Aung San Suu Kyi commodification hides nasty reality

In the news today is the decision of Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi to cancel her scheduled trip to the United Nations General Assembly.

The explanation is that she's having to deal with the crisis that has forced about 400,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to Bangladesh. Obviously she also wants to avoid being called to account for her failure to protect the Rohingya from what the UN's top human rights official Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has described as 'a textbook example of ethnic cleansing'.

Aung San Suu Kyi

For some time she has faced criticism for her silence on the increasingly violent oppression of the Rohingya. As friends of mine became impatient with her during the course of the past year, my instinct was not to judge.

I told myself that she's a politician not a saint, and her continued leadership of the country depends upon her willingness to act according to the wishes and prejudices of the country's Buddhist majority, however odious they may seem to us. Her masters are the people of Myanmar - who democratically elected her - not the former colonial powers who gave moral support to her elevation to the leadership.

Yesterday my view was well articulated by commentators Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens on their ABC radio podcast The Minefield. Aly said:

'The Aung San Suu Kyi who was sold to the world, the crusader for human rights... was a creation of western human rights subcultures, of the culture of celebrity that surrounds a political prisoner.'

But in the end their guest - the Australian Catholic University's 'bitterly bitterly disappointed' Catherine Renshaw - was more convincing in maintaining that a rhetorical gesture from Suu Kyi in support of the Rohingya would 'have incredible power'.

Instead, Renshaw said, Suu Kyi's rhetoric is working in service of the ethnic cleansing. The 'disinformation' put out by her Department of Information about the Rohingya burning their own villages is 'so reminiscent of the oppression and the state apparatus of fear and silencing that characterised SLORC, the regime that kept her under house arrest for 18 years'.

The time is coming for international powers to act to avoid a proper genocide as happened in Rwanda two decades ago. Back then they dithered until it was too late. This time it's likely there will also be procrastination. But worse. Back in the 90s there was a consensus of moral leadership among western powers. But now that nationalism has taken root in so many countries, there's little support for action from powers beyond Germany and a handful of other European countries.


Link: podcast

The 7150 nuns who declared Trumpcare a moral outrage

Yesterday a friend sent me a Washington Post opinion piece about 7150 'socially minded nuns' declaring Trumpcare a moral outrage.

The article was written by E.J. Dionne, who's well known to Australians because he's often interviewed on the ABC's Radio National.

The 7150 nuns who fought against Trumpcare - from the Washington Post

He praised the three Republican senators who thwarted Trump's plan to deprive millions of Americans of health coverage. But also mentioned the nuns' much less publicised intervention, which labelled the Senate GOP's core proposal 'the most harmful legislation for American families in our lifetimes'.

The nuns cited Pope Francis' insistence that 'health is not a consumer good, but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege'.

Dionne's point was not to argue that the nuns influenced the outcome, but that most people are not aware of how wrong religious stereotypes can be.

'This is important because religion and the political standing of believers are badly harmed by the reality that so many Americans associate faith exclusively with the conservative movement. Large numbers of young people are abandoning organised religion (and particularly Christianity) altogether. A key reason: They see it as deeply hostile to causes they embrace, notably the rights of gays and lesbians.'

It's not widely realised that some of the strongest arguments for marriage equality can be found in religious teaching about social justice. As Dionne points out, Pope Francis is insistent that the Church be associated with justice and mercy rather than cultural warfare.

I think that it can be argued that the Australian Catholic hierarchy's opposition to marriage equality is a hangover from the cultural warfare of the previous popes and that the position of the bishops is essentially out of step with the present pope.

Calls to rein in ABC and SBS - from The Australian

I believe that this and many other debates are wrongly characterised as being between secular and religious interests. Rather it's entrenched interests (such as big business) against ordinary people who rely on human rights promotion for their basic survival.

That's why the Murdoch press waged a successful campaign to discredit and remove the head of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs. Yesterday the issue they chose to give voice to was the call from commercial media chiefs to reign in the public service broadcasters ABC and SBS, which take human rights reporting seriously.

It's regrettable that a surprising number of people continue to believe that religious interests line up behind the conservative establishment against the so-called socialists of the left, who are thought to be godless.

The Catholic Bishops feed that perception when they demonise the Greens, usually for opposing their own institutional interests such as Catholic education. Even taking into account the Greens' positions on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, I would suggest that the Greens are far more in line with the teaching of Pope Francis and the Catholic Church than the conservative parties that most people instinctively link to religious positions.


Links: Dionne ABC/SBS

What we don't want to know about the Frontier Wars

When I was studying Australian history at Melbourne University in the 1980s, the now legendary Professor Henry Reynolds had just published his landmark book on the Frontier Wars.

The book was titled The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European invasion of Australia. It was the most thorough attempt by a professional historian to document and interpret the massacres that led to the deaths of many tens of thousands of indigenous Australians at the hands of British colonists in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Cover of Henry Reynolds The Other Side of the Frontier

It precipitated the politicisation of history in what became known as the 'history wars' of the 2000s.

On the other side of the argument was Professor Keith Windschuttle, whose book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was discredited by a significant number of other scholars. This did not prevent his lionisation by conservative politicians during the Howard era, who subsequently gave him cultural approbation by appointing him to the ABC Board.

What was effectively an officially sanctioned minimisation of the Frontier Wars coincided with their non-recognition by the Australian War Memorial. Correspondingly the fading Anzac legend was rejuvenated and promoted by conservative politicians beginning in the the Howard era and lasting to the present day.

Scholars including those represented in the Honest History coalition have continued to call attention to this misrepresentation of history. Earlier this month, media attention was given to work on the mapping of massacres of Aboriginal Australians by Professor Lyndall Ryan of the University of Newcastle.

Frontier Massacres Map

In view of the Australian War Memorial's continuing non-recognition of the Frontier Wars, I have speculated on whether it is valid to make comparsions between our refusal to talk about the Frontier Wars and the Turkish Government's denial of the Armenian Genocide.

As I travel around the countryside, I often wonder about the indigenous people's dispossession of their lands and the fact that the while locals don't seem to know anything about it. Many towns have museums where you will see agricultural implements from the 19th century but no evidence of indigenous occupation and dispossession, violent or otherwise.

When I was growing up, I would reflect on what our farm in north-eastern Victoria would have been like before the white settlers came to clear the land and 'open it up' for productive farming. We were never told anything about Aboriginal dispossession or massacres.

I notice a yellow dot on Lyndall Ryan's map representing a massacre at Thologolong, which is about 70 kilometres by road from our farm.

DJ Duggan Illuminated Manuscript 1894

There is no yellow dot on the map at Bandiana, the location of our farm. But I would like to know what kind of hostility there was towards Aboriginies that would have driven them away from the land which became our family's farm between 1935 and 1975.

On a wall in my house in Sydney, I have an illuminated address given to my great grandfather D.J. Duggan when he was leaving the north central Victorian town of Tarnagulla in 1894 to relocate to Melbourne. He would subsequently become a politician and hold the office of Minister for Lands in the Victorian colonial government at the time of Federation.

My mother would tell me that he held that position, but I never understood what it involved. I imagine the duties would have included upholding an official policy that would have not have supported Aboriginies remaining on their lands.


Links: Reynolds mapping Honest History

Subverting celebrity worship

One of my family's treasures that has been passed through the generations is a set of two watercolour miniatures of my progenitors. They were painted by an itinerant artist on the Victorian goldfields soon after their arrival in Australia from Ireland in the 1850s.

I was reminded of these miniatures on Saturday when I visited the Dempsey's People exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

Little John the Colchester lunatic c 1823

The mostly watercolour images of British street people were painted by itinerant artist John Dempsey during the first half of the 19th century. It was the era before photography put itinerant artists out of business.

As the exhibition notes put it, they were 'the real-life models of the proletarian grotesques in Charles Dickens' novels... the kind of people who came to Australia as convicts and as free settlers during the early colonial period'.

The Ayrshire hermit

It is rare and refreshing to see portraits of people from the 18th and 19th centuries who were not the wealthy and influential celebrities of their day. It seems that it was almost an act of subversion to paint street people in a style that made them look as dignified as the nobles and rich merchants that dominate the National Portrait Gallery in London.

In particular I appreciated the paintings of the Ayrshire hermit, the Durham beggar, 'Little John' the Colchester lunatic, the maniac, and the old soldier from Salisbury. Each of them was painted in a way that made them stand tall, not reflecting the crushed demeanour and self-image that you would expect from their lowly circumstance and class. The stigma of the descriptors, lacking modern day political correctness, was turned on its head.

The old soldier from Salisbury

I was interested to read about 'old soldiers' in the notes about the exhibition. After the final defeat of Napoleon, the troops flooded home to an undeservedly less than rapturous welcome. The Duke of Wellington described them as the 'scum of the earth'. There was little work and few prospects for them in the towns and villages, where the derelict Old Soldier become a familiar figure.

This came home to me yesterday when I was talking to an incapacitated former Australian soldier who had been wounded in Afghanistan. It seems that the scant regard for 'old soldiers' is still a reality in our time. I think this applies generally to the way marginalised and dispossessed people in our community are stigmatised and represented adversely in the portraits painted by our celebrity dominated media, and - consequently - in our own attitudes.


Link: Dempsey's People

Cardinal Pell's preference for spin doctors over truth tellers

Cardinal George Pell told the media in his short but candid statement yesterday that he was returning to Australia to 'clear my name'. He repeated that phrase, 'clear my name'.

That came after his double barrelled opening reference to the media's 'relentless character assassination - relentless character assassination'.

He did not say that he was coming to Australia so that justice could be achieved or truth uncovered. That was left to Pope Francis, whose reference to the 'foster[ing of] the search for truth' was conveyed immediately after Pell's statement.

The cardinal did not mention truth or justice.

Cardinal Pell at Vatican media conference

What he said at the media conference was perfectly consistent with his attitude and actions with regard to the media all along. Arguably an indifference to, or even fear of, their role in the search for truth in the context of justice.

The evidence for this is in his habitual hostility to media practitioners who see their role as uncovering and reporting the truth regardless of the consequences for the good name of a person or an institution. He was true to form when he began yesterday's statement with a criticism of the role of the media in the laying of charges against him.

One of his first actions after becoming Archbishop of Melbourne in 1996 was to close the Archdiocese's Communications office.

Over the years, Catholic Communications had gained considerable respect, particularly from its secular media peers, for its practice of objective journalism in radio and TV production. That is where I learned my first principles of journalism and media practice in the 1980s.

The sacked director of Catholic Communications Peter Thomas had a Vatican II view of the 'pilgrim' church of the people. In media terms, this translated into practice that owed a lot to that of public service broadcasters like the ABC and the BBC.

Pell's ecclesiology represented a retreat from Vatican II to a more 'top down' hierarchical model. For him, the Church was more like a corporation that was best run along business lines. That is why he replaced Catholic Communications with an outsourcing of the work to corporate communications firm Royce Communications. I would suggest that this represented a decisive and deliberate shift from truth tellers to spin doctors.

Cardinal Pell's actions and attitudes towards the media over the years have demonstrated a lack of appreciation of its role in truth telling. If, as he stated yesterday, he is innocent of the 'false' charges laid against him, it is in his interest not to condemn the truth telling media but to trust and embrace it.


Link: statement

Hope is school builder Zac's greatest resource

The big drawcards at this year's Sydney Film Festival included Nicole Kidman's latest The Beguiled, and Ben Mendelsohn's Una, which opens in cinemas tomorrow. To enter the screening of Una, I stood in a queue that snaked several hundred metres down Market Street and around the corner into Pitt Street.

They were both good films. But I found myself more drawn to Tom Zubrycki's documentary Hope Road, which is about raising money for a school in South Sudan. There was no queue to get inside for this one.

For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious

Zubrycki is now 70 and has spent many years perfecting his particular style of his observational documentary that is defined by the films' closeness to their subject.

The subject matter may be worthy but I always find the execution quite nail biting, and often humorous in a subtle way that is recognisably Australian. I am reminded of the famous 'For gorsake stop laughing - this is serious' cartoon by Stan Cross that was first published in 1933.

Zac Machiek

Oddly this state of mind is characteristic of the White Australia era that preceded multiculturalism, yet Zubrycki's films reflect the vision of his father Jerzy Zubrzycki. Zubrzycki senior was a university academic credited as one of the main architects of the Australian government's multiculturalism policy that began in the 1970s.

But of course the genius of multiculturalism is that it was able to bring 'old' and 'new' Australians together in one magical harmony. That is exactly what happens in Hope Road, with South Sudanese refugee Zac Machiek getting together with three 'old' Australians including Zubrycki himself, to raise funds to fulfill his dream of building a school in his former village in South Sudan.

Bricks for South Sudan school before they disappeared

It's not promising, on a variety of fronts. They can't find a major sponsor for their walk to raise funds. One of the fundraisers has to have surgery for a brain tumour. Zac's marriage breaks up and he becomes a single father. The escalating war intervenes and the bricks they've bought to construct the school disappear.

Because the war is unlikely to end any time soon, the vision itself is challenged by the suggestion that scholarships might be more practical than building a school.

Plans for South Sudan school

But Zac insists on the school and hope is their greatest resource. The film ends with plans for the school still a long way from realisation but the team's hope as strong as ever. As a film goer, it has you longing to see the sequel. As a human being, it makes you want to donate to help the project along.


Links: Zubryki Hope Road Donate

Vanessa Redgrave and the Sydney Film Festival refugee advocates

I've spent the past eleven days at the Sydney Film Festival, at the famous State Theatre in the centre of the city. From 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning until mid afternoon or early evening.

I viewed the usual 34 feature films, in what has become an annual winter ritual. I haven't skipped or had to miss a film since I was teaching in 2008.

Vanessa Redgrave at State Theatre

I've sat in seat D36 on the Mezannine level alongside my friend Shirley, who has been my Daytime Subscriber companion in that space for the past 14 years. Sadly, we learned this year that another companion - Anne - was not in the seat D34 this year because she died in March.

Unlike most Festival filmgoers these days - the casuals - we do not pick the films we see. They are chosen for us by the curators. Many of the films I most appreciate are ones I would not have chosen from the hundreds screening at the various Festival venues each year.

I used to take annual leave from my job at this time of the year. Now I'm a retiree like most of the other daytime subscribers, except many are much older than me.

However it seems we share the same humanitarian values and enjoy similar art house and documentary films. Including the mix of drama and factual films, and indeed the combination of drama and fact in particular films, which tend to reflect the most pressing issues confronting humanity.

Vanessa Redgrave director of Sea Sorrow

This year it was refugees, and one of the festival guests was refugee advocate and veteran British actor Vanessa Redgrave. At 80, she has just made her directorial debut with her film Sea Sorrow, which combines a survey of the history of international refugee conventions with stories and recollections of past and present refugees.

It was not a surprise that she received a standing ovation as she stood on stage to introduce her film. It is clear that many in the adoring audience were also refugee advocates. In fact my companion Shirley is secretary of a local suburban refugee support group.

But I kept thinking about another octogenarian humanitarian, the veteran senior public servant and now blogger John Menadue, with whom I worked for a couple of years until a few months ago.

John is constantly frustrated by the single minded idealism of refugee advocates, whom he believes stand in the way of solutions, which must always be political. Politics is the art of the possible and must always involve compromise.

Sea Sorrow still

But I think John would agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to refugee advocates, to the extent that their activism helps to stem the tides of mass indifference to the plight of these people and right-wing political fear mongering.

Vanessa Redgrave talked about the 'field of energy' the advocates seek to generate around the world.

Noticeably short of breath after climbing on to the stage, she told her Daytime Subscriber friends that her message to refugees is: 'We will save you till our last breath'.

After viewing Sea Sorrow, I was sure that however many more breaths she has until her last, she has accomplished what she set out to do for refugees, with this film.


Links: Redgrave Menadue

How the Catholic Church came to embrace its enemy Anthony Foster

This morning a State Funeral will be held for Catholic Church child sexual abuse victims advocate Anthony Foster, who died suddenly on 26 May.

In her tribute to 'the man who was integrity personified', fellow campaigner and Newcastle Herald journalist Joanne McCarthy says there wouldn't be a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse without Anthony and and his wife Chrissie.

Anthony and Chrissie Foster

'Anthony Foster's integrity left him devastated by the Catholic Church, but it also made him one of its most devastating and formidable foes.'

In earlier days I was not a fan of the Fosters. I did not like the way they treated the Church as the enemy. I was aware of the Church's often unsung role in standing up for victims of abuse in many other areas such as sexual slavery.

I knew that the Church was fundamentally on the side of victims of all sorts of injustice. So I did not understand why the Fosters couldn't work with the Church rather than against it in achieving justice for the victims of the rogue priests.

I was naive and wrong. Eventually I came to accept that sexual abuse was a sin of the Church itself more than the 'rogue priests', whom I believed were themselves victims.

I became convinced that the Church's culture stunted the priests' growth as sexual beings and that child sexual abuse was the result. The Church as an institution had to own responsibility for sexual abuse, and change its culture.

The Fosters were right. The Church could not be trusted to achieve justice for abuse victims using its own processes. The perpetrator of the evil of the abuse was the Church itself, rather than a few - or even more than a few - bad apples. Don't put Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

So I came to believe that the Church was indeed the enemy of the people, as it had been portrayed by the Fosters and the media. If it was really the champion of the poor and marginalised - as I'd previously believed - why was it using its considerable financial resources to engage the best lawyers to fight the hapless victims in court?

If the Church itself was taking an adversarial approach towards victims, why shouldn't victims' advocates like the Fosters take an adversarial approach towards the Church? I was fully on board with the Fosters.

Fortunately the Fosters and other victims' advocates had fellow travellers within the Church. Some were courageous and competent individuals in positions of influence such as Francis Sullivan of the Church's Truth, Justice and Healing Council. He was not afraid to slap down the Bishops - his employer - until they joined him in insisting that the Church's culture must change.

That is now happening, with some of the strongest and most moving statements and actions coming from bishops themselves. I think Parramatta Bishop Vincent Long's tribute to Anthony Foster must be the most notable. He reveals that he was quietly working with the Fosters to achieve justice for victims while some of his fellow bishops were fighting them in court.

Now others are joining him. These include Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, who personally castigated the Fosters during World Youth Day 2008 for 'dwelling crankily on old wounds'. These words of Bishop Long speak for themselves. The Church's own theological term metanoia (conversion of heart) comes to mind.

'At the end of the Royal Commission hearing of the five Metropolitans, the Fosters met with Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP. After he had left the meeting, Anthony [Foster] became very concerned how deeply affected Archbishop Fisher was. He contacted me and asked if I could check and make sure that the Archbishop was OK.'


Links: funeral McCarthy Long wounds

 

Describing the culture that produced church sexual abuse

A friend recommended I watch this week's ABC TV Compass documentary 'The Judas Iscariot Lunch Part 1', which I did. It featured 13 Irish former priests who looked to be in their 70s, speaking candidly about their training and ideals as young men and also their own humanity and experience of celibacy.

They called their lunch club after Pope Paul VI's suggestion that those who left the priesthood were betraying the Church.

The Judas Iscariot Lunch

However I didn't think they harboured any particular bitterness towards the pope or the Church. They were just telling it as it was. The Church offered them a way out of the oppressive social and economic circumstances of Ireland at the time, as an alternative to emigration.

As one of them put it, 'a way of dodging growing up and dodging Ireland'. It's what they wanted at the time, and what they got.

So were they suggesting that they never grew up? Possibly. At least not until after they left the priesthood.

They referred to celibacy as a gift. As a priest, you either had the gift or you didn't. In other words, celibacy worked for some but not others. If it didn't, things went awry. 'People sometimes took to the drink. Loneliness became a big problem'.

Put simply, that is what happens if you're part of an institution that allows you to dodge growing up. Instead of the usual 'growing up' preoccupations that define the lives of most young people - working out relationships and sexuality - these trainee priests would be focused on listening to and obeying '12,000 bells over [up to] 12 years' of formation.

Of course the elephant in the room was sexual abuse, which I suspect they will discuss in more depth in Part 2. But in a way it was better they left that alone because it allowed the documentary to describe more dispassionately the culture of the Church that made the ground fertile for sexual abuse.

It reminded me of the term 'thick description', which was developed by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his influential 1973 work The Interpretation of Cultures. His idea was that the setting or context for particular behaviour is more meaningful than the acts of behaviour themselves.

Trainee priests

Participant observation - such as the accounts of these ex-priests - is the key to evaluating a culture. This, he argued, was what anthropologists doing field research needed to pay close attention to.

I think that it is also crucial in achieving justice for church sexual assault victims. It provides a clear answer to the question of whether the blame lies with a 'bad' culture or 'rogue' priests. The implication is that if it can be established that a bad culture that produced rogue priests, the more appropriate course of action is redress from the institution that embodies the bad culture (i.e. the Church), more than locking up the perpetrators.

Too often media accounts let the Church off the hook by demonising the abusers. They focus on the experience of the victims at the hands of the abusers without painting a picture of the particular way of life that was the precondition for the abuse.

Learning the other side of the story at the National Museum

While in Canberra on Sunday, I visited the National Museum of Australia as part of my resolve to see as many of the national capital's cultural institutions as I can while my six month NSW country train pass remains valid.

Often I visit a place and only learn about its significance afterwards. There are many stories of Australia's past contained in the Museum but I must have missed the story of the Museum itself, in particular that of its building and location.

20170326_123040

The Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1980 but did not have a permanent home until the current purpose built facility was opened in 2001. It is located on the Acton Peninsula near the Australian National University. The site was previously the location of the Royal Canberra Hospital, which was demolished in tragic circumstances in 1997.

These involved a failed implosion that accidently killed one spectator and injured nine others. Large pieces of debris were unintentionally projected towards onlookers positioned 500 metres away on the opposite shore of the Lake. This was a location unwittingly considered safe by the ACT Government, which had encouraged Canberrans to come out to bid farewell to the hospital.

Yesterday I walked past a cream brick building that I imagined would have been part of the hospital. I guessed that it was retained as a memorial to the hospital. I noticed a sign indicating that it was now the Museum's Administration Annexe.

National Museum of Australia Admin Annexe

Most people regard mid 20th century cream brick buildings as eyesores and are quite pleased to see them demolished. But I very much like them and regard them as important examples of our built environment heritage. I thought that it made a fitting historical counterpoint to the spectacular modern architecture of the other Museum buildings.

Inside the main building, I found that I was able to connect with a number of the hundreds of stories contained in the exhibits. One that comes to mind is that of the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, which begins at the town of Wiluna and takes a route north to the Kimberley.

I visited Wiluna after I drove across the Nullabor in 2003. I recall that I would have loved to have travelled through the Western Desert along the Canning Stock Route in my Hyundai hatch back, which I had driven to that point from the east coast. But common sense got the better of me and I spent an hour or so in the town before proceeding along the straight dirt road to Meekatharra.

It was only yesterday that I learned of the surveyor Alfred Canning's poor treatment of Aboriginal guides following his appointment to the stock route project in 1906. He was criticised for his inhumane practice of using chains to deprive them of their liberty, effectively using them as slaves.

The legacy of Alfred Canning

This led to a Royal Commission, which saw Canning exonerated after the Lord Mayor of Perth appeared as a witness on his behalf. The cook who made the complaint was dismissed. White Australians still celebrate Canning as the pioneering surveyor who plotted the Rabbit Proof Fence. It is good to know the other side of his story.

It was the exhibits involving indigenous Australians that I found most engaging because they unlocked for me the perspective on history that I was denied when I first learned Australian history at primary school. These included the furphy that Tasmania's Aboriginal population was completely wiped out.