Double in ourselves

St Timothy's Primary School

We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn. —attributed to Michel de Montaigne

One third of the whole is city, one third is garden, and one third is field —The Epic of Gilgamesh


As a child in the 1960s, in the then newish Melbourne suburb of Forest Hill, I attended Saint Timothy’s Primary School. The little church in which I was confirmed and where I confessed my drab sins was a wooden fire hazard. I went to a service there every Sunday with my father’s mother—my own parents having separated. On one side of it were the school’s classrooms, and on the other a nunnery, both buildings made in what looked like, then, to be a modern style. The school was established in 1962 by the Sisters of the Infant Jesus. I had no idea who they were. To the seven- or eight-year-old me they were the handsome, unthreatening mystics of education who never said an unkind word.

I do not recall having religion forced on me. We said a prayer now and then before running out to play. Occasionally there was a bit of unruly, awful squealing of hymns in the church. And the nuns chose me to appear in ‘dramatic’ reënactments of the nativity story. Even at nine or ten years of age I knew that painted cotton wool beards were not a good look, so I pulled mine off just before walking on stage and tried to look wise without it. This kind of disruptive behavior should have permanently blotted my curriculum vitae: ‘Not a team player.’

St Timothy's Primary School
St Timothy’s Primary School

I wanted to know what the deal was with these nuns. During an afternoon nap, while lying on the floor near Sister Henry’s workbench, I determined to look up her chalk-covered tunic to see if there was anything there that would provide an answer to the mystery of her manly face. There was nothing. Just layers of perplexing, impenetrable, black underskirts. —Anyway, I was ten. Someone was walking on the moon. I ran home to watch it on tv.

The Sisters of the Infant Jesus handed me over to the Christian Brothers to complete my befuddlement.

When I was twelve and in the first year of high school I helped fellow classmates cheat at Latin, allowing them to steal my answers in order to escape the sarcasm, and strap, of the unchristian maniac who ruled our Latin and math classes. I didn’t think I could help with the math; I felt hopeless at that. This was the year that maniac was hit by a car while riding his bike. For a couple of weeks this chastening episode turned the rancorous sadist into the mild and kind teacher he should have been all along. And then, without warning, ‘Mr Hyde’ returned.

Family circumstances required me to sample the educational services of four different Christian Brothers Colleges. After Thomas More’s Boys College (now called Emmaus College), I attended Cathedral College in East Melbourne for two weeks, and then St Mary’s in West Melbourne.

A middle-aged man who was a customer of my mother’s business began to use puns in his brief conversations with me that were intended to suggest he knew of my interest in sex. I had not heard them before but, after checking my Chambers Dictionary, instantly recognised them as verbal concussion grenades. One morning, at St Mary’s in West Melbourne, I armed these grenades and chucked them in a history class without bothering to take cover. The lay teacher looked at me for what seemed like a long time while the meaning of what I had said sunk in and he tried to figure out if I had actually meant to use the anatomical pronunciation of ‘aboriginal’. Something about my face must have suggested I had. He sent me down to the principal’s office, where the whole story of my new interest in punography had to be revealed.

St Mary’s principal was a severe-looking bald man who demonstrated his eccentricity and his modernism through the medium of Vespas. He rode his scooter everywhere. He travelled even the short distance from St Joseph’s, where the brothers lived and which was to be my next college, to St Mary’s by scooter. It was one block away. He put his helmet on, started the scooter, turned one corner, and he was at work. When I told him how I had become so expert at upsetting adults, he immediately sat down so as to bring himself on the same level with me. He spoke to me with an unfeigned concern about how important it was for me to avoid the man in my mother’s restaurant. I knew the nameless thing he was warning me against. I had sensed it, but not felt in any danger.

On sports days many of the St Mary’s students would walk along Victoria Street to the Melbourne City Baths to go swimming. One of the younger religious brothers at the school inexplicably decided to go swimming with us, which required him to be naked in the changerooms. When this happened, I suspected he was secretly trying to announce that the brothers were, after all, ordinary men. We thought his arse was too hairy and were distressed we had to look at it.

In the first years of the 1970s, boys of my age could see the chaos in Vietnam had been worsening, even as news of Australia’s decreasing involvement in the war there made no impression on me at all. No adult ever mentioned or tried to justify to me why Australia was involved in the fighting. It seemed to have escaped the notice of the adult world that there were children waiting in the wings of its drama and we had no idea what we were going to say or do when it was time for us to be pushed into the spotlight. The matter was urgent because we sensed our bodies were changing even as the threat of conscription increased. The election of a Labor government was a relief.

When we were fifteen a classmate and I experimented with the social effects of our own precocious hairiness by going to an R-rated double-bill at the Forum Theatre on the corner of Russell and Flinders Streets in Melbourne. It was The Wicker Man, followed by something in the vampire-sexploitation genre. The first movie seemed to be about burning Christians. We were disappointed there was not more sex, naked actresses notwithstanding. During the intermission we discovered that our hairy-arsed teacher had also been in the audience with us. He asked us if we liked the movie and we answered in a way that avoided telling him what we really thought, while still pretending to be three years older than we were. I do not think it worked, but he did not seem to mind.

1974: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Melbourne, Australia.
1974: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Melbourne, Australia.

At St Joseph’s College, in 1974, a beautiful student whose parents came from Sri Lanka started calling me “Stevie Wonder” and tickled my palm flirtatiously when he shook my hand. Was I being mocked or flattered? Gough Whitlam was prime minister and anything seemed possible. I listened to Motown, and liked it. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to Melbourne. 

It was the golden age of religious educational indifference. The Christian Brother who taught me nothing about Australian history before 1788 stood one day behind a not-quite-closed door and spied on the ‘Year 11 agnostic society’ pooh-poohing transubstantiation and putting the resurrection of Jesus down to a bad case of food poisoning. When we noticed him we expected our religious auditor to establish an inquisition. Instead, he took his nose out of the crack in the doorway and walked away. In retrospect, this now seems like the mature response.

One hundred years after the death of Winwood Reade I got around to reading his book The Martyrdom of Man. The initial excitement wore off after a while and I entered a long period of theological apathy.

Young boys and girls everywhere, before they reach what we have come to refer to as adulthood, trip over the idea that adult convictions are a charade. We stand up, mud on our faces, feeling that we are at the same time cynics and anarchists; we want to preserve what is in our interests and to agitate against the failures of the world we have found ourselves in. Some people manage to maintain an expectation of revolutionary possibility about their own selves and about the world.

Still from Peter Watkins' 1965 BBC docudrama 'The War Game'.
Still from Peter Watkins’ 1965 BBC docudrama ‘The War Game’ »» https://goo.gl/W0U5Mf

In the second half of 1977, construction of the World Trade Centre was completed. Airliner ‘terrorism’ was in its first flowering. Voyager 2 was being launched. There was a uranium export debate in Australia. In August, a ‘docudrama’, The War Game, was shown at the Longford Cinema in Toorak Road, South Yarra. This BBC production by Peter Watkins was a critical event in the life of the friend sitting next to me. When the movie ended most of the audience decided not to leave and, instead, started the conversation right there in the theatre about what could be done. It took me a few more years to find the failure I would agitate against. 

In retrospect, the educational mystery of my childhood is how I could have been treated so gently by most of my teachers, spent so long in the care and company of outwardly religious people, and ended up sharing so few of their beliefs. Why do people believe what they believe, and why do others’ prejudices always seem more urgently troubling than our own? Attacking and shaming people for their opinions and beliefs has become a blood-sport, usually played while crouching behind an anonymising avatar, but often, and just as viciously, among ‘friends’.

In the 1980s the appearance of the AIDS virus turned my theological apathy into disgusted atheism, not because I thought an omnipotent god could have avoided such misery but because there were suddenly a lot of angry people spitting at my friends while claiming to be concerned with morals. At this time, my humanistic, progressively-oriented opinionatedness was in full flower, until I saw the world in its proper scale. I had a ‘Hubble moment’. It dawned on me that all the stars of the night sky I had been looking at all my life were just the lights of my local galaxy and altogether less than a hundred-billionth part of the universe. This universe was, if properly imagined, too large for spiritual and ethical systems focussed on what people did with their genital systems.

When you say yes… say yes to safe sex.
When you say yes… say yes to safe sex. Information flyer of the Victorian AIDS Council.

For a while I did volunteer work writing advertisements and pamphlets about sex. It was a subject I never claimed to know very well, but there were a lot of experts willing to talk, and there was a lot of ‘literature’: I made careful note of the interesting bits and tried to pass on the best intelligence.… Then I worked as a writer for a union. I knew even less about Leon Trotsky than I knew about sex and, therefore, resorted to the same creative process.… Computers appeared on desktops and jobs started to disappear in the printing industry. The ‘workplace’ had already been invented, many years previously, as an object of study, regulation and control; but now people who worked in offices or for large organisations started to talk to each other using the language of business reports, even at home. 

My next writing job was explaining science to journalists: I tried to make laboratory fractionation dramatic, and offered to fact-check their articles; they wrote articles about three-eyed fish and called me a fascist. I learned that a good many, if not most, scientists are, in their hearts, engineers who want to know how things work, to make things work better, and to apply knowledge to practical problems or unproven theses. The most impressive scientists I met were working with heat exchangers to improve the energy efficiency of bakeries; extracting the active components of mussels to find why they appeared to have anti-inflammatory effects on humans; and finding ways to inoculate chickens against salmonella.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s reports began to appear in the media about abuse of children by Catholic priests. The institutional failure of Catholicism to protect children from abuse, to admit the wrongs done, and to offer reparations, provides evidence of a general failure of religious people to face reality. In this milieu, in the months before he died, Christopher Hitchens became the modern-day Winwood Reade, interpreting the whole history of Western civilisation with the wit and clarity of a man who has few words to waste.

I used to imagine religious fanatics and authorities could be cowed with public lashings of pure reason. But the faith at the centre of religious belief is password-protected, unassailable and shameless. Both atheists and believers arrogantly treat the ‘faith’ at the core of the other’s belief system as though it were merely a deep layer of intellectual stubbornness—a hardened, shrivelled core of ignorance that, because it will not go away, must be mocked in order to make it hide itself. It has become a standard trope of proselytising atheism that the wisdom of religions is unnecessary: we need only apply the ‘golden rule’ to everything, and a fully-formed ethical system will naturally unfold from within us. I don’t buy it. The smarter we think we are the less we think we need the lessons of religious books, and hope that reading ‘literature’ or science will do the trick. Does reading anything make me a better person, even if I only feel improved?

Religious belief is imagination speaking to darkness; but, in a way, that is what science is, too. What can a former Catholic do with a feeling of loss that is also the hope of loss? Any man or woman who is honest with themselves must get used to abandoning prejudices and wrong beliefs. The judge “standeth before the door,” and that judge is the world.  Is this the reason, or only one more reason, why we are double in ourselves?

In 2012, after many months of tiredness and a feeling of disorientation, I spoke to a friend about how I was feeling. And he, in turn, spoke to a nurse about what he had heard me say. They were concerned I might have had a stroke. My friend called an ambulance. He knocked on the door of my flat and, when I answered the door, two paramedics were standing behind him. All three of them insisted that I would have to step into the vehicle that had been manoeuvred into position so I could step into it directly from the rear door of my apartment in St Kilda. One of the paramedics asked me a couple of questions designed to ascertain whether my mind was still in one piece. The ambulance moved onto the street and toward the nearest hospital. Sometime in the next minute I was unconscious, and then in an induced coma for several weeks. There were no distant, mysterious lights. There was, unfortunately, no music.

It was a long while before the wound on the back of my left leg, caused by a bacterial infection, had healed sufficiently for me to be able to stand again. I was confined to a hospital bed and drugged for months, and the demarcation between my dreams and the real world became very unclear. In the days between Christmas and New Year, 2013, I imagined, and for a while actually believed, the surgeons of The Alfred hospital had grafted a reproduction of a painting by Canaletto to my thigh using a new technique to disguise the scarring of surgery. By mid-January 2013 I was at war, somewhere in rural Italy, in sets made by Cinecitta designers and photographed by Pasolini. The electrical substation that was the locale of my small part in the war had a touch of HR Giger about it—and, yes, there were well-dressed Nazis who looked like they had just stepped off the set of a Mel Brooks video. When the body is in ruins, the mind works on, regardless. Among the beliefs most difficult to abandon is that we have a firm grip on reality. Seen in retrospect, what we believed is as substantial and changeable as a dream. Certainty is in the here and now, where we are sure we know what is real, and where we are almost always in some way wrong.

Fifty years too late, perhaps, I’ve reached an age where The Epic of Gilgamesh makes sense as a fiction about life—something it is difficult to see when you are young. We are all the bad rulers of our own domains. In the end, we look to the places we called home, forced to accept we will not survive; but the work, the city, its culture, and even its empty fields, will outlive us.

[Years ago, when I was reading]

Years ago, when I was reading the philosophical works of Schopenhauer
I heard a sudden eruption of laughter on the street.
I looked up to see what the cause of this laughter was.
Across the road, an old man
extraordinarily obese, was heaving his immense body
along the footpath. He used a cane to help balance himself as he walked
and to relieve the strain on his back
caused by the great bag of fat hanging from his stomach.
It required considerable effort for him to walk only a short distance.
I felt revulsion at the sight of this man.
There were feelings of pity, too.
I knew immediately
there are no counter-motives to humiliation.
We live by climbing over each other
struggle to keep our heads
above despair
and try not to think of harm that’s done.
I lowered the book and listened to the sounds of birds
a howling dog, a small child in the street
asking something of her parents —
every voice repeating the inner nature of the world
and I knew what trouble and pain was
still to come.

Welcome to Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin

Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin


For many years refugees attempting to reach Australia have been confined by the Australian government in camps on Manus Island and Nauru. This policy has its origin in sudden changes in Australian voter attitudes, emerging in the early 1970s, toward refugees from Vietnam. These attitudes and prejudices about refugee movement appear to be a complex mixture of apprehension about its economic consequences, bigotry, racism, and fears of terrorism. Since 9/11 Australian opinions about refugees have hardened on all sides of the debate.

A majority of Australians now appear to support a policy that claims to prevent refugee deaths at sea by discouraging refugee movement with off-shore confinement of people detained en route to Australia by boat—people commonly referred to as “illegal refugees” even though there is no such legal category of refugees.

In 1973 Ursula K. Le Guin published the story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, describing a happy, well-organised, successful and wholly imaginary society. The story has no plot or characters. It is not really a ‘story’ at all. It is the literary version of a ‘thought experiment’.  1973 is also the year Australia adopted the 1967 Protocol on the status of refugees, which removed geographic and temporal restrictions from the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This is the brief period in Australian history, 1972–1975, when Australian families sought to accept several hundred young children orphaned by the war in Vietnam; and only a couple of years before the arrival of the first Vietnamese ‘boat-people’ in Darwin Harbor. Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ is approximately the same age as Australia’s recent refugee history.

It is now supposed that Le Guin’s story is based upon an 1891 address by American philosopher and psychologist William James to the Yale Philosophical Club:

William James
William James

“Experience” of consequences may truly teach us what things are wicked, but what have consequences to do with what is mean and vulgar? … [I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which […] utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain? — William James, The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life

Le Guin’s story imagines exactly such a ‘utopia’. Hidden away somewhere, in the basement of a public building or in the cellar of spacious private home, a child has been imprisoned in dreadful conditions. When the young citizens of Omelas reach about eight to twelve years of age they are told about the circumstances of the imprisoned child. The citizens of Omelas generally feel the same way about the child:

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin

They would like to do something for the child. But there is nothing they can do. If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms. — Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’

Le Guin goes on to explain how the people of Omelas cope with this knowledge and come to terms with the arrangement that has been made on their behalf. “Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.”

In the final paragraph of the story Le Guin tells us that some of the children and some of the adults of Omelas decide not to stay in the city. They respond to the conflict they feel about the imprisoned child by walking away. “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

The meaning of the story is not so straight-forward as it first appears. Le Guin’s story sometimes appears on the reading lists for students of public administration and business courses. Why? It demands to know not only why people might decide to leave but, perhaps more importantly, how the majority of people manage to stay in Omelas, and what they do when they stay. The ones who walk away from Omelas may be the people who have decided the cost of happiness in the city is too high, or they may have given up trying to find ways to change it. Some of the ones who stay in Omelas may still be trying to think of a way to free the child from its prison. On the one hand ‘Omelas’ is a story about a kind of utopia, on the other it is a parable about a corrupt society whose citizens accept as necessary or reject as immoral the reasons for their contentment. What is the more moral thing to do: to go or to stay?

Noticing the similarity between Australia’s situation and the moral problems outlined by Le Guin and James adds new ideas to the national discussion about what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru, where men, women and children have been detained in order to dissuade others from attempting the sea voyage to Australia on the boats of people-smugglers. Finding both fictional and philosophical versions of Australia’s predicament, of our moral choices, opens up the possibility of examining the ethical statements made about this issue and trying to think about them in non-‘party-political’ ways.

Does Australians’ happiness depend on keeping people detained in offshore facilities? No-one would have to look very far to find evidence that many Australians believe there are good reasons to pursue policies that aggressively discourage refugees. Some of these reasons are racist or irrational, and some appear utilitarian:

These are the kinds of reasons that many people believe relate directly to the general well-being of Australian citizens and to the general happiness of Australian society. Your reactions to these reasons could be a litmus tests of the degree of your alignment to popular opinion in Australia. About 70 per cent of Australians accept some combination of these reasons, either alone or in addition to the argument that detaining asylum-seekers in offshore facilities discourages others from making the life-threatening journey to Australia by boat.

The question of how to prevent deaths at sea has become the principal reason justifying the detention of asylum-seekers. The other reasons I have mentioned play a role—as anyone can see simply by looking through the reader comments underneath any article about asylum-seekers on a public website—but preventing deaths at sea has been placed at the front and centre of all these reasons. Why?

We started to think about it like a ‘trolley problem’

Ben Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explains that the claim to have ‘stopped the boats’ (and therefore the deaths at sea) is a kind of fiction. The fictiveness of the claim does not make it any less compelling. Yes, refugees are still dying at sea but they are doing it somewhere else; and since it is happening somewhere else, clearly outside of Australia’s purview, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. As Mr Doherty points out, Australian governments have signed agreements with other countries to ensure border controls are tightened and the flow of refugees reduced. There should, I think, be more discussion about whether such arrangements are morally acceptable. We should all accept that deciding between one solution and another was always going to be difficult. It’s a terrible thing to have to detain people indefinitely or ‘release’ them into communities where they are despised and threatened. But this is better than allowing those who would follow to drown at sea, is it not?

This is what happened to Australian politics about ‘boat-people’ between August and October 2001—between the ‘Tampa affair’ and the ‘children overboard’ incident. In the middle of it all, and perhaps clouding Australians’ view of what was happening in the world and the chaos that had come to reign in our and the world’s politics, there was the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attack on the USA. And then there was an Australian federal election on 10 November 2001.

The panic about boat arrivals had begun before Tampa, but the children overboard incident clinched how the issue was to be perceived by Australians. Polls at the time said about nine out of every ten Australians agreed with the government’s new hard-line treatment of asylum-seekers. The matter was decided, and confirmed at the election, and henceforth, possibly for a very long time, the major political parties were in agreement that “Arriving in Australia by boat will no longer mean settlement in Australia”. Fulfilling this promise, imagined by John Howard, and articulated by Kevin Rudd (on 19 July 2013), was the principal success of the Tony Abbott government, which the Malcolm Turnbull government continues to support. This is what a clear majority of Australians want.

Note, though, that this is the new reason for an old decision. After the first refugee boat arrived in Darwin Harbor in 1976, the then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians were not persuaded. Every change of government and every new wave of asylum-seekers caused some subtle escalation of panic and adjustment of language. Between the late 1970s and now, little has changed in the minds of the Australian public. Opinion polls over this forty year period show that a clear majority of Australians—with remarkable consistency (though the poll questions have changed)—want to ‘stop the boats’, favor a process to ‘detain and assess’, and have few qualms about sending refugees ‘back to sea’. Australians no longer openly refer, as they did in the late 1970s, to their wish to re-introduce a White Australia policy.

The question is, therefore, have we simply found morally acceptable reasoning to support morally repugnant aims?

The politics of Australia’s moral dilemma has converted the question of what to do with asylum-seekers into what is called a ‘trolley problem’:

What do you do?
 A runaway trolley is about to go either in one direction, where five people will probably be killed by the trolley (if you do nothing), or the other direction, where one person will be killed by the trolley (if you decide to divert it). Would you shove a fat guy off a bridge to derail the trolley? What if the only person killed was Einstein, or the smart girl who will one day cure cancer? What if the fat guy was a villain?

This problem was formulated, in the way we recognise it, by the British philosopher Philippa Ruth Foot in an essay in the Oxford Review in 1967, and published again, later, in her book Virtues and Vices, and other essays in moral philosophy. (Foot died, at 90 years of age, in 2010.)  Her original formulation of the problem differs significantly from all the usual variants in a way that is not immediately obvious. You can read about the popular variant scenarios at the Wikipedia page, where there is also the relevant quotation from her essay:

Philippa Ruth Foot
Philippa Ruth Foot

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found guilty for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Beside this example is placed another in which a pilot whose aeroplane is about to crash is deciding whether to steer from a more to a less inhabited area. To make the parallel as close as possible it may rather be supposed that he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. In the case of the riots the mob have five hostages, so that in both examples the exchange is supposed to be one man’s life for the lives of five. — Philippa Ruth Foot

As Foot describes the different scenarios of her moral problem it is clear that each of the individual scenarios required different levels of involvement and sacrifice from the person who is to make the moral decision. The judge must accept complicity in an obviously illegal act. The pilot will sacrifice his own life even as he decides to cause as little harm as possible. The tram driver must make a quick decision about an imminent accident the consequences of which he will have to face personally.

In each scenario Foot describes she places the person making the decision near the centre of its consequences. Foot’s description of what has come to be known simply as the ‘trolley problem’ does not allow us to make a decision about what to do as though we were not actually involved in the outcome. In thinking about how to act morally in crisis situations, we must consider consequences and costs to ourselves.

In a similar vein. ‘Jarrahbelt’, a reader of The Guardian, added the following comment to an article about asylum-seekers on Nauru:

In December 1980 I had the great honour to be present at one of the most desperate and remarkable rescues in maritime history. The story is largely untold, unknown, uncelebrated. On the narrow main deck aft of a guided-missile destroyer of the 7th Fleet of the US Navy a number of young men, the rescue detail, good men and true, fought for an hour to rescue about 30 people from a river boat. The river boat shouldn’t have been in the middle of the South China Sea, not in winter, not in a tropical storm with 40-foot seas, but there it was. Grappled alongside by pure brute force. We were obliged to maneuver alongside them since their engine and steering had failed, a fairly tricky operation in the circumstances. It was no-one’s fault that our port screw went into them, no-one’s fault that the port screw guard came down on top of the women and children and babies clustered on the stern cabin roof. For an hour the rescue detail struggled. I lost count of the number of times we went over the wire to replace them, thinking they had been scoured off the decks by the ferocious ocean. A waterspout went over the bows at some point, the sleet was sideways, we may have been in a vast whirlpool, the wind did its very best to tear us off the ship. We were broaching very badly and rolling like a drunken elephant. But none of that mattered. The ocean would not have them. Our own lives meant nothing then. The lives of the US Navy seals who went into that terrible sea meant nothing to them. I don’t know how they made it back onto the ship, but they did, some of them bearing corpses, because the sea was not even going to have the dead. That’s what it was like. We saved 21 souls that night. They were taken back to Subic Bay and given new homes and lives in America.

I learned some valuable lessons that night. I understood that all human beings are exactly the same, no matter what their race, creed or colour. We all die the same way. We all have the same needs, wants, hopes and dreams. We all cherish peace, unless we are insane. We are all brothers and sisters under the same sky. To use people in the way these people have been used, as political pawns to satisfy the lowest common denominator of the Australian public, is beyond shame; it is beyond comprehension in an advanced country that holds its traditions dear and has offered its shelter to so many others.

I doubt very much that I will ever vote in another federal election, I’ll just pay the fine. The choice is between a coward or another coward, unwilling or incapable of raising the timbre of the national conversation to a place where the needs of common humanity take precedence over all else. — ‘Jarrahbelt’ (a reader) in The Guardian

Jarrahbelt’s comment touches upon factors that have a bearing on Australia’s discussion of the current moral dilemma of our treatment of asylum-seekers: the historical failure of governments to raise the tenor of debate; placation of the public’s prejudices and confusion without open discussion of consequences of government decisions; and the role of personal and social sacrifice in addressing an urgent, life-threatening crisis.

In Australia, as in Omelas, there is little or no open, reasonable, detailed discussion of costs and consequences of the decisions that only appear to have been made by a majority, but in fact have been made on behalf of the majority to garner its support at the ballot box.

The contempt expressed in the media, from all sides of the discussion, prevents at the start any genuine attempt to persuade people whose opinions differ from our own. Political debate generally, and this ethical debate in particular, tends to herd people into one or other ideological camp, which have become like trenches that troops shoot from across a no-man’s land. Notable for their absence from the serious discussion of these issues are many of the very people who should be helping us in the discussion. Where are the philosophers and ethicists of our universities? Where are the economists, whose job it should be to help us think about the costs and the possible benefits of accepting more refugees?

If Australians are concerned about the spiralling costs, estimated to be in the order of hundreds of millions of dollars, of supporting refugees in the community, why can we not also have a detailed discussion about how best to spend the billions of dollars allocated to maintaining offshore detention facilities? Have Australian authorities adequately explored alternative strategies, for example, massively increasing the financial, logistical and practical support offered to Indonesian police and navy?

The debate in Omelas

This is what the debate about Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers looked like in 2016, almost exactly forty years after Lam Binh arrived on a boat in Darwin Harbor. David Marr and Gerard Henderson, are openly hostile. They are, however, both citizens of the new Omelas. Mr Marr perfectly exemplified the revulsion some Australians felt when they realised their society had accepted the bargain William James described in his lecture on morals. Mr Henderson, if you listen to his words closely, did not accept the bargain either, recognising that there is a serious problem to be solved and, like many Australians, holding out hope that the government would solve it.

Those of us who decided to stay in Omelas were left with the struggle about what to do. If the lessons of moral philosophy are any guide, we should have considered more carefully what sacrifices we were prepared to make to relieve the suffering of the people we detained. As we delayed, we caused more suffering. The solution required imagination, compassion, daring, and was the perfect job for a true leader, but there was none to be found.


Related links

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  • Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.) - Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons … Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to …

Sr Pessoa

Alexander SearchOf course, in times of crisis I do not write
poetry—a consequence of having escaped
pretences about pain and metaphysics.

Last night, though, my head was full
of dreams—most particularly
that my friend (a euphemism)

had decided it was time to leave—
bringing us to the long struggle (an embrace,
perhaps, but it may have been a death-clutch).

And when I woke
everything in my world was ruined
and in fog.

So, it has been impossible to speak
a word that makes sense
and there is no pleasure in a pun.

After all the excitement
I am just another child sleeping
face-down at the edge of the abyss.

Come over some day—
I can offer refuge
in tired abstractions.

I will put on my red dress,
make tea, and then
ignoring Life, we will walk or write.

Welcome, Arjun! (Park the elephant anywhere.)

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons …


Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.
Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna.

Every Friday night Sebastian comes around for dinner and drinks. Last Friday he asked if he could invite Arjun to call in, late, and join us. I had not met Arjun before. I thought for a moment, trying to recall the name in the Bhagavad Gita. It has been a long time since I read it. A very long time. “Yes… Is it as in ‘Arjuna’?”

Sebastian sent the agreed-upon text message to Arjun’s phone… “Park the elephant anywhere. I’ll come out to show you in.” —As though anyone with a modern Hindu name would turn up for drinks on an elephant.

Arjun arrived later than expected. He had been to an exhibition and the art was ‘experimental’. “I went with an artist who tried to explain it to me. Apparently it starts off being a painting, and then it gets turned into a print, and then it’s projected. There were videos, too.” So, we talked about art.

Every long friendship is a secret place, a bolthole that is also a hall of mirrors where language, laughter and identity reflect on each other. We tell politically incorrect jokes about gays, women, blacks, politics, and then quickly straighten ourselves, pretending to worry that someone might be listening at the window or that there is a microphone hidden under the table. These jokes, to be fair, are often at our own expense. No-one gets out alive.

Blacks call each other ‘nigger’. Gays take back ownership of ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. But in our colonial outpost at the end of Asia, surrounded on all sides by water, Muslims, Hindus, Maoris and ice, people who look and speak like ‘foreigners’—non-Anglo, non-Euro foreigners—are still having a gruesome time.

It is not difficult to perceive a shrill panic in Australian language in 2015. Online newspapers are stuffed full of (mostly) anonymous complaints about fake refugees. “Surely everyone knows that the countries refugees want to live in are white countries.” “The refugee convention does not guarantee that refugees can only be resettled in the wealthy country of their choosing. Yet, many refugees seem to want only to come to Australia and reject safe harbor in other countries.” And so on. Genuinely racist urges are easily camouflaged with concern that we should not allow refugees to drown at sea.

Australia has developed a heap of festering prejudices. “Why do these people have to come here.” “They’ve spoiled their own countries,” “ruined their own cultures with religious wars.” “We don’t want that sort of thing here.” “There are Muslim countries they can go to. Why don’t they go there?” “The Indian student who faked an attack on himself.” “Oh, God, they’ve taken over the Seven-Eleven stores…” “Asians. I think they’re aliens. I mean really aliens. From outer space.” 

I like to think I know a thing or two about art, but the truth is I do not know very much at all. Asian art, for example, is a mystery to me. I think I am not alone. All the Catholic and Christian stuff I have down pat, rehearsing it since childhood. To my deeply prejudicial frame of mind, Muslim art is easy: they don’t like images. What’s next? Ah, the Hindus: statues with many heads and way too many arms. I have no idea what it means.

What does it mean? I acknowledge it simply as a symbol of exotic excess. Those asian artists, you know, they just do not know when to stop. And there appear to be different versions of the same thing: one is a Krishna, the other a Shiva; some of them are dancing and some not. It’s all just too complicated—and alien.

Properly motivated, it does not take long to find out what it means.

With apologies to Hindus who may be offended by a clumsy contraction of several million words into these few paragraphs…

Hindus, like Catholics, believe in a god who transcends everything in time and space. Brahma is the supreme god of creation (alongside Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer—making the Hindu trinity). It is Brahma who is the father of Manu, from whom all human beings descend.

The central, though not by a long way the oldest, texts of Hinduism are the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Composition of both began around 400 BCE, and the texts finalised around 400 CE. The Mahabharata is the great story of the ‘Bharata’ dynasty—a history of the contest for accession between the Pandava princes and the Kaurava princes. At the core of the story is the recounting of the Kurukshetra war in which the armies of the branches of the dynasty fight each other. (In this and all the other Hindu texts, the ‘story’ is accompanied by much philosophical and devotional material.)

The Mahabharata is the longest verse epic in world literature. While the centrepiece of the poem is the description of the eighteen day battle, the Mahabharata also contains, just before the battle begins, one of the key texts of Hinduism—the Bhagavad Gita.

Arjuna, the Pandava prince, arrives in a chariot to the place where the Kurukshetra war is to start. Krishna, in human form (he is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu), is Arjuna’s charioteer. Arjuna looks at the army opposing him and is paralysed by the thought that many of the people there are beloved members of his family and his teachers.

Arjuna asks Krishna for his advice. Krishna does not hold back. He tells Arjuna his duty and reminds him that there is no point delaying taking action. The fate of the Kaurava princes is already determined—by Krishna himself.

To prove his point, Krishna reveals his universal form to Arjuna. This is the moment (chapter 11, verses 10 and 11) we see depicted in the paintings of the (often blue) deity with many heads and many arms. Krishna sees everywhere, and his hands guide everything in the universe.

Arjuna’s dialogue with Krishna is crucially important to Hindus—personally, culturally and politically. It is a narrative about fate, courage, the necessity for action, and the role of heroism in personal and social life. Its influence runs deep in Hindu culture. Political leaders, past and present, including Mohandas Gandhi, interpreted the narrative of the Bhagavad Gita to clarify their own ideas and actions.

Careful readers will have noted that Arjuna does not arrive on an elephant.

Among the people who have tried to arrive in Australia by boat in the last few decades were probably many, whatever their religion, who knew all the details of this story already, and knew its lessons. It takes some courage to get into a wooden boat and try to cross hundreds of miles of ocean, does it not?

I understand there are many Australians who believe there is an imperative to preserve life; to keep straight the lines and the lengthening queues of people wanting to come here; and perhaps even to sort through those queues for the kinds of people we would prefer.

Australia is filling up with believers who are concerned to do the right thing.

Speaking only for myself, I have decided that it is not necessary to pretend to judge whether someone is actually a refugee. I do not believe we should pretend it is moral to punish someone who seeks a better life with alienation, abuse and rape; and to promise it will be punishment without relief.

I cannot promise it will make any sense to you because I hardly understand it myself: the story of Arjuna is about how to act, and the need to act, even though we are quite certain that no matter what we do we will cause suffering. These ideas are permanent and universal. They were the same in Asia two thousand years ago as they are now in Greece or Italy.

At around the same time that the Mahabharata was being composed, on the other side of the world, a bronze statue of a boxer was being created. This statue was unearthed on the Quirinal Hill in Rome in 1885 by the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. The bronze has copper inlays that make the flesh of the boxer look bruised. When the figure was cast the sculptor took a chisel to his work and gouged scars in its face.

The creators of the Mahabharata and the statue of the seated boxer were both trying to tell us something about human suffering and heroic action.

Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).
Statue of a seated boxer, 3rd century BCE, Palazzo Massimo. Photograph by F Tronchin (2007).


Asylum Seeker Resource Centre

More information about refugees (links)

Melisma variations

“Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education.”


My father had a secret stash of Shirley Bassey records. There was a record-player in the house. Mine. It was not a very good record-player. I was eleven and I did not know what hi-fi was. I was into noise, and catchy tunes and syncopations. I had no idea what a ‘Shirley Bassey’ was either, except that it was obviously extremely glamorous and sparkly, could be photographed with its mouth open and got hidden in my father’s bedroom closet—where there was no record-player to play it.

'Melodica'—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.
‘Melodica’—sucky instrument one blows into to produce windy notes.

Many years later I learned my father lived most of his life in another house, an apartment he kept in Collingwood, an inner suburb of Melbourne, while I reconnoitred the border of ‘Forest Hill’ and ‘Nunawading.’ His Shirley Bassey records got played—if they were played at all, I never heard them—in Collingwood.

I compensated for the lack of a musical education, from my parents or anyone else, by trying to figure out how musical scales worked with the aid of books and a strange, little keyboard called a ‘Melodica’ (which sucked, even though I had to blow in it). This ‘instrument’ emitted horrifyingly weedy, windy sounds that were supposed to be musical notes.

Children are lucky if their parents have the good sense to force them to learn a musical instrument. Even if the knowledge does not stick or the child has no talent, there are important ideas and impressions that are planted in the mind by a musical education. Exactly what these ideas and impressions are is difficult to say.

One of them, for example, might have something to do with scales. Leave aside the discipline and patience needed to practice them: every distinct culture has a distinct musical scale that is a framework upon which all its music is built. There is a Chinese scale, an Arabic scale, a Greek scale, an Indian scale, scales that are equally tempered and scales that are not. Discovering these facts through musical exploration changes a person’s understanding of what culture is and how culture shapes perception.

I listened to Mozart, and graduated to Bach. I had no idea what a Sex Pistol was, or a Clash; David Bowie, The Ramones, The Osmonds and The Bay City Rollers were all just words.

One of the popular boys in high school, who seemed to know things the unpopular boys did not know, started to mock me and gave me the nickname “Stevie Wonder”. His mockery was so gentle and, I see in retrospect, so complimentary that I wonder now whether he might have fancied me. Whatever his motive, my new nickname introduced me to the artist who convinced me that contemporary music was worth listening to. Motown. It was fresh air.

Wonder was twenty-three when he made the live studio promotional video for a new album and recorded ‘All in love is fair’. What a voice he had! Conversational and easy-going when singing quietly, it could suddenly unleash tremendous emotion. Wonder’s version of his own song is a study of contrasts between beautiful vibrato, playful melisma, and striking crescendos.

Shirley Bassey singing 'All in love is Fair'.
Shirley Bassey singing ‘All in love is Fair’.

Other singers, mainly women, took up this song very quickly, and made it their own. Shirley Bassey renders it in a sassy, wise-ass style in which her jaw really looks as though life is punching it crooked as she sings. Barbra Streisand performs it straighter, as though whispering a lesson in life and love right in your ear. Carmen McRae’s version is jazzier, seeming to plumb darker notes, but all the while keeping the melodic line under tight control. Dionne Warwick’s is the saddest version and, just by a little, the slowest.

These other artists are not merely channeling Wonder’s song. Each version seems like something completely original that is made out of the singer’s own life.

The great French cellist Paul Tortelier said of musicians, “We are fortunate. We know about happiness.” Note, though, that he does not say they are happy. And that is another mystery music teaches us, and which it is best not to explain.


Carmen McRae

Barbra Streisand

Dionne Warwick

Stevie Wonder

Shirley Bassey

Paul Tortelier