Remembering historical and present war wrongs

My weekly Guardian column:

The Australian government recently successfully blocked the release of sensitive documents that would have revealed the complicity of Indonesian forces in massive abuses during their occupation of East Timor.

Canberra directed the National Archives to refuse the request of University of NSW associate professor Clinton Fernandes to see internal Australian files on Indonesian military actions in Timor more than 30 years ago. Administrative appeals tribunal president justice Duncan Kerr argued that “ongoing sensitivities” between Canberra and Jakarta were part of the reason for his decision. In other words, secrecy was preferable to transparency and justice.

The case proves that history remains threatening. The issue revolves around Indonesian actions in late 1981 and early 1982, when Indonesia forced around 145,000 conscripted East Timorese civilians to form a human chain to march across huge areas of land with the military behind it to find hiding guerrilla forces. The operation resulted in a massacre in Lacluta, Viqueque.

The Indonesian military then made a concerted attempt to smear the leader of the Catholic church in East Timor, Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, who had expressed serious concerns of a famine because the conscripted subsistence farmers were unable to plant their crops in time for the next harvest. During it all, the Australian government provided military aid to Indonesia, and is specifically said to have continued to supply Nomad aircrafts, despite knowing that Indonesian forces were using them in East Timor, in violation of Indonesia’s formal undertaking not to do so.

Fernandes tells me that if proven, Canberra’s complicity would speak volumes about its selective belief in applications of justice. Offenders would have to be punished, he says, not just for deterrent purposes but because international crimes must be highlighted.

“This case is not a contest between Australians and Indonesians”, he says. “Rather, it is a contest between those who want justice to prevail and those who want to cover up. The fact remains that East Timor suffered perhaps the largest loss of life relative to total population since the Holocaust. To ignore this is to mock the dead and make cynics of the living.”

Needless to say, Timor barely features in the media anymore – it’s a historical footnote with a story that ends with Canberra as the saviour of the nation in 1999, when rampaging Indonesian thugs were destroying the capital, Dili. To this day, the mainstream media continues to praise then prime minister John Howard as the brave warrior intervening to save Timor. Fernandes shows that it’s a yarn that isn’t based on fact in his compelling 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour.

The Timor case is a textbook case of political rhetoric versus reality, and shows how the lack of decent media coverage can further obscure the thin line between facts and government-mandated narratives. Take another example: in Vietnam, the effect of the chemical Agent Orange used by Washington during the war continues to deform children, yet there has never been any serious prosecutions for the horrific crimes committed in the name of “fighting communism.” It took 40 years for the US to announce they would launch a project to clean up a dangerous chemical, after the government spent decades questioning the extent of its toxicity.

Such disparities between narratives is a problem that continues to dog corporate media in the post 9/11 age of embedded journalism.

Look at Iraq, which more than 11 years after the US-led invasion, remains mired in political corruption and violence. Very few reporters bother visiting the country anymore. This makes the trip of Australian peace activist Donna Mulhearn in early 2013 all the more remarkable. She didn’t just see Baghdad but found a way to Fallujah, and witnessed the disturbing sign of birth defects likely caused by US-fired depleted uranium.

Unfortunately, such first-hand, on the ground reports are increasingly far and between. Instead, most of our media landscape is polluted with former military generals and so-called experts, some of them who led the wars in the first place.

While unrelated to the above conflicts, take Jim Molan, former commander of Australian forces in Iraq, supporter of more troops in Afghanistan and key adviser in drafting the secretive Operation Sovereign Borders against asylum seekers. The Australian Financial Review noted his work in its 2013 Power List; the ABC regularly relies on his analysis. What is noticeably absent from this fawning are any difficult questions regarding the time he spent on deployment.

Scott Burchill, senior lecturer at Melbourne’s Deakin University’s School of International and Political Studies, tells me that the rise of Molan reveals a notable lack of curiosity into his past: “Jim Molan can write a book boasting about his leadership of the allied attack on Fallujah in Iraq and become a ‘go to guy’ for the ABC on Australia’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has consistently supported an escalation of the conflict”.

And yet to my knowledge, Molan has never been asked by a mainstream journalist about his role in Fallujah. Why not? If I was to interview him, I would ask him about the high number of civilian casualties, and demand details about the 2004 US-led siege imposed on the city – and that’s just to start with.

There’s a similar lack of curiosity in the public arena into the recent career of Australian counter-insurgency figure David Kilcullen, offered fawning profiles in the press celebrating his apparent skills in defeating insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan while working for the Pentagon. Even this year, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a complete disaster for western forces and interests (let alone the locals in both nations), Kilcullen is asked questions in Foreign Policy, but sadly evades answering them: “We’ve had our heads down chasing bad guys around Iraq and Afghanistan.” Burchill tells me that for sections of the media, Kilcullen “remains an ‘expert’ and a ‘highly sought-after consultant’”.

The legacy of our foreign military adventures don’t stop when journalists and editors either lose interest, or don’t pursue stories aggressively enough. It would be nice to see them demanding answers – and backing Fernandes’ quest to find the truth about East Timor wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

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Making a killing from climate change

My following book review appeared in the Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald last weekend:

Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming 
MCKENZIE FUNK 
PENGUIN PRESS, $29.99

Who says global warming is bad for the world? The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found widespread and consequential effects on food systems and ecosystems, with detrimental ramifications for billions of people around the globe.

But that is only the negative reading of the incontrovertible scientific consensus. Another, far smaller group of people see climate variations as a unique opportunity to make a fortune. Deutsche Bank’s former chief climate strategist, Mark Fulton, used to help his employer identify global warming as a ”megatrend” that could guarantee profits for years. ”It’s always helped me, climate change, in my career,” he jokes with US journalist McKenzie Funk in this timely and necessary book on the new normal for vulture capitalism.

Disasters, man-made and natural, can be wonderful for energising our largely unregulated free markets. They are less welcome for the individuals who cannot afford to insulate themselves from the effects of rising temperatures, extreme storms, melting ice caps and battles for energy security.

Funk’s book is a warning – a unique insight into a world that largely exists in the business pages of our media. A fund manager tells him some insurance companies are licking their lips over climate change, because increasing rates prove ”hurricane season is actually quite a positive thing”. Screw the environmental and practical devastation on lives and property.

As Funk travels to many nations to document the ways in which changing temperatures are ruining life as they know it, he acknowledges this vital fact. ”It’s about people, and mostly it’s about people like me: northerners from the developed world – historically the emitter countries, as we’re called – who occupy the high, dry ground, whether real or metaphorical.”

The US National Snow and Ice Data Centre released figures last month about the declining amount of ice in the Arctic Circle, the fifth lowest peak since 1978. That is 12 per cent shrinking of ice per decade since the late 1970s. This will have worrying effects on rising sea levels and low-lying nations.

Greenland is ground zero for these battles and Funk outlines what is at stake; up to 22 per cent of the world’s untapped oil and gas deposits are ”thought to be hiding in the high north, some of it in territory that does not yet belong to any nation”.

”The less ice there is, the more petroleum there is within reach, and the most pressure there is to stake a claim.”

BP, Shell and London Mining are racing to industrialise the pristine Arctic area and an Australian company, Greenland Minerals and Energy Ltd, is ready to exploit Greenland’s recent approval of uranium mining.

This book details the massive energy multinationals that years ago, internally at least, recognised the threat of climate change and their ability to make money from it. The former head of scenario planning for Royal Dutch Shell published a report for the Pentagon in 2004 that extreme weather was inevitable and re-engineering climate to suit our conditions was necessary. The Pentagon’s concerns, Peter Schwartz tells Funk, revolves around one word: Mogadishu. ”Massive drought led to famine, which led to the collapse of Somalia, which led to the UN intervention, which led to the US intervention, which led to military disaster. They see a string of Mogadishus rolling off into the future.”

It is hard not to view this US position as the white man’s burden, reluctantly saving whichever individuals or communities deemed important to serve imperial interests. Bangladesh is already facing the prospect of millions of citizens being displaced by rising oceans. In the brutal, upcoming Darwinian gamble, it is hard to see the Washington elite viewing them as essential.

Funk speaks to firefighters in Los Angeles who are offering their services to the highest insurance bidder, water privateers, Wall Street bankers buying up valuable land in South Sudan and African environmental refugees desperately looking for arable land.

This compelling investigation into the darker sides of modern nature, as some states will lose parts of their land and people in the 21st century, is sober and not inflammatory.

Funk is right when he concludes climate change is also an issue of human justice.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist and author of Profits of Doom.

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Why the Pulitzer for the Snowden stories is a no-brainer

Yes, to all of this, by Amy Davidson in The New Yorker:

Awarding the Pulitzer for public service to the Guardian and the Washington Post should go down as about the easiest call the prize committee has ever had to make. It would have been a scandal, this year, if there had been no Pulitzer related to the documents that Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, leaked to several reporters. This was a defining case of the press doing what it is supposed to do. The President was held accountable; he had to answer questions that he would rather not have and, when his replies proved unsatisfying to the public—and, in some cases, just rang false—his Administration had to change its policies. Congress had to confront its own failures of oversight; private companies had to rethink their obligations to their customers and to law enforcement; and people had conversations at home and at school and pretty much everywhere about what they, themselves, would be willing to let the N.S.A. do to them. Justice Scalia recently said that he fully expected these issues to be before the Supreme Court soon, because we’ve had a chance to read the Snowden papers. And journalists have had to think about their own obligations—to the law, the Constitution, their readers, and even, in the practice of reporting in the age of technical tracking, to sources they might expose or make vulnerable. Any one of those aspects would be a major public service. How could that not be Pulitzer material?

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Why Wall Street thugs get away with stealing billions

One of the best investigative journalists around, Matt Taibbi, has a new book out, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. He explains the how and why of successive US administrations turning a blind eye to Wall Street criminality. It’s vulture capitalism on a massive scale.

Here’s Taibbi’s interview with Democracy Now!:

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The real significance of Bob Carr’s comments on Israel lobby

Much of the media has dismissed former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s diaries as being obsessed with irrelevance, diets and exercise. In fact, the diaries are fascinating and focus on a range of international events (see my Guardian column this week on the Zionist lobby sections).

I saw Carr last night at Sydney University and although he’s a confident speaker there’s a level of defensiveness when talking about Israel. He still calls Israel a democracy (conveniently ignoring the nearly 50 year occupation of Palestinian land and people).

Australian academic Scott Burchill has further thoughts:

Carr’s remarks about the Israel lobby in Australia are not revelatory. Serious students of Australian foreign policy know how domestic lobbyists for the US, China, Indonesia, Israel and other states work to co-opt decision-makers and manage public opinion in ways favourable to their political masters. Money buys influence.
 
Nor is it surprising that Julia Gillard’s office was specifically targeted. It wasn’t because the Prime Minister was thought to be insufficiently pro-Israel – she could hardly be more faithful to the Zionist cause. Carr on the other was considered wobbly and had to be controlled where possible by Gillard’s ministerial seniority. And here lies Israel’s current dilemma.
 
The most important aspect of the diaries imbroglio is what Carr’s growing scepticism illustrates – the collapse of support amongst Western social democrats for Israel’s narrative about the “peace process”. They are just not buying it like they used to. The days of uncritical support for Israel’s position and unqualified blame of the Palestinians for the conflict, are over. No amount of residual Holocaust guilt or demonisation of the BDS campaign will bring them back. 
 
European social democrats, and even Democrats in Washington (like Secretary of State John Kerry who is now publicly blaming Israel for the collapse of his “peace mission”) have been its staunchest supporters, but are now fed up with Israeli obstructionism – especially newly invented conditions like the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Some feel duped. They see that as each Palestinian concession is made, a new obstacle to peace mysteriously surfaces from the Israeli side. Increasingly they think Israel is refusing to take yes for an answer, preferring incremental colonisation under the cover of a futile, never-ending “peace process”. Norman Finkelstein has looked closely at this phenomenon in the US, where only the fully owned Congress still ritually incants the old script.
 
This should be the lobby’s biggest worry. If they are losing the support of people like Carr who have shown nothing but fidelity to their narrative up to this point, they are in deep trouble. 
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Why we need to discuss unhealthy power of Zionist lobby part 44225

My weekly Guardian column:

To have a prominent political figure challenging the power and message of the Israel lobby is almost unheard of in most western nations – which is precisely what makes the just released diaries of former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr all the more remarkable.

Across 500 pages, Carr catalogues his intense exercise regime, friendships with Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger and hectic schedule of meetings and first-class travel. Carr’s more eccentric quotes certainly makes it tempting to dismiss the book, but to do so would be missing the vital importance of his remarks on the Israel/Palestine conflict and Zionism’s most aggressive advocates.

Carr explains, in compelling detail, how Melbourne’s Zionist lobby pressures, romances, bullies and cajoles politicians to tow the most fundamentalist position over illegal Israeli colonies, Palestinian recognition at the UN, and even the language used to describe Israeli actions. He also claims that Israel lobby financing impacted the positions of elected politicians on foreign policy. Carr reports former Kevin Rudd telling him that about one-fifth of the money he had raised in the 2007 election campaign had come from the Jewish community, and criticises Julia Gillard’s unfailing pro-Israel stance (see, for example, her effusive praise of the Jewish state after she received the Jerusalem Prize), pointing out that she would not even let him criticise Israeli West Bank settlements.

“It’s an appalling situation if Australia allows a group of [Jewish] businessmen [in Melbourne] to veto policy on the Middle East”, Carr summarises in frustration (unsurprisingly, local Zionist groups have responded with fury and defensiveness to the attack).

Carr is right, of course, but I would also have liked to see him discussing in depth the countless numbers of politician and journalists taken on free trips to Israel by the Zionist lobby, where they are often given a selective tour of the region. Tim Wilson, to take just one example, described an introduction to Israel which included a visit to a refugee camp in Bethlehem and a tour of the old city of Jerusalem, along with “meetings with politicians, academics and journalists” (organisers insist guests are “not controlled” and allowed open access).

Part of the softening of politicians to be receptive to the most extreme views on Israel and Palestine comes from those sponsored trips, coupled with relatively weak Palestinian advocacy and a post 9/11 context which paints Arabs with a discriminatory brush. These trips are not, as The Australian claimed last week, “to better understand its strategic fragilities from the ground” – that’s just lobby language. No, those trips – such as AIJAC’s Rambam Israel fellowship – are in essence programs engineered to show journalists, human rights commissioners, advisors, student leaders and politicians the Israeli government perspective. More than a fair share of them return to Australia singing the praises of Israel, issuing caution over any end to the occupation in the process.

Be astounded with this list, provided by the essential blog chronicler of the lobby, Middle East reality check, of all the media and politicians who have taken these trips over the last few years. This hand-holding can be perceived as one way to propagandise the elites against growing public support for Palestine, especially since few of these visitors seem to use their own initiative and visit Gaza or the West Bank for more than a few hours.

The lobby has to acknowledge its power and access to senior politicians. AIJAC head Mark Leibler didn’t realise or care during his ABC TV Lateline interview last week that boasting about such encounters, when most of his meetings with prime ministers and senior ministers aren’t on the public record, reinforces the public perception that they too often operate in the dark, without accountability. Let’s not forget: this is a lobby which often pushes Australia to take a hardline view on settlements on occupied territories only shared by a handful of other nations, such as the Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru at the UN.

We are that isolated, and Australians deserve to know what goes on behind the scenes. In the meantime, it’s considered perfectly normal for our political class to proudly tweet a photo with Moshe Feiglin, one of the most hardline Israeli politicians (as Australia’s ambassador to Israel did last week), or to welcome a pro-occupation Israeli leader such as Naftali Bennett to Australia.

This is the political environment in which Carr’s diaries and observations must be seen. Australia, and most western countries, continue to indulge Israeli occupation. But cracks are appearing in this strategy, and Carr should be congratulated for slamming the groups and power centres that aim to continue this dysfunctional alliance.

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The Australian review of “Prisoner X”

My following review appears in yesterday’s Weekend Australian newspaper:

Understanding the insular and tribal Melbourne Jewish community has fascinated sociologists for decades. With one of the largest concentrations of Holocaust survivors outside of Israel, proudly Zionist and with strong Jewish day schools, it’s a world that created Ben Zygier, the Australian Mossad agent who committed suicide in a high-security Israeli prison in 2010.

When ABC television’s Foreign Correspondent broke the explosive revelations of so-called Prisoner X last year, defying the Israeli media’s deferential position towards government secrecy, there was intense scrutiny of the role of Mossad in Australia and globally.

ABC investigative reporter Rafael Epstein attempts to unravel the secrets of Zygier’s life as somebody who shares a similar background: this book includes a photograph of the author as a young man in the Galilee, holding a borrowed AR-15 rifle during a visit to the Jewish state.

Epstein details Zygier’s transformation from a boy “brought up on stories of the exploits of Israel’s soldiers and spies” into an individual who decided to dedicate his life to what he viewed as protecting Israel from harm. What creates this fervour is Zionism — Epstein writes of his own experiences that “Zionist youth movements were part of the beginning of the Jewish brand of nationalism” — and the idolisation of Israel (“each session [at the youth group] began with the singing of the Israeli nation­al anthem”). There were times when Epstein and his Jewish friends were “high on Zionism” and he has “vivid, emotional memories of animated late-night conversations about the precise path to a life lived to its potential, preferably in Israel”.

These are important insights into the milieu in which Zygier thrived. One notable absence in Prisoner X, however, is any real discussion about how these realities have created generations of Jews with a mindset that backs hardline Israeli nationalism and West Bank colonies. It’s surely vital to deconstruct why many Jews across the Diaspora have these perspectives. Epstein’s book could have examined them in more detail because Zygier would not have been as committed to the Jewish state if successive Zionist leaders and their followers hadn’t wanted young Jews to almost ignore Palestinians.

Piecing together Zygier’s life is a tough ask. His parents are not talking publicly, so Epstein tries to explain how the Melbourne man became a committed Likudnik (backer of right-wing Israeli policies), fell in with Mossad (he was approached by a partner at the Israeli law firm where he was employed) and worked his way up the intelligence food chain.

Discovering how Mossad recruits young Jews is challenging and Epstein shows the opaque process by which the agency finds willing recruits who have the requisite political acumen.

In fact, as the author details, “many of the people I knew [in Melbourne] could have enlisted and gone on to join the Mossad”. The normality of such a mission, to fight for a nation on the other side of the world, is the key to understanding Zygier and others like him.

Zygier’s career remains murky and Epstein uncovers much new material, including details about work targeting Iran in Europe and the personal cost of Mossad work such as suicide attempts in 2008 and 2009. Zygier, who was married with two young children, became an emotionally fractured man.

Writing recently in The Guardian, Epstein questioned the willingness of Australian politicians to ask hard questions of Israel because of Canberra’s relationship with Tel Aviv. He damned the lack of curiosity among the political elites over Zygier’s work and death.

Epstein feels a responsibility to show respect for the Zygier family — The Australian Jewish News praised the book and author as showing appropriate understanding of the Zionist community — and acknowledges gaps in his knowledge of the story. Still, he demands answers. Prisoner X is a book about prying open a tight world of secrets and betrayal. The supply of young Jews to Israel could be affected by the Zygier case, leaving an uneasy taste in the mouths of many wondering how Israel treats one of its own.

Prisoner X

By Rafael Epstein

MUP, 194pp, $29.99

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist. His most recent book is Profits of Doom.

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“After Zionism” review surfaces

Back in 2012 I co-edited a book, After Zionism, with Ahmed Moor (it was released in an updated edition in 2013).

Now the magazine at the University of Technology Sydney has published a review (yes, just a little late and on page 17):

Israel is a stark anomaly. There are few states in the world that are explicitly designated as the homeland of a single ethnicity. Founded by Zionists as an ethnocracy for the Jewish people, Israel continues to violate liberal principles of statehood. In recent years, with the evident failure of the ‘two-state solution’, Israel and Palestine have been thrown into a carnival of reaction, a downward spiral of ethnic mobilisation. This edited collection asks how to construct an alternative statehood in Israel/Palestine, ‘after’ Zionist ethnonationalism. The intent of breaking from the partitioned two-state model forces questions of bi-nationalism, secularity and diversity onto the table. Such questions are repressed by the border – manifested now as a security wall drawn between Israel and the Occupied Territories. The status quo, where the Israeli state disenfranchises the majority of people under its control, clearly cannot persist. The importance of this book rests within the debate about a single state for Israel and Palestine. With these tensions being reignited in earnest, the perspectives in this book, from a wide range of contributors, are testament to this important development.

James Goodman
Social and Political Change Group, FASS

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Personally supporting BDS against Israel

Last night in Sydney there was a successful event to highlight the growing global movement of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel and the legal case against proponent and Sydney University academic Dr Jake Lynch.

Around 140 people came to hear various speakers detailing the many reasons BDS is one just way to apply pressure on occupying Israel.

Here’s my statement of support that I read last night:

South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a key successful fighter against apartheid in South Africa, recently wrote a letter condemning US lawmakers for their increasingly crude attempts to curb free speech over BDS. Tutu argued why he long backed BDS:

“I have supported this movement because it exerts pressure without violence on the State of Israel to create lasting peace for the citizens of Israel and Palestine, peace which most citizens crave. I have witnessed the systematic violence against and humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces. Their humiliation and pain is all too familiar to us South Africans.”

I support BDS as a human being first and a Jew second. Don’t believe the false rhetoric from the corporate press, some politicians and media as well as the Zionist lobby that BDS is anti-Semitic or discriminatory. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the leading US Israel lobby conference this year, slammed BDS backers as “bigots”. It was a desperate move from a leader and movement, Zionism, that is increasingly known globally as occupiers and brutes. 

BDS is working, removing the legitimacy of a nation that claims to be a democracy but oppresses millions of Palestinians every day. I have seen this with my own eyes in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza. 

BDS has moved mainstream, from leading European pension funds divesting from Israeli banks and corporations operating illegally in the occupied territories to Sydney University Professor Jake Lynch refusing to partner with an Israeli academic whose institution colludes with the Israeli state and enforces the occupation. I am proud to call Jake a friend, colleague and partner. 

Believe me when I say that growing numbers of Jews worldwide are uncomfortable with blind support for Israel. Ferocious debates within the Jewish community in the US are a weekly affair. It bodes well for a future when justice for all Jews and Palestinians is possible and both peoples can live free from racism in the name of Zionism. 

When the US-led “peace process” is a sham designed to benefit Israel and the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop refuses to condemn Israeli colonies in the West Bank, BDS is one answer. It challenges the occupier and the forces that support it, demanding equality and punishing the individuals and groups, such as Sodastream, that aim to financially benefit.  

BDS is growing and I’m proud to be part of a global movement that’s led by the Palestinians most directly affected. 

UPDATE: Green Left Weekly has covered the event.

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FBI Radio interview feature on privatised immigration detention

The issue of privatised immigration detention in Australia and globally is one subject of my book Profits of Doom.

Sydney’s FBI Radio Backchat program produced a strong feature on the issue last weekend and interviewed me about it:

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On racism, how to tackle it and why the state often worsens it

My weekly Guardian column:

As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.

But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.

I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”

Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:

“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”

These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”

Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.

The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).

The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.

Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.

I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.

In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).

And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).

As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.

None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.

After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:

“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”

It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.

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What is the author’s voice and where the hell is it living?

I was invited last October by the Australian Society of Authors to speak at their national congress on the role of writing, journalism and being an author. The video has just been posted (!):

Much modern publishing is based on a commercial model, and has relied on authors to deliver sales and profits. Yet authors are also seen as important contributors to culture and education. A further identity – that of speaking truth to power – sees authors consciously take on activist tasks through their work.

Science journalist and NSW Writers Centre Executive Director Jane McCredie led author Susan Johnson and journalist Antony Loewenstein in discussion.

This discussion took place as part of the ASA National Writers’ Congress on Friday 18 October 2013 in Sydney.

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