Julian Burnside “What Sort of Country Are We?”
“Wir sind alle Ausländer. Fast überall."
"We are all foreigners. Almost everywhere.”
- German bumper sticker
Sixty years after World War II, in the summer of 2006 we came together to celebrate the Soccer World Cup. We gathered in a small corner of Sauerland, on the fringe of the industrial Ruhr valley; the most heavily bombed wartime target in Germany apart from Leipzig. Our family members from Canada, Australia, England, America, Sweden and our German “family,” with Gisela, Klaus, their adult daughters and grandchildren were united. We shared German “Gemütlichkeit” (warmth and togetherness), Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and torte) on a balcony overlooking the river and the forested valley; the landscape where for centuries their ancestors had spent their lives farming, where their extended family still lived and where Klaus now cultivated his forest with Swedish forestry specialists.
It had been sixty years too, since the Liverpool Blitz of May 1941, which my mother Margaret and her family witnessed from the beach at Blundellsands, Liverpool. While they were watching those particular fireworks, our German farming family were witnessing the relentless pounding of the nearby town of Hagen and the Ruhr Valley. And it had been eighty years since my mother's teenaged Uncle Charlie, driven out by family discord, had left Liverpool for Canada, joined the North-West Mounted Police and was killed in a shoot-out before World War I had even begun.
Liverpool was served by a railway system that reached down to London and across the north of England, linking its great port on the Irish Sea to the North Sea fishing ports. It was the transport hub between the big industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield to its east and and to Britain's colonies overseas. When my grandmother Ethel and her siblings were growing up, Liverpool provided their home and their livelihood. It was a city overrun with the women's rights movement, floods of immigrants, fishermen and dockworkers from Ireland and Wales. Everyone seemed to be working either in shipbuilding or in the provision of services to those industries and my family was fully integrated at all levels. Harland and Wolff (builders of the Titanic) Cammell and Laird, Liverpool river pilots, the Cunard Line and even the White Star Line gave jobs to my ancestors, grandfather, uncles and even my grandmother Ethel. It was through Liverpool's ports that the mass migration of Britons took place and that included the ill-fated Charlie Taylor.
Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution and colonial wars lay at the heart of this mass migration from the British Isles. They had spat out masses of poor and working class Britons from their farms, their villages, their orphanages and their roots. They herded them off for the key purposes of Empire: resource acquisition, manpower and control. The real heroes of the era were the ordinary people, people who endured, who lifted the load, not those represented in history books or by statues.
My mother’s family was uprooted after over five hundred years of recorded history. My step-father George was uprooted after over a thousand years as fishermen on the North Sea, going back to his Norman ancestors. My birth-father found himself washed up and alone in New Brunswick Canada, cut off from his deep roots in the Cotswolds. And finally, I made landfall in Australia. The children of all these newly arrived immigrants grew up with a blank page in place of their roots, their extended family. A blank space where their story should have been written. Not the official story or the male version of history, but the heritage and texture of the lives, the cultures and the environments they came from. They were often disconnected from their roots, suspended in a foreign space and often disconnected from their parents too. They too had been colonised, appropriated as part of the production line of Capitalism.
No-one questioned the rights of all these masses of people to immigrate, to occupy and to push aside the previous occupants, their cultures and their way of life. When people are desperate they don’t question politics. Today we are seeing the biggest tide of human migration ever known in history. And yet again, few are reflecting on its meaning, its causes and how to address these apocalyptic events mainly created by men, by megalomaniac corporations, by politicians and by outright cruelty masquerading as policy; cruelty and annihilation meted out mainly on children and women.
In spite of all that, it is often the women who are still, in the face of overwhelming adversity, holding it together. Ethel had kept her family fed and together by moving from Bootle on the Liverpool docks, by concealing the absence of their father from the authorities, by taking in billets and by running a small furniture business. On our mother, these habits made a permanent mark, a scar. In Germany too, mothers often diverted Nazi soldiers from taking their young sons, managed to keep their traumatized children alive by concealing preserved food underground and hiding it from marauding Russians in the dying months of the war.
Now all the following generations of our children are native born, with all the rights that statehood confers. But since most of us are interlopers or occupiers, who says that other people, who are victims of political upheaval and war, deserve this less than we do? Why are so many Australians colluding in the torment of people in “detention” camps and leaving them to moulder in Manus and Nauru? How is it that we view this new wave of dispossessed with such suspicion and scorn? And what of our native people? the First Canadians and Australians? After all these years, can we ever truthfully say, as most Germans did, “We didn’t know.” Have we learned nothing at all?
There are a number of components working behind the scenes, working the public mind, some of these include: myths, political spin, Wedge Politics and Naomi Klein’s Shock Syndrome. The first component is myths. The main myth is that the displaced will want to come ‘to the promised land,” mainly for financial reasons. Think about it. Nobody leaves their home easily. Nobody. If you are really desperate, if your homeland has been ravaged by war and tragedy, you won’t drive yourself mad with sadness and you won’t insult your hosts by telling them about all your memories of your homeland. You will try to blot out what shackles you and rebuild your life as best you can. Australian government records show that eventually over fifty percent of immigrants return to their home country. To quote Angelina Jolie, spokesperson of Human Rights First, “In countries where people have to flee their homes because of persecution and violence, political solutions must be found, peace and tolerance restored, so that refugees can return home. In my experience, going home is the deepest wish of most refugees.” Furthermore, most bona fide immigrants to Australia now pay steep entry fees and that is no measure of deserving citizenship.
As for the other linked myth about taking our jobs, then we need look no further than our government to answer that question. Why are so many jobs being moved off-shore? and why are so many jobs being occupied by 457 Visa holders? And what pro-active measures are they taking with the advent of robotisation?
This leads me to the question of political obfuscation, the lack of rational answers from our politicians. The only answers we get are Orwellian “Newspeak,” "spin" and simplistic answers. A large proportion of the public, indeed, demand simple solutions. We often hear moans of, “Why can’t life be simple like it used to be?” Well, life never was simple and we have to be grown-ups about it. The history of my own family, like so many other families, through the military life, through war and immigration stands testimony to that. Politicians are experts at covering their backs (and that of their current clientele, the corporations) by trotting out simple solutions.
Drawing by a ten-year old child "detainee" held on Manus.
We’ve all heard about the “Pacific solution” where the Australian government took a leaf from Hitler’s “Final Solution” for dealing with unwanted human beings. The Pacific Solution translated as parking human beings ad infinitum (often courageous outspoken people hounded from their own lands) in a large compound
on a Pacific Island like Manus. Similarly to our Pacific Solution, the Final Solution was Hitler’s way of ridding his countrymen of a targeted minority, working the wedge, working the percentage of the population that swings the tail of the dog. Yes, there is always a significant percentage of the population who takes a stand, who acts with courage. However, because most people are busy with their lives and are not using their imaginations, populist sloganeering works for a while. It works as long as politicians such as Hitler (and some of our own) don’t actually spell out the measures and means of enacting their policies. It works as long as politicians are actually seen to deliver a few goodies in the short term, a few crumbs to their support base. The sign, the euphemism, over the entrance to the concentration camps was, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” meaning “Work Will Set You Free.” Hardworking, responsible, upright Germans could hardly argue with that statement. The Australian euphemism for this mandatory incarceration is trotted out with regularity, “We stopped the boats.” End of story, a feel-good ending, simple, no more thought needed and no further action anticipated.
Wedge Politics was honed by our former long-standing Prime Minister John Howard. Indeed for a time, the Canadians too, were fooled. Until Canadian university students started lampooning and studying the Harper-Howard Bro-mance. Through succeeding events compounded by 9/11, Howard managed to come out squeaky clean, the ring-master of an obscene circus. Australia was sucked into a vortex, a vortex convoluted by the invasion of Iraq, the heart of civilisation. And all of this was screened in glorious colour, showing American troops dismantling Iraq's historic artefacts, trampling on their history. Throwing caution to the wind, Howard sent off young Australians to the cheers of his wedge followers and the stunned outrage of most Australians. War is always a 'go-to' for politicians, a real vote winner. It yanks the tail and swings the dog. Regardless of the risk to their own military personnel, the trick is to conjure up a war or a crisis in some vulnerable country, much like Margaret Thatcher’s Falkland’s War in a teacup. The mantle of heroism that was appropriated by Thatcher in tandem with memories of Winston Churchill swept away any detractors and swept her back into power in the next election.
The Tampa, soon followed by the Children Overboard disaster, likewise swung the tail. Suddenly, a sinking boat was portrayed, contrary to navy intelligence, as those suspect interlopers cruelly “throwing their children into the water to drown.” Another vote-winner is to champion minorities, but in a bad way. There’s no war to create a diversion? Well, single out some vulnerable community for an Intervention, a remote indigenous community will do, a whole region is even better. Never mind that child-abuse, alcoholism and domestic violence are rampant all over white Australia. Just slap the label “child abuse” on remote communities. Out of sight, out of mind. It stuns the public and shuts everyone up. And the real vote-getter is being seen to take some action. Just mention having their children (righteously) taken from them or having their income quarantined. It sounds innocuous, yes? Well, grown-ups need to use their imagination to understand what that means to families, individuals and children. It has its parallels with the complacency of the Germans regarding Hitler’s Final Solution; they too separated children from their parents. But the Jews only had to endure it for ten years. Our First Australians have endured it for two centuries, not to forget the First Nations of Canada, who are now faring much better.
If Wedge Politics won’t do the job, then the mass media can finish it off. And thus we see the slow rise of Fascism, a parallel to the insidious creep, snip-by-snip, measure-by-measure, unmandated bills passed behind closed doors and declared as a fait accompli to a numbed and confused public. America’s president Trump (our government’s cosy chum) is its champion, its End Stage.
Tim Minchin performing "The Fence"
The merciless pummelling by the commercial media, peppering us from every direction with the “Shock Syndrome” (shock after shock as Naomi Klein heralded) has left us damaged, injured, stunned, confused, paralysed and angry. And we’ve seen where that can lead. Think only of the triumph of Trump and of Brexit in Britain. These voters have now discovered that they shot themselves in the foot, delivered themselves by their own hands, by their own vote, into the hands of the corporations.
There are no simple solutions. Democracy is earned, not inherited. It takes hard work, full engagement and the application of constant pressure on our political representatives. Today, more so than ever before.
Many people seek simplistic answers, but there are none. My own solution is to just turn it all off and engage in Slow Journalism such as that offered by The Guardian and more recently by Al-Jazeerah or the BBC. They have consciously undertaken to produce authentic, independent, in-depth coverage of issues. Instead of running like a rat in a maze, I now sit back and consider the big picture reflectively. Indeed, calamitous as world events are, approaching them this way actually has a calming effect.
Taking that approach, for me, our top priority has to be to address the human rights of our First People and our refugees and asylum seekers. If we cannot do that, then we are all next in the queue.
My children are the first generation of my mother’s line to be born in Australia. Native born. Of her own four children, three were the first generation to be born in Canada. And now, our grandchildren stem from Scandinavia too, speaking Swedish and English and attending Swedish school. Their mother (our daughter) and her husband lived and worked at both ends of the globe, in Sweden and then in remote Arnhem Land. Living closely in an indigenous community, with their eyes wide open and noticing the contradictions between reality and populist fiction, they educated our entire family. We suddenly noticed the dark-skinned people sitting or wandering around in Darwin, almost unheard and unseen on the fringes of cafes, supermarkets and public spaces. Even down by the beach at the Mindil Market where with lowered gaze, they were selling their sought-after art works, they were barely visible.
Yes, we have all absorbed shared cultural idiosyncrasies and even if we do know where we actually came from, how does that make us more important than other citizens of our country of residence.
Trailer: "Samson and Delilah" sitting on the outside
This is a country that has been invaded and occupied, but unlike Germany, the occupiers of Australia never left. And unlike the Germans or even the indigenous people of Scandinavia, our First Australians are still fighting for autonomy and for basic human rights.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
A prominent Protestant pastor who spent seven years in prison under the Hitler regime.
COPYRIGHT: Magz Morgan 2018