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 Perth’s 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 Australia’s 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 one’s 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’.
‘The Batavia Coast’
The 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 Houtman’s Abrolhos lslands upon cowed and captive castaways, men, women, children, in the wake of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company’s 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-Brockman’s 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 Edwards’s racy account of the disaster and the discovery of the wreck in 1963. And Arabella Edge’s recent novel, The Company. And Gary Crew’s 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 Hasluck’s 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 ship’s 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’ (Edwards’s 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 ship’s 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 Cornelisz’s capture.
Pelsaert makes 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:
Item, [Mattijs 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:
Item, [Andries Jonas] confesses that he was ordered by Jeronimus… to Seals Island; so then Zeevanck… 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 each other.
The Batavia’s 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.
Certainly 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 himself.
But I look beyond him - and I don’t 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, Cornelisz’s 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 ‘Carp’.
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?
Mad-prattling 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.
The suspicion 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 dread.
Richard Flanagan has taken to calling me the Hanrahan of Hobart. ‘We’ll 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 (don’t 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.
Nevertheless, 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…’
On ‘The 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 we’ve 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.
There is, 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.
Jeronimus Cornelisz’s 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 Cornelisz’s carnage.
Edwards suggests that Pelsaert, a man rather of commerce than war, is weary of death. Drake-Brockman’s opinion is that Pelsaert ‘personally "begged" the youth’s life from the other members of the ship’s council’. Edwards is appropriately graphic:
‘weeping 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 youth’.
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 Cornelisz’s 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 assassin’s roster. Perhaps this has counted for him.
Loos and 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. ‘Man’s luck’, Pelsaert observes, ‘is found in strange places’. Perhaps so. But Loos and Pelgrom are never heard of again.
This is where Crew’s 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, let’s hear Pelsaert tell it:
Jonas… has 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 prendikant’s folk had been dragged…
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 Loos’s 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 Crew’s 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 Bush’s idiot child, I am willing to say that thus it is for most of us in the fear-hobbled days of September 2001.
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 excelsior… - 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 tribe’s 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.
In Wilderness 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.
Clean, fresh water. Clean, fresh water. It becomes a driver’s mantra. There is clean, fresh water in sodden, trickle-down-your-neck abundance back home in Tasmania…
At the Batavia Backpackers in Geraldton (I’m 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.
Geraldton 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 Houtman’s Abrolhos are just out there beyond the horizon’s 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 doesn’t 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 horizon’s 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, I’ve 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 Reed’s 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, compassion, joy.
Of course it is possible to find in the Qu’ran passages that can be used to justify oppression of women and jihad against the infidel. ‘There’s no getting around the fact’, Crittenden observes, ‘that the Qu’ran 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 Rumi’s is a particular, ancient and spiritual form of Sufist Islam. But that’s the point. The Qu’ran 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.
The 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.
Standing alone 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 Commandeur’s finery, gloat over his abandoned bric-a-brac, fling coins about like so much seed…
On a mantelpiece on the other side of the continent, here between Henry Lawson’s 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 Pelsaert’s cabin by one of Cornelisz’s creatures; even, perhaps, by that weak and simpering twist of malignancy, little Jan Pelgrom de Bye. I ask myself why I bought it. I don’t 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 mind’s 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 America’s 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 life’s 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 humankind’s 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.
I am anti-American, then, because official American policy threatens the planet’s all-sustaining biophysical fabric.
To more effectively capture the planet’s 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 world’s 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 world’s 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 world’s poor hate the United States with such explosive passion. Here is the Ambassador to Kenya attributing anti-American terrorism to one man’s (bin Laden’s) 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 America’s strategic interest in Middle East oil. Or of how it looks to the people of the Middle East when President Clinton’s 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’.
Naïve 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 America’s 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 Roy’s 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 years… the CIA funded and recruited almost 100,000 radical mojahedin from 40 countries as soldiers for America’s 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 itself)’.
So simple 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 don’t have the benefit of access to the mountains of intelligence information upon which American strategy is purportedly based. I don’t 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 don’t play cricket, and they aren’t listening.
They shouldn’t need that lesson, though, because there is a telling instructional tale from their own recent military history. I have here Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down. It is a gung-ho pro-American account of the Clinton Administration’s 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 Bowden’s 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 Afghanistan.
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 Roy’s 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 don’t welcome.
Already letters 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 Australia’s 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 Bush’s ‘you’re 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 president’s 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.
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