The ride of the psychotic Valkyries – Apocalypse Now Redux

Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976

Our recently departed friend Tim Page was the central character in the 1992 ABC miniseries Frankie’s House, the story of the celebrated, inebriated Vietnamese home-away-from home and party house in Saigon for transiting newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. Tim was portrayed by Scottish actor Iain Glen, famous nowadays for his role as Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones. This was not Tim’s first first portrayal in film. Denis Hopper’s strung-out photojournalist in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now was said to have been inspired by Tim’s Vietnam adventures. This was referred to many times in the many media tributes that followed his passing and at his farewell in August last year.

Rewatching the film recently, for the first time in decades, I thought Hopper’s over the top, incongruous and unexplained character bears little resemblance to the Tim Page we knew. And yet, as Tim and his partner Mau were later to point out to me, Hopper’s cracked and crazed camera cowboy illustrated exactly what the soldiers at ground zero experienced in America’s war, a war that has since been defined as chaos without compass.

The film is loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, set in a dark and deadly Belgium-ravaged Congo. A special forces officer is sent on a mission to assassinate a rogue officer who has established a quasi-kingdom in the heart of the Jungle. With poetic and creative license Francis Ford Coppola created a psychedelic fever dream somewhere up the crazy river on a journey through a war that had already been lost while the powers that be had concealed the fact to the American public and to the world at large.

The Vietnam War’s echoes reverberate to this day. In the United States, it has taken more than 50 years for such a traumatic defeat to fade. The deepest scars, inevitably, belong to those who suffered most. Author and Vietnam veteran Philip Caputo in the preface to his memoir A Rumor of War  wrote:

“I came home from the war with the curious feeling that I had grown older than my father, who was then 51,” writes. “A man saw the heights and depths of human behaviour in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses – a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.”

The scars on Vietnam itself were much much deeper and long lasting – on its politics, still a authoritarian communist regime; its people – millions died, were wounded or suffered long term psychological and genetic damage; and its environment – the effects of broad-acre defoliants and the damage and debris of war.

Two seminal scenes in the film encapsulate the carnage wrought in a country the US government wanted to “bomb back into the stone-age”.

Ou first introduction is where “little spots on the horizon, into gunships grow”, to borrow from Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn, as a squadron of US helicopters approach a tropical shore and attack a Vietcong camp in an idyllic seaside village to the exhilarating accompaniment of Richard Wagner’s rollicking The Ride of the Valkyries. Amidst the rattle of machine guns, the explosions and the flames, the American crews are portrayed as gung-ho and dispassionate participants in a real-time video game. The Vietnamese men, women and children are tiny black-garbed figures running around in panic like a disturbed ant’s nest, falling, flailing and flying through the air. Yet you know that this is no computer game. These helpless and doomed people are merely targets with nowhere to run to.

The second scene is set towards the end of the film, up that crazy river. The assassin, Willard, is about to slay his target, Colonel Kurtz – but not before Kurtz, filmed in a flame-lit semi-darkness, declares that he wants to die as a soldier and “not like some poor, crazed rag-assed renegade”. He then delivers his final testament on a war that has been all for nothing, and on why it has been lost:

“I’ve seen horrors … horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that … but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face … and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies. I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for Polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember … I … I … I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized … like I was shot … like I was shot with a diamond … a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God … the genius of that. The genius. The will to do that. Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we. Because they could stand that these were not monsters. These were men … trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love … but they had the strength … the strength … to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral … and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling … without passion … without judgment … without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us”.

The film itself is much better than I recall it first time around. Perhaps it is because I now know substantially more about the Vietnam War than I did then. But also, because the 2001 directors cut, Apocalypse Now Redux has nearly an hour of footage that never reached the original cinema release, much of it quite crucial to an understanding of how pointless and crazy the war became.

The film contains several changes, mostly subtle, and two entirely new scenes, both of which enhance and serve to illustrate just how inchoate and crazy the war had become by the end of the sixties. By the time Richard Nixon was elected president in November 1968 with a promise to end the war and “bring the boys home”, it had almost seven years still to run.

One of the new scenes is set on the tiny US Navy river boat taking Willard up-country, Earlier in the story, the famous Penthouse Playmates arrive at a rear-base to entertain the troops. We now meet  them again at a neglected and run-down forward fire base further up the river. It is a bizarre scene with an equally bizarre script in which two stranded and befuddled beauties struggle with the surreal setting and its drug and combat addled garrison. The other has Captain Willard and the team encounter a family of well-armed holdout French colonists on their remote rubber plantation. Here we have the film’s the only solid explication of the origins and inevitable outcome of the Indochina conflict. Having denounced his country’s folly in being surrounded and defeated in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which precipitated the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of US involvement in Indochina, patriarch Hubert de Marais declares: “You are fighting for the biggest nothing in history”.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved

Read more about the Vietnam War in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy; Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey; Journey’s end – photographer Tim Page’s wild ride; Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited 

Colonel Kurtz’s “Horror” monologue from Apocalypse Now,  performed by Marlon Brando

Lost in the rain with no direction home – Dylan’s poem for Woody

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.

The words of America’s national bard came to me as I read for the first time this very morning Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie, written by Bob Dylan in honour of his idol Woody Guthrie, who at the time was dying from Huntington’s disease.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, wrote Walt Whitman, setting song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. Dylan was to become the young voice of an older but not wiser nation that seemed very much like it was not busy being born, but, rather, under the weight of its myriad contradictions – of the old and the new, the youth and their elders, of war and peace,  black and white. Dylan heard the his country’s song in the turbulent, transformed and transforming sixties declaiming that he’d know my song well before I start singing.

In 1855, when Whitman published his first incarnation of Leaves of Grass, no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of this self- proclaimed “American”.  And the same could be said of the young Bob Dylan when he broke out from the pack that had gathered in the folk cafés and clubs of New York City in the early years of the nineteen sixties, an enigmatic poetic figure whose songs spotlighted the chaos and division that have long defined what it meant to be an American. It is no wonder that in later years,  Dylan would acknowledge his debt to Whitman in I Contain Multitudes – unoriginal and some would argue, pretentious, but then Bob has always borrowed, be it from the Anthology of American Folk Music, the British folk tradition, the avant guard poets of Europe, and the great books of the western literary canon.

Dylan read his poem for Woody aloud once only, reciting it at New York City’s Town Hall on April 12th 1963.

Introducing the poem, he told the audience he’d been asked to “write something about Woody … what does Woody Guthrie mean to you in twenty-five words,” for an upcoming book on the icon left wing singer-songwriter. He explained that he “couldn’t do it – I wrote out five pages, and, I have it here, have it here by accident, actually.” What followed was not a simple eulogy, but a lengthy, 1705 word stream of consciousness treatise on the importance of hope.

Dylan sets the scene by describing the stresses and strains of everyday life and challenging choices we have to make as we navigate it. He describes how these can cause us to feel alone, lost, and without direction. He then explains the need for hope and how we need something to give our lives meaning. He concludes by suggesting that, for him, Woody Guthrie is as much a source of hope and beauty in the world as God or religion.

Reading it for the first time ever this morning, I could hear words, lines and themes from songs that were yet to be written, songs that have followed me down these past sixty years, from those early albums of anger and introspection, protest and perception, through to My Rough And Rowdy Ways.

The recitation was recorded, but was not officially released until 1991, on The Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961-1991, after circulating on bootleg releases for years. The poem is published in full below. The images in the video that follows it are clichéd and distracting; just shut your eyes and listen to the words. I prefer just reading and recalling all those uncounted ballads, songs and snatches and the improbable ‘echoes’ of things to come. I have added a gallery of favourite pictures of the man himself. Enjoy.

More on Bob Dylan in In That Howling InfiniteWhat’s Bob got to do with it?; Legends, bibles, plagues – Bob Dylan’s Nobel Lecture; Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Cross the Green Mountain – Bob Dylan’s Americana; Still tangled up in Bob

In That Howling Infinite, read also, I hear America singing – happy birthday, Walt Whitman; The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel”

Bob and Woody

Last Thoughts On Woody Guthrie

When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
No matter what yer doing if you start givin’ up
If the wine don’t come to the top of yer cup
If the wind’s got you sideways with with one hand holdin’ on
And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer lazy to fetch it
And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
And you start walkin’ backwards though you know its wrong
And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
And tomorrow’s mornin’ seems so far away
And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
And yer rope is a-slidin’ ’cause yer hands are a-drippin’
And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a-pourin’
And the lightnin’s a-flashing and the thunder’s a-crashin’
And the windows are rattlin’ and breakin’ and the roof tops a-shakin’
And yer whole world’s a-slammin’ and bangin’
And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
And to yourself you sometimes say
“I never knew it was gonna be this way
Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born”
And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
And you’re lookin’ for somethin’ you ain’t quite found yet
And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
And the whole world’s a-watchin’ with a window peek stare
And yer good gal leaves and she’s long gone a-flying
And yer heart feels sick like fish when they’re fryin’
And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
And you need it badly but it lays on the street
And yer bell’s bangin’ loudly but you can’t hear its beat
And you think yer ears might a been hurt
Or yer eyes’ve turned filthy from the sight-blindin’ dirt
And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
When you were faked out an’ fooled while facing a four flush
And all the time you were holdin’ three queens
And it’s makin you mad, it’s makin’ you mean
Like in the middle of Life magazine
Bouncin’ around a pinball machine
And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying
That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’
But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed
And no matter how you try you just can’t say it
And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
And his jaws start closin with you underneath
And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
And you wish you’d never taken that last detour sign
And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
On this curve I’m hanging
On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m taking
In this air I’m inhaling
Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
Why am I walking, where am I running
What am I saying, what am I knowing
On this guitar I’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
In the tune I’m hummin’, in the words I’m writin’
In the words that I’m thinkin’
In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
Who am I helping, what am I breaking
What am I giving, what am I taking
But you try with your whole soul best
Never to think these thoughts and never to let
Them kind of thoughts gain ground
Or make yer heart pound
But then again you know why they’re around
Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
“Cause sometimes you hear’em when the night times comes creeping
And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin’
And you can’t remember for the best of yer thinking
If that was you in the dream that was screaming
And you know that it’s something special you’re needin’
And you know that there’s no drug that’ll do for the healin’
And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding
And you need something special
Yeah, you need something special all right
You need a fast flyin’ train on a tornado track
To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
That’s been banging and booming and blowing forever
That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
You need a Greyhound bus that don’t bar no race
That won’t laugh at yer looks
Your voice or your face
And by any number of bets in the book
Will be rollin’ long after the bubblegum craze
You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more
You need something to open your eyes
You need something to make it known
That it’s you and no one else that owns
That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
That the world ain’t got you beat
That it ain’t got you licked
It can’t get you crazy no matter how many
Times you might get kicked
You need something special all right
You need something special to give you hope
But hope’s just a word
That maybe you said or maybe you heard
On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve
But that’s what you need man, and you need it bad
And yer trouble is you know it too good
“Cause you look an’ you start getting the chills
“Cause you can’t find it on a dollar bill
And it ain’t on Macy’s window sill
And it ain’t on no rich kid’s road map
And it ain’t in no fat kid’s fraternity house
And it ain’t made in no Hollywood wheat germ
And it ain’t on that dimlit stage
With that half-wit comedian on it
Ranting and raving and taking yer money
And you thinks it’s funny
No you can’t find it in no night club or no yacht club
And it ain’t in the seats of a supper club
And sure as hell you’re bound to tell
That no matter how hard you rub
You just ain’t a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
No, and it ain’t in the rumors people’re tellin’ you
And it ain’t in the pimple-lotion people are sellin’ you
And it ain’t in no cardboard-box house
Or down any movie star’s blouse
And you can’t find it on the golf course
And Uncle Remus can’t tell you and neither can Santa Claus
And it ain’t in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
And it ain’t in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
And it ain’t in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’
Sayin’ ain’t I pretty and ain’t I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can’t even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
No you’ll not now or no other day
Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache¥
And inside it the people made of molasses
That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
And it ain’t in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
Who’d turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
And before you can count from one to ten
Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
My friend
The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
And play games with each other in their sand-box world
And you can’t find it either in the no-talent fools
That run around gallant
And make all rules for the ones that got talent
And it ain’t in the ones that ain’t got any talent but think they do
And think they’re foolin’ you
The ones who jump on the wagon
Just for a while ’cause they know it’s in style
To get their kicks, get out of it quick
And make all kinds of money and chicks
And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
Sayin’, “Christ do I gotta be like that
Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at
Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel
Good God Almighty
THAT STUFF AIN’T REAL”
No but that ain’t yer game, it ain’t even yer race
You can’t hear yer name, you can’t see yer face
You gotta look some other place
And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’
Where do you look for this lamp that’s a-burnin’
Where do you look for this oil well gushin’
Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’
Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
And out there somewhere
And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
You can touch and twist
And turn two kinds of doorknobs
You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital
And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

Bringin’ it all back home …

Bob and Sara

Bob and Joan

Bob and Alan Ginsberg at the grave of Jack Kerouac

21st Century Bob – the Never Ending Tour

The Russian Tradition – Russia, Ukraine and Tibor Szamuely

In a televised address on September 30th last year, Vladimir Putin said: Russia is a great, 1000-year-old power, a whole civilisation, and it is not going to live by such makeshift, false rules … What, if not racism, is the West’s dogmatic conviction that its civilisation and neoliberal culture is an indisputable model for the entire world to follow?”

Now, one might not agree with Putin, and today, he is certainly persona non grata in Western forums, but one thing is for sure: Russian history mines its own unique seamWe republish below an article by American author, journalist and editor Christopher Caldwell. He advocates that we adopt a cautious and open minded perspective on historical memory, contemporary perceptions, lexicological differences, the dangers of making assumptions, and coming to conclusions and adopting opposing positions on the basis of incomplete and inadequate knowledge of other countries than our own with their distinct but not hermetically sealed histories and cultures.

Caldwell’s central focus is the colourful life and legacy of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.

Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely was descended from both perpetrators and victims. An uncle of the same name served in the Hungarian Soviet Republic that took power for six months under Béla Kun in 1919, and died violently that year when the revolution failed. He was among that government’s most bloodthirsty ministers, and was called “Butcher Szamuely”. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where Tibor was born, and where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. Young Tibor served in the Red Army, and he too was arrested and sent to a Labour camp. Rehabilitated, he served as Chancellor of Budapest University. In 1964, then nearing 40, he was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England.

He taught at the University of Reading in England and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.

Szamuely taught me Russian and Soviet history and politics at Reading University. Back then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathizer and fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding. As my tutor, he advised me to study with an open mind and to put off juvenile thinking. He hadn’t been well when I knew him and he died a year after I graduated. Under his tuition, I’d resolved to specialize in Soviet Studies – but events intervened and I ended up in the Middle East (and that is another story. see: Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life).

He he would always impress upon me the historical and political continuity of what he called The Russian Tradition – the title of his one and only book, published shortly before his death, and now, regrettably, out of print. I purchased a first edition when it was published and it is on my bookshelf still.

Szamuely believed that the bloodstained drama of the revolutions of 1917 – there were two, the social democratic one in the February, the Bolshevik one in November – and the years that followed, including civil war, the establishment of the USSR and Stalinism largely obscured the underlying consistency of Russian history. He did not live to see the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, and the advent of Putin and Russia Redux, but the basic pattern persists, circular and repetitive. The frequent turmoils that have overtaken this vast continent have in their various ways made changes that were essentially superficial, leading in the end to the intensification, under new forms, of the old authoritarian structure.

From medieval times, autocracy has coexisted with a revolutionary traditionalism – a contradiction in terms as only Russia could sustain, a unique Russian capacity to seek revolution and discover regression, to invoke liberty merely to reinforce repression. if he were with us today, Szamuely would explain that the Soviet Union under Lenin and his successors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears so disconcertingly close a resemblance to Russia under the most savage of its tsars. His people, it turned out, had wanted freedom but wanted to retain the idea of their old Russian empire more. They ended up with the would-be czar, Vladimir Putin. And so the world turns.

© Paul Hemphill 2023 All rights reserved

Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: The Roots and fruits of Putin’s irridentism; Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism; Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)  

You – Bolshevik recruiting poster 1918

You Are Needed In Kiev 2014

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin divide Europe at the Yalta Conference in Crimea, 1945

Why is Russia obsessed with slavery?

Tibor Szamuely: ‘The Russian Tradition’

Christopher Caldwell, UnHerd, 23rd august 2022

There’s nothing wrong with being cautious. Since 1709, when Peter the Great routed the troops of Swedish King Charles XII at Poltava, smack-dab in the middle of modern-day Ukraine, Europeans have understood Russia as a military threat. Never has this required us to close our minds to the glories of Russian culture or to forget that Russia’s strategic posture always has an explanation — and sometimes even a rationale.

But what was intellectually possible for Westerners in the winter of 1943, when Hitler’s troops and Stalin’s were killing each other by the millions on the Eastern front, is apparently beyond our powers today. In the wake of Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, many Europeans will not be content with anything less than wiping Russia and its culture off the map. In April, novelist Oksana Zabuzhko, writing in the TLS  that it was the morality of Tolstoy and other Russian writers that “wove the camouflage net for Russia’s tanks”, urged us to “take a long, hard look at our bookshelves”. In early August, the Russian-language novelist Wolodymyr Rafejenko declared he now felt a “revulsion” when he conversed in Russian, and vowed never again to write in it.

These are Ukrainians — one can understand their anguish and rage. But Western Europeans, who are not even at war, have been even more zealous. A Milan university cancelled its Dostoevsky class last spring. The EU and UK have blacked out the Russian internet channel RT. Russians have been declared unwelcome at venues from Wimbledon to Estonia.

Back in the middle of the 20th century, when Russia was capable of far worse, the Russian-born historian Tibor Szamuely wrote an extraordinary book. The Russian Tradition explained how Russian political behaviour (about which Szamuely was wary to the point of hostility) arose from Russian history and culture (about which Szamuely was respectful to the point of reverence). This is the right balance. It has not been struck so well since. Too bad the book is out of print, because it is strangely relevant to a lot of this decade’s preoccupations: slavery, political correctness and Ukraine, for starters.

Like many refugees from Communism, Szamuely was descended from both perpetrators and victims. An uncle of the same name served in the Hungarian Soviet Republic that took power for six months under Béla Kun in 1919, and died violently that year when the revolution failed. He was among that government’s most bloodthirsty ministers, which is really saying something. Szamuely’s family wound up in Moscow, where his father was executed in Stalin’s purges. In 1964, Szamuely, then nearing 40, was teaching in the “ideological institute” of Ghana’s Marxist president Kwame Nkrumah when he defected to England. He taught at Reading and befriended Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, and Anthony Powell, among other literary anti-Communists. His book, unfinished when he died of cancer in 1972, was edited into its final form by Conquest and published two years later.

The simple question that animates it is how Russia came to be the centre of Marxist revolution and late 20th-century totalitarianism. Did aggressive Communism subvert blameless Russia? Or was aggressive Russia using blameless Communism as a pretext?

The beginnings of an answer lie in geography. Lacking frontiers, Szamuely writes, Russia has faced “a history of armed struggle against invaders that, for length, intensity and ferocity has no parallel in the annals of any other nation”. That is a large claim. Russia is always vulnerable someplace — at least for as long as it takes to gather and concentrate its killing power. And it is always fighting for its life, which tends — at least in domestic Russian debates — to empty of meaning our concepts of just and unjust war. “Despotic government,” Szamuely writes, “was the instrument she shaped to cope with the everlasting emergency.”

For Szamuely, the central problem in Russian history is slavery. Yes, slavery. Using the word “serf” to describe its put-upon agricultural workers leads us to think of the society as merely backward, quaint, feudal. But this is wrong. Russian slavery was a creation of modernity. Once-free agricultural labourers somehow got buried under debt about 500 years ago, and in the mid-16th century the government bound them to the land, the better to tax them. The owner of the serfs was the state, not the notables on whose land they toiled. There was an equality in this, for the notables were beholden to the state, too. The upper crust owed the tsar military service. Until recent centuries, Russia was one of the rare countries where nobles could be publicly flogged.

But this changed, as Peter the Great tried to modernise the system — Russia got rum, minuets, a navy and of course St. Petersburg. For aristocrats it meant Western connections and new opportunities, for serfs an overload of labour and hard discipline. That was an end to society’s old “mystic unity” and the mumbo-jumbo that had surrounded it. Serfs could now be sold or lost at cards. Russia now had not one people, Szamuely writes, but two: “the Westernised upper classes, and the masses, whose way of life became ever less distinguishable from that of the population of the great Asian empires.” As middle classes in America and France were forging republics, aristocrats were living a Golden Age under Catherine the Great (1762-95). “The most striking feature of 18th-century Russian social history,” Szamuely writes, “was the great expansion and intensification of peasant bondage at the precise moment when, with the emancipation of the nobility, it finally lost any vestige of moral, political or legal justification.”

Szamuely’s preoccupation with slavery anticipates a lot of the “woke” discussion of our own time. If slavery warped the development of the United States (which was one-eighth slave at the start of its civil war in 1861), Szamuely asks, then why has there been so much less soul searching about Russia (which was seven-eighths slave at the time of emancipation that same year)? He may misunderstand the parallel: The difference lies not in the size of the enslavement but in the identity of the rememberer. Progressive white America is wracked by guilt over what it did to “them”. Russia feels no such guilt because the misdeeds were done to “us”. The moral tenor of its soul-searching is more like that of Sicily, or Ireland, or black America.

But it is not as if Russia had no reckoning with serfdom. As access to higher education and newsprint spread, “gradually the idea began to sink in that every Russian of education and leisure was an accomplice in a crime unparalleled in its enormity”. This was the cause around which a revolutionary and often violent intelligentsia arose in the late 19th century, a class unique in Europe until the rise of political correctness. “The Russian intelligentsia was an instrument of destruction,” Szamuely writes. “Unlike the European bourgeoisie it had no constructive purposes, neither was it equipped to fulfil any such tasks.”

There was something Messianic in the intelligentsia’s role. Szamuely recognises that it used others’ suffering as a rationale for autocracy. But he never entertains the idea that the intelligentsia was an outright racket. He even praises the “intellectual honesty” of the critic Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who saw that equality would be won only at a very steep price in liberty: “What a contrast he provides to certain Western ‘progressive’ intellectuals, who worship at the altar of egalitarianism yet refuse to recognise that their dream… can only be realised by an arbitrary dictatorial government. Chernyshevsky and his followers, down to the present day, have never harboured any illusions about this.”

He is nonetheless struck that the great 19th-century Russian novelists (“men of sensibility, compassion and humanity”) were almost unanimously contemptuous of the intelligentsia (“with their joyless utilitarianism, their dogmatic intolerance, their fanatical devotion to a messianic vision”).

The modern enslavement of Russia’s peasantry was not, strictly speaking, a capitalist project. But it felt like one. More than the exploitation undergone in advanced industrial countries, it resonated with the exploitation Marx described. In the end, the Russian revolution was a matter of adjusting Marx’s teaching to powerful Russian folk-institutions, above all the autonomous peasant cooperative known as the obshchina. Marx himself wound up backing peasant “populists” against his own more orthodox followers. It actually turned out to be a piece of good fortune for the revolutionaries that the Marxist spark caught in what Szamuely considers the most conservative country on earth.

That is where Szamuely’s book ends. It is a shame he was never able to write at book-length about the 20th century, of which he was a passionate chronicler. He considered Lenin “the supreme political genius of the century”, and was impressed with the way he and his followers allied Russia’s interests abroad to Asian and African nationalism, not Communism. It was, in a way, the same judgment Marx had made in backing the populists.

Szamuely was fascinated with Ukraine. “Perhaps no other historical experience,” he writes in The Russian Tradition, “has left as lasting an impression on the folk-memory of the Russian people as the horrors of [the] interminable struggle against the slavers and killers of the south. For centuries the steppe remained a source of constant menace, a land of terror, death, destruction and degradation. It was called the Wild Plain, or, as we would say today, the Frontier; the greater part of this region is now called the Ukraine…”

He was highly sympathetic to Ukraine’s modern struggles. In 1968 he wrote a fascinating and well-informed account of the nationalist protests and ensuing prosecutions that had then been going on in Ukraine for much of the decade. While granting that the Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators in June 1941, he wasn’t surprised by this nationalist sentiment, given the decade of famine and purges they had endured. He noted, too, the “methodological dilution” of Ukraine’s ethnic composition by Russia, insisting that Russian dominance of the country’s high culture was a recent and unnatural phenomenon. Only 41% of books published in Ukraine were in Ukrainian, it is true, but in 1930, before Russification and famine, that figure had been 84%.

Szamuely never let justified fear of Russia drive out justified fascination. Vastly well read in the country’s history, he still found it ambiguous, describing the policies of Ivan the Terrible at one point as “a strange mixture of farsightedness and paranoia — a combination frequently reproduced by his successors through the centuries”. Few historians have been better equipped than Szamuely to understand the paradoxes of Russia, where the novelists are sublime and the politics are unendurable, and often for the same reasons.

Tsar Nicholas the Last

The last of the Romanovs – Tsar Nicholas and his family, murdered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918

 

 

“Because of …” Iran’s voice of freedom

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou

زن زندگی آزادی  Zan zandaky āzādy  Women freedom life

In our relatively comfortable, free and still democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Maya Angelous’s poem The caged bird sings of freedom (above) and Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Iranian protesters, and particularly the woman and girls who have been the vanguard of this unprecedented intifada cannot be exaggerated. For brave they are indeed. Having endured long years of a brutal and vengeful, corrupt and misogynistic theocratic regime and its security and paramilitary enforcers, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

Several weeks, the nationwide protests that followed the murder in custody of a young woman arrested by the morality police after wearing her hijab inappropriately, and other young women and also, now, young men, who, officially, have died at their own hand or of pre-existing causes, have mobilized Iranians of all ethnicities, classes, ages and genders. And the security state us reacted predictably, red in tooth and claw. There is torture and death actual and awaiting on the streets of villages, towns and cities throughout the country, and the public trials with their black-garbed and turbaned hanging judges are in place and ready to protect the nation and the revolution in the name of Allah and the legacy of the canonised grey and dour uber-mullah Ayatollah Khomeini.

The perseverance and nihilistic exuberance of the Iranian street has reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically Egyptian president-for-life Hosni Mubarak thirteen  years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure?

Fast forward to the present, and we examine why the Islamic Republic’s  sclerotic theocratic regime is so afraid of another song of revolution, the crowd sourced protest anthem, Baraya, which has become a thorn in the side of the government in Tehran.

Baraye, translated as “because of …” or “for …”, the anthem of Iran’s Woman, Life, Liberty protest movement grew organically from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians expressed their uncountable discontents and their commitment to the protests. It continues to unite Iranians in their opposition to the rules, restriction nd repression of Islamic Republic weeks after it was first released online on an international and social media that the authorities have tried and failed to silence. To paraphrase Canadian songwriter and activist for injustice and the environment in his song Santiago Dawn (see below) to keep millions down “takes more than a strong arm up your sleeve”.

Bareya’s lyrics were created by the Iranians themselves and gathered and set to music , recorded, sung and shared by a young Iranian singer, Shervin Hajipour. Crazy brave, perhaps for predictably, he was detained by security operatives soon after he posted it on his Instagram page and forced to remove it from his feed. But it had already attracted millions of views worldwide and continued to be shared and shared and shared, and it has now been played and performed the world over as people across the glob empathize, identify with, and add to the images verbalised and the emotions these engender. We all have stories to relate of oppression and exclusion, of the abuse of power and privilege and the pervasiveness of prejudice and discrimination. To quote Bruce Cockburn once more about an earlier resistance, “see them matching home, see them rising like grass through cement in the Santiago dawn”.

Baraja gives voice to the voiceless – as Bob Dylan sang in another century, in comparatively  straightened times:

For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worseAn’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universeAn’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

The Recording Academy, which hosts the annual Grammy Awards, announced that in its new merit category for best song for social change, more than 80% of nominations were for Baraye. Below is a video of the world-famous band Cold Play singing the song in Buenos Aires with Iranian actor Goldshifte Farahani.

The genesis of Baraya mirrors the organizational structure of the protests themselves insofar as like these, it is networked and leaderless, Ironically, however, David Patrikarakos editor of the e-zine Unherd wrote recently, this lack of leadership portends the protests’ doom:

“No leader has yet emerged. Instead, the protests are organised by different people or groups in different cities and towns on an almost ad hoc basis.The truth is that if the mullahs were to collapse tomorrow, there are no signs that a democratic movement would sweep to power …It is far more likely that the security state — led by the Revolutionary Guard Corps — would step into the void and make apparent what is already largely a fact: that Iran is no longer a clerical state but is now ruled by a Praetorian Guard …

… In 1979, Iranians held up images of Khomeini. In 2022, they tear them down. They know they want the regime gone but they have no one to hold up in its place. For a revolution to succeed, it’s not enough to be against someone; you have to be for someone else. It’s not enough that Khamenei loses. Someone else must win. Until that time, the mullahs will continue to cling on as murderously and barbarously as they always have, and Iranians will continue to die. For years Palestinians would say they needed a Saladin. They were wrong. What they need is a Ben Gurion. What the Iranian revolutionaries need now more than anything else is a Khomeini. Until that happens, this will only ever be half a revolution”.

At this moment in time, the outcome of that revolution hangs in the balance. The passion of the people for a better world is once again going up against the iron fist of the security state. Sadly, history past and present, in Iran and elsewhere, has shown us that when an irresistible force comes up against an immovable object, no matter how popular, righteous and justified that force may be, the immovable object invariably wins.

Meanwhile, hope springs eternal …

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.
In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Sawt al Huriya

Baraya … Because of 

Because of dancing in the street
Because of fear while kissing
Because of my sister, your sister, our sister
Because of changing rotten minds

Because of shame for moneyless
Because of yearning for an ordinary life
Because of the scavenger kid and his dreams
Because of a command economy

Because of air pollution
Because of ‘Vali Asr’ Avenue, and its dying trees
Because of a cheetah (Pirouz) that may go extinct
Because of innocent, outlawed dogs

Because of the incessant crying
For the image to repeat this moment
Because of the smiling face
For students, for the future
Because of students, for the future

Because of this forced paradise
Because of the imprisoned elites
Because of Afghan kids
Because of all (Because of…) non-repetitive

Because of all these empty slogans
Because of the rubble of fake houses
Because of the feeling of peace
Because of the sun after a long night

Because of the nerve pills and insomnia
Because of man, country, rebuilding
Because of a girl who wished she was a boy
Because of woman, life, freedom

Because of freedom

Because of Mahsa Amini

See also in In That Howling Infinite, Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring, Messing with the Mullahs – America’s phoney war?. and A Middle East Miscellany

Why Is Iran’s Regime So Afraid Of This Song?

Nahid Shamdouz,  assistant professor of Middle East and Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Foreign Policy, 26th October 2022
Demonstrators sing "Baraye" while holding their phone lights high during a march in support of protests in Iran.

Demonstrators sing “Baraye” while holding their phone lights high during a march in support of protests in Iran. Allison Bailey, Reuters. 26th October 2021

“Baraye,” the anthem of Iran’s “Woman, Life, Liberty” protest movement—a song woven together entirely from a Twitter hashtag trend in which Iranians express their investment in the current protests—continues to unite Iranians in their opposition to the Islamic Republic several weeks after it was first released online.

For Iranians in Iran but also for the millions in the diaspora, this is the song of a generation, perfectly expressing this political moment and all that is at stake.

For dancing in the alleyways
Because of the fear you feel when kissing
For my sister, your sister, our sisters
To change the minds that have rotted away
Because of shame, because of being broke
Because of yearning for an ordinary life  

What makes this moment different from previous periods of protest is that the wall of acquiescence and pretense that maintained the state’s authority in the public realm has been torn down on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution. In its recounting of all the painful grievances, “Baraye,” which translates in English to “for” or “because of,” signals the end of patience with the status quo and opens vistas onto a new future with a vocal crescendo that culminates in the word “freedom.”

The song reveals the simple, ordinary nature of the things that Iranians are aching for, asking for, and even dying for. It is radical in revealing on a national level the cruelty of a system that denies such basic demands—exposing the devastating conditions Iranians face under the current regime.

“Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas.

If “Baraye” reflects a different, perhaps unprecedented mood on a national level, it also mirrors the organizational structure of this recent protest movement. If it is networked and leaderless, so is the song. The lyrics were written by Iranians at large and merely set to music and vocalized by the young up-and-coming singer Shervin Hajipour. This explains why security forces detained Hajipour a couple of days after he posted it on his Instagram page, where it had already accrued millions of views. The regime has tried for years to push the apparent and already real aspects of people’s lives out of the public sphere.

On social media, Iranians have created a life that more closely mirrors their inner selves—replete with harsh criticism of leading clerics including Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; female solo vocalists who are otherwise banned singing at the top of their lungs; and the exhibition of private lives that are anything but a reflection of the state’s projected pious paradise. Still, the state has sought to maintain a semblance of its ideology and control in actual public spaces and its media.

“Baraye” has broken that violently imposed wall between the state’s enforced reality and people’s real lives. It forced into the open, in the face of authority, all that people have known for long but were not supposed to express openly on such a national dimension.

For the sake of a laughing face
For schoolkids, for the future
Because of this mandatory paradise
For imprisoned intellectuals

Since its release, the song has become the single most covered protest song in Iran’s history. Within a few short weeks after Hajipour composed the music for it, musicians across Iran and beyond its borders have sung it verbatim in their own voices, translated it, and sung it in other languages—and even universalized the lyrics for a more global audience.

Last week, the Iranian rapper Hichkas released a militant hip-hop track referencing “Baraye” through the more casual rap lingo “vase,” enumerating his reasons, starting with “vase Mahsa” (for Mahsa Jina Amini, whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police sparked the protests) and ending with “for a good day,” in a nod to his own 2009 Green Movement protest song.

Mahsa Amini Protest in Iran

Protesters gather in London on Oct. 1 in solidarity with people protesting across Iran.

Protesters gather in London on Oct. 1 in solidarity with people protesting across Iran.

For the garbage-picking kid and her dreams
Because of this command economy
Because of this polluted air …
For a feeling of peace
For the sun after long nights

At the same time, “Baraye” creates national intimacy by citing very specific events that all Iranians have suffered through together, in a palimpsest of collective traumas. Hajipour sings “For the image of this moment repeating again,” drawn from a tweet with a photo of Hamed Esmaeilion and his young daughter relaxing together on a couch reading newspapers. (His wife and 9-year-old daughter were killed when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner leaving Tehran in January 2020, and Esmaeilion has become the face of the grief affecting all those who lost loved ones in the crash.)

This line resonates with Iranians because so many families have been torn apart by the country’s massive brain drain, caused by a closed and corrupt economy that offers few opportunities.

In other lines, Hajipour sings sarcastically “Because of this mandatory paradise,” referring to the theocratic state’s imposed restrictions, justified in the name of achieving an Islamic utopia.

In yet another, he sings of “houses in rubble,” pointing to collapsing buildings caused by the rampant nepotism and corruption that shield state-connected builders from transparency on safety measures. In another, he sings of the “imprisoned intellectuals,” in a nod not just to the hundreds of journalists, human rights lawyers, and filmmakers but even award-winning university students who have been locked up.

The chorus arising from hundreds of tweets is clear: This is a regime that seems to be against life itself, punishing dancing, kissing, and smiling faces.

The song’s singular overnight success is not a small achievement given the long, rich history of protest songs in Iran. Already at the time of Iran’s Constitutional Revolution in 1906, poets created songs about the spilled blood of the youth who agitated for representative government and, not long after, about the Morning Bird breaking the cage of oppression, which many decades later became one of the most intoned protest songs in post-revolutionary Iran.

The trajectory of Iran’s musical history clearly exhibited a century-long struggle for freedom and justice, not yet realized.

Although “Baraye” and other songs of the current protest movement continue this strong tradition, they break with the post-revolutionary legacy on one key point: They no longer call for reforms.

At the time of the last major convulsions in 2009, many activists and musicians of the Green Movement called forth songs from the 1979 revolution to stake a claim to the revolution’s original yet unattained promises. People wore headscarves and wristbands in the green of Imam Hussain and went to their rooftops to shout “Allahu akbar” to invoke God’s help against a corrupt, earthly power.

But this time around, there are no religious signifiers or any demands for reforms. If classical songs are performed, they are not the icon Mohammad Reza Shajarian’s conciliatory song Language of Fire in 2009, when Iranians were still agitating for reforms from within, but his militant 1979 song Night Traveler, (also known as “Give Me My Gun”) in which he calls “sitting in silence” a sin and asks for his gun so he can join the struggle. One of Shajarian’s masterful female protégés posted the song with the hashtag #Mahsa_Amini and swapped “the brother” out of the verses to sing “The sister is an adolescent, the sister is drowning in blood,” in recognition of the teenage girls who have given their lives in the protests.

The state security system instantly understood the significance of “Baraye” as a protest song. Hajipour was forced to take it off his Instagram account; however, not only has his song already been shared widely by other accounts and on other platforms, but the sentiments behind the lyrics are within the millions of people who wrote them.

The chants of “Death to the Dictator” have reverberated from the streets to the universities, from oil refineries to urban rooftops, and from bazaars to school courtyards. And so have the haunting calls for freedom repeatedly intoned at the end of “Baraye,” pouring forth from every corner of the actual and virtual Iranian public sphere.

That song’s reality can no longer be repressed and hidden by force.

Song lyrics in this article are based in part on Zuzanna Olszewska’s translations.

Nahid Siamdoust is an assistant professor of Middle East and Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of Soundtrack of the Revolution: The Politics of Music in Iran.

Muzaffar al Nawab, poet of revolutions and sorrow

Iraq bade farewell on May 20 2022 to one of its foremost poets, Muzaffar Abdul Majeed Al-Nawab. He passed away in the UAE, where he’d lived in exile, after a long illness at the age of 88. His body was brought back to Iraq, where it was  met by the prime minister and other prominent officials, and was buried in the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

He was known in the Arab world as the “revolutionary poet” in recognition of a lifetime of publically opposing and criticizing corrupt Arab regimes, and for which, he spent many, many years in jail or in exile.

He was following a long tradition of writers and intellectuals who have ‘suffered’ for their art. Nearly 175 years ago English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his Defence of Poetry: “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In the years since, many poets have taken that role to heart, right up to the present day.

They’ve been rebel-rousers and protesters, revolutionaries and yes, sometimes, lawmakers. Some, like Czech author Václav Havel have become presidents. Poets like Nawab have commented on the events of the day, giving voice to oppressed and downtrodden, condemned tyrants, immortalized rebels, and campaigned for social change. Most chant from the sidelines and the bleachers. Others place themselves in harms way. Many end up in dungeons and torture chambers, and some have perished for their art and articulation. So it was with Spanish poet Garcia Lorca, murdered in 1936 by Generalissimo Franco’s Nationalist soldiery at the beginning of the savage Spanish Civil War. So it was with Chilean folk singer and songwriter Victor Lara, slain in a soccer stadium in September 1973 by Augusto Pinochet’s thugs.

The silencing of singers and poets on account of their words and their voices diminishes our lives and indeed, it diminishes the world in which we live, and in its hatred and nihilism, strikes at the heart of the values we hold most dear. But history has shown that the death of the singer does not kill the song. The dictator perishes but the poet remains.

What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well –
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
Shelley The Masque of Anarchy, published posthumously in 1832

Revolution Road

Let the word makers and the revolution singers awake!
Egyptian poet Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati

Al-Nawab was born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1934,  into an aristocratic Shi’ite family of Indian origin that appreciated art, poetry and music, and from an early age, he displayed a talent for poetry . Completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Baghdad he became a teacher, but was expelled for political reasons in 1955 and remained unemployed for three years.

He joined the Iraqi Communist Party while still at college, and was detained and tortured by the Hashemite regime that ruled Iraq at that time. After the Iraqi revolution in 1958 which overthrew the monarchy, he was appointed an inspector at the Ministry of Education. In 1963 he was forced to leave Iraq to neighbouring Iran, after the intensification of competition between the nationalists and the communists who were prosecuted and put under strict observation by the republican regime. He was arrested and tortured by Savak, the Iranian secret police, before being forcibly repatriated to the Iraqi government. An Iraqi court handed down a death sentence against him for one of his poems, but this was later commuted to life imprisonment. He escaped from prison by digging a tunnel and fled to the marshlands, where he joined a communist faction that sought to overthrow the government.

Known for his powerful revolutionary poems and scathing invective against Arab dictators, the first complete Arabic language edition of his works was published in London in 1996 by “Dar Qanbar” He lived in exile in many countries, including Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Eritrea, where he stayed with the Eritrean rebels, before returning to Iraq in 2011. Before he returned to Iraq, he had been essentially stateless, being able to travel only on Libyan travel documents.

Nawab’s popular and eloquent poetry earned him a prominent position at the forefront of modern Arabic literature. He was known as the “revolutionary poet” for decrying corrupt regimes across the Arab world. His poems were filled with revolutionary fervor, social anger, satire, and rebellion against injustice and corruption by Arab dictators. Syrian writer Aws Daoud Yaqoub described Nawab in a book dedicated to his poetry as the poet of “revolutions and sorrow.”

Nawab was also known as a poet of pop culture as his poems spoke to the Iraqis of all age groups, useing simplified folk language in a frank and sharp way. He sometimes resorted to attacks and obscene words to deliver a specific message. In 2018, he was nominated by the Iraqi Writers Union for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Many of his poems, composed in the spoken dialect,  were sung by some of the most renowned Iraqi singers, such as Yas Khoder. These include the poems called “Oh, Basil [Ya Rihan], “Al-Rayl and Hamad,” and The Night of Violet.”

Some Arab intellectuals considered him a great poet with sincere revolutionary principles who railed  against  oppressive regimes, injustice and corruption, using piercing words to expose the defects and deficiencies of the state, society, and poetry and to strip the emperor naked. He called for an end to the traditional practice in Arabic poetry of setting up poets and singers to perform songs of praise to the regime, sultan, or king.

He took extreme hostile positions against the West, Israel and the allies of the United States, such as the Gulf states. In one of his most renowned poems, he described the commanders of these countries as “the pigs of this Gulf” in the poem of this title. He described Arab meetings to solve the Arab issues, especially Palestine, as “lesbian meetings” in the sense that they produce nothing, and mocked the Arab rulers, saying “a pig’s pen is cleaner than the cleanest of you.”

And yet, many criticized him for his selective attitudes towards the tyrannical regimes in the region, and for behaviour that appeared to contradict to his declared principles. For example, the UAE has normalized ties with Israel, which contradicted Nawab’s opposition to both the rulers of the Gulf states and to Israel. His attitude attracted harsh criticism from critics on social media, who lamented the special treatment he received before his death in Gulf state that he had often condemned. Dhafer Al-Ajmi, Executive Director of the Gulf Monitoring Group, tweeted that Nawab was mostly known for decrying Gulf leaders using vulgar language to describe them. “Despite that, he died in a Gulf hospital, where he received treatment at the order of a Gulf Sheikh.” Saudi journalist Ali Al-Quhais noted that Nawab died in the Gulf states after he offended them and their rules, and even insulted Mecca. “The Gulf countries held poetry evenings for him and opened their hospitals to him,” Quhais said, criticizing Nawab for keeping mute when his own country [Iraq] was occupied

Other critics have  described him as sectarian and partisan, since he often attacked Arab rulers, the West and Israel, whilst praising Ayatollah Khomeini and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and failed to take any position on the occupation of Iraq, which brought the Shiites to power in that country after American invasion and the fall of Saddamn Hussein.. His poetry also included strong words against sacred Sunni figures such as Abu Sufyan and Amro bin Al-Aas, who are among the Ansar or Companions of the Prophet – and who are are frowned upon by Shiites because of their attitude towards Imam Ali.

.Others, howver, believe Nawab’s positions were not sectarian at all, but rather, expressed his revolutionary left-wing stance against reactionary principles, colonialism and injustice – he referred to himself in his poetry as an Qarmatian, in reference to a social movement which led a revolution against the Abbasid Caliphate between the years 899 -107, and which included non-Arab nationalities, including black-skinned people.

By describing himself thus, he sought to allude to his Indian origins, family having migrated to Iraq during 19th century. This would explains the diverse cultural aspect of his poems, and why he addressed issues like Iraq’s oppressed Iraqi cultural minorities and their long history of persecution under the dominion of the Arab majority.

Iraq was once distinguished by its ethnic, religious and cultural diversity, as it was home to large communities of diverse origins. Today, these communities are on the brink of disappearance, as they were forced to flee the political, security and societal pressures in the absence of the authority of law and the state.

From an obituary published by e-zine al Monitor on 27th May 2022.

For more on Arab poets, in In That Howling Infinite, see: Ghayath al Madhoun – the agony of an exiled poet, and O Beirut – songs for a wounded city (Syrian poet Nizār Tawfīq Qabbānī and  Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz).

Poetry Defeats Authority: Muzaffar al-Nawab 

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls

An Iraqi man feeds seagulls on a bridge across the Tigris River in central Baghdad,
December 11, 2020. Ahmad al Rubaye AFP

There are still poets that dare to tell this world about the wrong things that occur. They do that as if they were “Romeo” in Shakespeare’s play “Romeo & Juliet”. However, Arab repression forces them to “praise” rulers, politicians and security apparatus instead of writing for “Juliet”. While doing that, they use a totally very different language to deal with that circle. They curse when hit by batons and spit when tortured. They “pee on this apparatus” when their humanity is killed! The Iraqi poet Muzaffar al-Nawab (1934) managed to develop a unique style to deal with such a thing. He used a language that no other poet can create unless he/she was exiled from an Arab capital or subjugated to physical and psychological torture. Poets even have to face firmly “the beast” in Tehran to develop such a language. There, dozens of flagellants will be waiting to beat the poet with a whip and large boots.

Al-Nawab wrote in one of his poems about that experiment:

“ike two dull houses of ants
Are the eyes of the flagellants’ chief
His nose’s hair was growing like those of a pig
Mucus words were in his mouth
He was dripping them in my ears
He asked me: Who are you?
I was embarrassed to tell him:
I resisted colonization, so my homeland displaced me.
My eyes fainted from torture.

Although his family was an aristocratic one, al-Nawab became a member of the Iraqi Communist Party. After the coup of 1963, he became a fugitive. He fled to Iran and hid in Tehran. He was arrested there and held in prison for 5 months without knowing what was happening in his country. Then, he was sent back from Tehran to Basra in Iraq  and afterwards to Baghdad.

His journey of rejection started there. Later rejection turned into a language that Al-Nawab mastered. He produced his first poem of rejection “Acquittal”. This poem became for him the start of being abused and tortured continuously. It was like a monster that kept chasing him.

At that moment, al-Nawab defeated authority for the first time. He uttered his first “no” in public. This refusal costed him 20 years of prison. Writing the aforementioned poem meant also putting him into jail for extra three years. Thus, his journey of rejection started with a “no” and a poem.

The trail was absurd. Al-Nawab stood and they asked him to insult the communist party to claim his acquittal. It wasn’t an easy choice as the poet’s answer would have affected another 120 prisoners by doing what he was asked to do. They said to him: Curse the party. But he said: No. They asked him to curse all parties. He said: No. And he wrote his “Acquittal” poem in a folk Iraqi poetry. While imitating the language of a mother, he wrote the following:

Time crashes your bones for betrayal.
You compromise your wound for meanness
And you have to hide it.
O son, let the wound be cleaned.
Let it bleed.
My son, don’t conceal our honor.
O son, acquittal remains rotten forever.
You know my son with every acquittal,
We rebury each martyr of our people.

Al-Nawab wasn’t using rejection in his poetry alone, but also in each situation of his life. “Semi actions” used to annoy him a lot. In Al Hillah prison, the poet helped in 1965 Hamed Maksood, who was sentenced to death, to escape. Like a painter, he made Hamed back then look like an eighty years old man. He stamped Hamed’s hands with the prison’s stamp to look like a visitor. He also transformed his pillow into a sick sleeping man and the police got deceived by this ruse. After that, Al-Nawab himself escaped from the prison at the beginning of 1967. He got used to escaping with the same way. Meanwhile, his poems were reaching readers and this casted him with homage. He got used to escaping which comes before confrontation and even when he got arrested in Iran, he tried to escape. His second attempt to escape from Al Hillah prison succeeded by digging a tunnel in the prison that 40 prisoners, including Al-Nawab, escaped from. He, then, disappeared in Baghdad before authorities issued an amnesty order for political opponents.

This was his second victory over the authority in poetry and life. These victories were accompanied usually with him being tortured and exiled. He was arrested in 1968 and he met the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. May be the authority was trying to buy his silence or to direct his speech, but he said about both options: “Why does suppression enter the heart and censorship controls my silence, papers, steps and my mazes? Don’t I have the right to be silent, to speak, to walk outside the official path or to cry? Don’t I have the right to publish and distribute fire for free?”

In an unknown building, Saddam Hussein met him and asked him: “Don’t you trust the central government?” Al-Nawab replied: “I don’t trust you; you can send me back to jail.”

These constant escapes from one place to another have violated Al-Nawab’s humanity. In return, he created linguistic violations by attacking ministers, parliament’s meetings, police, informants and Arab league’s summits. He asks in his poem “The old pub”:

“How can man maintain his dignity while security apparatus hands reach everywhere?”

Al-Nawab was cursing on behalf of a whole nation. He represented hundreds of thousands of the poor who couldn’t curse the ones who deserved being cursed. Through this, he was freeing the anger of a whole nation, speaking to it in a way that he learned by blood. He cursed, with generosity, those who deserved that; those who tortured him, occupied his land, sold him and killed his joy. His curses became inclusive. He utters them from his throat that contains the throats of the silenced nation in an era that he called the urine era as he says:

I pee on the governing police.
It is the era of urine.
I pee on the tables, the parliaments and ministers with no shame
As they fought us with no shame.
The authorities of apes,
The parties of apes,
The apparatus of apes,
No!
The apes’ shit is better than you.

Using these linguistic violations in poetry was a response to abusing and suppressing thousands of people. But one person dared to use it and utter words before batons and torture chairs. That one was Muzaffar al-Nawab.

The poet, whose joy was killed in all Arab capitals, acknowledges the outright defeat and declares that in his poem “Summits”:

Now, I confess before the desert
That I’m filthy like your defeat.
O defeated rulers, defeated parties
Oh loser rulers
O defeated public
How rude we are!
And we deny it, how rude we are!

After the curse that he wrote in the poem: “Son of bitches, I exclude none of you”, he was shot but he survived. He says about this sentence: “They now got used to it” and he laughs.

In the home of foreignness and the collective feeling of alienation, Al-Nawab asks:

Oh, my homeland;
Are you the land of enemies?
O my homeland that is displayed as a morning star in the market

Speaking to God, he says:

Glory to you, I have accepted all things except humiliation.
I was satisfied that my share of life to be like that of a bird.
But glory to you, even birds have homes that they come back to.
And I’m still flying.
This homeland that extends from the sea to the sea
Is like adjacent prisons.
They are like a jailer who arrests another jailer.

Al-Nawab asks after all for forgiveness but tries to maintain his rejection:

Forgive my sadness, wine, outrage and harsh words.
Some of you will say that they were saucy.
Ok!
Show me then a situation that is more insolent
than the one we are now living in!

Australia Votes – The Decline and Fall of the Flimflam Man

Australian voters are not in the habit of voting out governments and they tend not to discard an incumbent lightly. Historically, they have customarily cleaved to non-Labor governments. When they do so, it signals some wider shift in voter attitudes and inclinations. Here is my take on the many reasons why the Morrison government went down.

Oblivious to clear and present dangers

We’ve faced unprecedented crises during the last three years. Drought followed by devastating wild fires and floods – with the pandemic following on almost immediately. Experts agreed that these owed their intensity to climate change, but the federal government was hogtied by its in-house climate denialists, the co-opted satraps of old king coal, and the opinionated talking heads of the House of Murdoch (particularly the hosts of the cable TV “Sky at Night”). There were also crises of integrity and corruption, of rorting and pork-barreling and a refusal to establish a corruption bulldog with teeth; and of sexual assault and sundry naughty shenanigans in the corridors of our parliament. The Liberal Party’s “women problem” has been building for years; women voters have been moving away from the party for years’ have now turned against it with a vengeance. As commentator Samantha Maiden noted, they didn’t get women and women finally got them. The Government was also perceived as reluctant to embrace equity and diversity and  to incorporate indigenous Australians, a culture over sixty thousand years old, into our constitution and our parliamentary consensus and consultation.

Whilst ever eager to perpetuate our endemic culture and history wars, it endeavored to weaponize matters of national security, particularly with regard to our strained relationship with China, and was seen by many as cynically planning  a “khaki election” – though hairy-cheating drum beating rarely rarely distracts people from the real and present dangers of government incompetence, particularly when wages had Ben stagnant for years, rents and house prices had gone through the roof, and rising inflation was inflicting financial pain on most Australian households.

Our state governments reaped the benefits of comparative competence and incumbency in elections held in all states, and were way ahead of the federal government with regard to climate, equity and integrity. The federal government was weighed and found wanting. Whist eventually delivering resources and dollars, it had dragged its feet in its response to fires, floods, pandemic and  vaccine roll-out, and inflationary pressures,  forever running to catch up, and the gravest sin, blaming everyone else.

The revolt of the moderates

The government’s resistance to such ostensibly “woke” issues as climate change initiatives, social and gender justice and equity, and racial and religious discrimination, and even sheltering refugees and asylum seekers turned not just progressives against it, but also the party’s moderates, several of whom, educated, professional, wealthy and well connected women in affluent inner-city suburbs – the party’s heartland – decided to set up shop as “independents”, and electorally viable ones too. They’d reckoned the party had moved too far to the populist right and hoped to shock it back to the so-called “sensible centre”. By their reckoning, they and their supporters had not left the party – the party had left them. [See Hearing Voices – is Teal the real Deal? ]

Ironically, they targeted the party’s key parliamentary moderates, who were actually in agreement with them on their core issues, on the grounds they’d voted against their principles in the interests of their careers and party unity. And they took them out. As the Liberal Party comes to terms with its defeat, its recovery, and in rebuilding national support, it has to consider the reality that its moderate heart has been extracted and that the leader in waiting is an unpopular and much lampooned hardliner.

I don’t hold a hose

The coup de grace was delivered by the prime minister himself. He was disliked, hated even, and eventually, ridiculed – not just by progressives, but by his own side. He was condemned as a bully, a misogynist, a flimflam man (‘Scotty from marketing was the moniker he’d inherited from a patchy career in perception management), and, in his own words, a “bulldozer”. Indeed, the alpha male style of politics favored by Morrison and his acolytes, centred around aggression, masculinity (we call it ‘blokeyness’) and a disregard for science, and facts, whilst resonating with some sections of the community, alienated other people who have traditionally voted Liberal. It didn’t help that during our many crises, he was perceived to have gone literally and figuratively ‘walkabout’ – at the height of the bush fires that ravaged our east coast in December 2018, he took his family off to Hawaii for a Christmas holiday. the title of this section is his response to the question whether he thought this was a great idea.

Many colleagues considered him an electoral liability – now the end has come, many are revealing that there was indeed a plan to replace him with the now jilted Josh last autumn, but faithful Frydenberg stuck with his boss.

In the final days of his campaign, an edgy Morrison pledged that he would actually change for the better if we re-elected him last Saturday. In the event, friends and well as foes gave him the old heave-ho. Seven of these independents ousted the party’s most moderate members of parliament, including the Federal Treasurer. The Liberal Party no longer has any electorates overlooking Sydney Harbour. The seats of former Liberal prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, John Howard, Billy McMahon (same area, reconstructed electorate), John Gorton, and Bob Menzies are all now held by Labor or independents. Voters in heartland seats, including those who once financed the party, and business people, it appears will in future be attracted to capable and articulate local independents deeply connected to their community and in touch with its concerns.

I wrote in a Facebook post ten days before the election: “The Australian Labor Party is the only party contesting this election that is campaigning for an actual change of government. To achieve this, Labor has to win – and win big. Politics is zero sum – you win or you lose. It’s a Herculean task.  Labor has to win 76 sears outright to govern in its own right. That means holding on to twenty marginal seats and taking seven more from the Coalition … ALL commercial TV channels are strongly backing the Liberal-National Party. The Teals refuse to say what they’d do in the event of a hung parliament. Ignoring or, worse, drowning out Labor’s overarching message – a change of government – only helps the Tories. If Labor fails, voters who bemoan the return of the Coalition have only themselves to blame. Caveat Emptor!”

In the end, an electorate that is traditionally conservative and reluctant to change for changes sake, turned on an unpopular prime minister, a tired and complacent government weighed down by a lacklustre front bench, and a divided Coalition devoid of policy imagination. The Liberals lost a record seventeen seats, losing 19 to Labor, 6 to independents and 1 to the Greens, leaving it with 57 against Labor’s 76, with 14 others – the largest cross-bench in our parliamentary history. The new parliament is the most diverse in our history with more indigenous members than ever before and also more MPs of non Anglo-Celtic descent.

Morrison’s arrogant behaviour, apparent tolerance for undisguised rorting and failure to enunciate a coherent set of values led to most Australians judging he was no leader worthy of the name and showed him the door. Yesterday’s rooster is today’s feather duster, and don’t we feel happy!

The longest day

Voting is compulsory in Australia and unavoidable. Campaigns are about six weeks long, and are relentless, remorseless and as boring as all get out. We are heartily sick and tired of it all by the end. But we turn out nonetheless in numbers unmatched anywhere in the world. There is tradition of party volunteers handing out “how to vote” fliers to assist voters in our unique preferential voting system. And Election Day is always on a Saturday, and there is another tradition of scout troops and school children setting up fundraising hot-dog stands – we affectionately call this “democracy sausage”.

On Election Day, in our electorate, it rained, and rained, and rained – we’ve already had those apocryphal forty days no forty nights and were quite over the extreme wetness – and my wife and I, having organised our folk at the polling stations across our rural area, were “handing out” for the Australian Labor Party in a mountain town, froze to the bone. It was the longest day, but at its end, once the first results had come in, our unloved and unlamented prime minister conceded to his opponent, and our party leader Anthony Albanese became our 31st prime minister in our forty seventh parliament and our first of Italian descent – and without an Anglo-Celtic name – the son of a single mother in a run-down suburb in a council flat. He is only the fourth Labor leader since World War II – alongside Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd – to win government. the Liberal Party has held government for 51 pf the pass 73 years. In Australian politics, a win from opposition is a mighty feat indeed, notwithstanding that it’s primary vote fell below 33%, it’s lowest since 1931 – though the coalition’s vote sank like a stone to 36%, it’s worst result since Federation.

So now, the Liberal Party grapples with the first stages of grief, shock, anger and denial, and seeks solace from its vale of tears. The narrative according to a chorus of hard line Coalition MPs and mainly News Corps’ columnists and Sky at Night rangers goes like this: the Morrison government positioned itself as “Labor-lite”, experimenting “with the poison of leftism”, because it caved in on net-zero emissions, racked up budget deficits, abandoned “freedom” during the pandemic and shirked on fighting culture wars. To them, this was a shameless Marxist posture which not only failed to placate voters in the Liberals’ traditional seats, but alienated the party from “the Quiet Australians” and blue-collar battlers the party ought to regard as its real base less concerned about climate change than they are focused on cost-of-living pressures and whether their kids are being indoctrinated into radical doctrines at school. But they seem curiously unconcerned about a minimum wage for those struggling quiet Australians.

After nine years of stagnation and little progress on the key issues, Australia has once more a progressive government. There is a danger for a progressive party leader in raising unrealistic expectations, and Albanese is urging people to be patient. Over and over, he has said that he wants to under-promise and over-deliver. He has been cautious with his commitments, so, if there is change under this government, it is likely to come slowly.

Here we go!

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For more in In That Howling Infinite on Australian history and politics, see Down Under ; and specifically on the 2022 election, Hearing Voices – is Teal the real Deal?

Postscript

Why aren’t the Liberals called Conservatives?

[Spoiler Alert! The following paragraph contains many references to sundry ‘isms’ that will confuse and confound most readers. To define these adequately is beyond both the scope and the intention of this particular post. if in doubt, please Google it.}

The founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies,  wanted to associate it with classical Victorian Liberalism with its primary emphasis on securing the freedom of the individual by limiting the power of the government, and a brand that would appeal to the innately socially and economically conservative ‘quiet Australians’ of the political centre. Increasingly, over the years, the party became associated with a more literally ‘conservative’ mindset, promoting traditional economic and social values that distinguished it from our contemporary definition of “Liberalism”, which most of us associate with democratic socialism and with the progressive social and fiscal policies advocated by the Australian Labor Party.

Why is Labor called Labor and not Labour?
Labor is spelled Labor and not Labour because, back in the day, in the 1890s, and before federation, In the labour movements, the trade unions that formed the Labor parties in the 1880s, and also the broader socialist movement at the time, there was a lot of reading of American socialist texts. Whilst the “labour movement” and labour parties in places like New Zealand and the United Kingdom all use “Labour”, the Australian Labor Party officially adopted the shorter spelling in 1912.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and new MP Chinese-Laotian Sally Sitou

Hearing voices – is Teal the real deal?

In the past, the major parties have seen independents as a passing nuisance that fades over time, like the Australian Democrats. Their only concern was their preference flow. Times are indeed changing; unless the major parties change, these independents are here to stay … There are no safe seats any more. 
Peter Beattie, former premier of Queensland, 22 April Sydney Morning Herald

To paraphrase old Karl, a spectre is looming over Australian politics – commentators on the right  believe it’s haunting the Liberal and National Party Coalition. But it also hovers over the Labor opposition.

One number is now keeping major party leaders and their confidants awake at night: 76. That is the bare minimum needed to form majority government in the 151 seat House of Representatives. It is the number the Coalition currently commands. And, right now, all the public polls show neither major party has electoral support to hit it.

Voters decide who gets their preferences, not parties. But history shows that the most disciplined flow is from the Greens to Labor. Antony Green’s research on the 2019 result confirms that more than 80 per cent of Greens voters put a two in the Labor column.  With the Greens primary at, or above, 10 per cent Labor appears in the best shape to form government because minor party preferences flow to the Coalition at a lower rate. And there is a smorgasbord on offer for disaffected Coalition voters on the left and right. Clive Palmer’s billions have bought roughly 3 per cent of the primary and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation commands a similar number. In 2019, both delivered 65 per cent of their second preferences to the Coalition and 35 per cent to Labor.

But a recent development in Australian electoral politics is sending the statistics skewiff.

Enter the self proclaimed ‘community independents, the so-called ‘voices of …’ movement, labelled by observers across the political spectrum as ‘The Teals’, named for their almost uniform choice in campaign colour. I republish below two typical opinion pieces.

The first is by Paul Kelly, The Australian’s Editor at Large. From time to time, I republish articles by News Ltd commentators that I believe are worth sharing with those who cannot scale the News Corporation paywall. Kelly is one of those. Though undoubtedly of the right, often assuming many of the positions adopted by his more partisan colleagues, though in a much more nuanced and ‘reasonable’ manner, he writes well and wisely, most probably due to his long experience and high reputation on the Australian political scene.

He recently wrote a cogent piece on how the cohort of Teal Independents, backed up by the financial and political resources, and very substantial donations ‘war chest’ of the Climate 200 group, are offering their electorates and ourselves a model of participatory parliamentary democracy that is built on shaky foundations. Climate 200 founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court claims that “the shortest and surest path to good government is a minority government with a quality cross-bench”.

It is probably one of the best analyses of the aspirations and apparent appeal of this relatively recent political phenomenon. I also republish a left-wing perspective by journalist Mark Stanley on the MichaelWestMedia blog. He endeavours to answer the same basic and obvious question as Kelly: is teal the real deal?

Kelly has observed that an unprecedented passion for independents is taking hold in some of the richest suburbs of Australia. Its vanguard comes from predominantly professional, business and educated women who reside in affluent inner-city suburb. Not exclusively so, however. There is Helen Haines, the sitting member for the rural Victorian seat of Indi – and her colour is actually orange. In my own seat of Cowper, on the mid north coast, the anointed independent is well-known and popular health professional with strong local and indeed left wing roots: she is a former member of the Greens. Nor are they all female. Andrew Wilkie, long time Tasmanian MP, Stephen is on the ticket as is Stephen Pocock in the ACT who is running for senate.

These independents believe their voice has been denied for too long. This denial is the genesis of the ‘voices of … ‘ movement although their call is a world of difference from the nihilistic ‘mad as hell and we ain’t gonna take it any more’ populism of the far right and it’s lugubrious svengalis. There is an apparent conviction that the political system somehow is either discredited or broken or corrupt – perhaps all three – and needs to be rescued by a higher moralism. And they appeal to the many voters who see the Labor and the Coalition as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and possible hope that the independents will ‘keep the bastards honest”, to use an old and defunct catchphrase.

But, Kelly notes, “this is delusion on a grand scale. Public disenchantment with the major parties is a statistical fact. But leaping to the assertion the public wants minority government is a false conclusion”.

The preoccupations of Holmes a Court and his coterie of self-proclaimed ‘community’ Independents do not reflect the country at large. The idea that people in a few rich seats, some of the wealthiest (and least ethnically diverse) electorates in the nation, can redirect Australia towards the path of superior policy morality testifies to denial about the diversity and competing interests across Australia.

Whilst an infusion of progressive populists into the House of Representatives might sound exciting, the outcome could be a more fractured polity and a further decline in the capacity of parliament to legislate challenging national interest policy. This is no way to run a parliament or a government and to look after our country’s interests.

The most important function of an election, Kelly states, is to elect a government. Everyone knows where Liberals, Labor and the Greens stand – but the independents will not say, if given minority government, which party they want in office. A group espousing integrity and transparency will not be honest with the public on the single most important decision they would be required to take as MPs. The reason, of course, is they seek to maximize their vote; like the singer in Leonard Cohen’s sardonic song, they endeavour to be all things to all people: “If you want a lover, I’ll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you”. “In a sense”, Kelly notes, they trade genuine influence for gesture politics”.

So far so good – and for the most part, I couldn’t agree with him more. But at this juncture, Kelly removes HIS mask. I ought t gave seen it coming when he has commented earlier in his article : “if the public wants more action on climate change, here an easy answer. Vote Labor”. And then, midway through, he lets his conservative cat out of the bag: “It is one thing for these voters to elect independents over sitting Liberal MPs in an act of protest, but it is entirely another thing for voters to tolerate the independents putting a Labor government into power. Do that and your future as an independent is fatally compromised – your future will be tied to the Labor government and any decisions your electorate doesn’t like”.

He points to the lessons learned the hard way by erstwhile Coalition parliamentarians Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott who in 2010 ignored the conservative disposition of their seats when they put Julia Gillard’s government into office. Facing hate mail, trolling and even death threats, they were unprepared to stand at the next election. This is the salutary lesson for the teal wave of Independents – for that way madness lies.

Kelly sees the independents as a progressive movement to defeat the Morrison government and that this is their raison d’être: “They seek not just to defeat the Liberal Party but also to engineer, from the outside, a progressive remaking of the party

I disagree strongly with his contention that the independents seek to install Anthony Albanese and his social democrats, I actually regard them as a threat to the prospects of a Labor government. Teal, after all, is not a primary colour. Indeed, it’s primary color is blue, and it’s secondary is green. Chris Kenny,  a colleague  of Kelly’s  at The Australian, has quipped that teal is a blend of Green and blue blood – a thinly veiled swipe at what he perceives the affluent upper-middle class status of most of the inner city independents. But to my mind, one thing thing is for certain – teal is no friend of red.

But I do concur with the argument that are trying to change the system from within. But I would argue that these are conservative “wet liberals” who rather than betraying the party, are trying to drag its dominant right wing grudgingly towards the centre, the so-called “reasonable middle” where the majority of engaged Australians reside. Katrina Grace Kelly, another commentator for The Australian  reported a comment from an voter in treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s blue-ribbon but threatened inner-Melbourne seat of Kooyong: “We are educated, moderate and bewildered small ‘L” Liberals wondering what the hell happened top out party”. Kelly writes: ‘Using the brand “independent” is brilliant but also deceptive. They are not a party as such but they have a common cause, common funding and common strategy. They only target government MPs. Frydenberg calls them “fake independents”’. Grumpy former prime minister John Hoard recently referred to them as ‘anti-Liberal groupies’, his ‘banger sisters’ allusion going down a treat among those who reckon that the Coalition has a problem with women.

The irony is that far from recreating the Liberal Party in their own image, insisting en passant that Scott Morrison – and as a bonus, deputy PM Barnaby Joyce – are replaced, and targeting the seats of what moderate Liberal MPs remain in the government, members who actually agree with most of what the independents are advocating, and are also, incidentally, more culturally and ethnically diverse than their challengers, they could potentially hand the leadership and the Lodge not to all-around nice guy Josh Frydenberg but to the not so lean and but definitely hungry defence minister Peter Dutton. Maybe they believe that the prospects of the potentially unelectable Dutton ascending to the party leadership will shock the it into a rush to centre-field. But that is magical thinking!

I believe that the independents are actually a political party in all but name. They spruik the same issues and causes, they sing from the same song sheet, and whilst they receive many donations from idealistic sympathisers from across the political spectrum, they are heavily funded by Climate 200. They even share that body’s financial controller. And they cleave broadly to the mission of Climate 200 cabal – a fairly homogeneous collective of like-minded, disaffected former politicians and pundits. It’s advisory panel includes former Tory John Hewson, disgraced Democrat leader Meg Lees (who many believe destroyed that party), former member for Wentworth Karyn Phelps, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. The only former Labor luminary is Barry Jones. When I first viewed the panel a month or so back, I swear that list was considerably longer, including several high profile rebel Tories, including defecting MP Julia Banks.  As the say, “if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck, then it is a duck”. QED.

The independents promote a false reality amid a fog of moralism. As Kelly notes, they might “offer much, but their capacity to change politics is heavily limited. In their strengths and flaws, they are a genuine manifestation of Australian democracy” – in all its infinite variety, I might add, and its contradictions. 

In the MichaelWest Media blog,  Mark Sawyer argues that if  the independents are a threat to the Liberals, why’s would Labor get in the way? After, all.the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right. But, he writes: “… smarter heads on the progressive side of politics are likely to be looking a bit further. They know the short-term gain of putting Liberal MPs to the sword could lead to long-term pain”.

Indeed. Whilst challenging the Coalition, the independents’ attitude of “a plague on both their houses”, and a  refusal to make deals with the major parties, not only hurts the Liberals, but also weakens Labor. Because, long story short.they want  the parties to depend on them.

And yet, as any soft-left and disaffected and defecting Labor and Green supporters argue naively, the Independents’s Big Four pledges around which they rally – climate, integrity, fiscal discipline and treatment of women – do resonate with the electorate.

But there scope is a restricted one.  The progressive policies in their brief manifesto theirs are feel-good positions, not policy. In being all things to all men and women they’ve cherry-picked what Sawyer called “the fun bits of the progressive agenda”.

They won’t touch the hard bits, including education and health, and the redistributive economic and fiscal policies (like including increasing taxes for the wealthy and for large corporations) which are central to the social democratic values of the true believers. The independents’ push for equity equality only goes so far.

And there are more areas where the independents fear to tread, other than acknowledging their worthiness. Support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, for example; help for small business in recovery from the pandemic; truth in political advertising; enshrining a First Nations voice in the Constitution. Issues that require well-thought out policies.

It is much easier to argue as they do that the party system has run its course. But this disingenuous if nor ignorant of Australian history and politics. Although political parties are not mentioned in the constitution, they are parties are actually needed  to form and run governments. As all politics 101 students are told, parties inform, articulate and mobilize otherwise unorganized electorates around coherent political platforms. Our parliamentary system is representative democracy, not participatory democracy.

Sawyer states it bluntly: “Broad-based parties gave us Medicare, the NDIS, anti-discrimination legislation – an endless list of civilising measures that have enhanced our democracy. Whether the independents make a better replacement to these mass movements, and whether they are the solution to the challenges facing the nation, is a question that should be posed by the progressive side of Australian politics”.

I’ll leave the last word to Dennis:

Arthur: I am your king!
Woman: Well I didn’t vote for you!
Arthur: You don’t vote for kings!
Woman: Well ‘ow’d you become king then?
Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king!
Man: Listen: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony. You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!! I mean, if I went ’round, saying I was an emperor, just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they’d put me away!
Monty Python’s The Holy Grail

Where otherwise credited, © Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved


Also in In That Howling Infinite: Political World – thoughts and themes, and  Down Under – Australian history and politics

Election 2022: New ‘independents’ promote false reality in a fog of moralism

There are many delusions in election 2022 but few match the ambition of Climate 200 founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court with his claim that “the shortest and surest path to good government is a minority government with a quality cross-bench”.

“The assertion that Australia’s purpose and performance can be resurrected by building up the independent crossbench and shifting towards minority government is a triumph of cultural fashion over governing reality”.

Paul Kelly .The Weekend  Australian, April 8th 2022

Simon Holmes a Court ‘should pray his goal of minority government doesn’t eventuate’. Picture: Aaron Francis

Simon Holmes a Court ‘should pray his goal of minority government doesn’t eventuate’There are many delusions in election 2022 but few match the ambition of Climate 200 founder and funder Simon Holmes a Court with his claim that “the shortest and surest path to good government is a minority government with a quality cross-bench”.

This is an astonishing claim – that improvement in Australian governance hinges upon denying a majority party in the House of Representatives and expanding the cross bench. It is a novel idea seen by its champions as an idea whose time has come.

The assertion that Australia’s purpose and performance can be resurrected by building up the independent cross-bench and shifting towards minority government is a triumph of cultural fashion over governing reality. Campaigning in the cause of a weak national government – in order to maximizing your own leverage – makes the Liberal and Labor parties look honourable and honest in their effort to represent their broader constituencies.

Yet the passion for independents is taking hold in some of the richest suburbs of Australia. Its vanguard comes from professional, business and educated women who believe their voice has been denied for too long; from climate-change believers who are sure the supreme test of government today, beyond any other issue, is radical action against global warming; from a visceral distrust, and perhaps a loathing, of Scott Morrison; and from the apparent conviction that the political system somehow is either discredited or broken or corrupt – perhaps all three – and needs to be rescued by a higher moralism.

The independents enjoy a surge of refreshing, spontaneous support, against the backdrop of disenchantment with the major parties and Holmes a Court’s laments about a political system plagued by inaction, self-interest and corruption. He has waxed lyrical, saying if his plan works “the pay-off for Australia will be enormous”. His tweets talk about flipping three Liberal seats. That would do the job and “we wake up on the morning after the election to a new country, visualize that!”

A new country? Based on minority government? Well, we do need to visualize that. How does that actually work? Holmes a Court in his tweets offered an answer: “We’ve seen the strength of minority government. From 2010-13, Julia Gillard’s government worked effectively and efficiently with a quality cross-bench to deliver a well-designed framework for climate action” and, evidently, “opinion polls show there is enthusiasm among voters to make it happen again”.

This is delusion on a grand scale. Public disenchantment with the major parties is a statistical fact. But leaping to the assertion the public wants minority government is a false conclusion. It may be a consequence of a series of voting results across seats – but that’s a different issue. Certainly, the Gillard example cannot sustain the proposition.

If the public wants more action on climate change, there’s an easy answer. Vote Labor. Give Labor a sound mandate. But the leafy seats cultivated by Holmes a Court cannot stomach voting Labor. That’s because this movement (talking now about the blue-ribbon Liberal seats) is one of the most elitist, high-income revolts ever witnessed in our political history.

Its preoccupations don’t reflect the country at large while they do reflect a sizable slice of the post-material, high-wealth seats in question. The extent of uncritical media support for the independents is an insight into the outlook and values of much of the progressive media in Australia. The idea that people in a few rich seats can redirect Australia towards the path of superior policy morality testifies to denial about the diversity and competing interests across this big country.

Central to this movement is a community idealism, the rise of single-issue causes and crusades and intolerance of the major parties whose task is to reflect a wider constituency with its myriad views. The idea that climate-change independents holding the balance of power will intimidate or persuade the major parties into revising their election platforms and going for more climate ambition is neither realistic nor a sound basis on which to achieve change.

An infusion of progressive populists into the House of Representatives might sound exciting but the outcome will be a more fractured polity and a further decline in the capacity of parliament to legislate challenging national interest policy. How do we know this? We know by looking at the way the Senate is now hostage to special-interest minority crossbenchers and is a graveyard for any politically tough reform.

The more scrutiny the independents get, the more dubious their claims become. The most important function of an election is to elect a government. Everyone knows where Liberals, Labor and the Greens stand – but the independents won’t say, if given minority government, which party they want in office. They won’t be honest with the public on the single most important decision they would be required to take as MPs. Where’s the integrity in that?

The reason, of course, is they seek to maximize their vote. It’s about their self-interest, and that’s as old-fashioned as politics. Nothing new there. Holmes a Court should pray his goal of minority government doesn’t eventuate because that would mean the independents would confront the central dilemma of their existence: the conflict between their progressive policies based on their rejection of the Morrison Liberal Party, and the enduring Liberal identity of their seats in the Liberal-versus-Labor contest.

It is one thing for these voters to elect independents over sitting Liberal MPs in an act of protest, but it is entirely another thing for voters to tolerate the independents putting a Labor government into power.

Do that and your future as an independent is fatally compromised – your future will be tied to the Labor government and any decisions your electorate doesn’t like.

The examples of independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott in 2010 constitute the enduring morality tale. Violating the conservative disposition of their seats, they put the Gillard government into office – far preferring her policies – and neither was prepared to stand at the next election. This is the fast route to terminating an independent’s career.

Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor after announcing their decision to back Julia Gillard in 2010.Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor after announcing their decision to back Julia Gillard in 2010.

This dilemma was captured by independent Zali Steggall on the ABC’s recent Q+A program, when she vacillated on which side she would support in minority government only to suggest she might consider the Liberals if they ditched Morrison as leader and that her other problem was Barnaby Joyce as Nationals leader. What’s next? Because the good people of Warringah don’t like Joyce, does he have to go as well?

This is political farce, no way to run a parliament or government, and no way to advance Australia’s real interest. Our political system is already struggling to deliver public interest outcomes, and having minority government for one term or longer is the last step the nation needs.

Sitting Liberals, however, know they face a threat from pivotal cultural changes in their seats. ABC election analyst Antony Green recently told Michelle Grattan from The Conversation that he believed “some” of the new independent candidates will win, thereby increasing the size of the cross-bench and deepening the Liberal Party’s woes.

A bigger question arises about the 2022 election: might success for the independent movement presage a structural change or realignment within conservative politics and the Liberal Party? Is the formula on which John Howard relied – social conservatism and liberal economics – now outdated?

If so, how will the Liberals renovate their profile? And how deep might any re-positioning run?

Basic to this issue is how do blue-ribbon Liberal electorates feel about being rendered largely impotent in the parliament. These are the seats that now or in the recent past have been represented by the most influential figures in the Liberal Party and in Australian governments – Josh Frydenberg, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello, Andrew Robb, Julie Bishop, Andrew Peacock, among others.

This history and guaranteed influence in the cabinet room is a substantial sacrifice to make. And for what? Independents always get far greater publicity than the standard Liberal MP. Most, if not all, independents are hardworking, intelligent and diligent in following the needs of their electorates. But independents have limited real impact, policy influence and political leverage. In a sense, voters, by making this decision, trade genuine influence for gesture politics.

Perhaps voters won’t care. Independents have a record of holding their seats once they win. Yet the full ramifications of the cultural realignment that is under way are not clear. The independents, driven above all by climate change, believe the Liberals have betrayed their mission and dismiss with contempt Morrison’s major shift in Coalition policy to net zero at 2050.

They demand a climate-change policy that a Coalition government in the current context of Australian politics cannot deliver. But if you are a Wentworth voter keen for climate action, on what basis would you prefer independent Allegra Spender to sitting Liberal Dave Sharma, who is a supporter of more action and destined for a future cabinet? Again, to be brutal, it is the difference between waving the flag and having real influence in future governments.

Cabinet potential: Dave Sharma. Picture: Renee NowytargerCabinet potential: Dave Sharma

The independents constitute a progressive movement designed to defeat the Morrison government. This is their reason for being and, in that sense, they assist Labor’s cause at this election. Indeed, their role in securing a change of government could be vital.

Using the brand “independent” is brilliant but also deceptive. They are not a party as such but they have a common cause, common funding and common strategy. They only target government MPs. Frydenberg calls them “fake independents”. They seek not just to defeat the Liberal Party but also to engineer, from the outside, a progressive remaking of the party.

They specialise in a “feel good” elusive rhetoric that sounds appealing but is designed to deceive and disguise. They say their task is always to consider legislation “on its merits” – but as journalist Margaret Simons pointed out in The Monthly, politics is about “competing merits” and competing interests. Their language aims only to conceal and deny scrutiny.

The job of politicians and parties is to arbitrate between competing merits. That’s what politics is about. It’s why politics is hard, tough and risky. It’s why political parties cannot satisfy everybody, why they need to compromise in meeting the demands of a diverse nation, and why they will always upset people.

The independents promote a false reality amid a fog of moralism. They offer much but their capacity to change politics is heavily limited. In their strengths and flaws, they are a genuine manifestation of Australian democracy.

The big question is whether they will peak at this poll with its anti-Liberal, anti-Morrison sentiment or whether they will put down deeper roots in promise of a political realignment.

Paul Kelly is Editor-at-Large on The Australian. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of the paper and he writes on Australian politics, public policy and international affairs.

Is teal the real deal? It’s not just the right facing a shake-up 

Mark Sawyer, 26th April 2022

Decapitating the Liberals, eliminating the Nationals from the councils of state: what’s not to like for progressive voters about the strong push by the climate independents at the May 21 federal election? Apart from the fact that they are pushing Labor where it cannot realistically go and eating the Greens’ lunch, quite a lot. Mark Sawyer looks at the progressive case against the independents  associated with Simon Holmes a Court’s Climate 200 political lobby, and the Voices Of movement?

One of the big pitches of this movement is that these candidates, if elected to Parliament, will vote not on the party line, but consider every issue on its merits and in keeping with the wishes of their electorates. And while it’s an uncomfortable comparison to make, that’s exactly what Manchin and Sinema are doing.

It’s not the thing the rising independents have in common with those so-called enemies of progressive policy.

It’s not only the right under threat

A lot of the attention surrounding the independents standing at the May 21 federal election has come from the right. Not surprisingly since they are a threat to the Liberals. Why would Labor get in the way – the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Smarter heads on the progressive side of politics are likely to be looking a bit further. They know the short-term gain of putting Liberal MPs to the sword could lead to long-term pain.

For a start, there are elements of the progressive agenda that are neatly suppressed by the Independents. Redistributive policies on private schools, taxes, negative gearing  and franking credits are not a priority. In 2019 successful independent candidate Zali Steggall pledged to oppose any Labor government action on these issues. They are absent from the Labor agenda in 2022.

The most progressive of the mass-membership parties, the Greens, have switched focus to the Senate as the independent push diminishes their chances of adding to their one MP in the House of Representatives.

The Greens have their dossier of House votes by independents in favour of Stage 3 tax cuts for the wealthy and reforms which effectively restricted class actions against companies. Party hard-heads are making the best of the rise of the green-tinged independents whose economic stance is anathema to them.

As a senior Greens figure, who asked to be not named, put it: “We are glad they are there. We are all for it. They are stealing some of our funding – but that’s not our money anyway – and some of our voter base but they are on the same platform on climate and integrity.

“What we are most worried about is that they are against reform to the tax cuts.

“We still prefer them to LNP any day of the week but they will still pursue an inequality agenda whenever they get the chance.’’

Has the party system run its course?

Then there is the delegitimising of political parties as a vehicle for beneficial change. The Greens have derided the ‘’old parties’’. The independents shove them aside. The latter candidates refuse to answer direct questions about who they would support – Coalition or Labor – in the event of a hung parliament.

Their stance is dictated by the need to maximise support in traditionally conservative electorates. Partly this is because it has proved impossible for candidates to state clearly who they would support in the event of a hung parliament, knowing that most of their supporters want Labor and yet such an admission would open them to claims by the Liberals that they are captive to the left.

Better to argue that the party system has run its course. The future is not only female (in the case of almost all the candidates), but independent. The cause has been helped by the narrative that political parties are toxic places for women, full of bullying, assaults, cover-ups, sexism and even mean girls picking on other women.

But there’s a less comforting side to this individualistic vision. Collectivism is one of the keystones of progressive politics. ‘’Better together; stronger together’’ and all that. ‘’The people united, will never be defeated.’’ Now we are being told to trust the vision of one gifted individual, generally someone who has excelled in elite sport, the corporate world (such progressive beacons as McKinsey is on one CV), medicine and charitable activities. Calling Ayn Rand, it’s Margaret Thatcher on the line.

No person is an island and of course the independents have their networks and their supporters. And their big four pledges (climate, integrity, fiscal discipline and treatment of women) do chime with the interests of their electorate. But there are other issues.

As that previously quoted Greens operative puts it:

“They have to look after wealth, we get that.’’

A government of independents would be an unwieldy beast

Another little examined aspect of the independent push is the difficulties a big bloc of independents would experience and present under the current system.

Nobody reading this article needs to be told that the system expects MPs to form a government, not a ginger group. Over time, the system has demonstrated that political parties are the best way to form a government. And that’s the case even in Australia, where our constitution does not mention parties. The executive is formed from the legislature. The prime minister and other ministers have to be members of parliament.

A parliament of independents could only work in Australia if we separated the executive from the parliament, as in the US and France.

The last time Australians supported a referendum proposal, three propositions were adopted. One was designed to ensure that in the event of any vacancy in the Senate, a person from the former senator’s political party be appointed. The people agreed, in effect, that no independent  could replace an elected member of a party if a Senate vacancy arose. The referendum was held 45 years ago on May 21, this year’s election day.

Our parliamentary system is representative democracy, not participatory democracy. And in the chamber, it is that MP alone, voting on government and opposition bills, setting the laws of our nation. An individual, thinking for himself or herself – like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. When it comes to a vote in parliament, it can’t be argued that every independent is at the top of a tree made up of grassroots supporters.

It’s not so simple with Simon

Which brings us to Simon Holmes à Court, convenor of Climate 200. Wherever he has made the money he is bestowing on the independents via Climate 200, well, it’s his money and he can do what he likes. And despite attempts by Liberals such as Warren Mundine to make the link, he’s not the Clive Palmer of the left.

But even in the softest interviews, this seemingly reluctant svengali leaves the impression something’s not right. It’s not just tendentious claims that Coalition MPs take their seats for granted (would that be true of any?), or statements that, with just one word change, would be racist or sexist: ‘’There are enough white men in Parliament, we don’t need any more.’’ (And in an era that rightly emphasises diversity in all aspects of society, the diversity presented by the climate independents is something readers can make up their own mind about).

Take the issue of a possible hung parliament and the question of who the independents would support. Interviewers allow Holmes à Court to claim that the Liberals are already in a minority government because of their coalition with the Nationals. Other candidates may be running that line, certainly Zoe Daniel (Goldstein) has said it.

It is political sophistry to match Clive Palmer’s claim that his United Australia Party is the same party that provided two prime ministers in the 1930s. The Liberals and Nationals are in a formal coalition that has been presented, explicitly, to the voters in advance of every election since World War II (except in 1987). The media should challenge the false claim that the Liberals are in a minority government. Hating the Nationals is one thing for a progressive, but to blot out the choices of 16 electorates is anti-democratic.

Holmes à Court hasn’t told us the public would happen to any erring candidate who deviated from the path, who voted in opposition to their colleagues, or gave the government a vital vote, in other words, did a Joe Manchin.

In the end we are left with a Mr Moneybags doing his small bit for a bunch of aspiring parliamentarians. Now there’s a new way of doing things!

Blue-sky thinking: just the fun bits

It seems clear that ‘’Community Independents’’ have a program that cherry-picks the fun bits of the progressive agenda.

Labor accepts that fossil fuels still have a place on the energy grid and as export income. Labor’s man-mountain candidate for Hunter (NSW), Daniel Repacholi, isn’t talking about getting out of coal in a hurry. Labor makes its spokespeople sit on the ducking chair of progressive opinion and defend the continued association with fossil fuels and that emissions target that is more modest than the one the voters rejected in 2019.

Climate change and energy spokesman Chris Bowen battled gamely on the ABC’s Q+A (April 14) but the deck was stacked. It’s easier to shout ‘’no brainer’’ and soak up the applause when calling for an end to the use and export of fossil fuels than get down into the difficult details.

The tough part (raising the money) is left aside. The Greens state they’ll make billionaires pay for their program. The independents don’t even give us that level of complexity. Take Georgia Steele in Hughes (NSW).

Like the fellow independents, Steele’s key planks are, as described on her website: Taking action on climate change; Integrity in politics; Building a robust, sustainable economy; Working towards a more equitable Australia. Opening up any of those topics gets a few extras, such as support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, help for small business in recovery from the pandemic, truth in political advertising, enshrining a First Nations voice in the Constitution. Stuff Labor would do (minus the subjectivity quagmire of truth in advertising).

Steele’s policy states: ‘’Long term (but starting immediately), we need to transition the economy from one reliant on fossil fuels to one with renewable energy at its centre.

‘’The opportunities here are endless, and the Government needs to recognise and run with them. Maintaining a strong economy is key to a bright future for all.’’

Blue-sky thinking without any sharp edges, such as maintaining the level of exports that underpin the economy. In other words, the perfect pitch.

The new populism

It is possible the Liberal Party could be destroyed by the independents if elected. The Coalition would be reduced to a right-wing rump. That’s the good news, right?

Maybe. But maybe, too, Labor would be sucked into the undertow. In the 1980s Labor decided it needed more than the politics of the ‘’warm inner glow’’ to make lasting changes to Australia. But now we seem to be seeing some sort of mass hypnosis, using key words of integrity, climate and equality, on environment-destroying posters in some of the most affluent places in the nation.

The idea that broad-based political parties are the healthiest thing for Australian democracy might sound hokey, but it is true. Broad-based parties gave us Medicare, the NDIS, anti-discrimination legislation – an endless list of civilising measures that have enhanced our democracy. Whether the independents make a better replacement to these mass movements, and whether they are the solution to the challenges facing the nation, is a question that should be posed by the progressive side of Australian politics.

In 2016, progressives were stunned by the election of Donald Trump and the victory of the Brexit forces in the UK referendum. Hot on the heels of those earthquakes came the victories of Bolsonaro in Brazil and Orban in Hungary, and the strong electoral showing of the right in France and Italy. Some analysts saw these events as the revolt of the masses against the elites. But more analysts, especially on the progressive side, saw populism triumphing over policy.

Now we have populism’s respectable cousin. This is not the ‘’populism’’ that has become a byword for toxic rabble-rousing. This is sane policymaking. We are being told that there is a voice of the people that should be directly transmitted through the parliamentary process. And we are being told that it can only be delivered by independents, not the political parties.

The Climate 200 and Voices Of movements make no bones that, beyond the implementation of a few key principles, the electorate comes first. These movements are focused on some of the wealthiest (and least ethnically diverse) electorates in the nation.

But that’s a story for another day.

The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism

Prologue

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathizer and fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely. Born in Moscow to a prominent communist family, his father disappeared into the Gulag. Young Tibor served in the Red Army, and he too was arrested and sent to a Labour camp. Rehabilitated, he served as Chancellor of Budapest University encore finally settling in the UK he taught me Russian politics at Reading University. He advised my to study with an open mind and to put off juvenile thinking. He hadn’t been well when I knew him and he died in 1972, a year after I graduated. Under his tuition, I’d resolved to specialize in Soviet Studies – but events intervened and I ended up in the Middle East (see: Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life).

I am recalling Tibor Szamuely today because he would always impress upon me the historical and political continuity of what he called The Russian Tradition – the title of his one and only book, published shortly before his death. He believed that the bloodstained drama of 1917 and the years that followed largely obscured the underlying consistency of Russian history. It is this basic pattern, circular and repetitive, that has seen the frequent turmoils that have overtaken this vast continent have in their various ways made changes that were essentially superficial, leading in the end to the intensification, under new forms, of the old authoritarian structure. From medieval times, autocracy has coexisted with a revolutionary traditionalism – a contradiction in terms as only Russia could sustain, a unique Russian capacity to seek revolution and discover regression, to invoke liberty merely to reinforce repression. if he were with us today, Szamuely would explain that the Soviet Union under Lenin and his successors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears so disconcertingly close  a resemblance to Russia under the most savage of its tsars.

It is a theme echoed recently by Russian scholar and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore who wrote recently about how on 17th March, Putin appeared to threaten his people with a revival of Stalin’s Great Terror that began in 1937 and in which 1 million people were shot over two-and-a-half years:

“He’s dog-whistling 1937, so that’s pretty scary and the reason he’s doing it is because he realises there’s opposition in the elite and among the populace.He used all these keywords: ‘traitors,’ ‘enemy of the people,’ ‘scum,’ ‘bastards,’ all of which were from the thirties, which a Russian would know he’s threatening massive repression in Russia. He’s literally putting the fear, an ancestral, terrifying fear into these people. People who would have heard of these stories from their old parents, and grandparents and great-grandparents about the time when people didn’t sleep at night, they kept a bag packed in case they were deported. People were never seen again. It was a terrifying speech in only a way the Russians would know.”

One nation under an Orthodox god

In That Howling Infinite’s last post, Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism, we wrote:

‘Observing Putin’s mystical nationalism, his idea of Ukraine as part of Russia’s “spiritual space” … American historian Victoria Smolkin argues that his imagination of Ukraine is a fantasy of a fallen empire, a fever dream of imperial restoration. “Undoubtedly, many still harbour fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, and it’s not politics. One can lament – as Putin does – that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “Utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History –  it is full of laments”.’

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,”

Fortress Russia This attitude also has profound roots in Russian history, especially the Russian belief that Orthodox Christianity is superior to the West’s liberalized Christianity, which Putin and other conservative Russians view as corrupted by Enlightenment ideas. In the early 19th century, the Russian answer to the French Revolution’s Enlightenment creed, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity), was “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”—which Sergey Uvarov, minister of public education to Tsar Nikolai I, formulated as the conceptual foundation of the Russian Empire. This tripartite credo isn’t mentioned in Putin’s speeches and writings—he still likes to pretend Russia is a democracy—but it has been invoked by the far-right thinkers said to influence Putin, including Aleksandr Dugin, Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy, and others dating back 200 years.

It is a sense that goes back centuries: In order to survive, you need strategic depth, so you need to push borders out as far away from the heartland as possible—not so much physical as geopolitical barriers. You just push until you meet something that can resist you.”

It is little understood by many Westerners that Russian literary figures they revere, such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were also devotees of this idea of a “greater Russia” under an absolute autocrat. Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author best known for writings that exposed the horrors of the Soviet gulag, later became one of Putin’s favorite intellectuals. Before his 2008 death, Solzhenitsyn wrote in an essay: “All the talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century and possessing its own non-Russian language is recently invented falsehood.” Shortly before his death in 1881, Dostoevsky wrote: “To the people the Czar is the incarnation of themselves, their whole ideology, their hopes and beliefs.”

Many commentators on left and right are now pondering what they see as the inevitability of what is happening today in Ukraine, and several of them point to the malign influence of the man people are calling “Putin’s brain”, the nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin -a latter day Rasputin, indeed, although  Vladimir Putin is not as naive and dependent as the doomed Tsar Nikolai II, he is seemingly appearing to be as isolated – he is nobody’s puppet. David von Drehle wrote recently in the Washington Post: “A product of late-period Soviet decline, Dugin belongs to the long, dismal line of political theorists who invent a strong and glorious past — infused with mysticism and obedient to authority — to explain a failed present. The future lies in reclaiming this past from the liberal, commercial, cosmopolitan present (often represented by the Jewish people). Such thinkers had a heyday a century ago, in the European wreckage of World War I: Julius Evola, the mad monk of Italian fascism; Charles Maurras, the reactionary French nationalist; Charles Coughlin, the American radio ranter; and even the author of a German book called “Mein Kampf.”

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian and a committed Roman Catholic, wrote a very good piece not just discussing Dugin, but also, the long arm of Russian history and the depth of Russian culture, including not only those icons of the Russian literary cannon, but also, what he describes as the “self-obsessed and self-regarding Russian Orthodox Christianity”. It is, he says, “ a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But it’s view if the rest if Christianity is tied up in its tangles relationship with Russian nationalism”. Russia, he writes, considers itself as the third Rome, the true heir and successor to Rome and Byzantium, and the chaplain to the tsars.

I republish Sheridan’s article below, along with a piece from the eZine Foreign Policy by Michael Hersh, Putins Thousand Year War, which follows a similar historical track although with more emphasis on its present day geopolitical implications.

Both lead us back to Tibor Szamuely’s perspective that in Russia, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved

Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism; Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)  

Inside the twisted mind of Vladimir Putin

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian, 12th March 2022

Putin sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia.

Ukraine and Belarus are the absolute minimum Putin must reclaim for Russia

Is Vladimir Putin out of his mind? As their savage invasion of Ukraine began a third week, Russian forces deliberately bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in the southern city of Mariupol. Last week, they attacked a nuclear power plant. The Ukrainian government accuses Moscow of using illegal thermobaric bombs, vacuum bombs, which suck the oxygen even out of people’s lungs.

Evacuation routes for civilians fleeing the heavy fighting in Mariupol have been repeatedly agreed, then shelled when terrified women and children try to escape.

International sanctions have crippled the Russian economy, crashed the rouble, caused a flight of capital. Russian oligarchs have lost tens of billions of dollars. Civilised nations won’t let Russian planes enter their air space. Moscow has created the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II. US intelligence thinks Putin might be about to use chemical weapons.

On the battlefield, Russia’s forces have been humiliated by a much smaller, less well-equipped Ukrainian military enjoying overwhelming civilian support.

But Putin cannot afford to lose. In Russian history, losing a war normally leads to government collapse and often the ruler’s assassination. The Russian govern­ment is now a one-man show. All power resides in Putin, the most comprehensive personal dictatorship since Josef Stalin. Only Xi ­Jinping of China wields a similar degree of absolute control in a big nation.

Putin has re-established not the Cold War, but the pre-Cold War norm that major powers invade other nations for conquest and territory, and population. Putin has even threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

US senator Marco Rubio thinks Putin is deranged. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who met him many times, thinks he has changed. Previously, Putin was cool and calculated; now he’s erratic and delusional.

The televised kabuki performance Putin had his national security council put on, in which they all advised him to be tougher, from across a vast room (like Xi and ­Donald Trump, Putin is a germaphobe), not only looked weird but seemed false and clumsy, unlike most of Putin’s theatricality.

But this analysis is surely overdone. Putin has miscalculated in Ukraine. He thought his military stronger, Ukraine weaker, and the West more divided. But these are mistakes leaders, especially dictators who seldom get disagreeable advice, sometimes make. There is no reason to think Putin mad, even unbalanced. He’s always been a gambler. The next few weeks could be terrible, as the main military tactic left is simply to bomb and shell Ukrainian cities, repeatedly if not relentlessly, to cut off food, water and power, and effectively starve and murder the population into submission.

While Putin cannot afford to lose, perhaps he can compromise, using that word loosely, to describe a situation where he keeps a chunk of Ukraine but stops fighting. Putin is intensely unpredictable but he is not irrational and the Ukraine campaign lies at the very heart of his long-held ideological world view. It was predictable, and he himself often predicted it.

That world view is very particular and sees Russia as the centre of a Eurasian empire. It relies on a theory called Traditionalism, which rejects modernism and every aspect of Western liberalism, especially the West itself. This ideology is most clearly expressed in the writings of Aleksandr Dugin, who has prospered as a public sage under Putin. Dugin’s exotic views have earned him the label of Putin’s Rasputin (a mad mystic whose influence on the family of the last tsar, Nicholas II, was wholly baleful).

More of Dugin below, but Putin of course is nobody’s puppet and embodies many distinctive influences. Putin, now 69, was born in St Petersburg, studied law and went into the KGB. He rose to lieutenant-colonel and served in East Germany.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin became active in St Petersburg politics. He has said the chief lesson he learnt there was that if there’s going to be a fight, make sure you hit first.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

He was briefly in charge of intelligence services, then rose like a rocket to become prime minister, then president. He has been the boss of Russia for 20 years. That brings its own psychological baggage. Democratic leaders have told me they think people go a bit mad if they stay in the top job too long. That’s particularly so for dictators. As they grow older they seek a special place in history and become ever more paranoid. Numerous tsars were killed by ambitious rivals. Putin has no obvious succession plan. He has two daughters and may have a couple of sons, but none is involved in Russian politics or public life.

Putin is careful to look after his personal security detail. A number have become very wealthy. But the isolation, the gnawing paranoia, the eschatological date with history, these are the dark and lonely reaches of absolute power, which no human being is meant for.

Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He was an orthodox communist, but this expresses nostalgia not for communism, which Putin routinely criticises or dismisses these days, but rather for the Russian empire embodied in the Soviet Union.

Dugin is an important expression of the dominant ideology of the Putin era, but Putin emerges out of a much broader tradition. That is the long history, the dark forest, of Russian nationalism and cultural hubris.

Russia is a paradox because it is indeed one of the greatest cultures. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were perhaps the supreme novelists in any language. Life could not be complete without the melancholy sweetness of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Thief, a film made in Russia’s brief post-­communist freedom, surely rates among the finest of all films.

But this culture is also self-­obsessed and self-regarding. Russian Orthodox Christianity is a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But its view of the rest of Christianity is tied up in its tangled relationship with Russian nationalism.

It considers itself the third Rome, and the true Rome. After the fall of Rome, in this view, Christianity was carried on in the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the second Rome. Now Moscow is Byzantine’s rightful heir, the third Rome, the true Rome. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church has also always been the tsar’s chaplain.

Putin is much more a modern tsar than a modern communist like China’s Xi.

The tsars themselves, both the occasional liberal reformers and the aloof autocrats, resided at the heart of Russian cultural self-obsession and hostility to the West.

Dostoevsky was the supreme Christian novelist of the 19th century. His Christian vision was transcendent, at times sublime. The most Christ-like character in all Dostoevsky’s novels, Prince Myshkin, surely gives expression to Dostoevsky’s own views when he declares: “Our Christ must shine forth in opposition to the West … Catholicism is no more than an unchristian faith, it is not a faith but a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire.”

That last is an astonishing comment, given that the Holy Roman Empire hadn’t by then (1869) been powerful for hundreds of years. But that paranoid style, retaining grievance over hundreds of years, seeing enemies where none exist, that is characteristic of Russian culture both at the elite and the popular levels.

These qualities animate the mind of Vladimir Putin. He must have espoused atheism when a KGB colonel, but since ruling ­Russia he funds the Russian Orthodox Church and is happy to be filmed participating in its services on feast days.

Putin is said to own luxury yachts and enjoy living very well. But the Russian population never sees any debauchery from him. He is proud of his physical fitness and his private life is entirely private.

Putin may or may not hold any religious belief himself but he is in many ways a traditional tsarist leader. This tradition pays no lip service to Western liberalism.

I attended a lunch with Putin at the Sydney APEC summit in 2007. He told a long, and it must be said very funny, joke about what a fool Alexander Kerensky was. Kerensky was the social democrat leader the Russian communists deposed in 1917. Kerensky lived for a time in Brisbane in the 1940s. What Putin thought bizarre was that he formed a romantic liaison with a journalist. Putin thought this contemptible, grotesque, in any political leader. Putin went on and on about it. At the time it seemed funny enough, but odd. Looking back, I can’t imagine any other leader behaving that way.

Most dictators would ignore the press, democrats would celebrate it or josh it or whinge about it. Dictators pretending to be democrats would pretend to tolerate the media. Putin was none of those things. In expressing contempt for the press, in this case humorously, he was giving an early sign of the contempt in which he held all the norms of Western liberalism.

There is no better insight into the strategic mind of Putin than the book (which admittedly has a pretty wordy title): The American Empire Should be Destroyed – ­Aleksandr Dugin and the Perils of Immanentized Eschatology, by James Heiser, a Lutheran bishop in the US.

Dugin is a Russian political activist, university professor, prolific author and public commentator of great note. He has been a formal and informal adviser to several figures in the Russian leadership. Some of the things he says are truly bizarre and Putin doesn’t repeat those. But there is a deep continuity and overlap between Dugin’s writings and Putin’s recent long essay on why Russia and Ukraine are the one people, the one “spiritual space”.

There is no way Dugin could be as prominent as he is if Putin didn’t approve, and there is ample evidence that Putin, whom Dugin supports with wild enthusiasm, takes Dugin very seriously.

Dugin has written many books, but changed his fundamental views little over the years. A typical Dugin passage reads: “When there is only one power which decides who is right and who is wrong, and who should be punished and who not, we have a form of global dictatorship. This is not acceptable. Therefore, we should fight against it. If someone deprives us of our freedom, we have to react. And we will react. The American Empire should be destroyed. And at one point, it will be. Spiritually, globalisation is the creation of a grand parody, the kingdom of the Antichrist. And the United States is the centre of its expansion.”

For a time, Dugin was an anti-communist but he came to support the Soviet Union not long before it collapsed. He also sees good in Nazism, especially its paganism and its rejection of modernity, though of course he condemns its wildest excesses and certainly its war against Russia. Like many Nazis, he is obsessed with the occult.

People walk past a stencil painting depicting Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on a building in downtown Podgorica. Picture: AFP

People walk past a stencil painting of President Volodymyr Zelensky in Podgorica. AFP

He believes Russia is protected by a specific good angel, that every nation has its assigned angel. Russia’s angel is at war with the West’s angel.

Dugin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church but has a very eccentric view of Christianity. He embraces Traditionalism, which he holds shows that traditional human life, which is decent and good, comes from primordial traditions which pre-date modernism, which is evil. He has a pretty arbitrary selection of some religions as OK – Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and a few others – and some as fraudulent and twisted, especially Catholicism and Protestantism.

He believes the good religions can all live side-by-side. More than that, he thinks all Russians are automatically Russian Orthodox. It doesn’t matter whether they go to church or not. The church is a kind of accompanying minor theme in the symphony of Russian nationalism. This ideology is immensely chauvinist, but not exactly racist. A nation is defined by cultural unity rather than race.

One of the things Dugin hates most about the West is its stress on individual rights. Peoples have rights, in Dugin’s view, but individual people do not. The society has rights; individuals do not have rights.

Dugin glorifies violence and the violent assertion of culture and national destiny.

Dugin also espouses the long-held Russian doctrine of Eurasianism. He sees the Eurasian culture as land-based, wholesome and good, and the Atlantic culture as sea-based, decadent and corrupt. He erects an enormous theological and philosophical sub-structure behind all this, but the bottom line is that Moscow should rule a Eurasian empire running from Western Europe all the way through central Asia and beyond.

The aftermath of Russian army bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine.

The aftermath of Russian  bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol

Putin, following Dugin but also of course interpreting him freely, sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia. Their addition would make Russia a nation of 200 million, and an even more vast geographical behemoth. Putin sometimes calls his opponents Nazis, as he grotesquely labels the Jewish President of Ukraine, but Putin has himself become a hero for the far right in the West. The right is always inclined to fall for a strongman leader. Putin funds, and thereby compromises and corrupts, the Russian Orthodox Church. He despises Western liberalism, the failings of which also distress Western conservatives. Putin promotes traditional values, as Dugin also claims to do within his bizarre world view. So before invading Ukraine, Putin had a lot of fans on the far right.

Dugin’s writings are a rich and weird compendium of often frightening conspiracies and speculations and they certainly exist at the extremes of Russian nationalism. There are countless milder versions than Dugin.

But the final element of Dugin’s theories which ought to give concern is his conviction that these are the “end days” and that a mighty battle between Russian Eurasia and the vile West is at hand. Putin is much smarter and more practical than Dugin. But this ideological impulse – to hate the West, to see anti-Russian conspiracies everywhere, to reclaim territory for Russia and favour violence – are all evident in the mind and actions of the Russian leader.

As Dugin says, chaos can think.

Putin’s Thousand-Year War

Michael Hersh, Foreign Policy, March 12th 2022

Whether or not Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ends any time soon, what is certain to continue is the Russian president’s abiding hatred and mistrust of the United States and other Western powers, which he believes left him no choice but to launch an unprovoked war.

It’s not just Putin. These views are shared by the many Russian elites who have supported him for two decades. They have also been a chief reason for Putin’s domestic popularity—at least until recently, when his invasion ran into fierce resistance—even as he has turned himself into a dictator and Russia into a nearly totalitarian state reminiscent of the Soviet Union at its worst. It is an enmity worth probing in depth, if only to understand why Washington and the West almost certainly face another “long twilight struggle” with Moscow—in former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s words—rivaling the 45-year Cold War.

The Russian president’s enduring antagonism toward the West is a complex tale, one compounded of Putin’s 69-year-old personal history as a child of World War II and career Soviet spy as well as the tangled, thousand-year history of Russia itself—or at least Putin’s reading of it. At the bottom, Putin and the many right-leaning Russian officials, elites, and scholars who support him not only don’t want to be part of the West and its postwar liberal value system but believe their country’s destiny is to be a great-power bulwark against it.

Even if Putin is somehow ousted from power, the generals and security mandarins who surround him are just as vested in his aggression as he is. And already, Russia is almost as isolated economically as it was during the Soviet era.

Indeed, Putin may have been preparing for this moment longer than people realize: After the Russian leader annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin’s longtime ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, wrote that it would mark “the end of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the cessation of repeated and fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization.” Surkov predicted that Russia would exist in geopolitical solitude for at least the next hundred years.

“Putin has no path back,” said Anna Ohanyan, a political scientist at Stonehill College and the author of several books on Russia. Like other Russia experts, Ohanyan believed at one point during Putin’s 20 years in power that he was seeking a way to wield Russian influence within the institutions of the international system while trying to build new, countervailing ones, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Now most of those initiatives have turned to ashes. “By challenging territorial norms, he’s throwing out the prospect of the path he’s been building,” she said.

Biden administration officials are still grappling with the implications of the new long-term struggle. To do so, they have already delayed publishing their new national security strategy slated for the spring. While the administration expects to maintain its Indo-Pacific focus, officials say Putin’s aggression is leading to much more intensive effort to pursue what was already one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s key goals: the revitalization of NATO and the Western alliance, especially the new militarization of major European Union nations such as Germany, which hitherto had been reluctant to play a leading defense role.

Ukraine became the touchstone of Putin’s anti-Western attitudes in large part because the Russian leader and his supporters saw their historical brother nation as the last red line in a long series of Western humiliations. Putin, in his speeches, has repeatedly called this the West’s “anti-Russia project.” These perceived humiliations go back a long, long way—not just in the 30 years since the Cold War ended, nor even in the 100 years since the Soviet Union was formed in 1922. They reach all the way back to the European Enlightenment of more than three centuries ago, which gave rise to liberty, democracy, and human rights. To Russian nationalists like Putin, these developments have gradually come to eclipse Russia’s distinct character as a civilization.

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

Some scholars believe this obsession with long-ago history is why Putin, who during his two decades in power was often thought to be a wily and restrained tactician, made the biggest miscalculation of his career in invading Ukraine. In doing so, he united, in one reckless move, the Ukrainians and the Europeans as well as the rest of the world against him. “He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,” said Peter Eltsov, a professor at National Defense University and author of the new book The Long Telegram 2.0: A Neo-Kennanite Approach to Russia. “He also killed all the progress he was making in dividing Europe. Even Finland and Sweden, which had been neutral, are now talking about joining NATO. He achieved the 100 percent opposite result of what he wanted.”

Statue of Archangel Michael on the Lach Gates at Kyiv’s Independence Square

Menzie’s Excellent Suez Adventure

Many historians claim that the Suez Crisis of late 1956 was the end of the beginning of Britain’s retreat from Empire and its decline as a Great Power. Britain’s divestment of its non-Anglo-Celtic empire began with its withdrawn from Palestine and the independence of India in 1947 and 1948 and proceeded apace through the sixties and seventies until today when but a handful of dependencies remain.

Why Britain reacted as it did to the rise of Gamal Abd al Nasser and his seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956 has long fascinated scholars. Watching ‘The Crown’, recently, and its portrayal of Sir Anthony Eden, and recalling Dennis Potter’s marvelously surreal take on the Suez Crisis in ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’, I discovered one possible explanation (though It doesn’t quite explain the decision of France and Israel to join Britain’s last imperial adventure). 

The Suez Crisis had far-reaching consequences – though none as catastrophic on a political and human scale as when Britain and Australia joined America’s Iraq crusade in 2003. The humiliating withdrawal from Suez accelerated Britain’s slow decline from “great power” status, and the US’ steady ascent to world leadership. It was the harbinger of the end of an empire on which the sun never set. It burnished Nasser’s revolutionary credentials and gave rise to an anti-western, secular, and socialist Arab nationalism that challenged and, in many countries, toppled the established order in the Middle East. It led, in a short time, to the rise of the Ba’ath regimes in Syria and Iraq, which, it can be argued, set these countries on the road to ruin half a century later. And what might have been the consequences for Eastern Europe is “the West” had not been so distracted on the canal during Hungary’s quixotic revolution and its brutal suppression by the Soviet Union.

The Suez Crisis in brief

The Suez Crisis came to a boil with what Arabs called the Tripartite Aggression, and Israelis, the Sinai War. Historians refer to it as the Second Arab–Israeli war –  between the war that commenced with the conclusion of Britain’s mandate over Palestine, and ended with the establishment of the state of Israel and expulsion of over a quarter of a million Arabs from within the battle-won borders of the new state, and the Six Day War which has changed utterly Israel’s geography, politics, culture, society, identity and international standing.

It commenced with an invasion of Egypt in October 1956 by Israel, followed immediately by the United Kingdom and France. The aims were to regain control the Suez Canal a majority British owned strategic international waterway for the Western nations who depended upon it their oceanic commerce, and also, to remove Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had just nationalized the foreign-owned Suez Canal Company, which administered the canal. After the fighting had started, political pressure from the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Nations led to a withdrawal by the three invaders. It humiliated the United Kingdom and France and enhanced the reputation of Nasser. Although the three allies had attained a number of their military objectives, the Egyptians scuppered forty ships in the canal rendering it useless. As a result of the conflict, the United Nations created the UNEF Peacekeepers to police the Egyptian–Israeli border, British prime minister Anthony Eden resigned, and the Soviet Union, taking advantage may have been emboldened to invade Hungary.  

Fun in the sun

As with all international conflicts, the causes are much more complex than the actual casus belli that precipitate it, and beyond the intention and scope of this article.  Issues geopolitical, strategic, tactical, historical, cultural and indeed, psychological proliferated, aggregated and aggravated, converging on one or more ignition points. The Cold War, the rise of Arab nationalism, the Arab Israeli conflict, the decline of the British Empire and Britain’s need to hang onto its status as a world power, and the personalities of the players, particularly the Egyptian leader and the British prime minister.

Sir Anthony greets his troops

And into this complex and volatile maze stepped longtime Australian Prime Minister monarchist and empire loyalist Sir Robert Menzies.

But first …

The view from Down Under 

When many British folk of a certain age remember the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956, they think of the “ Gyppos”, the jumped-up Arabs who defied then embarrassed Great Britain, brought down a prime minister, and dropped the curtain on the empire on which the sun never set. They might also at a stretch imaging a connection from this to Dodi al Fayyad and his dad, Muhammad, the one time owner of Harrods and the creator of that infamous shrine to his lad and the people’s princess who both perished in the Paris car crash that launched a thousand conspiracy theories – one of which was the the establishment’s fear that Diana would would bring forth an Egyptian baby.

As a youngster in Birmingham, the events in Egypt passed me by – I was however quite excited by the revolution in Hungary and the Soviet invasion that followed soon afterwards, and would spend hours drawing pictures of street battles, of tanks and fighters and security services men strung up on lampposts. But many young men doing their compulsory national service, including the sons and brothers of my friends and relatives, were fearful of being sent off to a foreign war, the last one being barely over a decade. This anxiety, and also the imperial angst of crusty ex-army civil servants, is beautifully portrayed in Dennis Potter’s brilliant Lipstick On Your Collar, and also the very commendable drama series The Hour. I have friends and acquaintances of British, Italian, Maltese and French descent who had been born in Egypt but had to leave with their families in during and after the crisis as the Egyptian government, vindictive in its victory, showed them the door.

When Aussies remember the Crisis – well, probably very few do. But way back then, in the days of the White Australia Policy (yes, we really did have that) and the early closing Six O’clock Swill (and yes, we had that too!), apart from many former soldiers who had memories of Egypt in both world wars, we just got on with the matters that preoccupied us in a year that Australian academic and author Hugh Richardson recounts in his highly informative and very entertaining 1956 – the year Australia welcomed the world. Richardson recreates the events of the year surrounding the Melbourne Olympics of November and December 1956,  including the introduction of television in Australia, the arrival of Rock Around the Clock, the British nuclear test in the South Australian outback, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and immediately before it, the Suez debacle.

Nowadays, many commentators and writers looking back on the fifties paint Australia as an insular, inward-focusing and churlish nation which many now internationally famous Australian abandoned for greener, more cerebral and creative British pastures. Richardson acknowledges this too, but contends that the country was in fact changing, in the early stages of our development into the worldly-wise, technologically connected, creative, cosmopolitan and multicultural nation that we imagine ourselves to be today. Undoubtedly, we are, but some disreputable skeletons still rattle around at the back of our national cupboard and sometimes fall out into the public space to the embarrassment of ourselves and the discomfort of our friends and neighbours.

This is not to say that Australia was detached from world affairs. Our innate conservatism, and religiosity, a traditionally strong emotional attachment to Great Britain, the homeland of most immigrants to Australia in the since the days of the first settlement, and a firm commitment to our alliance with the UK and the US, saw us drawn into the mindsets and machinations of the Cold War.

We signed up for the United Nation’s euphemistically termed “police action” in Korea, a war that concluded with a forever armistice, and contributed troops to the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party, from 1948 to 1960 in today’s Malaysia and Singapore. Australia’s commitment lasted 13 years, between 1950 and 1963 and until Vietnam and Afghanistan, was the longest continuous military commitment in our history.

 On the home front, Robert Menzies endeavoured to ban the Communist Party in an Antipodean echo of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition in America. There were other similarities with the USA as an adolescent ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Agency, encouraged dobbers and snitches to shop their neighbours and colleagues. The actual extent and effectiveness of this is unknown to this day. The Labor Party fractured as fervent anti-communist Catholics walked out to establish the Democratic Labor Party, a rift than kept Labor in the political wilderness where it had  … for a  further sixteen years. And in April 1954, Vladimir Petrov, a Soviet security officer in the Canberra embassy defected to the West with his reluctant, patriotic wife, Evdokia, a valued cryptographer at the embassy, much to the ire of Comrade Khrushchev. In 1956, therefore, Australia was very much on the radar of what President Robert Reagan would later call The Evil Empire.

When Robert met Gamal

In Richardson’s narrative, it appears that unbeknownst to the ordinary man or woman on the Bondi bus, Australia played a significant role in the Suez Crisis, and indeed,  there might’ve been a fair chance that our government would have volunteered our soldiers to join the party, much as we’d answered the old country’s call oft times before. But, as far as we know, Britain never asked and Australia never offered. It would appear that longtime Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies main preoccupation that summer and fall was Britain’s imperial anguish, and how he might help assuage it.

The following narrative is quoted directly from Richardson’s book.

“During the build-up to the Crisis, British prime Minister Anthony Eden became consumed with an obsessional hatred for Nasser, and from March 1956 onward, was privately committed to the Nasser’s ousting. The American historian Donald Neff has written that Eden’s often hysterical and overwrought views towards Nasser almost certainly reflected the influence of the amphetamines to which he had had become addicted following a botched operation in 1953 together with the related effects of sustained sleep deprivation (Eden slept on average about 5 hours per night in early 1956).

Increasingly Nasser came to be viewed in British circles—and in particular by Eden—as a dictator, akin to Benito Mussolini. Ironically, in the buildup to the crisis, it was the actually the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and the left-leaning tabloid newspaper The Mirror that first made this comparison. . Anglo-Egyptian relations would continue on their downward spiral.

US President Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser

During World War II British prime minister Winston Churchill asked Anthony Eden who was foreign minister, to help him identify an appropriate candidate for to be minister of state in Cairo, Egypt. The position was strategically important because of the war in North Africa, but the candidate did not have to be British. Robert Menzies by this time had lost the prime ministership in Australia to John Curtin and was therefore able to be considered. He did not get the job. Eden actually even admitted later Menzies had not been accepted because “he probably would not get on with the people of of the Middle East, being a somewhat difficult person“. Now, Eden as British Prime Minister, was about to send Menzies on a far more difficult assignment.

Edens original observation was perhaps born out several years later when Menzies was in Cairo on a different mission – an international delegation sent to meet Colonel Nasser himself in an effort to persuade him that the canal to be placed under United Nations stewardship). “These Gyppos are dangerous lot of backward adolescents, full of self-importance and basic ignorance”, Menzies wrote in his diary. The attitude, not uncommon at the time, extended beyond the Egyptians. A former Australian High Commissioner to India Indonesia Italy and Kenya, Sir Walter Crocker, noted in 1955: “Menzies is anti-Asian; particularly anti-Indian… he just can’t help it”.

… While race proved challenging for Menzies, perhaps the more confronting charge was his apparent lack of curiosity about other nations, his unshakable faith in English superiority, and his lack of engagement with European languages.

Menzies believed that a strong response might be required to get Nasser to appreciate Britain’s point of view. Menzies was, in the public eye, a “Commonwealth man”. He had walked that stage, found a spot of obeisance near the crown, and felt like a valued elder statesman within the Commonwealth club of nations. But this mission to Egypt propelled him into a new kind of universe where the old verities no longer applied. He was about to embark on a delicate international mission of diplomacy, trying to negotiate with a new leader who was driven by forces Menzies could not fully comprehend, in a region about which had little interest ….

… Menzies had worked assiduously in London to get command of the brief for his mission. He and four advisors had nine meetings exploring the finances of the canal, and had spoken to the canal’s directors and even an engineer who was an expert in the area. Yet there was no discussion about the social and personal elements he needed to understand: why the Suez Canal was so important to the Egyptians, and why Nasser felt it now is the time to express his independence of thought and action.

The consequences of this shortsightedness became clear early on during Menzies meetings with Nasser. Menzies conducted the discussions like the barrister he once was, laying out the evidence, interrogating opinions, prosecuting a case, just as us Secretary of State Dulles had expected him to do. Nasser, Menzies confided to his staff, was naive and uncertain. Menzies believed he could influence him. Menzies base view was far less hospitable. He told Eden that Nasser was “in some ways a likable fellow but so far from being charming, he is rather gauche … I would say that he was a man of considerable but immature intelligence”. Menzies had more generalizations to make: “like many of these people in the Middle East (or even India) who I have met, his logic doesn’t travel very far; that is to say, he will produce a perfectly adequate minor premise , but his deduction will be astonishing”.

Nasser had his own description of Menzies – he was ‘a mule’.”

Coda – “I did but see her passing by …”

Robert Menzies love affair with Britain has opened him to posthumous ridicule in some quarters. Many would not know remember that in 1952, he  ordered charges against the communist journalists Rex Chiplin for criticizing the coronation. That came to nought but Chiplin was later hauled before the Royal Commission on Espionage (1954-55), a copycat version of Senator McCarthy’s Committee of in-American Activities

usually connected to his public comment during the visit of the young Queen Elizabeth and her consort to Australia in 1952 when quoting 17th century poet John Ford, he said: “I did but see her passing,  and yet I’ll love her ‘til I die”.

And yet, Sir Robert was not alone in his adulation. As the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on the fiftieth anniversary if the Royal tour:

“Royalty can have a strange effect on people who come into contact with it. It had an extraordinary effect on an estimated 7 million Australians who flocked to see the young Queen Elizabeth 50 years ago …The estimated figure was about 70 per cent of the Australian population of nearly 10 million. Nearly one million people were thought to have crowded Sydney’s foreshores and streets when the Queen arrived on February 3, when the city’s population was 1.8 million. About 150,000 crammed around Sydney Town Hall and neighbouring streets when she attended the Lord Mayor’s Ball. A newspaper reported that 2000 collapsed in the crush”.

Until the abolition of royal honours by the Whitlam Labor government of 1972-76, Australian worthies were rewards with British knighthoods and were also entitled to sit in the British House of Lords as life-peers. It was Menzies’ fervent wish that he be accorded that honour, and after his retirement in 1966, prime minister William McMahon endeavoured to grant it – but he lost office to Gough Whitlam before he could satisfy Sir Robert’s hearts desire.

Sir Robert Menzies, monarchist, Empire Royalist,and consummate politician kept his hand on the steering wheel of a conservative and complacent Australia from 1949 until his retirement in 1966. Some believe that it was a stultifying hand. Others praise him – and praise him still – him for upholding traditional Australian values, and keeping us relaxed, comfortable and prosperous. But in his influential 1964 book The Lucky Country, academic, social critic and public intellectual Donald Horne wrote: “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”. It wasn’t meant as a compliment.

But the times they were a’changin’. Political, cultural and social change was already in motion at the time of the Melbourne Olympics, and continued apace through the sixties, reaching top speed with the election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972.

I first arrived in Australia in December 1976 for a month’s vacation in my first wife’s home country, and immigrated a year later. Gough had gone by the time I landed, inauspiciously sacked by the Governor General at the instigation of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies’ creation. But the country that became my home of over forty years was no longer that of 1956. That past was, to quote the much-quoted LP Hartley, “another country”.

© Paul Hemphill 2022.  All rights reserved

For posts in In That Howling Infinite on the Middle East, see A Middle East Miscellany, on Australian history and politics, Down Under, and on history generally, Foggy Ruins of Time – from history’s pages.  

The ballad of ‘the Breaker’ – Australia’s Boer War

The Breaker Morant story is back in the news here in Australia with the investigation of our SAS for the unlawful killing and torturing of Afghanis.

Every once in a while, the matter of the trial and execution by firing squad of Harry “the Breaker” Morant for killing unarmed prisoners of war during the 19th Century fin de siecle Anglo-Boer War surfaces as his partisans push for a pardon. The war was Australian troops’ fourth overseas military adventure in the service of British Empire (the first was New Zealand’s Maori Wars, and later, in Sudan and during The Chinese Boxer Rebellion – with few engagements and no battle casualties (see Postscript below).

The argument goes like this: Lieutenants Harry Morant, an immigrant to Australia from Devon, England, and Peter Handcock, Australian born, were tried by a military court and executed unjustly as scapegoats of the British Empire. Some partisans are more nuanced. Celebrated lawyer and human rights advocate Geoffrey Robertson questions whether there was due legal process and not whether the two were guilty as charged.

The general consensus here in Australia, however, is that the two men received a fair trial (by martial law standards, that is ) and got what they deserved. It’s a similar “hero or villain” debate to that which has persisted for a century about our most famous bad guy,  bush ranger Ned Kelly. The consensus here too is that Ned received his just deserts for the shooting of the policemen at Stringybark Creek. As Ned said just before dropped through the trapdoor at Melbourne Gaol, “such is life”.

But back to “the Breaker”, Harry Morant, and the subject of the latest book from Australian author Peter FitzSimons, Breaker Morant. Morant earned his sobriquet for his superb horsemanship. Most folk know him only from Bruce Beresford’s excellent 1981 film, Breaker Morant and particularly, his famous last words: “Shoot straight, you Bastards! And don’t make a mess of it!”

Fitz is a “popular historian” and a fine storyteller – and Bob Dylan tragic (I once asked him to write a book about the Bobster, but he hedged with his answer). He has written prolifically on subjects as diverse as Captain Cook, the gruesome Batavia mutiny, and Ned Kelly, and particularly Australian military history, including books about Gallipoli, Pozières, Tobruk and Kokoda. He is an ardent republican, and that comes through strongly in his writing. He is excellent at drawing characters out of history and describing events in detail. I enjoy his tales very much, but I do not like his style – he writes in the vernacular, which is not a bad thing, but embroiders the story much to much, putting words into his historical characters’ mouths and retelling the event, be it a battle or a horse race, as if they were a contemporary action novel.

His Breaker Morant is true to form. Fitz bulls up his voluminous text with extraneous aphorisms and superfluous intrusions “of shreds and patches, of ballads, songs and snatches” (I can be as guilty as he) as if they were intrinsic to the narrative. And his sub-paragraph headings, employing puns and tabloid catchphrases seems to me as contrived and, well, naff.

He has little affection for his subject. “… that ragged, red faced charmer, the ever garrulous Breaker Morant” is introduced to us in the Australian bush as a Pommie, a compulsive liar and cheat, con-artist and impostor, faker and fantasist, one step ahead of creditors and the law. But man, he ride and shoot! There is no colt he cannot tame nor race or polo game he cannot win. And he can drink any man under the table.

Morant is a story teller non parièl – mostly about himself and his much embroidered exploits. He is able to impress and ingratiate himself upon people of all genders, classes and occupations, not the least, our celebrated poet lorikeet Henry “Banjo” Paterson. They bond over a shared accuity for penning bush ballads – and by the standards of that genre, The Breaker holds his own among Australian poets:

There was buckjumping blood in the brown gelding’s veins,
But, lean-headed, with iron-like pins,
Of Pyrrhus and Panic he’d plentiful strains,
All their virtues, and some of their sins.
‘Twas the pity, some said, that so shapely a colt
Fate should with such temper endow;
He would kick and would strike, he would buck and would bolt
Ah! – who’s riding brown Harlequin now?

From starlight to starlight – all day in between
The foam-flakes might fly from his bit,
But whatever the pace of the day’s work had been,
The brown gelding was eager and fit.
On the packhorse’s back they are fixing a load
Where the path climbs the hill’s gloomy brow;
They are mustering bullocks to send on the road,
But – who’s riding old Harlequin now?

Style aside, Fitz’s take on the Boer War is well researched, and his narrative is gripping and colourful in descriptions and language, and also characters. His is a cast of hundreds, including entertaining walk-on roles for the likes of young Winston  Churchill, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, and The Banjo, all of whom served as newspaper correspondents at one time or another during the conflict, and also, the celebrated Daisy Bates, remembered still for her work in remote indigenous communities, who was married to Harry for a short while up Queensland way until she tired of his drinking and gambling.

A dirty little war

The Anglo Boer War (October 1899 to May 1002), second of its name, was a dirty little war, fought for gold and diamonds and sold to the public throughout the empire as a “just war” to defend the interests of the non-Boer Uitlanders (‘outlanders’, who were predominantly British residents of the legitimate Boer republics) and to uphold Imperial honour (the Boers attacked first – a preemptive strike like Israel in 1967). Some sixty thousand Boers and their African auxiliaries (bribed or conscripted) faced off against six hundred thousand British and colonial soldiers, and again, African auxiliaries.

Most of the Imperial forces were British, including militias from Cape Colony and Natal, but Australians, Kiwis, Canadians, and Rhodesians served as eager volunteers in defense of the “home country”, and Indian soldiers were “volunteered” by the Raj, whilst indigenous people served as auxiliaries, and also as porters and servants who were often in the firing line. Mahatma Gandhi served as a stretcher bearer, again, in the line of fire, and established an “ambulance” service for the British army.

Boer (meaning “farmer”) is the common name for Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans descended from the Dutch East India Company’s’s original settlers at the Cape of Good Hope who adhered to the fundamentalist strictures of the Dutch Reformed Church.The Boer forces were citizen soldiers, but small numbers of Irish, Scots and English also served in the Boer commandos, and even some Americans and Frenchmen. Most were often long time settlers who fought to defend their farms and families and also, their country, and others were soldiers of fortune attracted by the Boers’ defense of their liberty.

The Imperial forces were commanded by the ageing but highly respected Lord Roberts, but operational command lay with General Kitchener, a man who was not averse to stringent measures and also to sacrificing his own men if it served his tactical or strategic purpose. Whilst he decreed that once a combatant had laid down his arms he was to be taken prisoner, his directive was sometimes ignored, as the tale of  The Breaker illustrated. In the conquest of the Sudan, Kitchener sanctioned cold-blooded murder of tens of thousands of captured and wounded mahdists in revenge for the death of General Gordon.

In his excellent Empire, economic historian Niall Ferguson’s has no kind words for Cecil Rhodes, who had an influential part to play in the events that led to the war, and he is quite iconoclastic with regard to imperial icons like Gordon, Kitchener and also, Baden Powell, the “hero of Mafeking” and subsequent founder of the Boy Scout Movement,  all of whom he characterizes as eccentric and potential nutcases. He likes Lawrence and Churchill, however, for all their faults, foibles and fables.

Once introduced in the opening chapter, the eponymous Breaker does does not figure prominently in the narrative until the second half of the book – the first half is taken up with the “formal” war – the military campaigns that conclude with the capture of the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria after the conquest and annexation of the independent Boer republics of The Orange Free Sate and Transvaal.

Thence follows the guerrilla war waged by the “bittereinders” that compelled Generals Roberts and Kitchener to resort to extreme measures to subdue the hold-out Boers, including a scorched-earth policy of demolition and confiscation, barbed wire and blockhouses, and herding civilians, including women and children into concentration camps – their African servants and workers were confined in separate camps. Thousands perished of starvation and disease.

Compelled by the inability of regular military Kitchener authorized the establishment of irregular formations to counter the Boer guerrillas with like-tactics – which is where colonial volunteers, like Harry Morant and his comrades, used to living in the saddle and off the land, came into their own. The latter part of the Boer war thus became one of the first instances of modern counterinsurgency operations, setting a president for further colonial wars – for example, the French in Indochina and Algeria, the British in Aden and Cyprus, and the Americans in Vietnam.

When Roberts returns home to retirement and his chief of staff assumes total command, Kitchener is implacable, vengeful and ruthless in his determination to bring in the bittereinders dead or alive, and to collectively punish their womenfolk and children and their African servants and field hands with the destruction of their livelihood and transportation to the camps outside the main towns. Captured combatants receive the punishment often meted out to rebels against the crown – they are transported – to India, Ceylon, Bermuda, and even Portugal and Madagascar – and ironically, St. Helena, the last exile of Napoleon Bonaparte. In their own way, the exiled Boers were the heirs of the Fenians and trade unionists who ended up in Australia where so many of Kitchener’s bushmen originated.

As peace talks were initiated and ended in stalemate, Kitchener dialed the brutality knob to full. He and his soldiers would refer to Kitchener’s “bag”, the tally of Boers killed or captured – a grim precursor to General William Westmoreland’s fixation with the “body count” during the Vietnam War.

Boers at rest

Boers in action

Dark deeds in a sunny land

Enter the infamous Bushveldt Carbineers. The recruiters were by now literally scraping the barrel; as FitzSimons puts it, “a motley crew, a mix of the old and the bold, the young and the desperate, and those with no better options than joining an outfit destined to be operating in such dangerous realms. No fewer than a third of the new recruits have no military experience whatsoever, and some have never even ridden a horse”. “Rangers, rogues and renegades”  and “the rough and the rowdy, the wild and the woolly, and sometimes the demonic and dangerously”, and whilst in the field, as often as not, drunk – both officers and men. And among them, down on his luck in England and almost destitute and desperate, Harry Morant.

In control though not in command is Captain Alfred Taylor, Intelligence Officer and District and Native Commissioner, known to the natives as “Bulala”, killer. A psychopath is on the loose, appointed and sanctioned by Kitchener himself, and he finds willing henchmen in recently promoted and opportunist Lieutenants Morant and Handcock.

Half way through the 500 page book, FitzSimons changes pace. What had up to now been a largely historical narrative interspersed with colourful and entertaining vignettes, becomes a tale of dark deeds in a sunny land.

As Fitz tells it, encouraged by the sinister Taylor, who believes the only good Boer is a dead one, an increasingly delusional and unhinged Morant and the psychotic Handcock embark on a murder spree. As Moran would admit to the court, “we got them and we shot them under Rule 303”, referencing the Lee Enfield, the standard-issue British Army rifle.

Based on transcripts of their subsequent trial and letters and memoirs of fellow carbineers, Fitz reconstructs the events that conclude with Morant’s downfall and death. Reluctant members of firing squads and outright refuseniks put together a dossier and petition detailing the cold-blooded murder of surrendered Boers, children, an unfortunate priest, and also, a carbineer who’d threatened to blow the whistle.

Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant and third from left with the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles during the Boer War, circa 1900. .

The book becomes a page-turner as the petition is dispatched up the chain of command, the prospects of a cover-up being high. But no. There are indeed men of integrity in higher command who will see justice done – not the least because they wish to see the dangerous Taylor removed. The more pragmatic view the alleged crimes as impediments to bringing the Boer leaders to the negotiating table.

But the outcome is far from certain. As court martial proceedings conclude and sentences are handed down, including an acquittal for the nefarious Taylor, and a recommendation for clemency by the court after it sentences Moran and Handcock to death for multiple murders – they were in a war zone and under serve strain and provocation after all – Kitchener refused. How could he enter the peace talks that would soon come if the killers were let off the hook?

He dies almost two years to the date of his landing in South Africa with the second Contingent

The war winds down 

By war’s end, Britain’s claims to moral supremacy, already questioned by its waging a war of aggression against two small states, was irreparably damaged. Public opinion which had in the beginning embraced jingoism and righteous anger, once informed of the true nature of the war by returning journalists and also soldiers’ letters, and fired up by clergymen and humanitarians, began to question the purpose and the morality of the war. In Australia, the new narrative was championed by none other than Banjo who had early on developed an admiration for the Boer fighters, likening them to the resilient and resourceful folk of the Australian bush.

Many consider the Boer War as marking the beginning of the questioning of the British Empire’s level of power and prosperity; this is due to the war’s surprisingly long duration and the unforeseen, discouraging losses suffered by the British fighting the Boer citizen soldiers; and repugnance with regard to the ruthless treatment of non-combatants. Many parts of occupied Boer republics with their burned farmsteads and plundered lands resembled more a desert than a once prosperous agrarian economy.

Not that the Boers were exemplars of moral rectitude by our enlightened twenty-first Century standards. Their’s was a conservative and indeed fundamentalist society that regarded the indigenous people as inferior and destined to serve their needs. The British regarded the Boers attitude towards the kaffirs as unacceptable – and yet they too regarded the indigenous Africans as their inferiors – but their’s was a righteous though none the less prejudiced and patronizing “white man’s burden” mentality that characterized Victorian Britons’ view of Empire.

By the end of 1901, the British are physically and morally exhausted. Attrition has turned to atrophy. Kitchener craved an end to the conflict. “I wish I could find some way of finishing this war”, he writes to the Secretary of State for War. Especially now that it is is believed that ordered the execution of Boer prisoners “found in khaki” – wearing items of British uniform.

And so it comes to pass that two months after Morant and Handcock are laid in their un-shared un-hallowed grave, the Boer leadership, wanted to end the devastation and human misery, and the British unable to go forward of back, agree to terms, including ceding Boer sovereignty to Britain, an amnesty for all combatants, the return of the far-flung  transportees, and the emptying of the camps.

At the end of the day, after twenty months of conflict, some twenty two thousand British forces soldiers perished, whilst five thousand were sick and wounded.  Six thousand Boers were killed and twenty four thousand captured whilst twenty one thousand bittereinders surrendered. There were over forty six thousand civilian fatalities, and of 115,000 people incarcerated in concentration camps, twenty seven thousand women and children died, and twenty thousand Africans. Thirty thousand Boer homesteads had been destroyed and tens of thousand of those of Africans, and forty towns had been razed.

By 1910, the Dominion on South Africa had been established with English  and Afrikaans as its co-equal languages. The next stage of South Africa’s eventful history had begun.

Butchered To Make A Dutchman’s Holiday

-In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit- A little bit – unhappy!
It really ain’t the place nor time To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!
No matter what ‘end’ they decide – Quick-lime or ‘b’iling ile,’ sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified To finish off in style, sir!
But we bequeath a parting tip For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship To polish off the Dutchmen!
If you encounter any Boers You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores, For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!
And if you’d earn a D.S.O., Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go Is: ‘ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!’
Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, – Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: ‘The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.’
At its end the manuscript is described –
The Last Rhyme and Testament of Tony Lumpkin

Postscript – Australia’s 19th century wars

Between 1845 and 1872 just over 2,500 Australian volunteers saw service in New Zealand during the wars between the Maori and Pakeha (white colonists) over the ownership of Maori lands. Though Australian born, troops all served in British regiments. The majority of these volunteers came from the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

In the early 1880s the British-backed Egyptian regime in the Sudan came under threat from local supporters of Muhammed Ahmed, also known as the Mahdi. In 1883 the Egyptian government was sent south to crush the revolt but instead of destroying the Mahdi’s forces, the Egyptians were soundly defeated. On March 29, 1885 a New South Wales contingent, an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, totalling 758 men. arrived in Sudan, It spent three months there  with no major engagements or battle casualties. there were three wounded soldiers and seven deaths from fever or dysentery.

In 1900, a contingent of mainly naval reservists was sent to China to restore order after the Boxer Rebellion. It didn’t take part in fighting and there were no battle casualties. The few fatalities were from disease.  The first Australian contingents, mostly naval reservists from New South Wales and Victoria, sailed in August 1900. Australian personnel sent to northern China were not engaged in combat. Six Australian’s died of sickness and injury and none were killed as a result of enemy action.


Read more about Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite: Down Under ; and British history in Foggy Ruins of Time

Many Australians past and present view Harry Morant as harshly dealt with, a  folkloric antihero  sacrificed on the alter of empire, as the following article by Fitz himself explains. But first, a word from an Australian country music icon.

They still sanctify the monster Breaker Morant – and insult the true heroes

Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald,  September 14, 2021 

Edward Woodward as Breaker Morant

 The idea that Breaker Morant should be given a posthumous pardon is a persistent one, as is the idea that he should have his name added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide – the latter idea getting a new lease of life in a strong article published in The Advertiser in Adelaide on Saturday.

For the legend is a beauty: Breaker Morant was a Man From Snowy River in Australian uniform: a brilliant horseman, soldier and bush poet who was cruelly put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards, merely for following their orders.

Yes. So strong and seductive that the article in the ’Tiser records that 70 per cent of their respondents are in favour of Morant’s name being added to the Boer War Memorial. In terms of iconic status, it is of the ilk of the Anzac legend that Education Minister Alan Tudge is insistent must not be questioned in any way in the national history curriculum. As Tudge said last week, the Anzac legend is “not going to be a contested idea on my watch”.

But, based on the book I wrote on Morant, with the help of strong researchers who were able to dig fine detail, let’s contest the Morant legend and look at just one episode of his war career, this one while commanding the roving unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, in the latter part of the Boer War. The first thing to note is that rather than being Australian, Morant was English and had joined the war effort from Australia after being here for a couple of decades – while the Bushveldt Carbineers was a wholly British unit.

On September 7, 1901, Morant hears of three unarmed, non-combatant Boers heading their way and wanting to surrender. Morant goes out to meet them in the company of one lieutenant and two other troopers. And there they are, up yonder: Boer farmer Roelf van Staden and his two sons, the youngest of whom, Chris, is 12 and desperately ill.

Morant takes immediate action, using a procedure he has previously developed to get through such matters most efficiently. He tells his men that when they get to the clearing up ahead, they must wait till he says “Lay down your arms”, and as soon as they relax, shoot ’em. Arriving at the clearing, Morant barks: “Dismount.” His men do so, and quickly bring up their rifles. The Boers look at them, horrified. “Lay down your arms!” Morant commands.

As planned, the father and his sons relax just a little . . . only for the Troopers to shoot them dead.

How do we know Morant committed these and other atrocities in which a dozen non-combatants were gunned down? There are many reasons, but they include 14 brave Australian soldiers and a Kiwi soldier risking their lives – for the first two soldiers in the Bushveldt Carbineers to publicly dissent had finished with a bullet in their heads – writing a letter to their commanding colonel, asking for Morant to be court-martialled. He was, during which Morant famously boasted of the atrocity of lining up eight unarmed Boer prisoners and shooting them by the side of a road. “We got them, and we shot them, under Rule .303!”

Of course, Morant was a practised hand at shooting prisoners by this time, having ordered a firing squad to execute a lone, injured prisoner, Floris Visser, to the disgust of men and officers alike. At least Visser was given the farce of a “drum head” court-martial, a kangaroo court improvised by Morant to justify murder as revenge for his friend Captain Percy Hunt.

Quoted in the Advertiser on Saturday, the Melbourne lawyer James Unkles said: “Injustices in times of war are inexcusable and it takes vigilance to right wrongs, to honour those unfairly treated and to demonstrate respect for the rule of law. How we respond to this case remains a test of our values and is vitally important.”

Was he speaking in sympathy with the dead Boers? He was not. He was pushing the case for Morant’s posthumous pardon, and for his name to be added to the Boer War Memorial in Adelaide, just as he was a prime agitator behind the Australian Parliament in 2009 voting in favour of petitions being presented to Queen Elizabeth II to review and posthumously overturn Morant’s convictions. Three years later, on the 110th anniversary of the execution of Morant and co-accused Peter Handcock, the Liberal member for Mitchell, Alex Hawke, rose in the House to make a claim for Morant and company’s pardon.

“It is timely for the Australian government to do everything it can to assist the modern-day descendants of these men to access a judicial review of this case. It is the case that the executions were conducted with extreme haste and without appeal.”

(A point of order, Mr Speaker, if I may. An appeal is something they had in civilian courts, but did not exist with courts-martial.)

”I think it is important,” Alex Hawke continued, “that we seek British government’s assistance in releasing all of the available records in relation to this case so that the modern -day descendants can know what happened and rightly, if necessary, receive a judicial review and pardon. It is an episode that appeals greatly to every Australian because of the doctrine of fairness which says that no-one should be treated differently because of their birth, rank or status. We do know that these men were treated differently because of their birth, rank and status. We certainly need legends in Australian history.”

We do. And we have plenty of bona fide ones, without the need to gloss over the record of a war criminal. But still it goes on!

In February 2018, the Australian Parliament passed a motion expressing “Sincere regret that Lieutenants Morant, [et al] were denied procedural fairness contrary to law and acknowledges that this had cruel and unjust consequences; and . . . sympathy to the descendants of these men as they were not tried and sentenced in accordance with the law of 1902.”
Any mention of sympathy and sincere regrets for the defenceless Boers, including children, that Morant had gunned down? None at all. Justice for them? No mention. Just an obsessive focus on aspects of the court-martial where t’s weren’t crossed and i’s weren’t dotted. And equal insistence, despite a lack of any evidence at all, that Morant did what he did under British orders.

Bottom line?

Some historical legends, like that of Morant, are so seductive they live on because people want to believe them. And it’s so powerful you even have serious people pushing the tragic absurdity of an Australian Parliament petitioning the Queen and the British Parliament to posthumously pardon an Englishman fighting for a British unit who committed the worst war atrocities of the Boer War!

But how much more inspirational is the truth? Morant was not the Man From Snowy River put up against the wall by those Pommy bastards. He was a vicious Pommy bastard put up against the wall by the men from Snowy River and others who risked their lives to bring him to justice to stop the atrocities.

There are heroes in this story. They are those troopers who risked their lives to turn Morant in. Imagine their thoughts at his name being next to theirs on the Adelaide Boer War Memorial.

There are victims. They are unarmed Boers ruthlessly gunned down on Morant’s orders.

How monstrously unjust to both heroes and victims to simply go with the legend, unexamined, uncontested.

Of course history must be always examined, contested, reviewed, told from diverse sides. Anything less is indoctrination.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz