Notes within Shadow
As a generation
knows the myriad circumstances in which its components heard of the assassination of JFK,
so will another generation have fixed within its constituent memories the circumstances
under which it saw its first images of an airliner in swallow-dive to the North Tower of
the World Trade Center. I was in Perths old Melbourne Hotel and about to go down for
breakfast. It was the day before my birthday.
My wife and I
were to spend the next two weeks on Western Australias central north coast - what
the spin of the tourist lure dubs the Batavia Coast. We made the decision
that, as we were on a rare child-free holiday, a holiday long anticipated, and as our
priority should therefore be maximised enjoyment and minimised misery, we would avoid, as
best we could, television, radio, newspapers. Though it will not seem so from what
follows, we achieved this moderately well, and as we set about our determined search for
fun within what seemed to be planetary haemorrhage it occurred to me that I had another
reason for not wanting to engage overtly with the unfolding drama in the world outside.
I wanted to
understand my visceral reactions. As the world turned in unforeseen orbits, I wanted to
experience the rawness of spontaneously-propagated emotions, to poke around in them, to
see how and what I felt, not how and what I thought. This was not an option
that would have been available back home - so leave the brain off, I told myself, go with
the urgent, unmediated response of the pores of the skin.
And I began to
think, too, on the cognitive priority of feeling over reason - or, at least, of the
automatic kick-in of ones summed experience, which includes, of course, the dictates
of previous applications of reason. This is an event of virtual immediacy; certainly it
far precedes - and largely shapes - the slow accumulation and analysis of evidence behind
a so-called reasoned response.
meticulous scholarship of Henry Reynolds and others has brought to light some of the
atrocities committed by Europeans upon Aboriginals, but much remains within cloud.
Concerning the worst perpetration by Europeans upon Europeans on Australian soil, though,
we can surely be more definitive. This act took place fully 150 years and more before
permanent European occupation. It was the appalling orgy of murder and mayhem committed in
Houtmans Abrolhos lslands upon cowed and captive castaways, men, women, children, in
the wake of the wreck of the Dutch East India Companys resplendent flagship, the
Batavia, in 1629.
I must take
care. This is not my story. It belongs here, and I belong elsewhere. I am critical enough
of the neo-colonial plunder of my own place by artists seeking a suitably exotic setting
for careless deployment in dis-placed art. It is disrespectful, insulting, an act of
appropriation. I do not intend what follows to be an act of capture.
This is also a
story often told. I have here Henrietta Drake-Brockmans romantic 60s novel, The
Wicked and the Fair, and Voyage to Disaster, her work of biographical
scholarship. The novel has not worn well, but Voyage to Disaster is vivid and
thorough and testament to a rigorous intelligence. Here, too, is Islands of Angry
Ghosts, Hugh Edwardss racy account of the disaster and the discovery of the wreck
in 1963. And Arabella Edges recent novel, The Company. And Gary Crews Strange
Objects, a serendipitous inclusion this, an end-of-essay addition, my daughter having
it home from the school library for study in Year 10 English. And Nicholas Haslucks The
Bellarmine Jug, which excellent novel first introduced me, many years since, to the
story of the Batavia.
The facts are
quickly told. The Batavia is plagued from the start by the cankerous relationship between
the Commandeur, Francisco Pelsaert, a company man, a money man, and the ships
Captain, Arien Jacobsz, a professional man of the sea. Jacobsz plots with the
undermerchant Jeronimus Cornelisz and several of the aristocratic cadet officers to seize
his own ship and its fabulous treasure and make off a-pirating. As well as the crew the
Batavia carries an unruly complement of soldiers and a great many ordinary
folk (Edwardss words) many of whom have links to the Company.
Before the plot
can hatch the Batavia runs onto the Morning Reef in the northern Abrolhos. A botched
disembarkation onto low and scrubby waterless islands is effected. Pelsaert takes the
ships boats and with his enemy, Jacobsz, sets sail for Batavia, an act of treachery
and abandonment in the eyes of those left behind. The survivors begin to succumb to thirst
- and then, dubious miracle, it rains. But a drunken tongue has flapped and the secret of
the mutiny is out. There can be, for the mutineers, no salvation in rescue, and they plot
to seize the rescue vessel, if and when one ever comes. The rest of the survivors,
meanwhile, are very much in the way. A few women are placed in what Edge calls the
concubines pen. They are for common service. For the rest,
Cornelisz organises systematic extermination, and 125 souls are despatched before an
intrepid resistance, co-ordinated by a resourceful soldier, Weibbe Hayes, effects
it to Java and is sent back to pick up survivors. He potters about the Abrolhos lost and
desperate, but finally he is back. A desperate race to is ship between Hayes and the
mutineers is won by Hayes, the mutineers are arrested, a council headed by Pelsaert sits
in judgement, several are executed. Pelsaert himself is in disgrace, his stellar career in
tatters, and within the year he, too, is dead.
Those, if I may
be forgiven a macabre and awful pun, are the bones of the story. But the horror of it lies
less in the fact of the carnage than in the razoring joy with which the killing is
undertaken, and in the seriality of it, and in its mix of cold calculation and random
whim. Let some torture-wrung confessions speak directly:
Beer] confesses, that
he had heard that Jan van Bemmel was to cut off the head of a
Boy named Cornelis Aldersz
whereon Zeevanck gave as his opinion that the foresaid
Jan van Bemmel was too light; therefore Mattijs has offered his services and has requested
to be allowed to do it, which was accorded him; therefore he took the sword from the
forsaid Jan who would not willingly give it because he wanted to do it himself, but he
tore it out of his hands
Jan van Bemmel was busy to blindfold the boy and Jeronimus,
who stood next to him, said Now be happy, sit nicely, tis but a joke,
and Mattijs Beer with one blow near enough struck off his head.
All just to
prove the sharpness of a sword. Then there is this:
Jonas] confesses that he was ordered by Jeronimus
to Seals Island; so then
handed him his own knife and said to him, Cut the throats of the
women with it. So without any objection Andries has gone to Mayken Soers, who was
heavily pregnant, and, taking her by the hand, led her a little apart and said to her,
Mayken my love, you must die, and threw her underfoot and cut her throat. That
being done, he saw that Jan van Bemmel was busy killing Janneken Gist and has gone to his
help and has stabbed her to death
The other women, together with still another 15
boys, were killed
I am directed
to these events by the tourist spin of the Batavia Coast, whilst the world
beyond awaits a response to the events of 11 September 2001. 1629 and 2001 crowd in upon
Batavias dramatis personae begin to take shape. Drake-Brockman and Edge both
swing their novels around the bizarre relationship between Cornelisz and beautiful,
passive, survival-bound Lucretia van der Mylen. Amid the carnage and the rapine Cornelisz
embarks on an incongruously patient seduction.
Cornelisz has a claim upon my fascination. The apothecary/undermerchant is a disciple of a
libertine artist, Torrentius, a mocker of religion who holds that, if all
comes from God, then all, even apparent evil, is Good. Edwards surmises that Cornelisz is
on this voyage because his allegiance to Torrentius has made things too hot for him in old
Amsterdam. Cornelisz directs the carnage with a clinical precision - and he kills none
But I look
beyond him - and I dont understand why - to the lesser lights; the
willing tools. To Wouter Loos, about whom more below, and to the debauched and
brutal aristocratic cadet, Coenraat van Huyssen. (Edge conflates Huyssen and Loos, writing
the former out of the story and attributing his atrocities to Loos.) I am intrigued as to
why the young bluebloods should so readily take up with Cornelisz - but these musings,
too, take me nowhere.
I am finally
drawn to the puny person of Jan Pelgrom de Bye, cabin boy and, on the islands,
Corneliszs personal servant and messenger. The capering cabin steward,
Edwards calls him. Edge has a Pelgrom among her characters but he is a minor
figure, not developed, and the real Pelgrom is realised in her 14-year old
Think back to
the confessions of Beer and Jonas. The Jan van Bemmel is Jan Pelgrom de Bye.
The boy who keens after the pleasure of killing, though he is not strong enough to put an
adult woman to death (he does own, though, to killing an unnamed boy on Seals Island). The
boy who carried the death sentence for those slated for death from Cornelisz to the chosen
slaughterers. The boy who, denied the privilege of cutting off the head of the
blindfolded young netmaker wept because he was not allowed the favour.
If evil can be
personified then surely Jan Pelgrom de Bye sums it pure and throbbing. (I thought to be on
a first here: but Crew also selects Pelgrom - there is something truly frightful
about the character of Jan Pelgrom - as the embodiment of crystallised evil.). No
warped intellectuality here - just distilled essence of evil. Pelgrom flits about the
island trilling a fire-white madness. Come now devils with all the sacraments, where
are you? I wish that I now saw a devil. And who wants to be stabbed to death? I can do
that very beautifully.
George W. Bush
tells me that what we face today is simple Good versus simple Evil. Is Jan Pelgrom de Bye
the sort of thing he has in mind?
Jan Pelgrom de Bye overwhelms. He is utter, unreasoning horror. We wend along the bright,
sunny wildflower-bright Batavia Coast, and in the world beyond, insistent, impinging,
imperfectly absorbed by two vacationers having fun, a shadow slips over the world.
that civilised intercourse between people might be a more precarious condition than we
ever openly concede is, I think, prominent within the modern/post-modern mindset. It fuels
the taste for apocalyptic art; for the gothic dread with which we in the apparently
secular west have such a clear and growing fascination. It manifests in other ways, too -
in the grasping at simple moral certainties that in turn give rise to totalitarian
religious and secular fanaticisms; to the deadly progression of
fundamentalism-into-violence. I will return to this. Here, though, I want to think on
Flanagan has taken to calling me the Hanrahan of Hobart. Well all be
rooned, and variations thereof, has become my mantra, says ever-buoyant Richard. In
this essay he has evidence a-plenty. In a sense, though, I am giving a false impression.
The essay is finished now, and this is a later interpolation - but I am, despite all,
surprisingly confident about the future, at least so far as the present crisis is
concerned (dont start me, though, on tropical rainforest clearing and prospects for
the collapse of the nitrogen cycle). I spend much of my time arguing an upbeat line
against friends who, for instance, baulk at attending major sporting events on the ground
that these might become targets for terrorism.
it is true that I am given to pessimism, gloom, quiet despair. My comfort is that I think
most of us are, and that this is unlikely to be more than in part congenital, and much a
product of life in these times. I have here a recent issue of Famous Reporter and I
am reading a short essay by the English writer, Lawrence Upton. It is an essay that sings
the pain of living and breathing despair, a worldly despair that oozes from the very
structure of the times: I may be old enough to die before the gulf stream stops
flowing or someone assured of certain certainties, perhaps someone from my country,
explodes a big one over my country; one up for me and those I love
Religion Report Lyn Gallacher is interviewing a writer on religion and terrorism,
Mark Juergensmeyer, and Mark, too, links the dread of the times to the structure of the
times. It is to do with a world that treats us all as consumers, a world that
tells us that we might as well roll over and take the global culture weve got coming
to us, a global culture that undercuts individual identity and integrity. I
have my own favourite alienating pathology - science in its applications: technology. What
a period of intense focus upon the tottery conditions of civilised living most brings home
to me is how much more vulnerable civilisation becomes as the technological vessel in
which it floats grows in complexity. It is not just that contemporary forms of terror are
only possible under conditions of technological sophistication. It is more that high-tech
civilisation is so thoroughly dependent upon its tools that it lacks resilience under
threat. Technological advance is, then, only liberatory up to a point - beyond
that it constrains, imprisons. But this is the stuff of another essay.
though, the problem of Jan Pelgrom de Bye. He is not a modern creation. He appals
but he is also corrective. He universalises the matter of evil. He reminds me that not all
social pathology is of recent provenance.
Corneliszs hands are hacked off at the wrist. He is hanged unrepentant, screaming
revenge. Six blood-soused butchers follow him. It was to have been seven. But Jan Pelgrom
de Bye, the last for the tree, is spared by Pelsaert at the death. It is a
mercy not much approved by those who survived Corneliszs carnage.
suggests that Pelsaert, a man rather of commerce than war, is weary of death.
Drake-Brockmans opinion is that Pelsaert personally "begged" the
youths life from the other members of the ships council. Edwards is
and wailing and begging for grace
the boy who had wanted to kill someone in
preference to eating and drinking
now could not walk, and was quite unable to mount
the gallows ladder. In disgust Pelsaert spared him
on account of his
Jan Pelgrom de
Bye is put ashore on Terra Incognita Australis in the company of Wouter Loos. Loos,
a soldier and favourite of Cornelisz, assumed leadership of the mutineers
after Corneliszs capture by Hayes. He has certainly committed murder and had
recourse to the captive women, but there is also evidence that he has tried to avoid the
assassins roster. Perhaps this has counted for him.
Pelgrom are enjoined by Pelsaert to contact the local Aboriginal people; to offer them
Nuremberg wooden toys in return for friendship. They are given a boat and
generous supplies and they are put ashore at a spot now identified as Wittecarra Creek,
just south of present day Kalbarri. Mans luck, Pelsaert observes,
is found in strange places. Perhaps so. But Loos and Pelgrom are never heard
This is where
Crews ingeniously structured and plotted novel begins. But in the week of 11
September I had not read Crew. Instead I went, alone, to Wittecarra Creek. I had no idea
what I was in for - merely curious, I was reacting to a historic site
roadsign. The creek is on the virtual outskirts of the town of Kalbarri - in fact, just
beyond its immediate fringe of trees is the workaday grounds of a caravan park. It is a
pleasant spot, the creek maundering into sandhills, the trees offering a cool and restful
shade. But I read the explanatory plaque and I am suddenly, without warning, deep within
the compass of the shadow. Engulfed within dread devoid of feature or form. I am here with
Jan Pelgrom de Bye - he is, all these centuries on, still here, still thirsting for blood.
But - of course
he is not. I am uneasy with attributions of an eldritch quality locked within the bones
and soft tissue of the land. Only people are weird - what the Scots would call
unco - only their artefacts can contaminate the land; can summon, for good or
bad, their presence. My fear, my very obsession with Jan Pelgrom de Bye, is merely the
construct of a mind niggled out of its comfortable patterns by events distant in space but
immediate in time.
It is a
pathology and I need to think it through. Here goes.
There is no
doubt that Wouter Loos is a nasty piece of work. Andries Jonas is having difficulty
despatching Mayken Cardoes, and Loos is promptly on hand
well, lets hear
Pelsaert tell it:
called the forsaid Mayken outside, saying to her that she must go for a walk with him;
whereupon she asked him, Andries, will you do any evil to me? Whereon he said,
No, nothing at all, but having gone a little way he threw her underfoot and
sought to cut her throat with the knife, but she gripped the knife in her hand so that it
was stuck, and he could not carry out his intention because of her struggling; meanwhile
Wouter Loos came running, who battered in her head at once with an axe or adze, until she
died, and then he dragged her into a hole in which the prendikants folk had been
A nasty piece
of work, then. But here in high daylight at Wittecarra Creek, in the grip of a shapeless
panic, it is my hope that Wouter Looss first marooned act is to do unto death his
even more appalling companion; that he will take his chances with the local Aboriginals
alone (in Crews novel this almost happens - and as things transpire, better that it
had). My obsession with Jan Pelgrom de Bye is spiralling out of control - thus it is that
the presence of the shadow works our best instincts loose and opens a space for atavism,
false stereotyping, loathing, baseness. Thus it is for me and, as I listen to the bizarre
mix of Old Testament and Wild West rhetoric emanating from ex-President Bushs idiot
child, I am willing to say that thus it is for most of us in the fear-hobbled days of
I am a long way
from home and the skin of civilisation itself seems stretched to rupture. If it were to
happen now - if the seemingly ricketty scaffolding of decent dealings between peoples were
to crumble away, now, while we are on holiday, what would we do? We drive the Batavia
Coast along waving avenues of breathtaking floral beauty - Banksia ashbyi, Grevillea
- and we are, after all, having fun. I do not find the land
alienating. On the contrary, it is warm and welcoming country; intricate, fine and subtle.
But I know that
an Aboriginal tribes territory can stretch from near Kalbarri to the Peron Peninsula
fully 400 kilometres distant, and that such a tribe would consist at most of a few hundred
people. This is not land with any great carrying capacity. It occurs to me that I want to
be near water, an abundance of water, and this thought stays with me the rest of the trip.
and the American Mind Mark Duda and Steve Bissell report the findings of extensive
attitudinal studies relating to natural resource management in the United States. Water,
they find, is the emerging issue; the resource and environmental issue of the
new millennium. And, too, it has become a commonplace projection within the field of
global risk prediction to suggest that warfare in the twenty-first century is most likely
to take the form of struggle for control of that vital and increasingly rare commodity,
clean, fresh water.
water. Clean, fresh water. It becomes a drivers mantra. There is clean, fresh water
in sodden, trickle-down-your-neck abundance back home in Tasmania
At the Batavia
Backpackers in Geraldton (Im not making this up) there is a promotional video for
Cradle Mountain. I stare at it entranced. It is cold there and it is not cold here and it
is nice not to be cold. But there is water. Such water. Clean, fresh water. And it brings
with it a green spring of life that is so green that in the Batavia Backpackers it is
almost a visual assault. But here is another insistent impulse within the not-so-green
shade of my emotional swirl. I want to be where there is water. Home in Tassie, where
there is water.
reminds me of two provincial cities in which I have lived, Burnie and Warrnambool - though
Burnie and Warrnambool remind me not a whit of each other. Geraldton is the hub of the
Batavia Coast, and the Houtmans Abrolhos are just out there beyond the
horizons hard edge. Its new museum has been structured around the Batavia artefacts
and is wonderfully evocative. But this is a city of the here and now, prosperous, its
civic eye fixed upon the future. The local member is Wilson Iron Bar Tuckey.
In my view Tuckey is a swaggering bully with a dismayingly outmoded set of values, and the
sooner he is out of public life the better. But he doesnt put the wind up me like
Jan Pelgrom de Bye puts the wind up me.
Now, though, a
strange thing happens. Here in this confident, uncomplicated city the malignant shade of
Jan Pelgrom de Bye struggles for potency, begins to dry and to wither, to dessicate, to
crumble away. The shadow retreats beyond the horizons hard edge. I sense the
resilience of business-as-usual, and though this is comforting, I know that I will, in
time, want to marshall arguments against business-as-usual, too. Of course, we have not
yet started bombing. When we do I will no doubt see things differently, but for now I am
back in kilter and it is time to go home and get on with life in the strange new world
post-11 September 2001. And good riddance to Jan Pelgrom de Bye.
Back home. The
bombing has started. In my name hi-tech weaponry blasts down upon the poor and ancient
land of Afghanistan, targetting, so I understand, a regime that equates woman with thing,
a regime that subjects an entire gender to appalling, systematic atrocity, a regime,
Stephen Crittenden tells me on The Religion Report, that has effectively
unleashed jihad against its own people, a regime that has taken cold joylessness to
new heights of principle. We are to blow it into history.
I have borrowed
a copy of The Essential Rumi. At precisely this time I choose to read a thirteenth
century Afghan poet. Is this an act of subversion? If it is I will not be in the dock
alone. In one of those boosterist blurbs that so sully book covers today (ah yes,
Ive written them myself), I read that Rumi is possibly the most-read poet in
America today. Perhaps, though, this is less an act of subversion than one of
perversion. Akin to reading John Reeds Ten Days that Shook the World as the
Berlin Wall came down and the aspirations of revolutionary communism went into terminal
tailspin. Which I did.
Anyway, it was
a good move (Rumi, not Reed). Here, in the poetry of a founding spirit of the Whirling
Dervishes, a poet of ecstatic self-transcending rapture, a poet who, by virtue of such
apparently self-renouncing process might be thought to have much in common with the
fanatical young men of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, I found an Islam of beauty, love,
compassion, joy. Here women are strong, humorous, clever, characterful, wise. Animals,
too, are wise and companionable; so even trees. Life is celebrated: it is an open, playful
delight that Rumi enjoins, one saturated with the qualities listed above: beauty, love,
Of course it is
possible to find in the Quran passages that can be used to justify oppression of
women and jihad against the infidel. Theres no getting around the fact,
Crittenden observes, that the Quran preaches holy war against
unbelievers wherever you may find them, and that a treaty of peace
between the Muslim States and a non-Muslim state is juridically impossible. And it
is true that Rumis is a particular, ancient and spiritual form of Sufist Islam. But
thats the point. The Quran also enjoins brotherly relations with unbelievers
in S109, for instance: and Rumi himself has written affectionate Jesus
poems - as well as respectful gender relations. The curse is, then, a certain - and I
mean, with Lawrence Upton, certain - cast of mind. It is Mullah Mohammad Omar and
the Ayatollah Khomeini; but it is also Torquemada and Cotton Mather, Ian Paisley and
Francisco Pizarro, David Koresh and the Rev. Jones - and Pat Robinson.
selfish-gene neo-Darwinist, Richard Dawkins, has followed this train of thought to a
different conclusion. He has pronounced (in the Guardian of 15 September) against
religion per se: it is a problem of fanaticism bred in the toxic culture of
ignorance, one to be dispelled by the civilising light of science. He is, I think, wrong.
He is wrong because the young men who aimed airliners at the Pentagon and the World Trade
Center were themselves men of science. They were aeronauts, engineers, technicians.
Applied scientists. The problem is not, I think, an excess of spirit existing in a
zero-sum relationship with a deficiency of scientific rigour. It might even be that
the pathology is one of too little other-worldly contemplation, too little
examination of the inner life, an insufficiency of time spent smelling the flowers
- and too much of the literalness that so characterises a certain scientific
cast of mind.
A cast of mind.
And how is my own mind cast as I follow these thoughts? Rumi, my thirteenth century Afghan
Muslim wrote, those many years ago:
This moment this love comes to rest in me,
many beings in one.
like this it is unremarkable poetry. But it is a sentiment of unsurpassed inclusivity; of
cosmic compassion; of deep, surging, democratic love - and it hauls me back another notch
from the dark shadow of Jan Pelgrom de Bye. I have an Afghan poet to thank; were I so bold
as to give advice I would tell people to go read the remarkable words of Jelaluddin Rumi.
The ship is
fast on the reef and breaking up. Her passengers are silly with fear, the soldiers, most
of them, sullen, drunk and useless. Only the sailors have the spunk and the knowhow to
organise a perilous disembarkation. The mutineers are among the drunk. They are having a
high old time plundering and partying in the great cabin - Edwards calls it a
macabre carnival. They dress in the Commandeurs finery, gloat over his
abandoned bric-a-brac, fling coins about like so much seed
mantelpiece on the other side of the continent, here between Henry Lawsons framed
signature and a broken American clock, lies a Dutch Rijksdaalder, date 16(--), weight
21.925g. The Western Australian Museum, with whom I am required under the Historic
Shipwrecks Act to register ownership, describes its condition as VP - very
poor. It is worn, misshapen, fretted. But it is from the Batavia.
I imagine it
flung across Pelsaerts cabin by one of Corneliszs creatures; even, perhaps, by
that weak and simpering twist of malignancy, little Jan Pelgrom de Bye. I ask myself why I
bought it. I dont know - but it does not seem a morbid act, and I am glad I did. I
pick it up, roll it from finger to finger, bring it to rest in my palm. It lies solid,
sensible, earnest. Perhaps this hard and tangible link with an act of clear, rioting evil
constitutes a containment. Perhaps it helps render manageably prosaic even the evil of my
own time. Not reduced to the banality of a shopping list, certainly, but brought
nevertheless within the minds accommodatory compass.
Perhaps, on the
other hand, I am merely self-deluding
I am a critic
of the role the United States plays in world affairs and in that sense, but emphatically
in no other, I suppose I must own to being anti-American. In that they partake of my
perspective on Americas role and record in its dealings with the rest of the world,
a vast number of Americans are also, in this narrowest of senses, anti-American. And,
insofar as my own country also partakes of the iniquities I attribute to official America,
it must be that, in the same constrained way, I am anti-Australian. Now remember that I am
not arguing a case here. I am merely trying to describe how it is for me. What the
totality of a lifes cerebral ingestion has led to, the constructed pre-analytical
impulse that henceforth becomes my position.
As I see it,
the United States treats the rest of the world as a quarry to be mined in the name of the
middle-American lifestyle. We have no Biodiversity Convention because Bush the Elder
deemed a narrow range of humankinds perceived economic interests to merit
precedence. We have no Climate Change Convention because Bush the Younger is the creature
of the powerful oil lobby that stands to lose most from such a convention. We only have a
Protocol to deal with ozone-depleting substances because Du Pont realised it had a CFC
alternative from which it could gain a competitive edge: then the official American
line changed from opposition to support - not for reasons of global responsibility but
because, this once, the interests of corporate America and the interests of the planet
happened to coincide.
anti-American, then, because official American policy threatens the planets
all-sustaining biophysical fabric.
effectively capture the planets resources, the United States sponsors an economic
system that will ensure that the flow of wealth and material is in the desired direction.
It is called globalisation, and it involves, for the rest of the world, a transfer of
political power from democratically-accessible sites (local, regional, national) to
unaccountable, impossibly remote and unreachable, and often unidentifiable centres of
economic power. It involves, in short, the death of democracy; the destruction of our
capacity to influence the terms and conditions under which we lead our lives. (I
find it so frustrating to have the earth and all I love on it in the care of such limited
men a Canadian friend writes, and to have so bloody little power to do
anything.) It is also a process in which nothing is left to chance. The United
States holds in thrall the relevant international agencies, agencies that themselves
foreclose all political and developmental options to the nations of the earth except the
single ideologically sanctioned one.
The death of
democracy, then, and also the death of the worlds heritage of cultural diversity. In
the name of guaranteeing order and predictability in market transactions the United States
seeks a uniform world, a cultural greying. That is why, in negotiating separate free trade
agreements with Canada and Australia, the Americans have insisted that national cultural
safeguards be removed - in our case rules relating to Australian content in broadcasting
and other procedures aimed at defending Australian cultural production. Canada copped it
and signed, but our FTA is, fortunately, on hold, and long may it remain so.
It is the
ruthlessness with which America pursues its perceived economic and strategic interests
that so dismays. The United States is the worlds only superpower. It does not seem
too much to expect from it a greater degree of planetary responsibility, and rather more
magnanimity and generosity, and rather less cynicism, arrogance and heavy-handedness, than
it customarily exhibits.
And then there
is certainty. Utter, unshakeable certainty. American Administrations reduce the
vast complexity of human and human-environment interactions to platitudinous reflexes that
might even be deemed endearing in their child-like simplicity if the consequences were not
so calamitous. This juvenile faith in simplistic verities is what renders America
incapable of reflection on the deeper pathologies behind the 11 September attacks - on why
the worlds poor hate the United States with such explosive passion. Here is the
Ambassador to Kenya attributing anti-American terrorism to one mans (bin
Ladens) personal and entirely idiosyncratic hatred. Here is Dick Cheney
spectacularly missing the point as he pontificates about people whose only aim is to
frighten and kill American citizens. Here is an article about the psychology of
terrorism that seriously attributes suicide bombing to the testosterone-fueled fantasies
of young male religious zealots seeking an afterlife the prime characteristic of which is
a ubiquity of lubricious virginity. It is necessary to look considerably farther afield,
and to the marginal spaces within American commentary, to find genuine analysis - for
example, of the extent to which Islamic rage can be traced to the United States opting,
without a by-your-leave, to leave an army of occupation in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War
for no other purpose than to protect Americas strategic interest in Middle East oil.
Or of how it looks to the people of the Middle East when President Clintons
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, says on television of the death of 500,000 Iraqi
children as a result of American sanctions: we think the price is worth it.
ideological certainties also lead to double standards. America is at war with terrorism,
the scourge of the emerging age. So we are told. But it would be more believable if
America had not itself been a major sponsor of global terrorism in the latter half of the
twentieth century. You will find such recourse to terror disguised beneath the coy
euphemism, covert operations. Covert operations means
assassinating individuals who threaten regimes - often themselves brutally oppressive and
terror-sustained - thee maintenance of which happens to coincide with Americas
perceived strategic interests, and it means the ruthless destabilisation-through-terror of
other goverments that may well have a claim on legitimacy; that may even have been
democratically elected. In sad Nicaragua, for example, the CIA created, armed and trained
the Contras to subvert a legitimate government through unspeakable extremes of terror.
13,000 dead. The CIA even produced instructional DIY terrorism kits - the Sabotage
Manual and the Assassination Manual. The Taliban, too, originally
a marginal sect of dangerous, hard-line fundamentalists - Arundhati Roys
words - fought its way to power on the back of CIA funding. Even Osama bin Laden is a
creation of American covert operations. Here is Roy in the Guardian: over the
the CIA funded and recruited almost 100,000 radical mojahedin from 40
countries as soldiers for Americas proxy war. The rank and file of the mojahedin
were unaware that their jihad was actually being fought on behalf of Uncle Sam. (The irony
is that America was equally unaware that it was financing a future war against
ideological certainties lead to shallow and deficient analysis, and to double standards.
It is not to be wondered at, then, that they also lead to blinkered strategic thinking. I
dont have the benefit of access to the mountains of intelligence information upon
which American strategy is purportedly based. I dont need to. It is as plain as the
nose on your face that for every innocent civilian who dies under an American bomb in
Kabul a thousand potential terrorists are created. Imran Khan, the great Pakistani test
cricketer, has argued this with a persuasiveness that is entirely absent from the
rhetorical blatherings emanating from the Bush Administration. A mere cricketer, for
goodness sake! But the Americans dont play cricket, and they arent listening.
shouldnt need that lesson, though, because there is a telling instructional tale
from their own recent military history. I have here Mark Bowdens Black Hawk Down.
It is a gung-ho pro-American account of the Clinton Administrations cocked-up
attempt to capture two lieutenants of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the pre-eminent Mogadishu
warlord, in October 1993. A hundred crack US Army Rangers were erroneously dropped short
of the designated landing site, though still mere blocks distant from the target building.
They never got there. They were chopped up (and 18 died) when the whole of Mogadishu rose
against them. Clinton thought he was freeing the people from the tyranny of the warlords.
Undoubtedly the ordinary, long-suffering people of Mogadishu did want to be free of the
warlords - but on the day they saw Somalis dying at the hands of American soldiers they
also discovered a prior enemy. One of Bowdens most graphic descriptions concerns a
mild and bookish student who witnesses his youngest brother, a mere bystander, randomly
taken out (another of those morally-abhorrent euphemisms) by Ranger gunfire.
He becomes, at that instant, a declared adversary of his American liberators:
Ali moved on to the next street
He would shoot a ranger or die trying. Why
were they doing this? Who were these Americans who came to his neighbourhood spraying
bullets and spreading death? Thus it was in Mogadishu. And thus must it be in
You will be
aware that the reasoning, analytical brain has clicked on, as it inevitably must, and I
concede that my distinction between analytical process and pure emotional impulse was
always ultimately unsustainable. By now, of course, I have immersed in the literature of
crisis - including, notably, Arundhati Roys already-cited searing indictment of the
Bush-Blair war strategy. To my instinctive position I must now factor in argument in
support and argument against, and if I do this honestly, as I will strive to do, my
position will shift in the months ahead in directions that are as yet not predictable. The
odds are, though, that I will still be a critic of the war strategy, and if, along with
others, I become publically identified with this position, there will be consequences that
I dont welcome.
to the editor are calling those of my persuasion ingrates with short memories, and
reminding us how different our lot would have been were it not for American military
action in the past, and in 1939-45 in particular. And, yes, letters offering a white
feather to all those people who seek to denigrate Australias commitment to the
action against terrorism have begun to make an appearance.
I can treat the
latter accusation with contempt. It takes far more courage to defend an overtly unpopular
position, incurring thereby the verbal abuse and the physical intimidation of those
challenged in the capacities of citizenship, than it does to accept, without examination,
the official line. (Such patriotic bullies merely hide an incapacity for freedom of
thought behind a strident insistence on their own but not others freedom of speech.)
But I do need to consider the former argument carefully, and the question becomes whether,
or to what extent, such a debt (because I do acknowledge that there is a debt) requires a
person of my cast of mind to sit on my hands or to at least hedge my criticism about.
There is, too, the complicating fact that I do want an end to the Taliban. That I do not
want militant Islam abroad in the world. That I do want civilised, other-regarding
relations between the people and peoples of the world. But I cannot, in the end, go along
with Bushs youre with us or agin us line. More simplistic
certainty where there should be complexity. And I remember, too, how much
offficially-sanctioned evil has been wrought in the world because those who might have
opposed it found reasons to stay mute.
Evil. I am back
with good and evil. Back with Jan Pelgrom de Bye. But I have come to see that there is no
real fit this evil with that evil. My complaint has been that primitive certainties
breed evil acts. And my complaint against George W. Bush is that he opposes the
fundamentalist certainties of militant Islam with those of his own (examine his rhetoric
it has far more to do with fundamentalist ideas of revenge than it has with
justice). Roy calls bin Laden the American presidents dark doppelganger.
If I am to
avoid signing off on primitive certainties of my own, then, I need to stop personifying
evil and stay with evil acts. And so it has taken me many words to arrive at a position of
no great profundity and no great helpfulness. It also leaves Jan Pelgrom de Bye unresolved
- though manageably distant for the question of good and evil has also proven
impossibly complex. And there, for the moment, matters must rest.