Tag Archives: Human rights

A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN

17 Jul

March 28, 2005 - “Australia was facing a United Nations committee’s scrutiny for the first time in five years. The event went unreported back home and the verdict – handed down on March 12 – was the subject of only a few, scattered reports in the press.”

“Australia was rebuked for its treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and Aborigines. In the eyes of the Geneva committee, the list of this country’s failures on the human rights front has only grown longer since the Howard Government came to office.”

The Coalition’s recent insistence that asylum seekers can only be sent to states that have signed the Refugee Convention is startling, given its history with the UN throughout the Howard government years. This history can be fairly described as hostile and bordering on the pugilistic, with then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reacting to negative UN committee reports with this outburst:

  “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

On Howard’s watch in 1998, Australia became the first Western nation to be issued with an “urgent action” notice following what the UN committee identified as a risk of “acute impairment” to native title rights. We were then found in breach of our obligations to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and again earned the dubious distinction of being the first Western nation to incur a breach finding.

John Howard reacted to UN criticisms thus: “Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees.” Amnesty International confirmed his attitude with this observation, after a 2004 High Court ruling sanctioned mandatory detention:  “These findings show the limited impact that international human rights law has had to date on Australian law-making.”

As an indication of the Coalition attitude in 2001, Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive peoples whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).

In 2002, at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, the Howard government agreed to allow Special Envoy Justice P.N. Bhagwati to assess the conditions of asylum seekers held in indefinite mandatory detention, with specific regard to the question of their human rights.

Justice Bhagwati’s report, which can be read in full at the above link, contains this observation:

As noted above, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, explicitly prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The human rights situation which Justice Bhagwati found in Woomera IRPC could, in many ways, be considered inhuman and degrading.

Australia signed the CAT treaty in 1985, and ratified in 1989.

Justice Bhagwati’s report was described by Howard government ministers as “fundamentally flawed,” “emotive” and lacking objectivity. The government received an advanced copy of the report, and had the opportunity to correct any “flaws” prior to its release. The Special Envoy was also accused of interfering in domestic policies.

A personal observation: I visited Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, just before Justice Bhagwati undertook his visit to Australian detention centres. It was entirely appropriate to react with emotion to the conditions in that place, and to the suffering of the children, women and men behind its razor wire. Indeed, the inability to feel disturbed by those conditions and the resultant human suffering, indicates the presence of sociopathic tendencies, an inability to accept those imprisoned there as human.

For a much more thorough analysis of the Coalition’s relations with the UN than I’ve provided, I strongly recommend “The Howard Government’s Record of Engagement with the International Human Rights System” by Sarah Joseph.

The series of events over the last decade and more rather gives lie to this extravagant claim: “The Opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Coalition has always supported the UN Refugee Convention, and will continue to do so.”

The Opposition’s recent decision to refuse to allow asylum seekers to be sent to any country that hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention is wildly inconsistent with its attitude to the United Nations for the last fourteen years. When in government, the Coalition regarded the UN as toothless, and our obligations to the treaties we signed as irrelevant. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as children were and still are kept in mandatory detention, with and without their parents.

These attitudes are not peculiar to the Opposition. The current government does not observe our obligations either.

Now Scott Morrison seems to be getting himself in something of a twist, having declared the Refugee Convention to be out of date and needing an overhaul, while simultaneously demanding the government observe the fundamental protections it offers in ensuring asylum seekers are sent to a signatory country.

Neither major party have anything to boast about when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Both pander to the prejudice and xenophobia of voters they believe will give them government. Both claim they wish to avoid deaths at sea, but they apparently have little or no concern about asylum seekers dying anywhere else, as long as it’s out of our sight and mind.

This is a drastic failure of leadership on both parts. It’s been shown time and time again, that if people are given the opportunity to meet and know asylum seekers, even the most hardened attitudes can change dramatically. Leaders worth the title would grasp this, and take the opportunity to extend our hearts and minds rather than encourage their shrinkage for political gain. There are many things that can be described as despicable in politics, but surely up there at the top must be the demonisation of human beings, and exploitation of their suffering for domestic political gain.

A pox on both their houses.


Belief versus human rights

13 Jun

After my blog yesterday on Prime Minister Gillard’s belief that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, I became embroiled in several robust Twitter fights. One of the points of contention was that the PM, like anyone else, is entitled to her personal beliefs. I was threatened with Voltaire, told belief does not require any knowledge, described as intolerant and blind to the mote in my own eye,  and finally accused of risking the downfall of the government and an Abbott ascendency, by criticising Ms Gillard’s personal belief about same-sex marriage.

While there’s a good community here at Sheep, Rupert Murdoch I’m not.

Be that as it may, the fights led me to thinking about belief. While I agree that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, I don’t agree that everyone is entitled to act on those beliefs to the detriment of others. Once a belief is extrapolated from the personal realm and used to determine the lives of others it is no longer personal, it is political.

Personal belief can legitimately determine the course of one’s own life. If you don’t believe same-sex marriage is right, for example, then don’t make a same-sex marriage. Nobody in our country will force you into an arrangement that powerfully disturbs your moral sensibility.

What disturbs me, however, is the argument that personal beliefs ought to be set apart from the interrogations we are at liberty to apply to all other human processes. The personal belief is elevated to the sacred, inspiring respect and reverence simply because it is a personal belief, and regardless of its substance. While I find this bizarre, hinting as it does at some transcendental exterior governance, I have little problem with it, as long as the belief remains in the realm of the personal. When it becomes prescriptive, I argue that it is no longer protected from scrutiny and critique by reverence.

Tony Abbott, for example, holds a personal belief that abortion is wrong, as well as being opposed to same sex marriage. In this article titled Rate of abortion highlights our moral failings Mr Abbott explores his personal beliefs about this procedure, including his belief that abortion is a lifestyle choice made to suit the mother’s convenience.

Of course Mr Abbott is entitled to hold these beliefs. Anyone can believe anything they want. He is not entitled to impose his beliefs on others. When he does, the belief has ceased to be personal, and has become political.

If I am expected to unquestioningly respect Ms Gillard’s personal beliefs on homosexual marriage, I gather I am also expected to respect Mr Abbott’s beliefs on abortion and refrain from challenging them?

What about Hitler, because no argument about belief is complete without a reference to Hitler. Hitler’s personal belief was that  human beings who did not fit his ideal didn’t deserve to exist. Including homosexuals. When Hitler’s personal belief burst out of his private realm, millions upon millions of human beings were starved, tortured and murdered. Yet Hitler’s personal belief ought to have gone unchallenged because personal beliefs are sacred?

I could go on with endless examples of the dire repercussions of actions based on personal beliefs, but I know you’ve got my drift.

Perhaps a belief can be considered sacred only as long as it remains personal. Once it affects anyone other than the believer it is no longer personal, and no longer entitled to protection from interrogation.

Were I to be given the chance, I would ask Ms Gillard if she has reasonable, plausible evidence for her core belief that homosexuals should not marry. I use the term core belief  because I’m assuming that the PM has actively thought about her position on same sex marriage and has come to a state of justified true belief. Otherwise we would be dealing with something more akin to superstition, of the kind practised by Jim Wallace and the ACL.

The reason I care about this has nothing to do with marriage, about which I personally give not a toss. It has to do with the right all homosexuals have to be treated equally. It is about the right homosexuals have to be recognised as being as fully human as heterosexuals, and as entitled to participate in our institutions to precisely the same degree. This is not, in my opinion, a matter for anybody’s personal beliefs to determine. It’s a matter of human rights.

 

 

Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold

15 Feb



Part One

In which I argue the nature and purpose of forgiveness from a secular perspective, that is, from a horizontal, inter-human position, rather than the vertical, theological position of divine forgiveness and grace. I argue against the appropriation of forgiveness to the service of a philosophical discourse, and for multiple understandings and practices of forgiveness that are not reliant either on philosophy, or religious belief.

Must we not accept that, in heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? Jacques Derrida

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

In his 2007 philosophical exploration of forgiveness, Charles Griswold, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, states that forgiveness should be understood as

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal), are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation. All parties to the discussion about forgiveness agree, so far as I can tell, that this is a legitimate context for the use of the term; and most take it as its paradigm sense, as shall I.

A further definition of forgiveness is ‘…first and foremost the foreswearing of revenge…and of the other abuses of resentment.’ This definition will be implicit throughout my argument, but not in the context of its application being restricted to the paradigm of ideal conditions proposed by Griswold.

Griswold also states that his inquiry is secular, however within that stated secularity he has constructed a dogma, a system of principles and tenets authoritatively laid down, as by a church. Failure to attain the requirements of these principles and tenets results, Griswold claims, in exclusion from the possibility of forgiveness: ‘Where none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed; sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive,’ he claims.

I explore the ramifications of this prohibition primarily from the perspective of the injured, and suggest that it is an extremely serious matter to cast either the injured or the injurer as beyond the ameliorating possibilities of forgiving and forgiveness, whether this is done under the umbrella of philosophy or religion.

I’m going to argue that the most appropriate context for discussions of forgiveness is within an embodied discourse of human rights. I’m also intrigued by what Judith Butler describes as the ‘…moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured’ and from that argue that forgiveness is both a practical and an ethical necessity, and that it is the victim’s privilege, task and responsibility.

As well, I argue against Griswold’s belief that the perpetrator’s remorse is necessary for forgiveness. I also claim in opposition to Griswold that the attitude of perpetrators to their victims can and frequently must be irrelevant to the victim’s decisions about forgiveness.  We need a paradigm of forgiveness that is based in the embodied experiences of the injured, rather than defined as an abstract ideal to which the injured must aspire.

I don’t know what forgiveness is, though I’ve spent many hours thinking about it. Some say that it’s a state of grace that comes without announcement. Some say it’s a calm, in which there’s no ill will, and perhaps no thought at all. Some say it’s when you know something has ended and move on, without even really noticing

None of my propositions comply with the requirements of a concept of ideal forgiveness, whether that is theological or philosophical. They are a consequence of my experience of injury, and the subsequent profound moral dilemma I experienced. This dilemma is centred on the quite natural desire for redress and revenge, and the possibility of becoming a perpetrator if I act on this desire.

While Griswold’s definition is a legitimate context for the use of the term forgiveness, to declare this context the ‘paradigm sense’ taken by ‘most’, is to exclude from the experience of forgiveness millions upon millions of the injured who, for various reasons, are denied or legitimately shy away from the possibility of communication with their injurer. I argue instead for a much broader understanding of forgiveness, one in which unilateral forgiveness, that is, forgiveness that does not require the co-operation of the perpetrator, is included in the forgiveness paradigm.

I do this because injuries after which there is a possibility of ‘reciprocity’ are likely to be less common than those in which the perpetrator is unavailable or unrepentant. Such latter injuries can range in nature from the offended householder whose freshly painted wall is vandalised by unknown graffiti artists, to the victim of sexual assault whose rapist cannot be found, to the survivors of genocide whose tormentors are dead or unidentified. That is, circumstances which Griswold casts as ‘non-paradigmatic’, for example ‘…forgiving the dead or unrepentant…’ are likely to be more frequent than instances in which the injured and injurer are capable of communication and resolution.

As well, Griswold situates his argument ‘…in the ideal…’ and circumstances extraneous to this ideal are described as ‘…lacking or imperfect relative to the paradigm.’ If the circumstances do not fit Griswold’s ideal paradigm of dyadic forgiveness due to their failure to comply with the necessary ‘…baseline conditions…’ then, he claims: ‘…you are not engaged in forgiving, but doing something else.’

Below ideal baseline conditions for legitimate entry into Griswold’s country of forgiveness: ‘…may lie excuse, or condonation, or explanation, or any number of psychological strategies from rationalisation to amnesia…’ In other words if I assert that I have forgiven my perpetrator without having entered into communication with him, and without the benefit of his expressed remorse, then I am deluding myself.  Griswold elaborates: ‘…just being in the psychic state of no longer feeling resentment…whether that state is induced by medication, therapy, an astonishing act of will, an ostensibly religious revelation, or what have you,’ is not, he claims, sufficient to qualify as forgiveness.

As any survivor will attest, there is no such thing as ‘just being’ free of resentment: the struggle to overcome that feeling and everything associated with it is enormous, frequently ongoing and often demands more than just one ‘astonishing act of will.’ There is also a considerable difference between being medicated, and exercising one’s will. This argument for what forgiveness is not and why it is not is unconvincing, as is any argument that concludes an extensive list of unrelated generalisations with the phrase ‘what have you’.

The construction of an ‘ideal’ that is exterior to the imperfect human condition, complete with prescriptives and prohibitions for its attainment, is not entirely dissimilar to constructing a theology, not least in that both demand an original act of faith and belief in the existence of a fixed transcendental, from which subsequent thinking ensues. While the secular as proposed by Griswold is firmly disassociated by him from the religious, their prescriptive, exclusionary, and monolithic discourses are remarkably similar. For example: ‘…we count the capacity to forgive – in the right way and under the right circumstances – as part and parcel of a praiseworthy character,’ states Griswold. Who are the ‘we’ represented here, by what authority and process do they determine the ‘right way and circumstances’ for forgiveness, and how and by whom is the praiseworthiness of character determined?

The phrase ‘right way and circumstances’ inevitably makes reference to a metaphysical authority that ultimately determines what is praiseworthy and right, unless Griswold is assuming this authority for himself.

In a paper titled ‘Derrida, Death and Forgiveness,’ Andrew McKenna observes that Derrida

…claims to find in Western Philosophy a crypto-theology. His analyses regularly uncover presuppositions about foundations and primacies, points of origin and authoritative presences that correspond to nothing other than a Supreme Being, however veiled or unapproachable.

It is just such a crypto-theology that Griswold has constructed in his philosophy of forgiveness, in which forgiveness is perceived first and foremost as an ideal concept located in the authority of an unidentified exteriority, and one that the imperfect human being must struggle to attain.

In claiming the necessity for a sovereign ideal that must create notions of lack, imperfection, exclusion and failure, Griswold is describing a vertical concept of forgiveness that can be seen as largely irrelevant to the temporal and inter-human experience of suffering and forgiveness, as viewed through the secular lens, and through the horizontal discourse of human rights. Human beings are most usefully served, I would argue, by considering forgiveness not as an ideal whose conditions one may fail to meet, and perhaps through no fault of one’s own, but rather as a universally accessible, cosmopolitan practice.

To be continued.

The vulnerability of children

7 Jun

Come forward to childhood, and do not despise it because it is small and it is little

As American philosopher and academic Judith Butler puts it in her book, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence, the condition of childhood is “a condition of being laid bare from the start.” In childhood, she continues, we inhabit “the condition of primary vulnerability…a primary helplessness and need, one to which any society must attend.”

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. Children have no capacity to represent themselves. If we are unable to represent ourselves, as children or in adulthood, we “run a greater risk of being treated as less than human” Butler observes.

Vulnerability is an inescapable fact of existence, particularly in childhood, and a child alone, without country, home, family and protectors, is in a state of extreme vulnerability. That vulnerability can be respected, exploited, or denied by adults. In situations where it is exploited and/or denied the child is radically objectified, and constructed as less than human.

 The child seeking asylum is a child who is stateless and without rights. As Hannah Arendt observed, rightlessness follows from statelessness. Our human rights are dependent upon being part of a community that enacts these rights on our behalf, and offers a framework in which these rights can be realised. Refugee children have lost their place in the world: they do not belong to a political community from which they are able to claim the right to human rights. UN Conventions such as The Rights of the Child supposedly offer avenues for the protection of such children. But for these to have any meaning, signatory countries must be trustworthy enough to abide by our undertakings.

When signatory countries like Australia do not honour the rights the Conventions bestow on a stateless child, when we disregard our serious obligations, refugee children remain stateless, rightless, lost and utterly vulnerable.

As long as we do not grant the child’s dignity and sovereignty by honouring our commitment to the Convention, we continue to perceive and treat refugee children as objects.

We are defined by where we belong, who cares about us, and our fundamental rights as human beings. The profound sense of violation reported by survivors of childhood abuse is often described as soul damage. Perhaps it’s also realistic to think of that profound damage as the destruction and or denial of the rights that help to construct us as human, in the eyes of others, and of ourselves.

As survivors will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of hardship, and struggle. Many do not make it through. In sending unaccompanied refugee children to a country that does not honour the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child we are condemning them to a rightless life, and denying them an opportunity that could be provided in this country for healing, and a productive adulthood.

Yesterday I heard a talking head comment that if the government allows any children to stay here, rather than send all of them to Malaysia, people smugglers will seize this opportunity to load their boats with children. Yes, that’s probably true. But, he went on, if there should be another Christmas Island tragedy, and a boatload of children are drowned, this will be a political catastrophe. Can’t argue with that.

But what struck me about his observations was that it’s perfectly acceptable in Australian public discourse for anything to do with unaccompanied child asylum seekers, or adults, to be framed in purely political terms. Not in human terms, involving compassion, understanding, desire to assist, responsibility or even concern for the welfare of kids. The only thing that counts is how events affect politicians and their party’s future.

We need no more proof that Australian politicians, echoing the sentiments of many in their electorates, do not see refugee children as human beings. They are objects, to be palmed off to another country as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize political fall out.

The moral dilemma any politicians with integrity face is that to demand that these children be treated as human as the rest of us means going against the tide, and possibly losing their jobs. There’s no room for respecting refugee children’s humanity, human rights, and human vulnerability, in Australia today. Our society is not one that, as Butler puts it, will attend to the child’s primary helplessness and need.

Better to be a cow.

Chris Bowen outdoes Philip Ruddock: who would have thought?

3 Jun

The opposition is quite within its rights to call for marching in the streets as a reaction to the Gillard government’s deal in progress with Malaysia to send boat arrivals to camps in that country.

What we know, however, is that the opposition doesn’t give anymore of a stuff about the well-being of boat arrivals than does the government. It’s just an opportunity to score points. The calls for demonstrations against the Malaysia plans are hollow and hypocritical. I can’t imagine why any one of the opposition would think the punters actually believe they care, except perhaps those who’ve forgotten the children overboard saga, and Woomera, and the sinking of the Siev X.

I’m not sure how much more sickening this whole thing can get. The human capacity for vile behaviour never ceases to amaze me, and that’s probably more a comment on my inability to to acknowledge that the triumph of hope over experience is far more common than the other way round.

What has to be accepted, it seems, is the reality that fear and xenophobia are setting the political agenda in this country. Emotion and irrationality have won the day.

Emotion and irrationality are never a good foundation for deciding anything. Yet the whole asylum seeker debate is driven and dominated by nothing more substantial than the xenophobic emotions of focus groups. People who’ve never seen an asylum seeker  and likely never will, are in charge of making refugee policy.

When they’ve managed to stop the boats, these people will begin to notice that their lives are no better for it. It wasn’t the asylum seekers that were causing their misery after all. Their misery comes from the inside, and nothing is going to make it go away.

Focus Groups

The policies of both major parties are held hostage by a demographic that lift its leg and pisses on the UN Conventions to which we are signatory. This demographic doesn’t give  a flying f**ck about Australia as part of a global community, and the responsibilities that come with that. They have no awareness of the origins of white settlement in this country and could care less, or of how our presence here counts for less than a nanosecond in deep time. They just don’t want boat people here. They just don’t like them.

It would have been quite something to have a government that was capable of standing up to these bullies,  instead taking a principled stand on boat arrivals in keeping with the Conventions to which we are signatories, and our domestic laws. But that ship has long since sailed.

It remains to be seen how much Chris Bowen will capitulate to Malaysian demands. We are quite likely already the laughing stock in our region. Our neighbours must be enjoying having us by the short and curlies. Rudd’s farcical “solution” with Indonesia and the Oceanic Viking. Gillard’s premature announcement of her plans for a detention centre in East Timor. Nauru just begging us to come back. And now, Malaysia having us dance to their tune. If we aren’t ashamed of the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, we ought to be cringing at how demeaned we are by our humiliating begging for someone, anyone (except Nauru) to make this all go away.

2002: UN condemns Australia on refugees. 2011: UN condemns Australia on refugees.

27 May

Mandatory Detention

Australia, 2002: The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs. Mary Robinson, requested Justice P.N. Bhagwati, Regional Advisor for Asia and the Pacific, to visit and report on the treatment of asylum seekers in detention in Australia in 2002, specifically focussing on the Woomera IRPC in South Australia. This report focused on ‘…the human rights issues related to the conditions of detention and the treatment of persons in the immigration facilities…’ (Bhagwati, 2008). Under ‘General Impression’ the first paragraph of the report reads as follows:

Justice Bhagwati was considerably distressed by what he saw and heard in Woomera. He met men, women and children who had been in detention for several months, some of them even for one or two years. They were prisoners without having committed any offence. Their only fault was that they had left their native home and sought to find refuge or a better life on the Australian soil. In virtual prison-like conditions in the detention centre, they lived initially in the hope that soon their incarceration will come to an end, but with the passage of time, the hope gave way to despair…He felt that he was in front of a great human tragedy. He saw young boys and girls, who instead of breathing the fresh air of freedom, were confined behind spiked iron bars…these children were growing up in an environment which affected their physical and mental growth and many of them were traumatised and led to harm themselves in utter despair.

Australia 2011: Change the names, dates and detention centres.

filipspagnoli wordpress.com

A DECADE OF COMPLETE FAILURE ON THE PART OF ALL POLITICAL PARTIES 

Jane and Jennifer go to Woomera with the dog – part two

15 Mar

The Dog

 

(Part One can be found in Pages)

We went to the Woomera Detention Centre ten years ago.

ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing, Sunday March 13th, reveals that little has changed over a decade, despite another government. Societal attitudes have hardened, as exemplified by the horrific 2GB competition Guess how many asylum seekers are being buried today?

The next day, Jane and Jennifer present themselves at the detention centre gates, as instructed at nine o’clock, and are admitted after the anticipated hassle about the right papers and the proper permissions. Two nice if misguided middle class ladies, in the eyes of the guards.

On the strength of their niceness, and their endearing oddness in carting a large dog to Woomera with them, some errors in their paperwork are overlooked. Fletcher is allowed to lie on a mat in the air-conditioned outer office while Jane and Jennifer go through the formal searches, leave their backpacks in lockers, and are escorted through the final portals into the depths of the prison.

Jennifer thinks that somehow this journey wouldn’t have been possible without the dog. This is rationally inexplicable. She looks back at Fletcher. He’s watching them go, on full alert, ears up, head raised, sniffing the air. Then they pass through security and are gone, out of his sight to the other side.

From where they sit in the Visitor’s Centre, silenced by their miserable surroundings, she can see through the open door another compound fenced in with barbed wire. Inside this compound are several dongas in which the detainees live.

The windows of the Visitor’s Centre are barred with steel; plastic chairs and tables are spread haphazardly round; there is no air-conditioning. Ceiling fans barely stir the air. There’s little if any insulation in the tin roof; they sit in an oven.

The women haven’t spoken to each other since the guards left them. Jennifer’s busy trying to assimilate everything: her notebook has been taken off her and she can’t write anything down. She’s also unnerved, not because she fears anything untoward happening to them, but because the ambience here is tense and edgy; the physical outlook is unrelentingly grim.

Jennifer’s known much in her life, but not institutional violence, state approved violence, publicly sanctioned violence against other human beings. She knows enough about the nature of fear to recognise its presence outside the familial setting. Now she’s now struggling to grasp that the darkness she’d imagined was confined to the family, abroad in the wider world is different, yet the same.

Institutions, in her case the school, were places of safety, places of protection from the private practices of adults who were not to be trusted for a minute. Those adults were the ones you knew best, in your own home, not strangers behind a razor wire fence. She was prepared for the conditions here in the abstract: the reality is something else altogether. There are ways in which Jennifer has lived a charmed and sheltered life.

Woomera child's drawing. by Karen Elliot via flickr

There is no grass for the children to play on, or for the babies to practice their walking. She watches three small children scuffing aimlessly about in the red dust at the steps of their donga; a Muslim girl of about twelve in her headscarf, lifted from her shoulders by the hot wind; a boy of about eight in shorts and bare feet. The sand is hot. Doesn’t it burn him?

Between them they help the smallest child, who is still tottering on his uncertain baby legs. A woman in a black burqa sits on the top step of the donga with her head in her hands. Outside the administration block, they noticed when they arrived, there’s a garden of emerald green grass, young trees, and beds of brilliant flowers. The garden isn’t visible from these dongas. Later they’re told it’s tended by some of the inmates.

As she watches, a man emerges from another donga in the compound. He runs down the steps and across the red dust, screaming in a language that is unintelligible to her, but his despair needs no translation. He flings himself repeatedly at the wire that keeps him contained, like an animal in a zoo maddened by its confinement. He shakes the wire back and forth while the children watch in frightened silence. The eldest girl puts her arms round the younger ones. The man’s screams rouse the woman in the burqa: she raises her head and briefly stares at him, then returns to her own private despair.

‘Oh, Christ,’ says one of the guards standing outside the door of the Visitor’s Centre,

Razor Wire 101. by Amy Leonard via flickr

‘what’s wrong with bloody Mustafa now?’

Jennifer is sitting very still. She’s been holding her breath, and now she’s feeling dizzy and sick. Her body is warning her that this is not a sight she should witness, but she’s here now, there’s nothing she can do.

Mustafa isn’t trying to attack anyone other than himself: it’s the sight of an adult man completely out of control of himself, a woman watching from a distance and returning to her self-absorbed despair; three children silently witnessing this scene. Are these scenes here in the detention centre, these scenes and many more like them and worse, are they making intolerable memories for these children? Will these children, in their middle age, sweat when they recall these events?

It’s getting hotter as the day moves on towards noon. The dongas shimmer like mirages. She’s been afraid ever since they crossed the threshold into the prison, ever since they drove down the bitumen road from the caravan park in the Woomera township towards prison surrounded by gibber desert and saltbush. She’s been afraid of the detention officers, and the blue water cannon positioned at the gate and the high, intimidating security lights that promise to illuminate everything without mercy, no crevice left untouched, no places left to hide.

She’s way out of her comfort zone, and anyway, fear is her Achilles heel.

Everybody’s got their personal weakness: greed, grief, free-floating anxiety, lust, anger, despair. Hers is fear. It can bring her undone in a nanosecond. This is a new kind of fear, she’s only dreamed this kind of fear, in nightmares when she’s been pursued by soldiers, unable to find a hiding place in a napalmed landscape. All their journey so far, through the drought and the death stench and the tormented landscapes, past the sun-bleached bones of animals dead from starvation, picked clean by buzzards and eagles, all this has finally brought them to this place.

The journey has been a fitting preparation.

The women saw the interrogatory lights cutting through the dark sky when they made a furtive reconnoitre the night before. Having arrived too late in the day to visit the centre, they set up camp, tied up the dog in the back of the truck and crawled without headlights as close to the prison parameters as they dared.

‘Shit,’ Jane whispered.

‘What?’

‘It’s just like bloody South Africa. I can’t believe it. What country am I in?’

‘God’s own,’ Jennifer told her.

They saw headlights approaching.

‘Get going!’

‘Shut up!’

Jane threw the truck into reverse.

In retrospect they’re hard-pressed to explain their panic. Jane was worried that if they were caught hanging round, their visits the next day would be jeopardised and this was a realistic apprehension. Oppression works swiftly. The guards were completely in control. If the women offended them, they’d find some way of refusing them entry. Driving round the perimeters of the detention centre at night could be construed by the guards as suspicious.

This is how the people inside have to think every day. If I do this I won’t be allowed to do that. About the smallest, most insignificant things.

‘We aren’t doing anything wrong,’ Jennifer whispered. ‘We’re on a public road.’

‘We’re hanging round. We’re looking. That’s wrong enough for these people.’

‘Christ,’ Jennifer said disgustedly, ‘we’re still in Australia.’

‘And this is what Australia is these days,’ Jane said and they fell silent, contemplating the state of their country. God’s own be buggered.

‘Why are we whispering?’ Jennifer asked finally.

‘Dunno. We’re out of our depth aren’t we? Two white ladies from out of state. We’re out of our depth, the landscape, the Detention Centre, Woomera, which I think is a very strange town, by the way. Did you notice those parks full of planes and bombs and rockets? And how green the grass is, where do they get the bloody water from? And those empty, smashed-up apartment blocks with the doors hanging off their hinges and banging in the wind and all their windows broken? Like a post nuclear movie.’

Jane drove them back to the park. A high wind had sprung up, rocking their caravan. It was cold. Large spots of rain fell on them as they moved from the truck to the van. The park was almost empty. No one came here anymore the manager told them, owing to that fucking Detention Centre. Everyone’s afraid there’ll be a break out and they’ll get caught up in it.

‘Used to be a busy, thriving park,’ he said. ‘Now fucking look at it.’

They didn’t tell him the reason for their visit. Just passing through, they said, on their way to somewhere else. They had no wish to get into a fight with him about the detainees. They were closing down, husbanding their resources.

There was only one other van parked for the night. The park was asphalt with squares cut out of it in which frail saplings tried to grub a life for themselves out of the red dirt. They could see the lights of the Detention Centre. They made tea and climbed into their beds. Fletcher settled down on the floor in between them.

Human Rights. by Hugo via flickr

 

Though the guards complain to each other about Mustafa’s on-going expressions of despair, nobody goes to help him, or even to tell him to shut up, or whatever they do with people in there in extremis. Which seems to be very little. Mustafa’s frantic screaming subsides into sobs. He wraps his arms round himself and rocks back and forth in that movement typical of human beings, adults and children, who have given up on any hope of comfort other than what they can provide for themselves. Then he leaps up again and grabs at the wire.

Earlier the guards had spoken to the women about their feelings towards the detainees.

‘They’ve got everything,’ two guards, a man and a woman, told them as they deposited their bags in the lockers and waited to be searched.

‘They’ve got TVs, clothes, videos, everything.’

‘We have not got our freedom!’ shouted an inmate, overhearing the guards’ account of things as he swept and mopped the office floors.

‘That’s relative, mate!’ the male guard shouted back. ‘Freedom’s relative. I’m not free either, you know. I’ve got to show up for work here every day, can’t sit around on my arse watching TV like you. Can’t even afford a bloody TV like they’ve got,’ he told the women. ‘Working my butt off and I can’t afford what they’ve got for nothing. Then they trash it! Bloody trash TVs, DVDs, computers! You wouldn’t believe it.’

He shook his head and swore softly under his breath.

Jennifer reflects on this exchange as they sit in the Visitors’ Centre waiting for the asylum seekers they’ve arranged to meet with. The irony of the situation doesn’t escape her. The guards, poorly paid and in one of the worst work places in the country, measure their success in life by the things they can buy with their wages. This is a widespread marker of success in Western culture, the guards are no different from most other people in their material ambitions.

All the things they see the detainees getting ‘for nothing’ and then ‘trashing’ when there’s a riot, are things they’re busting their guts in this god-awful place to earn the means to obtain. The guard doesn’t feel free, because of this, and he’s in no frame of mind to start measuring his degree of freedom against that of the detainees. He’s not about to argue degrees of freedom and personal choice. He feels powerless, except in his right to exercise power over the detainees.

It’s easy enough to say the guards don’t have to be there. And they don’t, nobody’s forcing them. But as violent as they reputedly are, as racist and resentful as they clearly are, to tell them that they don’t have to do this doesn’t seem to be the answer. They think they do.

The noon temperature is forty-two degrees Celsius. There’s a hot wind roaring

Iraqi refugee child. by Catholic Relief Services via flickr

across the plain. Mustafa has stopped crying and sits quietly in the dust, his head resting against the wire. The children walk towards him. The girl’s scarf whips round her head in the wind. She holds the baby’s hand.

They all stare at the visitors. Jane and Jennifer smile. Nobody smiles back. They aren’t allowed to approach the children or talk to them. Jennifer knows she will remember this scene for the rest of her life, the three solemn children, the damaged, broken man, the woman silent on the step, her head buried in her hands.

It’s as if they’ve reproduced, in the middle of their democratic country, conditions that bear an eerie similarity to those that caused the people to flee their homelands in the first place.

‘If they’ll bother to get up,’ the guard is saying to Jane.

‘What?’ Jennifer asks.

‘It’s Ramadan. Your detainees might be late. They pray all night and sleep all day. Weird, eh?’

The guard is wired for every kind of sound. He’s got technical aids every which way. He looks at Jennifer as if he wants her to form an alliance with him against this ‘weirdness’ he has to endure on a daily basis. She thinks she might have pretended to something of the kind before she actually got into the place. Getting in was tricky, touch and go, they knew they had to play things very straight. But once in, the guards could go to buggery. Like the bloody country.

‘So why are they lazy, lying in bed all day if they’ve been praying all night?’ she asks, hostile. ‘It’s an important thing, Ramadan, like Christians have important things. Isn’t it? Anyway, it’s not as if they’ve anything to get up for, you don’t let them do anything.’

The guard looks truculent.

‘I guess this is a pretty awful job,’ Jane intervenes, deciding on diplomacy.

He softens.

‘Mate, it’s the bloody pits. Nobody knows. Nobody hears our side of the story. We’re just the bastards. You know,’ he went on, settling in for a rare opportunity to whinge to a member of the public, ‘I daren’t tell anyone I work here. You imagine that? Having to lie about where you work?’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because the place’s got such a bad name nobody else’ll employ me after I’ve been working here.’

He leans back in his chair. They can see the tension bristling through his body. His face is congested, his beer gut large, his uniform too tight.  He’s on the edge, as are many other guards they meet on their way through the system.

‘I don’t even tell me mates what I do. I tell ‘em I work in Woomera for the Government and it’s secret, what I do. Never mention the Detention Centre. No way.’

Jane reflects on the difficulties and stresses such daily deceits must bring to a life.

‘That’s bad,’ she tells him. ‘That’s a hard thing to do.’

‘My oath. Then you get these bastards in here smashing everything up they get given. Bloody mad. Don’t make sense.’

His radio squawks. He listens and then speaks into it rapidly.

‘Well there’s three of the ones you asked to visit on their way.’

‘Three? We arranged to meet with twelve.’

‘Th’other nine aren’t allowed visitors. They’ve being playin’ up, lost their privileges.’

‘What? All nine of them?’ Jane protests.

‘Well, except Parvin, she’s too sick.’

‘She was fine a couple of days ago.’

‘Yeah, well now she’s too sick. So do you want to see these blokes or not?’

‘Yes, yes of course we do.’

He speaks into his radio.

The three young men follow the guards into the Visitors’ Centre. They introduce themselves, awkwardly. The women have corresponded with the young men, so they know something of each other’s lives, but in the face-to-face encounter they are all shy, hesitant.

Nasrim, Ali and Mohammed sit across the table from Jane and Jennifer and they look at one another in silence. The young men all have olive-skin, with bloodshot mahogany eyes under full brows, and black hair cut short as if there is only one style permitted inside the prison. Ali, who looks to be the youngest, has a round face with soft features. His expression is open though baffled, permanently so, Jane thinks. His eyes are huge, like dark, full moons and they glisten. He is plump, the soft plumpness of a young man who hasn’t yet grown into his adult body.

Nasrim has an athletic build, lean and supple. His cheekbones are well-defined, his eyes shift rapidly, checking out the women, his surroundings, his friends, noting where the guards have settled. He drums his fingertips on the table, waiting for someone to speak.

The third man, Mohammed, wears an untidy beard, beginning to show premature flecks of grey and when he smiles his lips are rosy and his teeth white, framed by the dark hair. He is heavy and muscular. He drops heavily into an orange plastic chair and drops his hands on his thighs.

‘Welcome,’ he says to the women. ‘Welcome to our palace in the desert!’

Nasrim has a packet of biscuits in his hand and Ali and Mohammed carry water, orange cordial and paper cups.

‘There is a good guard, a kind man,’ Nasrim says, ‘he gives us these things for us to give to our visitors. He understands that at home, in our country, it is very wrong to greet the visitor with an empty hand and so he lets us have these things for you.’

Mohammed breaks open the biscuits. Jane and Jennifer take one. It crumbles in Jennifer’s dry mouth and she thinks she’s going to choke. Conversation is difficult.

‘You all speak good English,’ she offers, ‘ did you learn that here?’

‘We have been in detention for ten months in Port Hedland, nineteen months in the Woomera,’ Mohammed tells us. ‘We are Hazara from Afghanistan but the Immigration, they say we are from Pakistan and are not refugees. This is not the truth.’

‘How old are you?’ Jane asks.

‘I am twenty-four, he is twenty-two and he is nineteen,’ Nasrim points to Mohammed and Ali as he speaks. ‘We learn the English here but we learned some in our country. We have left our country because the Taliban they kill Hazara, they have fatwah on Hazara. My father, my mother they are killed in our village, the Taliban destroy our village, I see my family, my sisters they are killed.’

Nasrim’s eyes fill with tears and he looks away, out of the door and into the compound where the three children still stand at the fence, staring. He yells at them in their shared language. The children stay where they are and stare at him.

‘I told them: “Go to your mother!”’ he translates. ‘These little children, they see a crazy man, made crazy here, they watch him cut himself with razor all over, blood splash out on children.’

‘The little ones saw this? They were splashed with his blood?’

‘Yes, yes, they see everything. Children here see everything, very bad thing I think.’

‘Is that their mother, sitting on the steps?’ Jane asks him.

‘Yes, that is their mother. She is sick, very sick, they give her no medicine, she does not look after them because she is sick.’

‘Where is their father?’

‘He is gone. He is given temporary visa, he is gone.’

‘His wife and children left behind here?’ Jane asks, incredulous.

‘Missus,’ says Mohammed, ‘this is happening very often here. Many families. Maybe thirty, fifty, in this place. The father, brothers, on temporary visas, the women children kept in the Woomera.’

‘The women gets sick,’ Nasrim tells them,’ without the husbands, the men the womens get sick and nobody cares for the children. This is bad place,’ he continues and looks at the ground. ‘Very bad place, much bad things happen.’

‘You mean the Immigration gives the men the visas and keeps the rest of the family in detention?’ Jane now remembers now that someone has told her this happens.

‘Yes, that is so.’

‘Why do they think you’re from Pakistan?’

‘One day, we have interviews with officer from DIMIA, she say our language is from Pakistan, she say she is expert at knowing this,’ Nasrim says. He throws his hands up in disgust. ‘She knows nothing of our language!’

The young men wear an assortment of trainers, T-shirts, shorts and track pants. Nasrim is edgy, he fidgets, picks at his fingers, runs his hands through his short hair. Ali in contrast is still: he sits calmly, gazing out the door. Mohammed rests his elbows on the table and puts his head in his hands. These young men are close in age to Jennifer’s sons. She imagines Harry and Samuel living this life. It is an intolerable imagining. She looks out of the door into the compound. A wedge-tailed eagle rises from the roof of a donga and moves upwards in slow circles out of her line of sight.

‘Ali makes the garden,’ says Mohammed.

‘The garden at the administration building?’ Jane asks.

‘Yes, I like it, I like it to do the garden, ‘I keep garden clean, plant things, empty rubbish, I have life here, job, it is not so bad.’ He has a slow, wide smile. He eats another biscuit.

‘Idiot!’ scoffs Nasrim. ‘You should dream of leaving here.’

Ali smiles again. He seems institutionalised, Jane thinks, he doesn’t have the fierce dreams of leaving detention that clearly fuel Nasrim. And what of the events they suffered before fetching up in detention centres, she wonders. What is the aftermath of those traumas?

They all met, it turns out, on the boat from Indonesia sailed by people smugglers, a journey that landed them at Ashmore Reef. None of them has any other family in Australia. All of them have come to the end of their appeals for visas to stay. What will happen to them now? Jane asks. Ali shrugs and doesn’t answer.

‘The Australian Government they give us money to go back to Afghanistan, everybody says so,’ Nasrim tells us. ‘I will go, I think.’

‘But what will happen to you? Will you be safe? Have you any family left there?’

‘I have uncle. Our village is destroyed. The Taliban is not so big anymore. Maybe I work for the Americans. It cannot be worse than this.’

He waves his hand at their surroundings.

‘I would rather die man than animal. If I die let it be for being Hazara in Taliban fatwah, not here in black hole of hell in Australia like pig.’

He stands abruptly, then paces the small room with his hands in his pockets. Ali shakes his head at us.

‘Would you go back, Ali?’ Jane asks.

‘I don’t know, Missus. I am afraid of soldiers. They try to make me killed. I don’t know if I will go back. Maybe I stay here, grow garden.’

Mohammed has his head in his hands and doesn’t speak. Outside Mustafa has begun screaming again. Nasrim flings himself back into his plastic chair and bites at his fingers.

Jennifer thinks to herself that there was a long and venerable democratic tradition that once existed in the world, a tradition that recognised the right of the stranger to seek sanctuary and to ask for help. There was a corresponding duty to oblige and offer assistance. What has happened to this tradition? Or was it just a dream?

‘Why is Mustafa crying like that?’ Jane asks.

Ali and Nasrim shrug.

‘He’s crazy, his wife, his children they died in his country and he is made crazy.’

Nasrim makes the motions of putting a needle through his lips.

‘Very bad,’ he says, ‘the children, some of them too do this.’

The guards are not in the room but they are by the door in the next room, keeping an eye on things, talking among themselves, laughing, their radios squawking intermittently. Jennifer gets up and goes over to them, leaving Jane talking to the three men.

‘We were invited to visit some of the women here,’ she says. ‘Are we going to able to do that?’

‘There’s nobody else on your list,’ the guard tells her, checking his clipboard.

‘I have the letters here that the women sent, asking us to visit them.’

She takes them out of her shirt pocket and shows him. He gives them a cursory glance and looks away. He’s in his thirties, clean-shaven, medium build with a crew cut. He works out: she can see the muscles under his tight blue shirt. He’s a rock. Nothing she says will persuade him to let them see anybody else.

‘Well, I don’t know, they’re not on your list, except Parvin and she’s too sick.’

‘Parvin had Federal Court a couple of weeks ago. Did she get a visa?’

‘Can’t tell you that I’m afraid. Confidential.’

‘So we won’t be able to visit with the women?’

‘Nope, they’re not on your list. Anyway a whole bunch of them have lost privileges for playing up.’

‘The women?’

‘Not just the women but some of them are women.’

‘What did they do?’

‘Can’t tell you. Confidential.’

‘What if we come back tomorrow?’

‘You’ve only got this one list, that won’t change tomorrow.’

‘Who made up our list?’

‘We have officers who do that.’

‘Can I see one of them?’

‘They’re not here at the moment.’

‘Thanks.’

Jennifer returns to her plastic chair. Nasrim pushes the biscuit packet across. Vanilla creams.

‘Thanks, Nasrim. What happened here, why have so many of you lost your privileges?’

‘There was fighting, somebody broke computers, people screaming, women throw chair, very bad.’

‘One month ago a big fire light in our detention centre,’ Mohammed suddenly speaks without lifting his head from his hands. ‘I working in kitchen with Ali. Everybody lose privilege. No visitors.’

‘How long do they lose privileges for?’

‘I do not know. Maybe days, maybe longer.’

Nasrim casts furtive looks at the guards in the next room. Jane looks over at Jennifer. Jennifer feels as if great weights are tied to her ankles and wrists, preventing her from movement, a sense of overwhelming oppression and helplessness. Jane’s eyes are glazed behind her glasses, her features dulled with heat, shock, Jennifer doesn’t know.

‘We do not have mothers,’ Mohammed lifts his head from his hands and says this quietly but with feeling.

‘We do not have mothers, his is killed, mine is lost, Ali, nobody knows of Ali’s mother. You have sons, missus?’ he directs his question to Jennifer.

‘Yes, two sons,’ she tells him.

He takes a drink of orange cordial. Cottee’s Cordial?

My dad picks the fruit
that makes the cordial that I like best.

‘They are free, they work, have girls, go out, they are in city?’

‘Yes, they do all those things. Harry works for the United Nations in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He teaches the children how to play football. Samuel is a chef, in Stockholm.’

‘Ah!’ Ali cries. ‘I too am cook! I cook here sometimes, in kitchens.’

‘Do you like cooking?’ Jane asks him.

‘Oh yes, very much. Good job. Plenty to eat!’ he chuckles.

‘In our country,’ Nasrim, glowering, says,’ when visitor come we make feast, much food, goat, chicken, rice, here we have only these biscuits and this drink!’ He sweeps the pile of plastic cups off the table.

‘Even when little food always we share with visitor! This,’ he gestures at the biscuits and the cordial, ‘this is…’

His English leaves him and he flings his hands in the air. He says something in his own tongue. The others look at him. A guard enters, curious about the noise.

‘Not playing up, are we, Nasrim?’ he asks.

Nasrim replies again in his own language.

‘Time’s over, anyway,’ says the guard.

‘Can we have a bit longer,’ Jane asks,’ we promised to take a list of things the men need with us so we can send them.’

‘They’ve got everything they need. But okay.’

They have to ask the guards for pencils and paper as all their things are in their backpacks in the lockers. Jennifer can’t believe those children are still out there in the broiling sun. The little baby is sitting down now in the red dust with the older children. Mustafa has vanished, as has the children’s mother. She can’t see any other adults. How long the days must seem in here.

‘Jennifer,’ Jane says as they drive back along the bitumen road to the caravan park, ‘how is it that they’re denied visas because the immigration people don’t believe they come from Afghanistan, yet they’re offered money to go back there?’

‘I don’t know, I don’t understand that. I don’t understand why they release the men and keep women and kids in there either.’

Jennifer saw some film footage on the news before they left, of an Afghan man who’d returned to his bombed-out village. He was scraping blindly at the earth where his home used to be with a teaspoon. It was one of the saddest images she’d ever seen. Is that what’s awaiting Nasrim, she wonders.

As they leave the three men, Mohammed thrusts a piece of paper into Jane’s hand.

‘Read this,’ he tells her. ‘My friend he is at Baxter now, he write this, is good, good writing. Maybe you put in paper in book for him but you not use his name, he is afraid of people knowing.’

They look at the poem as they sit in the truck in the Detention Centre car park. They’ve retrieved the dog and their personal belongings, thanked the guards, walked out to the truck on trembling legs, exhausted. Jennifer’s now trying to take photos of the centre through the windscreen without drawing the attention of the guards. She wants a picture of the water cannon at the gates. The guards are in their towers with binoculars, and patrol cars pass by every few minutes. Nevertheless, she manages a few badly-focussed images.

What kind of stupid incompetent terrorists would try to infiltrate the country via people smugglers and end up imprisoned here for years, Jennifer wonders, recalling a politician’s claims about the asylum seekers true purposes.

Down the road a bit, they stop and look back at the steel compound topped with razor wire. It has a beauty that comes from its simple proportions, the satisfying alignments of all its angles, the sun glinting off its shadowless surfaces. It is simultaneously incongruous and perfectly placed in the wilderness that surrounds it; a savage stronghold, impossible to ignore. Its designers have succeeded in eclipsing the drama of the arid landscape: the eye is drawn in awful fascination: one cannot look away.

‘Christ,’ says Jane.

It isn’t until a week later, camped by a flowing Victorian river in a field knee-deep with poplar seeds like balls of ripe cotton and a herd of roaming Jersey cows rubbing up against their caravan, that they both break down. It was awful, they agree, to have to leave the men behind in that place (Surrounded by peoples with no love,as the poet wrote) to have to say goodbye and walk away. And those children.

They know bad things happen in that desert place; they’re in its atmosphere. Later they will discover just how bad when the conditions are gradually revealed to the public by people who’ve worked there and decided to spill the beans.There are raped children behind the razor wire, beaten women and crazed men.

A common suffering. A common humanity. The women are full of admiration for the visitors who live close by, who go there every couple of weeks, month after month, offering support and companionship.

Their journey home is long and much of it passes in silence. What has confounded them both is that these things are happening in their own country. They are ashamed, and very angry.

‘Not in my name,’ growls Jane. ‘Not in my bloody name.’

One Silent Night
The wind is blowing to one side
Here it touches my body
I feel like just in heaven
Suddenly I open my eyes and look around
Oh God I am behind the fences
Still filled with unhappiness
I would like to fly just like a bird
But I know I can not
God created this world for everyone
But some people try to destroy it
And some people try to keep it for their own way
Why do they keep on behaving like that
I need a new world to live
I want different skies every day
Can I live with out fear of war and terror
Could my dreams come true one day
In my childhood I thought
I was the luckiest person in the world
Because my life was secure
Now I think I am the unluckiest person in the world
Surrounded by peoples with no love.
By………
Baxter IDF.

Debating the religious right

9 Mar

First up, don’t, if you can help it.

by Medusa's Lover via flickr

One might as well get in a fight with a three year old about the existence and purpose of the tooth fairy. Rigidly faith based positions founded on moral absolutes are not debatable This is but one of the things inherently wrong with them.

The female face of the Australian religious right

Reluctant as I am to make any of this about Melinda Tankard Reist, she is undoubtedly the public face of the religious right in their attitudes to female sexuality, and the influences of popular culture on boys and men.

I don’t know of anyone else in this country commenting as loudly and as frequently on this topic, and topics related to it from that perspective. Having positioned herself thus, I have little choice but to acknowledge her primary role.

The religious right believe that to succeed, a society must operate within a framework of common assumptions. Dissent is divisive and must be smothered. It therefore makes sense that censorship through protest is a cornerstone of what some describe as a dominionist sexually and socially ultra conservative theocracy.

Tankard’s Reist’s practice is to resort first to censorship. In this she has adopted the tactics of the American religious right, and Tea Party luminaries such as Sarah Palin herself described as a dominionist, though this is contested.

Research confirming close ties between the Tea Party and the religious right is here

The narratives of propaganda

Religious campaigners are not required to provide any evidence that the object of their disapproval is what they say it is. They simply have to use florid rhetorical propaganda to inflame and frighten enough petitioners so that corporations will be equally frightened, and for the sake of peace and unwanted attention, pull the offending material.

If at all possible, they make at times extremely tenuous links to the welfare of children. The threat of being promoted as acting against the interests of children will cause just about anybody to fall to their knees, begging the Christian conservatives for mercy.

Again, they are not required to provide any evidence for their claims, though they do sometimes offer the opinions of a like-minded individual, preferably one with some experience in a relevant field. For example, this quote from sexual assault counsellor Alison Grundy quoted on MTR’s website:

“Now we have thirty years of research to show that the sexualized and violent messages of popular music, media and video games do shape and provoke male aggressive and sexualized violence. I wonder how long it will be before songs like this are seen as inciting crimes under the criminal code?

Any research that directly links any part of popular culture to the increased abuse of women’s and children’s human rights is important. MTR and her fellow travelers argue that popular culture causes an increase in violence and sexual offenses against women. Research supporting this claim, is, one would imagine, foundational to the religious right argument.

However, the reader isn’t told what the research is, who conducted it, when, and where, and how, and we are not provided with any links. This is not unusual, as those forum commenters who’ve attempted to find links to another survey quoted by Reist in her article New song from Delta’s man (Delta’s man? He has no name?) feeds rape myth, have discovered. Despite many requests, the sources have not been supplied.

On her website, Tankard Reist provides share buttons under the French Vogue photo shoot of sexualized five-year-old girls so that visitors can boost their circulation on the Internet. This on-going exploitation of the little girls is justified as raising awareness.

However, sourced research that supports serious claims against popular culture and female sexuality is entirely absent.

The Australian religious right don’t feel the need to interview males about their reactions to popular music and video clips before agitating for censorship on the grounds that they provoke violence of all kinds. Collecting and collating data, reaching informed conclusions as to the effects these things actually have on the demographic, well, why go to all that trouble when God is in the house telling you everything you need to know?

Fox News by Justin via flickr

The US neo cons, Tea Party supporters and the religious right long since perfected the art of moral panic by rhetorical floridity. They are enabled in their endeavours by such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch, and his Fox News media slaves Bill O’Reilly, the recent Mormon convert Glenn Beck, and Megyn Kelly. Fox News is apparently the trusted news source for a majority of Tea Party followers, more than twice as high as in the general population

It’s all relative, isn’t it?

John Malkovich, in the character of hapless CIA operative Osbourne Cox in the Coen Brothers’ movie Burn after Reading (2008) is confronted about his drinking by an aggrieved co-worker.

“You’re a Mormon,” he snarls back, “everbody’s a f*cking alcoholic to you.”

In the same spirit, (acknowledging the blatant use of stereotypes) when your bottom line for the expression of female sexuality is that it should be confined to the marriage bed, everybody’s sexually licentious. If Victoria’s Secret underwear is pornographic to you, everybody’s a pornographer.

Incidentally, it’s likely that only in a wealthy Western liberal democracy could women’s underwear be co-opted as a symbol of the abuse of women’s human rights. Women in many other countries can’t afford it, are earning five cents a day making it, or are distracted by mass rapes, genital mutilation, hunger, and sexual slavery.

Even in this country we have our distractions. A report on the economics of Domestic violence released by researchers at UNSW on March 7 revealed it costs Australia 13 billion dollars a year. Abuse of children, and sexual assault continue at alarming rates but strangely, the most vocal advocate for women and girls in this country has selected underwear and bad songwriters as her symbols of injustice in her tilt against the abuse of women’s human rights.

To be fair, I notice there is a piece on the website about the bustling streets of Mumbai in honour of International Women’s Day.

Disclosure rocks

Here I need to take a personal moment. Another of the shared religious right/Tea Party/ neo con tactics (taken to new heights by Sarah Palin’s Got you in the cross hairs campaign against Democrats who voted for healthcare reform) is to discredit anyone who disagrees with them by launching a personal attack either on their private life and/or their knowledge base. This tactic is also used by feminists of all persuasions, including Christian.

I’ll disclose my credentials in the area of women’s human rights, in the vain hope of forestalling more “feminist” tirades against my ignorant “anti feminist” bent.

By the way, is anti feminist the same as un Australian, only specially for women?

I’ve just completed a chapter for a forthcoming book on human rights titled Intimate Violence as Human Rights Abuse: Re-Framing Intra-Familial Violence against Women and Children.

I’ve published nationally and internationally on this topic, as well as presenting at conferences around the world. I’ve also written extensively on the failure of prominent male human rights commentators to include intimate violence as human rights abuse in their publications and their thinking.

That’s enough trumpet blowing for one day. May it keep me safe from harm.

Truth claims, damned truth claims and statistics

In psychological terms, the interpretations put on the expressions and representations of female sexuality by many on the religious right are nothing more than their own projections, fed by, among other things, their faith-based beliefs about sexuality. These are then extrapolated into truth claims, and concerted efforts are made to impose them on the rest of humanity.

Truth claims such as these need to be taken out of the sphere of personal projections and religious imaginings, and backed up with hard evidence.

OMG by Skye Nicolas via Wikimedia

If Christian conservatives don’t provide evidence they should be ignored. We should learn from the US experience while we still can, that it’s not good enough for our cultural and social landscape to be determined by people who are offering nothing more than their own projections, based on their relations with imaginary friends.

If they are too lazy to get out and find hard evidence for their claims, there’s no reason why anybody should listen to them. Hard evidence is the first step on the road to addressing the problems.

Let’s trash the songwriter’s partner while we’re at it

Through laborious trawling I discovered innumerable Christian websites that instruct the Christian wife on her manifold responsibilities to her husband. Among them I found this one and a warning, turn off your sound unless you want your senses assailed by the most spectacularly awful piano rendition of Rock of Ages known to humankind, rivaled only by the pianist accompanying Elvis’s cover of Unchained Melody circa 1977. The quote is:

The wife is to reprove her husband privately and lovingly when he is in sin and point him back to the Lord.

As well as following that lead from US religious right, Tankard Reist also seems to be taking a lesson from political dictatorships in the matter of holding responsible the relatives of those who’ve offended you, as well as the original offender.

On her website you’ll find an attack on singer Delta Goodrem, songwriter Brian McFadden’s girlfriend. The Christian right apparently holds Goodrem partially responsible for the offending lyrics in his latest song, because she should have vetoed McFadden’s work. Reist suggests that Goodrem is perhaps inured to violence against women, and therefore didn’t notice it was present in the song.

She then reveals that Goodrem is a spokeswoman for Avon Voices, an organisation that works to raise awareness of violence against women. There’s also a video of Goodrem speaking on behalf of this group.

I cannot find any explanation for this flaming that is not born out of deep and incomprehensible malice. Goodrem bears no responsibility for her partner’s actions. She merely lives with the man against whom the Christian right has taken censorious action.

In what feminist universe is a woman subjected to this kind of malevolent public harassment, solely because another woman doesn’t approve of something her male partner has done?

Answer: in the co-opted feminist universe inhabited by Christian conservatives.

As L. Cohen puts it about another kind of prison:

I don’t believe you’d like it
No, you wouldn’t like it here
There’s not much entertainment
And the judgments are severe…

How to “lovingly” expel a homosexual student, or, God is in the house.

20 Feb

God hates fags.com via flickr

 

Brigadier Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby believes that a church school should have the right to expel any openly gay student.

“But I would expect any church that found itself in that situation to do that in the most loving way…I think it’s a loving response,” he says.

It’s legal for religious institutions in NSW to expel homosexual students, and Attorney-General John Hatzistergos, supports that law. While there are churches that oppose it, Jim Wallace gives it his whole-hearted support.

It’s difficult to know where to begin addressing the offensiveness of Wallace’s comments, but perhaps from a human rights point of view, it is most shocking in its reduction of the identity of a young human being solely to their sexual preference.

Nothing else about these students has any apparent value for Wallace, other than their sexuality. The intrinsic worth of the student is reduced to his or her sexual orientation. If the young person is brilliant, gifted, a high achiever – and gay, the Christian school should expel him or her, according to the well known Christian, Wallace.

“Lovingly,” of course.

Would this be another version of “tough love” perhaps?

How does one “lovingly” expel a young person from their school community because of their sexual orientation? Please explain.

Reducing a human being to one aspect of their character is a dehumanising tool used in all propaganda. When we can’t see another’s humanity, we’re far more likely to treat them badly.  It requires a leap of the imagination to make an identification with people who’ve been reduced to stereotypes, and many of us don’t want to/can’t be bothered with that imaginative exercise.

Propaganda ensures that certain lives (homosexual in this case) are not considered lives at all in the fullest sense. Reduced to the issue of sexual preference, and on the sole grounds that they are not heterosexual, gay students are punished by expulsion from their community, their lives stigmatized as deviant by their churches.

Failure to see young people as individuals in their own right leads to serious repercussions for them, and for society. Homophobic religious imperatives are determining the course of some students’ lives, with the support of politicians whose first concern is not the welfare of young people, but winning the religious vote.

Belief systems with discriminatory attitudes are putting young people at risk, and governments are supporting the process. This is described by Hatzistergos as maintaining “…the sometimes delicate balance between protecting individuals from unlawful discrimination while allowing people to practice their beliefs.”

Since he admits homophobia is “unlawful discrimination,” Hatzistergos’ position is that what the rest of the community has declared illegal is acceptable if it occurs within a belief system.  That church schools are granted permission to behave illegally makes a mockery of anti discrimination laws.

If a behaviour is illegal, it is illegal.

Religions in this country should be abiding by the laws of this country.

Around Australia, churches are exempt from anti discrimination legislation that prevents others from dismissing gay, lesbian, and trans gendered people, solely because of their sexual orientation.

Culturally salient beliefs normalize these problematic practices. One of these beliefs is that religious freedom trumps the anti discrimination culture.

But only some religious freedom, otherwise we’d be condoning genital mutilation and the polygamous and forced marriages of ten year old girls.

We’re selective about which religious freedoms we uphold.

Religious beliefs are fluid. Values change, often quite radically. There’s disagreement within religious circles about the expulsion of gay students.  It isn’t the government’s role to legalise these vacillating values, or to give legal validity to one point of view within the churches at the expense of another.

As our law declares discrimination illegal, the government’s role is to support and validate the country’s law.

Religions in this country should abide by the laws of this country. We require this of non Judeo Christians, especially those most recently arrived here. State and federal governments must require it of all religions in Australia, and particularly of all schools.

GOD IS IN THE HOUSE,  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Nick Cave, by Ben Houdijk via flickr

 

Homos roaming the streets in packs,
queer bashers with tyre-jacks
Lesbian counter-attacks
That stuff is for the big cities
Our town is very pretty
We have a pretty little square
We have a woman for a mayor
Our policy is firm but fair
Now that God is in the house
God is in the house
Any day now he’ll come out
God is in the house.


Storer changes the story, and Michael plays a game

8 Feb

Gregory Storer

This is the public complaint Storer lodged against OLO, at the Ambit Gambit blog:

I’m one of the ‘gay activists’ who ‘attacked’ online opinion, however, I took exception to some of the comments that where posted after Bill Muehlenberg’s piece, not the actual essay.
I defend Bill’s right to his opinions, he should have he’s stuff published, but it’s the disrespectful and outright hatred of the comments that follow that are objectionable. As a person who is gay, I find those comments disturbing and they shouldn’t have a place in our society.
And I did the right thing, I raised the comments with Graham Young, he made it clear he thought the comments where ok, so the next step is to approach the sponsors and advertisers to make them aware of the sort of site they support and to express my disgust.
Online Opinion does a great job in allowing people to express their opinions by publishing their articles. The comment sections leave a lot to be desired.
Comment by Gregory — December 20, 2010 @ 3:30 am

I note Storer says he is  “one” of the gay activists that ‘attacked’ OLO. Therefore I and several other people took him at his word that he was “one of,” but one of how many we did not know.

I have since asked this question of his partner Michael Barnett, who approached me on this blog. This is the response:

Michael Barnett: I have the answers to your questions and you’d be surprised and disappointed with them.

Me: Well, tell us then.

Michael: I don’t need to tell you what I know. You can trust me.

WTF????

Now Storer claims to have acted alone.

Actually, the next step isn’t an economic boycott. The next step is the Anti Discrimination legislation. That’s what it’s there for.

Gregory Storer, Secular Party of Australia‘s candidate for Melbourne Ports in the 2010 federal election, has emerged as the man behind a gay lobby’s successful efforts to persuade the ANZ Bank and IBM to withdraw advertising from On Line Opinion.

Gregory’s mission statement reads in part as follows:

I firmly believe that there should be a clear separation of church and state.  I have a strong code of ethics and think that human rights should be paramount to the way we live our lives.

I would like to see an Australia that accepts its citizens for who they are, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or ethnic background.  We are all people, we are all entitled to equal rights and as citizens of Australia we all deserve to be treated with respect, to enable us to fully participate in our society.

Noble sentiments, Gregory. How do they sit with exerting your economic power to bring about the closure of an on line community because you feel it has offended you?

In an email to me earlier today, Gregory stated that he had not bullied, or engaged in standover tactics in order to close down OLO, and that he does not even want to close OLO down.

So what, then, I inquired, did he imagine his lobbying of  all the site’s sponsors to withdraw all their advertising dollars would achieve, if not financial knee capping of  the popular site?

Still waiting for the candidate to answer that question.

As to how large the gay lobby led by Gregory is, I haven’t been able to ascertain that so far. There must be some members of considerable economic power, if they are in a position to persuade corporations such as ANZ and IBM to change their advertising placements.

A quick peek at Bill Muehlenberg’s website, and the website belonging to the Australian Christian Lobby, reveals there’s outrage in both camps against the ANZ Bank for its pro gay marriage stance, and its attempts to apparently influence Bill’s freedom of speech.

Looks like the candidate for Melbourne Ports has caused a very diverse group of citizens to ponder if their rights have been disregarded in his pursuit of On Line Opinion.

“The Pink Mafia” is Muehlenberg’s term, one which until yesterday seemed pretty excessive. But today, having learned the lengths to which Storer and his gang are prepared to go to exert their will on the digital reading public, maybe Bill isn’t too far wrong.

Now that’s scary.

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