Category Archives: asylum seekers

Never Again: What about the Palestinians?

concentration camp: a guarded compound for the detention or imprisonment of aliens, members of ethnic minorities, political opponents, etc., especially any of the camps established by the Nazis prior to and during World War II for the confinement and persecution of prisoners.1

The people seeking a new life in the United States are mainly an ethnic group commonly referred to as Latinos. Many of these migrants/asylum seekers are being fenced in detention centers with decidedly spartan conditions. Ergo, the affixation of the term concentration camp to the ICE detention centers seems unassailable according to dictionary definition. As to why Dictionary.com would inexplicably state “especially” Nazi camps is puzzling given that the Brits set up concentration camps during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century and the United States broke treaties and interred Indigenous peoples. In fact, many countries, Canada included, operated concentration camps contemporaneously with or prior to Nazi Germany.

To argue about which camps are/were concentration camps and which camps are/were most horrible is nugatory. To be explicit, all concentration camps are an abomination, including the ICE detention centers filled with outside-the-US arrivals.

On 18 July, the Real News’s Mark Steiner interviewed Molly Amster of Jews United for Justice (JUFJ) about “Jews across the country” organizing and protesting the detention of the people entering the US.

That is commendable. Equally commendable are the other people who identify just as people and not a particular religious, gender, ethnic affiliation and who demonstrate and speak out against injustices.

A fundamental principle of respect for human rights must be freedom of movement. National borders impinge on such a right. Everyone is a human being. For a nation to deny other human beings2 onto what it claims is its territory is fundamentally a rejection of the humanity of the Other; but more fundamentally, at its core, it is an overt denial of the rejecting nation’s own adherence to humanitarian principles.

This video, though, hints at a possible wider ethnocentrism. One might wonder why identify as “Jews United for Justice” and not “People United for Justice” or on a national level as “Americans United for Justice”?

At first blink, people concerned about the hideous treatment of those held in ICE detention centers will praise these Jews for their courage to protest. Because as one JUFJ protestor exhorts his cohort in the TRNN video, “We are calling on our people to put their bodies on the line to stop ICE.” (emphasis added)

Our people? Does that mean other people, non-Jews, are not invited to join and “put their bodies on the line”? JUFJ informed me by email that non-Jews are welcome to join their organization.

Never Again

Absolutely, never again should one group of humans treat another group of humans inhumanely. Hence, anyone who identifies as a human and who believes in human rights should stand up for human rights applied to all humans.

On the homepage of Jews United for Justice is a slogan: “THINK JEWISHLY. ACT LOCALLY.” What does “Think Jewishly” mean? Do Zionist Jews think Jewishly? Do the rabbis think Jewishly? Does Benjamin Netanyahu think Jewishly? Does Noam Chomsky think Jewishly? Why not “Think humanely?” It is quite clear in its meaning: think like a human by showing compassion for other humans.

Rebecca Ennen of JUFJ replied:

For us, ‘Think Jewishly’ means that we’re driven, individually and organizationally, by a variety of Jewish traditions, identities, values, and commitments, as diverse as the range of people in our community. We draw on those traditions and values to motivate our local action and we show up proudly as Jews and a Jewish community. Obviously, ‘thinking Jewishly’ means different things to different people and we welcome the creativity and vitality this brings. For some (non-exhaustive!) examples of the Jewish that motivate our community, see pages 5-6 of our 2018 strategic plan (https://jufj.org/strategic-plan/), co-created by our leaders.

There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying with a group as long as the group one affiliates with does not discriminate against or denigrate out-group people, and as long as the in-group acts according to moral principles. The principles laid out in the strategic plan of JUFJ come across as well-intentioned.

So JUFJ acts on principle by demonstrating against the ICE detentions of non-Americans.

What about the Palestinians?

I asked, “I know your slogan is ‘Think Jewishly. Act Locally,’ but has Jews United for Justice a stated position regarding the Israeli occupation of Palestine, especially in light of the ‘Never again’ (which I agree with) spoken at the demos against ICE detentions? If not, shouldn’t Jews United for Justice press the US government on this issue because it is deeply an American issue as well?”

Ennen replied:

JUFJ works at the local and state level in DC and Maryland on issues of racial, economic, and social justice. People in our community have a very wide range of views on the issues of Palestine and Israel, and many of our community members also take part in a wide range of other organizations that work on those issues.

For me, Ennen completely skirted the occupation of Palestine issue. Among the Jewish Values listed on page 5 of the strategic plan is “Emancipation from Oppression.” The occupation of historical Palestine is rooted in racism towards the indigenous people of Palestine. Professor Noam Chomsky wrote, “Contempt for the Arab population is deeply rooted in Zionist thought.”3 Chomsky is also clear that one should above all agitate against the violence of one’s own state.4 However, JUFJ identify overtly as Jews and not as Americans. Acting locally seems to provide an out for JUFJ. But at the local level, the JUFJ could, for example, pledge support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or oppose the US government’s embassy move to Jerusalem in violation of UNGA 181, or oppose the US billions of dollars going to support an apartheid state.

Similar things happening

Molly Amster of JUFJ seems unaware of the atrocities being committed against Palestinians by Jews. Amster said of the ICE raids, “But to see these things happening that we actually really never thought would happen again to another group of people, and seeing it be so similar — the messages of other, the messages of, you know, these are not only other, but not human.” (emphasis added)

How can an otherwise informed Jew be unaware of state-sanctioned Jewish settler encroachment upon more and more Palestinian territory, destroying Palestinian agriculture, poisoning the water, etc.? About the illegal separation wall, much of it built on the Palestinian land? About the tens of thousands of Palestinian children imprisoned by Israel since 1967?5 About the intentional, indiscriminate killing of Palestinians?

Conclusion

These similar things have been happening ever since the drive to form a Jewish state in historical Palestine. By all means stand up and speak up for the humans arriving at the US border. But when Jews are mute about war crimes committed by a group that also identify as Jews, by a people living in the Jewish state, then it appears as if the good deeds performed under the same group affiliation serves as propagandistic and as a distraction from the occupation and horrific oppression heaped on the Other.

If you are opposed to oppression, then the principled stand is to oppose all oppression; especially, one has a duty to oppose oppression carried out in the name of a group one chooses to affiliate with.

  1. Dictionary.com
  2. There are certainly grounds for keeping certain individuals outside a society such as a record of having committed dangerous crimes.
  3. Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (Pluto Press, 1999): 481.
  4. “My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences.” In Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (South End Press, 1987).
  5. “Israel is the only government in the entire world that detains children through military courts with a near 100 percent conviction rate.” See Whitney Webb, “50,000 Palestinian Children Imprisoned by Israeli Kangaroo Courts Since 1967,” Mint Press News, 29 April 2019.

Truth, Lies, and Will Van Spronsen

I have lost track of the number of times in the past few days that I have been told by openly fascist YouTube viewers that I deserve a bullet in my head for writing my most recent song.

It’s been a pretty busy week. It’s always a busy week when you have a small child, much more so if you have two of them. And then along with my wife and teenage daughter I’ve been attempting to keep a small cafe going, with all the multitude of little tasks this entails for all of us, it becomes much busier. So this four-day visit to Sweden on my own that I’m currently in the midst of, although it involves two five-hour drives and two concerts, actually feels like a vacation.

My two days in between gigs here at an all-ages communist summer camp north of Gothenburg have allowed me a little time not only to spend an evening puttering around the fjord in a boat with my friend Bo, a retired dockworker and dedicated red from Gothenburg, and to hang out with a great bunch of Swedish bluegrass musicians, one of whom writes for the communist newspaper, Proletarian (interview with me coming up in the next edition), but to catch up on the death threats on YouTube.

Nobody here talks about it, at least no one has brought it up with me, but the massacre in Norway occurred at a left wing summer camp very much like this one, only a few hundred kilometers away, only eight years ago. I was in Oslo only a couple weeks after that, and I wrote a song about it. Probably because I named the song after the killer, the video got seen by a lot of the killer’s fans who had been searching online for other like-minded people, and they were horrified by the content of the song, once they discovered it was not in support of mass murder, and there were many comments from people who made it clear they thought I and all others like me should meet the same fate as all those people on the island of Utoya.

So something about being at another left wing summer camp in Scandinavia and receiving multiple death threats on YouTube is unnerving. But, of course, they’re not really death threats. Or are they? That I deserve a bullet in my head is the popular refrain among a certain crowd. This is the preferred imagery of the week, as opposed to a gas chamber or a firing squad, because of what happened last weekend, and the song I wrote about it.

In the scheme of things, the song is pretty irrelevant to the overall debate, having been heard by not more than a few thousand people. But it’s enough of a sample to glean a few things from, anyway.

It began when I saw an Associated Press report about a man being killed outside of an ICE detention center in Tacoma, Washington. Hours after I saw this report, I started getting messages from friends, acquaintances and comrades of the deceased from Washington State, mostly saying they didn’t know exactly what happened, but that the police report was probably inaccurate, as they often are. Several people wrote to tell me I needed to write a song about what happened, and others just tagged me on Twitter, saying that they expected I’d be writing one soon.

I had already been working on the song after reading the AP report, or at least working on the initial stages in the process, which in this case is the same basic process as for journalists, gathering more information. I found and read Will Van Spronsen’s moving statement that he sent to friends before he did what he did, and I listened to much of his music, as he was, I learned, a songwriter. His last album was recorded at the studio of a mutual friend in Olympia.

I’m sure I was in the same place at the same time as Will on multiple occasions over the course of decades, but I don’t recall whether we ever had a conversation. We had many of the same friends, acquaintances, and colleagues. What Will did was what so many anti-fascists over the generations have talked about doing, and that many have also, in fact, done, in so many different scenarios, such as in and around Germany during the Third Reich. He may have had multiple reasons for doing what he did aside from the obvious one, but that doesn’t matter. What he did was he sacrificed his life in order to at least symbolically throw his body into the gears of the machine, to maybe stop it from running for at least a few minutes. His intent seems clearly to have been to destroy as many buses as possible before he would be killed. The buses were those used to deport unwanted refugees. Many of these refugees, as we all should know, will be deported to their deaths, as have so many others, since they were actually fleeing in many cases because they found themselves on a hit list of one sort or another, in their native countries.

These sorts of deportations are happening all the time, of course, but what was a bit different about last weekend was Trump’s announcement of the raids. We all knew they were coming, and Will acted one day before they were to commence (if ICE had followed through with their plans as announced).

I am personally not about to go do something like what Will did last weekend, for a whole lot of different reasons. But it’s obvious that the action he took falls into the category of an attempt to sabotage the machinery of deportation, at least temporarily. The consequences of this kind of sabotage are often death. Such as when Dutch munitions workers left the gunpowder out of the bullets that were going to the front lines of the Nazi war effort in Russia. They were all deported to death camps once their righteous act of sabotage was discovered. I’m sure these Dutch workers were also called terrorists – it was a popular term back then, too, because the western media had coined the phrase “the Nazi Terror” at the time, to describe the atmosphere of fear that Nazi rule had instilled in anyone who wasn’t a rabid supporter of fascism.

Of course, there were many rabid supporters of fascism back then, too. Many people who thought those munition workers were, in fact, terrorists who should be sent to death camps for their crimes. If munitions workers in the US sabotaged things at Honeywell like that and US soldiers ended up dying in Afghanistan as a result, you can be sure there would be many people saying the same sorts of things, and the workers might even meet a similar fate – if not death camps, probably death row. But, of course, the US isn’t Nazi Germany. Or is it?

“Send her back,” chant the crowds. Pretty much exactly the same chant from the fascist throngs across America that Nazis like Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford spoke to, saying exactly the same things, at a time when my own European relatives were being prevented from coming to the US by xenophobic laws aimed specifically at eastern and southern Europeans – the undesirable Europeans. Xenophobic laws passed and enforced over decades mainly by Democrats, incidentally.

We are rapidly moving towards an overtly fascist state. If Trump is elected again, perhaps it’s time to get the family out while there’s still the chance. But I think it’s so important to recognize that the reason we are in this situation is because of generations of mis-rule by both parties, generations of corruption, generations of the basic needs of the people being ignored or used for political games, without ever being addressed. And now a whole generation that is poorer and dying younger than their parents, a skyrocketing housing crisis to add to so many other very real crises.

Part of the mis-rule has been in the form of mis-education, or what the Marxists call false consciousness. That the Trump supporters believe Will Van Spronsen was a terrorist and that I should also be killed for being an anti-fascist, along with all other anti-fascists, doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from people who have been told, for generations, by not just the right wing media but by the mainstream media and by their teachers in school and in so many other ways, that America is a welcoming land for immigrants, the land of opportunity, if people play by the rules they can achieve anything, and those who don’t play by the rules deserve to be punished and they’re up to no good. We are never told about refugees or about the consequences of our country’s foreign policy. In fact, we are consistently lied to from most quarters, told our country helps other countries around the world with its foreign aid and its foreign wars, and we’re generally not appreciated for it. Why they chant “death to America” all over the world every day is never explained. The sources of the resentment are never made clear, but a smokescreen of nonsense about people resenting our supposed prosperity, freedom and democracy is on constant display, coming from both parties’ incessantly flag-waving leaderships, and most corners of the media and educational systems, public and private.

A friend once said in his opinion, ten minutes of truth can counteract 24 hours of lies. I believe that that ratio is accurate. But ten minutes of truth cannot counteract 48 hours of lies. The ratio needs to be there, it’s not magic, truth isn’t infinitely more powerful than lies. It’s much, much more powerful, but not infinitely. Reading one book by Howard Zinn can cure an entire year of mis-education in high school, but to cure you of another year of it, you still have to read yet more books, to continually seek out knowledge, or you will fall victim to the constant disinformation campaigns we are all being assaulted by on a daily basis, from so many corners that it can be very overwhelming and confusing for a whole lot of people.

I remain convinced that most of these people who say I should have a bullet in my head are not bad people, but are victims of generations of misinformation, bad education, and propaganda. They seem to think I’m a Democrat, for Pete’s sake. They don’t know the difference between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Fidel Castro, and most of them, in addition to being profoundly ignorant, are also deeply homophobic. I believe if these people listened to my podcast every week, I could change most of them. But they’re not going to be doing that, it doesn’t work that way.

Many of the minority of viewers who posted these sorts of comments had handles that made their adherence to Adolf Hitler clear to anyone who knows what kinds of names fascists like to use online. When it comes to fascists, as you may or may not already know, “88” does not refer to the number of keys on a piano, for example. Of course, I don’t know which of them are real people, the same people, intelligence operatives for one country or another, or most likely all of the above.

However, for those of you YouTube commenters of any political persuasion who are real people and want to have an actual conversation about politics, history or Will Van Spronsen’s motivations, where we listen to each other and refrain from using adjectives or making references to each other’s imminent and violent demise, my phone number is in the book. And I won’t call you a Nazi if you don’t call me a liberal.

My fellow Americans and all you other people, too, this is David Rovics, signing out for this week. In the podcast version of this missive, the song I wrote about Will, the Time to Act, should start playing momentarily.

This machine burns buses.

Is Trump a Racist?

President Donald Trump has once again stepped into the doggy-doo of comments that point to being a racist. Tweeted Trump:

The House of Representatives voted 240-187 to condemn Trump’s tweets as racist. The vote largely followed party lines with the exception of four Republicans who voted against their president.

Elsewhere in the supposed Land of the Free, ICE raids are being carried out to apprehend any undocumented people. And migrants/asylum seekers are being detained in what are likened to concentration camps.

The charge of racism has plagued the entire duration of the Trump presidency.

In the run up to the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton described half of Donald Trump’s base as “deplorables” holding racist attitudes. Indeed, many of Trump’s policies do negatively target people of color and leave working Americans worse off. But is the question of whether Trump is a racist not a distraction for a bigger elephant in the room?

On 11 January 2018 while discussing immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries United States president Donald Trump was quoted as asking, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”

United Nations human rights spokesman Rupert Colville was quick to denounce Trump: “There is no other word one can use but racist. You cannot dismiss entire countries and continents as ‘shitholes’, whose entire populations, who are not white, are therefore not welcome.”

Democratic senator Dick Durbin – who was at the meeting with Trump – affirmed the quotation: “Shithole was the exact word used once not twice but repeatedly.”

Trump denied the quotation attributed to him, and he denied being a racist. Republican senator David Perdue, who was also at the meeting, called Durbin’s claim “a gross misrepresentation.”

Nonetheless, criticism of Trump was widespread. The effect will be minimal as Trump appeals to a different base. He plays the patriot’s card to curry favor with the working masses. Hence his nostalgic campaign slogan was “Making America Great, Again?”1

What was Trump’s plan to reestablish the greatness of America?

PolitiFact noted that Trump’s campaign promises were targeted at changes to immigration, trade, taxes and foreign policy.2 Of the top 10 campaign promises, five are clearly aimed against non-White countries.

The pledge to build a wall along the US-Mexican border hearkens to keeping brown-skinned Mexicans out; and to up the ante, Trump stated he’d even make Mexico pay for the wall. Mexico is a country that the US fought, defeated, and forced to cede over half its territory.

A second promise was to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US. And on 27 January 2017, Trump signed an executive order halting all refugee admissions and temporarily barring people from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. All are countries that the US has attacked militarily in recent times.

Trump then called for tariffs on goods made in China and Mexico. China represents the largest trade deficit for the US. But why Mexico? The US’s trade deficit with Mexico is smaller than that with the European Union (or even just Germany). Hence, the call for imposing tariffs appears ethnically targeted, although Japan, the US’s third largest trade deficit partner, is excluded from the call for imposing tariffs.3 Japan, however, is a crucial lynchpin for US military objectives in East Asia, hosting several US bases.

Middle East

Although Trump says he opposed the invasion of Iraq, he maintains that the US ought to have kept the oil fields in Iraq. Nonetheless, he desires another chance to get the oil.

Keeping the oil, however, would require an invasion, long-lasting occupation, and a costly reconstruction.

Trump’s Middle East policy has been intensely and unapologetically pro-Israel as demonstrated by the appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as presidential advisor and assigning him responsibility for negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine. It is a questionable appointment beyond the apparent nepotism as the Jewish Kushner and his family is deeply connected with the Israeli government and Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu.4 Thus, it is unsurprising that Trump went against decades of US policy and United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 and recognized Jerusalem/Al Quds as the capital of Israel. UNGA 181 had designated Jerusalem as a corpus separatum to be governed by an international regime. The US embassy move was opposed by a 14 to 1 vote of the UN Security Council, the lone vote against being the US veto. The UNGA also weighed in against the embassy move by a vote of 128 to 9.

In essence, the US has picked sides, marginalized the UN, and is breaking international law by defying the special status of Jerusalem.

Trump has supported Israeli goals through US violence against the Syrian government.5 He also pleased Netanyahu by decertifying Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement. This he did despite it being contrary to the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the P5+1, and the US government that Tehran is in compliance.

Iran is being backed into an economic corner by sanctions. The worse case scenario is WWIII. Maladroit political posturing and military brinksmanship could foolishly unleash the forces of a war in the region that might spread to engulf the world.

East Asia

Trump – chagrined that a nuclear deterrent, purportedly within range of continental America, has been achieved by the Democratic Republic of Korea – spoke ominously to the UNGA that “if it [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” First, North Korea pledges a no-first-use of nuclear weapons. Second, no rational person would suggest for a moment that North Korea would initiate an attack against the US or its allies. Consequently, serious analysts look upon Trump’s genocidal threat as dangerous bloviating.

North Korea’s neighbor, the economic powerhouse China also engenders Trump’s undiplomatic scorn. From a Chinese viewpoint, Trump must be considered a mixed bag.6

The slights are many, from offering China’s Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping a burger dinner, side-stepping the one-China policy, haranguing China on North Korea, to complaining about the trade balance as “very unfair and one-sided.” Said Trump, “… what [Xi’s] done is sucked all of our jobs and he’s sucked the money right out of our country…”

Another flashpoint is the South China Sea where the US insists on causing waves by sending warships.7

Thus China felt the need, according to some reports, to intentionally unveil China’s most powerful ICBM, the Dongfeng-41, at the time of Trump’s inauguration. Konstantin Sivkov, president of the Moscow-based Academy of Geopolitical Problems, stated: “This is China’s response to threats pronounced by the new US president, Donald Trump.”8

Looming over the Pivot to Asia that Trump inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama, are the dark economic clouds of Trump’s trade strategy that has the debt-ridden US mired in a trade war with China, a spat that is threatening the world economy.

On the Homefront

While honoring Navajo veterans of World War II at the White House, Trump caused a brouhaha by referencing “Pocahontas.” An op-ed in the New York Times excoriated Trump who “once again underscored the degree to which he is openly hostile to people of color — I call that racism and bigotry” … “The Trump Doctrine is White Supremacy.”9

Is “Pocahontas” a racial slur? For words to be a slur, then there must be intent. At worst, Trump is an open racist; at best, Trump comes across as blithely ignorant.

In the vein of actions speaking louder than words, Trump’s signing of the Dakota Access Order dismayed the Standing Rock Sioux, aligned Indigenous peoples, and environmentalists opposed to the pipeline project fearing it will contaminate drinking water. Tom B.K. Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, released a statement calling Trump’s actions “insane and extreme, and nothing short of attacks on our ancestral homelands as Indigenous peoples.”

That White supremacism flourishes among a segment of Americans was attested to by violence that flared between the extreme right and counter protestors in Charlottesville, VA that led to the killing of Heather Heyer and injury to 19 people. Trump condemned the murder saying, “I thought what took place was a horrible moment for the country, but there are two sides to a story.” Two days later he repeated his condemnation of “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

Likeliest there was violence on both sides; seldom will one side remain completely passive in the face of violence against it. However, what critics were seeking was a clear-cut denunciation of racism from Trump without the obfuscation of which sides were involved in the violence.

Trump’s ire was also evoked by the peaceful protests of National Football League (predominantly Black) players who were taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. This was started by blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick (no pun intended, but Kaepernick has since been denied employment by the NFL’s all-White team ownership – excluding Pakistani-born owner Shahid Khan who showed solidarity with his players against Trump’s divisive comments) who took a public stand against systemic oppression, police brutality, and the lack of justice for people of color in the US. Right-wingers, however, transmogrified the protests into disrespect for the flag and the US military.

Trump had a suggestion: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’”

Trump called the taking of the knee “a total disrespect for our heritage; that’s a total disrespect for everything that we stand for.”

Among Trump’s “we” is a section of the working class whose “cultural anxiety”10 Trump successfully tapped into at the ballot box. But bolstering military spending and tax cuts that preponderantly reward the wealthy (right-wing Fortune magazine called it a win for big business11 do little to ease the economic plight of working Americans. The liberal magazine Nation argued that Trump has worsened the worker’s situation:

The rollback of labor rights and protections since Trump took office is staggering. It puts worker safety at risk and guarantees that many workers will earn less, but that’s not all. Measures to help victims of discrimination receive redress are on the scrap heap. Unions are running scared.12

Race and Politics

Aside from being ineloquent, is Trump appreciably worse than previous US presidents? A dozen US presidents, including so-called founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, were slave owners.13

Moreover, is the US not a nation state established through warring against the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island14 and depriving them of their territories?

The first US president George Washington regarded Indigenous peoples as wolves: “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”15 The Haudenosaunee called Washington the “town destroyer” for demolishing their villages.16

Thomas Jefferson boasted: “in war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.”17

Andrew Jackson referred to the Indigenous peoples as “savage dogs” and bragged of preserving a scalp collection.18

Theodore Roosevelt’s racism was unabashed, “I suppose I should be ashamed to say that I take the western view of the Indian. I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth. The most vicious cowboy has more moral principle than the average Indian.”19

Is Trump a Racist?

Trump denies being a racist. Orrin Hatch, the Republican senator for Utah, agreed, “I know Donald Trump. I don’t think there is a racist bone in his body.”

Trump’s policy plank seems to indicate a racially motivated policy. But does the policy substantially differ from that which the Democrats pursued during their days in political office?

The ICE raids of today hearken back to the Palmer Raids to round up immigrants in the early 20th century. Concentration camps are also not new to the US as Indigenous peoples and Japanese Americans found themselves interred in such facilities.

The focus on whether Trump is racist, and whether Trump has genuine concern for American workers, serves as distraction. A spotlight is usually shone on American leaders who will invariably claim that the US is a beacon on the hill, an indispensable nation, an exceptional nation. Leaders have a role, but they function within a system. History reveals that the US is a system born out of racism, a system whose Declaration of Independence derided the original occupants of Turtle Island as “merciless Indian savages” and removed them from their land, a system that exploited slave labor, a system that currently exploits wage slaves, and is a war-based economy.

Many countries in the world can be described as economic backwaters, yet much of the blame for this can be laid at the feet of the White world for, among other things, a history of colonialism, slavery, economic exploitation, support for dictators, corrupt lending practices, and odious debt.

Trump has had an embattled presidency. A section of the system is fighting Trump – who is also a part of the system. Removing Trump would change the face in the Oval Office, but the system would continue. Deplorable as Trump is, the biggest enemy of a moral universe is the system of militarist-capitalism.

  1. For what MAGA implies, see Kim Petersen, “Making America Great, Again? Racism, Poverty, Violence…,” Global Research, 23 July 2017.
  2. Linda Qiu, “Donald Trump’s top 10 campaign promises,” PolitiFact, 15 July 2016.
  3. See 2016 figures for “List of the largest trading partners of the United States,” Wikipedia.
  4. See “Flynn Plea Shows Collusion With… Israel?Real News.com, 2 December 2017.
  5. One ought to view with sharp skepticism US claims that it is fighting ISIS in Syria. See, e.g., “Russian Journalists Blow Lid Off Alleged US Terrorist Training Network in Syria,” Sputnik, January 2018. The US is also providing safe haven for ISIS remnants in Syria. See Steven Sahiounie, “US Coalition in Syria Using ISIS at Al Tanf,” Global Research, 27 March 2019.
  6. See Kim Petersen, “What is Trump Signaling about China?American Herald Tribune, 30 January 2017.
  7. I discuss this in some depth in “Sovereignty in the South China Sea,” Dissident Voice, 7 June 2016.
  8. Analyst Believes China’s Missiles Near Russian Borders Target USA,” TASS, 24 January 2016.
  9. Charles M. Blow, “Trump, Proxy of Racism,” New York Times, 30 November 2017.
  10. Emma Green, “It Was Cultural Anxiety That Drove White, Working-Class Voters to Trump,” The Atlantic, 9 May 2017.
  11. See “The GOP Tax Plan: 3 Big Wins for Business,” Fortune, 2 November 2017.
  12. Helaine Olen, “The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering,” Nation, 1 September 2017.
  13. Evan Andrews, “How Many U.S. Presidents Owned Slaves?History, 19 July 2017.
  14. Who should determine the designation of a continent: the people who have resided there since time immemorial or newcomers from the continent of Europe? Europeans chose the designation “North America” after one of their citizens. “Turtle Island” is a designation stemming from the legends of Indigenous peoples. See Kim Petersen, “America: The Morality of a Geopolitical Designation,” Dissident Voice, 6 August 2014.
  15. David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (London: Oxford University Press, 1992): 119.
  16. From Roland Bainton, Early Christianity (Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1960). Cited in Stannard, 120.
  17. Stannard, 120.
  18. Stannard, 121.
  19. Hermann Hagedorn, Roosevelt in the Bad Lands (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921): 355.

Manus, Nauru and an Australian Detention Legacy

It could be called a gulag mentality, though it finds form in different ways.  In the defunct Soviet Union, it was definitive of life: millions incarcerated, garrisons of forced labour, instruments of the proletarian paradise fouled.  Gulag literature suggested another society, estranged and removed from civilian life, channelled into an absent universe.  Titles suggested as much: Gustaw Herling’s work was titled A World Apart; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago likewise suggested societies marooned from the broader social project.  But these were intrinsic to the bricks and mortar, in many cases quite literally, of the Soviet state.

In the case of countries supposedly priding themselves in the lotteries of exaggerated freedom, the influence of this carceral mentality is less obvious but still significant.  In Australia, where offshore processing of naval arrivals and its own offerings of gulag culture were made, six years has passed since Nauru and Manus Island became outposts of indefinite detention.

During the years, legislation has been passed encasing these outposts in capsules of secrecy, superficially protected by island sovereignty.  Whistleblowing has been criminalised; concerned doctors have been expelled; suicides, sexual assault and psychological mutilations have been normalised in the patchwork monstrosity that involves compromised local officials, private security firms and funding from the Australian tax payer.

A most obvious consequence of this is the cultivation of a thuggish lack of accountability.  Australian politicians keen to visit the handiwork of their government have been rebuffed.  Greens Senator Nick McKim had been trying to splash out some publicity on the anniversary, paying a visit to Manus Island.  He noted a deterioration in conditions since his 2017 visit.

On Thursday, he was approached by two immigration officials who informed him that he would be deported.  He had been attempting to see East Lorengau camp, was denied entry, and his passport confiscated.  To SBS News, he expressed his disappointment “that they are threatening to deport me because I am here to expose the truth about the treatment of refugees, to lift the veil of secrecy that’s been draped over Australia’s offshore detention regime.”

A mistake is made in assuming clear dates of commencement in terms of a distinct Australian approach.  Australia was, after all, itself a penal colony, an experiment in distant punishment and obsessive control.  It made, in turn, prisoners of the indigenous population.  Brutally, its various authorities relocated individuals to missions, camps and compounds.  A paternal mentality, one that has never left, took hold: we know what is best for you, be it the Bible or the dog tag. Infantilism, exploitation and dispossession thrived as mentalities.

Despite being an active participant in the post-war movement to establish an international refugee regime protecting human rights, Australian approaches have remained, as immigration law specialist Mary Crock puts it, “controlled and highly selective.”  For decades, Australian administrators and decision makers remained unperturbed by jurisprudence relevant to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951.  The country’s isolation, its continental expanse, and not sharing land borders, have offered governments an unparalleled luxury: “the ability to achieve near perfect control of immigration.”

During the 1960s, Manus Island was set up to take refugees from West Papua.  Salasia Camp, located near the current Lombrom detention centre, was established to isolate a certain number of West Papuan notables who had irked the Indonesian state’s efforts in claiming the former Dutch New Guinea colony.  Australia, not wanting to aggravate their Indonesian counterparts in providing safe havens for West Irian rebels, kept matters quiet, sometimes turning back refugees while offering “permissive residence” visas to others.

Not that the officials of Papua New Guinea were thrilled: thousands of West Papuans who made their way fleeing conflict between the rebels of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (West Papua Freedom Movement) and the Indonesian military were left without PNG citizenship for five decades.

The arrival of Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing in the aftermath of the country’s re-unification in the 1970s saw Australian officials flirt with variants of offshore processing.  The 1978 system established in response to these arrivals ensured a monopoly on the part of the immigration minister to determine the refugee status of arrivals. Lawyers and advisors were given a distant second billing in the role.  In the words of Professor Crock, “The regional processing regime established right across Southeast Asia was predicated on an offshore processing-type idea; stopping asylum seekers where they are, processing them there, and distributing them in an orderly fashion.”

There was the Tampa-Pacific solution orchestrated by Prime Minister John Howard in 2001; there was the re-commencement in fits and starts under dysfunctional, catty Labor governments: the Gillard administration reinstated offshore processing in 2012, while Kevin Rudd added his icing by insisting that no asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be settled in Australia.  But the earth had already been disturbed, the mind oriented, towards cruelty in the name of necessity.

While refugees tend to be the fodder of periodic periods of demonization, there are many reminders about a condition that Australia has made its own.  Some of this features in the talismanic, urgently desperate writing of the Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani.  In 2018, Hoda Afshar snapped a picture showing Boochani as a Christ-like figure, seemingly awaiting crucifixion.  Her subject chose to see it differently.  “I only see a refugee, someone whose identity has been taken from him.  Just bare life, standing beyond the borders of Australia, waiting and staring.”

The Australian Book Review has offered a Behrouz Boochani Fellowship worth $10,000, funded by lawyer and philanthropist Peter McMullin.  In of itself, it suggests the absurd condition that is offshore processing, a state of mind that now draws funding for analysis, for commitment, for understanding.  Having become as ordinary as the insufferably ugly Australian Hills Hoist, or bountiful cask wine, it will not be leaving any time too soon, itself a disfigurement rendered natural.

Passing the Parcel: The European Union and Refugees in the Mediterranean

The modern UN Refugee Convention is now so flea-bitten it’s been put out to the garbage tip of history.  At least the enthusiastic fleas think so, given their conduct as political representatives across a range of parliaments keen on barbed wired borders and impenetrable defences.  Across Europe, the issue of refugees arriving by sea – in this case, the Mediterranean – has become a matter of games and deflection. Lacking any coherence whatsoever, the approach to certain, designated arrivals is to push them on to the next port in fits of cruel deflection, hoping that the next recipient will give in.  Such conduct demonstrates how states have adopted notions of penalisation and discrimination against the arrival who seeks sanctuary, positions severely in breach of international humanitarian law.

Australia remains the undisputed pioneer in this, at least in the last two decades.  Incapable of establishing a decent environmental policy, hostage to the gunpoint of the mining lobby, and suspicious of enshrined rights, its backwater parliamentarians have been dazzling with other efforts: finding a suitably bestial policy to repel maritime arrivals, for instance.  Boats have been towed back to Indonesia, a country which many of its representatives grudgingly do business with.  People smugglers, the very same ones demonised as “scum” by Australian politicians, have been paid when and where necessary.  A veil of secrecy has been cast with suffocating effect across the operations of the Royal Australian Navy, and criminal provisions have been passed punishing any whistle-blower who dares disclose the nature of operations in the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

Countries hugging the Mediterranean are also attempting to make a dash up the premier league of refugee cruelty.  In January, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini bellowed in disdain that rescue ships heading to Italy were provocations. “No one will disembark in Italy.”  This has been accentuated by a change in funding policy.  The European Union has distanced itself from the anti-smuggling Operation Sophia, which ran for four years and involved the rescue of thousands of refugees with the use of EU vessels.  Any united front on the part of EU states has effectively collapsed.

Vessels are now being refused docking rights as a matter of course.  Sixty-two migrants on the German rescue ship Alan Kurdi found themselves being refused and moved on.  Having been rescued on April 3 near Libya, the vessel owned by the German non-governmental organisation Sea-Eye faced a rhetoric, and approach, long favoured in the isolated Australian capital of Canberra.  Those attempting to enter the ports of Malta and Italy were initially refused.  To permit them entry would be tantamount to encouraging human trafficking.

It took 10 days of torment before an agreement was struck: the individuals in question would be allowed to reach Valetta in Malta.  As with everything else, political representatives saw a chance to make hay.  Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed a victory in ending the stand-off, scolding conservatives who believed in abortion.  “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  We are speaking about the same human life, and I can no longer take the hypocrisy in people who have these double standards.”

There was a twist, suggesting that the government could still be selective.  The crew of the Alan Kurdi were refused entry, thereby revealing that Malta was happy to spare the refugee but punish the rescuer.  “We condemn,” a dissatisfied Sea-Eye chairman Gorden Isler claimed, “the abuse of state power and the illegal restriction of our crew members’ freedom, who risked their own health to save lives.”  Captain Werner Czerwinski has proceeded to head to Spain with the express purpose of finding a harbour.  The impediments on its movement have been costly, meaning that it will be unable to embark on its next mission to the central part of the Mediterranean.

A statement from the Maltese government revealed the parcelling scheme: four countries would be involved, divvying out the human misery.  “Through the coordination of the European Commission, with the cooperation of Malta, the migrants on board the NGO vessel Alan Kurdi will be redistributed among four EU states: Germany, France, Portugal and Luxembourg.”  Hardly a stellar outcome, and certainly an ad hoc outcome that bodes ill for any consistency.

“These negotiations,” went a joint statement from Sea-Eye with a host of other rescue organisations, “are illegitimate and unsustainable practices that violate international law, fundamental principles of human rights and disregard the dignity of the rescued.”  The law of the sea, international law more generally speaking, and human rights law, had been flouted in not permitting an immediate disembarkation “at the nearest place of safety.”

The entire system of responding to refugees has become a toxic spread.  Organisations dedicated to the venture of saving potential victims of drowning have been designated a problem as grave as the people they assist.  Those wishing to help are imperilled by the very process of assistance which should be protected by the right to asylum.  There are bureaucratic issues on which waters the refugees might be found in.  Drownings have been inevitable, showing that red tape can be a lethal affair.

In various perverse instances, the rescuers can themselves find themselves facing investigations for actually providing needed assistance.  Miguel Rodan, a Spanish firefighter who found himself helping distressed refugees in June 2017, was duly informed that he, along with his fellow rescuers, were being investigated by officials of the Italian government that they might have been responsible for “facilitating illegal immigration”.

The looming tragedy here is that more numbers are bound to find their way into the waters of the Mediterranean, given the rapid escalation of hostilities in a crippled Libya.  Assessments vary depending on which panicked account is consulted, but a figure of 800,000 migrants has been floated.  The assault on Tripoli by Khalifa Hafter has the potential, according to Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj of the UN-recognised government, to become a “new Syria”, a “war of aggression that will spread its cancer through the Mediterranean, Italy and Europe.”  The language is crudely apt: refugees as a cancerous spread; Europe’s response, a chemotherapeutic, if inconsistent harsh counter.

Rising Politics of Intolerance and the Need for Unity

Over the last 20 years extreme right-wing groups have been on the rise throughout the world. They share a belief in white supremacism and conspiracy theories that allege there is a global plot to replace white Christian populations with Muslims and people of color.

As socio-economic inequality has grown and immigration increased the reactionary ideology of tribal nationalism has become more popular and bled into mainstream politics. Far right groups have garnered support and won political power in a number of countries, including Austria, Poland, Hungary, Italy, the US and India.

Rising far-right terror

Within the spectrum of the far right there are varying degrees of bigotry and Neo-Fascist ideals; at the darkest extreme there are the Neo-Nazi’s, a small percentage that holds the most violent views; next are the pro-white, anti-Semitic social conservatives, they form the majority and want a separation of the races; then there is the more moderate wing or Alt Lite, staunchly anti-feminist, anti-political correctness, pro-western chauvinism. All are abhorrent, all are dangerous; a hint of prejudice no matter where it comes from adds to the collective atmosphere of intolerance, fans the flames of division and can incite violence.

While overall terrorism throughout the world is declining, The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) states that, “there has been a real and significant increase in far-right terrorist activity.”

Since 2014, the number of attacks from right-wing extremists has been greater than attacks from Jihadists, and, the Anti-Defamation League reports that during 2018 “right-wing extremists were linked to at least 50 murders in the United States [up 35% on 2017].” Globally, between 2013 and 2017 there were 113 attacks “by far-right groups and individuals…. of those 47 attacks took place in 2017.

On 15th March, 50 Muslims were murdered in Christchurch, New Zealand: the indiscriminate attack on two mosques during Friday prayers was carried out by Brenton Tarrent, a 28-year-old Australian white supremacist. Prior to the attack Tarrent published a 78-page document entailed The Great Replacement, online. In it he states that the aim of the Christchurch murders was “to take revenge on the [Muslim] invaders for the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by foreign invaders in European lands throughout history…and the thousands of European lives lost to terror attacks throughout European lands.” The manifesto title and many of the ideas promoted in it come from Le Grand Remplacement by 71-year-old Jean Camus and published in 2012.

Camus claims that the white Christian European population is being ousted by immigrants from the Middle East, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. His views have become highly influential on right-wing groups, nationalist and identitarian movements across Europe, the US and elsewhere. Although Camus is particularly concerned with France and preserving French culture, he believes that all Western countries are faced with what he calls, “ethnic and civilizational substitution”, in which over the course of a single generation a civilization is transformed by immigration.

As a result of wars in the Middle East and economic insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa large numbers of migrants have indeed fled to Europe and elsewhere seeking safety and a new life. The influx of migrants/refugees into western countries presents societal challenges and change, but is not a threat or an act of ‘replacement’. The vast majority of migrants do not want to leave their homeland and travel to a country they do not know; people migrate to escape conflict, persecution and economic hardship, much of it caused by the foreign policies of western powers over decades, the exploitation of poor countries over centuries and the concentration of global economic wealth.

Cries of hate; modes of tolerance

Far-right terrorism is a transnational issue; extremists from different countries are more connected than ever and work together. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies relates the example of how in early 2018 members of the Rise Above Movement  (RAM, a white supremacist group based in California) “traveled to Germany, Ukraine, and Italy to celebrate Adolf Hitler’s birthday and to meet with members of European white supremacist groups.” They posted photographs on Instagram with the RAM logo and words like “RAPEFUGEES ARE NOT WELCOME HERE”.

In Ukraine RAM members are reported to have met with Azov Battalion, a paramilitary unit of the Ukrainian National Guard believed to be training and radicalizing white supremacist organizations based in the United States.

The internet plays a crucial role in the work of such groups: social media platforms are employed by both Islamist and right-wing extremists to spread propaganda, organize training, make travel arrangements for events/protests, raise funds and recruit members. Extreme right-wing Internet channels spread lies, exaggerate and mislead; when challenged the sacred cow of freedom of speech is invoked to justify the use of inflammatory language. Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right, but when it leads to murderous violence it violates the most basic human right, the right to life; freedom of speech needs to be conditioned by a sense of social responsibility, respect and understanding of others.

Acts of hate and intolerance of all kinds have been increasing exponentially across the western world in recent years. The 2016 election of Donald Trump in the US, the highly divisive EU referendum in Britain the same year and the influx of refugees fleeing wars and economic hardship triggered a wave of crimes against immigrants, particularly Muslims, as well as other minority groups. Liberal politicians, especially women, have also been targeted, many receiving hate mail and violent threats from right-wing extremists.

The current hatred of Muslims was aroused by the 9/11 attacks and inflamed by the ‘War on Terror’ announced by President George W. Bush in 2007; prejudice normalized, the far right flourished. A 2010 poll conducted by Gallup found that almost half of Muslim Americans experienced racial or religious discrimination, which is on par with “Hispanic Americans (48%) and African Americans (45%),” and, according to research by the EU Fundamental Rights Agency a third of Muslims in Europe say they face discrimination effecting employment, access to public services and housing.

Mainstream politicians stir up discrimination and incite hate; President Trump openly expresses hostility to foreign nationals and consistently makes and retweets Islamophobic comments, he has banned people from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, talks of the US being invaded and is building a ‘wall’ on the Mexican/US border. He is not alone in pandering to prejudice, many right and far right leaning politicians in western democracies have been guilty of fanning the fires. A striking example was the recent action by UK Home Secretary, Sajid David when he stripped Shamima Begum of her British citizenship. The 19 year old, who was in the final days of pregnancy when the announcement was made, had made the mistake of going to Syria in 2016 to support ISIS and marry an ISIS fighter. Her baby was born inside a refugee camp in Syria and, due to lack of proper medical care, died three weeks later.

Not only is the action to make her stateless illegal, it panders to the rhetoric of right wing populism and, instead of fostering forgiveness and compassion, adds to the creation of an environment in which judgment, intolerance and retribution flourish.

Unity not division

Protectionist ideals flourish in an atmosphere of fear, of economic instability and an unstable political environment; such insecure conditions strengthen inward-looking insular attitudes allowing the divisive ‘us versus them’ ideology to become the norm. Divisions of all kinds feed the idea of separation, create distrust, suspicion and fear; and fear leads to conflict and hate.

A cornerstone of the economic system and many aspects of contemporary life is competition; competition encourages division. Competition and aggression go together: the sense that we must compete or fight to survive, that others – especially others that are dissimilar – are regarded as opponents, rivals, competitors wanting what we have, which we must defend at all costs. Trust is nowhere in such an unjust world, society fractures along flag waving lines, violence erupts.

One of the consequences of this combative socio-economic system is inequality – of wealth, income, opportunity, influence, access to culture etc., etc. This social poison fuels a range of ills including mistrust, particularly of ‘the other’, someone who looks, talks and prays differently. Societies with the highest levels of inequality have the lowest levels of trust.

Competition, socio-economic inequality and poverty are not the cause of right-wing extremism, neither is the spread of misinformation or the use of inflammatory language, but collectively they form a powerful force in the creation of circumstances in which negative human tendencies like fear and aggression, are inflamed.

Division in any form, including nationalism, and competition go against human nature; if we are to free the world of all forms of extremism and hate they need to be driven out of society and from the systems under which we live. Unity is the keynote of the times, unity with the greatest level of diversity; modes of living that encourage tolerance and unite people must be actively inculcated. This means rejecting competition and embracing cooperation; it means sharing resources, information and wealth equitably; it means building trust and right relationships. Only then will there be peace within our communities and the wider world.

Death by Video: Morrison Combats Refugees By Film

Caught in the backwater of the world’s existence, Australia struggles for relevance in various ways. It might show itself a leader in creating a sovereign fund (too late for that now); it might demonstrate, in various ways, a singular approach to solar energy (impossible, we are told, on that score). Lacking a decent number of terrorist attacks, it feels left out, stranded in a provincialism that ignores the decent, maiming bombing that might signal a boost in security funding. Lacking the millions of refugees Jordan and Turkey host, it feels cast aside, preferring to persecute the few that it has. Being a US satellite sometimes stings, if only to remind the policy makers here that a good education and service for Australia leads to a pledge to a foreign Queen and, yes, functionaries in Washington.

But there is always room to impress. Australia, land girt by sea, and terrified by what will approach via it. A fixation, one that should fill the psychiatric manuals, has captivated Australian politicians since it became unfashionable to avoid paperwork and get on a boat to head Down Under. In the late 1990s, the regulatory framework to punish and condemn those without documentation was established. The document became sovereign: lacking it landed you, not only in a spot of bother, but a spot of derision. The Migration Act scolded; the Australian immigration minister dispensed with. Australians like their queues; why did you, amidst falling bombs, murderous thugs and the odd exploitative pimp, show consideration and wait in line till we called you?

A certain literature – and to that, a good deal of ghastly celluloid – has been produced on the subject. All are, in essence, in violation of the United Nations Refugee Convention. No mention on the right to asylum is ever made; nor to the right not to be prejudiced against as an asylum seeker in terms of means of arrival. And that’s merely the start. In gazing at these amateurish compilations of self-entitled guff, one is left with the conclusion that no one involved in this process has ever consulted a human rights manual, let alone familiarised themselves with the hideous post-Second World War period. There was a time when the term Displaced Person was not entirely revolting.

Such cinematic barrel scraping features warnings about arriving in Australia. It targets individuals at various stages of their travel. Farid Rasuli, as a 17-year-old refugee, managed to catch a video on YouTube, with production credits due to the Australian Border Force, a few years ago. Moving through Indonesia and hoping to conduct a search for videos in his language, Rasuli found a dull, austere Australian major general popping up. It starts like this: “This video is produced in English by the Australian Government to ensure transparency of translated anti-people smuggling communication material being delivered to audiences offshore.” Such breathtaking, granular authenticity!

The video proceeds in unequivocal manner. In bold type, it claims that, “You will be turned back.” The particular production, dull vintage 2016, insists that the arrangement with the United States to settle refugees that would, otherwise, find themselves in Australia’s holiday gulag, is a “one-off.” Potential arrivals are told that they will not be able to avail themselves of such an option, should they wish to leap on the off chance. What is not explained is that the US administration at the time offers no guarantees that such a measure would even work. (A certain President Donald Trump was going to get the wobbles on that one.)

In 2014, Angus Campbell, the commander of the unfortunately named Operation Sovereign Borders, Australia’s own secret mission of oppression, was co-opted in making another video. It featured, in rather ugly fashion, the bold capitalised words “NO WAY” followed by the imperative shout, “You will not make Australia Home.” Above the message: an Australia with a line through it; a deleted, forbidden Australia. The duration of this ghastly pap is a mere minute. “The message is simple, if you come to Australia illegally by boat, there is no way you will ever make Australia home.”

The message is designed as a punch against both the smuggler and the cargo. “It is the policy and practice of the Australian government to intercept any vessel that is seeking to illegally enter Australia and safely remove it beyond our waters.” (The wording is important: whose safety are we really referring to?)

The Australian propaganda units have been busy – far busier than many of the citizens care to reflect upon. Money best reserved for Australia’s declining education system has found a home in other projects. In addition to film, the form of the graphic novel has been deployed. Going for 18-pages, one had a specific audience: Afghan asylum seekers. The message: should you dare make the journey to Australia, Nauru’s infamous hospitality awaits. The production positively reeks of persecution.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the hardened advertising man of the government, has retreated into something he knows best: the shallow, bucket swilling call of the advert. This is interesting in a way: the same man condemned his opponents for doing something similar when they got on the anti-refugee video show. When Labor, then in government, introduced material to justify its “PNG solution” in July 2013, Morrison claimed that the party was “ramraiding the taxpayer’s ATM”. The then coalition opposition snortingly dismissed the effort by Labor as “propaganda”.

Shortened memories prevail. A two-minute video message is now ambling its way through 10 countries, though it will have to be translated, however accurately, on its crooked journey. “Make no mistake, if you attempt to come to Australia illegally by boat, you will not succeed.” Spare your pennies, insists Morrison. “So do not waste your money or risk your life, or anyone else’s life, for nothing.” Such is the awareness of a person who has never had to consider the throbbing, genuine feeling human rights conjures up in the breast of the oppressed.

Morrison is selling the measure as a necessity, a band aid to what the opposition parties have done to his cherished border protection policy. “Our government will be doing everything within our power – despite what the Labor Party have done to undermine our border protection regime – to ensure these boats don’t come.” Videos, and up at them.

Sickness and Paranoia: The Morrison Government’s Refugee Problem

The passage of amendments to the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) by the Australian House of Representatives and the Senate this week was less a case of celebration than necessitous deliverance.  The mental wellbeing of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru, or lack thereof, has been documented extensively from Australian legal representatives to members of Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Medevac Bill is scripted in clunky fashion typical of Australian drafting, but it does what other items of legislation have not: privilege, to some extent at least, medical opinion on the desperate situation of those kept in indefinite detention.  Australia’s own crude experiment of what might be termed “biopolitical” control has had predictably disastrous consequences on health and well-being.

The legislation supplies the lawful basis for refugees and asylum seekers to be transferred to Australia for “medical or psychiatric assessment or treatment”.  “Aside from being a circuit breaker to current arrangements,” claim Nicholas Proctor and Mary Anne Kenny, “the bill is a new opportunity to establish agreed governance arrangements and a clinical pathway for recognising and responding to medical need without political interference.”

Previously, Australian governments have fought any transfer arrangements of refugees and asylum seekers from Canberra’s tropical gulag with rabid ferocity.  Be it men, women or children, any show of compassion has been given the cold sneer.

The assessment of each patient is to be conducted by two doctors, either in person or remotely, keeping in mind psychiatric and treatment needs. Crucial here is the consideration about whether those supposedly five star facilities in Nauru or Manus Island supply any adequate basis for treating psychiatric and medical disorders.

It would be foolish to presume that the new provisions somehow alleviate the prospects of political interference.  The 72-hour window limit for the Minister for Home Affairs merely imposes a note of urgency; he otherwise retains power of approval or refusal over the recommendations regarding transferrals.  A firestop of sorts restraining the minister has been put in place, one involving an Independent Health Advice Panel, but this is hardly the end of the matter.  Traditional grounds for refusal are also available: a person having a “substantial criminal record” or facing an adverse security assessment might be refused leave to be treated in Australia.

The Coalition was hoping to catch out the opposition on grounds of constitutionality.  (All about inappropriate expenditure, you see.)  That was swiftly remedied by another amendment by the Labor party deeming all members sitting on the medical panel pro bono officials.

Stung and out manoeuvred in parliament, the Morrison government turned savage; facing electoral defeat (the latest poll figures show that a farm slaughter awaits), the signal to abandon reason was there.  Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, Attorney-General Christian Porter and a host of worthies from the government side have been drumming the same note of feral abandon: opposition politicians are weak on protecting Australia’s sacred borders; refugees should be tarred and feathered as criminals of various sorts.

Labor, tweeted Morrison, “have learned nothing from their past failures and cannot be trusted to keep our borders and Australia strong.”  The Coalition’s border protection policy, he reiterated with confidence trickster’s gumption, “stopped the boats, stopped the deaths at sea, closed the detention centres, removed all children from detention and from Nauru.”

Former Prime Minister and backbencher Tony Abbott has been doing his bit as spear thrower, arguing that, “If you lose control of the border, you lose control of the country.” (Is this code for bowel and body?)

Porter’s reasoning is imaginatively skewed: the bill as passed permits individuals to be transferred to Australia who are either charged and not convicted; or convicted yet not sentenced. “At the very last moment, Labor put an amendment in that would give some discretion to the minister to stop people who are criminals, in effect, from coming to Australia.” Such a measure would fail, given that sentencing was “a very long tunnel”, and that ministerial discretion could not be exercised to keep the rotters out.

Fancifully, Porter’s nasty bout of demonization ignores the effects the detention regime have had on the individuals in question.  Prisons are schools for crime; detention centres are sites for mental ruination.  In some cases, these have resulted in sexual predation and desperation, hardly a cause of justification, but perfectly understandable in Canberra’s desire to degrade a certain class of refugee. If you treat people like animals, expect certain results.

A broader principle is also ignored: those either charged or convicted are not entitled to decent medical care.  They are, whatever their legal status, to suffer.  Yet again, Australia’s inherent penal mentality manifests.

Rounding the list of terrors involved, government representatives have been focusing on that permanently rich gift that keeps giving: the morally depraved and corrupt people smuggler, a phantom menace who has done wonders to keep members of parliament elected and secure.  Such a being, it would seem, is always there, awaiting to do the terrible thing and exploit an asylum seeker’s right to, well, seek asylum.  People smugglers, claims Abbott, “will be saying to their potential customers ‘look what Labor has been able to do in opposition, think how better they’ll be for you when they’re in government.”

In an effort to shore up its failings on the vote, the Morrison government has sought to use Christmas Island as a replacement option.  In Morrison’s resigned words, “We have approved putting in place the re-opening of the Christmas Island detention facilities, both to deal with the prospect of arrivals as well as dealing with the prospect of transfers.”

Local officials on Christmas Island were none too amused; if the facilities were not adequate on Manus or Nauru, they are hardly going to reach par on Christmas Island.  But refugee politics in Australia, at least since the late 1990s, has not been about the sensible and the generous, but about the punitive and the preventative.

Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma

It is an organisation not without its problems. Conceived in the heat of idealism, and promoted as the vanguard of medical rescue and human rights advocacy, Médecins Sans Frontières has had its faults.  Its co-founder Bernard Kouchner went a bit awry when he turned such advocacy into full blown interventionism.  As Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister, his conversion to politicised interventionism in places of crisis went full circle.  He notably split from MSF to create Doctors of the World, where he felt imbued by the spirit of droit d’ingerence, subsequently given the gloss of “humanitarian intervention”. With its mischief making properties, such interventions have manifested, usually in the guise of wealthy Western states, from the Balkans to Africa.

MSF, at least in its operating protocols, is meant to be solidly neutral and diligently impartial.  But neutrality tends to be compromised before the spectacle of suffering.  Bearing witness disturbs the mood and narrows objective distance.  On June 17, 2016, by way of example, the organisation stated that it could not “accept funding from the EU or the Member States while at the same time treating the victims of their policies! It’s that simple.”  Central to this, as Katharine Weatherhead explained in an analysis of the organisation’s stance, is the “ethic of refusal” and témoignage, “the idea of being a witness to suffering.”

Australia’s gulag mimicry – a prison first, justice second mentality that governs boat arrivals – has done wonders to challenge any stance of distance humanitarian organisations might purport to have.  To see the suffering such policies cause is to make converts of the stony hearted.  What matters in this instance – the MSF condemnation of Australia’s innately brutal anti-refugee policy on Nauru – is its certitude.

The Australian government has taken the high, icy road and left the UN Refugee Convention in shambolic ruin; it insists, repeatedly, that refugees are to be discriminated against on the basis of how they arrive to the country; it also suggests, with a hypnotically disabling insistence that keeping people in open air prisons indefinitely is far better than letting them drown.  (We, the message goes, stopped the boats and saved lives!)

MSF, which had been working on the island since November 2017 primarily providing free psychological and psychiatric services, was given its marching orders by Nauru’s authorities last week.  Visas for the organisation’s workers were cancelled “to make it clear there was no intention of inviting us back,” explained MSF Australia director Paul McPhun.

A disagreement about what MSF was charged with doing developed.  The original memorandum of understanding with the Nauru government tends to put cold water on the suggestion by Australia’s Home Affairs Minister that MSF had not been involved in supplying medical services to the detainees on the island.  In dull wording, the agreement stated who the intended recipients of the project would be: “People suffering from various mental health issues, from moderate to severe, members of the various communities living in the Republic of Nauru, including Nauruan residents, expatriates, asylum seekers and refugees with no discrimination.”

It was obvious that the revelations would eventually become too much for either the authorities of Australia or Nauru to tolerate.  Having been entrusted with the task of healing the wounds of the mind, MSF’s brief was withdrawn after the organisation’s findings on the state of mental health of those in detention. “Five years of indefinite limbo has led to a radical deterioration of their medical health and wellbeing,” claimed McPhun in stark fashion to reporters in Sydney on Thursday.  “Separating families, holding men, women and children on a remote island indefinitely with no hope of protection except in the case of a medical emergency, is cruel and inhumane.”

Undertaking a journey from war torn environs and famine stricken lands might well inflict its own elements of emotional distortion and disturbance, but Australia’s policy of keeping people isolated, distant and grounded took it further.  It was penal vindictiveness, a form of needless brutal application.

In McPhun’s sharp assessment, “While many asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru experienced trauma in their countries of origin or during their journey, it is the Australian government’s policy of indefinite offshore detention that has destroyed their resilience, shattered all hope, and ultimately impacted their mental health.”

The organisation has made it clear that Canberra’s insistence that “offshore detention” remains somehow humanitarian is barely credible, there being “nothing humanitarian saving people from the sea only to leave them in an open air prison on Nauru.”

Such a cruel joke has turned the members of MSF into a decidedly militant outfit.  “Over the past 11 months on Nauru,” states psychiatrist Beth O’Connor, “I have seen an alarming number of suicide attempts and incidents of self-harm among the refugee and asylum seeker men, women and children we treat.”  Particularly shocking were the number of children enduring the effects of traumatic withdrawal syndrome “where their status deteriorated to the extent they were unable to eat, drink, or even to walk to the toilet.”

With such observations, there is little surprise that Nauru’s government, which was evidently seeking to find an ally and an alibi, felt slighted.  The doctors had to go.  “Although MSF claimed to be a partner to Nauru and the Nauruan people instead of working with us,” came the government justification, “they conspired against us.”  The government was no longer inclined “to accept the concocted lies told about us purely to advance political agendas.”

What the government statement also insisted upon was the comparative advantage the hosted refugees and asylum seekers had.  They had their own tissue of mendacity to proffer.  “The facilities, care, welfare and homely environment offered to refugees and asylum seekers are comparable or better than what other refugees and asylum seekers across the globe receive.”  For that to make any sense, a comparative study on suicides, psychological corrosion and trauma would have to be done across the world’s refugee camps.  In those terms, Nauru’s performance, aided and abetted by their Australian sponsors, has been ghoulishly stellar.

Australian Complicity: Nauru and Silencing Journalism

Journalism is getting something of a battering in Australia.  At the parliamentary level, laws have passed that would be inimical to any tradition versed in the bill of rights.  (Australia, not having such a restraining instrument on political zeal, can only rely on the bumbling wisdom of its representatives.) At the executive level, deals have been brokered between Canberra and various regional states to ensure minimum coverage over the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.  Secrecy is all fashion.

Adding to this is the triumph of a certain breed of lazy, compliant journalist.  The image of the ragtag journo long lost in the speculative tripe of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop has been replaced by a tedious, technocratic lout who should, time permitting, be put out to a distant pasture.  We are now dealing with compromised dispatches, press releases that yoke the reasoning and analysis that would barely pass muster in the lower grades of a half credible primary. The investigative journalist has, for the most part, disappeared, leaving a few brave scribblers to toil in the wilderness.

The corporate angle on this is fairly unremitting: wedged between the Murdoch behemoth (populist, ragged Herald Sun, or the screaming ideological The Australian) and the Fairfax machine (given a progressive tag), the options for the enterprising press writers are narrow.  From the perspective of covering the brutal refugee policy Australia insists on pursuing, the Murdoch press tend to earn the medals of the island authorities in Manus and Nauru.  Fairfax shuffles along in the background with the occasional note of condemnation.

The restrictions placed on covering the policy of the Australian government, and those paid subsidiaries on Nauru and Manus remain on par with the secrecy protocols of the Cold War.  Since its inception, the Australian policy towards boat arrivals ultimately sent to those isolated island reaches has smacked of colonial patronage, with the regulations to boot.

Elevated to the levels of high secrecy under the term Operation Sovereign Borders, “operational details” in dealing with boat arrivals, as they are termed, have been a matter of clandestine value. The degrees of control have also extended to covering camp conditions, a matter policed by brutish little laws such as the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (Cth).  Under that bit of legislative nastiness, those who obtain “protected information” in the course of their employment in the border force apparatus can be punished for two years for disclosing such information except to authorised personnel.

Prior to the passage of the ABFA, the Australian government made it its business to hound a number of Save the Children employees working in the Nauru Regional Processing centre. Their sin had been to disclose information on the lamentable conditions in the centre.

The levels of media management regarding reporting on the conditions in Nauru has been extreme.  Amnesty International has called this a veritable “wall of secrecy”, designed to conceal “a system of deliberate abuse”.  The Nauru government has periodically limited access by journalists to the island, a process made craftier by the hefty visa application fee.  In 2014, the non-refundable fee of $200 jumped to $8000.

Over the last few years, the small island state has insisted on controlling the journalistic pool.  A conspicuous target here has been the ABC itself, which was banned from entering the country to cover the Pacific Islands Forum in September.  In a government statement posted in July, “It should be noted that no representative from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will be granted a visa to enter Nauru under any circumstances.”

This decision had been occasioned by “this organisation’s blatant interference in Nauru’s domestic politics prior to the 2016 election, harassment of and lack of respect towards our President in Australia, false and defamatory allegations against members of our government, and continued biased and false reporting about our country.” Other outlets, such as the more palatable A Current Affair, The Australian and Sky News, have received no such accusations.

Sky News journalist Laura Jayes even had the high visa application fee waived by the Nauru government when seeking entry in 2016.  She also revealed who the main targets of such a ruinously costly regime were: “Nauru officials would openly admit the fee was to deter the ABC and Guardian.”

The thin-skinned disposition of those authorities was not condemned by the then Turnbull government, a point unsurprising given the close media management being conducted between Australia and Nauru. What has since transpired is that suggestions by officials in Canberra that Australia’s role in the affair is minimal must be taken with a pinch of coarse salt.

A document tendered to federal court as part of a Nauruan medical transfer case is enlightening. “The governments of Australia and Nauru,” it goes, “will agree to media and visitor access policy and conditions of entry, taking into consideration the requirements of section 13 of the Asylum Seekers (Regional Processing Centre) Act 2012.”  Those “seeking access to a Centre will be required to obtain permission from the Secretary of Justice and to sign a media access agreement.” Nothing, it seems, must be left to chance in letting Australians know what is taking place in those outposts of torment and misery.