Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The failure of austerity and the Greek political and economic crises

As the political  and economic crises in Greece deepens, thousands have gathered in Athens today calling for a vote against austerity in Sunday's referendum.

After five years of painful austerity Greece will miss a crucial debt repayment on Tuesday and the left-leaning Syriza led government is planning a referendum on Sunday for the Greek people to decide whether to continue to be politically and economically strangled by  regimes of austerity imposed by  the European troika, or to reject the austerity regimes and in all likelihood leave the Eurozone. 

All of us have a stake in this struggle between the forces of corporate and financial capitalism and the interests of ordinary people.

The political economist C J Polychroniou argues that the leftist Greek government failed to see that Europe’s neoliberal elite is wanting to finish  them off  completely to send a message to all potential 'troublemakers' of the fate awaiting anyone who dared challenge the neoliberal, austerity-based orthodoxy. 

He writes that the referendum is  a tool of politics rather than a reflection of some sort of a deep-seated desire on the part of the Syriza-led government to widen democracy and popular participation in the decision making process:

"....this is a sham referendum, with Tsipras trying to hold on to his job, as the bailout programme expires on June 30, which means that this is now a referendum on whether or not Greece should remain in the Eurozone.....The call for referendum on the future of Greece in such a short period of time must be seen for what it really is: a tool of politics, a way for the leftist Greek government to take the pressure off its shoulders, a refusal to accept responsibility for having dragged the country into five months of never ending negotiations with its lenders with disastrous consequences for the economy."

In the Guardian Aditya Chakrabortty  writes that this a battle between what people want and what their rulers force down their throats supposedly for their own good. It is, he argues, a struggle between a cruelly unworkable version of capitalism and people: 

'What this story reminds you is that the breakdown in Greece is not recent. Since 2010 the troika has peddled the fantasy that spending cuts amid a historic recession, and “structural reforms” – or the shredding of workers’ rights, the firesale of public assets and the pummelling of the welfare state – will somehow fix Greece. Half a decade later that always doubtful forecast is now proved to be a lie: the country is even more broken. Yet the technocrats keep repeating the propaganda to the subjects living through its wretched reality'
Costas Panayotakis, from New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York (author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy)  writes that the woes affecting the Greek economy stem from capitalist mismanagement of the Greek economy:
   "Since its election in January the Greek government has, in its attempt to reach an agreement, made many concessions to the eurozone’s austerity agenda. The fact that, in the course of the negotiation, Greece’s European partners always asked for more suggests that they may not have truly desired an agreement, instead preferring to squash the only European government with the audacity to openly criticize the neoliberal consensus. The European response to the Greek prime minister’s announcement of a referendum also displays the long-standing aversion of European economic and political elites to democratic processes that allow European people to have a say over the future of the European project......... A resounding ‘No’ to the European proposal would face the Europeans with the dilemma of either risking the rupture of the Eurozone or negotiating in good faith with the Greek government."

Writing in Corporate Watch Pratap Chatterjee quotes Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and a Nobel Prize winner, who writes in the UK Guardian that almost none of the money loaned to Greece went there, but ended up being paid to corporate creditors- including French and German banks.
Chatterjee draws from a Corporate Watch report The Eurozone Profiteers to show how the imposition of neoliberal market driven competition in financial services  directly benefited German and French banks rather than the Greek people:
"The Greek government is in debt today to Germany and France not just because they borrowed money for unwise projects, but also because the bankers pushed them to take money that they would never have been able to approved under normal circumstances".
In Roar magazine PhD candidate and hip hop artist Leonidas Oikonomakis, a Greek citizen living outside Greece, writes:
However, this time we are being asked by the government — that of Alexis Tsipras — what we really want it to do. And for once, we will be able to say a proud and dignified ‘NO!’, as we had always wanted the deputies who were supposed to be representing us to say! We owe it to our friends who migrated, our parents and grandparents who saw their salaries and pensions being slashed, our comrades who were beaten up and arrested by the cops, and to our dead: to Pavlos and Shehzad Luqman, who were assassinated by Golden Dawn, and to the thousands who committed suicide over the course of the past five years. It is a matter of dignity — something that can not be measured and cannot fit into the Troika’s economic statistics, but that can give strength to the humiliated to rise up against those who have humiliated them for so long." 

Reporting here in Australia reflects mainstream and traditional interpretations of the crisis, either ignoring or  glossing over the reality that this catastrophe demonstrates the systemic crisis gripping corporate and financial capitalism.
In New Matilda, Ben Eltham draws out consequences for Australia, arguing that the Greek crises shows that policy makers get economic policy seriously wrong with profound consequences for ordinary people. 

 Eltham is right to argue that the crises demonstrates the complete and utter failure of austerity as a policy and exposes the hypocrisy of politicians, political leaders and economic mandarins who seek to impose anti-democratic economic policies on sovereign nations against the wishes and democratic aspirations of citizens.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Judith Wright and the 1967 campaign to save the Great Barrier Reef

'Only those coral insects live
that work and endure under
the breaker's cold continual thunder.
They are the quick of the reef
that rots and crumbles in calmer water
Only those men survive
who dare to hold their love against the world;
who dare to live and doubt what they are told.
They are the quick of life;
their faith is insolence; joyful is their grief'
            Judith Wright

Iain McCalman's new book The Reef: A Passionate History is a social, cultural and environmental history of Australia's Great Barrier Reef. 

Reviews of the book are here and here.

The book contains an illuminating and informative chapter titled A Poet, a Forester and an Artist join forces about the campaign waged between 1967-1971 by Australian poet, writer and activist Judith Wright, along with two colleagues artist John Busst and environmentalist and scientist Len Webb to prevent the Queensland State Government, led by Premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson, from opening up the Great Barrier Reef to mining.

Judith Wright, John Busst and Len Webb mobilized an alliance of citizens, conservation groups and trade unions against plans by the development oriented (and corrupt) Bjelke- Peterson Government  to allow the Great Barrier Reef to be exploited by mining companies.

Their campaign eventually led to the Federal Government claiming Commonwealth sovereignty over the Great Barrier Reef and its waters, and the reef's eventual listing as a world heritage site.

As McCalman notes, it was a combination of intensive grassroots campaigning, evidence of of catastrophic marine oil spills overseas, threats of trade union bans and bipartisan legislative action by Federal Liberal and Labor Governments that resulted in 1975 legislation which created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park .

But as Judith Wright predicted, the threats to the Reef remain. 

Iain McCalman has written this recent article reflecting on the contemporary implications of the legacy of the campaign launched by Judith Wright, Len Webb and John Busst back in 1967 and the mining related developments that still threaten the Great Barrier Reef.

Judith Wright's own book about the campaign The Coral Battleground was republished in 2014. An extract from that book is here.

Other articles about Judith Wright's involvement in the campaign and her book The Coral Battleground are here and here.

In The Coral Battleground, Judith Wright wrote:
'The Reef's fate is a microcosm of the new battle within ourselves. So this is not just a story of one campaign. The human attitudes, the social and industrial forces, and the people who in one way or other take their part in the campaign, represent a much wider field, and one in which the future of the human race may finally be decided'.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Peter Norman and an iconic act of political resistance

"Even as late as August 2012, the AOC denied blacklisting Peter Norman. The time is right to tell the story of the former teacher who won a silver medal in one of the strongest sprint races ever run. 
Indeed his athletic achievements warrant greater recognition on this alone. But Norman was more than this; his words to Smith and Carlos “I will stand with you” represents one of the high points of Australian sporting history"
Steve Georgakis 
On Monday night this week, National Indigenous TV channel (NITV) showed Matt Norman's inspiring documentary Salute on his uncle Peter Norman who is the Australian sportsmen I admire the most.

Norman won the silver medal in the 200 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics behind American Tommie Smith and ahead of American John Carlos. In that race Peter Norman ran a 200 meter time that has never been bettered by an Australian. Peter Norman still holds the 200 meter record for the fastest Australian.

In the medal ceremony after the 200 metre final, Norman made a choice few sportsmen are willing to do. He choose to surrender his personal glory and fame to a greater good and to the fight against injustice. It was a decision that was to affect the rest of his life.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos's act of defiance during the medal ceremony- black gloves, closed fist, black power salute and black socks- was designed to express their solidarity with the American civil rights and black power movements and intended as a statement against racism and injustice.

For me it is an iconic moment in sporting and political history.

As Matt Norman's documentary shows Peter Norman was an active co-creator and participant in this act of political defiance. It was Norman who suggested the Americans each wear one glove (hence the reason why one salutes with the left fist and the other with the right). 

Norman was proud and committed in standing alongside the two Americans. His was an act of solidarity in recognition of a greater cause. Norman actively supported the American's action and on his chest he wore the same the same large button as the Smith and Carlos. It was emblazoned with the letters O-P-H-R- Olympic Project for Human Rights.

At Peter Norman's funeral in 2006, John Carlos described how events unfolded on the way to victory dais that fateful day in Mexico:

Carlos and Smith asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman said he did. When they told Norman what they were going to do he said "I will stand with you". Carlos noted how Norman never flinched on the dais, never turning his eyes or head"
Norman, who was a teacher and guided by his Salvation Army faith was also motivated to take part in the Black Power salute because of his opposition to racism and the White Australia Policy.

The backlash against all three was not long coming.

Smith and Carlos were withdrawn from other races and sent home. On returning to the USA they were ostracized and had trouble finding employment. All three athletes suffered for their stand for human rights and against racism and injustice. Smith and Carlos were never again chosen to represent their country and were hounded out of athletics. 

On his return to Australia Norman faced horrendous criticism and was treated as a pariah, despite his remarkable performance. His desire to coach athletics at the highest level never came to fruition and he was the victim of a blacklist in Australia. He was forced to work as a physical education teacher to survive.

Despite being the 5 time national champion in the 200 metres, the Australian record holder for 200m and an Olympic silver medalist, Norman was not selected for the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite qualifying.

Despite the brilliance of his performance, Norman's name  still does not appear in discussion or books about finest Australian sporting performances or the greatest moments in Australian sport.

Norman, who died in 2006 aged 64, was a lifelong campaigner and fighter against injustice, and continues to be denied a place in Australian sporting history because of his act of defiance. He was not invited to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but went as a guest of the American Olympic Team.

In 2012 the Labor politician Andrew Leigh led an officially apology in Parliament to Peter Norman's family for his treatment in Australia.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The poetry of Stanley Kunitz

"That pack of scoundrels
stumbling through the gate
as the order of the state"

       The System
        Stanley Kunitz

Stanley Kunitzs's poetry has appeared before on this blog (here). I just love his work.

 The Testing Tree
Stanley Kunitz

In a murderous time
    the heart breaks and breaks
     and lives by breaking.
It is necessary to go
    through dark and deeper dark
     and not turn.
I am looking for the trail.
    where is my testing tree
     Give me back my stones.
The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) is among the US's most acclaimed poets, winning a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry.  Kunitz wrote poetry for over 80 years and until his death, aged 100, he was active as a poet, writer, activist and mentor to young poets.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Remembering Mike Marqusee (1953-2015)

"Go back to his books and rediscover the potency and the appeal – and, often, the joie d’esprit – of his writings: on cricket, on Muhammad Ali, on his own journey as an anti-Zionist Jew and, of course, on Bob Dylan."
Anne Beech, Pluto Press

"The crowd reminds me that I only put myself
in other people’s shoes
because I couldn’t find my own
and the common locker was so near at hand.”
Mike Marqusee

Mike Marqusee, who died in London last week aged just 61, was a man of immense talents and a beautiful writer who combined a career and life of writing with a profound lifelong commitment to political activism.

One of many things that I appreciated about Mike Marqusee was that he was a living example of the ways that popular culture and writing could be harnessed as a vehicle for radical political analysis and protest without becoming ideological dogma. 

His work also reminded us of the essential importance of art and culture- past and present- to radical political struggles. In a piece in Red Pepper he once wrote:
"The art of the past, is a precious, irreplaceable resource, and one that can be a powerful stimulant in the struggle for that other world we insist is possible. Listening to the voices of the dead is a necessary aspect of ‘contending for the living’..... 
Under capitalism, art is treated as a commodity, but there is something in art of any value that resists that status, breaks out of that dimension. There’s always a disconnection between its market value and its artistic value – whose very nature resists quantification. Each work of art has a claim of its own that cannot be measured in terms of another and thus cannot be reduced to exchange value. This was what William Blake had in mind when he declared: ‘Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only"
 Marqusee was a writer, a radical journalist, poet, Marxist writer, commentator and political activist. He wrote arguably the finest book on Bob Dylan Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 60s (2005), in which he explored the political, cultural and historical significance and legacy of Dylan’s 1960’s music.

His book on Muhammad Ali Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is considered one of the great sporting books of all time. In it Marqusee restores Ali as an exemplar and symbol of radical conviction, and explores the ways that popular culture can be simultaneously a vehicle of protest and a vehicle of incorporation.

His political memoir and family history In If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an anti-Zionist Jew combined his own family history, with political theory and analysis of religious texts, to distinguish Jewishness from its co-option by the state of Israel.

Marqusee who described himself as a 'deracintaed Marxist, American Jew" was of Lithuanian-Jewish background and was born in the US, but had lived and worked in the UK since 1971.

Marqusee combined writing and journalism with a lifelong commitment to political activism for left and progressive causes. He was a dedicated political campaigner and activist and for many years, he was the Press Officer for the Stop the War Coalition that organized the over a million people march in London against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

He wrote books and articles on a remarkable and eclectic range of topics as diverse as history, cricket, India, sport, leftist and labor politics, poetry music and arts, popular culture, UK and world politics, anti-Zionism and his own experiences with cancer. He wrote a regular column for the Indian publication The Hindu, and was a regular columnist for the left-wing magazine Red Pepper (his columns are here). 

His last book the Price of Experience: Writings on Living with Cancer was published in 2014 and explores the politics of cancer and his own experience of cancer treatment under the UK National Health Service. Marqusee wrote about the connection and interplay between neoliberal and market fundamentalism and the politics of cancer and the suffering experienced by people living with cancer.

Marqusee was also a published poet. His last book of poetry Street Music included poems written between 2009-2012, including this one.


This morning’s surprise is how much I’ll miss rail travel.
The green fields looming up and falling behind,
the milky tea wobbling in a plastic cup,
the engine’s steady vibration.

This afternoon’s surprise is how many shades of red there are,
each one sitting in a room of its own, dense in meditation.
Each one a field of conflict, a medium of conciliation.

This evening’s surprise is not that the novel ends
in a desultory return to the working week –
loose ends trimmed and tucked out of sight –
but the ferocity of my recoil
at the author’s glib contrivance.

Midnight’s surprise is Lorca’s moon floating over Hackney
full-faced, round-eyed and speaking Spanish.

An obituary in the Guardian is here  and personal tributes from his colleagues and comrades on the British left are herehere, herehere and here. The Red Pepper Magazine has published these tributes

The American sports writer Dave Zirin has written this heartfelt tribute to Mike Marqusee. 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Zygmunt Bauman on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and murders

In this piece in Social Europe the renowned sociologist Zygmunt Bauman places the recent Charlie Hedbo attacks in their historical, social and political context.
"There were two aspects of the Charlie Hebdo murders that set them apart from the two previous cases: 
First: on 7th January 2015 political assassins fixed a highly media-visible specimen of mass media. Knowingly or not, by design or by default, the murderers endorsed – whether explicitly or obliquely – the widespread and fast gathering public sense of effective power moving away from political rulers and towards the centres viewed as responsible for public mind-setting and opinion-making. It was the people engaged in such activities that the assault was meant to point out as culprits to be punished for causing the assassins’ bitterness, rancour and urge of vengeance. 
And second: alongside shifting the target to another institutional realm, that of public opinion, the armed assault against Charlie Hebdo was also an act of personalized vendetta (going back to the pattern set by Ayatollah Khomeini in his 1989 Fatva imposed on Salman Rushdie).

If the 11 September atrocity chimed in with the then tendency to “depersonalise” political violence (following the pour ainsi dire“democratisation” of violence by mass-media publicity that divided its attention according to the quantity of its – mostly anonymous and incidental – victims, and the volume of spilt blood), the 7th January barbarity crowns the lengthy process of deregulation – indeed the “de-institutionalisation”, individualization and privatisation of the human condition, as well as the perception of public affairs shifting away from the management of established aggregated bodies to the sphere of individual “life politics”. And away from social to individual responsibility. 
In our media-dominated information society people employed in constructing and distributing information moved or have been moved to the centre of the scene on which the drama of human coexistence is staged and seen to be played"

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The poetry of Marge Piercy: 'To be of Use'

"Writers are citizens like plumbers and doctors. We suffer the same consequences from the bad and dangerous choices of politicians who are bought and sold and who have ideas that would not be out of place in the Dark Ages – where they truly belong or during that dandy period when thousands of women were burned at the stake after being intensively tortured because of male fantasies and fears..... Climate change, the suppression and increasing poverty of those who do not own enough to count, the erosion of the middle class and the outspoken hatred of those in power for the poor, the ever-increasing power of multinational corporations, the turning of elections into a mixture of spectacle and auction, all are coming true at a far more rapid rate than I anticipated".  
Marge Piercy

To be of Use
Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Marge Piercy (b 1935) is an American activist and feminist poet and novelist who has written 15 novels, 1 play and 17 volumes of poems.  Her writings focus on feminist and political and social concerns and reflect a profound commitment to radical political and social change. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Song of Renown: Townes Van Zandt The Catfish Song

"I'll kindle my fires with the words I can't send you/ And the roads I can't follow and the songs I can't sing/ I'll wander alone on the sleighbells of winter/ With the stars for a diamond and the world for a ring"  
Townes Van Zandt ,The Catfish Song
The Texan singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, who died in 1997 aged just 52 after a long struggle with mental illness and addiction, is considered by many (me included) to be one of the finest contemporary songwriters.

Despite not being well known, Townes Van Zandt is revered and admired by musicians and musical aficionados alike as one of the most evocative lyricists in contemporary music. 

Van Zandt wrote songs of immense beauty, sadness and pathos, many of which draw from his conscious and unconscious experience and from historical and personal events. 

He wrote songs of tragedy and sadness, like Marie, perhaps the finest song ever written about homelessness and poverty, and songs of despair and sorrow in the face of the pain and struggle of daily life, such as A Song For (which mentions my home town Perth, Australia)

He also wrote songs that drew on his own struggle with mental illness and addiction, such as Sanitarium BluesThe Rake and The Hole.

 Van Zandt also wrote beautiful and life affirming songs of daily life, of love, of the cycles of nature and the landscape and environment, and of his reflections on the experiences of being human.

There is a timeless, poetic and deeply philosophical quality to his lyrics which stand as poetry first, then as music. For Van Zandt it was essential that songs work as poetry first and he worked tirelessly to craft his song lyrics.

The Catfish Song is the final track on Van Zandt's 1987 album At My WindowThe album was Townes Van Zandt's first studio album in 9 years and is full of magnificent songs of love, loss, grief, the beauty of daily life and the struggles of living. This includes Songs like Snowin on Raton (which has featured on this blog before), At My Window and For the Sake of the Song.

But for me, The Catfish Song is the highlight of the album and ranks in the my top ten Van Zandt songs of all time.

Van Zandt's world weary spoken singing style is accompanied by the evocative gospel style piano of renowned jazz and country pianist Charlie Cochran. It is a magnificent piece of instrumental support; a performance of haunting intensity and profound humanity. 

The Catfish Song
Townes Van Zandt 

Down at the bottom of that dirty old river

 Down where the reeds and the catfish play 
There lies a dream as soft as the water 
There lies a bluebird that's flown a way
Well to meet is like springtime, to love's like the summer 
Her brown eyes shown for nobody but me
In autumn forever the fool come a-fallin' 
And the rain turned to freezing inside of me 

I'll kindle my fires with the words 
I can't send you 
And the roads I can't follow 
and the songs I can't sing 
I'll wander alone on the sleighbells of winter 
With the stars for a diamond and the world for a ring 

Well all you young ladies who dream of tomorrow 
While you're listening these words will I say: 
Cling to today with its joy and its sorrow 
You'll need all your memories when youth melts away
Well the angel of springtime he rides down the south wind
The angel of summer, he does just the same
The angel of autumn, she's blue and she's golden
And the angel of winter won't remember your name
Down at the bottom of that dirty old river 
Down where the reeds and the catfish play 
There lies a dream as soft as the water 
There lies a bluebird that's flown away 
Oh there lies a bluebird that's flown away

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chris Hedges on the death of Tomas Young

Tomas Young with his wife, Claudia Cuellar, in March 2013.Creditphoto by Jill Toyoshiba/The Kansas City Star, via Associated Press
"Young hung on as long as he could. Now he is gone. He understood what the masters of war had done to him, how he had been used and turned into human refuse" 
Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges writes about the death of Tomas Young on November 10, 2014, who was one of the first US veterans to speak out publicly against the war. Young was a 34 year old veteran of the bloody US led war in Iraq who was shot and paralyzed below the waist in Iraq in April 2004.

Hedges writes:
his final months were marked by a desperate battle to ward off the horrific pain that wracked his broken body and by the callous indifference of a government that saw him as part of the disposable human fodder required for war.............................................................. We must grieve for Tomas Young, for all the severely wounded men and women hidden from view, suffering their private torments in claustrophobic rooms, for their families, for the hundreds of thousands of civilians that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, for our own complicity in these wars. We must grieve for a nation that has lost its way, blinded by the psychosis of permanent war, that kills human beings across the globe as if they were little more than insects. It is a waste. We will leave defeated from Iraq and Afghanistan; we will leave burdened with the expenditure of trillions of dollars and responsible for mounds of corpses and ruined nations. Young, and here is the tragedy of it, was sacrificed for nothing. Only the masters of war, those who have profited from the rivers of blood, rejoice. And they know the dead cannot speak.
In October 2013 while contemplating suicide, Young sent an impassioned letter to George. W. Bush and other US leaders responsible for the Iraq War, in which he wrote:
My day of reckoning is upon me. Yours will come. I hope you will be put on trial. But mostly I hope, for your sakes, that you find the moral courage to face what you have done to me and to many, many others who deserved to live. I hope that before your time on earth ends, as mine is now ending, you will find the strength of character to stand before the American public and the world, and in particular the Iraqi people, and beg for forgiveness.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Remembering Siev X and all those who died in the ocean off the WA coast

Thirteen years have passed since the sinking of the asylum seeker vessel designated Siev X, in which three hundred and fifty-three people, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men drowned when the boat sank en route to Christmas Island on October 19, 2001.

The disaster has never been officially investigated and serious questions remain about Australia's role in and knowledge of the sinking. 

The Australian writer Arnold Zable published this article in the Age this week to remember the sinking, and Amal Basry, one of 45 people who, along with her son Amjed, survived that terrible event.

When the boat sank, Basry was separated from her son and spent 20 hours in the water clinging to a corpse, surrounded by the floating bodies of dead children and adults, all the time expecting to die with the others. She was rescued by an Indonesian fishing boat and begged them to search for her son Amjed. He was the last survivor found.

In his article Arnold Zable wrote:
She told the tale of the sinking many times, with  audiences ranging from one listener to a Melbourne town hall packed with more than 2000. She would get out of her sick bed to tell it.  She spoke of the "children like little birds floating on the water". She was condemned to bear witness. In a cruel irony Amal died of cancer in 2006. Her tale is a reminder of the courage it takes to risk the seas in search of a new life free of oppression. 
The broadcaster Phillip Adams also remembered those who died in his weekly column in the Murdoch empire propaganda rag known as The Australian. He wrote:
This one sank in waters that Brandis-speak might describe as "disputed". International waters but within Indonesia's search-and-rescue responsibility, and also within Australia's aerial border protection surveillance zone. The Indonesians failed the victims of SIEV X, but so did we. We claimed ignorance and poor weather as excuses for failing to identify or help the stricken vessel. 
The subsequent Senate Select Committee inquiry into "a certain maritime incident" (as bizarre a euphemism as any ever coined by a bureaucracy) mainly focused on a different scandal – "children overboard" – but its terms of reference extended to SIEV X. The report was unflinching in its findings. "It is extraordinary that a major human disaster could occur in the vicinity of a theatre of intensive Australian operations and remain undetected until three days after the event without any concern being raised within intelligence and decision-making circles."
The boat known as Siev X set out in the pre-dawn darkness of October 18, 2001 from a Sumatran port with 421 asylum seekers on board. It was a rickety overcrowded, unseaworthy boat, bound for Australia. It was the height of the Howard's government manufactured "war" on refugees. At 3.10pm the following day, the boat, now known as SIEV-X, capsized and sank somewhere between the two countries with a terrible loss of life - 353 of the asylum-seekers drowned, including 146 children, 142 women and 65 men. 

The Australian government claimed it had no prior knowledge of the unfolding tragedy. Yet ministers and senior officials from the beginning mislead the Australian Senate and the community over important questions. What did the government and its agencies know about the boat and its fate, and when? Did we have any responsibility for the tragedy? Did we have a duty of care to save the survivors?
At the time Tony Kevin was one of the few people asking questions about the sinking and the Australian Government's knowledge and involvement. 

Tony's award winning book A Certain Maritime Incident: The Sinking of Siev X is the definitive work on the sinking (as is the website SIEVX.com) and the documentary Hope.

Marg Hutton (who established and runs the website SIEVX.com) along with Tony Kevin, were largely responsible for uncovering and telling the story of Siev X and keeping the investigation alive when all around them wanted to deny and hide the truth. 

In this piece to commemorate the 2013 anniversary of the sinking, Marg Hutton wrote:

I know of 16 instances of people travelling alone or in family groups on SIEVX who were trying to reunite with other family members already here. When SIEVX foundered there were at least seven men living in Australia on TPVs whose entire families were washed away. 

For those bereaved men whose families were annihilated, SIEVX was a weight too massive to shoulder and inflicted a wound too deep to heal. As survivor Sadeq Al Albodie wrote: 'We continue to suffer. The tragedy was too big. We have seen the deaths of children and women parading between the waves. Our lives have been severely narrowed by what happened to us.' 

As testament to what the human spirit can survive, some of the bereaved husbands and fathers have married again and now have young families. The loss they endured is always present — it is not something they will ever recover from, but their lives go on. So there are now young kids growing up in Australia, who were born here and speak with Australian accents, who had brothers and sisters who drowned on SIEVX. 

SIEVX is not only a huge Australian tragedy, it is also an international one. Philip Ruddock, Immigration Minister in 2001 when news broke of the sinking, was unmoved by the plight of the survivors. Ruddock refused to provide visas to the 45 survivors and only accepted seven into Australia because to do otherwise, he claimed, would encourage more people to embark on similar dangerous journeys. 

Survivors were split up and resettled in far away countries including Canada, Norway, Finland, Sweden and New Zealand. While all of the 23 'early survivors' who departed SIEVX the day before it sunk were eventually settled in Australia it was only after a gruelling wait of many years, despite the fact that most had family connections here. 

There were other cruelties meted out by our government to the survivors and bereaved of SIEVX. Sondos Ismail was travelling on SIEVX with her three young daughters, Eman, Fatima and Zhara to join her husband Ahmed Al Zalimi in Australia. Sondos survived the sinking but her three girls drowned. Her husband was unable to go to her because of the restrictions of his temporary protection visa — if he left the country he was not permitted to return and Philip Ruddock refused to bend the rules to help the couple.

Despite pleas to the government, five months passed before husband and wife were reunited in Australia. And even then their suffering at the hands of our authorities continued. In 2003 it was reported that Ahmed would be returned to Iraq when his visa expired. Thanks to a concerted community campaign this did not eventuate, but the needless pressure exerted on the couple who had already suffered so much, could not have assisted their recovery. 

When Ahmed was interviewed in July this year — the first time he had spoken publicly about SIEVX — he made it clear that the tragedy continues to torment his family: 'It is very very difficult to talk about there is a lot I can't say, my wife is still so depressed and it's been 12 years.' 

Australia's response to the SIEVX sinking is in stark contrast to how the Italian government responded to the recent tragedy off Lampedusa, where a similar huge number of asylum seekers lost their lives. Italy declared a day of national mourning and is reportedly providing state funerals for all 359 victims.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sunday's poems: Zbigniew Herbert

"Let us detach ourselves a little from this truly horrible everyday reality and try to write about doubt, anxiety, and despair"
Zbigniew Herbert

"It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry. It is not the barometer that changes the weather.

"Zbigniew Herbert

"This poetry is about the pain of the twentieth century, about accepting the cruelty of an inhuman age, about an extraordinary sense of reality. And the fact that at the same time the poet loses none of his lyricism or his sense of humor - this is the unfathomable secret of a great artist." 
Adam Zagajewski

Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) is one of Poland's most influential and celebrated poets. 

During WW2 he fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis and in post war Poland he opposed Communist ideology, a risky position for a poet and citizen. During the 60's and 70's he refused to submit his poetry to the Communist Government, with the result that his work was not published till the 1980's and then in underground publications.

From Mr Cogito on a Set Topic: "Friends Depart"
with the inexorable
passing of years
his count of friends

they went off
in pairs
in groups
one by one
some paled like wafers
lost earthly dimensions
and suddenly
or gradually
to the sky

I Would Like to Describe
Zbigniew Herbert

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun 

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin
but apparently this is not possible

and just to say -- I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger 
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object 

we fall asleep 
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets
our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully

From "Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert";