“Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris” (Now this bell, tolling softly for another, says to me, Thou must die.)
I have long loved John Donne’s Meditation XVII; it remains pause for thought, even in this secular postmodern age … well, not so secular, but I’ll come to that soon. As with all writing, to read it only partially and without due regard for the period is to misinterpret the context and message.
When Donne penned his much quoted, but not always understood meditation he believed that his own death was imminent. At the time the plague was rife in London and Donne found himself bedridden. He would be one of the fortunate, surviving an infection that was not the plague, but possibly typhus. Nevertheless, the tolling bell of a church for the funeral of another as he lay in his bed spurred Donne to ruminate:
Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. (John Donne, Meditation XVII)
Donne’s life was pockmarked by discrimination directed at both himself and those close to him for their Catholic faith. His brother survived torture for the crime of harbouring a catholic priest only to be claimed himself by the plague whilst in prison. Donne endured many years earning a paltry income, before renouncing his Catholic faith and eventually accepting vows as an Anglican priest. It was a time of turmoil in England and Donne, with limited options, was forced to convert in the face of poverty and social marginalisation. He chose to toe the political line of the time; I wonder if he considered the trade worthwhile, for whilst his financial security was restored, he lost the love of his life and mother of his children. It is a choice many people must make in their own lifetime, to acquiesce or stand their ground.
This year, 2011, will almost certainly be remembered in history for the turmoil within the borders of so many countries, from the Arab Spring to the British riots and the African famine. All these conflicts are the direct result of years of inequality driven by a ruling incumbent leadership and a marginalised community. The riots in Britain have been depicted as simply unruly loutish behaviour, but as the Cronulla Riots in Sydney demonstrated they are more likely be the result of divisions driven by propaganda and scare mongering about the Other in our midst. Dictators in the Middle East have found themselves battling an ideologic revolution that spans borders in a rejection of autocratic, abusive socio-economic discriminators, searching for a more accountable and transparent government. Politics, that slime covered festering infection against which inoculation is impossible, has led to the circumstances that have resulted in the heart rending images of emaciated people in the Horn of Africa yet again. Political manipulation and inaction, ignoring the signs of impending disruption, are as much to blame for the deaths of the Somali’s as they are for those of the Arab Spring or the British riots.
One instance of discord could be written off as a local affair; many instances in such culturally and geographically diverse regions in such a short timeframe is harder to dismiss. Society’s conscience is rising to the surface, holding mankind accountable for the injustices we have pitted against each other. That conscience, embodied in the average nobodies who have lived a quiet existence for the relative peace that it affords, is stirring the possum in spite of the wrath of a paternalistic or autocratic leadership, prepared to risk what they most cherish because something else has become more precious – freedom and equality.
Perhaps it was Wikileaks that started the resurgence of accountability. Heaven knows that September 11 not only drove a greater wedge in our world, but shone the spotlight on the disparity between peoples. But that day on which the world now ruminates because of the attack on the mirage of global prosperity that the Twin Towers had come to represent, was undoubtedly the turning point in our realisation of the inequalities driven by the push for more under the guise of democracy. More requires control of the raw materials and processes of production leading to a power imbalance. Power enables oppression, oppression feeds inequality. Discord is an inevitable outcome.
The concept posted by Bakchos last week, Sapere Aude, presents the clash of cultures and religions in the modern era and the wreckage we are now seeing in our international relations. Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, was portrayed in an etching by Daniel Nikolaus Chodwiecki in 1791, gathering the children of the religions of the world under her benign and benevolent gaze with a concept described as “toleration”. Chodwiecki’s depiction, driven by the Enlightenment in which intelligent debate rather than religious fervour were favoured, is perhaps late in the Enlightenment, but presents one interpretation of the ideology of the period. Attacks such as that on September 11, or any other religiously driven conflict before or after, run counter to the ideal of the Enlightenment. At the heart of the radical Enlightenment is the freedom and equality of all people, regardless of their affiliations or racial heritage. What Bakchos’ script outline portrays is the climax of decades of ideological and political thought processes that culminated in the day that is etched into so many memories. That day, toleration died. Minerva was abandoned by the children she had fostered and every one of us became the lesser.
In the decade since we sat and held in our hearts the Falling Man from the crumbling concrete and steel, our leaders have sought to build higher walls keeping out the angry hordes. Australia’s borders have been tightened so that places such as Christmas Island, although Australian territory, are not if you’re a refugee landing on its shores. Australia but not Australia; how very convenient. Australia’s leaders have pushed into the surrounding region building closer ties through assistance and policing operations with our Pacific and south-east Asian neighbours to stabilise the so called “arc of instability” by spreading the rule of law. In the process has come the manipulation of the political process in the Solomon Islands and the annexing of Fiji for amongst other things, refusing the interference of international authorities in local affairs, one of the issues that led to the 2006 military coup. Australia has shown no similar concerns for its neighbours. Justice John Heydon, one of the High Court judges presiding in the recent High Court Appeal into Julian Moti’s rendition to Australia which is awaiting judgement, oddly for a crime which he had already been acquitted in Vanuatu some ten years ago, commented:
“We went into the Solomon Islands in order to restore the rule of law. What happened on 27 December did not involve the Australian government participating in a process of restoring the rule of law.” (Patrick O’Connor, Australian High Court concludes hearing into Julian Moti appeal)
It’s worth noting that Australia has expressed no concerns about the application of the rule of law in Vanuatu. Only two assumptions can be made based on this fact: either Australia does not believe that the rule of law operates fairly in Vanuatu and therefore they must pursue Moti themselves, or the motivations for the rendition of the former Attorney-General to the Solomon Islands was politically motivated. If you assume the former, one must ask why Australia has not sent RAMSI to Vanuatu. What a tangled web indeed!
Fiji and East Timor both refuse to be coerced into agreements that favour Australia, yet the relations with both countries are entirely different. Fiji refuses Australian interference in its political affairs; Timor refuses to be bull-dozed into operating an off-shore detention centre for refugees, losing Australian money – but also keeping forces beyond its borders. Perhaps events in the Solomons have led others to believe that Australia’s hand of assistance is not always so benevolent and benign.
Let’s not forget West Papua, a land in which the indigenous people are denied an open and transparent media, access to healthcare and to which the United Nations are refused access. Australians are willing to urge their politicians to address animal cruelty in the live export debate with Indonesia, but blinker themselves to the abuses of their fellow man just a short skip north of the Gulf of Carpentaria, let alone within their own nation.
If you look at the underlying issues in all these conflicts – the Solomons, Fiji, West Papua, Britain, the Middle East – you will find the same base issue: inequality. Australia is no less at risk of the same racial and cultural issues simmering just below the horizon. Cronulla was warning of the tensions within our own nation to which we have still not paid sufficient attention, whilst we go meddling in the affairs of other nations carrying a beacon of light, the rule of law, that burns out soon after its arrival because the fuel is either of poor quality or unsustainable. We cheer on the Libyan revolutionaries in their quest for an accountable and honest government which has resulted in the bloodshed of tens of thousands, but we denigrate a bloodless coup in Fiji and treat them as a regional pariah. Both are operating under a military leadership with an aim to democratic, self-determined government that they hope will be established without the interference of nations with a separate agenda. Whether or not either will succeed is doubtful. This world and its borders are far too porous for any island. John Donne expressed this better than I possibly could:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Let us hope that the tolling bell we hear heralding the death of the Australian democracy will see that tolling heeded before the festering illness claims this nation’s soul.
|Will you sign the petition calling for a Royal Commission into the Australian Federal Police?|