Why “in that howling infinite”?

It refers to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”,  a magnificent study in mania and obsession:

“But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”   Chapter 23

In a figurative sense, it speaks to me of the themes and schemes that are addressed in the thoughts, ideas, songs, poems and stories that will feature in this blog.

Other memorable quotations follow:

“For long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched out in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad”.  Chapter 41

“Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”   Chapter 36

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”.  Chapter 135

In That Howling Infinite is the title of Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five.

For more on  Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, see Chapter 41 and Ahab’s Madness.

Check out In That Howling Infinite on FaceBook:

Ahab’s Paranoia The New Yorker

Moby-Dick

Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men…

Continue reading

Bad company – how Britain conquered India

In September 1599, as William Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, in Southwark, a mile to the north across the Thames, a group of London merchants, artisans, adventurer and privateers formed history’s first joint-stock, limited-liability company with tradeable shares.

The East India Company developed over two centuries into “a state in the guise of a merchant”, to use English politician Burke’s phrase, with a private army 260,000 strong – twice as large as that of Britain at the time, and the proving ground of many celebrated British officers, the most famous of those being Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and who at the time of his Indian service, was the capable younger brother of the equally capable Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the principality Bengal, the keystone of the British hold on the Indian subcontinent.

At its peak, it had built a third of London’s docklands, its annual expenditure was half that of the British government, and it oversaw a third of the country’s imports and exports. For Britain, the East India Company was a gift that kept on giving. Unwittingly and haphazardly, it established and solidified British power in India and China, seeing off their European colonial competitors – the French and the Dutch, who also coveted a piece of the Indian action – and overseeing the transfer west of massive wealth to the home country. It set the keystone for the British Empire, with India, “The Raj”, the jewel in the crown.

William Dalrymple, author, historian, Indophile and longtime resident of India, has written a page-turner of a book called The Anarchy about the rise and fall of what became known as ‘The Honourable Company’ – yes, that’s what it was called with no hint of irony! It is a harrowing tale of how a small limited stock company managed to build an empire.

When the East India Company was first established, the Britain had about 1% of world GDP compared to 43% per cent for Mughal India. By the time it was wound down over one hundred and fifty years later, it had more or less inverted that. In co-opting, corrupting and conquering the powerful warlords of the fractious Mughal Empire, it effectively established the British Empire and in the process, destroyed India’s sovereignty, economy and society. The word “loot” is of Indian origin – it came to symbolize how the company drained the blood from India’s veins, sucked the marrow from out of Its bones, and sending its wealth back to Britain, many historians argue, substantially financed the nascent industrial revolution.

Sepoys of the East India Company

Granted the right to ‘‘wage war’’ in its royal charter, the Honourable Company was the first multinational corporation to run amok (a Malay word for unrestrained rampage) on a grand scale. Having established itself in eastern India, by 1765 it had control of a production and distribution network for opium that was illegally imported into China, sowing the seeds for the Opium Wars – and a Chinese animus that resonates to this day. It bought Chinese tea, which it sold in Britain and the continent, and established tea plantations in India. It was in fact company tea that ended up in Boston Harbour in 1773 – fear of what the company could do if it was granted access to the New World was one of the causes of the American Revolution.

The company effectively bankrolled the British economy, yet ironically, it was also the Bank of England’s largest creditor. It could also be said to have invented corporate lobbying. Members of the British Parliament were on retainers, and were offered shares in exchange for extending the company’s monopolies: some  two-fifths of British MPs held stock, including most members of the cabinet. Many members were in fact former employees who had repatriated millions of pounds in ill gotten gains from Bengal.  And yet, it overextended itself and its resources and was on the verge of insolvency. The contrast between the bankruptcy of the company and the vast riches of its employees was too stark not to be investigated, and indeed it was. but was deemed “too big to fail”,  and was bailed out by the British government  in 1773.

The Company’s premier enabler and exemplar was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, Robert Clive, or Lord Clive of Plassey, as he was ennobled after a battle that demonstrated the aphorism that one should never enter a gunfight armed with just a knife. But wasn’t that just how the East – and West – was won?

Clive was a humble accountant labouring on the ledgers, but found his calling as a soldier (just like the Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortéz “the killer” – as Neil Young called him), and rose to great heights of power and riches through remarkable grit and graft. When arraigned by parliament for his rapacity – and acquitted – he exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”

If ever you are in London, visit the small, quiet and shady Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, as he became known, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat with a blunt paper-knife. “How are the mighty fallen”. Leonard Cohen’s poet King David said that. “Not often enough!”  I said that.

Eventually, the company – whose lobbying efforts saw its original fifteen year charter last for 274 years – became an embarrassment for the English government and establishment. Its Indian “subjects” rebelled unexpectedly and violently in the Great Rebellion of 1857, and it was only by considerable military effort and repression that the British Army was able to save the company and its Indian ’empire”. In the wake of what the British called The Indian Mutiny, which saw cruel atrocities committed by Indians and Britons alike, tens of thousands of rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers in the company’s employ) were executed in vicious reprisal. As George McDonald Fraser’s antihero says in Flashman in the Great Game, “there’s nothing as cruel as a justified Christian”. Assuming full control, the British government nationalized the company in 1859. Long outliving its purpose it was wound down in 1874. Read more about what the British did for India in Weighing the White Man’s Burden  

Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government with the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. As Dalrymple himself has put it, The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!

Read more about India and The Raj in In That Howling Infinite: Weighing the White Man’s Burden; Freedom at Midnight (1): the birth of India and Pakistan; Freedom at Midnight (2): the legacy of partition ; and Paradise Lost – Kashmir’s bitter legacy

Flashman in the Great Game

The Indian Mutiny – Weighing the White Man’s Burden

Visualizing the Palestinian Return – the art of Ismail Shammout

The Key and the Return – Palestine as a metaphor

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish saw Palestine as a homeland but also as a metaphor –  for the loss of Eden, for the sorrows of dispossession and and of exile, for the diminishing power of the Arab world in its relationship with the west (Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine as Metaphor)

Palestinian Australian author and academic Nejmeh Khalil-Habib – and my Arabic teacher for many semesters at the University of Sydney – published a paper in Nebula magazine in 2008 examining how the “Return”  – al ‘awda العودة – a recurring theme in contemporary Arabic literature – has been dealt with in Arabic fiction, and how it depicted those who live the dream of “Return” and those who actually returned to Palestine after the 1967 war or after the Oslo Accords.

She writes: “The concept of “Return” throughout this literature manifests itself in various ways including the spiritual return (as manifested in dreams and aspirations); the literal, physical return; an individual’s return (a “Return” on the basis of family reunions); the “Return” as a result of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank after the war of 1967; and the “Return” as a result of the peace process after the “Oslo Accords.”

Al Muftah, المفتاح, the key is an enduring symbol of al ‘awda. It is present in street art and in signs and posters throughout Palestine and in the refugee camps. It is a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to lost homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods. As Nejmeh writes,“The Return” (Al-Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory. It is rooted in their conscience like a faith that could not be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynch-pin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends”.

Al Mufta مفتاح

But for many, it is something more than that. Nejmeh writes: “Whether exile happens voluntarily or under oppressive circumstances, the dream of returning home stays alive in the mind of the exiled person. It flares or fades from person to person and from one circumstance to another; however, the concept of “return” ceases to be about its basic meaning, but comes to be seen as a means of resistance and challenging oppression”.

She notes American-Palestinian author and activist Fawaz Turky assertion that “the right and dream of Return is the rock upon which our nation was established and the social balance that unites the nation in this wretched world”.

It is the dream, the hope that enabled tens of thousands of revues in camps throughout the Levant to perceive their situation as temporary and to resist the allure of assimilation and mainstreaming in their host countries – if this was indeed possible given that most hosts have steadfastly resisted granting Palestinians rights and privileges enjoyed by their own citizens. Whilst being much of the diaspora in the West has accepted inclusion and naturalization, these Palestinians connect with their people and their culture in Palestine, and still celebrate their national holidays.

Between seven and eight hundred Palestinians fled their homes in present day Israel or were expelled during the 1948 war. Many remained in Israel either in their original homes or where they sought refuge. They became Israeli citizens, but even for these, the memories endure and many continue to refer to the towns and villages and localities by the names they had prior to the establishment of the state of Israel.

And yet, al ‘awda, and the Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status, a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pulsanimity. UNWRA’s definition and establishment was at fault from day one, and whilst creating generational refugeedom, it engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts  There is indeed a whole economy, a living, a lifestyle devoted to and dependent on managing the conflict and the refugee problem rather than solving it. The exile was unreasonable and unjust, but the past will never be undone – and most certainly never by UN resolutions.

The key, therefore, is a forlorn hope, a closed door that no amount of keys can unlock; and the reality is that of a lock-out, out of politics, out of society, out of the jobs and housing market. The refugees are a minority in Palestine. There are no keys for the new houses and apartments that are going up in and around the cities of the West Bank in a property boom that has been going on for several years now and accessible and affordable only for a growing middle class of employees of the PA and foreign NGOs and young professionals.

But for refugees, all this is paradox. They are locked out of the old Palestine of their parents and grandparent and forebears. But they are also locked out the new Palestine that is struggling to be born.

Poets like Darwish and novelists have internalized and reflected al Nakba and al ‘awda in their work. The dream of al ‘awda is reflected in their writing. As it is also do with to graphic artists – none as powerfully and poignantly as ismail Shammout, born in Lydia, Palestine in 1930. When last In Ramallah, de facto administrative “capital” of that part of the West Bank government by the  Palestinian Authority – Area A (for Abbas, joke the wits) of ththe Oslo dispensation, we visited the cultural centre Dar Zahran, a beautifully restored Ottoman house just south of the city centre (and its central square festooned with images af al Muftah).

By fortunate serendipity, Dar Zahran was hosting a small exhibition of paintings by the late Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout which told the story of al Nakba and of flight and exile.

I have republished below a concise biography of Shammout by the Palijounrneys blog.

https://www.paljourneys.org/en/biography/9727/ismail-shammut

The Art of Ismail Shammout

Ismail Shammout is remembered and celebrated for his depictions of everyday life in Palestinian villages before the Nakba, for his harrowing portrayal of flight and expulsion of much of Mandate Palestine’s Arab population, and his allegorical tableaux of the ensuing diaspora.

His Palestine is a timeless, almost dreamlike place quite out of time and place with its contemporary reality. Nostalgists and artists and poets of an earlier era would have described it as pastorale with its images of everyday life in the countryside, and its vignettes of young folk and old, men and women, children and babies. There are young couples in traditional costumes, young mothers with babes in arms, farmers in fields, and family groups of many generations. They are in lounges and kitchens, in yards and gardens, fields and orchards, and street markets as buyers and sellers. There are musicians and singers and dancers in myriad social settings – at parties and celebrations, marriages and festivals, parades and and processions.

 

 

And, celebrating the circle of life from cradle to grave and the rhythm of the seasons, there are scenes of harvest time and the gathering of the fruits of the fields and the orchards. There are grains and vegetable, olives, and water melons, apricots and pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the oranges for which Palestine was long famous.

Such bucolic scenes of a gone world – gone for us all, and not just for Shammout’s country folk- are juxtaposed with graphic images of al Nakba, and of exile, of expulsions and dispossession, of conquest and occupation, and of ongoing protest and resistance. And through, it all, are motifs of hope and of peace – flowers, songbirds and doves – and also, of conflict and resistance – flags and banners, rifles and rocks.

These include Shammout’s famous paintings of the Palestinians’ flight and expulsion, and the long hard road of flight on a trail of tears, the hostile sun beating down. His rendering of the heat, hunger, thirst and exhaustion recall of WH Auden’s harrowing poem The Shield of Achilles, with its contrasting and jarring snapshot images of joy and celebration and of bleak, almost monochrome desolation … “a plain without a feature, bare and brown, no blade of grass, not sign of neighbourhood; nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, but congregated on on its blankness stood an intelligible multitude, a million eyes, a millions boots in line, without expression, waiting for a sign”.

These images, the fair and the foul, reappear within larger paintings that depict the decades that followed, both the immediate – the camps and the scattering – and the contemporary – the occupation, the two Intifadat, ongoing resistance, and the perpetually stuttering  peace process. In the background are the symbols and icons of Palestine past and present – particularly of al Quds, Jerusalem the golden, with the holy places that are so precious to many faiths – its mosques and churches, its monasteries and madrasas, including the Haram al Sharif and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

There are images of refugee camps, the crowded tent-cities where the exiles first settled, of Gulf oil fields where expatriates laboured, and of the professions that expatriates entered into all over the world, from labourers to lab workers. There are school children at their desks and office-workers at computers, and crowds, always crowds of numberless, nameless, almost faceless people. There are  marches and demonstrations, and clashes with anonymous, faceless soldiers. There are youths throwing stones and facing off against armoured cars and troops bearing weapons. And there are political events like the meeting at Camp David between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin facilitated by President Clinton which fired up hopes and expectations rest were never realized.

One painting is a particularly potent and poignant. An elderly woman and her daughter hug their olive tree as a bulldozer approaches. Two young boys endeavour to block its relentless path – a scene that is not at all unusual, as the picture I have paired it with shows. “How shall we find olive branches when all the olive trees are gone?’

               

Ismail Shammout  – a brief biography

Ismail Shammout was born in the town of Lydda on 2 March 1930. His father, Abd al-Qadir Shammout, was a fruit and vegetable merchant. His mother was Aisha al-Hajj Yasin. He had seven siblings: Ibrahim, Kawthar, Jamil, Muyassar, Inam, Jamal, and Tawfiq. His wife was the artist Tamam Arif al-Akhal, who was born in Jaffa in 1935. His children are Yazid, Bashar, and Bilal.

In 1936 he started elementary school, and his artistic talent was spotted at an early age. His teacher, Dawud Zalatimu, took him in charge. Zalatimu served as an art teacher in Lydda from 1930 until 1948, and his drawings of historic events and nature decorated the school walls. Shammut was taught by Zalatimu to draw with pencil and ink, to paint with watercolors, and to sculpt in limestone.

After convincing his religious and conservative father that “art could be a profitable profession,” he started by decorating wedding dresses with flowers and birds and then opened his own shop, which was in fact his first studio. There he painted his first oils depicting natural scenery and portraiture before the Nakba of 1948.

Three days after the fall of Lydda and Ramla to the Zionist forces, on 13 July 1948, Shammout and his family (along with the inhabitants of the two towns) were forced to leave and go on foot to Ramallah and were not allowed to carry water. His young brother Tawfiq died of thirst before they arrived at the village of Nilin, near Ramallah. Shammout documented that march of death, exhaustion, and thirst in several paintings executed in the 1950s.  The family continued to move until it settled in the tents that eventually formed the Khan Yunis refugee camp.

Shammout sold pastry for one year and then volunteered to teach drawing at the refugee schools, which were set up in tents. This allowed him to resume his artistic career and to exhibit his paintings in a room in the Khan Yunis government school in 1950. That same year he joined the Fine Art Academy in Cairo and lived off his earnings, drawing movie posters.

Shammout held his first exhibition in 1953, having accumulated enough paintings for a large exhibition “but did not have enough courage” to hold it in Cairo. So he exhibited at the Employees Club in Gaza city jointly with his brother Jamil. At that exhibition Shammout presented some sixty paintings including his now famous Where to? and A Mouthful of Water. That exhibition was regarded as the first contemporary art exhibition in Palestine’s history by a Palestinian artist on Palestinian soil, as judged by its size, the number of works exhibited, the way it was opened, and the mass attendance.   

In 1954 he held an exhibition in Cairo called The Palestinian Refugee jointly with an art student at the Fine Arts Academy, Tamam al-Akhal, and the Palestinian artist Nuhad Sabasi. This exhibition was under the auspices of Gamal Abdel Nasser, at that time Egypt’s prime minister, and was attended by Palestinian leaders. His earnings from that exhibition encouraged him to travel to Italy where he soon received a scholarship to study at Rome’s Academia di Belle Arti, and he remained there for two years (1954–56).

Following his graduation he moved to live and work in Beirut with his brother Jamil at the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The brothers set up an office for commercial art and book design; the latter included a pamphlet for the Lebanese army entitled “Human Civic Education.”

In 1959 he married fellow artist Tamam al-Akhal and thereafter they worked closely together, artistically and professionally. They trained art teachers in Beirut, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip and held joint exhibitions in those localities.

Shammout and al-Akhal followed closely the creation of the PLO at the First Palestine National Congress in Jerusalem in 1964. In 1965 he set up the Artistic Culture Section of the PLO Department of Information and National Guidance (later known as Department of Information and Culture) and directed its activities until 1984. When the offices of the PLO in Jerusalem closed, the couple returned to Beirut in 1966 and resumed work with the PLO there, in addition to their personal work as artists. Shammout completed an innumerable number of posters and literary, political, and traditional projects and with al-Akhal organized tens of political and personal exhibitions in cities around the world, including Gaza, Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, Amman, Washington (plus twelve other US cities), Tripoli, Damascus, Kuwait, London, Belgrade, Sofia, Beijing, and Vienna, in addition to murals called The Path in Amman, Ankara, Istanbul, Doha, Sharjah, Dubai, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, and Beirut. Among his most notable achievements is the hall called Dar al-Karama in Beirut where seasonal exhibitions by young artists from Palestinian refugee camps were displayed, as were other Arab and international solidarity exhibitions.

In 1969, Shammout and other Palestinian artists founded the first General Union of Palestinian Artists; he remained its secretary-general until 1984. He also participated in founding the General Union of Arab Artists in 1971 and was its first secretary-general, a position he held until 1984.

Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the departure of the Palestinian resistance and its leaders, and the closing of the PLO offices, Shammout (who had a heart condition that had worsened) was forced to move with his family to Kuwait in 1983, where they lived through the occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and the second Gulf War. After the liberation of Kuwait, the family was again forced to move in 1992, this time to Germany. In 1994, Shammout and al-Akhal finally settled in Amman, Jordan.

Shammout is generally regarded as a pioneer of contemporary Palestinian art. He was a committed artist whose style was realistic with some symbolistic elements. The Palestinian cause dominated his art, some of which was widely distributed in camps and houses and in solidarity with Palestine campaigns in the Arab countries and beyond. Some of his works can be regarded as iconic for the Palestinian people.

Shammout never ceased to depict the Palestinian exodus from Palestine in paintings that carried titles and meanings very much present in people’s minds and in his own experience; an example is  the painting he titled Where to? (1953). His paintings were inspired by camp life (such as Memories and Fire, 1956; We Shall Return, 1954; and Bride and Groom at the Border, 1962) and called for reflection on the meaning of a nation in waiting.

The PLO awarded him the Revolutionary Shield for Arts and Literature, the Jerusalem Medal for Culture, Arts and Literature, and The Palestine Prize for the Arts. The Arab Thought Forum awarded him The Creative Prize for Arab Painting. An annual prize in his name is awarded for excellent Palestinian painting. His works have been acquired by several Arab and international museums.

His heart condition forced him to undergo three critical operations, the third of which was performed in Leipzig, Germany; he died on 3 July 2006 and was buried in Amman.

In addition to his paintings, he wrote histories of Palestinian painting and crafts and produced a number of films, which were influenced by his artistic experiences. These include a film called Memories and Fire (1973), which won the Short Documentary Film Prize at the Leipzig Festival; Urgent Appeal (1973); and On the Road to Palestine (1974). Noura al-Sharif produced a short film called Ismail, which dealt with a part of his life during his first period as a refugee in the Khan Yunis camp. A website devoted to his work is available at http://www.ismail-shammout.com

From Palestinian Journeys

Read more about Middle Eastern politics and history in In That Howling Infinite in:  A Middle East Miscellany

As a COVID-19 lock-down diversion, In That Howling Infinite has translated the story of the life and art of Ismail Shammout into Arabic. It will be published very shortly.

Joy فرح

The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories

Plots he has made, so ingenuous.
Dangerous follies and schemes
For he has stage-managed quite strenuous
Drunken prophecies, libels and dreams.
Lucifer, Paul Hemphill, after Shakespeare’s Richard II

Everybody who was alive when JF Kennedy was assassinated remembers where they were, just as we remember where we were when Neil Armstrong made that “great step for mankind”, and when we’d heard that the Twin Towers had been hit. And there is an almost universal consensus as to how, why and when these events occurred.

But many beg to differ, and cynical or suspicious, curious or just plan mischievous, they say “Ah, but …” and ascribe ulterior motives, describe oblique patterns, and maintain that they possess clear sight whilst the rest of us sport white sticks and dark glasses.

So, it was inevitable that some folk would some how find a link between COVID19, atmospheric chemtrails and the roll-out of the 5G telecommunications network. Before the coronavirus outbreak even began, 5G was being blamed for everything from cancer to infertility. Now, there are hints of deep state” plots and Illuminati plans to control population growth.

Many of the people spreading such theories are the same that share unfounded warnings about the dangers of vaccinations.​ indeed, folk who grasp conspiracy theories tend to go for the buy one, get five free deal – and the rest! Antivax, chem trails, JFK, 9/11, Apollo II, climate change, Illuminati, deep state, white replacement, the Rothschilds, George Soros, Satanic cults, black helicopters, Freemasons, Jews … Yes, it always come back to the Jews …

Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. Facebook groups that act as petri dishes for new viral rumours to spread can be easily found by searching for ‘5G’ or ‘coronavirus’ on the social network.

Opportunistic political groups stir the pot, often for subversive and strategic ends. For example, RT, the Kremlin-backed broadcaster, has given a platform for 5G conspiracy theories long before coronavirus existed. The New York Times recently suggested that consistently reporting the “5G apocalypse” through its foreign media channels could all be part of a ploy to slow the roll-out of the technology so that Russia won’t be left behind.

Fear, suspicion, insecurity, resentment, powerlessness and a feeling that things are out of our control have much to do with it, rendering people of a bitter, misanthropic or nihilistic disposition – or a compendium of such traits – susceptible to unproven facts, untethered rumours, and in some cases, outright fantasy, and subscribing to alternative narratives, histories and universes.

In Contagion, a 2011 film about a deadly worldwide pandemic that has killed seventy million, a public health official retorts to a conspiracy theorist: “In order to get scared, all you have to do is come into contact with a rumour”.

Below, In That Howling Infinite provides links to three recent articles that endeavour to cast a light into the shadowy world of conspiracy theories and its inhabitants. But first, the irrepressible Sybil Fawlty’s excruciating exposition on fear and loathing:

“Old people are wonderful when they have so much life, aren’t they? Gives us all hope, doesn’t it? My mother on the other hand is a little bit of a trial, really. You know, it’s alright when they have the life force but Mother – well she’s got more of the death force really. She’s a worrier. She has these, well, morbid fears they are, really. Vans is one. Rats. Doorknobs. Birds. Heights. Open spaces. Confined spaces. It’s very difficult getting the space right for her really, you know. Footballs. Bicycles. Cows. And she’s always on about men following her, I don’t know what she thinks they’re going to do to her. Vomit on her, Basil says”.

Lies travel faster than facts

“Lies travel faster than facts and, perversely, efforts to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up reinforcing it …  Increasingly, authorities treat such misinformation contagion like their biological equivalent – proactively pushing out the right facts to inoculate people against unfounded theories or encouraging good information hygiene (such as checking sources) … such theories more as symptoms of a bigger problem, whether it be lack of transparency or a failure of communication … For most people, the more consistent and clear the messaging is from the people higher up, the better – even if that information is “we don’t know yet”.

How conspiracy theories about COVID-19 went viral, The Sydney Morning Herald

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

“Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention. Twitter in particular, as the platform of choice for many national journalists as well as Trump, has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories, misinformation and racist screeds to find massive audiences; messages grow from a few viral tweets, to a trending topic, to news coverage … When you ask experts about ways to limit the reach of racism and conspiracy theories on platforms such as Twitter, they’ll tell you to watch how it’s amplified: Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs … Even though many journalists and media organisations have gotten better at realizing that trending hashtags are often more representative of the weaponization of attention rather than a reflection of popular opinion, trending hashtags are still an effective tactic for courting news coverage of fringe ideas – even if that coverage is intended to debunk it”.

A dangerous cycle of conspiracy theories circulate around Donald Trump, The Sydney Morning Herald

The internet’s dark spaces

Christopher French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London explains in a Scientific American article. “As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to find meaningful patterns in the world around us and to make causal inferences. We sometimes, however, see patterns and causal connections that are not there, especially when we feel that events are beyond our control.”

Voting for Brexit and Trump was found to be associated with a wide range of conspiratorial beliefs, with researchers uncovering that these groups are more likely to believe climate change is a hoax, vaccines are harmful, and that Illuminati-style groups rule the world. They also found that 33 percent of British and French people believe their governments are obscuring the truth about immigration and that many also supported a theory known as “the great replacement” which posits that Muslim immigration is part of a plan to make Muslims the global majority …

… As is the case with the Holocaust and the Second World War, as time passes, truth and fact often become distorted and replaced with myth and alternative stories to support new, disruptive thought. Although many common conspiracy theories flourished – some would say festered – in back streets and bedsits, the advent of social media has energized and amplified them. In the dark recesses of the Internet, all amplified by the likes of QAnon and 8chan which are only loosely tethered to reality, and para-State organs like RT which have more subversive and strategic motives.

How moon landing conspiracy theories influenced the far-right, The Independent

Read other posts about politics in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming

Two years ago, we published The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,  a contemplation on the part played by William Shakespeare in the history and society of the American West – and more specifically in those original and excellent HBO series Westworld and Deadwood. It quotes Daniel Pollack-Pelzner  in Slate Magazine::  

“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register … is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.

President Abraham Lincoln used to love reciting, and was particularly enamoured of Macbeth, the play, not the disturbed anti-hero; ‘Nothing equals it’, he confided, “I think it is wonderful: he confided. John Wilkes Booth, his murderous nemesis, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s fiery and treasonous Geordie rebel, Hotspur, and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar.  

Whilst Shakespeare  and his plays attracted countless aficionados of high and low estate, he also found himself involuntarily conscripted into the young nation’s contentious race and immigration debates. eminent abolitionist and and former president John Adams believed that Desdemona was a “wanton trollop” for falling in love with a blackamoor”. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed immigration and used the Bard as one of his weapons against the ‘Calibans” from Southern or Eastern Europe.

These are just a few examples of how The Bard of Avon popped up in at times in American history like a figurative and literary Doctor Who as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. in his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro informs us that when great (and small) things happened in the United States, someone, somewhere, was brushing up their bard – as the following review from The Times illustrates. These do not include, however, the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or else, as the reviewer remarks, “maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen”.

See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, Rebel Yelland The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,.

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Deadwood’s wild bunch

The Bard in America’s Uncivil Wars

David Aaronovitch, The Australian, 14th March 2020

On May 10, 1849, outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York, more than 10,000 residents turned out to try to stop the great British Shakespearean actor William Macready giving an interpretation of Macbeth that they didn’t care for. The militia and the hussars were mobilized, artillery was deployed and in the ensuing riot more than a score died and twenty thousand were injured. This was arguably the most extreme event in the history of drama criticism.

This was just one example, according to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, of the way in which the playwright turns up at critical moments in American history as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. When great things happen in the US, someone, somewhere, is brushing up their Shakespeare.

In the case of the 1849 riots, the Bard was largely a pretext. The poor of the city were being roused by populists to attack the wealthy who exploited them, and the blacks and newer immigrants whom they despised. But the bard was a crowd magnet – on one turbulent night, ten thousand New Yorkers saw Macbeth in three separate productions.

Shakespeare in a Divided America

As Shapiro explains in his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, the theatre then was cheap and became a place where people of all classes gathered. The public battle about how to play Hamlet between Macready and the much more masculinist American actor Edwin Forrest was taken up by partisans as being a matter of tribal importance.

When demonstrations (including the flinging of animal carcasses on stage) led to Macready being invited to perform more safely in a new, smarter, more expensive venue — the Opera House — the “mob” took it amiss. So Shakespeare became a proxy for the war between the wealthy and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and the poorer and angrier on the other.

Indeed, it was a contention of more sophisticated exponents of American nationalism and nativism that Shakespeare was more like the Americans than like the British. His spirit was more authentically represented by those pioneers who left England for the New World than by the descendants of those who remained.

Certainly it is true that some of our best, most popular Shakespearean scholars have been American, and Shapiro is one of them. Readers who have invested in his two books about seminal years in Shakespeare’s creative life, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, know what a lucid, lively joy he is to read.

And his dissection of the controversy over whether the Elizabethan Mr S wrote his own plays, Contested Will, settles the issue for any sensible reader.

Shapiro is the erudite tip of an American iceberg. He tells us that there are no fewer than 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the US. I looked them up and decided that the Fairbanks Festival in Alaska looked particularly committed.

This enthusiasm is not universal, however, for, as Shapiro points out, the present incumbent “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen.

This was a fate narrowly avoided by Ulysses S Grant, who as a young officer was slated to play opposite Othello in an army production. His Civil War boss, Abraham Lincoln, though never called to act a part on stage, adored Shakespeare, had a particular affection for Macbeth and would recite long and apposite chunks when he felt moved to.

It was ironic, then, that his murderous nemesis, the actor John Wilkes Booth, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s Hotspur and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar. Indeed, he was playing as Mark Antony opposite his brothers to 2000 playgoers in a large theatre on lower Broadway in 1864 when Confederate sympathizers set fire to the building next door, hoping the flames would spread. Had the plot worked, it would have been the biggest death scene in theatre history.

Booth’s murder of Lincoln was animated by Lincoln’s promise to give limited suffrage to American blacks. And Shapiro writes a brilliant chapter on how Othello was interpreted in the first part of the 19th century as America’s original sin of slavery began to dominate the nation’s politics.

He focuses on the writings of the former president John Quincy Adams, who in 1836 published an essay on The Character of Desdemona. In it Adams wrote of Desdemona that “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts”. Why?

As Shapiro tells us, two years earlier Adams had been at a dinner in Boston with the visiting British actress Fanny Kemble. According to her journals, he told her much the same thing, “with a most serious expression of sincere disgust that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘n***er’ ”. Kemble had married a Texan slave owner. And she noted the Southern hypocrisy about “amalgamation”, given that, as she now knew, “throughout the South a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women”. One of those instances in which British bluntness punctures US social hypocrisy.

This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of the movie Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery.

Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the post-war situation of American women. During the war, when Rosie was a Riveter, American women went into occupations previously only held by men. And they liked it.

With those men due back from serving abroad, social psychologists and marriage experts expected trouble. Their answer was clearly that women needed to go back into the home and re-become pliant wives.

That many didn’t meekly accept their lot may be measured in the soaring divorce rate, and possibly in the hugely increased incidence of domestic violence. And it’s at this point that one of America’s most successful Shakespeare-inspired productions, Kiss Me Kate, appears, first on stage and then on film. In the film, one of the most famous scenes is when Petruchio puts Kate over his knee and “spanks” her. It’s even on the poster (see the featured image).

This spanking scene, though it had never occurred in any of the previous productions of The Taming of the Shrew, was by now common in US movies. Shapiro tells us there were five films featuring men spanking grown women in 1945 alone. Now Google the words of that most famous song from the show and you’ll see that Brush Up Your Shakespeare is practically a hymn to wife-beating. Someone really should tell the President.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber, $39.99

 

Tangled! – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

The paradox of piety observes no disconnect
Nor registers anxiety
As the ship of fools is wrecked
So leaders urge with eloquence
And martyrs die in consequence
We talk in last and present sense
As greed and fear persist
E Lucevan Le Stelle, Paul Hemphill

At a recent conference in Berlin, Germany’s prime minister Angela Merkel and and UN Special Representative Ghassan Salamé managed, at least on paper, to cajole the external actors guilty of super-charging Libya’s misery to sign onto a unified agenda. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson, and Egypt’s pharaoh (and Donald Trump’s “favourite dictator”) Abdel Fatah el-Sisi,  joined a dozen or so others (with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo representing the United States) in declaring an intention to end foreign interference in Libya’s internal affairs: “We commit to refraining from interference in the armed conflict or in the internal affairs of Libya and urge all international actors to do the same,” states the communiqué, in language one hopes all participants endorsed in (what would be uncharacteristic, for some) good faith.

This corroboree of hypocrites acknowledged that the increasingly violent and globally tangled Libyan civil war could only be ended if outside powers backed off and ended their meddling. They made altruistic and totally disingenuous declarations about a conflict  that they themselves have incited, exacerbated and perpetuated for nine years. And yet, explicitly excluded Libyan participation, contradicting the 2012 UN Guidance for Effective Mediation and its insistence on “inclusivity” and “national ownership” as fundamental elements for peaceful conflict resolution. It’s focus at this point was on the on the external, rather than the Libyan, actors and for reviving the world’s attention on the Libyan conflict.

A follow-up conference in Munich was convened in mid-February to renew its pledges to quit meddling. Stephanie Williams, the UN deputy special envoy for Libya reported zero progress and declared the agreed-upon arms embargo to be a joke. A sick joke, indeed – plane after plane land in Benghazi loaded with weapons from the UAE and other arms-suppliers destined for self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar‘s self-styled Libyan National Army.

Unfortunate Libya is neither the first nor the last pawn to be used and abused by outsiders in the new Great Game as the following guide demonstrates.

But first, there’s this letter to a British daily from Aubrey Bailey of Fleet, Hampshire (where hurricanes hardly happen):

Are you confused by what is going on in the Middle East? Let me explain.

We (she’s talking if Britain and us generic “good guys”) support the Iraqi government in the fight against Islamic State. We don’t like IS but IS is supported by Saudi Arabia, whom we do like. We don’t like President Assad in Syria. We support the fight against him, but not IS, which is also fighting against him. We don’t like Iran, but Iran supports the Iraqi government against IS.

So, some of our friends support our enemies and some of our enemies are our friends, and some of our enemies are fighting against our other enemies, whom we want to lose, but we don’t want our enemies who are fighting our enemies to win. If the people we want to defeat are are defeated, they might be replaced by people we like even less. 

And this was started by us invading a country to drive out terrorists who weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out. Do you understand now? Clear as mud! 

It casts new light on that thorny old aphorism “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”!

A cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East

Libya

We begin with  Libya, the “beneficiary” of the Berlin talk-fests.

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, Libya’s capital there’s: Not many … Italy (former colonial oppressor, in it for the oil, who’d just love to see an end to those refugee boats that wash up on its shores); Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor now ruled by a wannabe Ottoman sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and eager for offshore oil and gas leases); and potentially, Qatar (who fell out with Egypt, Saudi and the United Arab Emirates over its tepid support for the Sunni grand alliance against Shia Iran).  Turkish soldiers fly the government’s drones whilst Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries provide military muscle – Turkey would like to move them out of Kurdish Syria on account of their murderous behavior).  

On the side of the self-anointed warlord Khalifa Haftar, based in Benghazi in the east, whose sharp uniform is festooned in medals for this and that act of service and heroism), there’s: Egypt, (the US’ impecunious, brutal “partner in Freedom” – strange bedfellows in this amoral “new Middle East” that is just like the old Middle East); Saudi Arabia, and the UAE (see above, re. Qatar, whom they blockaded for several years); Jordan (perennially cash-strapped and dependent on rich Arab relatives), France and Russia (arms, oil, and influence); plus Russian mercenaries (plausibly deniable, capable and reliable, and familiar with the Middle East – see below); and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed Arab militias (broke Sudan seeks Saudi favour).

And on the sidelines, a disinterested and divided UN, the UK and the US – although Britain, with France, helped wreck the joint by ousting longtime dictator Gaddafi; arguably, the US, although Donald Trump has confused matters by phoning Haftar and then saying that he’s a great bloke (he has a thing for dictators actual and potential, including Putin, Erdogan, Al Sisi, and the thuggish Saudi crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman); and in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.. 

As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

Syria

On the side of the internationally recognized government in Damascus headed up by Bashar al Assad, there’s: The Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran’s Shia Muslims are related to Syria’s heterodox Alawi minority, whose elite happen to have rule the country for half a century, and Iran is consolidating it’s Shia axis across the Middle East); Russia (oil, pipelines, and restoring Soviet greatness); Lebanese Shia Hezbollah (de facto ruler of Lebanon) and its soldiers; the Iranian Quds brigade (the expeditionary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, a military-industrial complex that virtually runs Iran); sundry Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias beholden to Iran for cash, weapons, training and ideology); Russian and Chechen mercenaries (see above – deniable, reliable and capable); and, quite surreptitiously, Turkey (former Ottoman oppressor) which is ostensibly opposed to Assad, but needing Russian pipeline deals, runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds – but see below, and also, above with respect to Libya. As the song goes, “I’m so dizzy, my head is turning” already! 

On the side of “the other side”, which is not really a “side’ at all, but a grab bag of sundry rebels who were once supported by the US and are predominantly Islamist, with some indeed linked to al Qa’ida, which, of course, we all love to hate (Twin Towers, Osama bin Laden and all that), there’s: the US, Britain and France (why do they persevere so in what Donald Trump has called these forever, endless wars?); Saudi Arabia (Salafi Central and banker for all the bad guys) and the United Arab Emirates (also a financier for the foe); Israel (of course – mortal foe of Iran and of Hezbollah (“the enemy of my enemy” fair-weather friend – anything that distracts its perennial enemies is good for Israel); Hamas, the Islamists who rule the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, and oppose the Alawi oppressor of Sunni Muslims and of Palestinian refugees in Syria; and Turkey (see above –  hares and hounds, on the outer with Saudi and the UAE and pals with outcast Qatar, and engaged in an ongoing blood feud with Syrian Kurds ostensibly allied with Turkey’s outlawed separatist Kurds), and as we write, ominously trading blows with the Syrian Army and its Russian allies; and Turkey’s Syrian jihadi mercenaries – erstwhile former rebels and al Qa’ida and Da’ish fighters who are in it for the money, for vengeance against the Kurds and the Assad regime, and, for many, good old blood-lust. 

And stuck in the middle: Those Syrian Kurds, of formerly autonomous Syrian enclaves Afrin and Rojava (betrayed by America, invaded by Turkey, and forever abandoned by the rest of the world, they have been forced to come to terms with the Assad regime which has discriminated against them forever; sundry Bedouin tribes who work to a code of patronage and payback; the scattered remnants of Da’ish which was at the height of its power a veritable “internationale” of fighters from all over the world, including Europeans, Australians, Chechens, Afghans, Uighurs, Indonesians and Filipinos – the remnants of whom are still in the field and hitting back; and sundry die-hard jihadis from constantly splintering factions. Da’ish and the jihadis have been dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from allegedly unknown patrons in the Gulf autocracies, as evidenced by those long convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi Lux “technicals” – which have now curiously reappeared in Haftar’s Libyan National Army (see Libya, above).

Yemen 

On the side of the internationally-recognized government of Yemen, there’s: Saudi Arabia, the US, and Britain; plus sundry mercenary outfits from Australia and Brazil; and Sudan (its militias paid by Saudi, as in Libya). The UAE was formerly on this side, but now supports a breakaway would-be Yemeni government Opposed to the present one. On the side of Houthis, a rebel Shia tribe in the north of the country, there’s: Iran and ostensibly its Iraqi and Lebanese auxiliaries – see above, the Shia ‘Arc” of Iranian influence. And in the middle, and against all of the above, the ever-opportunistic and troublesome Da’ish and al Qa’ida.

Afghanistan

Its America’s longest ever war – ours too …

On the side of the UN recognized government there’s: NATO, including the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, Denmark and Norway; and also, Australia and New Zealand – though why antipodeans want to get involved in the faraway Afghan quagmire beats me … Oh yes, the US alliance, and our innate empathy for the poor and downtrodden.

On the other side, there’s: The ever-patient, ever-resilient Taliban, aided and abetted by duplicitous Pakistan (an ally of the US – yes!), and al Qa’ida and Da’ish, both dubiously aided and abetted by money and material from Gulf despots. 

And on the sidelines,  miscellaneous corrupt and well-armed Afghani warlords who take advantage of the ongoing turmoil and grow rich on bribes, option and smuggling; and the rest of the world, really, which has long ago zoned out of those “forever, endless wars”. 

So, what now? 

More of the same, alas. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations. It is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, and whilst Islamists terrorise the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, warlords rape and pillage in Congo. As usual in these proxy conflicts the poor people are stuck in the middle being killed in their thousands courtesy of weapons supplied by the US, European, Israeli, Russian and Chinese arms industries.

As outsiders butt each other for dominance, and the Masters of War ply their untrammelled trade, we are condemned, as Bob Dylan sang in another time and another war, to “sit back and watch as the death count gets higher’. I am reminded of WH Auden’s September 1, 1939, a contemplation on a world descending into an abyss: “Defenseless under the night, our word in stupor lies’. All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

 © Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also; A Middle East Miscellany

A postscript  from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

‘What I was going to say,’ said the Dodo in an offended tone, ‘was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus–race.’

‘What IS a Caucus–race?’ said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that SOMEBODY ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.

‘Why,’ said the Dodo, ‘the best way to explain it is to do it.’ (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)

First it marked out a race–course, in a sort of circle, (‘the exact shape doesn’t matter,’ it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no ‘One, two, three, and away,’ but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out ‘The race is over!’ and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, ‘But who has won?’ This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, ‘EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes.’

Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point

After months of waiting, President Trump finally unveiled his peace plan for Israel and Palestine on 28th January 2020, to the delight of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu, the disgust of the Palestinians, and the bemusement of many. Amid the sound and the fury, most commentators apparently missed the point – or willfully chose to to do so – that it is not a “plan” as such, but a “vision”. The word is used some sixty times in eighty six pages that contain the political and economic framework. The remaining eighty pages, with an executive summary and copious tables and charts, more resemble a business plan, complete with SWOT analysis, than an actual peace proposal.

But a proposal is exactly what it is – not a plan per se, nor a diktat, as some have labelled it ; nor is it a mediation – as some have inaccurately described it. Rather, its authors claim, it is a basis for further negotiation – should anyone ever get around to talking together. In an excellent piece in Times of Israel, When a vision gets clouded (which I strongly recommend reading) blogger Wendy Kalman gets right to the point:

Both Israelis and Palestinians have long-standing negotiating positions but also must recognize that compromise is necessary to move forward. It is inevitable that each side will support and oppose aspects of this Vision. It is essential that this Vision be assessed holistically. This Vision presents a package of compromises that both sides should consider, in order to move forward and pursue a better future that will benefit both of them and others in the region.

A peace agreement will be forged only when each side recognizes that it is better off with a peace agreement than without one, even one that requires difficult compromises….

The role of the United States as facilitator in this process has been to collect ideas from around the world, compile them, and propose a detailed set of recommendations that can realistically and appropriately solve the conflict. The role of the United States is also to work together with other well-meaning countries and organizations to assist the parties in reaching a resolution to the conflict. But only the Israelis and Palestinians themselves can make the decision to forge a lasting peace together. The final, specific details of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, must be worked out directly between the parties

I have read that many who object to the Vision because Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt did not consult with Palestinians. The PA cut ties with the White House after the Trump declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel in 2017. In June 2018, US officials said they’d meet with PA officials if invited. They apparently had not been, and with this policy in place for over two years, Abbas refused to take calls from the White House even last month. So, if the Palestinians refused to meet with US officials, they could not have been consulted”.

So, as Kalman suggests, people really ought to read the document rather than barrack for or  against it sight unseen and text unread. To this end, we would hope that has been published in Arabic and Hebrew by a neutral third party which would render it accurately and not redact the parts the Palestinian and Israeli Street may not like.

At first glance, the Vision appears solid enough for friends of Palestinian and critics of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu to suggest that it is a start, at least, the end of the beginning, rather than the beginning of the end. It ticks many boxes, holding out hope for lasting peace, a Palestinian State, normalized relations, and economic opportunity. But, considering the resources available to the authors, and the work that seems to have gone into the economic side of things, it is surprising for its lack of historical and political depth and indeed, accuracy, and for the number of elephants lurking mischievously and maliciously under the worn carpet. And it is these elephants that are disturbing – they whisper that all is not quite what it seems.

The Vision has a black heart insofar as it legitimizes Israel’s past actions, entrenches it’s control, and actually rewards its ongoing bad behaviour whilst giving Netanyahu the green light to commence annexations quicksmart – which he declared he would do until the US  pulled sharply at his reins, demanding that he wait the outcome of Israel’s elections in March – its third poll in a year.

The President has called his Vision a “win win”, but Israeli human rights watchdog B’Tselem has described the “Deal of the Century” as “more like Swiss cheese, with the cheese being offered to the Israelis and the holes to the Palestinians”, encapsulating a world view that sees Palestinians as perennial subjects rather than free, autonomous human beings.

On Al Jazeera on the evening of the White House presentation, Daniel Levy, President of the US/Middle East Project, former Israeli diplomat and veteran of past peace plans, pulled few punches:

“It is not an attempt to be viable or fair”, he said. “This is America taking an Israeli proposal and translating it into an American position. But it’s worse than that. It takes what ostensibly looks like what a model peace agreement might look like, and wraps into that an act of aggression, close to a declaration of war, on the Palestinians. It is not intended to advance peace. It’s intended to force the Palestinians to say no, to depict Palestinians as rejectionists, and to allow Israel to pursue, with greater pace and greater support, Israel’s unilateral plans. It’s a very dangerous, cynical and aggressive move”.

Regarding contentious but critical issues, like prisoners, refugees, and settlements , Levy continued, “Instead of putting it in the language of a peace agreement, they’ve put it through this supremacist, extremist and exclusivist grinder where there’s only one side that has to be paid attention to. It turns the entire logic of what peace should be on its head. Israel retains control everywhere. Israel agrees to take on itself not to do things it didn’t intend to do anyway, like this  question of Jerusalem … The Palestinians will be under increasing pressure. But bludgeoning them into negotiating won’t achieve peace. It’s taking a sledgehammer to peace efforts”.

He elaborated further 30th January in Don’t call it a peace plan in American Prospect magazine, adding: “In its outward appearance, the plan had such a familiar feel to it, like returning to a place of one’s childhood. But as I absorbed the words, nostalgia gave way to a feeling of having entered a topsy-turvy Alice in Wonderland. The language of peace had been cut and pasted, then put through a grinder, delivering an act of aggression dripping with the coarse syntax of racism. A hate plan, not a peace plan“ … A peace plan has to be predicated on both sides saving face, on both sides being able to declare some kind of victory. The plan announced is a 180-page hate letter from the Americans (and by extension the Israelis) to the Palestinians. Until one reads the entire document (and unless one knows the history of the conflict), it is hard to convey the depth of contempt and scorn this text displays toward Palestinians. It oozes colonialist supremacism”.

There has been commentary aplenty from pundits and partisans on all sides of the argument, many of whom will not have read the document but rather “take their instructions” from their various positions and paymasters. But anyone with a serious interest in the matter, whether by position, profession, or amateur passion, and certainly all with skin in the game, ought to read it, faithfully translated and unredacted. Because It is illuminating – and possibly even hallucinating.

One thing is for sure, it is humiliating. For the Israelis who been promised all they they could wish for – they should by embarrassed by its bias. For the Palestinians who are invited to drop their longtime demands – some of them perfectly reasonable and others, unattainable shibboleths – in return for buckets of cash and international good will. For America’s allies – including its Arab “partners in freedom”, who, reluctant to upset the truculent Trump, gingerly but optimistically posit the that the “vision” is a perfectly good springboard, opening offer, ambit claim or whatever to get long-stalled negotiations going (meanwhile, they are ever wary of a hostile backlash from their sullen, captive citizenry). And for America, so blatantly and cynically giving the thumbs up to what amounts to the occupation and dominion of a powerful country over a weaker one.

Many outside and within the Middle East condemn it because it is one-sided, supremacist and exclusivist – and just plain unfair. And for all it’s worthwhile bits and pieces, it is all of these. Saying that Palestinians should grab a good deal because there won’t be a better one, that they have only themselves to blame for their leaders, and that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, is to occupy the low moral ground whilst simultaneously eyeing the exit.

It has also been condemned as actually endangering Israelis. The US President has given his blessing to a potentially explosive policy that is not even popular with the Israeli public: polls show that most Israelis are not interested in annexation. This ostensible Israeli “win” offers Israel control over areas of the West Bank that most Israelis have never heard of, let alone lived in (according to the Israeli NGO Peace Now, less than 5% of Israelis live beyond the Green Line). And the price will be paid by the Israeli exchequer, the Palestinians, assorted NGOs, and the soldier boys and girls who will have to maintain order and carry the scars for the rest of town lives.

Reading the Vision, I identified contradictions and cul de sacs that appear to signal it’s true intent – that dark heart I referred to above. David Levy and  Yossi Klein Halevi touch on most of them and well merit close reading – but here are my own thoughts.

Distorted Vision

The first pages set the scene. Whilst careful not to spook the horses from get-go, they are anodyne and, indeed, simplistic in recounting the origins and the contemporary status of one of the most intractable international conflicts since World War 2 – very much Arab-Israeli Conflict 101 from  a moderately informed albeit partisan and pro-Israel American perspective. But as it gets down to the nuts and bolts, and formulates proposals for a just, equitable and lasting solution (or I assume that this is the intent of all this), it is as if the authors have got all the words and got all the notes but haven’t quite got the song. Put more bluntly, to quote Daenerys Targaryen they have come not to stop the wheel but to break it.

A Capital Idea

An immutable Palestinian demand since the Six Day War of 1967 has been that Jerusalem be the capital of an independent Palestinian State. Notwithstanding the US recognition as Israel’s capital, there was an understanding that if and when such a state eventuates, its capital would be in East Jerusalem. The Vision now proposes that the run-down town of Abu Dis, on the Eastern side of the Separation Barrier (the proposed border between Israel and Palestine) should be the Palestinian capital – in “eastern” but not “East” Jerusalem. It suggests also that the Palestinians can rename it Al Quds and then continues thereafter to refer to the prospective capital as Al Quds, as if saying it makes it so.

This demonstrates either an ignorance of history and of Jerusalem’s significance in both the political and spiritual space, or, worse, a contempt for it. Or both. Al Quds means “The Holy” in Arabic. It has been used to describe Jerusalem for centuries, and indeed, by all Palestinians today and by Muslims the world over. It is not some made-up moniker that can just be attached to Abu Dis like some clever #tag. If it was merely just a location for an administration, Ramallah already boasts a modern parliament building, multi-million dollar presidential palace, and the mausoleum of Abu Amar (Yasser Arafat to us), not to mention a burgeoning middle class and an accompanying building boom.

Soul searching

The casual treatment of the idea al Quds is more than lazy etymology. It is indicative of how the Vision skirts the reality of the deep spiritual belonging and the atavistic yearning that lies at the root of the two competing historical and political narratives: the millennia-old connection with The Land, Ha’Aretz, that is held by religious and secular Jews, Zionist and nationalist alike; and the deep, centuries-old – roots of Arab, Islamic and Christian history and culture in the land of Christianity’s birth. These can’t be distilled down to real estate deals, the involvement of disconnected outside parties, be these brokers honest or dishonest, the chialistic urgings of American evangelicals yearning for ”the End of Days”, and Iran hawks pushing for a Grand Alliance against Shiah Iran and its Arab proxies.

No Going Home

This shallowness is evident also respect to its treatment of refugees, and its cursory dismissal of the Right of Return of the refugees of 1948 and 1967 and their successors. It is not so much that this perspective is a false one. The Right of Return is a chimera, a dream dangled before their eyes by their leaders like a hypnotist’s show. And UN refugee status is a tired old delusion perpetuated by UNRWA to justify its existence and well-paid salaries, and the Arab League as a fig leaf for their pusillanimity. UNWRA’s definition was at fault from day one and whilst creating generational refugeedom, engendered false hope, unrealisable dreams, and a road-block to subsequent peace efforts. But it ought to be addressed sympathetically and not summarily swept off the table in like manner to the matter of Jerusalem.  “The Return” (al Awda) is deeply implanted in the Palestinian collective memory – as is “the key’, a a symbol, of a memory, of one day returning – to homes, villages, suburbs, towns, lives and livelihoods lost in al Nakba. These are rooted in the Palestinian conscience like a faith that cannot be denied, because denying it would mean uprooting the lynch-pin upon which modern Palestinian history and identity depends.

According to the Vision, Israel does not deem it justified to foot the bill for the refugees of al Nakba and al Naksa, the generation and their successors who are also registered as refugees in perpetuity under UNRWA’s questionable criteria. The onus will be upon Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries who have refused to recognize their own Palestinian refugees as citizens to sort this one out – with some goodwill and financial assistance from the international community. For, why indeed should the world continue to pay for Palestinian refugees? By way of explanation, the Vision notes that the international community is struggling to find sufficient funds to address the needs of the over 70 million refugees and displaced persons in the world today. And what’s more: “the State of Israel deserves compensation for the costs of absorbing Jewish refugees from those countries. A just, fair and realistic solution for the issues relating to Jewish refugees must be implemented through an appropriate international mechanism separate from the Israel-Palestinian Peace Agreement”. So, “upon the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Agreement, Palestinian refugee status will cease to exist, and UNWRA will be terminated and its responsibilities transitioned to the relevant governments”. End of story.

Let My People Go

All prisoners in Israel jails will be released on signature of a peace agreement commencing straightaway with minors, women, and seniors, then all others who meet Israel’s release criteria – but all must first sign an undertaking not to say or do anything that annoys Israel. Then there are those who Israel won’t and will never release. There is no mention in the Vision, neither in the historical preamble nor the detail, of a policy of indefinite detention that has seen tens of thousands of minors incarcerated. It is as if the fifty year old occupation and its punitive system of passes and checkpoints, of demolitions and administrative detention, and the civilian population’s continuing resistance to it have occurred in some parallel dimension.

Moreover, the refusal to acknowledge the emotional and psychological influence of the prisoners issue – which has impacted on the loves of thousands upon thousands of people who have passed through the penal system or are still enmeshed within it, and their families and friends, much like the dismissal of al Quds and al Awda, could be interpreted as negligence bordering on contempt.

Borderlines

A territorial swap gives Israel what is already controls – the fertile, strategic Jordan valley in return for two arid and barren strips of land at the fag end of the Negev Desert, bordering on the bleak and unforgiving Sinai, and a chunk of unutilized desert south-east of Hebron. Sure, Israel has a well justified reputation for “making the deserts bloom”, and the many towns, farms and vineyards of the Negev is testament to that. But chucking a bunch of money and technology at a brace of “development” zones strung along a dangerous and well guarded border hardly seems like a fair swap. Nor does a neat new network of highways between scattered Palestinian towns and villages, and segregated access to two Israeli ports (Gaza’s historically famous harbour will not be resurrected). Meanwhile, international boarders are the sole business of Israel, with the compliant assistance Egypt and Jordan.

The Triangle

This is an area originally designated as Jordanian in 1949, but were retained by Israel for military reasons. These communities largely self-identify as Palestinians, and they can now be Palestinians. – notwithstanding the fact that very, very few Israel Arabs would want to live in an Arab state, even if that state was Palestine. And indeed, residents commenced their protests immediately the proposal was mooted.

Freebie

“Every country spends a very significant sum of money on its defense from external threats. The State of Palestine will not be burdened with such costs, because it will be shouldered by the State of Israel. This is a significant benefit for the economy of the State of Palestine since funds that would otherwise be spent on defense can instead be directed towards healthcare, education, infrastructure and other matters to improve Palestinians’ well-being”. So, “don’t  worry, be happy,”

Gonna Build a Lego House

The US and Israel will not accept the establishment of a state of Palestine until the Palestinians attain certain standards of good governance. These include a constitution or another system for establishing the rule of law that provides for freedom of press, free and fair elections, respect for human rights for its citizens, protections for religious freedom and for religious minorities to observe their faith, uniform and fair enforcement of law and contractual rights, due process under law, and an independent judiciary with appropriate legal consequences and punishment established for violations of the law. They include also: transparent, independent, and credit-worthy financial institutions capable of engaging in international market transactions in the same manner as financial institutions of western democracies with appropriate governance to prevent corruption and ensure the proper use of such funds, a legal system to protect investments and to address market-based commercial expectations, and meet the independent objective criteria to join the International Monetary Fund. Palestine must establish civilian and law enforcement control over all of its territory and demilitarize its population. And it must also end all programs, including school curricula and textbooks, that serve to incite or promote hatred or antagonism towards its neighbours, or which compensate or incentivise criminal or violent activity.

Once these fortuitous conditions are established to the satisfaction of the US and Israel, “The United States will encourage other countries to welcome the State of Palestine as a full member in international organizations”. Whilst there is absolutely nothing wrong and indeed everything right with this wish-list, this world’s best practice if you will, of good governance – and as the Vision indeed states, no country, least of all Israel wants a failed state on its doorstep – the sad fact is that most countries in the world would fail these worthy and worthwhile criteria, including the Arab countries the US is looking to for support for its project.

Lucky Old Jordan

Whilst matters of borders and security are to be managed by Israel and the US, in close cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, Jordan cops much of the burden of the nation building project: “By virtue of territorial proximity, cultural affinity and family ties, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is well placed to play a distinctive role in providing this assistance in fields such as law, medicine, education, municipal services, historic preservation and institution building. In a manner consistent with the dignity and autonomy of a future State of Palestine, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will offer long-term, on-the-ground assistance in designing relevant institutions and procedures and training of relevant personnel. The objective of such assistance will be to help the Palestinians build strong and well governed institutions”. As noted above, the irony is that cash-strapped, authoritarian  Jordan – and indeed most nations in the Middle East – would find it hard to reach the standards of good governance now demanded by the US and Israel.

The Company We Keep

On the subject of less than perfect enablers and abettors, we’d like to thank … “Much appreciation is owed to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for its role in the creation of the Arab Peace Initiative, which inspired some of the ideas contemplated by this “Vision”. And acknowledgment too to Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE without whose cooperation and input, this “Vision” would not have been possible”. And yet, as the risk of bearing on a dead horse, none of these would seriously subscribe those qualities and qualifiers that would in the US and Israeli eyes render the prospective state of Palestine suitable to be admitted to the community of nations.

Who’s Country Is This Anyway?

And finally, after the prospective state of Palestine has met all the standards, criteria, qualifies and metrics (I did say the Vision read like a business plan), after neigbouring Arabs states have shouldered their various designated burdens, and the international community have coughed up much of the cash to pave the path to prosperity, all matters related to security and demilitarization, and based upon its own interpretation, Israel has the right to intrude, intervene, interfere, interdict, and otherwise involve itself in the affairs, interests, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the ostensibly independent State of Palestine.

I am reminded of what Hannibal Lecter says to FBI  Agent Starling when asking her what motivates serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’: “He covets”, Lecter says. “That is his nature. And how do we begin to covet, Clarice? Do we seek out things to covet? … We begin by coveting what we see every day … And don’t your eyes seek out the things you want?”

So, what now? 

A month has passed since that coopted corroboree in the Oval Room. To quote Rudyard Kipling, “The tumult and the shouting dies; the Captains and the Kings depart”. Israel’s elections are fast approaching, and are expected to be as inconclusive as the previous two, raising the prospect of a fourth – and continuing political paralysis. The world’s fickle focus has shifted to the coronavirus, China’s Belt and Road tilt at global  aggrandisement,  the bitterest of US elections, and Syrian Idlib’s cruelest of winters. The “deal of the century” has receded into the background noise. But it will not go away, nor will it’s apparent absence make hearts grow fonder.

Ha’Aretz nailed it with a headline: “Trump’s unreal deal: No peace, no plan, no Palestinians, no point”. And in Canada’s Globe and Mail, Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi wrote’: “The Trump plan for Palestinian-Israeli peace will almost certainly go the way of all the other failed blueprints to resolve our 100-year conflict. With leaders across the Arab world backing Palestinian opposition, the plan will likely remain an American-Israeli conversation about peace – a wedding without the bride. And yet the release of the plan has had one bracing consequence: It has exposed deeply held myths among both Israelis and Palestinians”.

Some say that this deeply flawed, one-sided and duplicitous Vision was designed to fail, and peevishly contemptuous and prejudiced comments about the Palestinians by Jarred Kushner immediately after their immediate repudiation of his Vision appear to hammer home that conclusion. But should it indeed join previous plans on the garbage tip of barren and broken hopes, it doesn’t warrant or deserve a second coming. Presently, with the status quo effectively frozen, the Israel determines the rules of play. But it does put a ball in the Palestinians’ court. They really do need to get something happening outside the dominant and dominating US-Israeli paradigm that doesn’t involve violence, useless rhetoric and impotent willy-wagging as this just plays into their detractors’ hands. If they, the Palestinians, were able to get their act together (including acquiring half-decent leaders and achieving some of the governance performance indicators highlights in the Vision), they could do what Hawkeye and Trapper did in the uneven football game in Mash, the movie : steal the ball – and throw in a new one.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

In That Howling Infinite, see also:  Jerusalem, and A Middle East Miscellany

Al Mifta مفتاح

Author’s Note

Whenever I pen commentaries such as this, people ask why I rarely forward my own opinion on the issues I am presenting or discussing. On the contrary, I would argue that my views are fairly transparent in the subjects I chose to engage with, the words I use, and the vein in which I use them.

With respect to my numerous posts about Israel and Palestine, and the Middle East in general, I  come to my conclusions from a political science and sociology perspective – that’s where my academic experience came from – and a background in conflict resolution, supported by study and travel. If I do on occasions display any particular bias, it. originates in my longtime interest, understanding and affection for the history, politics and culture of the region, of its geography and archaeology, and  of its people of all faiths and nationalities that I make my observations.

I am presently working on a piece that encapsulates my thoughts on this complex and controversial subject. But meanwhile, here is a brief exposition.

I do believe that the systematic dispossession of almost a million Palestinians and the destruction of half of their towns and villages in 1948 is Israel’s original sin. It is the primal stain that colours and corrupts all that followed. And yet, if not for the actions, often daring, often brave, often questionable, and often deplorable, of the politicians and soldiers of 1948 – and of the generations that folllowed –  Israel would not exist today. This paradox is addressed sympathetically by Avi Shalit in My Promised Land, referred to above, and scathingly by ‘new history’ scholar Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.   

The Occupation, fifty years old this year, which grew out of the unexpectedly total victory of June 1967, has taken on strategic, ideological and indeed messianic dimensions by many in the  Israeli government and political elite. It compounded the original sin, deepened the primal stain, released the demons of messianic fervour, and wounded Israel’s soul. The settlements locked the nation into the the colonialist project. With the close-call of the Yom Kippur War, the violence and murder of the first and second Intifadat, and present Palestinian jaquerie, Israel’s heart has not just hardened, it has become sclerotic.

I admit that I have always been sympathetic towards Israel – from my first visit in 1972. But it is not a blinkered viewpoint. I am deeply critical of Israeli politics and policies, and have no respect for many of its leaders.

Ayelet Shaked, the nationalist’s La Passionaria, and her boss Naftali Bennett do not not represent ALL Israelis! They hold extremist views just like we in UK, US, and Australia have parties and individuals with extremist views. But there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis who oppose the present government and long for justice and peace. And if – a very big “if” – Arab Israelis and the Israeli left could work together, they could obtain a majority in the Knesset and change Israel’s politics.

Yet meanwhile, Binyamin Netanyahu and his nationalist allies call all the shots, the Israelis continue to control and exploit the land, its people, and its resources, whilst varying degrees of annexation are on the cards. The settlements are an abomination, as are the policies and practices of the state and its occupying army, as described by Lyons and others. There’s no escaping these facts.

But I am likewise critical of Palestinian governance, politics and politicians. Hamas and the PA are on the nose in their respective fiefdoms, and if a moderate “third force” were to arise – and survive, because sure as hell, they would risk being murdered – Palestinians who just want a quiet, normal life, adequate services, and opportunities for their children, and Israelis who want likewise, might – just might – reject their extremist, dogmatic, entrenched leaders and reach some form of modus vivendi.

Palestinians themselves have to take control of their own lives, kick out their corrupt leaders, cease inculcating their children with hatred and jihadism, and use all that international good will and dollars to build a viable economy that can provide jobs, opportunities, and security, economic and physical to the people. Only this way will they be inoculated against cronyism, corruption and extremism. And yet, the dead hand of a moribund, patriarchal, conservative and ethnocentric culture holds them back –  but that is the subject of another, future discussion for In That Howling Infinite.

Today, the ‘powers that be’, defenders and beneficiaries of a status quo that looks more like a cul de sac, predominate over a dispiriting array of competing, clamouring factions, left, right, nationalist, secular, tribal, Haredi, and Islamist alike. New, young, brace, local voices in both Israel and Palestine, are not heard.

So what happens next?

I get that question too. And I am perennially reluctant to venture an answer beyond one that runs like “on the one hand…but then on the other”.  I inevitably fall back on Robert Fisk’s response to the same question with regard to the calamitous freezing over of the Arab Spring and the fall and rise again of the same old autocrats and tyrants: “my crystal ball is broken”. It’s a cop out, really, but just as cogent as that famous line in that UK spy drama Spooks: “What’s gong to happen to me?” “Bad things!”

One thing is for sure: as songwriter Warren Zevon sang, “the hurt gets worse, and the heart get harder”.

October 8th 2017

For more posts on Jerusalem, Israel and the Middle East, visit:
https://m.facebook.com/HowlingInfinite/
https://m.facebook.com/hf1983/

See also, my collection of posts about Jerusalem, and A Middle East Micellany

Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid

Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. And then, it’s all over. Calm is restored as summer winds down, the kids return to school, and the working year starts in earnest – until the next national shibboleth lumbers into view – Anzac Day in late April. 

This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we are too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words.

The fires have dominated the media space, with harrowing photographs and video footage of their impact on people, property, and wildlife, stories of heroism and resilience, and circular debates and divisions, political posturing and finger-pointing. They have crowded out others news and reportage from around Australia and overseas where much is happening, be it the US’ assassination of Iran’s foremost general, ongoing protests in Beirut and Baghdad, the continued pounding on tons and villages in Syria’s beleaguered Idlib province, devastating floods in Indonesia, and volcano eruptions in the Philippines and and Zealand – and, less catastrophic but infinitely entertaining, Britain’s imminent retreat from Europe, and Harry and Meghan’s divorce from the royal family.

The fires have also crowded out the predictable argy-bargy over our national identity. It’s as if the partisans and opinionistas right across our political spectrum have holstered their weapons in deference to our collective pyro-purgatory.

There is one piece, however, that I deem worthy of republishing in In That Howling Infinite insofar as it encapsulates perfectly a cognitive and cultural dissonance at the heart of our national identity that I touched upon recently in How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo.

Sydney journalist Elizabeth Farrelly is always worth reading for her perspective on our identity, our culture and our natural and built environment. On this Australia Day 2020, she asks the perennial rhetorical question: what does it mean to be Australian? Her observations are illuminating. Here is my summary – you can read it in full below.

“As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up …

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite.

Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over. Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable, exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and  set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilizers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognized for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better … God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponized it. We’ll show this country who’s boss. 

Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. 

This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology”.

See also: We got them Australia Day Blues;  and Down Under – Australian History and Politics

Survival-by-respect or death-by-stupid: your choice Straya

Elizabeth Farrrelly, Sydney Morning Herald 26th January 2020

It’s invasion day again only, this time, the eyes of the world are upon us. Under headlines like “Australia shows us the road to hell“, the world is wondering if our economy isn’t every bit as fragile as the landscape it routinely exploits. It’s wondering about our tourism, with massive cancellations already from China and a US travel warning putting Australia on par with Gaza and PNG. It’s asking how long Australia will be habitable. But beneath those questions lies another. What, at this crossroads, does it mean to be Australian?

The first three are questions of both fact and perception. As such they may be partly addressed by Scott Morrison’s $76m commitment to beef-up Australia as a brand. But the last is a question for us. Who are we, as a nation, and who do we wish to be going forward? 

Australia Bushfires: Tourism fire effects

The tourism industry has lost some $4.5 billion as overseas visitors cancel trips over bushfires.

As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can dust off our angel wings and smarten up.

Australian culture has always relied on easy exploitation. From the moment white people arrived, we’ve been kidding ourselves that arrogance and theft add up to a lifestyle with a future. We dig stuff up and flog it, no value added, no questions asked. We grow food in the most destructive possible manner – clear-felling, mono-culturing, irrigating and overgrazing; destroying soil, desertifying land and belching carbon. We crowd to the edge of the continent, gazing out to sea, chucking our trash over our shoulders, pretending it won’t come back to bite. 

 

Illustration: Simon Letch

Illustration: Simon Letch

And sure, to some extent, that’s just colonialism. Colonialism is inherently macho, and inherently denialist. But it should be transitional. Now, as the NY Times argues, our political denialism is “scarier than the fires”. Smarten up? It’s time we grew up.

This is Australia’s moment of reckoning. It’s time we lost the attitude. Time we made a clear, rational and collective choice between survival-by-respect and death-by-stupid.

On top of Auckland’s Maungakiekie, the volcanic Māori pa also known as One Tree Hill, stands an obelisk. The land was bequeathed to the city in the mid-19th century by the beloved Scot Sir John Logan Campbell, who designed the obelisk as a permanent record “of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people”. That was then – now, New Zealand has Jacinda. And yes, these dots are connected.

Australia has shown no such reverence. Indeed, unable even to express genuine remorse for our repeated attempts at genocide and erasure-by-other-means, we’re still doing arrogant displacement. And we, as a result, have Scott Morrison, who must live with the disparaging epithet concocted by the lads at the Betoota Advocate – Scotty from marketing – because many Australians believe there is a ring of truth to it.

Morrison who responds to bushfires by wanting to clear more land. Who thinks hazard reduction is climate action and more advertising can persuade them back to a charred continent. Death by stupid.

It’s the arrogance we came with, two centuries back, but it’s getting worse, not better. Even now, our Indigenous peoples are being displaced three and four times over.

Last year we extinguished native title for Adani’s filthy foreign coal-mining interests, making the Wangan and Jagalingou people trespassers on their own land. We relentlessly export such coal, helping drive temperatures in central Australia beyond the habitable (Alice had 55 days above 40 degrees last yearand recorded street-surface temperatures between 61 and 68 degrees celsius), exiling people for a second time from their ancestral homelands. Then, should anyone dare critique this mindlessness, as Bruce Pascoe obliquely has, we label them non-Indigenous and set the federal police onto determining their ancestry.  

As if that very ancestry, those very records, hadn’t been, for two centuries, the subject of our energetic erasure. As if being Indigenous had always yielded some special right to speak, instead of the precise opposite. As if the speaker’s genetic makeup validated or invalidated his speech. What?

And we apply this domineering denialism, this refusal to listen, across the board. In agriculture it says, we don’t care what naturally grows here. We’re going to poison the insects, suck the water from ancient caverns and nuke the living daylights out of the soil with petroleum-based fertilisers. We’re going to burn oil and coal, and if we get fires that destroy our townships, we’ll clear the forests too. That’ll show them. 

In politics and at home it says, if our women are troublesome, we’ll ridicule, intimidate and beat them into submission (with one woman murdered every week by her current or former partner and our political sphere internationally recognised for its misogyny).

In sport, it says it’s fine if our cricketers cheat – so long as they don’t get caught. And in social relations, if people insist on different hierarchies – if they demand gender fluidity, or optional pronouns, or same-sex marriage or voluntary race-identity or anything else that questions our superiority we’ll come down on them like a ton of bricks. 

God gave us white guys dominion and we’ve weaponised it. By golly we’ll show this country who’s boss. Then if things get really rough, we’ll pop to heaven. Let’s hear it. A recent street poster picturing Morrison declaring Pentecostals for a Warmer Planet! may seem extreme, but Meritus Professor of Religious Thought, Philip C. Almond, explains why Morrison’s faith meansreducing carbon emissions … may have little intellectual purchase with the PM” – because world’s end means the second coming and, for the chosen, salvation. It’s also why Morrison’s beloved Hillsong church can happily advertise its coming conference, called Breathe Again, with Bishop T D Jakes saying “it’s amazing how God can strike a match in Australia and the whole world catches on fire”. As if the fires were God given.

That’s choice A, Scott Morrison’s choice. Business as usual but with extra cheesy advertising. Choice B, survival-by-respect, recognizes that even cheese can’t sell a pile of ash.

Survival-by-respect means just that: respect for Indigenous peoples, for nature and for women. It means knowing that listening is no weakness, but a path to greater strength.

On the ground, the shift would be dramatic but not impossible. Zero carbon cities would become an immediate priority: solar vehicles, green roads, every surface productive of food or energy. It would mean ending coal production. Investing in renewables. Creating whole new industries. 

This would mean listening to people who’ve spent 60,000 years here. Not copying, necessarily, listening. And listening, above all, to nature, heeding the fires’ overwhelming lesson. Forget the Aussie flag, the flag of dominion. This we should carve on our hearts: there is no economy without ecology. 

Sure, we can stick with lazy old Plan A. We can bow to Brand Australia and trust our grandchildren’s futures to the Rapture Hypothesis. Good luck with that, and happy Straya Day!

Bare Dinkum

Elizabeth Farrelly is a Sydney-based columnist and author who holds a PhD in architecture and several international writing awards. She is a former editor and Sydney City Councilor. Her books include ‘Glenn Murcutt: Three Houses’, ‘Blubberland; the dangers of happiness’ and ‘Caro Was Here’, crime fiction for children (2014).

Small Stories – the schools of the Tarkeeth

Remember the days of the old schoolyard
We used to laugh a lot, oh don’t you
Remember the days of the old schoolyard
When we had imaginings and we had
All kinds of things and we laughed
And needed love…yes, I do
Oh and I remember you
Cat Stevens

Prologue

We live in heart of the Tarkeeth Forest, in Bellingen Shire and some ten kilometers west of the seaside town of Urunga on the mid north coast of New South Wales. The forest lies between the Bellinger and Kalang Rivers, and these are connected tidally to the ocean at Urunga – the only place in Australia where two rivers meet the ocean together. The forest rises from the rivers on either side of the Fernmount Range, the easternmost extension of the Great Dividing Range that spans the eastern edge of our island continent. Above and between the two rivers, it is a rain-harvesting, filtration and stabilization ecosystem vital to the waterways and wetlands around them, and is a habitat for bird, reptilian, mammalian and marsupial wildlife, including koalas, wallabies, echidnas, quolls, goannas, owls, fruit doves and cockatoos. The east-west Fernmount Range Trail is an ancient highway called the Yuludarla Dreaming Track. It led from the plains beyond the Dorrigo massif to what is now the seaside town of Urunga, known then to the Gumbaynggirr people as a “place of plenty”. The first people would descend the spurs on the north and south flanks of the range to fishing and ceremonies on the riverside. The Tarkeeth Forest therefore contains areas of significant indigenous culture, recalling song lines and stories of the Dreamtime, places of ceremony, of birth and burial, and of atrocity.

As I wrote, two years ago, when retelling the story of the Fells Family and Twin Pines, “One of the pleasures of moving to the Australian bush and living in Bellingen Shire is discovering its often overlooked history”. Here then is another tale  of the Tarkeeth, and an echo from it’s past.

Bellinger beginnings

This is a copy of Hodgkinson’s “Aboriginals spearing fish on the Bellinger” from his 1845 book. The original  watercolour is believed to be in the National Library

Let’s begin at the beginning – the white man’s beginning, that is. The Gumbaynggirr have been travelling through these lands for centuries. Europeans entered what was to become Bellingen Shire in 1840 when stock-man William Miles led a party into the Bellinger Valley to ascertain the abundance of much prized, avidly sought (and rapidly depleted) Red Cedar in the area. They came on foot, all the way from Kempsey – a trek of some one hundred kilometres through virgin bush. Such was abundance of the “red gold” that Macleay Valley government surveyor Clement Hodgkinson financed and supplied Miles to take him there the following year to see for himself.

Arriving at the estuary of a large river, they headed west along that very ridge walked by the Gumbaynggirr for untold centuries.  Following a stream that descended southwards from the ridge, they encountered another large river that the Gumbaynggirr called the Odalberrie. Ascending the ridge once more, close to present day Tarkeeth, they descended the northern flank of the range through dense red cedar-rich forest to another large river that had cut a steep and deep course through forest meadows of swamp mahogany.

Further exploration revealed that the Odalberrie was the southern arm of this larger river, named the Bellinger – derived from the Gumbaynggirr name for the spotted quoll, a totemic and now endangered marsupial. It’s southern sister was unimaginatively christened The South Arm. A draftsman’s transcription error led to Boat Harbour, the settlement established on the Bellinger River during the 1860s, being renamed Bellingen. In subsequent decades, the deep and wide Bellinger River was navigable as far as Bellingen although one wouldn’t know it from today’s wide, shallow and gravelled-up successor.

Back in the day, there was no road along the northern bank of The South Arm. Access to the farms that were established along the river was by small jetties. Farmers and their families would travel by boat to visit the estuarine port of Urunga and to visit each other. In the late 19th century, Moses Lacey, the first selector, ran a store on the river bank.

.

Tarkeeth’s mighty Odalberrie – Kalang

A quarry was established at Tarkeeth in 1892 to supply stone for the construction of the breakwater at Urunga. The stone was loaded onto lighters at Tarkeeth and carried down the South Arm to the harbour at Urunga. South Arm Road was constructed primarily to serve the quarry. Whilst the river became the Kalang, after the Gumbaynggirri “galanga” – the native tree known as white beech, now uncommon although we have reintroduced scores of them on our property – the road kept its name, just one of many South Arm Roads on our north coast. [On a side note, we traveled right to the end of the nearest if these just this week, into the heart of the Dunggir (koala in Gumbaynggirri) National Park, to visit a friend whose house was miraculously saved during the recent and devastating Kian Road bushfires. His land, sheds, and machinery were destroyed, but he and his dogs and chooks were spared. Others weren’t so lucky – eleven nearby homes were lost  and a neighbour perished when his ute rolled over a long drop]

South Arm Road by the Kalang and the Tarkeeth Forest

The Quarry was abandoned in 1901, and new one opened across the river on the north side of Pickett Hill (about 250 metres past the junction of the old Pacific Highway – now Giinagay Way, “welcome” in Gumbaynggirr) – and Martells Road. You can still visit the Tarkeeth Quarry – it’s just west of the junction of South Arm Road and Fells Road – if you’re game – it is overgrown with treacherous pits and venomous residents.

And this is where our story of the schools of the South Arm begins.

Loading stone onto the Steam Drogher Matilda from the South Arm Quarry  for the Urunga breakwater (c.1900). From With Luck and a Fair Wind – Bellinger Shipping 1843 to 1933, Garry Barnett, Bellinger Valley Historical Society


Tarkeeth quarry blacksmith shop c.1900. Charles Thompson, 2nd from left ;Daniel Thompson,5th from left. Daniel was foreman. He died in 1905 in an explosion at the quarry (Scott Thompson)

Remember the days of the old schoolyard

In the late 19th Century, it was customary in remote areas for quarry management to establish a school for the children of its employees, and when a quarry was worked out, or outlived its usefulness, it was closed down and operations moved to a new location. The school would close move also. And so it was with the Tarkeeth Quarry.

To facilitate clear-felling and plantation re-establishment of the Tarkeeth Forest at Twin Pines, the Forestry Corporation of NSW cut a a new forest road linking the old Twin Pines Trail with Eringtons Trail, and called it Old School Road. By design or happenstance, some planner or surveyor sounded a historical echo.

As with most history where there are no longer any traces left on the ground, there is conjecture.  Col Sutton of the Bellingen Valley Historical Society advised me that it refers to the Barrieton School – named for the contractor who worked the old Tarkeeth Quarry between 1892 and 1901. . Ian O’Hearn, who like Col, has a deep knowledge of our local history, has reported that the Old School Road refers to the first Brierfield School called Fernmount South, and that the road connected up to the Old Brierfield Road which crosses the Fernmount  Range and joins Waterfall Way between Fernmount and Bellingen at Marx Hill. This school was relocated to the southern side of the river in 1906.

Barrieton School

Barrieton School  c. 1895. Scott Thompson:“William Thompson 2nd from right later became a school teacher at Bellinger Heads; my grandfather Charlie Thompson, 6th from right resided in Urunga his whole life.

The Barrieton Provisional School was established on 2nd April, 1896 and it closed in 1901 when the quarry was closed down. But another school called Nessville was opened on the south side of the river, off Martell’s Road, and near the quarry at Pickett’s Hill. People still remember the old Nessville school, some referring to it as “the rainbow house”. After the school closed, the property was owned by a well known local affectionately called Brad the Donkey Man. Frances Wit recalls: “My best friend lived there for years. He painted the house all different colours in the late 1990s  and had donkeys named Eeyore and Kinoki. He’d walk to town with his donkey and grocery-shop then walk back”.

The “rainbow house”, site of the old Nessville School, Giinagay Way

We would imagine that although the Barrieton School was established for the quarry-men’s youngsters, other children of the South Arm would have attended also; and it would have have been a mighty inconvenience when the school closed and they now had to walk or ride to Fernmount, Brierfield, Nessville or Urunga.

There was, therefore, considerable local pressure to establish the Tarkeeth School in the nineteen twenties. The folk of the Lower South Arm had to crawl over broken glass and put their hands in the pockets to get that. They petitioned the Inspector of Schools in distant Kempsey on the need for another school in Tarkeeth:

“To ensure an education for the children … both Brierfield and Nessvikke schools are a considerable distance” claimed the parents of twenty two children of school age. “Some of the children on the west end attend Brierfield, the Kruckows in the centre attend Fernmount, and the Dallaways on the extreme east attend Nessville. Those pupils attend badly, arriving at 11 o’clock, leaving early,  and missing generally two or three days a week. The children therefore practically receive little schooling” (from The Bellinger Valley Historical Society’s  The History of the Tarkeeth School).

And so it came to pass: delayed at first, due to a lack of government funds, the Tarkeeth School was built a little further down South Arm, opening in 1923 as South Arm Road Provisional School. By 1923, some twenty to thirty pupils were in attendance, and on January 1st 1927, it was deemed to be permanent school and gazetted as a public school. Not long afterwards, the education department asked the parents to come up with a more distinctive name for the school – its location was often confused with the South Arm Roads on the Bellinger and Nambucca rivers – and  at a public meeting, they settled on Tarkeeth School.

Small country schools never had it easy. Public funds were forever hard to come by, and improvements to buildings and amenities rare and hard-fought for, often through parents’ own efforts. Tarkeeth School’s requests for an all-weather shelter to protect the children from the heat and cold and the wind and rain were continually rejected by the education department, as was a proposal to build a tennis court out the back. The locals held fundraisers to get these done. But as the years passed, the department was more forthcoming. When the shelter’s roof was blown off by a severe gale, it stumped up the cash. When the water tank was deemed unfit to drink, the department found money; it paid for repairs and maintenance over the years, and as world war approached in 1939, even had air-raid shelters constructed.

Numbers fluctuated over the years, and the school’s status was therefore perennially tenuous, but the Parents and Citizens were a determined bunch and continually lobbied to keep it open. The history records how card parties were held at the Fells’ home, and bonfires and other entertainments were held in the school grounds.

And so the school endured for fifty years. That’s almost two generations. Many, many children passed through and moved on. Quite a few still live in the Shire and fondly recall their “days in the old school yard”. Until, at last, it closed in May 1972 when declining school numbers made it unviable.

Tarkeeth School – the class of ’68

The school was sold to an Erik Johannsen who lived there for many years with a collection of animals. Tragically, he ended his own life after setting fire to the school.

The school building is no more, and few recall its actual location. Adèle and went exploring and door-knocking, and rediscovered it. There is now an ageing weatherboard house on the site. But some of the old outhouses stand still. The children’s outdoors shelter survives, albeit somewhat worse for wear with white ant damage, as does the adjoining chuck shed and the girls’ lavatory. All that is left of the boys’ toilets are an old stone urinal trough which is in remarkably good condition. And you can still see where there was a small tennis court to the east of the school building.

The house now where the Tarkeeth School stood

Formerly, the school’s tennis court

The stone ‘trough’ of from the boy’s toilets

The remains of the weather shelter and girls’ toilets

The forest to the north of the school grounds

Schools of the Shire

The first public school in the valley was opened at Boat Harbour late in 1870 and as settlers spread further west along the river the village developed in the 1880’s when stores, a hotel, and churches were established, and by the turn of the century Bellingen had become the main town in the valley. The postal name Boat Harbour had preceded Bellingen and continued to be used until 1890 when the official postal address was changed to Bellingen.

Over the years, many schools large and small were established in the Bellinger Valley. local Kay Saunders has listed the following: Bellingen 1870, Fernmount 1871, East Raleigh (Repton), 1879, South Bellingen (Quinn’s, Fernmount South), 1883, Raleigh 1887, Urunga 1889, Thora (Beattie’s) late 1890s, Barrieton (South Arm Quarry) mid 1890s, Baradoc (Joyce’s) late 1890s, Nessville 1901, Hyde’s Creek, 1914, South Arm Road/Tarkeeth 1923, Thora 1923. Between 1900 and 1969, schools were established at Orama, Three Bridges, Best’s (Scotchman Kalang), Gordonville, Glennifer, Pine Creek, Snarebrook and Valery. The featured photograph is believed to be of Best’s in Kalang, in the early 1900s.

References and acknowledgements

  • For the story of Twin Pines and also, the Tarkeeth School, Small Stories  – a Tale of Twin Pines
  • Read more about our farm in The Country Life
  • Read the full story of Twin Pines here in Lloyd Fell’s small but captivating book.
  • Here is the The History of the Tarkeeth School – 923-1972. It can be obtained from the Bellingen Museum.
  •  John Lean’s The Settlers of South Bellingen and the Lower South Arm, for the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • Photographs: Best’s School, John Gibson; Barrieton School, Ian O’Heane: Tarkeeth School Class of 68,Beverley Ferguson Crompton. Pictures of Tarkeeth and Nessvile Schools today, Paul Hemphill.
  • Read read more about ‘Bello’ on wikipedia.
  • Lean about the Gumbaynggirr language hereOur local indigenous language is still spoken  from the Nambucca river, up along the Nymboida to the west and along the Clarence river.
  • Many thanks to present and former Tarkeeth residents, to  alumni of Tarkeeth School who shared stories of the So You Are From Bellingen FaceBook page, and, Col Sutton, Ian O’Hearne, Lloyd Fell, and the Bellinger Valley Historical Society.
  • For other posts in our Small Stories series of ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, see: The Odyssey of Assid Corban, the story of a Lebanese migrant to New Zealand, and The Monarch of the Sea, the rollicking tale of an unlikely “pirate king”.
  • No Bull! a true though somewhat overwrought local saga of battling bovines – set in Bonville, not far north of us.

© Paul Hemphill 2020.  All rights reserved

Postscript – About Bellingen

We have been visiting Bellingen Shire for the last thirty years, and moved a house onto our bush block over twenty years ago. Bellingen, the Bellinger Valley on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales, is well known as a picturesque, well-preserved (founded in 1870) country town. In former times, it was the centre of a thriving dairy and timber industry, and more recently, as a popular tourist spot between the university city of Armidale and the country music capital of Tamworth to the west, and the Pacific “holiday coast” of Coffs Harbour, Sawtell, Urunga, and Nambucca Heads, to the east, with their sand, surf and sun.

Between the two is the Great Dividing Range, the rolling, high country escarpment of the New England Plateau with its gorges and waterfalls, and the world-heritage Dorrigo National Park with it timeless, untouched rainforests – a “land that time forgot”. And linking them all, the old trunk road, aptly if touristically named Waterfall Way.

Bellingen is popular for its cafes and coffee shops, craft industries and shops, music festivals, and federation facades. It’s visual appeal, and it’s bucolic rural environs have seen the town used on many occasions as a film location. In the seventies, it was a Mecca for young people seeking an alternative lifestyle. The hills thereabout are still scattered with cooperatives and communes, or, in local council-speak, multiple occupancies. In the old days, no love was lost between the “hippies” and the farmers and loggers, and politics were dominated by the rural, conservative “born to rule” National and Country Party. Nowadays, it’s heir, the National Party still dominates the political scene, but its clear majorities decrease fractionally election by election, and by the turn of the century, there may no longer be a National Party member. But demographics do change, as does society. The hippies’ children and the farmers’ kids grew up together, attended the high school together, played, partied, and paired together, and now, there are grand children and great grandchildren.

As the timber and dairy industry has declined, Bellingen’s economy has changed. Once exclusively agrarian – including a time as one of the prime producers of cannabis sativa – tourism now plays a vital role. Bellingen advertises itself to visitors and to present and future residents as a clean, green and sustainable shire. Nature’s wonderland, from its golden beaches to its mountain rainforests and waterfalls. A Tourist Heaven with a cornucopia of recreational activities for young and old – from lazy bathing and picnicking to energetic rambling and trecking, camping and climbing, canoeing and fishing. A cultural mecca with many cafes, live music, craft and artisan shops, and music and writers’ festivals.

Two years ago, the online magazine Traveller published a breathless paean to “the bohemian town that is heaven on earth’. Happy traveller Sheriden Rhodes wrote: Some places are so beautiful; it feels like holy ground. For me, Bellingen has always had that consecrated feeling. It’s obvious, given the name the early pioneers gave the Promised Land, a scenic 10 minute-drive from Bellingen’s township itself. Here the land is so abundantly verdant and fruitful; it literally drips with milk and honey. It’s a place so special the fortunate locals that call it home, including its most famous residents George Negus and David Helfgott would much rather keep all to themselves”.

This is the marketing spin hyped up by the council, the chamber of commerce, and real estate and B&B interests. The reality is somewhat different. Bellingen and the “Holiday Coast” generally have seen a large influx of city folk seeking a different lifestyle for themselves and their children, and also of retirees seeking rural or seaside tranquility – in such numbers that Coffs Harbour and its seaside satellites have become in many ways the Costa Geriatrica.

Many newcomers are not fully aware that the Coffs Coast generally is one of the poorest areas of rural New South Wales. Statistics for youth unemployment and senior poverty are among the highest in the state with all the attendant economic, social and psychological impacts as evidenced by high rates of depression, domestic violence and substance abuse. Health and transport services outside the urban centres are  pretty poor. Rising property values and high rents price low-income families and singles out of the market. Decreasing profit margins have forced many of those attractive cafes and coffee shops to close.

Nor is the clean, green, sustainable shire as picture perfect as the brochures portray It. There is environmental degradation with clear-felling and land-clearing, and flammable, monoculture, woodchip-bound eucalyptus plantations that encircle Bellingen – a potential fire bomb primed to explode during one of our scorching, hot dry summers. There is generational degradation of the Bellinger’s banks and the graveling up of its once deep depths. And there the encroachment and expansion of water-hungry, pesticide and herbicide reliant blueberry farms,

But on the right side of the ledger, we in the Shire are indeed blessed by Mother Nature. The coastline boasts magnicent headlands and promontories, and long, pristine and often deserted beaches. The World Heritage Gondwana rainforests are a national treasure, and surrounding national parks truly are a natural wonderland. We never tire of the drive from Urunga to Armidale via Waterfall Way, as it crosses the Great Dividing Range and the New England Plateau. The Kalang River as it flows beside South Arm Road and between the Tarkeeth and Newry State Forests is itself one of the Shire’s hidden and largely unvisited secrets, a haven for fishermen, canoeist and all who love mucking about in boats.

Compared to many places on this planet, we’ve really not much to complain about …


 

That was the year that was – the end of the beginning

It was a frustrating year, an exasperating year, and at year’s end, and DownUnder, a fiery one. We had an election that saw the so-called “quiet Australians” opt for a stultifying, uninspiring and potentially disappointing status quo. The warring houses of the US government drove themselves into an impeachment cul de sac, and we or may not see Donald Trump re-elected next November. The British electorate, exhausted with three years of Brexit convolutions thought “enough already” and, in a Monty Python Meaning of Life capitulation, cried “craven” and surrendered their. All in all, the ordinary folks who so demonstrably rejected the establishment in 2016, had by year’s end 2019, welcomed them back as to the manor born. That which goes around comes around ad Infinitum.

Australia managed a rare moment of national pride when in October, the ban on climbing Uluru was made official. To sweeten the moment, Pauline Hanson – still a racist and a dim-witted menace in the Senate – fell down trying to climb it. And yet we found ourselves unable to advance constitutional recognition of our first People’s and an indigenous voice to parliament.

Climate change concentrated many people’s minds here and elsewhere in the developed world, but talkfests, backsliders and contrarians generated more hot air than action. Young Greta Thunberg was beatified by the young and the environmentally committed but was demonized by powerful grumpy old white men and women. Australia’s nationwide end of year bushfire crisis provided an  ironic, powerful and perfect coda.

The media in the Anglosphere and its opinionistas waged their culture wars over disparate and disputed “national values” whilst partisans traded accusations and recriminations that predictably blamed political correctness, identity politics, value signalling, ‘wokeness’, and other slings and arrows of contemporary new-speak.

This weekend, as the media farewelled the old decade and welcomed the new, the message from both the News Corp masthead The Australian, taking its cue from the UK’s conservative Spectator, and its ostensibly opposed Sydney Morning Herald was that despite all the doom and gloom, the talk of dystopia and all, in we’ve never had it so good. In statistical terms, that is. Matt Ridley writes:

“Let nobody tell you that the second decade of the 21st century has been a bad time. We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history. Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 per cent when I was born. Global inequality has been plunging as Africa and Asia experience faster economic growth than Europe and North America; child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline. Little of this made the news, because good news is no news”.

A Sydney Morning Herald editorial wrote optimistically of the upcoming twenties: “A great deal of our confidence comes from a belief in the power of science and technology to make people’s lives better. Just look at the past decade. Poverty levels in Asia and Africa have mostly fallen. Life expectancy has risen in most countries, including Australia, where at birth we can expect to live a year longer than a decade ago”. But others, like Nicole Hemmer in the Herald failed to differ.

Some may see the ‘twenteens’ as halcyon day, but outside our occidental comfort zones and our social media bubbles, things were pretty crappy with few signs of improvement in the coming years.,

We can look fondly back upon the forlorn Arab Spring and the re-ascendancy of the autocrats, the destruction of beautiful Syria, Europe’s refugee crisis and its populist backlash, Fukushima, Brexit, Donald Trump, the exposure of child abuse and sexual predation  in the affluent, democratic and Christian “west”, the rise and fall of ISIS – and its metastasizing across t weary and war torn parts of our planet, and today,  the sound of marching feet and chanting voices in towns and cities as far flung as Paris, London and Sydney, Delhi and Hong Kong, Caracas, La Paz and Santiago, Algiers, Beirut and Baghdad, and many other places in between.

Tarkeeth Sunrise

In the wider world it is business as usual in the scattered killing grounds as a bewildering array of outsiders continue to wage their proxy wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Bombs still explode in Afghanistan and Somalia, whilst Islamists terrorize the countries of the Sahel, and even distant Mozambique, Warlords are still raping and pillaging across Africa, The convoys of spanking new Toyota Hi-lux utilities that once used to feature in ISIS propaganda videos are now parading along the dusty highways of Libya in the service of yet another warlord, rogue Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

And 2019  was a veritable “year of revolutions”.

For six months, the people of Hong Kong have been telling President Xi Jinping that they don’t want to go to his Party. The youth of Lebanon and Iraq have told the sectarian elites that have misgoverned and misappropriated for years, and the foreign powers that have called the literal and figurative shots to, well, fuck off! Kulkum ya’ni kullkum  – all of you means all of you! A similar chant has been taken up in Iraq, Algeria and Sudan, and across the Atlantic in Chile, Bolivia and Colombia. Poeple of all ages, genders, religions and social background are protesting about growing impoverishment and inequality, demanding work and justice, and calling on the self-entitled elites and their foreign masters to hand the country back to its people

The elite, the establishment, the Old Guard – call it what you will – will not let go of their ill-gotten gains without a fight; they possess the final sanction, and there’s a high chance there’ll be tears and bloodshed before bedtime.  It’s big boys” rules out there, as Jamal Kashoggi discovered when he went up against thuggish Saudi wunderkind, as did Julian Assange, alone in his Bellmarsh cell, the fall guy for America’s opportunistic, muddled and failed realpolitik.

As a further sign of America’s retreat from glory, it failed to effect regime change in Venezuela, blustered powerlessly at Iran, and be betrayed it’s Kurdish allies in Syria, whilst President Trump continue to kowtow to his favourite autocrats, including Egyptian pharaoh  Abdel Fattah al Sisi, rogue Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and POTUS’  new bestie wannabe Turkish sultan Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tens of thousands of unfortunates in Yemen, Egypt, eastern Ukraine, and in the Syrian districts of Afrin, Rojava and Idlib suffer as a consequence.

Meanwhile, from Central America to the Donbas, from Sudan to the Congo,  tens of millions are on the road. Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield – 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher.  See In That Howling Infinite’s No Going Home.

Syrian refugees wade ashore on Lesbos, 2016

We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s  long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony(accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the  senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to.

I’d very much like to see what happens next. But looking back on the great, the good and the groovy, and my less illustrious nearest and dearest, have slipped off this mortal coil over the last decade. I observed with just a wisp of melancholy how so many had reached three score and ten, and were not to travel much further. I and mine are now in that danger zone.

Happy Birthday Dear Walt!

Our year in review

In That Howling Infinite addressed many of these matters and more in an eclectic swag of messages from the forest.

In retrospect, much of our focus this year has been upon the Middle East, ranging from Cairo to Kashmir. We reviewed the historical and actual travails and betrayals of the Kurds of Syria and Iraq in Rojava and this Kurdish Conundrum, Afghanistan’s ongoing agony in The Ghosts of Gandamak, India’s apparently ham-fisted endeavour to resolve one of the most intractable issues outstanding from its bloody partition in Paradise Lost – Kashmir’s bitter legacy, and The US equally ham-fisted attempt to bring Iran to heel in Messing with the mullahs – America’s phony war.

Lebanon’s WhatApp Intifada examines the resurgence of the Arab street, as does Sawt al Hurriya  – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse. The latter casts a glance back to the heady days of January and February 2011, whilst Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohammed Morsi and The tears of Zenobia – will Palmyra rise again? recall its destructive denouement.

We dissected the folly of the US taking on a proud but oppressed nation that has seen many empires come and go, and reported from partitioned Hebron and its conflicted Children of Abraham. We asked if Jarred Kushner’s Deal of the Century is designed to fail, and countered that with our own solution to the intractable Israeli-Palestinian Question with Bob Dylan’s 116th Dream – a Jerusalem reverie. As Yasser Arafat once said, it’s not a sin to dream!

2019 saw many anniversaries of significant historical events. We were moved to recall the first days of the Second World War – Germany’s invasion of Poland in 2nd September 1939 – The rape of Poland (1), and the Soviet Union’s reciprocal invasion a fortnight later in 17th September 1939 – The rape of Poland (2). 1939 also saw the end of the bloody Spanish Civil War. This and the impending removal of the body of Generalissimo Francisco Franco from his triumphalist sepulchre inspired Las Trece Rosas – Spain’s Unquiet Graves.

As the Brexit negotiations were deadlocked on the matter of the Irish border, we revisited the dark days of “The Troubles”: Free Derry and the battle of the Bogside.  As Britain headed in slo-mo to  its decisive December  election, the Labour Party was mired in accusations of anti-Semitism. Little Sir Hugh and Old England’s Jewish Question reminds us that in reality, it is the devil that never dies.

In the midst of many gloomy commemorations, there were some delights, and we chose to celebrate America’s glorious national bard with I hear America Singing – happy birthday Walt Whitman.

In That Howling Infinite did not neglect its own turf.

The Agony of Julian Assange addressed the ongoing trials and tribulations, and the ostensible abandonment by his mother country of our own though expatriate techo wide boy.  We discussed the apparent deterioration in our national, political, cultural and moral fabric in How the “Lucky Country” lost its mojo, a modern riff on the old and ironic tag. Back in 1964, Donald Horne put it thus: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise”. Nothing, it seems, has really changed. This is also the leitmotif running thought our other posts, dealing with the destruction of our natural environment – the folly of the Bonfire of the Insanities – the biofuel greenwash, the optimism of Paradise Regained – back to nature in Queensland, our immediate and proximate Clear and present danger – Australia’s unfolding bushfire drama  – and our apparent unwillingness to take further and meaningful steps towards reconciliation with our original owners: We oughtn’t to fear an Indigenous Voice – but we do, and Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness.

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 2018; 20172016; 2015

How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo

A simple explanation  of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air. 

And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist  Jacqueline Maley nailed it:

“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”

We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?

Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.

“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.”

Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little­ good governance’.

“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.

The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.

On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

On the same day, the Herald’s  political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:

“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”

Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.


For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under

Bare Dinkum

A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny

Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the ­storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the ­storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.

In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring­ the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.

And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of ­Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a ­courageous and challenging crit­ique of Australia’s capabilities.

In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and ­wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequen­ces, and the capacity to bend it.

The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom­, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integ­ral part of the ­national lexicon, so too ­“tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the ­potency of their thinking remains very alive.

In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden­ for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British ­antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by ­second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curios­ity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper explor­ation and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.

Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of ­distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.

Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national­ and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.

A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.

Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ­ambition and outcomes but they are the ­exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social ­unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.

Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more ­reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant ­strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insou­ciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.

We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the ­distance to full connectedness and acceptance.

On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have ­national policies on how to optim­ally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, clim­ate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.

A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone de­livery, of even modest ­infrastructure.

Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and ineffic­iency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.

We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, ­disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.

Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech ­declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated­ and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal ­responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.

We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.

A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past ­reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to preven­t new sins.

After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has ­become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a ­nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.

Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of econo­mic and military security, and despite­ all the economic and cultur­al up­sides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse­ populations in the world, with ­almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not ­buried latent racism, inequal­ity and bigotry.

Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers­ were demonised, their ­religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and ­demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.

The Cold War 1960s and “yellow­ peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural ­resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.

We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact­ our longest-standing allies and alliances­. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South ­Pacific, few ­Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.

Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning ­nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals­ about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science­ and reason; opportunist­ically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial ­engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.

The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater ­because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.

So much “government”, so little­ good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.

Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, con­sumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.

There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.

If we do not better see and ­respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will ­become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.

Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).

Living off the sheep’s back