Jobs

by Davide Angelo and Stephen J Williams

1966 | He could not write

When my dad came to Australia he went to work
in a spray painting factory. He was there for eleven years.
He worked hard. After a while the foreman
who was ready to retire
said dad should become the foreman.
It meant more money. He wouldn’t have to work overtime.
He would no longer have to spray.
My dad turned it down. He could speak English
and understand it and read it.
He could not write. This terrified him.
He was stuck.

1992 | Time stands still

I worked for a union. You worked on a process line.
There was a time in the lighting factory
when there was an engineer on your left and a doctor to your right.
It was the 1990s. It could have been now.
Immigrants turning screws on pieces of metal ten hours a day.
The president of my union talked about how a video cassette recorder
could make movies play a frame at a time or make time stand still.
It was the 1990s. It could have been now.
I was there when the ‘workplace’ became a science
when the continual improvement of work
could be the continuous improvement of ourselves.
When I was a waiter, when I was a clerk, when I was a cleaner,
when I washed dishes and when I sold shirts,
I was too tired to think.

1995 | The floor above

The process line workers were separate.
The sales people, on the floor above
didn’t move, didn’t eat, didn’t smoke
between the ringing of bells.
They had a different clock.
Sometimes a person on the process line would be given a promotion
and leave the factory floor to work upstairs.
He would be trained in sales, arranging deliveries
and acquiring new business. He got a new haircut.
He could see the sky. He wore shiny shoes.
These promotions were only for certain types: males without accents.
The owner was the main man at a football club.
He had a promising junior player working on the floor above.
I say ‘working’, but he did fuck all and spent his days sitting
in a toilet and reading the paper, like a champion.

2007 | Intervention

Little children are sacred. Everyone agrees.
In order to protect me, a national emergency

cordons off one million three hundred and forty-seven thousand
five hundred and twenty-five square kilometres and

brings justice by taking my father’s land
a second time. I was inspected in the morning

and forced to speak English. I practiced this
new language counting times the law mentions land

and times it mentions me: six hundred to none.
Irony bridges what was said and what is done.

2016 | Swallowed

I am thirteen. My people were the first here, but I have no union.
I spat in the face of the whale that threatened to swallow me.

The old men who put their knees in my back want to kill
my pride. When I am abandoned by my country

I am the Pip spat out in the desert, castaway and lost.
Could you use your vote now to put a hook in Leviathan’s nose?

Does it speak to us in gentle words or tell us to work and shut up?
Will it make us beg for mercy? Will we have to fight again?

Nothing in our dreams is its equal. It swallowed me up
and I wait there for the one who made the whale to free me.

Note from the writers

These lines began as a conversation about work. In July 2016 news and images emerged from Australia’s Northern Territory of the mistreatment of children in the ‘justice’ system. Leviathan has for a long time been the symbol of the commonwealth and a lawmaker. In the Tanakh (Job 41) this monster is a pride-killer. (26 August 2016)

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 …

Take the pledge

I pledge not to vote for any political party or individual whose policies support detaining asylum-seekers in facilities managed on behalf of the Australian government.

… 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 refugees at this site:

  • 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 …
  • 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

Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

I edited and published Joyce Lee’s collected poems, It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, in 2003. While the book is no longer in print, I am pleased that the files of the book are still available and I am able to publish them here. Also reproduced, below, is the book’s foreword by Chris Wallace-Crabbe. Ms Lee died in February 2007 [PDF ⤴︎ obituary].


Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.
Joyce Lee, 1993. Photograph by Stephen J. Williams.

Foreword

by CHRIS WALLACE-CRABBE, to Joyce Lee’s collected poems (2003)

              Hear me, lesser seasons.
It may be autumn, may be winter
but I’ll be living summer.

What can poetry do for us these days? It’s not in the business of swaying the masses; indeed, as Peter Porter has ever so gracefully put it, “Poetry is one of the few arts which is not menaced by not having an audience.” Yet it somehow retains an almost popular role in bearing witness to human decency. Yes, poetry produces some of the durable vessels which are brimming with hope.

Such concepts as humanity and humanism have been cast aside in recent times like tattered banners, outmoded ensigns. Given that climate, it is a joy to encounter some book that is everywhere imbued with a humane spirit, a book that combines alert intelligence with decency and warmth. As the writer in question, the Melbourne poet Joyce Lee says about her artistic heritage, “Old now, I treasure what was given to me, perhaps in riddles”. But as we read them we find that her poems always strive to make such riddles come clear. In this she may be seen as a traditionalist, which is no bad thing.

Cover of Joyce Lee's It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean
Cover of Joyce Lee’s It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean

Lee’s new, retrospective volume of poetry, gorgeously entitled It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean, pays tribute to human community and continuity. It gathers her clean, vividly substantial poems from as far back as their appearance in Sisters Poets 1, edited by Rosemary Dobson and published in 1979; from there it comes down to the present day, most of the earlier poems having been rewritten to some extent. The result, I am convinced, is a wonderfully coherent collection.

Long a professional pharmacist, Lee came to poetry in her middle years. The voice was there, and the lyrics it articulated could range from the familiar ground of ‘Wimmera child’s first waterfall’ or ‘Double wedding’, back through history and dream to the Biblical Hagar, and to Gerda, the Celtic witch whose potions prefigure those of a modern chemist’s shop.

Indeed, as her book shows, the poems torn out of history add something exotic and also bracing to Lee’s Wimmera-formed imagination. They leave dark shadows in the corners of her picturing. They remind us that even this brave new world of wheat and sheep and sprawling spaces comes out of history. What is more, not even the recovered landscape of country trains, scorching wind and cars that break down inconveniently quite fills her imagination: no, it is not all steeped in Wimmera naturalism. Lee’s dreams “encompass every shade of blue”; her yearnings reach for the sky. As she writes about the truths she learned tacitly, visually from her influential painter uncle (personally influential, that is),

The dark side is part of the whole, a secret under-knowledge, a
strengthener to get you through when your light is in some distant
sky or disappears. The process is mysterious, its gifts measureless.

Yet this is the poet who says to herself, in another voice, “What you know is yours.” She is not at all naïve about solids.

In her compelling verse, the recurring strain of mystery does not entail vagueness or verbal chicanery, but has its roots in accurate knowledge. This is the basis of Joyce Lee’s persuasiveness, of her poetic strength, despite her deeply modern acknowledgement that “All I believe in is change.” Metaphysical questing rides on the shoulders of verismo.

On the evidence of what we read here, she is subject to metaphysical yearning, not least in the presence of music, which Les Murray has more skeptically dubbed, “The greatest form of nonsense verse.” Responding to that transcendent composer Messaien, she hazards that “The note pins silence/ never to resound”, while in another poem she laments that “you are left with longing/ for the voice beyond the note.”

Yet as I have suggested, her dominant imagery is rooted in the flat, pastoral Wimmera, with its bluish edge of Grampians. These poems return again and again to rock, dryness, dust, vistas of plains: to what she calls in the title of one, ‘Plain dreaming.’ Far overseas, in a prospect of Dubrovnik, she can write, “In the late afternoon, stones/ glisten like sheep on bare hills.” Also to country sounds, among them the mopoke, a horse stamping in its stable, express trains passing in the night.

The poetic vocabulary of this poetry is rich, using the whole palette, as she would be glad to say. Yet the language is not arcane, nowhere near as baroque as Peter Steele, or Anthony Hecht, or Marianne Moore. It is plumfull of colors, hard nouns and proper names: not the “long lists of proper names” which the formalist Auden thought a poet should enjoy, along with riddles and complicated stanzas. Lee is above all a realist in the homestead of poetry. Most of her capitalized names are lodged in families, active in social milieux.

These poems come over to us in clear stanzas of modestly free verse, in linguistic orchestration by way of such tasty words as triangle, peephole, hem, gimme, scrubbiness, lobster, blisters, quinine, snow gum and, in triumphant upper case, MADAGASCAR. Hers is an active world crammed with things, hues and actions—even the memories are rock-solid. They contain such vivid place/events as The casino

end of Point Lonsdale pier.
Interval at a film hot air balloon, swimming
with sharks at the aquarium,
riding a bejeweled elephant.

These strengths are manifest in such poems as ‘The past walks noiselessly’ and ‘Travelling backwards’, or in such precisely physical lines as these:

Unloaded in scorching wind
I’d watched him jack the car, carefully mend the puncture,
no cursing in church clothes. Minna
didn’t mention how she’d sweated in the kitchen.

Evenings round the stove, Gus and Ernest
red-faced in shiny second best, talking
thread darning and embroidery needles. I learn
to stitch neat edges, work to a pattern.
We share mystery and far places.
I go to bed held safely in a large world.

Surely that is what Lee’s poems themselves do: go to the black and white bed of print “held safely in a large world.” It is also a realm that has space for humour: one need only think of such poems as ‘Car week’ and ‘Untidy legs.’ Who else could possibly have used “untidy” like that?

Once upon a day I lamented that most books, at least in Australia, were written by people who didn’t know anything about work. It is a pleasure here to see how persuasively the poet evokes teacher or preacher, drover or country housewife, even the persuasive committee man, having a damn good sense of what they actually do. As she says of such awareness, “Peasant born, I inherited/ hard work from a grandfather/ migrating with his tribe/ for betterment.”

Mostly, however, she writes in the present tense, employing that present-emphatic that plays so large a part in modern Australian poetry. Within this climate of syntax, the past recurs over and over again, shaping events and people, giving meaning to the great Where We Are Now. Lee is a poet of generations, it might be said, recalling in this the David Campbell of Deaths and Pretty Cousins: and Campbell was, of course, another poet who knew what work could be. His high Monaro has a great deal in common with her Wimmera.

Reading Lee, I am sometimes taken back to those once-influential studies by Erik Erikson on childhood, society and the life-history. She feels and records how human strength flows down like honey from generation to generation. Not only can she travel backwards in time, along the psychological railway, all the way to Murtoa station; she records her profession ironically with the reflection that “My workingplace is filled with prescription ghosts” and she recreates ‘My father’s country’, a grandmother’s kitchen or the grandfather leading a bride on each arm into the local church. Each of these chronotropes is far too strongly rendered to smack of sentimental nostalgia. As Octavio Paz once observed, “Poetry is memory become image, and image become voice.”

The newest writing in It is nearly dark makes radiantly clear that, as much as being an art of mimesis or of tribute, poetry can be an art of yearning. These late lyrics are full of ontological hunger. They yearn for truths which are too large to be named, or fully understood. Again and again the trope is light, flame, perhaps candlelight. “I must pursue an unknown brighter light,” she writes, reaching out for something beyond the Johannine logos, seeking to touch the ineffable. Of such poems it would be impertinent to say more.

In the large picture this book is like a tessellated novel, the pieces reshuffled but the characters intact—on the other hand, it seems possible that if the poems were set down in exactly the right order we would have Joyce Lee’s autobiography. Viewed, more sensibly after all, as a book of poetry, this is writing in which accuracy of perception is harmoniously balanced with generosity of spirit.

Chris Wallace-Crabbe
Melbourne, July 2002

Originally published by Artist’s Proof (Stephen J. Williams) in 2003.


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It is nearly dark when I come to the Indian Ocean: collected poems 1965-2003 by Joyce Lee