A Reflection on Sameness and Difference for Australia/Survival/Invasion Day

It seems to me that one of the significant causes of tension around Australia/Survival/Invasion Day is the increasing tendency towards narrowly defined (and increasingly aggressive) nationalism in majority Australian society.

Now, please let me say this clearly: there is nothing necessarily wrong with being proud of one’s nation or culture or identity. Having a positive (though not blinkered) view of one’s identity is fine; it’s when this identity seeks to define itself over and against the other in negative terms that we have the beginnings of the problem.

In the words of Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, this type of situation ends up in exclusion, which can manifest itself either as a cutting off from interdependence (the other becomes the enemy), or as the disintegration of the difference (the other becomes assimilated).

This is the sort of thing, I think, we’re seeing around ‘Australia Day’ (as well as ANZAC Day and in general conversations that include discussions of ‘national identity’), in regards both to attitudes towards Indigenous Australians and towards ‘new’ Australians. The only options, it seems, are either full assimilation or (therefore necessary) separation. One can either (quite literally) lose themselves in the prevailing culture, or they can, as is so eloquently put in numerous social media memes, f@#k off!

Such a limited and aggressive understanding of identity is distressing in so many ways.

But is there really no other option? Are we Australians so small-minded that ‘sameness’ is really the best that we can come up with?

I don’t think so. Though the angry voices for ‘unity’-based-on-exclusion are usually the loudest, I am convinced both that there is a better way and that Australians, in general, are clever enough and big-hearted enough to embrace it.

In Volf’s words:

We are who we are not because we are separate from others who are next to us, but because we are both separate and connected, both distinct and related; the boundaries that mark our identities are both barriers and bridges.*

Surely we can be sophisticated enough to recognise difference within our larger category of what it means to be ‘Australian’. We can be different but still united; we can be united but still different.

(In another post, I may seek to explore the theology of this in more detail. I’ll say here simply that this is part of the very core of Christian theology.)

This, it seems to me, would allow us to recognise that Indigenous Australians can ‘be Australian’ in a different way than I, as an Australian of British heritage, am, and that different Indigenous Australians will do so in a variety of ways (i.e. there is not just one way of being an ‘Indigenous Australian’). In the same way, more recent arrivals to our shores should be able to embrace what it means to be ‘Australian’ without needing to lose what it is that makes them who they are.

Personally, I can’t see how ‘being Australian’ can mean anything else.

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* Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace, p. 66.

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John Pilger’s ‘Utopia’

Last night, I was fortunate enough to be able to make it along to the Australian premier screening of John Pilger’s new documentary, Utopia, at The Block in Redfern (see the trailer for the film here). It was an emotional experience—some parts are very difficult to watch—with deep sadness, shame and guilt (as a white Australian), anger and even rage being stirred up, but there was also an almost tangible sense of hope that flooded the open-air event.

Utopia is in some ways a kind of follow-up film to Pilger’s The Secret Country (1985), though The Secret Country focuses more on the history of Indigenous/non-Indigenous contact in Australia while Utopia focuses more on the present situation. At the beginning of the film, Pilger describes his shock in finding out that Indigenous Australians are still facing many of the same issues as they did when he filmed The Secret Country, and how (non-Indigenous) Australia still hasn’t adequately acknowledged it’s shameful history and grappled with the (ongoing) injustice of how Indigenous peoples have been—and are being—treated in their own land.

I was quite interested in how the film would unfold, considering the fact that Pilger is not known for his diplomacy. Personally, I very much appreciate Pilger’s work, but I also recognise that he doesn’t do well in acknowledging shades of grey. The best way that I can think of describing Pilger’s manner is that it’s like he suffers from ‘Truth-Telling Tourette Syndrome’, a condition that causes involuntary bursts of truth-telling in a manner that breaks the usual ‘rules’ of social interaction.* Pilger’s interviews in the film with people like Mal Brough, I suspect, will be seen as more or less effective depending on where one situates themselves on the political spectrum.

As the film unfolded, it also became apparent that Pilger was attempting to highlight a broad range of issues. The film covers living conditions and health issues in remote Aboriginal communities, the emptiness of Federal Government promises (no matter which party has been in control), Aboriginal deaths in custody, early movements towards workers rights for Indigenous people, the Intervention in the Northern Territory (in significant detail), the history of Rottnest Island (as a kind of ‘concentration camp’ for Aboriginal men) and it’s total ‘whitewashing’ of that history, the role of the Mining Industry in opposing Indigenous land rights and profiting from doing so, and the deeply saddening and alarmingly high rates of suicide among Aboriginal people in Australia. Each one of these topics, it could be argued, deserves its own full-length documentary (and more!), but Pilger touches on them all in more or less detail in the course of the film. My fear, then, was that the documentary would be ‘a mile wide but an inch deep’, and that by spreading itself too thin it wouldn’t have the same impact as covering a few issues in greater detail.

However, Pilger manages (somehow) to hold it all together, chiefly through the troubling but necessary comparison between the Canberra suburb of Barton (the most socio-economically advantaged location in Australia, named after Australia’s first Prime Minister**), and the central Australian community of Utopia (the least socio-economically advantaged location in Australia). This overarching structure is alluded to enough times throughout the film to allow an overall sense of connectedness. Though Pilger does, admittedly, make a couple of jumps in the documentary (the links between which, I’m sure, make more sense in his head), the issues raised and the stories told to seem to have, for the most part, an inner cohesion due to the people involved and the places visited. In addition to this, the issues that are covered each seem to be treated with enough depth to at least spark the curiosity of the viewer to find out more for themselves, or to be sufficient in dealing with the point that needed to be made without feeling like the only option left is despair. Perhaps the film is a tad too long in order to be able to do this, but it is gripping nonetheless.

I’m honestly not sure how much screen time is devoted to each ‘issue’, but it certainly felt like the point dwelt on in the most depth was ‘the intervention’ in the Northern Territory. Pilger covers, in detail, the ways in which the Government at the time unleashed an extraordinary wave of propaganda in order to justify its actions, and exposes some of the startling facts about the veracity of the information that was released and the complicity of the media (specifically in regards to the ABC’s Lateline reports). By seemingly insinuating that (perhaps most) Aboriginal men in remote communities were predatory pedophiles, community outrage (in non-Indigenous Australia) was sufficient to allow the Government to do, basically, whatever it wanted to do—including suspending the Racial Discrimination Act in the NT which, as is noted in the film, is something that needs to be done if the proposed action is fundamentally racist!

I guess the only thing I’d note here, by way of critique, is that Pilger’s coverage of this issue does, in the emotion of it all, tend to play down the findings in the Little Children Are Sacred report, which was central to the Howard Government’s ‘response’ in the Northern Territory. Though it has been noted many, many times—and correctly in my view, for what it’s worth—that the Howard Government seemed to ignore pretty much every single recommendation in that report, the report itself was significant enough that it shouldn’t be brushed off in the process of heavily critiquing the Howard Government’s policy and actions. It felt, just a little bit, like this nuance was lost in Pilger’s film.

Now, in the interest of making the point as clearly as I can here, I want to reiterate that, from the evidence I’ve seen, the Howard Government’s policy, and the implementation of said policy, was terrible (and it continues through Labor’s ‘Stronger Futures’ legislation). There was a determined effort in the rhetoric to demonise Aboriginal men (like middle-class white communities don’t also, sadly, have similar levels of child abuse!), in general, and the legacy of the (ongoing) implementation of the policy seems largely to be disempowerment. Instead of serious community consultation, there seemed to be even more centralised, external, and powerfully enforced decision-making. Rather than moving towards empowerment and self-determination, it seems, in general, that it’s been a process of shaming, and one only wonders at what other motivation there was in implementing the policy so forcefully (and Pilger hints at at least one possibility here, in the film).

All of that being said, the Little Children Are Sacred report should not be brushed away in the interests of (rightly) noting the critiques of the policy and its implementation outlined above. The point to be made, quite simply, is that addressing these issues means genuine consultation and empowerment of Indigenous communities in decision-making, rather than what has been done.

Returning to the film review, my final concern (though ‘concern’ might be too serious a word) was that Pilger would spend the whole of the documentary outlining the ‘problems’, and that audiences would be left with a sense of despair and disempowerment.

I don’t feel, however, that this was the case.

Though the film certainly doesn’t shy back from throwing a spotlight on some horrible facts, it ends on a positive note of seeking, it seems, to reignite the push for a formal treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, and also towards the idea of true justice and self-determination. Pilger himself seems to be somewhat fixated on the idea of raising external pressure on Australia to act on these issues (like the way many nations pressured South Africa in regards to apartheid), but I am not willing to give up just yet on the notion that Australians do have the capacity to truly hear the voices of our Indigenous brothers and sisters and come to the conclusion ourselves. Though one might feel a certain despair in listening to the ‘bogan’ stupidity around ‘Australia Day’, I have an unquenchable optimism in the ability of humans (even bogans!) to change their minds and behaviour once they actually meet, in person, people who are being adversely effected by their ignorance, and to truly hear their stories.

All in all, the film was certainly worth watching, and I encourage all Australians to see it. Unfortunately it won’t be released on DVD or iTunes before ‘Australia Day’, but I think it should become part of a package of ‘essential viewing’ for all Australians (and perhaps an ‘Australia Day’ tradition in years to come). Being part of the screening at The Block was very special indeed. With something like (I’m estimating) 2,000 people in attendance, and with many rousing speeches before the film itself (especially one by Rosalie Kunoth-Monks), it is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.


Find an Australian screening of Utopia here, or purchase it on DVD or iTunes from May.

Utopia

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* I honestly do not mean to offend anyone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome by this reference, and have weighed up using the term here. I’m not at all trying to use it in a derogatory kind of way; I honestly can’t think of a better way to describe Pilger’s manner. If, however, you are offended by the reference, please let me know and I will remove it (and offer my sincere and unreserved apology).

** Sir Edmund Barton also happens to be one of the architects of Australia’s ‘White Australia Policy’, which officially came about at the time of Federation in 1901.

The Necessity of Indigenous Self-Determination

There are a couple of issues that I consider to be crucial for Australia to address, and to address as soon as possible. One of those issues is our abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers. Another—one which is perhaps the single most important issue facing us as a nation—is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I write/speak/tweet/rant/shout quite a bit about the first of these issues. As far as I can see, the solution/s to the current situation is not overly complex. It begins by approaching the situation as a humanitarian crisis, rather than a small-minded, nationalistic issue of ‘border
protection’, and builds from there (e.g. directing funding to regional processing centres, community processing of asylum requests, etc.).

The second issue, however, is rather complex indeed—all the more so due to over 200 years of policy failure. While the issues are complex, and while I do not want to try to talk as if I (as someone who has benefitted from a lifetime of white privilege) have the answers, I think there is one essential ingredient that needs a whole lot more focus from those who are making decisions: Indigenous self-determination.

Though this idea has often been misunderstood and (perhaps deliberately) misrepresented, true self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous peoples must surely lie at the very heart of our future together.

Much has been written and said on this topic, but I have found Chapter 2 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s* 2002 ‘Social Justice Report’ (Self-determination – the freedom to
‘live well’) to be quite helpful. It’s worthwhile reading the whole thing through a number of times (in order to grasp the numerous excellent points that are made), but I thought it might be helpful to post one of the summaries here:

  1. Self-determination is an ongoing process of choice for the achievement of human security and fulfilment of human needs.
  2. Respect for distinct cultural values and diversity is fundamental to the notion of self-determination.
  3. The protection of self-determination unquestionably involves some kind of collective political identity for indigenous nations and peoples, i.e. it requires official recognition of their representatives and institutions.
  4. Respect for Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land and resources is an integral component of self-determination, from an economic, social, political and cultural dimension. A lack of control of traditional lands and resources is often a significant institutional barrier to the realisation of Indigenous self-determination.
  5. Self-determination contains a subjective element – it cannot be judged solely from objective criteria. The true test of self-determination is whether Indigenous peoples themselves actually feel that they have choices about their way of life.
  6. Essential to the exercise of self-determination is choice, participation and control. The essential requirement for self-determination is that the outcome corresponds to the free and voluntary choice of the people concerned.
  7. Self-determination does not have a prescribed or pre-determined outcome.
  8. Self-determination is a process that is ongoing. It is not a one-off event or something that is defined as at a particular moment in history.
  9. notion of popular participation is inherent to self-determination.
  10. In a democracy, Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is not necessarily safeguarded or respected by a reliance on majority rule. Self-determination raises the issue of representativeness and participation within the democratic principle.
  11. The existence in democratic societies of structural and procedural barriers which inhibit the full participation of Indigenous peoples must be recognised. The nature of participation and representativeness required by self-determination necessitates going beyond such sameness of treatment and to strive for institutional innovation.
  12. Ultimately, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the State is linked to respect for self-determination. Numerous UN declarations, such as the Friendly Relations Declaration, limit the exercise of self-determination so that it does not threaten territorial integrity or political unity of States so long as those states conduct themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and are representative.
  13. Continued government representivity and accountability is therefore a condition for enduring enjoyment of the right of self-determination, and for continued application of the territorial integrity and national unity principles.
  14. Article 45 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples** similarly qualifies the recognition of Indigenous self-determination in Article 3 of the Draft Declaration by making it subject to the provisions of the Friendly Relations Declaration (and other UN provisions). Hence, the recognition of Indigenous self-determination through the Draft Declaration is qualified in a way that guarantees the territorial integrity of States.
  15. Secession is an extreme expression of self-determination and one that will only occur in the rarest of cases when all other processes have failed. Separation or secession from the State of which a people forms a part should be regarded as a right of last resort.
  16. The fear of secession by States immediately conflates Indigenous self-determination with the concept of state-hood. The equation of self-determination with secession is made without reference to the existing state of international law and without an eye to history.
  17. In Australia, the absence of any conflict or political movement for secession by Indigenous peoples is an obvious indicator of the lack of reality, indeed the absurdity, of the claim that recognition of self-determination could lead to secession.
  18. Self-determination is not self-executing, unilateral or absolute in its application and is a process of engagement and negotiation. When balanced against principles such as the protection of territorial integrity, the international community is highly unlikely to recognise secessionist movements in States that are conducting themselves in good faith.
  19. Indigenous peoples have indicated that generally they do not aspire to secession. Examples from Australia indicate that there are no aspirations for secession by Indigenous Australians.
  20. The fear by governments of secession is not soundly based in existing law or political reality. What is required for progress in recognition of Indigenous self-determination is for governments to stop acting in bad faith by automatically equating self-determination with secession.
  21. There is no justification for imposing an arbitrary restriction to internal self-determination on Indigenous peoples. The participation of Indigenous peoples in UN processes and in negotiations on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that there are numerous external dimensions to their right to self-determination, other than secession.
  22. Attempts to qualify the recognition of Indigenous self-determination place the universality of human rights at risk.

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* Formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

** United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Anzac Day and ‘The Old Lie’

I have, for a while now, been contemplating the possibility of writing a few posts about war and, in particular, the way in which we Australians approach our military history.

ANZAC Day, and all that goes along with it, has become (for all intents and purposes) like something of a ‘State Religion’ for Australia. There is the tradition, the ceremony, the sacred space, and the requisite mythology that must accompany such things.

As such, I am acutely aware that whatever I say on this topic, unless it simply affirms the status quo, will no doubt upset some people. To express a point of view that does not conform to the official script has the potential to be viewed as disrespectful at best, sacrilegious at worst. This is why I have chosen to wait until after ANZAC Day this year to write. In the midst of the extraordinary emotion of it all, I see little possibility of reasonable discussion and debate. My hope is that now, after the intensity of the day itself has passed, we are in a better position for such discussion. I guess we will soon see.

In this post, then, I want to discuss what I see as one of the core untruths of the whole ANZAC tradition. Quite simply, I want to challenge the idea that the tragic death of so many young men (and women) has any meaning at all.

Please let me explain.

For many, the idea of fighting—and dying—for one’s nation is a good and noble thing. From at least the time of the Roman poet Horace onwards (and no doubt before), it has been expressed quite clearly that such a notion is to be admired. As Horace expressed it: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (“How sweet and right it is to die for one’s country!”).

It is my firm belief, however, that such deaths as we commemorate on ANZAC Day were both unnecessary and obscene. Young lives wasted in the service of reckless fools who treated them with scornful contempt as expendable pawns is not ‘sweet’ or ‘right’ or ‘noble’. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions!

Such patriotic, nationalistic propaganda is to be challenged and opposed, not applauded.

Of course, there will be those who will suggest, in light of what I have just said, that I am being disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died—that I am an ungrateful wretch who does not appreciate the ‘freedoms’ for which our brave servicemen-and-women fought and died.

To those people, I would simply say four things:

  1. I have no doubt that many of our servicemen-and-women—at least before they experienced the horrors of it all—absolutely believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do. Many went out of a sense of duty and a belief in the nobility of it all. This does not, however, make it so. It is more a testament to the power of patriotic rhetoric, and the effectiveness of official propaganda machines. The numerous testimonies from many who fought, however, show that such propaganda was often shown up quickly for what it truly was when the horrific reality of war was made known. Such testimonies speak of the futility of it all, and sometimes detail the sense of betrayal felt when such realities were made known.
  2. I am also convinced that there were many acts of tremendous courage and bravery in the midst of battle. Again, however, this does not make it ‘right’. Human beings are amazing creatures, and are capable of truly incredible things under certain circumstances. That soldiers would perform acts of exceptional bravery in the midst of raging battle comes as no surprise. That they were put into such situations is cause for regret.
  3. I passionately believe in caring for returned soldiers who have been scarred physically and emotionally by their experiences. I am not one of those people who would spit on or despise returned servicemen-and-women. I believe it is our responsibility as a nation to properly care for those who have fought ‘on our behalf’, even if I don’t endorse (or even passionately oppose) the fighting itself. Multitudes of returned soldiers experience significant physical and psychological wounds that require long-term/permanent care. The reality of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is alarming, and we need to do so much more in regards to the wellbeing of those who are experiencing such things.
  4. There is very little or no case at all for suggesting that any of the wars that Australians have fought in have secured our ‘freedoms’. Nearly every one of them have had nothing at all to do with Australia itself. WWII might be argued as a possible exception here, but it can only be argued as such if we were to believe that our ‘enemies’ in that war popped up out of nowhere. War does not begin in a vacuum. There is always a context, and the years (or even decades) before war officially breaks out are extremely important to keep in mind. Once war begins, it is easy to argue that we are simply ‘responding’, but it is rarely, if ever, truly the case.

But there is a more subtle untruth that creeps in too.

Many people I speak to, who do see through the patriotic nonsense of dying for one’s country as ‘sweet’ or ‘right’, nevertheless still fall for the lie that I call the ‘myth of retrospective meaning’.

This argument acknowledges the bogus nature of what Wilfred Owen called ‘the old lie’, but nevertheless falls victim to the belief that, even if we accept the futility of the fighting itself, and even if we call out the incompetence and wilful neglect (and perhaps outright evil) of the leaders who sent so many to fight and to die, we can still invest their deaths with meaning if only we live our lives in such a way that their ‘sacrifice’ wasn’t wasted.

This is a popular, and powerful, lie.

There is nothing that we as a nation, or I (or you) personally, can do to make such deaths ‘worthwhile’. Trying to retrospectively invest the meaningless with meaning is as futile a pursuit as the wars themselves.

As far as I can see, this is just another (perhaps more subtle) attempt to keep the myth of noble war alive. The problem is, it’s just not true.

What’s worse, it seems to lead only to the justification of sending yet more into ongoing battles. Nothing changes. No lessons are learnt. More lives are needlessly lost.

I have thus come to the conclusion that such an argument is nothing more than an insidious attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises when we seek to confront the Old Lie in the context of the State Religion of ANZAC tradition.

The truth, to my mind, is that the only thing we can do to truly honour the memory of those who fought and died is to embrace the horror of war in all its terrifying reality and let it break our hearts to the point that we can no longer tolerate the sending of soldiers to fight and die in meaningless battles ‘in our name’.

We must acknowledge the utter meaninglessness of it all so that, once our collective conscience is pricked by the magnitude of such wasted life and potential, we might collectively agree: “never again”.

Though the facade of untruth is certainly more comfortable, I believe such reflection is necessary.

Lest we forget.

 

Dulce Et Decorum Est
(by Wilfred Owen, 1917)
.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.