Not my circus, not my monkeys

Not my circus, not my monkeys

‘Not my circus, not my monkeys’ is a Polish proverb that indicates an unwillingness to be involved in someone else’s problems. It has been used here to illustrate how failing to engage with the problem leads to an inability to create sustainable solutions.


In 1971 John Kerry was a 27 year old decorated soldier who had completed two tours of Vietnam. That year he gave testimony before the House Foreign Relations Committee saying

“The country does not know it yet, but it has created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history; men who have returned with a sense of anger and a sense of betrayal which no one has yet grasped”.

For Kerry, the multitude of crimes committed by his nation, at war, led to his and his compatriots’ sense of have been betrayed by their state. This article looks at betrayal – not the betrayal felt by a morally damaged America in the wake of Vietnam, but a betrayal visited on all of us, as we witness the crumbling of any sense of social cohesion and the destruction of our planet. I argue that these processes are linked and that we have allowed them to occur through a through a lethal process of misplaced trust and unchecked greed.

But we should start, as is proper, by saluting the past with a voice from the cradle of European civilisation: Aristotle.

Aristotle was an outsider

Aristotle was an outsider in the only sense that mattered in fifth century BCE Athens: he was not a citizen and therefore not a landowner. In many respects therefore his Politics can be read as testimony from one who is disenfranchised. And while it is traditional for Aristotle to be mined by students of political science for insights into preferred structures of society, I believe his writing has new relevance today. For this is the age where we are all disenfranchised, whether through education systems that fail to connect us with our cultural and ideological heritage, health systems dominated by the interests of BigHealth or governments that have allowed themselves to become lapdogs of religious fanaticism.

Maybe a student of political science can tell me if it is our society’s adoption of models of classical thinking that have caused us to identify so closely with our political institutions. It is debatable, of course, what exactly Aristotle meant when he described man as a political animal – probably the 24-hour news cycle exceeds what he may have had in mind. But in Australia today, our political masters take every opportunity to berate us with the importance of the democratic principle. Every new comer to these shores has to swear to uphold these principles before they are allowed stay. Even home schooling families are required to sign an agreement attesting to their support of democracy.

The failure of education

Thomas L Friedman wrote of another sort of betrayal when he correctly predicted the future, now our reality, of education. In his book The World is Flat he warned of how the process of ‘being schooled’ no longer bears much relation to ‘getting a job’. Only a pedant would argue that there is more to government education in Australia today than ‘getting a job’ (and if they did I would want to see their evidence for how schools nurture and cherish the young people whose minds we have entrusted to cultivate).

If you haven’t read it, Friedman writes about how and why our jobs went offshore. All the routine tasks from manufacturing to tax accounting and marketing can be done more cheaply and efficiently outside the debt capitals of the US, Australia and Europe. Spoiler alert – he says if our kids want jobs then they should train as handy persons such as plumbers (to which I would also add massage therapists).

I would argue that it is not the failure of the democratic principle itself that has led us to this point, but the obtuse persistence of that other principle every student of history will know: greed. Had we not hitched our wagon to debt and to self-realisation through ostentatious wealth, possibly there would have been time to notice that the logical extension of this pursuit is that there will always be big time losers. We all lost when the lobbyists took over.

Scientist as Cassandra

If you are well-versed in the history of appalling practices in health policy, then you will be familiar with the story told by Colin T Campbell in his evergreen text The China Study. Whilst the jury may still be out on the health outcomes of animal products, as his thesis cannot provide complete explanation of the facts, we do not dispute the extraordinary picture this book paints of the scientist as Cassandra to successive National Institute of Health (NIH) Boards beholden to the interests of BigDairy and BigMeat.

Democracy is not to blame for this. What is to blame is the fact that we believed that democracy was enough. We believed that if we elected our best and brightest that they would protect our interests and deliver a shining path to some utopia. Surely it is time to stop believing that democracy is going to provide the means for us to live meaningful lives?

Perhaps we should investigate the possibility of language, culture and traditional practices as a means of creating social cohesion and creating more meaningful lives.

A means of creating social cohesion

One practical way in which this sort of approach becomes reality is the implementation of strategies such as the 2013 WHO Traditional Medicine strategy. The aim of this is the complete integration of traditional health knowledge into health service delivery and yes, Australia is a signatory.

Unfortunately the small steps that have been taken so far to achieve this outcome may very well contain the contain the seeds of destruction for some traditional medicine practices in Australia. Speaking here of the acupuncture profession, of which I have some knowledge, registered acupuncturists are now required to operate according to a fairly strict ‘best practice’ structure that includes being beholden to peer-review literature.

This might sound like a great outcome for Chinese Medicine, but my fear is that in this instance ‘traditional knowledge’ will become a curious subset of ‘scientific knowledge’. It is well known, for example, that GPs who are also acupuncturists are not allowed to insert a single needle unless they can validate their action with reference to published, peer-reviewed literature of the kind that would actually stand up to some scrutiny.

Not my circus, not my monkeys

Obviously this point of view is contentious and will win me few friends. But what I see in traditional practices is not the opportunity to become ‘more like them’ but to be ‘more like us’. In this instance the ‘them’ is the dominant hierarchy that keeps power and knowledge to themselves, allowing only portions of power (and money) to fall into the hands of their rivals. You might think this is far-fetched, but hang around Chinese Medicine practitioners for long enough and you will encounter stories of ‘miracle’ recoveries that hospitals refuse to investigate in a pathetic ‘Not my Circus, Not my Monkeys’ shrug that betrays their complete unwillingness to engage with anything outside their immediate domain.

Next time you see someone in authority shrugging their shoulders, ask what is the issue they are not paid to address? Is it the failure of health systems to serve and protect? Is it the aching loss of the disappearance of traditional languages? Is it the failure of schools to provide young people with the tools to become change makers? Is it the destruction of wildlife to make way for progress?

Wishing you Health and Happiness,


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