A thousand worlds and one Anzac Day

I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone but in a thousand worlds.” — John Keats

I like to use those words by Keats to remind me that there are a thousand incredible ways to understand the world around me. It’s the beauty of ‘theory’ — this weird thinky thing that academics use when they try to make sense of things that go on.

And at the moment, I would like to do a bit of that theorising, because I think that not only do I live in a thousand worlds, but everybody around me lives in a radically different world to my own.

The Case

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

  • Part-time ABC Presenter
  • Mechanical Engineering Graduate
  • Member of the Federal ANZAC Centenary Commemoration Youth Working Group
  • Muslim

What is happening?

Well this is what has confused me. There is a media frenzy — both social and otherwise — around a post Yassmin put on Facebook on Anzac Day. The post read:

LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)

Yassmin removed the post and apologised pretty quickly, before simply re-posting ‘Lest We Forget’. And this where we begin our story…

The Frenzy

The usual suspects fired up about it. Serial sloppy outrage-merchants on the Conservative side of politics had their usual (hypocritical, anti-freedom of speech) spray:

Peter Dutton called her “a disgrace”.

Pauline Hanson (apparently so anti-vax she has Chicken Pox) did her usual thing:

and the Daily Telegraph leapt in with this cracker of a front-page:

But more troubling for me was the way people on my Facebook reacted. These are people who I consider very reasonable, intelligent, kind and understanding.

There has been some great writing done on this already, and I’ll link you to these three articles which do a better job than I (or at least, get paid to do one):

Osman Faruqi at Junkee: “These Anzac Day “Controversies” Reveal The Huge Hypocrisy Of Australian Conservatives”

Iran Yusuf at Crikey: “Is small-minded bigotry how we honour the Diggers? Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s tsunami in a teacup”

Jane Gilmore at Fairfax: “Hysteria over Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day post cannot be separated from racism”

And here’s a neat summary for background.

So Pat, what do you think?

Well I’m glad you asked (and also I am tired of re-writing my arguments on Facebook, so I thought best to put it in one place).

I first want to tackle just at a basic level the argument that what she said was, to quote the Daily Telegraph, ‘a hateful slur’, and which others have described variously as ‘disgusting’, ‘un-Australian’ and ‘anti-Anzac’.

To be clear: she simply posted the words ‘Lest We Forget’ and then listed four geographical locations behind it. That’s it.

Part of the furore stems, obviously, from the fact that those locations are current sites of human rights abuses (alleged and otherwise) — Manus Island, Nauru, Syria and Palestine. You’ll notice that a lot of people argue that Yassmin was ‘politicising’ Anzac Day.

This really depends on your definition of ‘politicising’. As I explained in another blog post, Anzac Day itself is already deeply political. It came about because of political manoeuvring in the 1920’s, it has come and gone in popularity, and the current vast focus on Anzac Day is really only a product of the last 20-odd years — a product of politicking and exploitation at the highest levels of government.

In short: Anzac Day is political, and it has been from the start.

Now, to be clear, I don’t think this makes Anzac Day any less virtuous. As I argued in that blog post, it does give us a chance to reflect on the tragedy of war, of violence, of loss, and the pointless follies of the last centuries in which war has destroyed the lives of Australian men and women. My grandfather’s brother — who looked a lot like me — was killed by Japanese soldiers in the Second World War. This is not some disconnected issue for people in Australia, it is a meaningful day.

But I disagree with people who say that Yassmin’s post was somehow hateful or derogatory to the Anzacs. In no way can it be read as a criticism of servicemen or women — and I would be very surprised if it did. Yassmin was a member of Centenary of ANZAC youth working group — she was actually deeply involved in organising Australia’s commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of World War I.

Nor does her post itself ‘distract’ from the remembrance of Anzac Day. Australia has had diggers fighting in Syria, in Palestine, in defence of PNG (of which Manus Island is a part), and during World War II it was to Australian forces that the occupying Japanese troops surrendered Nauru. Quite apart from the obvious contemporary resonance of these places, Australian soldiers have had a long history of engagement in these regions.

But people are furious about this, and they don’t seem to be calming down (and won’t until she is fired by the ABC and ‘self-deports’ from Australia — where she has grown up from the age of 2).

So let me disassemble each of the counter-arguments, before hopefully pulling all of this together into something a bit more constructive at the very end. I want to address the idea that the ‘timing’ of the post was bad, that it was ‘disrespectful’, that she has a dangerous ‘theocratic mindset’, that criticism of her is not racist, and then look at the idea of proportionality in public responses these days. And then…you know…maybe offer an enlightened alternative.

“I think the timing of the comments are the issue”

This argument comes back to the idea that Anzac Day is so sacrosanct in Australia that there is no room for anything else. Which I think is a really dangerous idea.

For a start, no ‘national day’, no matter how deeply it moves us, should be beyond questioning. At least not in a healthy, free democracy. The strength of Australia’s civic culture actually comes from the fact that we have a plurality of views — whether you’ve got a megaphone like Ray Hadley, or a Facebook page like Yassmin Abdel-Magied, or a Medium account like Pat Norman. Everybody should have the freedom and entitlement to political expression — and that shouldn’t cost them their job.

This kind of goes to the idea of freedom of speech — an annoying persistent debate in Australia today — but I think you’ve really got to draw a line between legitimate political expression and racial slurs or hate speech.

Arguing that Anzac Day is an appropriate forum to consider human tragedy on a range of scales — as you might implicitly take Yassmin’s post to argue — really ought to fall under the category of political expression. It doesn’t hurt or vilify anyone personally, it simply calls to mind an inconvenient truth: that the conflicts that Anzac soldiers fought in were not the last conflicts, and they didn’t bring an end to conflict in many regions of the world (and their echoes are still felt today). In fact, what better occasion is there to raise these issues than Anzac Day — when all of Australia’s attention is focused on the contribution our servicemen and women make to our country at the behest of the government of the day?

This is exactly what goes on — by the way — in Operation Sovereign Borders. And in Syria and the Middle East at the moment. We have Australia defence personnel engaged right now in these places. Isn’t it a bit totalitarian to say that Anzac Day is the wrong time to raise that issue?

Anzac Day is a day for reflection — and you can trace that argument back through countless Prime Ministers and Governors-General. And really, it means many different things to everyone in this country. It is, frankly, deeply wrong to tell a person what they may reflect about and the manner in which they reflect.

One of the things I most admire and love about the veterans at Davistown RSL is the quiet dignity with which they conduct Dawn Service and Anzac Day. I can’t imagine them engaging in this kind of character slam — it would be beneath them and the respect with which they hold their comrades.

“It’s just disrespectful in that it downplays the significance of an important day and the sacrifices made by people who put their lives on the line for the country that she is fortunate enough to call home.”

Real talk for a second: Anzac soldiers basically never put their lives on the line for this country — and that’s what makes them just so bloody admirable.

The Diggers were inevitably fighting in far flung theatres of war in defence of other countries. That’s why Ataturk was so gracious, and why Marshal Ferdinand Foch held Australian soldiers in particularly high regard, and why I personally am quite proud of the contribution our servicemen and women make around the globe — whether they are fighting ISIS, fighting Hitler, or fighting pirates (as my oldest friend was recently, when she was deployed overseas).

Recognition of other lives lost does nothing to diminish the significance of that contribution — unless you allow it to. And — here I use that hideous phrase ‘in my opinion’ — if you are taking so much time to sledge a young woman about an ambiguous Facebook post, then perhaps it is you who are diminishing the significance of this day.

And I mean that quite seriously.

Why would so many people spend so much time and energy attacking an individual for a single Facebook post (which was withdrawn quickly, with apology) and claim that the post — which took all of a second to read — somehow does more to diminish Anzac Day than three days of sustained personal sledging?

What utter hypocrisy! What abject and total ignorance of the solemnity of Anzac Day!

Yassmin’s post at least had the sensibility to be sincere, thoughtful and mournful — far more appropriate emotional markers of Anzac Day, I would think, than the vile rage that has consumed so many in this witch hunt.

One of CEW Bean’s enduring images of the Anzac Soldier (contested though it is), is of a noble, friendly and dignified larrikin. I can’t imagine a figure further removed from the frothing, blood-thirsty mass that has been calling for Yassmin’s sacking.

I argued on Anzac Day that failure to think deeply about the meaning of this day is the ultimate disrespect on a day that calls for — above all else — reflection and remembrance. Simply posting ‘lest we forget’, as though those three words said without thought carry some enchanted power into the world, strips those words of meaning.

Lest we forget — in case we forget — signifies so much more: our need to be vigilant against the terrors of war, our need to be good when the world turns bad, our need to bring light to the dark places. If we remember the meaning of ‘lest we forget’, then Yassmin’s post embodies the spirit of Anzac Day: that we are good people, and that the best of us died in service of a greater good, and that it is our duty to make sure good continues to be done.

“Her views are theocratic. She believes in Sharia Law.”

Okay, so this one is totally unrelated to Anzac Day, and it actually annoys me because:

  1. It implies that because she has a particular religion, she isn’t entitled to have a political view and,
  2. It digs up this stupid debate about ‘Sharia Law’.

I get really tired of making this point to people, but here we go again.

Sharia Law, like Catholic Canon Law, like the laws that govern the lives of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Pastafarians, is a religious law. It applies to the private religious lives of individuals. And it is interpreted differently in different contexts. In Australia, it is practised at home, and adherents of Islam — as with any religious faith in Australia — must still comply with Australian Law. Full stop. There’s no way around that, no legal dodge.

And according to the last available census data, about 2.2% of the population is Muslim, so there’s not a big risk of some takeover of the legal system.

To be clear, Yassmin Albed-Magied has said some silly things on Q&A — like ‘Islam is the most feminist religion’. Clearly, Wahhabist strains in Saudi Arabia and other branches throughout the Middle East are ridiculously restrictive of women’s rights. In addition, the faith is used in these regions to justify capital punishment, the torture and murder of gays, and barbaric criminal justice. So let’s not pretend that this is a faith that is somehow more ‘pure’ than any others. All religions have their brutal streaks — but Islam and Christianity, probably because of their prevalence, seem to stand out as among the worst.

But that’s in a particular context, and Yassmin — like all Australian Muslims — lives in a completely different cultural context: she lives in Australia. She respects and appreciates and promotes our democracy — that is why the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade sent her to the Middle East to promote our country.

Context matters absolutely and always.

This is what Raewyn Connell calls ‘dirty theory’ (to return to my point about theory): it is theory that is ‘rooted’ in the ground where it is found. Yassmin grew up in Australia. Her understanding of Islam is an Australian one, just as is the case I am sure for most Australian Muslims. The idea that Islam, or individuals who have contributed as much to this country as Yassmin has, will somehow turn this place into a backwards theocracy like Saudi Arabia is STUPID.

Like, people were legit responding to this by saying “she should be stoned or something like that”. Are you kidding? For writing four words with which you disagree? Do people understand that wanting that sort of thing literally makes you as bad as the House of Saud?

“I don’t think criticism is because she’s a woman or Muslim”

Really? Then why have so many people raised her religion — which has nothing to do with what she posted on Facebook?

Why have politicians called for her to ‘self-deport’?

And why, honestly, has the Facebook post of an H-grade celebrity from the ABC become such a massive issue? I submit to you that it is because she is outspoken and opinionated, and every time a woman does that — much less a Muslim woman — she gets slammed in the media.

The outrage that blew up around her defence of her faith on Q&A was just the start. But here she is again, stepping slightly outside Australia’s civic orthodoxy, and the reaction is overwhelming.

Re-read the words she wrote:

LEST. WE. FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)

Tell me how this is so outrageous that there are calls for her to be sacked, banned and deported.

I have posted worse things on my Facebook drunk at Arq.

The Point about Proportionality

So I promised some nice way to try and tie all this together, and if you’ve made it this far into my rant, I am impressed. I hope that maybe this has helped you to think and reflect — because for me that is what this whole Anzac thing has always been about.

The response to Yassmin Albed-Magied’s post defies all sense of proportionality. If a lynch mob rocked up to the ABC building in Ultimo tomorrow I would not be surprised, the way this issue has been escalated.

But for me the real question is this: why are you so upset, when I am not? Why do these words hurt you so much more than any other?

It’s a mark of the importance and power of words when they move people. That is especially the case when those words don’t contain anything that should be immediately offensive.

What Yassmin Albed-Magied posted was a series of words with which people have become all-too familiar, reading them off like a rehearsed response:

Lest We Forget.

But that’s not enough, and instead she provoked a reaction that defies all common sense, that reaches deep into some repressed emotional foundation.

(Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)

That these four words — reminders of the wars in which our soldiers continue to serve — moved so many to blind, furious, hateful, vengeful, rage tells me something that saddens me:

You forgot.

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2 Replies to “A thousand worlds and one Anzac Day”

  1. Well said. The greatest downside of social media is that a lazy minority can have such power. I think most normal people do not react and if this seems arrogant, so be it. I am sick of knee jerk, opinionated fools, with a beer can and a banjo dictating what we see or hear. I don’t know the lady, nor have I ever listened to her show, but I don’t want any minority group dictating what i see or hear. Let them have their opinion but do not let their opinion rule the content or the range of discourse.

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