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Untimely Meditations Arrow Vol 1 No 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 1 Number 1, 2002

 

Untimely Meditations:
The Tampa and the World Trade Centre


John Docker
Australian National University


I

The Tampa crisis: the new voyage of the damned. The falling towers of 11 September: was this the ultimate aestheticisation of politics? The perpetrators knew America and the world would be watching on CNN and BBC World as the second plane flew into the building and we would already have images in our minds of multiple science fiction and disaster movies already existing (from Fritz Lang's Metropolis onwards) and some about to be shown. Science fiction has no future. Modernist architectural hubris, to bestride the known world, is dead. New York will revert to an art deco city. The American hero has become a facies hippocratica, a death's head. The Bruce Willis of Die Hard will be derided. Only the Bruce Willis of Pulp Fiction will live.

II

Sitting at ANU's Calypso, where I go for my morning coffee, I said to my son: For the first time in my life I feel no hope.

He said, remember Kafka. We both laughed. Ned was reminding me of the anecdote Benjamin in Illuminations (1992: 113) tells of Kafka, who had once said that there was "plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us".

Then we stared thoughtfully ahead, nursing our double-shot lattes.

Coffee: in the fifteenth century coffee was brought from Ethiopia to the Yemen, then spread throughout the Arab and Islamic world by Sufi traders; coffee and coffee houses would change the habitus of Middle Eastern cities, then cities in Europe and throughout the world.

When I got to my office I looked up the essay again. Benjamin says that for Kafka there may be hope for a group of very strange figures who recur throughout Kafka's work, and are enigmatically referred to as the "assistants", those who have escaped the family circle. In Indian mythology, there are the gandharvas, celestial creatures, beings in an unfinished state. Kafka's assistants, says Benjamin, are of that kind, neither members of, nor strangers to, any of the other groups of odd figures, but, rather, messengers from one to the other: "It is for them and their kind, the unfinished and the bunglers, that there is hope." (1992: 113)

III

David Marr, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (20 Sept. 2001) on the appeal in the Federal Court after which a majority declared legal the seizure of the boat people on the Tampa, setting aside the previous decision of Justice North, reports the dissenting view of Chief Justice Black in the following way: "As far as he could see, the Crown hadn't tried to expell without legislative authority since England's ports were barred to Jews in the 1770s. Australia had the Migration Act, a comprehensive law to protect our borders. That was all we had and all we needed." So (am I getting this completely wrong?) if the Migration Act were not sufficient, Australia could call on what the Crown did in the 1770s as justification?

In his dissenting judgement Chief Justice Black (2001) refers to the tenth volume of Sir William Holdsworth's A History of English Law (1938: 396-7) where Professor Holdsworth suggests that the Crown's pregorative power to exclude or expel aliens was increasingly questioned from the sixteenth century onwards. Holdsworth notes that the last occasion on which it appears that a prerogative power to expel or exclude non-citizens was used was in 1771, when the Crown directed that Jews "unable to pay the usual freight" should, unless they had a passport from an ambassador, be excluded from British territory.

IV

What the world – and not least those who protest against inequalities and injustices – needs is re-immersion in Gandhi and Martin Luther King's teachings on non-violence not as an occasional strategy or tactic but as a philosophy of being, a quality of sensibility, an art of existence, of self-fashioning.

Interestingly, quite a few letters to the Sydney Morning Herald in these weeks of crisis have drawn urgent attention to sayings of Gandhi ("An eye for an eye just leaves the world blind") and Martin Luther King on the necessity of non-violence. Think too of the 1965 Australian Freedom Ride.

Edward Said has made an anguished appeal for Palestinians to think of different methods of protest and suggested Gandhian passive resistance as an alternative to a violence that always brings upon them greater violence.

And doesn't non-violence and passive resistance have gender implications? – permitting greater female participation, questioning aggressive masculinity.

V

A letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald (24 Sept.) felt moved to quote Nietzsche: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster." This is from fragment 146 of Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The fragment goes on: "And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you." Nearby is fragment 156: "Madness is something rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule."

VI

In Joyce's Ulysses Mr Leopold Paula Bloom, on 16 June 1904, under threat of expulsion by the nationalist Irish citizens in Barney Kiernan's pub, declares his utopian pacifism, that history, with its recourse to "force", its "insult and hatred", is of "no use", that it is the very reverse of what is really life, which is love, the "opposite of hatred". Not, one might think, the philosophy of the future IRA.

Will all the world's Arabs and Muslims now experience destruction, persecution, and atrocity because of the extreme violence of a few acting on behalf of all, from whom this violent few never asked nor received permission?

VII

At the end of The Fateful Triangle (1983), Chomsky feared that Israel would be the cause of the next world war.

A very courageous group has formed in the US called Not in My Name, of Jews who refuse Zionism: but so tiny a group. The great French scholar of the Middle East Maxime Rodinson felt that Zionism would only fail when the "Jewish masses" came over to the opinion that it was wrong, recognising that it was and is a disastrous imposition of European concepts of settler-colonialism onto the Middle East and an insult to the Arab world. (Rodinson 1973: 95, 1983: 116)

Spinoza in his undoubtedly elitist 1670 Tractatus Theologico-Politicus suggested that in a democratic society the tyrannical majority, incapable of reason, needed guidance in the form of institutions that embodied reason. Spinoza felt that the disputatious theologians of his own time in their various Christian sects fomented hatred and mob violence. His friends the De Witt brothers were torn to pieces by a (bourgeois) mob. He himself, alleged to be an atheist, once had to persuade a mob to disperse that had appeared outside his home. (Spinoza 1989: 49-56, 78, 161, 262; Docker 2001: 91-99)

In Australia today the equivalent of sectarian theologians creating a society of hatred and inciting possible mob violence against strangers and those perceived as internal enemies are our present political leaders of both major parties, rightwing journalist-commentators in the broadsheets, and talk back radio entertainers.

Australia's journalists, the majority of them, the ones who seem effortlessly to command regular columns and enormous amounts of word space, are perhaps the greatest danger to democracy today, and certainly to a public sphere that hopefully can transcend brutal positivism; their hatred of academics and intellectuals is pathological.

The inferiority of Australian journalists, compared to knowledgeable British journalists like Robert Fisk, has once again been alarmingly revealed: their ignorant assertiveness, their arrogant mediocrity.

Could Australia become fascist? In Moses and Monotheism Freud said that where athletic development becomes the ideal of the people, brutality and the inclination to violence are usually found. (1967: 147)

VIII

The great Polish-Jewish jurist Raphaël Lemkin (1944: 79) in his Axis Rule in Occupied Europe invented the term genocide. "Genocide has two main phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor." Lemkin linked the second phase to colonisation: "This imposition … may be made upon the oppressed population which is allowed to remain, or upon the territory alone, after the removal of the population and the colonization of the area by the colonizer's own nationals." For Lemkin, genocide does not necessarily though it certainly may work by direct killing (in World War Two, he observed, the technique of mass killing was employed mainly against Jews, Poles, Slovenes, and Russians). Genocide involves destruction of the honour, dignity, reputation, and integrity of a people.

In A Little Matter of Genocide the Native American historian Ward Churchill, drawing on Lemkin's 1944 definition, suggests that liberal-democratic settler-colonies like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel are inherently genocidal, since wholesale displacement, reduction in numbers, and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples are a requirement of their existence. (1997: 84, 415-422 )

Settler-colonies around the globe, which present themselves as the bearers of civilization, of Enlightenment liberalism, of modernity, are established in the violence of inherent genocide, its heartlessness and cruelty.

IX

In Moses and Monotheism Freud argues that with its appearance in the world with the Pharaoh Akhenaten and his follower Moses the belief in one God gave birth to "religious intolerance, which was foreign to antiquity long before this and for long after". Monotheism lived by exclusion, repudiation, negation of that which it considered religiously wrong, beginning with polytheism itself. Akhenaten showed the way by prohibiting the names of the gods he didn't like, closing the polytheistic temples, forbidding services, and seizing ecclesiastical property. (1967: 18-35, 41, 57, 82) Freud is not particularly concerned, since his civilization creation story involves pain, renunciation and trauma as necessary for future advances.

The Egyptologist Jan Assmann in his Moses the Egyptian suggests that monotheism was and continues to be disastrous for humanity and history. (1997: 1-12, 168-170, 211) Akhenaten introduced into the ancient world the monotheistic presumption of true and false religion. This "murderous distinction" worked its destructive way forward in terms of ever more distinctions and sub-distinctions, between Jews and Gentiles, Old and New Testaments, Christians and pagans, Muslims and unbelievers, Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Lutherans.

Disaster without end: now the 'West' contra 'Islam'.

Assmann says that the way Akhenaten's monotheism was introduced into Egypt was traumatic for the polytheistic Egyptians: the terror in being severed from ritual contact with a protective nurturing cosmos.

When the monotheistic European invaders arrived with supreme presumption in the Americas and Australia, didn't they visit such originary trauma on its peoples?

X

In Exodus 23: 9 God tells the Israelites: "thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt". Such is beautiful and moving. Yet here and in Exodus as a whole there is a legacy: 'Egypt' becomes demonised in Judeo-Christian history.

XI

In T.S. Eliot's "Gerontion" we read early in the poem of "the jew" who "squats on the window sill" of the house where the old man lives; "the jew", who has moved between Antwerp, Brussels, London, has become the "owner" of the house.

Mr Eliot, the stranger from America, now at home in England, now wishes to excoriate the stranger.

XII

Graham Greene: unlikely prophet. The Quiet American (1955): predictive allegory of the Vietnam War and Cold War decades (still continuing, since the Taliban were funded by the CIA); of intellectuals and power; of America and the world.

In the novel the young idealistic naïve American Alden Pyle, educated in Enlightenment ideals of liberty, working for American intelligence, will attempt to bring democracy to Vietnam. A third force of local Vietnamese, displacing the French colonizers, will be funded and entrusted to carry forward the mission of freedom to this part of the world. With Pyle's knowledge, the third force, brutal and predatory, explodes a bomb in a busy Saigon street, killing and maiming passers-by and bystanders.

Yet Pyle's beliefs and self-belief never waver. Fowler, the English journalist, dislikes him intensely. Where, Fowler wonders, is the graininess of sensibility imparted by the entertaining of doubt, self-doubt, self-irony, uncertainty, self-loathing, fear of fate, fear of failure, awareness that self-delusion is inevitable, knowledge that any action will have unintended consequences, acknowledgement of intricacies and complexities in any society to which one has just come? In Fowler's view, all such never enter the simple determined undeterrable soul of Alden Pyle the American hero, always admirable in his own eyes.

In The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999: 359), Frances Stonor Saunders tells us that because of The Quiet American Greene was hated by America's clandestine community of Cold Warriors.

XIII

In A Little Matter of Genocide Ward Churchill writes that the US is, conspicuously, "an outlaw state", refusing to sign international treaties and conventions. As of 1990, Churchill says, more than a hundred United Nations member states had tendered valid ratifications of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide (working from Lemkin's 1944 definition): a significant exception was the United States, despite a pretence of ratification made at the behest of the Reagan administration in 1988, forty years after its promulgation.

The United States refuses to ratify important elements of evolving international law concerned with human rights and crimes against humanity, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The argument of the US is, says Churchill, that to accept such international covenants and conventions would impair US sovereignty by recognising laws standing at a higher level than America's own. (1997: 364-5, 371, 379-80, 387-88)

Early in 2001 I took up a month's residency at an American-funded research centre. In one general discussion, a young English human rights lawyer talked of imminent plans to create an international court to try crimes against humanity. The senior American scholar there passionately broke in: the Pentagon, he sharply averred, would never accept that any American soldier could be tried by an international court; America would never ratify such a court. Well, then, said the young lawyer, the rest of the world would have to go ahead without America.

On 11 September 2001 an outlaw state was attacked by outlaws.

Australia, under the Howard-Beazley Doctrine of expulsion of refugees, is rapidly becoming an outlaw state, despised and ridiculed amongst the nations.

XIV

Israel is a conspicuous outlaw state. With American approval, it refuses to act on important UN resolutions concerning the human rights of the Palestinians, not least concerning the right of return of the 700,000 Palestinians made refugees in 1948-49.

Israel is an ethnically absolutist state, indeed it calls itself the Jewish State. It is not a modern multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious society. It despises its neighbours as enemies of God and they in turn, knowing they are despised, despise Israel.

The Sydney Morning Herald of 29-30 September 2001 carried an article by Robert Fisk observing that the Palestinians would like Ariel Sharon tried for crimes against humanity: "Palestinians would like to see Sharon picked up for the Sabra and Chatila massacre, a terrorist slaughter carried out by Israel's Lebanese allies – trained by the Israeli army – in 1982."

These same Lebanese allies, who perpetrated atrocities against their own people, have been without any fuss or outrage permitted by the Liberal Government to migrate to Australia after the ending of the illegal Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Ariel Sharon is a war criminal and mass murderer - Chomsky in The Fateful Triangle (1983: 383) refers, for example, to October 1953 when Unit 101 commanded by Sharon massacred some seventy men, women and children in the Jordanian village of Qibya - with ultimate responsibility for the hideous Sabra and Chatila killings; a war criminal and mass murderer now Israel's prime minister, loyally supported by the Diaspora who will accept anything done in their name.

"I have a dream": a world where Ariel Sharon and Osama bin Laden stand side by side in the dock of justice, tried in an international court for their crimes against humanity.

 

John Docker is an Australian cultural theorist. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, Canberra. His published work includes In A Critical Condition, The Nervous Nineties, and Postmodernism and Popular Culture. His most recent book is 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (London: Continuum, 2001). Email: John.Docker@anu.edu.au

This essay was first published by Arena Magazine and is reprinted here with the kind permission of its editors.

Bibliography
        
Assmann, Jan (1997) Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.).

Benjamin, Walter (1992) Illuminations, edited and introd. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Fontana, London, 1992).

Black, Justice (2001) judgement in Federal Court of Australia
Ruddock v Vadarlis, FCA 1329, at:
http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/federal_ct/2001/1329.html

Chomsky, Noam (1983) The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Pluto Press, London and Sydney).

Churchill, Ward (1997) A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present (City Lights Books, San Francisco).

Docker, John (2001) 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (Continuum, London and New York).

Freud, Sigmund (1967) Moses and Monotheism (Vintage, New York).

Holdsworth, Sir William (1938) A History of English Law, Vol. X (Methuen, London).

Lemkin, Raphaël (1944) Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Columbia University Press, New York).

Rodinson, Maxim (1973) Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? (Monad Press, New York).

Rodinson, Maxime (1983) Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (Al Saqi Books, London).

Saunders, Frances Stonor (1999) The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (The New Press, New York).

Spinoza, Baruch (1989) Tractatus Theologico-Politicus trans. Samuel Shirley, introd. Brad S. Gregory (E.J. Brill, Leiden).


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