Category Archives: History

A Tribute to Elie Wiesel

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On Sunday, I woke up to several unpleasant realities: Australian politics was in chaos, Pauline Hanson had been returned to power, just like Voldemort, and the world has lost one of its most profound voices of conscience – Elie Wiesel.

Eliezer Wiesel was born to Shlomo and Sara Wiesel, on the 30th September, 1928, in Sighet, Transylvania, now part of Romania. Elie’s life evolved around family, community and religious study. He had three sisters. His mother encouraged him to study the Torah and Kabbalah. Elie was deeply influenced by his father’s liberal expressions of Judaism. He spoke Yiddish at home, but also learnt Hungarian, Romanian and German.

When Hungary annexed Sighet in 1940, the Wiesels, like many other Jews, were herded to the ghettoes. Then in May, 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, by the Nazi Regime. Elie was 15. He ended up in a sub-camp, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, with this father. They worked at a nearby Buna rubber factory. The conditions were hellish – starvation, beatings and despair, were all part of the daily routine.

image003  – Elie at 15 years of age. –

In 1945, the Russian Army drew near and Elie and his father were hurriedly evacuated to Buchenwald. Three months before the camp was liberated, his father was beaten to death by German soldiers. His mother and younger sister, Tzipora, also lost their lives there. Buchenwald was liberated in 1945. Elie and his two sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, were the only survivors from his whole family.

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 – Victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the American troops of the 80th Division. Amongst them is Elie Wiesel (7th from the left on the middle bunk next to the vertical post (Photo by H Miller/Getty Images) –

How do you begin to put the pieces of a life, gutted by violence and horror, together again? Very, very slowly. It took Elie ten years to begin to articulate some of his experiences in the death camps. Before that, he had studied in Paris and was a journalist for the French newspaper, L’arche. It was through the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, that Elie began to write about life in the death camps. His memoir and first book, Night (La Nuit), has become one of the most critically acclaimed of all Holocaust literature.

Night is the first in a trilogy – Night, Dawn, Day. The trilogy clearly illustrates Elie’s journey from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.” It is one of the most devastating accounts of the Holocaust. A young boy’s struggle for survival brings the senseless murder of millions shockingly close. Reflecting on his feelings upon arrival in Auschwitz he writes:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as God Himself. Never.”

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Elie became an American Citizen after an accident left him unable to renew his French documents – documents which previously had allowed him to travel as a ‘stateless’ person. He settled in New York and became an increasingly prolific writer, authoring over thirty books. In 1978, he was appointed chair of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust. He dedicated his life to the plight of persecuted people groups and ensuring that no one would forget what happened to the Jews. He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was also honoured across the world with a number of awards which included the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor’s Grand Croix.

Elie and his wife, Marion, founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice” throughout the world. They had one son, Elisha.

A timeline of Elie’s remarkable life can be viewed here. He died on July 2, 2016, in his home in Manhattan, at the age of 87.

Elie Wiesel had a profound influence on my life. His book, Night, shook me to the core and I would recommend it as a must read for all who are serious students of human rights and the Holocaust.

I will finish this tribute with an excerpt from another of Elie’s masterpieces: the speech he delivered for Bill Clinton’s Millennium Lecture Series at the White House on April 12, 1999, entitled “The Perils of Indifference”:

“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction …
 
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it …
 
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. 
 
Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”

May we take a moment to consider this dire warning from a man who has seen some of the greatest horrors that this world can hold.

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RIP Elie Wiesel – You have run a great race.

Scapegoats: Our Desperate Need to Blame Others

“The search for scapegoats is essentially an abnegation of responsibility: it indicates an inability to assess honestly and intelligently the true nature of the problems which lie at the root of social and economic difficulties and a lack of resolve in grappling with them.”
–  Aung San Suu Kyi –

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We find our Scapegoats at a young age.

Her name was Helen. She wore glasses that were too big for her face. Her school skirt nearly touched her ankles. She smelt of mothballs. She was the perfect playground scapegoat. And we all reminded her of her role everyday. Our need to deflect from our own anger, guilt, aggression, rejection, and project it on someone else, starts very early in our life. In fact, it seems like we have a genetic human default of wanting to blame someone or something else for the angst we carry as vulnerable
humans.

History eagerly awaits to be summoned and reveal its countless files on scapegoats. Animals often wore the brunt of the blame game. The early pilgrims to the USA brought a religious superstition to its shores that
resulted in wariness of anything not defined in their worldview. Black cats were among their targets in looking for explanations for disasters. Unfortunately, this irrational belief lingers to this day as black cats are five times more likely to be euthanised and continue to be subjected to horrendous abuse. Christian pig farmers in Egypt found their property attacked and pigs killed by Sunni Muslims who blamed the pigs and the Christian farmers for spreading the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009 (a pointless carnage). And, of course, then there’s Mrs. O’Leary’s famous scapegoat cow who was blamed for the Great Chicago Fires.

Charlie Campbell’s excellent book, Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People, devotes a great deal of attention to the scapegoating of women throughout history. He contends that the witch hunts and trials of early modern Europe were mainly motivated by men’s fear and hatred of women. Scapegoating women is as old as the story of Adam and Eve. Alexis Carrel blamed the shambles and ageing of a post World War I France on women, for they had “ceased to obey the law that binds them to the propagation of the human race.” The Spanish Civil war was blamed on women whose “vaginas had given birth to republican filth.” From the Laws of Manu to early Christian apologists like Tertullian to the Buddhist thinker Santideva, men found solace in blaming women for their desires. Women were called evil and confined to the home, as
society needed to be protected. Jack Holland in his book Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice argues that women are the universal scapegoat of history.

History is littered with notorious individual scapegoats like the French Army Captain, Alfred Dreyfus, or the Communist leader, Leon Trotsky, or Hitler’s Party Leader, Rudolf Hess, or the tragic figure of Gaëtan Dugas (Patient Zero). Then there are the minority groups that become the scapegoats for community ignorance, religious beliefs, or fear: the Albino children in Africa, the LGBTIQ community, Jews, Palestinians, and perhaps in modern Australian history nothing exemplifies the scapegoating of minority groups more perfectly than the consistent
slandering of refugees by political power puppets. All of this to say that us humans have never had a problem of finding someone to blame!

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We often tend to think of scapegoating as something that happens outside our family of origin. Nothing can be further from the truth. There are many  people who will tell their stories of being picked on and
excluded from the people who were meant to love and care for them. Scapegoating is often a way for families to hide problems they cannot face. Blaming a vulnerable family member can be the practice, for
example, of a parent with Borderline Personality or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The child, or scapegoat, is the one who wears their
frustrations, aggression and hatred, as they unite the rest of the family against the one being attacked. If you have been a family scapegoat there is no sugar-coating it: you have been abused. This is not ok! Please consider the effect it has had on your life. Perhaps it is time to say “No More” to the bullies?

Sadly, religious institutions are not immune from scapegoating. The ‘God of Wrath and Judgement’ is keenly at work in the minds of some
religious leaders, zapping anyone who does not agree with that leader’s
interpretation of the Sacred Text. I think the fairly modern flavours of Christian Fundamentalism and biblicism, that have permeated some faith communities, have contributed to the fervency devoted to scapegoat hunting. When adherence to a certain code of beliefs and behaviour is the litmus test to achieve belonging and affirmation, then it is fairly easy to find a scapegoat that is not living up to the ’standards of holiness’. Blaming another for our own existential angst and catastrophes is nothing new. Hear the echoes of the disciples asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Of course, if we can convince the rest of our social tribe that God also blames them, then the dehumanising has even greater repercussions for the damned scapegoats.

A month ago, many people around the world celebrated one of the most significant events of the Christian Liturgical Year: Easter. We reflected on the Passion of the Christ: The Innocent One, without any guilt, who breaks the mythical cycle of human superstitious violence. The scapegoat becomes the Lamb of God. With his brutal death, “the foolish genesis of blood-stained idols and the false gods of superstition, politics, and ideologies” are exposed. “It is finished,” is the Gospel declaration of a Kingdom that is not of this world and has put an end to scapegoating. The unjust slaying of Christ reveals the foundation of a culture built on murder and a lie. Jesus, knowing we are mimetic creatures, calls us to follow his footsteps on the path of peace. It is time to lay aside the scapegoat. It is time to face our own souls.

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I See You!

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“ … for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” 
– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Empathy. A word flung around in many contexts today. It is the
experience of understanding another person’s condition from their
perspective. It is the ability to imagine what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is feeling what the other person or people are feeling in their circumstance. Empathy is all about seeing the other.

Empathy enables us to see ourselves in the other. When someone
stumbles and falls in public, we see their pain and embarrassment, and rush to help them. Empathy sees the other. It imagines their narrative and this moves one to action.

The opposite of empathy is the need to protect ourselves from
‘the other’. De-personification enables us to treat the other as an object (‘objectification’), without having to consider their needs or feelings.
Objectifying is fed by fear and a need to protect: to protect ourselves, our ideals, and even our religious beliefs. It may be towards those we don’t like, the perceived ‘out-group’, the disadvantaged and marginalised, or those considered as ‘enemies’. When we objectify, we create a sanctuary for our cruelty, apathy or neglect.

Currently, our government continues on the historical road of objectifying asylum seekers. It is hard to imagine that we are at this moment protesting a government’s decision about thirty-seven babies born in Australia, and their families, being sent to Nauru – a camp-like environment that doctors, lawyers and welfare workers consider harmful to anyone, let alone vulnerable children. The deafening sound of silence from many Australians, even some Christian lobby groups that claim to have children’s best interest at heart, is a result of a successful objectifying campaign, complete with altered terminology like ‘illegal maritime arrivals’. The difference between empathy and objectifying is in the
language we use to describe others, as history has demonstrated over and over again.

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It takes courage to act on empathy. To truly see the other often means that tightly held tribal laws have to be severed in order to walk and stand with the other. When these tribal laws are contained in religious dogma, the belonging of an individual, and a fear of ‘displeasing God’, it suddenly gives clarity to the perplexing issue of why some religious folks, claiming to believe in a loving God, can be so utterly cruel to those who do not hold to their beliefs.

To see the other means we have to make a choice. A choice to relinquish our power. A choice to relinquish a tightly held position in the ‘inner group’. A choice to believe that love is greater than fear. A choice to seek to understand the belief systems of others, without feeling threatened by them. A choice to let go.

To truly see the other we have to begin to understand and respect the image of God in everyone we meet. Empathy begins when we recognise our own humanity in that of the other. We begin to truly see the other when we wake up from a matrix of tightly held ideas, which we have often uncritically ingested out of a need to protect ourselves.
Empathy says, “I see you.”

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Those Fascinating Melbourne Lanes

The beautiful city of Melbourne is home to over four million people. It’s the ‘youngest’ of all the world cities. It is hard to imagine that this sprawling capital of Victoria, Australia’s second largest city, did not exist 180 years ago.
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In 1835, John Batman, an Australian grazier and entrepreneur from Van Diemen’s land (modern day Tasmania), signed a transaction with eight chiefs of the local Wurundjeri tribe, along a quiet stream, possibly Merri Creek in Northcote. He bought 500,000 acres in exchange for a few household goods. This transaction, although later rejected by the government, was the foundation of Melbourne. It became the only major Australian city established without government sanction. By 1836, the settlement had reached 177 settlers.

In March 1837, Governor Sir Richard Bourke proclaimed Melbourne a town and chose the name in honour of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Lord Melbourne. During his visit he was joined by Robert Hoddle, a senior surveyor for New South Wales. Hoddle had less than a month to peg out allotments to allow for government land sales. He designed wide main streets with narrow laneways.

The grid that Hoddle planned proved problematic as the lanes became crowded, dirty and a breeding ground for criminals, while the wider streets were prone to flooding. Despite these troublesome beginnings, Melbourne’s grid has become an iconic feature of the city and is a reminder of the ambitious goals of the settlers.
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Melbourne’s lanes originated at Governor Bourke’s insistence to provide access to buildings from the rear, service lanes for horses and carts. Many of these lanes did not exist in the original layout of the grid, but began to emerge out of necessity as Melbourne faced a huge influx of immigrants during the Gold Rush era of the 1850s. There are many fascinating stories of how Chinese and European immigrants helped shape the cultural landscape of the city and the philanthropic organisations, which were active in offering assistance to the poor.
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The laneways, which were once notorious for crime, homelessness and prostitution, have today become places of enormous cultural, historical and social significance. Today they bustle with restaurants, one-off shops, galleries and bars. Every lane brings its own style of gothic-like ambience, quirkiness and charm, never failing to delight locals and visitors alike. Of course it is also an undisputed fact, that the best cup of coffee in the world will be brewed in one of these narrow alleys.Hosier_Lane_Installations_Melbourne-1
Melbourne is recognised as one of the world’s street art capitals. Hosier Lane is one of my very favourite. The inspired and beautiful art pieces bring life and soul to the city. Forget any ideas about graffiti tagging or vandalism, this is sophisticated urban art.
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There are over two hundred laneways (alleys, arcades, places, lanes, walks & ways) in the Central Business District alone, many of them are under threat as they do not fall into the strict heritage precinct. So take some time out and wander. Wander the lanes before they move into their next phase or are totally lost. Get off the main street and take a marvellous detour – you won’t regret it. These lanes tell stories of yesterday and they are always full of pleasant surprises.

Some Recommendations:
Serious about coffee? Try Manchester Press on Rankins Lane.
Serious about art galleries? Try these on Flinders Lane: Flinders Lane Gallery, Arc One Gallery or Karen Woodbury Gallery.
Serious about spices? Try Sichuan House in Corrs Lane or Gewürzhaus in the Block Arcade.
Serious about tea? Try Lupecia Fresh Tea in Artemis Lane.
Want a huge choice of food in one tiny lane? Try Degraves Street.
All this exploring will make you very thirsty – in which case you will need a decent  German beer in Market Lane.
Prost to Melbourne and it’s fascinating lanes.

Victims of War: The Wolf Children of East Prussia

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for the lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Hermann Goering, Nuremberg Diaries

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I hate war with every fibre of my being! The nationalistic imagined rhetoric, the meglamaniacal leaders, the terrible suffering and the untold casualties. Tracing my heritage in this beautiful country of Poland, reminded me of some of the horrors faced by the most vulnerable …

They called them the Wolf Children – thousands of orphans left behind in the panic and exodus of East Prussian Germans with the Red Army advancing. There were about 20,000 such children from East Prussia alone, not counting other affected areas. Around 5,000 of these children reached Lithuania where they disappeared into orphanages, families and cheap labour … and there they forgot their names, their language, and their childhood.

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Some of the youngest of these are now turning 80 years of age and after all these forgotten years there is a sudden resurgence of interest in the terrible hardship that they faced. Many experienced the death or their parents and their siblings. Many were abandoned. They faced illness, hunger and horrific abuse. Many have blocked out all early memories.

Under fear of persecution, there was no choice of remembering names and language. They were given an alias and that became their reality. It was only after 1990 that Wolf Children were able to freely pursue any memories they had. The support group, Edelweiss-Wolfskinder, was formed to help these now elderly people, who receive a tiny pension from Lithuania and no support from Germany, unless they can prove their heritage. Lack of language skills and education makes this virtually impossible for many of them.

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Not all the children made it to Lithuania. Some were put in homes around Koenigsberg (now Kalingrad) by the Soviet military administration from 1946-1947. Later they were transported en masse to homes built for that purpose in the newly established GDR (East Germany). But the children in Lithuania who were too far away never realised this was even an option. Many believed that Germany, like their families, no longer existed.

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The Wolf Children are a stark reminder of the victims of war. Nowadays people hear their stories and are horrified at the abuse and negligence. However, we need to only remind ourselves that at this very moment we are facing a global crisis of displaced people, mainly women and children, due to war and natural disasters, like we have not experienced since World War II … How will history remember us? We all have a choice in how we respond to the suffering of the traumatised and destitute people that have to flee their countries. May the horrors of history and the lessons they hold not land on ears that have gone deaf because of fear or indifference.

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Elie Wiesel

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Confessions of a Bibliophile

“There is no friend as loyal as a book”

Ernest Hemingway

I am an only child. From time to time people ask whether I missed having brothers or sisters. This is rather a peculiar question. It’s like asking someone who has never tasted eggs whether they miss quiche. In short, no. I did not miss having brothers or sisters. I am sure siblings are a marvellous treat for those who possess them, but I didn’t, and so I never missed them the slightest. How can you miss annoying homo sapiens that you have to share things with? Imagine if I had to share my books?!

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My obsession with books started at an early age. Amongst my collection of childhood books I specifically remember an ancient edition of Grimm’s Fairytales that sat on my bedside table. It was printed in Old German Fraktur font. Both my Omas could read the book at lightning speed. My book collection grew as my reading skills developed; from books on animals to old castles, fairy tales, poetry, children’s novels, and, of course, the whole collection of Asterix & Obelix. When we migrated to South Africa I learnt English and Afrikaans. This opened up a whole new set of books! I distinctly recall the first time I read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain, and bawling my way through Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. There are some books that haunt us for a lifetime.

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Providence would have it that my path would cross with a rather tall redhead, whose love for books matched mine. He considered browsing through encyclopedias a favourite pastime in his childhood. It was a match made in heaven. The lack of a shared ‘book love’ would have most certainly been a deal breaker. So between us, we started collecting a humungous amount of books. All sorts of books. “Read all sorts of books that wound and stab us,” advises Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis). This is good advice. Books open our thoughts and hearts. They take us to a different world and for a moment we can become part of a fantastic adventure. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.” (A Dance with DragonsGeorge R.R. Martin).

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It would be extremely difficult for me to list the most important books to read or my most favourite books. That would feel like I am selling out on old friends by comparing their worthiness or value. I have, however, thrown out a bunch of stupid books. Most often, modern-day schmuck about how to be better in leading, speaking, praying, or peeing – yeah, the self-help genre is my least favourite. *Rant Alert*: self-help books remind me of people who have discovered some gold (to their credit), but now they are convinced that the whole frigging world will discover gold in the same place, at the same time, with the same set of tools if they dig in just the right way, whilst chanting mantras. Yes, I know, it’s an awful generalisation and I probably just managed to offend some of my blog readers … but it is a pet peeve.

Now if you are a bibliophile, or more importantly, if you have a bibliophile living under your roof, the following observations may be very helpful:

  1. Bibliophiles feel lost without books. The Apostle Paul is in a dark, damp Roman prison, writing a letter to Timothy. “Bring my cloak,” he says (ver5127556-ancient-map-scroll-Stock-Photo-map-pirate-parchmenty important), “and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (most important). Who would have thought that Paul was a bibliophile? He was having massive withdrawals from his ‘books’ (2 Tim. 4:13).
  2. Bibliophiles will take great joy in ‘cleaning’ their bookshelves. Think it nothing strange if your book addict declares they will sort their books and then spend hours taking every book off the shelf, gazing lovingly at it, cleaning the shelves, and then putting them all back in a different order. If you are lucky, they emerge with one or two books that can be given away … you never really throw away books, unless they are extremely stupid books (please refer to ‘rant’ section above).
  3. You will often lose bibliophiles when you shop – they can be retrieved from the nearest book320px-Carl_Spitzweg_021shop. If, however, that bookshop is a second-hand bookshop, you have zero chance of getting them out of there in less than three hours.
  4. Bibliophiles will judge you. They will not judge you on your clothes, looks, education, house,beauty-and-the-beast-belle-book-books-Favim.com-616270.jpg food or pet. They will judge you on your bookshelf and on the books you are reading. Prepare for judgment.
  5. They press rewind every time the Beast unveils the library in Beauty and the Beast.
  6. Most often introverted, bibliophiles are happy for you to jabber on about all things regarding ‘normal’ life until it comes to books. God help you if you misquote a book. God help you if you make a derogative comment about a classic novel. God help you if you do not ask them at that time what they are reading and why. To be forewarned is to live in harmony.
  7. Bibliophiles will have certain books they read repeatedly. This is a most bizarre behaviour for anyone who is not a book addict. It’s really hard to explain why we do this. Perhaps it has to do with relieving the experience or the feeling we received from reading the book, or simply to make triply sure that we did not miss a minute detail of the story. My repeat reads include Brennan Manning’s The Ragamuffin GospelRichard Rohr’s, Breathing Underwater, and, of course, Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings.

book-61So, mugwumps, who of you want to raise your hands and join me in my book addiction confession moment? What books are you reading right now? Oh, and is this a good time for me to tell you what I am reading? I thought you’d never ask! On the novel side I am ploughing my way through Philippa Gregory’s excellent historical novel series, The Cousins’ WarI love historical novels and Gregory is an outstanding writer as she sheds light on the three important women of the Wars of the Roses. I am also re-reading David Gushee’s book, Changing our Mind. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Widely regarded as one of the leading moral voices in American Christianity, he is the author or editor of 20 books and hundreds of articles in his field, including Righteous Gentiles of the HolocaustKingdom EthicsThe Sacredness of Human Life, and, most recently, Changing Our Mind. What a read! Here’s a quote: “Better is one day in the company of those bullied by Christians but loved by Jesus than thousands in the company of those wielding scripture to harm the weak and defenceless.” (Review)

Yes, I am afraid I am a bibliophile. I love big books and I cannot lie. But now it’s your turn – what books are you reading and what do you love/hate about them?

“When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” 

Desiderius Erasmus

 

 

The ‘Others’: Ideas that Shape Australia’s Attitude and Policies on Asylum Seekers

This past week our world was again reminded of the stark and devastating reality that we are facing a crisis of displaced people, due to war and natural disasters, unparalleled since World War Two. The image of a tiny Syrian boy, drowned at sea whilst seeking refuge, whose body had washed up on the idyllic shores of the Turkish resort town, Bodrum, sent shock waves through the global village. Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, in his rather predictable manner, used this heart-wrenching moment to drive home his political ‘tough stance‘ on asylum seekers: “I would say, if you want to stop the drownings you’ve got to stop the boats.” As many parts of the world are frantically seeking to adjust in order to help a multitude of destitute and vulnerable people, Australia continues to take an austere approach to those seeking asylum, drawing harsh criticism.

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Australia’s current policies and attitude towards asylum seekers is built on a certain set of ideas. Ideologies that have developed over time, and which originated amidst the hardship, scarcity and survival fears experienced by the first European settlers. Ideologies are all about a set of beliefs about the proper order of society. Shared ideologies communicate beliefs, opinions and values of a particular social group, society or nation. So what are some of the ideas that have shaped the Australian collective psyche and causes so many people to support the extremely harsh measures towards ‘boat people’?

I would contend that there are four major propositions that have shaped Australia’s social conscience towards asylum seekers. Unless we find ways to address these deeply embedded paradigms we will not see a change of the current felt antagonism and indifference. Following is a brief summary of the ‘Big Four’ that politicians and those in power have used for their advantage (a link to a full discussion paper is provided below):

1. Nationalism

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Two foundational blocks upheld Australia’s imagined ideals of  nationalism. Firstly, the refusal of colonisers to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land. European settlers declared Australia  terra nullis on their arrival, dismissing the many Aboriginal tribes as barbaric and entirely destitute of even the rudest forms of civil policy. Henry Reynolds estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people died as a result of white settler genocide. The full degree of atrocities will never be fully known. Yet Australia continues to celebrate its National Day on a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the celebration of a race at the expense of another.

Secondly, they saw themselves very much part of the British Empire and the ‘British race’. These perceptions continue to linger to this day.  Recently reinforced by Tony Abbott when he addressed the Australian-Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Outlook: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.

Nationalist ideologies that are built on Anglo-Celtic ideals do not bode well for those seeking asylum on Australian shores as they create negative imagery of ‘otherness’.

2. Racism

In 1901, the new Federal Parliament passed the now infamous Immigration Restriction Act, excluding all non-European migrants. It became the foundation of the ‘White Australia’ Policy. This policy would shape Australian national imagination for the next six decades as it sketched images of the ‘ideal’ Australian citizen that would fit with Australia’s national character. Racism is a most effective political tool in that it enables the material and intellectual fear and greed of dominant groups.

In modern times, the racist rhetoric of Pauline Hanson resonated with a nation that held a deep-seated ideology from its settler inception. John Howard seized the election opportunity to fuel the fear of economic competition and fear of the ‘other’ by successfully dehumanising those seeking refuge. This dehumanising exercise was executed to perfection by creating slanderous lies of Middle Eastern asylums seekers supposedly throwing their children overboard in order to be towed to the safety of Australian waters in October 2001. He said: ‘I don’t want, in Australia, people who throw their children into the sea.’ Despite the warning of the falsehood of these allegations by navy personnel, both Howar1346432400000d and the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, stuck to this distorted version until after the 2002 election. Hugh Mackay observed that, “the ‘children overboard’ incident…shows us how vulnerable Australians have become to political spin.” I would argue that the vulnerability of the Australian society to racist spin is a direct
result of racist conditioning and ideology; an ideology that continues to shape the attitude and policies of both sides of government in a race towards the bottom when it comes to asylum seekers.

3. National Security

National security ideology and attitude towards asylum seekers hold a close connection in a country that nurtures fears of invasion and economic competition. In a global context of economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security, paranoid Australians look to the government to protect them and provide assurance. National security rhetoric therefore holds appeal for any government seeking legitimacy and approval. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, provided an opportunity for the Howard government to not only suggest that some who sought to come to Australia ‘illegally’ had criminal records, but that terrorists might have been smuggled on the boats. Racist ideas may have been a key factor in the Tampa crisis, australia-653164_1280but it is the intertwined ideas surrounding security in those circumstances that robs people of agency, choice and freedom. In cases like Tampa or the World Trade Centre attack, citizens look to their leaders for guidance and assurance, and if they believe their security is at risk they will accede to ideologies based in fear and prejudice. By alluding to asylum seekers as security threats the government was, and is, able to portray a defence of autonomy and sovereignty, while turning society into pliable and passive subjects.

4. Insularity

In 1937, Arthur Henderson, a British Labour member of the House of Commons, visited Australia and New Zealand. He criticised how geographical insularity had created a feeling amongst Australians that they were so far from the rest of the world affairs that they need not bother over them.

Suvendrini Perera probes the effect of geographical insularity on Australian thought and identity, linking it directly to historical violence in order to impose white insularity and exclus640x392_55457_152696ivism: “The plotting of Australia as an insular formation both expels the ‘foreign’ bodies around its edges and encloses Indigenous peoples more closely within clearly demarcated borders.” She forms a strong case to demonstrate that it is ideas of insularity, sustained by colonial myths of terra nullis and ‘Robinsonian fantasies’, that undergird the violence, racism and exclusion that are at work in events such as the Tampa crisis or the brutality of detention centres.

In conclusion, ideologies shape a nation’s policies and worldview. Modern day Australia has a constructed set of ideologies still inherent in its convict past. These shared perceptions have been shaped through hardship and survival fears, and propagated through political rhetoric and mass media. Last week we saw the horrendous image of a little boy, representing thousands of refugees, who lost his life trying to find a better tomorrow. Australia cannot continue this path of national delusion and escapism. We have to lay aside ideological fallacies, step up and become responsible global citizens.

(Read the complete document: “The ‘Others’: How have ideologies, shaped by Nationalism, Racism, Insularity and National Security, influenced current Australian attitude and policies towards ‘Boat People’?”)

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