Monday, January 26, 2009

Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 3

Happy Chinese New Year to all.

I finished my last post in this series, Culture, Groups and Public Policy - 2, using Zimbabwe as an example of a growing divergence between a group view - that of Mr Mugabe and his colleagues - and external reality.

The third Reich is another example of problems with group think and of failures to recognise other people's realities.

Scourge of the Swastika I first read my grandfather's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf when I was a child. I am not sure which edition it was, presumably the shortened version since it was in one volume. A little later, I read with a certain appalled fascination Lord Russell's Scourge of the Swastika, a graphic portrayal of Nazi barbarism.

The thing that I could not understand after reading Mein Kampf was the world's failure to really see Hitler coming. However, I was reading it from the perspective of a child in the immediate post war world.

The central problem with the rise of Hitler lay in people's inability to move outside their own world views.

To many Germanophiles, and especially in Britain, Hitler was seen as restoring Germany. To many on the right, fearful of the evils of Bolshevism, Hitler was seen as a bulwark against communist revolution. Many of those on the left did recognise the danger, but also saw it in fairly rigid terms set by their own perceptions of class struggle.

Attitudes to the Spanish civil war, in many ways a rehearsal for the greater conflict that was to follow, reflected this polarisation. Even remote Australia was affected. As I noted in Australian Individuals Fighting (and Dieing) on Foreign Soil, Australians fought on both sides of the Spanish Civil War.

Real understanding of Hitler could only come by standing outside the box set by common views. Again, there is an Australian example.

Prior to the outbreak of war and at a time when the Australian Government was still reluctant to recognise that war might be inevitable, NSW started to go onto a war footing driven especially by Country Party Leader Mick Bruxner and my grandfather, David Drummond, then NSW Minister for Education.

One trigger for this was Drummond's official visit to Europe with my mother in 1936. In Germany, Nazi officials roughly shifted a Jewish family off a ride to give preference to the important Australian visitor and his daughter.

It is clear from snippets in his writing and comments that David Drummond shared some of the common prejudices about Jews. I am not implying here that he was racist, simply prejudiced.

That act, along with other things he saw and read while overseas, convinced him that war with Germany was inevitable. It took him outside the box set by the groups he belonged to in Australia.

Unable to convince the Commonwealth including their own Party colleagues of the threat, he and Mick Bruxner did what they could in NSW.

Drummond was not only convinced that war was coming. His overseas trip had also made him see that the air was going to be critical.

Looking at the NSW technical education system, he realised that there was almost no focus on aeronautics. Cash was tight because of the lingering effects of the depression. Despite this, he increased the technical education focus on aeronautics, including authorising the purchase of new lathes for technical colleges.

This must sound like a very small thing, a few new lathes. Yet that simple act became important when, within two years, Australia had to rapidly expand its building and servicing of aircraft. Lathes were now like hen's teeth because they were needed for military reasons. NSW had them.

This problem, the inability to stand outside the box set by common group views, is very much with us today. We can see it in Canberra and the Rudd Government.

This is a professional, not party political, comment.

The desire for single national uniform approaches ignores on-ground diversity. As a simple current example, the fact that policies for indigenous advancement are driven by NT problems and then imposed across the whole country means that those policies will fail.

There may or may not be some positive results. One hopes there will be. But measured by the objectives set, the policies are already failing.

This comment brings me full circle back to my normal concerns. So I will finish with one point to illustrate the power of internal group attitudes.

Just as the Mugabe Government still announces grand new moves to solve Zimbabwe's problems, so Adolf Hitler played with his his grand building plans as the Third Reich collapsed around his ears. 

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