Understanding Islamic State, death cults and empty slogans

In Australia, politicians of all stripes are conducting a national conversation about the origins, rise and ways to challenge the fundamentalist militia Islamic State (IS). This debate usually takes place within the context of understanding global terrorism. There are resources, such as the online magazine The Conversation, that examine the rise and nature of IS in a historical and  political context. Since IS burst onto the scene in June 2014 with the capture of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, that militia has stunned the international corporate media with its brutality. Numerous papers and forums have been dedicated to comprehending the conditions that gave rise to this particular group.

In Australia, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, frequently referred to IS as a ‘death cult.’ Sometimes, he would mention this group as an ‘Islamist death cult.’ Firstly, let us clear up one misconception – let us do our best to avoid using the mistaken term “Islamic terrorism.” Let us approach the problem of global terrorism as an issue for all nations and communities. Let us avoid associating the civilisation, people and philosophy of the Islamic world exclusively with something as horrendous and repulsive as terrorism. No single civilisation or ethnic group has a monopoly on a propensity to commit acts of violence.

Secondly, Abbott’s obsessive and neurotic fixation on ‘death cult’ serves the purpose of overinflating his ego, exaggerating his importance in the fight against IS. Magnifying the menace and strength of the enemy, serves to increase the seeming courage of those confronting it. It also serves the purpose of distorting the nature of political debate – singling out the undoubtedly savage violence of IS all the while downplaying the serious problems that confront the Australian community.

For instance, domestic violence is at staggering proportions in Australia. One in five Australian women has experienced intimate partner violence. Former PM Abbott did mention this issue in his media releases, interviews and transcripts 43 times between September 2014 and May 2015. However, in the same period, he mentioned ‘death cult’ 346 times, and numerous backbencher took up the same expression. He demonstrated his priorities while in office.

It is true that current Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, has not used this expression. However, he uses more subtle, yet no less aggressive rhetoric, when denouncing the IS militants. He portrays this group as a unique, existential threat to the existence and values of our capitalist nominal parliamentary democracy. The phrase, while not recycled as frequently as before, nevertheless maintains its shock-value. Robert Manne, emeritus professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe university, attempted a more academic rendition of the ‘death cult’ theme in his article for The Monthly magazine, entitled “The Mind of the Islamic State: an ideology of savagery.”

Articles like Robert Manne’s are useful to be sure. They make for fascinating reading. They also maintain the uniqueness and singularly evil nature of this bizarre, ultra-sectarian militia outfit. The social experience of this death cult appears unusual and intriguing to us in the (supposedly) civilised West. Surely, the IS militia is something so irrational, driven by fanatical primal motivations and is so remote from our experience in the Christian-European West that it is beyond rational comprehension. Perhaps it is difficult for us to understand, because we have nothing to which to compare it, an analogue experience in the West.

Death cult? That’s not a death cult……..

In the smash-hit Australian movie from the 1980s, Crocodile Dundee, there is an iconic scene involving the title character, played by Australian comedian Paul Hogan. He and his girlfriend are confronted by a robber on the street, who demands that Dundee hand over his wallet, and pulls out a pocket-knife. Dundee, scorning the menace of the street mugger, states “that’s not a knife – that’s a knife!” He simultaneously draws out a large hunting knife, and the would-be mugger disappears. Let us use this particular approach with this subject.

You think IS is a death cult? Ok, it is – but the militants of this group seem as menacing as fluffy kittens compared to the group that set the gold-standard for death cults – the Legion of the Archangel Michael, a mass fascist party in Romania active throughout the 1930s and the early part of World War Two. The newly independent Eastern European nations, modelling their nascent political systems on the main Western democracies, such as Britain, underwent traumatic changes during the interwar years. The Legion was birthed and metamorphosed in this multilayered complex of competing economic, social and political pressures.

The Romanian Iron Guard – as this Legion was popularly known – was a large fascistic organisation that advocated the rebirth of the Romanian state as a pure, Christian, fascistic polity. They were following the larger and more successful examples of mass fascist parties in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. However, they had characteristics that made them distinctive. Combining an ultra-fanatical interpretation of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and modern political fascism, they believed that the way to overcome the economic and social dislocation of the Eastern European state was through redemptive violence.

The Greenshirted Iron Guard, set about purging Romania of all the influences that they determined were detrimental – Jews were massacred, anti-fascist Romanians murdered, synagogues burnt to ashes, labour and Communist organisations slaughtered – they combined a mythology of Christian martyrdom with racist doctrines to become a terrifying tornado of mass violence.

Romania in the 1920s and 30s was undergoing its own economic and social problems, with the majority of the ruling stratum orienting towards Britain as their political and economic model. Bourgeois parties were squabbling, forming and dissolving numerous coalitions; the King Carol II was nominally in charge, but the army remained the power behind the throne. Into this maelstrom emerged the Iron Guard.

Morbidly fascinated by ultra-violence, their slogans included “God is a fascist” and that the ultimate goal of the nation is the Resurrection of the Christ. Combining a harsh literal Christian spirituality with racial purity and political militancy, they became a large fascist party – and a death cult. Scorning parliamentary politics, they believed in the purifying qualities of violence and bloodshed.

Intending to establish a severe Christian theocracy – a Christian caliphate, if you will – the legionnaires of the Iron Guard unleashed their version of violent self-sacrifice, with the aim of rebirthing Romania as an exemplary Christian, racially exclusive and austerely Eastern Orthodox society. As Stanley Payne, emeritus Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison explained it, the Iron Guard insisted not only on maniacal violence and religious orthodoxy, but also on a supposed biological purity of the Romanian bloodline.

Prospective Legionnaires would perform grisly rituals of initiation – drinking the blood from the corpses of Iron Guard’s victims. To join the elite of the organisation – the death squads known as the Brotherhood of Christ – required that each new member slash themselves, bleed into a communal cup, from which each person of the direct-action squad would drink. Consuming blood in this initiation ceremony meant that the candidate was now inducted into the elite for life. There was no way out – not even in death. Wherever they went, the Iron Guard left behind a bloody trail of slaughter and destruction, seeking power and redemption by living their cult of violence and death.

The Romanian capitalist parties had hoped to domesticate and exploit the blood-drinking fanatics of the Iron Guard. To a certain extent they were successful. Whenever domestic opposition to the Romanian monarchist oligarchy erupted, the ruling class had a readily disposable weapon – send in the crazy people. By the early stages of World War Two, the military strongman, Marshal Ion Antonescu, stepped up as the chief in charge. He allied himself with the Iron Guard, used them and relied on them – but also kept them under close watch. By 1941, as the utility of the death cult as a political pawn evaporated, Antonescu demolished the organisation. However, its ideas and scattered membership lived on.

The Iron Guard were fascinated by death and the spiritual reawakening that accompanied it. Motivated by their fanatical interpretation of Eastern Orthodox doctrines to create God’s kingdom in Romania, that was combined with an insistence on racial purity and the resurgence of the nation through constant, maniacal violence and bloodshed. Now that was a morbid, ghoulish, ultra-violent death cult.

An honest conversation 

I am not suggesting that we should not have a debate about the origins and nature of IS. I am not suggesting that one religion is better or worse than the other. I am not suggesting that religious extremism does not have any influence in the emergence of violent militia groups. I am stating that we need to have an open, honest examination of all the complex motivations – economic, political and religious – that interconnect and contribute towards the origin of apocalyptic, fanatical death cults.

Let us supersede the deceptive debate we currently engage in on the causes of terrorism, which focuses exclusively on the Western victims of death cults, but routinely ignore the victims of state-sponsored systematic violence by the major Western powers. Australian politicians should read the excellent article, published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, back in June 2014. Entitled “ISIS: the unsurprising surprise sweeping Iraq”, the author examined the material conditions, created by specific political decisions to go to war, that created a conducive atmosphere for the success of the IS militia group.

No need for empty slogans; no need to deploy jarring phrases like ‘death cult’ to get attention. It was a meaningful, insightful contribution to a necessary conversation about the current problem of terrorism, and its most recent emergence in the shape of IS. If we are going to use phrases, let us deploy them with consistency, and not just when it suits narrow, politically expedient purposes.

Is Australia at risk of a terrorist attack? Yes. But that threat is very remote. Professor Greg Austin, an expert in cyber-security and terrorism from the University of New South Wales, says that Australians are more likely to be killed by the police, or die in a domestic violence incident, rather than die from a terrorist attack. Indeed, the propensity to commit acts of violence goes the other way – with Muslim communities experiencing an increase in ethnically-motivated violence in this climate of surging Islamophobia.

In this environment of supercharged and exaggerated anxieties about terrorism, political and community leaders – and the mainstream media – have the responsibility to alleviate them, not inflame anxieties into a raging moral panic. Those who incite moral panics feed a climate of bigotry and prejudice – sentiments that are exploited by recruiters for militia groups such as IS.

Being grateful – the monotonous refrain that needs to stop

A few months back, I wrote of a constant refrain in my life – being told to go back to where I come from. I elaborated the reasons why this particular slogan keeps recurring, why it is totally unnecessary, counterproductive and irritating, and why it should stop. This phrase taps into the deep recesses of white Australian racism and privilege, and is indicative of the level of political thinking current predominating in Australian society.

This time, without recapitulating all the arguments from that article, I wish to examine another monotonous, unhelpful and obnoxious refrain that I have heard my whole life – that I should be grateful for living in Australia. I was motivated to write about this topic, because I hope that I could clarify the confusion surrounding this subject. Migrants and refugees that have settled in Australia (and in the United States) are subjected to this phrase, not for the purpose of uplifting their spirits, but for the purpose of shutting out any identity or cultural affiliation with their native country.

Dina Nayeri, an Iranian American refugee, wrote precisely about this subject for The Guardian newspaper. An asylum seeker from Iran, she escaped along with her family to find a new life in a Western country. Her article, entitled “The ungrateful refugee: ‘We have no debt to repay'”, is a heart-rending, engrossing and powerful article about her experiences, first in leaving Iran, and also in discovering a new identity and culture in America. She relates how in 1985, in the middle of the long Iran-Iraq war, she travelled to London with her parents. Enrolling in school, she describes how the initial welcoming atmosphere soon soured, and the other English kids (boys) would physically assault her, taunt and insult her, all the while she was studying. She was advised that while this behaviour was wrong, she should be ‘grateful’ to have the opportunity to study in England. She states that:

I never went back to that school, but later, in the chatter of the grownups from my grandmother’s church and even in my parents’ soothing whispers, I heard a steady refrain about gratefulness. God had protected me and so I shouldn’t look at the event in a negative light. It was my moment to shine! Besides, who could tell what had motivated those boys? Maybe they were just playing, trying to include me though I didn’t speak a word of their language. Wasn’t that a good thing?

Three years later, the Nayeri family left Iran for good, and settled in the United States. In that country, Dina became an ‘ambassador’ for everything Iranian and Muslim – the other students ridiculed her accent, her language, her culture, her religion – even though she tried to explain that she was Christian. Whenever she was attacked, she would be told – you should be grateful you are living here in America – Oklahoma to be exact. She tried to explain that she was not – as the Americans put it – a ‘turban jockey’ or a ‘camel fucker’. These expressions were not only offensive, but misleading characterisations of Iran and Islamic society. Nevertheless, as she elaborated:

Grateful. There was that word again. Here I began to notice the pattern. This word had already come up a lot in my childhood, but in her mouth (her teacher) it lost its goodness. It hinted and threatened. Afraid for my future, I decided that everyone was right: if I failed to stir up in myself enough gratefulness, or if I failed to properly display it, I would lose all that I had gained, this western freedom, the promise of secular schools and uncensored books.

Dina Nayeri began to understand the stifling conformity of official patriotism – America is good, and that is that. Any questioning of this mantra, any residual cultural identity, had to be discarded:

From then on, we sensed the ongoing expectation that we would shed our old skin, give up our former identities – every quirk and desire that made us us – and that we would imply at every opportunity that America was better, that we were so lucky, so humbled to be here. My mother continued giving testimonials in churches. She wore her cross with as much spirit as she had done in Islamic Iran. She baked American cakes and replaced the rosewater in her pastries with vanilla. I did much worse: over years, I let myself believe it. I lost my accent. I lost my hobbies and memories. I forgot my childhood songs.

You can read her whole story here. It is a humane, engaging examination of the hurdles and pitfalls that migrants and refugees navigate when submerged in a completely new language and culture. Of course Nayeri is grateful that America opened its doors. However, her article is a necessary reminder that – and the following expression is mine – do not think you are so special for that reason.

But what America did was a basic human obligation. It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks. It is your duty to answer us, even if we don’t give you sugary success stories. Even if we remain a bunch of ordinary Iranians, sometimes bitter or confused. Even if the country gets overcrowded and you have to give up your luxuries, and we set up ugly little lives around the corner, marring your view. If we need a lot of help and local services, if your taxes rise and your street begins to look and feel strange and everything smells like turmeric and tamarind paste, and your favourite shop is replaced by a halal butcher, your schoolyard chatter becoming ching-chongese and phlegmy “kh”s and “gh”s, and even if, after all that, we don’t spend the rest of our days in grateful ecstasy, atoning for our need.

It is this aspect of ‘gratefulness’, or what Nayeri calls ‘gratitude politics’, that requires further examination, because it is directly relevant to the Australian context. I am nowhere near as articulate or intelligent as Nayeri, but I will attempt to do my best to elaborate upon the things for which I am grateful. The purpose of this is twofold: to clarify exactly those things for which I harbour genuine sentiments of grateful, and secondly to hopefully stop the incessant, monotonous mantra that I have heard my whole life -‘you should be grateful’.

With the increase in anti-immigrant, nativist politics throughout Europe, and the morbidly disturbing symptoms of decay in the American political system that Trump represents, this mantra of ‘being grateful’ has acquired new resonance. Immigrants and asylum seekers have to doubly prove their loyalty and dedication to their adopted countries, and any lingering hankering for their home country, or maintenance of cultural links with their past, is immediately met with denunciations of disloyalty. Why – are you not grateful to be here?

Firstly, let us dispense with the primary question, the one I get asked on a regular basis – aren’t you grateful to live in Australia?

My answer is:

Yes I am grateful.

Just to clarify;

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Okay, we have got that question out of the way.

Sentiments of gratefulness are not confined by national borders, state lines, or restricted to people of one race, colour, creed, ethnicity or gender. It is possible to be grateful for multiple persons, influences and cultures. Keeping that in mind, let us assemble a partial list of the things for which I am grateful.

I am very grateful to the civilisation of Muslim Spain, known as Al-Andalus, or Moorish Spain. Why? No, I am not Muslim. No, I do not practice any religion. But I fully recognise the importance of Moorish Spain, and its critical role in lifting white, predominantly Christian Europe from the sustained ignorance of the Dark Ages. In case we are uncertain as to the incredible significance of Muslim Spain – Al-Andalus – in providing a boost for the cultural and educational achievements of Europe, have a read of the following article in Telesur TV.

Entitled “Here’s how Black Muslims lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages”, the authors write of the critically important mathematical and scientific discoveries of the Muslim civilisation that predominated across the Iberian peninsula and southern France. In 10th century the capital of Moorish Spain, Córdoba, boasted having baths, hospitals, libraries and a university. London and Paris would not witness such innovative facilities until hundreds of years later.

The black Muslims of Spain developed mathematics, introducing the game-changing concept of zero. The population in Moorish lands was almost completely literate – while the monarchs of European kingdoms were barely literate. The Roman Empire, a once-mighty civilisation, was reduced to warring fiefdoms among the white European tribes and confederations. The Moorish invaders, conquering swathes of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and southern France, brought their particular learning, innovations and technology to the areas of Europe they dominated. As Garikai Chengu explains in his article ‘How African Muslims civilised Spain‘:

In Europe’s great Age of Exploration, Spain and Portugal were the leaders in global seafaring. It was the Moorish advances in navigational technology such as the astrolabe and sextant, as well as their improvements in cartography and shipbuilding, that paved the way for the Age of Exploration. Thus, the era of Western global dominance of the past half-millennium originated from the African Moorish sailors of the Iberian Peninsula during the 1300s.

Being a graduate of several universities, and a frequenter of public libraries since my youth, I am truly grateful that the Moors of Spain – black Muslims – set the standard for being an educated, civilised person.

It is relevant to note that this month, April 2017, marks a sad anniversary. Approximately 400 years ago – 408 to be exact – King Phillip III of Spain signed an order decreeing that the Moriscos, those remaining Moors of Spain who had converted to Christianity, be systematically expelled from the Iberian Peninsula; an early example of what we would call ethnic cleansing. With that order, and the subsequent military campaign to push out the formerly dominant black Muslims, a unique civilisation that served as a conduit for transmitting learning to Western Europe was decimated. The Moorish civilisation had already been purged by the wars of Reconquest; with Philip’s decree, the last remnants of the Moorish presence was to be annihilated.

There are many other people and influences for which I am very grateful. The Armenians who fled the massacres of 1915, escaping from the genocidal forces of the new Turkish Republic, found refuge in Arab countries, such as Palestine and Lebanon. An article from 2015 published in Al Jazeera explains how Armenians came to live within Arab communities, the latter opening their doors even though they faced severe privations. They performed their humane duty to those who were less fortunate – no more and no less. For that, I am sincerely grateful to the Arabic-speaking nations for their generosity.

I am grateful to those Armenians who are doing their best to contribute towards rebuilding the homeland. I am grateful to those Australians who assisted my parents in settling in this country. I am grateful to those indigenous Australians who opened my eyes to the true history of colonial subjugation and the dispossession suffered by the First Nations of Australia. So please, stop asking me if I am grateful to live in Australia, as if it is an accusatory charge, implying that I am disloyal. Instead, please suggest how we can best cooperate to improve the conditions of life for all of us.

Why the American college kids on spring break chanted ‘Build that Wall’

In March 2017, there were several reports that a group of American college kids, vacationing in Cancun, Mexico for their spring break, chanted the Trumpist slogan ‘Build that Wall’. The San Diego Tribune, for example, reported that thousands of American kids, after finishing their college studies, go for their spring vacation to holiday resorts, such as Cancun. These are wild parties, fueled by alcohol, drugs, and the youthful vigour of students letting their hair down during a well-earned holiday. One particular group of these kids, while vacationing on a cruise ship sailing in Mexican waters off the coast of Cancun, broke into the chant ‘Build that Wall’. This of course, is a reference to the proposed US-Mexico border wall, a signature pledge of the political campaign of current US President Donald Trump.

Anger on social media

The staff on the cruise ship, and other Latin Americans within earshot, understandably took offence at this display of ignorant xenophobia. The Mexican media, for example the Yucatan Times, elaborated the grievances of the shocked Mexican tourists and workers, who were outraged at the obnoxious behaviour of the American kids. This particular cruise is a ‘pirate ship’, a show put on for the enjoyment of holiday-makers, where they can enjoy the clashing of swords, the firing of cannon, backed up by an endless flow of alcohol. A young Latin American couple on board that ship, explained how their holiday (their honeymoon) was completely shattered – and this display of xenophobic intolerance was not an isolated incident. One report noted that:

The incident adds to a “growing number of complaints” from tourism workers who say that spring breakers have been “offensive, rude and haughty towards Mexican people.”

Social media users immediately denounced the ignorance and obnoxious behaviour of the kids who supported the wall – pointing out the obvious irrationality of calling for the building of a wall to keep out Mexicans – while inside Mexican territory. Numerous media outlets, such as the Palm Beach Post, took up the story, elaborating upon numerous incidents where privileged spring breakers demonstrated obnoxious and offensive behaviour. One story examined how college kids were abusing sea creatures, posting images and videos of themselves on social media, displaying beer-fuelled rowdiness, nakedness and the ultimate expression of individualist self-absorption – selfies.

Growing up with endless wars

The outrage about the offensive behaviour of the spring breakers is perfectly understandable and correct. However, it does not really go deeper into this issue. Why take the time to examine the buffoonery of college spring breakers? This incident tells us not only about the ideas and motivations of the students, but also indicates the type of society in which they have grown up – the kind of society that has created people for whom building walls is a commendable goal. Greg Grandin, writing in the Nation magazine, provides an answer to this question. Grandin, in his article ‘Why those Spring Breakers chanted “Build that Wall”‘, states that we should not be surprised that these kids – around the ages of 19 and 20 – chanted that slogan, because they are the children of unending wars:

Let’s assume they are juniors or seniors, about 20 or so years old. They might have just been conceived when Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth” the “price” of isolating Saddam Hussein. Maybe they were just born, a year old, when Clinton launched one of his children-killing cruise missiles into Baghdad, including one time in 1998, shortly before the House impeachment vote related to the Monica Lewinsky affair, that was described by The New York Times as a “a strong sustained series of air strikes.”

They probably entered kindergarten around the time that Bush and company manufactured evidence about Iraqi WMDs, picking up an assist by the mainstream media to begin the systematic destruction of a country we weren’t at war with, that committed no offense against US citizens. They might have been in the first grade when US forces decimated Fallujah, and in the second grade when those photos of Abu Ghraib began to circulate, kicking off a never-ending debate over whether it is moral or not to torture. They’ve lived through the horrors of Blackwater and global rendition.

They have grown up with the never-ending ‘War on Terror’, that nebulous, ill-defined concept that has legitimised American wars around the world. They were still children when the Bush-Cheney regime began that war – and grew up throughout the eight years as the Obama administration continued and escalated that war through the tactic of lethal drone strikes. They were coming-of-age when former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gloated, in the aftermath of the Western-backed Libyan war, about the savage lynch-mob murder of former Libyan leader Qaddafi by stating ‘We came, we saw, he died’. Clinton. having been promoted as an example of the ‘modern’ politician, a woman breaking the glass ceiling, was upheld for these college kids as an example to be emulated. Her gloating was normalised as just simply part of the spectrum of acceptable behaviour for a politician with presidential ambitions.

Building walls – Fortress Europe and Garrison-State America

Grandin is quite correct to point out the conditions of endless war which has influenced the mentality of the spring breakers. However, there is another aspect which he omitted to mention. Building walls, such as that embodied in Trump’s proposal for the US-Mexico border, is nothing unusual or new for the capitalist system. In fact, building walls to exclude the poor,  the refugees, the marginalised, the desperate and the outsiders, is a typical response of the financial elite that finds the capitalist system breaking down. I am an adult, and I do my best to think like one, so here is my attempt at a mature perspective.

I am old enough to remember 1989-90, the days when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, when the (supposedly) totalitarian Eastern bloc dissolved border controls, and people from those countries were allowed to travel freely. Capitalism had (allegedly) proven its superiority by demonstrating its commitment to values of freedom and democracy. Back in June 1989, the former foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria made a media stunt, where they cut a hole in the fence separating their two countries. The removal of those barbed-wire fences, along with the demolition of the Berlin Wall, symbolised the (supposedly) new era of freedom that had dawned.

The removal of border controls between Eastern and Western Europe, signified that the unquenchable desire for liberty had triumphed, and that people wishing to leave the Eastern bloc no longer had to undertake a hazardous and potentially life-threatening defection. We in the West were regaled with moving and heart-wrenching stories of defectors, seeking a new and free life in the imperialist states. Very powerful stories indeed – but it is interesting to note that the defector-traffic movement was a two-way street. Thousands of socialist-minded Afghans, Indonesians, African Americans, made the trek the other way – seeking a better life in the USSR. Afghans who were supportive of the socialist government in their country; Indonesians who were opposed to the CIA-backed 1965 coup in their nation which brought a bloody pro-Western dictatorship to power – made their way to the Soviet Union for a new life.

Be that as it may, the opening up of Eastern Europe and the demolition of the Berlin Wall were exploited to the hilt for propaganda purposes. The newly united Europe moved quickly to remove internal borders, implementing the Schengen Agreement in 1995. Capitalism was to surpass (allegedly) the national antagonisms between nation-states, and the expanding European Union was to bring the joys of liberty and business to the new member nation-states.

Here we are, 28 years later, and militarised borders and fortified walls are being resurrected in Europe and America on a scale unimaginable to the partisans of European unity in 1989-90. The images out of Europe show electrified razor wire, heavily armed border patrol guards, tear gas, and other heavy measures are being deployed against refugees and the poor who are fleeing conflicts instigated and incited by the imperialist powers. Hungary is rushing to hermetically seal its borders with Serbia, while Austria clamps down on traffic out of Hungary.

Europe’s internal borders are being resurrected, with the Schengen-approved free travel zone being abolished. All the nation-state members of the European Union are bickering – and have been squabbling since 2015 – about who should take what groups of refugees. The Mediterranean Sea is itself being used by the European Union as one gigantic maritime wall, a barrier to the refugees fleeing from African and Middle Eastern countries – the bottom of the Mediterranean is where thousands of refugees have ended up, perishing while making the hazardous journey.

Trump’s proposal to militarise the US-Mexico border did not emerge out of thin air. Trump’s plan to deport the undocumented migrants, and erect barriers, has strong precedents in other capitalist countries. It is no secret that Trump has steadfastly praised the example of the Australian government’s punitive detention model of treating refugees. The Australian template, combining cruelty with indefinite mandatory detention, was examined closely by Trump’s chief ideologues. The US-Mexico border, already a place of suffering and trauma for new immigrants, will be a scene of increased misery for the desperate, the poor and the marginalised if the Trumpist wall is erected.

Former leaders of East Germany were put on trial and convicted for the deaths of those East Germans killed while fleeing over the Berlin Wall. They were held responsible for upholding and enforcing policies that restricted in the free movement of people, resulting in the deaths of defectors over a period of decades. Let us wait and wonder if any American officials will be similarly held accountable for the thousands of migrant deaths while enforcing restrictive policies at the US-Mexico border.

Being inside the walls and building bridges

We should not be bewildered or astonished at the spring breakers who advocated the Trumpist wall, given the conditions in which they have been raised and matured. However, blaming them for their ignorance and xenophobia is only part of the story. We must also blame ourselves, the adults, who have allowed such an ideology of fortress-exclusivity to flourish.

It is interesting to note the reactions of other countries at the prospect of Trump’s ‘America First’ platform. Significant sections of Canada’s ruling class, for instance, have advocated that they should accept Trump’s walls, and indeed position themselves to be inside the American garrison state. The Globe and Mail, the newspaper of record for the Toronto-based financial elite, wrote that the political situation today resembles the relations between Canada and America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Bush increased the powers and scope of the military-intelligence apparatus:

Ottawa’s goal today, as it was then, must be to ensure that the Canada-U.S. border, Canada-U.S. cargoes and Canada-U.S. travellers continue to be treated differently. The more the U.S. thickens its border with the rest of the world, the more the border with Canada must be relatively reduced. If American walls go up, Canada has to be inside those walls.

Notice that there are no calls for greater freedom or liberty, no anxieties about the restricted movement of people across borders, no stirring calls to honour the eternal values of freedom and democracy. If the Trumpist Fortress America comes to pass, Canada must be inside that fortress. Here is the unashamed, naked expression of privileged insularity – we are wealthy, and the poor and foreigners must be excluded. We should not be taken aback when we read stories that a Trump supporter, after enthusiastically backing his campaign, finds that her husband is about to be arrested and deported – for being an undocumented migrant from Mexico.

Helena Beristain, agreed with Trump’s harsh policies towards Mexico, now faces the fact that her husband Roberto, after living and working in the United States for years, faces deportation. Beristain was sure that she and her husband were among the ‘good people’, and thus remain unaffected by the Trumpian crackdown. After all, they had bought into one of the favourite conceits of political conservatism – those who adopt the values of hard work, small business ownership and family values are the ‘good people’ who will remain unhindered by intrusive large-government bureaucracy.

We should not be surprised when a family of Trump-voting Syrian Christians, who are adamant that they are ‘good people’, found that their relatives from that are being deported under the Trump’s administration’s new laws. Syrian American Sarmad Assali, after voting for Trump, was shocked that her relatives from the same Syrian Christian Orthodox background were deported under the Trump’s administration draconian measures against migrants from Muslim-majority countries.

There is no pleasure or solace to be gained from the emotional suffering of others. Being inside the walls of the garrison state is no guarantee of security. Being one of the ‘good people’ is fine, but not when those ‘good people’ turn a blind eye to the injustices inflicted on their brethren overseas. Building bridges between communities on the basis of humane solidarity is the solution.

Bolivian President Evo Morales spoke wise words, when elaborating on the causes of the current migration crisis. Worsening inequality and unending military interventions are making for an unstable and unjust world. Bolivia’s President stated that his country is hosting a global people’s summit – a people’s conference for a world without walls, which is expected to draw together refugee and migrant activists. The purpose of this conference in June this year is to devise solutions for the migration crisis based on respect for human rights. We should be listening to President Morales, not the apricot-tinted, reality-TV buffoon who emanated from the bowels of financial parasitism.

The Saudi war on Yemen enters its third year

This month marks two full years since the start of the Saudi-led, US-supported war on Yemen. As this war completes two years, involving a blockade of Yemen and the consequent collapse of the nation’s economy, the prospect of famine is now appearing very real. The International Committee of the Red Cross, as reported by Al Jazeera, stated the Yemen is currently only a few months away from a famine. Food, medical supplies, electricity – the Yemeni population is facing critical shortages of basic necessities, and this situation threatens to lead to famine.

Earlier in March 2017, the United Nations warned that Yemen, along with Somalia, South Sudan, Kenya, and the Horn of Africa, face famine-conditions that affect the lives of 20 million people. Without a collective and coordinated effort, millions face the likelihood of starvation and malnutrition, with all the consequent humanitarian problems that those conditions produce. In Yemen today, millions are at risk of starvation, especially children, as shortages of basic necessities worsen as the Saudi-led war escalates.

Let us be clear: this tragic situation is the direct consequence of the Saudi offensive against the country of Yemen, and this military campaign is fully supported by the United States and Britain. In an article for Dissident Voice by Kathy Kelly, elaborating on the man-made famine in Yemen, Kelly writes that:

After years of U.S. support for dictator Ali Adullah Saleh, civil war has wracked Yemen since 2014. Its neighbor Saudi Arabia, itself among the region’s cruelest dictatorships and a staunch U.S. ally, became nervous in 2015 about the outcome and, with support from nine regional allies, began subjecting the country to a punishing barrage of airstrikes, and also imposed a blockade that ended the inflow of food and supplies to Yemen through a major port. This was accomplished with massive, ongoing weapons shipments from the U.S., which has also waged independent airstrikes that have killed dozens of civilians, including women and children.

Kelly writes that Unicef is estimating that 460 000 children face severe malnutrition in Yemen. Pregnant and lactating women, themselves bearing the consequences of malnutrition, cannot adequately provide the necessary nutrition for their children, thus increasing the likelihood of malnutrition-induced diseases and conditions in the succeeding generation. The devastating consequences of child malnutrition in Yemen was documented by Unicef here; food insecurity leaves life-long impacts on those affected.

It is interesting to note, in this context, that Yemen is actually a major destination of African refugees, and in particular Somalis. As we in Australia continue to respond with punitive measures to the relatively small number of refugees that arrive on our shores, Yemen took in 117 000 new refugees during 2016. As a contrasting example, Australia received 13 756 over the 2014-15 period. Australia is hardly facing a deluge of desperate refugees; it is the poorer countries that take the bulk of asylum seekers.

A militarised response to the refugee outflow is becoming a normalised reaction on the part of imperialist countries. Earlier in March 2017, a boatload of Somali refugees, fleeing from Yemen and going to the relative peace of the Sudan, was blasted to pieces by an Apache helicopter gunship. The boat of Somali refugees was 30 miles off the Yemeni coast; at least 42 people were killed and dozens wounded. No government or organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack.

It is relevant to remember that the Saudi offensive, which involves the heavy aerial bombardment of Yemen, has escalated in recent months. Saudi Arabia and the associated Gulf petro-monarchies, have been waging a military campaign in Yemen to support their preferred politician, Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Saudi-led coalition, supported with the full backing of Washington and London, have been carrying out this war to suppress the rebel Houthi movement, a militarised Shia politico-military force that has seized much of the country.

The United States has assisted this war, since former US President Barack Obama threw in his lot with the Saudi kingdom. The latter, one of the cruelest dictatorships in the world, has received a constant supply of weapons and munitions from the United States. In fact, Obama has the dubious distinction of actually increasing weapons sales to the monarchist dictatorship in Riyadh, thus ensuring that the Wahhabist kingdom could launch and continue its offensive in Yemen. The naval blockade of Yemen, enforced with the assistance of the US Navy, has contributed to bringing that nation to the brink of famine. The support for Saudi Arabia from the United States, in the form of logistics, intelligence-gathering, aerial refueling and military resupply, exposes the predatory aims and ambitions of American finance capital and undermines its claims to be a force for peace in the world.

The United States began its own war on Yemen back in 2009, when former US President Barack Obama authorised the use of aerial drone strikes in the country. This drone warfare was notionally launched to combat the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); however, the main targets of this warfare have been Yemeni civilians. Obama escalated and perfected the tactic of drone strikes during his administration, and he allocated to himself the right to order the assassination of anyone he deemed to be a member of, or associated with, AQAP.

Back in 2011, Obama ordered the killing of American citizen and Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, on the basis of Awlaki’s alleged affiliation with Al Qaeda. The United States, when attacking targets in Yemen, routinely dismiss civilian casualties and victims of US drone attacks as ‘Al Qaeda militants’. This drone programme is now in the hands of current American President Donald Trump.

Patrick Cockburn, veteran foreign correspondent for The Independent, writes that President Trump has escalated America’s involvement in the Yemen war, carrying out multiple air strikes across that country over the last month. Increasing its military support for Saudi Arabia, the new US administration is continuing where Trump’s predecessor left off. While the United Nations has been warning that Yemen, along with countries in the Horn of Africa, constitute the gravest humanitarian crisis faced by the world since 1945, Trump has increased American support for the Saudi war. Cockburn writes that:

But at the very moment that the UN is warning about the calamity facing Yemen, the US State Department has given permission for a resumption of the supply of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia. These sales were suspended last October by President Obama after Saudi aircraft bombed a funeral in the capital Sana’a, killing more than 100 mourners. Ever since Saudi Arabia started its bombing campaign in March 2015, the US has been refuelling its aircraft and has advisors in the Saudi operational headquarters. For the weapons sales to go ahead all that is needed is White House permission.

This bombardment of Yemen is part of the as-yet undeclared American war on Yemen, in addition to the January 2017 Navy SEAL attack that killed the eight-year old daughter of the late Anwar al Awlaki. The January raid, ostensibly undertaken to attack an AQAP training camp, resulted in a fire fight, the deaths of at least 25 Yemeni civilians, the destruction of an American aircraft, and the death of a US Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William ‘Ryan’ Owens. During his address to Congress, Trump cynically exploited the death of Owens, using the grief of Owen’s widow to drum up support for this illegal and criminal Yemen war. The cameras focused on Carryn Owens, and media commentators gushed with feigned sympathy for her grief. No mention was made of the tears of the Yemeni civilians, who have to endure this war in their daily lives. As Glenn Greenwald stated in his article for The Intercept;

This is standard fare in U.S. war propaganda: We fixate on the Americans killed, learning their names and life stories and the plight of their spouses and parents, but steadfastly ignore the innocent people the U.S. government kills, whose numbers are always far greater. There is thus a sprawling, moving monument in the center of Washington, D.C., commemorating the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam, but not the (at least2 million Vietnamese civilians killed by that war.

Australia’s studious silence about the US-supported destruction of Yemen has to be broken – the Turnbull government, through the person of the Foreign Affairs minister Julie Bishop, has been a cheerleader for Saudi Arabia for far too long. The false equivalence of condemning both the Saudi regime and the Houthi rebel opponents must also be abandoned. The Shia Houthi movement – the Ansar Allah – have been dishonestly stigmatised as proxies of Iran. The Houthi rebels have received support from Tehran – but that support has been largely rhetorical. The culpability of Riyadh, Washington and London for bringing Yemen to the brink of famine cannot be disguised by allegations of Iranian perfidy.

The role of Australian mercenaries fighting in support of the Saudi military cannot be ignored. Sent by the United Arab Emirates to Yemen, Australian mercenaries – foreign fighters – have actively assisted the Saudi-American offensive. While the activities of Australians fighting in Syria in support of Jabhat Al-Nusra or ISIS have received extensive media scrutiny, the role of Australians in Yemen – foreign fighters – has barely been mentioned. Yes, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS are terrorist groups. But that leaves us with the question – do not the military actions of the American-backed Saudi war on Yemen amount to an act of collective terrorism?

The D-Day commemoration is not a symbol of endless US militarism

Every year, on June 6, commemorative activities and memorials are held for the anniversary of the Normandy landings, popularised by the slogan D-Day. The commemorations are inevitably emotional and moving occasions, as the ever-diminishing number of D-Day veterans gather on Omaha beach to remember that fateful day, respect their fallen comrades and pledge to educate succeeding generations of their tremendous sacrifices. This invasion was no ‘Saving Private Ryan’; it was a terrible and horrifying experience, as the veterans themselves recall.

The 70th anniversary was back in June 2014; preparations are already underway for the upcoming 75th anniversary in 2019. The enormous sacrifices of the D-Day veterans should never ever be forgotten. It is instructive to examine the way that the 70th anniversary was celebrated – as a window into the political contours of our world, so many years after the end of World War Two.

Former US President Barack Obama gave a speech at Omaha beach in June 2014 – and this speech can only be described as an unadulterated paean to US militarism. A belligerent, bombastic speech, Obama hailed the United States military as ‘the greatest force for freedom the world has ever known’. Describing the Normandy landings as ‘democracy’s beach-head’, Obama not only completely ignored the decisive contribution of the Soviet Union to the defeat of Nazism and fascism, but also attempted to wrap current US wars overseas in the mantle of ‘D-Day patriotism’. By the time of the Normandy incursion, the Soviets had completed the bulk of the fighting against Nazi Germany, and had inflicted serious defeats on the Nazi war machine, from which the latter would never recover.

It is interesting to note, in this context, that Obama pointedly refused to join other world leaders during the May 2015 70th anniversary celebrations of Victory in Europe day in Moscow. As Ray McGovern stated in his article “Obama’s Petulant WWII Snub of Russia“; Obama’s temper tantrum only reflected on his own qualities as a leader:

But Obama, in his childish display of temper, will look rather small to those who know the history of the Allied victory in World War II. If it were not for the Red Army’s costly victories against the German invaders, particularly the tide-turning battle at Stalingrad in 1943-1944, the prospects for the later D-Day victory in Normandy in June 1944 and the subsequent defeat of Adolf Hitler would have been much more difficult if not impossible.

More than just a snub directed at Moscow, Obama’s speech willfully distorted the history of World War Two. Rather than acknowledging the struggles of the Soviets (and the Chinese in the Far East) to defeat Nazi imperialism, Obama turned the Normandy landings into a crusade for American-style ‘democracy’. Obama attempted to draw a parallel between the D-Day veterans who fought against fascism, and the post 9/11 generation and the American predatory wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One wonders what freedoms the Americans brought with them as they devastated Iraqi society, and have sunk into a quagmire in Afghanistan which shows no signs of abating. D-Day was undertaken to fight against the depredations of German imperialism. While the American soldiers who served and died gave their lives so that Nazi imperialism is defeated once and for all, let us not use D-Day as a cover to portray the eruption of American imperialism as a humanitarian or life-saving project. Imperial plunder and killing cannot be given a human face, or disguised as a humanitarian enterprise. The United States military-industrial complex carreis out invasions of other countries, not out of an D-Day ‘fighting the good fight’ reasons, but for reasons of economic and military advantage. Former President Obama escalated and perfected the technique of drone strikes around the world, taking aerial warfare into dimensions that the Nazi German leadership could only dream about.

Back in June 2014, French President Francois Hollande hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin for the 70th anniversary commemorations of D-Day. Hollande stated that while he has his differences with Moscow, he will never forget the tremendous sacrifices that Russia made to defeat Nazi Germany during the war. On D-Day, let us pay our respects to the veterans, but not forget the Great Patriotic War.

However, Obama’s purposeful distortion of historical realities was not the only outrage that he committed in his speech. The D-Day soldiers gave of their lives to defeat the fascistic parties and governments in Europe that had lead us into world-wide war. What we can witness now in Europe, is the rise to power of semi-fascistic and ultra-right wing parties – particularly in the Ukraine – that draw their political inspiration from fascist figures and politicians during the 1930s and 1940s.

In the run-up to the 2014 D-Day commemorations, Obama was touring in Europe to drum up support for the newly-installed ultra-rightist coup government in Kiev, the Ukraine. That regime, lead by neo-Nazi and fascistic parties, seeks to rehabilitate the reputations of those Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazi German forces in the Second World War. The members of the wartime Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a racist, anti-semitic group that carried out ethnic cleansing and pogroms during the war, are now regarded as heroic visionaries by the current US-installed Kiev rightist regime. Surely we are desecrating the memory of those who fought against fascism by quietly supporting and rehabilitating the ideological progeny of fascist parties today?

Let us face the reality that for the first time since the end of the war, an openly anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi party controls the levers of power in a European state, the Ukraine. That this government is reprehensible is clear enough; what is even more galling is that this regime has the political and ideological support of the United States. While the former Obama administration strenuously denied that neo-fascists serve in the Kiev government, the evidence undermines the US administration’s claims.

In 2016, thousands of activists from the ultra-nationalist Ukrainian Right gathered in Kiev to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), the armed wing of the OUN. The insurgent army provided the bulk of the Ukrainian ethnic-cleansing shock troops during the war, fighting alongside the Germans as an auxiliary force. Let us not forget the genocidal legacy of the Ukrainian Insurgent army, as they left a blood-soaked trail of death and destruction in the areas of the Ukraine and Eastern Europe in which they fought. It is not just in the Ukraine that the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators has proceeded apace.

The D-Day landings were a pivotal moment in the history of World War Two. The battles of the veterans must always be remembered as a unique, decisive contribution to the military defeat of fascism. It does a poor service to their memory to politically revive the doctrines that they gave their lives fighting against.

One Nation – the UKIP-ization of Australian politics

One Nation, the anti-immigrant ultra-right wing political party, has made a huge comeback into Australian politics in the wake of the July 2 2016 federal election. This requires a number of observations to explain its rise, the underlying factors for its reemergence into national prominence, and its impact on Australian political life. However, firstly, let us start with some definitions to set the parameters for this article, and subsequent discussion.

One Nation is the corresponding Australian analogue of the British far-right party, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The latter, having become widely known for its xenophobic and racist pronouncements during the Brexit campaign, shifted political debate in Britain sharply to the right. This is the same impact that One Nation has had, and is having, in Australia. The UKIP-ization of Australian political life refers to the growing trend in political debate of attacking immigration as a unique and insidious threat to the nation.

The term UKIP-ization is not originally mine, but was created by English sociologist and blogger Richard Seymour, whose writings are an incisive and perceptive commentary on the political situation in Britain. Seymour elaborated on the tendency by UKIP, and other similar ultra-right parties in Europe, to exploit anti-establishment discontent in the population, and to misdirect them into an anti-immigrant and pro-business electoral platform. It is no surprise that anti-immigrant politicking has found electoral expression in the right-wing forces coalescing around One Nation, because the established major parties have provided oxygen to toxic xenophobic sentiment for many decades. In an insightful article for New Matilda magazine, Michael Brull elaborates that without ideological and political support from major conservative political figures in Australia, such as former Prime Ministers John Howard and Tony Abbott, the One Nation party would not have found a responsive electorate.

Brull contends that One Nation and its leader, Pauline Hanson, deserve derision and scorn for the absurd and hateful comments they make. However, their statements do not occur in a political vacuum:

Hanson presents a lowbrow version of concerns that have been legitimised for years by the Coalition and major media outlets. The biggest difference is that they do so in more sophisticated language, aimed at a wealthier constituency. When wealthy and well-connected people use high-brow language to express the same concerns, their friends and associates come out of the woodwork to assure the public that it’s not racist. As this elite racism trickles down, and is expressed in more direct language, the elite disingenuously disowns it. In some ways, this is similar to the original rise of Hanson, except that the primary target then wasn’t Muslims, but Asians.

Let us not forget that racism is not an exclusively working class manifestation; the financial and political elite, which often wraps itself in a cosmopolitan disguise, is the origin of Australian racism. As Brull explains it:

Hanson didn’t invent anti-Asian racism. It was a low-brow version of the anti-Asian position led by conservative luminaries Blainey and Howard for over a decade. Blainey had not himself said he was opposed to Asian immigration. Instead, he had ventriloquised supposed working-class angst. They were the ones whose anti-Asian racism we had to cater to and worry about. This position then slowly trickled down, and found its new political advocate in Hanson. She did not use his sophisticated framing, or highbrow language. She argued crudely that she didn’t want so many Asians in Australia.

Just Hanson’s ground was paved for her, so the Liberals went down the path she suggested. The other day, her Facebook page replied to a critic suggesting that One Nation would never be able to deliver on their policies. She retorted quite effectively: “I guess the idea of temporary protection visas, the abolishment of ATSIC, offshore detention processing centres, the deportation of foreign criminals, the reduction in immigration numbers sound ‘crazy’ to you? They were all policies of mine adopted by John Howard and the Liberals.”

The Australian capitalist social pyramid has been white at the top – but has allowed a few non-Anglo-origin faces into its ranks to maintain the illusion of racial harmony. At the bottom of the pyramid, it is definitely multi-ethnic and multi-coloured – with the first nations of Australia squashed beneath the base. Let us not ignore the well-educated and financially secure bigot; being part of the financial elite does not endow a person with non-racist sentiments. One Nation plays on this issue; posing as a champion of working people, it portrays the ‘Aussie worker’ as being the victim of an immigrant-friendly and economically powerful multicultural elite. Make no mistake – Australians of all backgrounds have seen a decline in their living standards, attacks on wages, the shifting of wealth from working people into the hands of the ruling class. The dislocation of the working class is very real, and people are looking for someone to blame.

In the case of UKIP, the European Union is the main target of their railing against alleged foreign influence – and they have conflated this imperialist institution with immigration and multicultural influences in Britain. In Australia, One Nation has made it a habit to mention immigration only in terms of ‘swamps’ – back in 1996, when Hanson made her first appearance in the federal parliament, her main concern was that Australia was being ‘swamped’ by Asians. In her most recent outburst, Muslims and Islam were the main targets of her worries about ‘swampyness’. These ravings could be summarily dismissed, were it not for two things. One, they were stated by elected politicians, and two – the mainstream Australian political establishment has gone to great lengths to embrace One Nation – politically and literally.

For all the talk about Australia being ‘swamped’ by Muslims, it does give us an opportunity to examine the census date about the percentage of Australians that profess the Islamic faith. Terms like ‘swamped’ are inflammatory, and do not serve any purpose except increase anxieties where none are warranted. What numbers exactly constitute ‘swamping?’ What percentage of the population would have to declare themselves practitioners of the Islamic religion in order to classify Australia as officially ‘swamped?’

If we examine the census data, there is no evidence that Australia is in any danger of being overwhelmed or ‘swamped’. While the religion of Christianity remains the most commonly reported religion, a growing number of Australians reported no religion. Of all the non-Christian religions, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, it was Hinduism that experienced the fastest growth. All the non-Christian religions reported an increase in adherents, and Islam is growing in tandem with other non-Christian religions. In other words, Islam is growing – at comparable rates to the growth of other non-Christian religions. If this is evidence of ‘creeping Islamisation’, the rate of ‘creeping’ is so slowly as to be barely noticeable as compared to other religions. Moral panic may provide Australians with an activity to keep them busy, but it is unhelpful and counterproductive in understanding the source of our economic and political problems. The veracity of the ‘threat’, or lack thereof is not an issue anymore – once the voting public buys the ostensible threat, social anxiety takes over.

The themes developed by One Nation are given prominent media coverage, and this helps to channel working class discontent into xenophobic and militarist directions. The ultra-right wing politicians such as One Nation, tap into legitimate social concerns, such as high unemployment, lack of social services, growing hospital queues, and cutbacks to education. However, they play a diversionary role, directing their fire at immigrants, single mothers, indigenous people, welfare recipients – minority and marginalised groups that have also suffered under the austerity drive by the ruling class. The problems of the capitalist system are not based in immigration or multiculturalism, or caused by excessive services to indigenous Australia, but by inequality. In an article for Green Left Weekly, Susan Price wrote that:

Even in Australia, the top 1% have more than 22% of the total Australian wealth and own more wealth than 70% of Australians combined.

The poorest 50% of Australians have only 6% of national wealth between them.

Australia’s “1%” includes the two richest billionaires, Gina Reinhart and Blair Parry-Okeden. Between them they have more than US$16 billion — which is more than the combined wealth of the poorest 20% of Australians.

Far from lifting people out of poverty, the policies imposed on poorer countries by the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank have led to privatisation of public services and cuts to health, education and welfare, throwing millions into poverty and despair.

If there is a swamp threatening Australia, it is the tide of ignorance and bigotry that One Nation, and its associated political partners, make respectable. Under conditions of an ever-deepening capitalist economic crisis, let us make sure that the architects of the corporate oligarchic state do not misdirect the anger of the people towards the vulnerable and the marginalised. Do not confuse capitalist globalisation with internationalism; the drive for greater markets and corporate profits is a necessary component of the capitalist system. The axis of cooperation between Canberra, London and Washington has always been pivotal in maintaining the capitalist order. The main financial institutions of these three capitalist powers have always partnered up to super-exploit labour. Do not confuse the movement of capital between states and the movement of people; the economic priorities of the corporate states have always determined and controlled the movement of labour.

Sport and political issues have always mixed

In an article for The Conversation, Daryl Adair, a professor of Sport Management at the University of Technology, Sydney, makes a pertinent observation regarding the interaction between sport and politics:

It is sometimes said that sport ought to be separate from politics, or that politics should be removed from sport. These sentiments are well meaning – if idealistic.

In his article, called “Sit on hands or take a stand: why athletes have always been political players“, Adair makes the case that high-profile athletes and sportspeople cannot remain indifferent to the wider social and political issues in which the practice of sport occurs. Sport, being an activity that is simultaneously part of government policy, commercial money-making, health and fitness issues and leisure-time entertainment, has been regarded as largely insulated from the cultural, social and political issues in the wider society. Athletes such as the late Muhammad Ali, basically rewrote the rules surrounding the engagement of celebrity-sportspeople with the political issues that predominate during their lifetimes.

Ali not only proved himself to be the best in his chosen sport, but used his high-profile to raise awareness about the plight of the African American community, and express his views on the larger social and political issues of his time, such as America’s intervention in Vietnam. He was certainly attacked at the time for his views, and became a widely reviled figure in the 1960s and 70s. While Ali was subsequently admired for this stand against racism and war, his image has been largely hollowed out of its overtly political and social content. It may be true that Ali preached love for everyone, and hatred for no-one: but that is only a shallow understanding of the issues for which he stood, and the politically radicalised stand he adopted.

Sport has largely been seen as a ‘level-playing field’, an arena in which any person, regardless of their race, creed, ethnic background, gender or beliefs can succeed, depending solely on their talent and dedication to the sport of their choosing. Sport is such an integral part of the Australian psyche, and there are reams of commentary about the importance of sporting people in defining our national character – if we have any such character. Sporting professionals are described as ‘heroes’ and role models for our youth. They are strongly condemned for any indiscretions on or off the sporting field.

Sport is a crucial part of schooling, an activity that builds character and through which social connections are formed. In Sydney, the rugby league is the definitive football code – Melbourne had the Australian Rules Football. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as the two codes expanded nationally, those lines have been blurred. However, make no mistake – the ‘footy’ faces strong competition from the cricket competition; the most successful Australian cricketers are national celebrities, and their words are heavily promoted in the corporate media. The soccer, once dismissed derisively by the Anglo-Saxon establishment as the ‘wog ball’, is now a national competition, and the Socceroos have an enthusiastic and growing fanbase.

However, when it comes to political issues, sportspeople are facing a contadiction. Their high-profile enables them to comment and contribute on a wide range of issues; but we object when they run counter to the prevailing sociopolitical consensus. As Professor Adair elaborated in his article earlier:

The off-field contributions of many athletes, such as by contributing to charities or virtuous social causes, are rarely the subject of media discussion. There is, nonetheless, much more public interest should an athlete present a dissenting perspective in respect of a sociopolitical issue via sport.

Negative refrains typically include: athletes should “stick to sport”; that they are “using sport” to advance a political agenda; and (like other celebrities) they are not credible advocates because they live in an elitist “bubble”.

Peter Norman – the white man in the Black Power photo

Peter Norman was the Australian sprinter and athlete who took the silver medal in the 200 metres race during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. However, he is best known for standing in solidarity with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the African American athletes who raised their fists in the black power salute while on the Olympic dais. The story of Smith and Carlos has been told repeatedly; Norman’s is less well known, even though he is in many ways an equal hero on that fateful day in 1968.

Norman was originally an Australian Rules Football fan, and that was his first passion. However, he was a talented sprinter, and qualified for the Australian team. In the 1960s, a group of American athletes formed an informal activist group called Olympic Project for Human Rights. They were concerned about the racism and violence directed against the African American community. These athletes, after prolonged debate, decided to participate in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. However, each athlete, was encouraged to follow their individual conscience to protest the appalling conditions afflicting their communities in their own way.

Smith and Carlos, members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, decided that first, they would accept their medals shoeless to indicate the poverty in which the majority of African Americans live. Second, they decided to raise their fists in the black power salute, knowing full well the heavy consequences should they do so. Both had expected to win gold and silver respectively; but roaring up out of the Antipodes, Peter Norman blitzed the field, and ran in second. Olympic observers were stunned – who is this mysterious speedster from Australia?

In the 1960s, Australia had in place a series of restrictive laws on the indigenous population, almost akin to apartheid South Africa. Former long-term prime minister of Australia, Robert Menzies, publicly defended apartheid South Africa, and stated those types of racially-restrictive laws were necessary for that country. Australia could hardly be described as a model of tolerance and diversity at the time. Norman, coming from a country that had similarly regressive laws curtailing the rights of the indigenous people, was an anti-racism advocate. However, no-one predicted the strong stand he would take in 1968.

Not only did Norman wear the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge while on the dais accepting his medal, he also asked Carlos and Smith for a pair of black gloves to wear. When told that their was only pair between them, Norman suggested that they should wear one each. They took his advice. Norman stood in solidarity with his fellow athletes. Carlos and Smith wore one black glove each.

For that stand, and for that act of solidarity, Norman would pay for the rest of his life. Norman, though qualifying numerous times for a spot on the Australian team for the 1972 Munich Olympics, was excluded. He retired from athletics soon after. He never ran competitively for Australia ever again. He died of natural causes, ostracised by the wider sporting community, in 2006.

As the writer Riccardo Gazzaniga wrote in an article in 2015 examining the life of Peter Norman:

Back in the change-resisting, whitewashed Australia he was treated like an outsider, his family outcast, and work impossible to find. For a time he worked as a gym teacher, continuing to struggle against inequalities as a trade unionist and occasionally working in a butcher shop. An injury caused Norman to contract gangrene which led to issues with depression and alcoholism.

As John Carlos said, “If we were getting beat up, Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.” For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited to condemn his co-athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracized him.

A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans.

Norman, who passed away in 2006, stayed true to his conscience, and always expressed his support for his friends and fellow athletes from the United States. When he died, it was Carlos and Smith who carried Norman’s coffin to its final resting place. Norman was issued a posthumous apology by the Australian Federal Parliament in 2012. The move to apologise to Norman was driven, not by the Australian Olympic Committee or any sporting body, but by a concerned MP. The fact that the apology was so late in coming, and not sponsored or promoted by any athletic organisation, must raise serious questions about the state of race relations in Australia today.

Athletes do not exist in a political and social vacuum

Let us end the fiction that sport and politics are mutually exclusive. When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the American national anthem, he did so because he fully understands the problems of police violence and poverty that afflict the African American community. Kaepernick has faced a serious backlash against his actions, precisely because he deliberately stepped outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable political conduct by a prominent black American athlete. He is no Michael Jordan – the latter, a submissive superstar, a value-free brand salesperson.

Actually it is not correct to refer to Jordan as value-free, because he does stand for a certain set of ideals – those of the corporate sponsor. Jordan, the spokesperson for Nike, declined to take a stand on important social and political issues, because it would threaten shoe sales. Jordan declined to support a black Democrat candidate, on the basis that the Republicans are customers of Nike as well. I suppose being a shoe salesman was more important than tackling issues of racism.

Jordan, and O J Simpson, prior to his murderous rampage – are the archetypes of the non-political, bland corporatised athletes – with black faces. They are effective at selling their brand – clean-cut, articulate and suave, but also non-challenging to the racially stratified capitalist system. Yes, O J Simpson was the perfect superstar – a talented footballer, and smooth corporate frontman, and indifferent to the momentous economic and political challenges faced by African American communities.

When Peter Norman was asked, years later, about the stand he took with Carlos and Smith, he stated:

I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.

There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly hated it.

It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance.

On the contrary.

I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it”.

Athletic and sporting achievements are definitely worthy of admiration and respect; taking a stand in solidarity with the oppressed is no less admirable and inspirational.