Sydney's a dangerous place. Yep, a dangerous place which embraces dangerous ideas - and then some. What city in New Zealand would host a Festival of Dangerous Ideas? What a wonderful notion, one guaranteed to shake up our thinking. So why is novelist Alexander McCall Smith whose characters personify civility, anywhere near this festival? Because that ideal of civility and all it encompasses, is itself not only subversive, but timely. McCall Smith wrote about unfashionable ideas like honesty and good manners in the Sydney Morning Herald last week saying among other things:
'We have created a strange culture perpetuated by television and other media that rejoices in and celebrates dysfunction, violence and anti-social behaviour. Our popular films are highly aggressive in tone, our reality television holds a mirror up to selfishness, shallowness and often sheer nastiness. This is all presented as being the only form of reality. The opposite choices - those of the virtues - are impossibly boring and are more or less totally excluded.
'And the remarkable thing about this is that we do not see it! We have come to expect this vision of life as the default position. And so we should not be surprised if we create a culture that is selfish and aggressive, that has no interest in improving the extent to which concern for others, old-fashioned good manners, or any of the traditional virtues, including honesty, are actively stressed and propagated.
'Hopelessly old-fashioned? If it is old-fashioned to yearn for a day when people's lives were not made a misery through bullying and intimidation, when one could rely on the honesty of others, then old-fashioned it is.
'We must try to assert values. As societies we have to decide to believe in something and begin to teach those values...'
McCall Smith's views are dangerous because they imperil the status quo, the prevailing culture of ugliness promoted by among others, media. There seems to be a growing yearning for a return to older, more enduring values, for kindness and charity, the stuff of his books' characters.
A few days before he wrote his piece for the Herald another unknown writer looking for a job had this to say in the paper about the lack of manners she'd encountered applying for a job:
'These are samples of my experiences which may resonate with other frustrated applicants: non-acknowledgment of job applications; non-return of phone calls; bluntness, indeed utter impoliteness in the way information is reluctantly offered about the advertised position; advertising part-time positions, accepting applications then changing the status to full-time; advertising part-time but actual employment is based on casual hourly rate, thus avoiding paying public holidays or leave....'
None of that makes this beautiful city dangerous we hear you say. Well, here's the other side of it. Some friends took us for a cliff top walk along the eastern coastline and pointed upwards to a flash home. Its windows looked out on to the ocean and we thought at first it was just another multi-million dollar mansion. We were about to walk on when our hosts told us to look at it more closely.
"See those bullet holes?" they said. Sure enough, they were there on separate sides of what looked like a living room window. Our hosts explained that the house belonged to one of the people featured in television's 'Underbelly' series. A week later we took the same walk and looked up again. This time we saw what looked like another two bullet holes....