed standard and good health is cosmetically driven; it’s just that, to see it, you have to accept the peculiarly inbred aesthetic standards of the club.

These are the rules. And in dog-world, as in religious fundamentalism, they’re all the more vehemently applied for being flaky. Absent the vehemence, they’d cease to exist.

This is scary stuff, given that genetic engineering now allows similar intervention in the breeding of humans. Scarier still is the way it encourages a deliberate and systematised selection for dysfunction.

The ridge on the Rhodesian ridgeback is a mild form of spina bifida, but club rules make it “the escutcheon of the breed,” instructing, further, “all ridgeless puppies shall be culled.” This has softened, since the film was made, to mere prepubescent desexing, but still actively selects for genetic disease, which is no less stupid.

And it was this, I finally figured, that kept recalling the NSW Right.

Our repeated election of politicians we know to be defective similarly selects, over the years, for perfidy, cronyism and prioritisation of tribal ritual over public good.

The war in Afghanistan has made clear that democracy and tribalism don’t mix. Yet here in NSW we’re becoming more tribal by the moment.

Neo-tribalism, a back-to-nature movement that draws on Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, idealises the tribe as open, egalitarian and classless – much as we see Australia. But tribalism has the opposite effect, constructing from rumour, superstition, xenophobia and big-man culture a fear-based hierarchy in which the few always dominate the many.

The fallacy that tribes formed on ethnic, familial, racial or corporate loyalties can coexist within a functioning democracy is multiculturalism’s fatal flaw.

We all belong to tribes. Neighbourhoods, footy teams, churches, Facebook groups, families. But a healthy democracy, as John Rawls noted, requires each of us to think and vote abstractly, as if we had no vested interest in the outcome. Tribes that – like the NSW Right – demand that their members prioritise group values over those of the general populace are deeply, dangerously anti-democratic.

This is how we get John Robertson, who once promised to “put D9s and chainsaws through Currawong if I want to” as Minister for the Environment, as well as Climate Change and Energy. It’s how Minister Keneally can approve a massive 188-berth marina (half as big again as the proposed Rose Bay marina) at Lake Macquarie, with five-storey residential units on bushland – proposed by Pitt Town developer Keith Johnson ($438,000 to the NSW ALP) and call it “a lively new foreshore precinct.” It’s how people like Richo get paid $25,000 a month by property developers for government “access”.

There’s no law against Labor MPs filling their offices and departments with spouses, relatives and friends. It’s not illegal for the party to cultivate legions of the biddable who play musical chairs between departments, consultancies and “independent” panels – then, when the Libs get in, dive underground like mudskippers awaiting rain.

It’s not illegal, but it’s cosy, nepotistic and wrong. Wrong because it produces a private clubby atmosphere where party and personal interests coincide so emphatically as to obscure all else. Wrong because it generates tentacles of power that pervade and distort organisations. And wrong because it selects for deformity, so it’s those with strong, healthy values, like those ridgeless ridgeback puppies, who get culled.


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