It’s usually discourteous to speak ill of the dead. Particularly so when the departed was a beloved public figure, the recipient of a state funeral, and that most iconic of all Australian entities: the larrikin sports star.
Still, if there’s any consolation to be had from the death of Shane Warne last month, aged just 52, it’s the opportunity to assail the forces of liberalism that led to his demise and that he more than almost any other Australian embodied.
For the un-Australian or uninitiated, Warnie was the antipodean equivalent of a Babe Ruth, Pele or David Beckham — if you can imagine such a star with translucent teeth, a beer-gut and a pack-a-day cigarette habit. He was the most famous Australian cricketer since Don Bradman, but his sporting achievements were eclipsed by a near-global fame that included everything from ad campaigns with Michael Jordan, meetings with royalty and dalliances with a range of high-profile women.
Yet it was his quintessential Australianness and indulgence in the typical appetites of his suburban upbringing that endeared him to his countrymen. He was the blue-collar Aussie dream incarnate: real-life evidence that a slightly overweight everyman, with a bit of talent, could have almost whatever he wanted. Yet it’s the liberal “virtues” for which he and most Australians are known that forged his fate, and that are coming under a belated but justified scrutiny.
The most immediately obvious of our pejorative liberal trends is obesity and weight-gain. Notably, Warne was a tubby youth at a time when such a sight was far less common, yet after initial weight loss to advance his athletic pursuits, he frequently returned to his originally rotund state and was embarking on a weight-loss campaign at his time of passing.
And as it was for Warne so it is for the average Australian. With three quarters of Australian men now overweight or obese, as well as around two thirds of Australian women and a quarter of the nation’s children. These are figures that are consistent across the West and illustrative of a status quo that isn’t only detrimental medically, but one that’s aesthetically unappealing, culturally uninspiring, and damaging to our productivity.
Yet such trends have become normalised and often lauded, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison mocking Opposition leader Anthony Albanese for his newly slim appearance. It is a stance that is highly indicative of the intellectual and physical decline of Australians, operating as we are under decades of American-led cultural and dietary import.
Even our traditional claims to physical fitness and rugged individualism, as seen in the “bronzed Aussie” surfer or the Outback stockman, are no longer valid as we’ve morphed into one of the most obese and urbanised societies on the planet.
They key driver in all of this is clearly changes to the national diet. As Warne’s pizza, Coca-Cola and hamburger habit illustrate, our shift away from the “meat and three veg” of yore towards an Americanised diet high in fast-food and sugar consumption has become the norm: with weight-gain and slovenliness the inevitable result.
Further to this is of course our continued consumption of cigarettes, alcohol and other such vices. Famously, Warne was one of few contemporary athletes to smoke and engage in the more-than-occasional tipple at a time when most of his colleagues were abstaining almost entirely and adapting to the rigours of newly professional sport.
As Warne himself puts it in his autobiography, No Spin:
“When you bowl 35 overs in a day, the next day hurts. To get out of bed then, geez, everything hurts – everything … Add in a late night, 10 vodka/Red Bulls and 50 fags: well, I’d have to say I was a legend to have turned my arm over the following morning!”
And once again, as Warne went so have we. There remain a steady holdout of cigarette smokers – in spite of the now decades-long knowledge of their ill effects — as well as a growing cohort of “vapers” and an increasing quanta of alcoholic alternatives to beer. This is also without explicitly mentioning the uptake of more illicit substances, of which Australians are now among the world’s leaders.
Indeed, all of the above undermines any notion that Australia has become a nation of puritanical wowsers. One need only glance at any of the football codes to note the saturation of alcohol and fast-food ads and the hearty consumption of their purveyors’ products. So stark is this current wave of advertising that it echoes the all-pervasive cigarette ads seen in the “golden days” of tobacco sponsorship back in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.
Yet the last, but by no means the least damaging, of our quadrella of troubling tendencies is gambling – or “gaming” as the current euphemism has it. Like most Australians Warne enjoyed a punt: famously participating in poker tournaments and related events, particularly at Melbourne’s Crown Casino — a place that even named a bar after him and is of increasingly ill repute.
Similarly, our national gaming affliction has never been more acute. To take Warne’s Victoria as an example, the limited gambling options of his 1980s youth have since grown beyond recognition. The installation of poker-machines and the southern-hemisphere’s largest casino in the 1990s, and the more recent introduction and expansion in online gambling and sports betting make gambling ubiquitous.
So deeply enthralled to gambling are we, its manifestations are no longer even slightly inconspicuous. Whether it’s the fact we suffer the largest per-capita losses of any place in the word, or why viewing a sports match now feels like spying the odd piece of action, glanced in between a barrage of beer and gambling ads, the baleful effects of our liberal gambling regime are impossible to deny — with figures like Warne the glamourous façade of an industry that is for most people highly insidious.
Yet the intent of this article is not to impugn Warnie. He was obviously a person of unique sporting talent, and by all accounts a genuinely well-loved and generous man, a figure held in high regard by celebrities and fans alike. My objective is to highlight the damage wrought by the untempered liberalism and market-fundamentalism that has roiled Australia for at least the last 40 years, of which Warne was perhaps its most emblematic figure.
Delving deeper, that the broader problem is liberalism is self-evident. It’s an ideology with a range of egregious flaws that we appear incapable of addressing. It is, as the 20th Century British author Malcolm Muggeridge called it, ‘the great disease’ of our time — an ideology that instantiates freedom as its only end, with scant regard for the destruction this inevitably brings. It’s a mode of thought that has shifted away from any theoretical virtue it may have once possessed under Locke, Mill and its modern founders, to one of outright licentiousness, degeneracy and decay in actual practice.
It’s an ideology rejected by the major religious traditions — fasting, chastity and alms-giving aren’t currently popular traits, as you will have noticed — and by the Classical philosophers. With Aristotle showing us in his Nicomachean Ethics that the correct path is the mean found between its two extremes: with courage preferable to both cowardice and rashness, temperance to gluttony or asceticism, and so on.
This is an insight totally at odds with the market fundamentalism that rules our economic — and thus our political — lives. As things stand, only economic rationalism counts. Thus, if say, a soft-drink and a pizza is cheaper than water and a salad, then the former is the “rational” choice. This is absurd given that such an equation pays no heed to any notion of natural value and that the former produces a range of malignancies (diabetes, etc.) unseen until later. This neglect of the notion of natural value is one of the major dilemmas of our times.
In this regard, we are all like Oscar Wilde’s cynic who knows the “price of everything but the value of nothing”. But to make matters worse, we now possess the worst of both of these world: that is, a socio-political ideology that has done away with restraint, and a highly productive economy that produces wave after wave of deleterious tosh, as it encourages ceaseless consumption.
Given these events, what (and whom) would such a system produce? Well, someone like Shane Warne – a typical specimen who’s been given free rein to indulge the worst of his appetites as he’s applauded for doing it. This is criticism that is currently about as popular as calls for a temperance movement, particularly here in Australia. Still, like David Foster Wallace’s fish: this is the “water we’re swimming in” and we can’t avoid denying it much longer.
If there’s thus anything to be gleaned from the passing of Shane Warne, it’s in the hope that we may learn the right lessons and change tack accordingly. This is a trend that others around the world are following, and we clearly should too.