RICHARD FLANAGAN | The Guardian | Extract
CANBERRA - Our society grows increasingly more unequal, more disenfranchised, angrier, more fearful.
Even in my home town of Hobart, as snow settles on the mountain, there is the deeply shameful spectacle of a tent village of the homeless, the number of which increase daily. We sense the rightful discontent of the growing numbers locked out from a future. From hope.
Instead of public debate, scapegoats are offered up – the boatperson, the queue jumper, the Muslim – a xenophobia both parties have been guilty of playing on for electoral benefit for two decades.
Instead of new ideas and new visions we are made wallow in threadbare absurdities and convenient fictions: Australia Day, the world’s most liveable cities, secure borders.
Our institutions are frayed. Our polity is discredited, and almost daily discredits itself further. The many problems that confront us, from housing to infrastructure to climate change, are routinely evaded.
Our screens are filled with a preening peloton of potential leaders, but nowhere is there to be found leadership.
Holderlin, the great 19th century poet, wrote of the “mysterious yearning toward the chasm” that can overtake nations. Increasingly, one can sense that yearning in the overly heated rhetoric of some Australian politicians and commentators.
That yearning can overtake Australia as easily as it has many other countries, damaging our democratic institutions, our freedoms and our values.
Politics, which ought to have as its highest calling the task of holding society together, of keeping us away from the chasm, has retreated to repeating divisive myths that have no foundation in the truth of what we are as a nation, and so, finally only serve to contribute to the forces that could yet destroy us.
Or worse yet, openly stoking needless fear and, with the refugee issue, a xenophobia for short-term electoral advantage.
The consequence is a time bomb which simply needs as a detonator what every other country has had and we have not: hard times. But hard times will return. And when they do what defence will we have should a populist movement that trades on the established scapegoats arises? An authoritarian party with a charismatic leader that uses the poison with which the old myths are increasingly pregnant to deliver itself power?
The challenge that faces us, the grave and terrifying challenge, is to transform ourselves as a people. This fundamental challenge is not policy, it is not franking credits nor is it tax giveaways or rail links, necessary or not as these things may be.
It is to realise that if we don’t create for ourselves a liberating vision founded in the full truth of who we are as a people, we will find ourselves, in a moment of crisis, suddenly entrapped in a new authoritarianism wearing the motley of the old lies.
For we are a people of astonishing perversity.
We are an ancient country that insists on thinking itself new. We are a modern nation that insists our recent arrangements are so time-honoured that none of them can ever be changed. We are a complex country that insists on being simple minded.
We regard simplicity as a national virtue, and when coupled with language unimpeded by the necessity for thought, is regarded as strong character. Which may explain our treasurer Scott Morrison, but little else.
And for the past two decades we have doubled down and doubled down again on old myths – lies – that become more dangerous the longer we allow them to go unchallenged.
Yesterday, on the eve of Anzac Day, the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, launched a war memorial-cum-museum in France. Costing an extraordinary $100 million, the Monash Centre is reportedly the most expensive museum built in France for many years.
It will honour those Australians who so tragically lost their lives on the western front in world war one and, more generally, the 62,000 Australians who died in world war one.
Would that someone might whisper into the prime minister’s ear the last lines of Wilfred Owen’s poem about those same fatal trenches:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Owen’s last Latin phrase – ‘the old lie’, as he puts it – is from the Roman poet Horace: “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”
Except the Australians didn’t even die for Australia. They died for Britain. For their empire. Not our country. A double lie then: a lie within a lie.
But, as Tony Abbott asked when, as prime minister, he announced the building of the museum, what was the alternative in Britain’s time of need?
Well, we might answer, staying home for one thing, and not dying in other people’s wars.
And yet the horrific suffering of so many Australians for distant empires has now become not a terrible warning, not a salient story of the blood-sacrifice that must be paid by nations lacking independence, not the unhappy beginning of an unbroken habit, but, bizarrely, the purported origin story of us as an independent people….
Lest we forget we chant, as we have all chanted for a century now. And yet it is as if all that chanting only ensures we remember nothing. If we remembered would we 100 years later still allow our young men to be sent off to kill or be killed in distant conflicts defending yet again not our country, but another distant empire, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan?
If all that chanting simply reinforces such forgetting, then what hope have we now in negotiating some independent, safe path for our country between the growing tension of another dying empire, the American, and the rising new empire of the Chinese? Because instead of learning from the tragedies of our past, we are ensuring that we will learn nothing.
The forgetting extends to the horrific suffering of war. The prime minister who will, no doubt, speak sincerely and movingly of the torn bodies and broken lives of the Australians who fell in France, is also the same prime minister who wants to see the Australian arms industry become one of the world’s top 10 defence exporters, seeking to boost exports to several countries, including what was described as “the rapidly growing markets in Asia and the Middle East”, in particular the United Arab Emirates, a country accused of war crimes in Yemen.
Anzac Day, which is a very important day for my family, was always a day to remember all my father’s mates who didn’t make it home. But it was also a moment to ponder the horror of war more generally.
But of late Anzac Day has become enshrouded in cant and entangled in dangerous myth. If this seems overstated ponder the bigoted bile that attended Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s tweet last Anzac Day in which she posted “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine ...)”
I read this as a plea for compassion drawing on the memory of a national trauma.
Most refugees on Manus Island and Nauru are fleeing war, Syria has half a million dead and more than 11 million people exiled internally and externally because of war, and Palestinians, whatever position one takes, suffer greatly from ongoing conflict.
And yet as the attacks on Abdel-Magied showed, some were seeking to transform Anzac Day into a stalking horse for racism, misogyny and anti-Islamic sentiment. For hate, intolerance and bigotry. For all those very forces that create war.
The great disrespect to Anzac Day wasn’t the original tweet but the perverted attacks made on it, in, of all things, the name of the dead. Those who think they honour Anzac Day by forgetting contemporary victims of war only serve to make a tragic mockery of all that it should be.