Home in the years of a cold war

I left home in the late 1970s. My first nights of freedom I slept on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne, at a bend near where there is now a skate park. The first home of my own was a couple of rooms in North Fitzroy that were more like corrugated iron lean-tos than rooms. These rooms were air-conditioned but not waterproof; the windows were broken, glass louvres, and the entrance door had a large hole in it.  By 1980 I had moved into digs, at the rear of 777 Park Street in Brunswick, that are still standing and still look like a granny flat. I was twenty-one when 1980 ended. Worries about finding and keeping a home were often on my mind.

U5, 777 Park Street, Brunswick
U5, 777 Park Street, Brunswick

And the world seemed to go haywire. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in the UK. ‘Mad Max’, an apocalyptic premonition, appeared on cinema screens. Later in 1979, Iranian students and ‘radicals’ invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took ninety hostages. In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In early 1980 the world looked overheated and dangerous, and Ronald Reagan was chosen to be the Republican Party nominee for the November presidential election.

'Protect and Survive', published in the UK in May 1980.
‘Protect and Survive’, published in the UK in May 1980.

In these first few months of 1980 I took my anxieties about ‘home’, welded them to my anxieties about everything else, and tried to tell myself a joke to relieve the tension. That joke is the story ‘On the uncertainty of finding a place to call home’. I was never happy with it, partly because it seemed too slight, partly because the ‘voice’ adopted in it did not treat my secret feelings with appropriate seriousness.

A half-life later I am struck that this only slightly funny story—of a man trying to survive in a world that has already fallen apart—tries to be funny at all. It is not the kind of humor that is a string of jokes. Instead, it asks readers to notice, over and over again, that the central character’s principal flaws are timidity and an inability to face reality. This, I thought, was what was wrong with everyone, including myself. It is not really a joking matter.

When it was finished I sent it off, with a ridiculous and completely unwarranted degree of self-assurance, and a stamped self-addressed envelope, to Meanjin. I was lucky that the then editor of Meanjin, Jim Davidson, had been putting together an issue in which some professional thinkers would set down their thoughts about Australia’s war literature and opposition to Americanisation. Arthur Phillips picked my story out from the leaning tower of words that was stacked in J.D.’s fiction in-tray … and the rest is all regret and tears.

Rejecting this story from inclusion in my first book was the first step in rejecting everything about writing that I associated with the performative staginess that was a common mode of poetry in the early 1980s and is still alive and well. (More power to everyone who can cope with the special rigors of that mode of publication!)

Trumps epic struggle to read a book (from Slate.com)
Trump’s epic struggle to read a book (from Slate.com)

That was then; this is now…

The election of an entitled, self-absorbed septuagenarian populist to the US presidency seems to mark a turning point if one looks at things from the narrow perspective of party politics. But several writers and historians have pointed out, setting aside startling differences of tone and ambience, the course of US and world politics, Australia included, is not much changed since at least the late 1990s—and it is possible the current direction was set even decades earlier. Richard Rorty wrote, in 1998:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. Achieving Our Country

When Barack Obama let US bankers escape prosecution or personal consequences for the havoc they wrought in the world’s economy, he joined the club of presidents and ‘progressive’ leaders around the world who have kept their respective polities on a starvation diet, caring too much about points gained on the stock market and too little about the health of democracy, society, and working people. Since the late 1990s the average worker’s ‘take home’ from the growth of developed economies has been zero or less than zero; while high-earning managers and CEOs who twenty years ago earned forty times an average wage are now earning 350 times the average wage. The economic ideology that created this result operates at the level of threat: it tells working people over and over again that government must take care of business or jobs will go: submit or starve.

Voters in the US, UK and Australia have looked for someone else to vote for and found candidates who are worse. Voters are not timid any longer (at least not in the voting booth), but they still have trouble facing reality. The state of geopolitical tension that was the cold war is being served again. It was tragedy then. It is farce now.


[Link to the story.]
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.
Cover of Meanjin, number 3, 1980.

Register for businesses refusing services to Cory Bernardi

Senator Cory Bernardi, Liberal member of the Australian parliament, has weighed into the marriage equality debate by saying that businesses—any businesses—should be allowed to refuse service to whomever they want. This means that, even if the marriage equality debate ended happily with an agreement of a majority of Australia’s elected representatives to permit marriage between two people regardless of sex, the question of ‘business freedoms’ would still need to be resolved. Why should anyone be forced to provide goods or services to anyone else, Senator Bernardi wants to know. It conjures up the prospect of future legislation to protect businesses from legal actions: a ‘Pâtissier Freedom Act‘ perhaps? I would like to see it, to tell the truth. Pastry chefs deserve this recognition. And those gays, they just want to have their cake and eat cock, too.

While we are waiting for these events to unfold, I’ve created a register for businesses wishing to announce they will refuse to supply goods and services to Senator Cory Bernardi. There are fairly broad options for classifying the kind of services: everything from catering services to psychotherapy to resuscitation.

I encourage you to add your business to the register, and to pass on the URL to any business-owners you think may be interested.

Please note: The registration website has now been closed. Thank you to the thousands of businesses and individuals who participated.

Further information:

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-7-44-20-pm

Welcome to Omelas

Ursula K. Le Guin

Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin


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’.

Coincidentally, 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?

The 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 looks like in 2016, almost exactly forty years after Lam Binh arrived on a boat in Darwin Harbor. It seems the two men, David Marr and Gerard Henderson, do not like each other. They are, however, both citizens of the new Omelas. Mr Marr perfectly exemplifies the revulsion some Australians feel when they realise their society has accepted the bargain William James described in his lecture on morals. Mr Henderson, if you listen to his words closely, does not accept the bargain either, recognises that there is a serious problem to be solved and, like many Australians, holds out hope that the government will solve it.

Those of us who decide to stay in Omelas, unlike those who walk away, are left with the struggle about what to do. If the lessons of moral philosophy are any guide, we will need to consider more carefully what sacrifices we are prepared to make to relieve the suffering of the people we have detained. The longer we take the more suffering we cause, so we should try to act quickly. The solution, if there is one, will almost certainly require imagination, compassion, and daring. —The perfect job for true leaders.


Related links

Posts about asylum-seekers and refugees at this site

  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Welcome to Omelas - Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin 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 …
  • Take the pledge - … Take the pledge by sharing this graphic in any way you prefer. Download it and use it on Facebook. Send it in replies to emails from politicians. Use it as an avatar. Send the message to politicians that you will not vote for them if they support detaining asylum-seekers. More posts about asylum-seekers and …
  • Done in our name - Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them.
  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
  • 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 …

Done in our name

The federal Liberal-National Party government in Australia changes leaders, convinced that it cannot win a 2016 election with Mr Tony Abbott as prime minister and choosing Mr Malcolm Turnbull to replace him. Not a single word was uttered all day by politicians of the major parties about the plight of refugees detained on Manus Island and Nauru. It was… leadership, leadership, leadership, economy, economy, economy. What our political representatives said, and how what they said was reported in the media, demonstrated yet again that Australia’s treatment of refugees was irrelevant to most Australians. Electorally irrelevant, that is, because the major parties have agreed with each other to agree with Australian electors.

First Dog on the Moon (September 2015).
First Dog on the Moon (September 2015).

And yet, all over the (left-hand side of the) internet are calls for Abbott to be tried at The Hague; and for Cheney, Bush and others to face justice for their torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and elsewhere. Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them. As the New York Times editorial board has noted, it is an outrage that official investigations of the abuses of prisoners have not led to the trial and conviction of any but the lowliest responsible agents of government policy. We must expect the same in Australia, when the question of whom we will blame for what has happened on Manus Island and Nauru enters the national consciousness as shame.

This is the reason public discussions of national guilt and reparations are important. I have come to accept that for many years I voted for major political parties that had policies I now think are repugnant. It seemed easy to reach the conclusion that, on balance, one imperfect arrangement of policies was better than another. I have been part of the process that led us to where we are.


More posts about asylum-seekers and refugees at this site:

  • Victoria Contreras Flores | correspondence - Victoria Contreras Flores received her degree and PhD from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. She was born and lives in Valencia, Spain, and is the creator of ARTNATOMY, and a great variety of other artistic projects.
  • Welcome to Omelas - Australia is the imaginary world of Ursula K. Le Guin 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 …
  • Take the pledge - … Take the pledge by sharing this graphic in any way you prefer. Download it and use it on Facebook. Send it in replies to emails from politicians. Use it as an avatar. Send the message to politicians that you will not vote for them if they support detaining asylum-seekers. More posts about asylum-seekers and …
  • Done in our name - Our capacity to blame politicians for what they have done in our name appears to have no limit—as though the agency we have through the ballot box to empower our representatives were not the same agency we should use to judge them.
  • What happened, Mr Doherty? - When it comes to the issue of Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian 'public'. Australia's asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.
  • 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 …

What happened, Mr Doherty?

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’.


Australian journalist Ben Doherty‘s photograph appeared early in 2015 on a notice distributed to staff of Transfield, the company that manages facilities in which refugees are transfield noticeconfined. The instruction was simple: “Do not exchange any information with this gentleman.” Mr Doherty was sent to Coventry by Transfield because he collects information about refugees and publishes it in newspapers.

Mr Doherty’s article in The Guardian at the end of 2014 explained 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, supporters of the policy say, it is substantially and practically someone else’s problem. Governments of other countries have not been as tough or as practical as Australia’s has been.

The reference to fiction’s role in politics made me think of Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four, and about the year itself, about who was prime minister (Bob Hawke), and whether our world is more like that novel now than it was then, or less. The details of history seem surreal in retrospect; a sure sign that the reality of even one’s own life eventually turns into ‘story’.

Many think Orwell’s warnings were apt. We do appear to have something like perpetual war and an ever-escalating state of emergency that requires citizens accept measures hostile to their own freedoms and privacy. Governments almost everywhere seem more susceptible to forces outside the ballot booth. Orwell was right to warn us that the language of politicians tries to make lies sound truthful and the wind seem solid. The evidence is everywhere and on every side of politics.

When I try to find information about the behavior of my own government and only discover that press releases have been removed to another location, I immediately think “memory hole”. Political debate is more furious and more anonymous than ever, but the outcomes narrower: the current public circumlocution about refugees forces us think of the ‘problem’ as a moral or political struggle where the blame is always somewhere else or in another ideological camp: “We must stop people drowning at sea.” “People-smugglers are evil.” “Why is the government torturing refugees on Manus Island? ”

default-image-portAfter the Transfield affair, Mr Ben Doherty was Thomson Reuters fellow at Oxford University in the Trinity term of 2015; and his dissertation, Call me illegal: The semantic struggle over asylum in Australia, narrates the events, rhetorical changes and policy manoeuvres of Australia’s response to asylum seekers.

Lam Binh was first. The self-taught sailor and four friends found Australia from Vietnam navigating with a single page torn from a school atlas. The page went no further south than Timor: from there he was simply following a hand-drawn arrow on the bottom of the page. But on April 26, 1976 he sighted land, and piloted his battered junk, the Kien Giang, into Darwin harbour, where he dropped anchor and waited. Lam had a speech prepared for the immigration officer who boarded the next morning: “Good morning. My name is Lam Binh and these are my friends from South Vietnam and we would like permission to stay in Australia”. page 7  → opens full PDF

The then Immigration Minister Michael MacKellar, Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, and Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, tried to dampen emerging hysteria about refugees, but Australians could not be moved.

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 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’. However,

It is important to note a distinction apparent in Australian attitudes towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat, and those who arrive by other methods (through the offshore humanitarian program or by plane). “The public makes a distinction between refugees selected under the off-shore program and self-selected asylum seekers,” Betts says in her analysis of opinion poll data. “Hostility to boat people does not mean hostility to refugees.” Australians are broadly supportive—75 per cent in favour—of refugees who have first been assessed overseas, then being resettled in the country. McKay et al argue that government and media narratives contrasting boat-borne asylum seekers with resettled refugees are crucial to public perceptions. page 54  → opens full PDF

Mr Doherty’s distinction generously offers Australians a convenient place to hide our prejudices in plain view.

Call me illegal provides an insider view of how successive Australian governments tailored language to manage the public’s anger.

When it comes to the issue of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, no-one escapes blame—not politicians, not media, and certainly not the Australian ‘public’. Australia’s asylum seeker problem is entirely the fault of the Australian people. It has little or nothing to do with people smugglers.

We have (politicians and public alike) been behaving like avaricious, racist hypocrites; and have sought, for about forty years, to camouflage our insecurities with political blamestorming. Journalists and media pundits, who could have helped to pull down the propaganda and lies upon which our prejudices have built the current system of abuses, did little to mitigate the effects.

The people who pretend to lead us, having decided it was easier to manage our prejudices for their own benefit than to educate us, created ever-more absurd excesses of placation; until billions of dollars were spent on detaining a couple of thousand asylum seekers, and tens of millions of dollars thrown at other governments in our region so they would accept the small number of refugees who wanted to live with us.

Nineteen eighty-four needs to be revised for Australia: Big Brother has been watching… how you vote.


More information on refugees

Woolf, el-Sisi, Abbott and boy bands

Trying to imagine what she calls ‟that anonymous monster the Man in the Street,” Virginia Woolf visualised ‟a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff … occasionally wobbling this way or that as some instinct of hate, revenge, or admiration bubbles up beneath it.” The argument about whether such views make Woolf a bad person has been raging for a long while, and assume that we know what she meant by the remarks at all. I thought about them again when I saw Australian prime minister Tony Abbott shaking hands with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently elected president of Egypt.

Abbott excuses el-Sisi. “President el-Sisi is a reluctant jailer here. He wasn’t the president when Peter Greste and his colleagues were arrested,” Mr Abbott told ABC Radio. Abbott and el-Sisi know, I think, how Woolf’s shapeless jelly can be made to wobble with just a little push; and how little the jelly knows about who or what is doing the pushing.

PM Tony Abbott and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
PM Tony Abbott and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Many in Australia think that the current government is trading in distractions when burqas push war, privacy, performance and promises off the front pages of papers. [As it turns out, the plan to put burqas behind glass partitions in parliament was not an intentional distraction, but rather the panicked response to a rumor that the parliament was about to be disrupted by a posse of burqa-clad protesters.] El-Sisi has been accused of the same thing. An economic mess, power failures, rising taxes, and a government’s desire not to be seen as the morally soft option, all add up to a social climate in which minorities are easily scapegoated.

Whether by design or chance, Egypt is in the grip of an anti-gay hysteria. This hysteria now has a catchy anthem and a video.

A boy band, imaginatively called ‘Boy Band’, sings its confusion caused by ‟soft men” who wear tight jeans. The lyrics of its anti-gay song use words that pun on the Arabic equivalent of ‘faggots’ (see note, below). Three men burst into a room. They have their serious faces on. They begin to rifle through the belongings of a person, presumably the man in the photo on the wall. The video looks like a police raid set to music. (فمن مداهمة قامت بها الشرطة مع الموسيقى.)

[This video has been made private on YouTube after being published for some time. It is not clear why. There is a copy of it here ➔ http://goo.gl/9SMZCl.]

In Australia we are worried about burqas. In Egypt they are worried about tight red jeans. I notice now that both Abbott and el-Sisi are wearing dark suits and blue ties.


Egypt: Eight men sentenced to three years in prison for ‘gay wedding’ video

Written by Chris Johnston and published in The Guardian on 2 November 2014:

A court in Egypt has sentenced eight men to three years in prison for appearing in a video that purported to show a gay wedding.

The video, which became an online hit after it was posted on YouTube in September, shows two men kissing, exchanging rings and embracing among cheering friends.

It was filmed at a birthday party held on a boat on the Nile.

The sentences, which can be appealed, were met with uproar from the families of the defendants, who demonstrated outside the court in central Cairo and were dispersed by police.

The defendants, who had denied the charges, stood silent in the courtroom cage as the verdict was read, one of them holding up a copy of the Qur’an.

The eight were arrested in September when Egypt’s chief prosecutor decided that the video was “shameful to God” and “offensive to public morals”.

At the last hearing, on 11 October, a spokesman for the justice ministry’s forensics department insisted the men were innocent.

“The entire case is made up and lacks basis. The police did not arrest them red-handed and the video does not prove anything,” Hesham Abdel Hamed said.

“The medical test showed that the eight defendants have not practised homosexuality recently or in the past.”

He was referring to anal examinations, a long-standing practice in Egypt that Human Rights Watch has condemned.

The New-York-based lobby group had called for the men be released.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Egypt, but it is a social taboo, and allegedly gay men have often been arrested on charges of immorality.

In the most notorious example, 52 men were arrested in 2001 for their perceived sexuality, in what became known as the Queen Boat case.

In April, four men were convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for “debauchery” after allegedly holding gay sex parties where women’s clothing and makeup were found.

Human Rights Watch said in September that Egyptian authorities had repeatedly arrested and tortured men suspected of having gay sex.

Saturday’s sentences are the latest in a crackdown by authorities against gay people and atheists.

The campaign also targets liberal and pro-democracy activists and anyone who breaks a draconian law on street protests.

Note: The lyrics use the word “khawagat” in a pun linked to the term ‘khawalat’ (a plural noun), the equivalent of ‘faggots’ in English. In traditional Arabic ‘Khawal‘ is a man who has been taught and performs belly-dancing routines. In modern Egyptian slang it is an attack on a man’s sexual identity.

Not a threepenny opera

“Why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?”


Toner-gate, Victoria’s little arts scandal, revealed some interesting facts about government and administration of the arts.

Firstly, public sector employees working in the arts believe that going to arts events is “a fundamental obligation of their professional life”. Penny Hutchinson, Director of Arts Victoria, rejects the idea that free tickets to arts events should be registered as gifts. The Ombudsman concluded, “a lack of management and auditing at Arts Victoria contributed to a culture that allowed the corrupt conduct to go undetected”.

Secondly, the Director of Arts Victoria told the Ombudsman that department employees keep a diary of their attendance at arts events. However, neither the Arts Victoria website nor the Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) annual reports of Arts Victoria’s activities contain statistical information gathered from employees or arts organisations about the numbers of tickets given away, for this or any other purpose. Detailed statistical information about attendance at arts events comes mainly from Australian Bureau of Statistics data from census interviews. The Arts Victoria website is an analytical wasteland. Sure, you can find out how much money the government spent and on what projects. When percentages and dollar figures are provided, they all point to the munificence of the public purse and the crucial role of the arts in the economy. They are statistics served up like comfort food to make the public sleep.

Third, though Toner-gate is trivial compared to other public sector governance problems (annual expenditure on ICT in Victoria is around $1.6 billion), the numbers are not trivial to artists themselves—especially artists, like writers and poets, who are not part of the ‘color and movement’ industry. Chris Flynn, who organises writers’ events in Melbourne, posted on Facebook the day the Toner-gate news broke, “Thank God I didn’t get those Arts Victoria grants after all—turns out they needed 80 grand to buy toner.” I suspect this reaction would be mild among writers.

The ABC’s comedy series ‘Angry Boys’ was viewed by “just” 569,000 viewers on Wednesday 15 June 2001, when it went head-to-head with broadcast of a state of origin rugby union match. Chris Lilley, the comedic artist in question, must think that such contests are a harsh proving ground.

Go the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO) website and look at the 2010 annual report and you will find that in 2010 the total audience for 2010 was 181,387. The total “paid attendance” was just 121,330. It’s not clear from the report whether any of these figures includes free concerts in the park (40,000 in attendance) or other outreach programs. Using the two available numbers, 33 per cent of seats at concerts are given away.

The Victorian Opera annual report includes the tantalising remark that audience figures are prepared according the standard Arts Victoria methodology. Gosh. Arts Victoria has a methodology for counting audience numbers? —Its annual report does not say what it is. Neither does its website. And this is strange because performing arts publications make so many remarks about audience numbers, it would be handy to know if there is a ‘special’ way of counting them.

The VO says that the total audience in 2010 was 41,799. This number includes dress rehearsals, educational and promotional events, and even 6,500 at free concert in The Bowl with the MSO. Leave all free seats in, and any others that may or may not be free, and divide it into the total of government grants (including a small sum from the federal funding body), and it appears that every single seat at an opera event is subsidised to the tune of $91. This figure is closer to $150 if you exclude seats given away for whatever reason; but, because we don’t know how many seats are filled by arts administrators for the purposes of “professional obligation”, there is no way of telling how high the figure goes. To be fair, the numbers should look better if one took into account that public funds also pay for modest administration, marketing and other expenses.

None of this even touches on the extraordinarily generous donations received by the operatic arts by various kinds of patrons, though it is interesting to note that the VO annual report has two not-quite-full pages of these donors’ names, some of whom gave over $20,000 and at least one (I wonder who?) who came up with $2.

The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.
The Threepenny Opera was one of the first musical films. Weil and Brecht filed lawsuits against the production company over its handling of the script and music; and both collected damages. The film was screened for the first time in February 1931.

And the numbers were especially healthy in 2010 because of the spectacular success of Kurt Weil’s ‘Threepenny Opera’. More than ten thousand people attended 22 performances, about two and half times more than the next most attended opera and about five times more than most.

Why is the writer beating up on the euterpean muse? (I didn’t even look at the statistics for the ballet. My pure heart would be too beaten up!)

Arts Victoria’s and DPC’s websites used to bulge with business plans and targets related to the ‘Creative Capacity +’ framework for arts development in Victoria, a document that, now, even Google can’t find in the Orwellian memory hole of documents published on the Internet.1 I used to look into them to wonder, as I do now after Toner-gate, how little light these numbers, goals and performance measures throw on the ironies of arts funding.

Why, if nearly a third of seats at some concerts are unpaid for, is there no detailed information about how the seats are filled?

Why, if public taxes pay for astonishingly expensive artistic productions, are these productions not televised?

Why, considering apparent waste and inefficiency, can no public funds be found to support a poetry recitation prize for Victorian secondary school students? And why, if Mr and Mrs Been-to-La-Boheme-six-times can have their seats subsidised without filling out a form in triplicate, are the processes for writers’ grants so damned complicated and exhausting?

Why, if arts administrators can have free tickets to attend arts events, can we not provide the same advantages to artists themselves? I could, within a week if asked, provide a list of several hundred creative writers whose artistic education would be enhanced by nights at the opera and in our concert halls and theatres, myself included.

Penny Hutchinson’s tortured responses to the Ombudsman’s report demonstrate, amongst many other things, that she has no imagination. Maybe that’s what it costs you when “professional obligation” takes you out for a night on the town.

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  1. The document can still be found in Pandora, the government repository of stale, public websites: Creative Capacity +