The use of child soldiers is nothing new in Western societies

While we condemn militias in non-Western societies for recruiting child soldiers, the deployment of child soldiers is nothing new in the West.

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The Manchester terrorist bombing has, quite rightly, attracted condemnation from all quarters of the political and ethnic spectrum. It is with a heavy heart that one reads about the details of this cowardly, terrorist attack. Sadness at the loss of life is tempered by the heartening displays of solidarity and compassion demonstrated by thousands in the immediate aftermath of the atrocity. The Morning Star newspaper carried an article on May 25 stating that solidarity and courage are required to defeat terrorism, and that the psychopathic murderer (or murderers) responsible for this latest outrage will not triumph over our common humanity.

There will be more commentary about the Manchester bombing in the coming weeks and months. Without going into a detailed analysis of this atrocity here, it is worth noting that one of the most distressing aspects of this cowardly attack are the child victims. The latter arouse in us a particular empathy for the families of the deceased, and a stronger revulsion for those responsible for their deaths. Children’s lives cut down by a horrible attack evoke in us an understandable and necessary response – the ‘something must be done’ rejoinder. This aspect led me to consider the general subject of children caught up in war, and specifically about the subject of child soldiers.

A typical example of how we view child soldiers – particularly from African, Asian and other non-white nationalities – is provided by the Sudanese Australian and 2016 Australian of the Year Deng Adut. Adut, a refugee from the South Sudanese conflict and currently a lawyer, described his journey from forcible child soldiering in his home country to refugee advocate in Australia.

Abducted and forcibly recruited by a militia group, he gave details about the harrowing experiences of a child soldier. A witness to, and sometimes participant in, horrifying violence, he has demonstrated tremendous personal courage in not only escaping the terrible circumstances of his youth, but also in turning his life around and becoming a successful person. Adut still has nightmares about his time as a youthful recruit, forced to perform and view terrifying and disturbing acts of violence. His resilience in the face of such tremendous difficulties and personal trauma is commendable. His story is inspirational, to be sure. His journey, like that of many former child soldiers, is full of pathos – the tragic victims of violent circumstances that were beyond their control.

Please do not misconstrue my motivations – I am happy that he is alive and well, successful in his chosen profession. I am glad that he is able to live a peaceful life, and give of himself to others. His story, and the stories of other celebrity-child soldiers – such as Ishmael Beah – have come to represent indomitable human courage in the face of terrible adversity.

This stereotype of the child soldier – a passive victim, forced into combat by cult-like brainwashing, or loyalty to a maniacal, power-hungry dictator – is only one part of a multi-faceted story. Western audiences understand child soldiers to be African, Asian or non-white in origin – popularised by blockbuster movies such as Blood Diamond. That stereotype lends itself quite easily to the next logical step in the drama – Western intervention ‘to do something’. The non-white child soldier is seen an irrational, drug-induced budding psychopath, very impressionable and ready to kill. This leaves us with several unanswered and serious questions.

The British Army – one of the main pillars of the British nation-state – is still recruiting child soldiers. Back in December 2015, Mark Bostridge writing in the Guardian newspaper pointed out that Britain is the only country in Europe, and only one of a handful worldwide, that still recruits 16-year olds into its ranks as soldiers. Minors are targeted by recruitment campaigns approved and promoted by the Ministry of Defence. Army recruiters disproportionately target schools in economically disadvantaged areas, and readily recruits youths from low-income backgrounds.

These child soldiers – integrated into the army – are at higher risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide. Chris Atkins, writing in The Guardian back in 2013, highlighted the stories of those British child soldiers who serve in the infantry, the latter is the branch of the army where under-18s are over-represented. Atkins explains that:

David Buck joined the army at 17, saw active duty in Kosovo when he was just 19, and witnessed mass graves and burning bodies. On returning to civilian life at 26 he was diagnosed with PTSD, which he attributes to seeing such horrific images at such a young age. He also experienced bouts of severe alcoholism when he returned from fighting in Iraq. “I was trying to get away from the mental torture of PTSD,” he told the Guardian.

Buck says he was swayed by the brochures he read at the recruitment office. “It’s just deception. It doesn’t show someone with their head blown off.” He recalls images that glamorised army life, with recruits abseiling and skiing. “Being so young I was easily manipulated with the stuff they shovel down your neck in the careers office,” he said.

The army presents itself as a way out of deprived circumstances, an avenue of upward social mobility out of a deindustrialised and marginalised community. In a way, the military cashes in on the lack of educational and social opportunities. Communities devastated by neoliberal austerity, job and service cutbacks and unemployment, provide a fertile ground (no pun intended) for the production of children that are vulnerable – and impressionable; ready for recruitment into the ranks of the military.

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The recruitment of child soldiers is not a recent development – armies and popular insurgencies have been deploying child soldiers for years. This point is worth remembering, because the use of child soldiers is portrayed to Western audiences as evidence of the ethical depravity and moral bankruptcy of the groups and militias that use such tactics. There is truth in this – the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone, the mercenary outfit of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda are abhorrent institutions, known to forcibly recruit children, and compel them to perform terrifying acts of drug-induced brutality. These groups, and anything that they have bequeathed, must be strongly condemned and have lost all legitimacy. These groups are guilty of heinous crimes against young people, and deserve our revulsion.

Bear that in mind when considering the following – during the American war of independence (1775-1783) the Continental Army used, among other recruits – child soldiers. Boys as young as 15 or 16 were to be found in the ranks of the patriotic army fighting a revolutionary insurrection against British rule in the former colonies. That continental army was the military wing of the American political campaign for independence.

The insurrectionary and American patriot-force, which later evolved to become the American military, had no legal minimum age of service. That army, which needed new recruits, viewed children as evidence that their cause was just, and even blessed by God. As long as a draftee could carry a musket, supply the army with its needs, and fulfil the duties of a revolutionary soldier, then that draftee was inducted into the Continental Army.

Examples of the enthusiasm with which thousands of minors took up the Continental cause abound in the relevant literature. Are we to conclude that the political institutions buttressed by the emergent American army are now illegitimate because of the use of child soldiers?

The current article is getting long enough, but the subject has by no means been exhausted. So let us conclude this contribution – part one – on the following note. Child soldiers have played a crucial role on the battlefield for centuries. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of child-soldiering – for the record, I think all recruitment for under-18s should be banned in all countries and situations. However, let us abandon our hypocrisies surrounding the use of child soldiers – we in the West, the proverbial good guys – find it easy to condemn guerrilla groups and non-state actors for the deployment of child soldiers as a unique moral outrage – but we have engaged in that practice since time immemorial.

In the next part, we will examine the historical issues of child soldiers, and the issue of recruitment today.

60 years after the Suez crisis, Britain still needs to learn the lessons from that conflict

The Suez crisis marked the end of an empire, but the lessons of that historic episode remain to be understood.

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When you are born in Australia from a non-English- speaking background, the inevitable inquiry you face is ‘where do you come from?’ That is not necessarily asked in a hostile way, but is usually motivated by curiosity. The short answer to that question is ‘from Egypt’. That much is true – though to be specific, I am Egyptian-Armenian; both my parents were born in Egypt of Armenian ancestry. The specificity of this ethnic background is sometimes too complicated, or a case of information-overload, for Australians of Anglo-Celtic extraction (no offence), so I normally stick to the short version.

When asked this question in a social setting, or at the workplace, I know what is coming after I answer it. Having said that my background is Egyptian, I now must prepare myself – because I have just become the unwitting and unofficial ambassador for Egypt and for everything Egyptian. I am now the portable Google to answer questions about that country. Once again, none of this is motivated by hostility, but by well-meaning and earnest curiosity. The people around me now have an accessible guide with whom to share their Hollywood-inspired notions and questions about Egypt.

I have, unintentionally, assumed the totemic identity of everything Egyptian. Usually, the topics that people ask me about involve the following list:

The pyramids, Tutankhamun, mummies, riding camels, and kebabs. Egypt is a land of mysterious curse-afflicted archaeological structures, exotic Middle Eastern foods and freaky, fanatical Muslims.

Do not misconstrue my argument – ancient Egypt and its archaeology is an endlessly fascinating subject. The tensions between politics and religion are always playing out in various ways and in different public arenas in Egypt – while that nation is officially secular, there are groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who wish to base the entire structure of public and political life on a strictly religious basis. Actually, the state has come to dominate the main religious institutions in the nation, so religion is a major source of legislation.

Be that as it may, there are lessons to learn from the history and politics of Egypt. There are major implications for our political and economic system today – implications that remain ignored by our political and financial elites. I have been remiss in my job as unofficial ambassador for Egypt – but I hope to make amends today. October 2016 marked 60 years since the start of the Suez crisis – an episode that remains little understood. This operation, known as the Tripartite Aggression in Egypt, was the military response of the imperialist states (namely Britain and France, along with their ally Israel) to the nationalisation of the Suez canal undertaken by former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The British authorities are never shy about commemorating their foreign wars – the Falklands, the D-Day landings, Waterloo, Trafalgar, the current deployment to Iraq – each has their own commemorative activities, statues, services of remembrance, unveiled plaques, parades, recitals of the British military divisions that served, and so on. However, Suez remains the forgotten war, its details and lessons consigned to oblivion. Perhaps this is because the Suez war was the end of imperial empire; the unmistakable evidence that while Britannia may have ruled the waves, its maritime supremacy came crashing down at the Suez canal.

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The Suez Canal itself, built in 1869 and financed by Britain and France, had always been of strategic interest to the imperialist powers. In 1956, the nationalist government of President Nasser nationalised the company that controlled the Suez canal’s maritime traffic. This move, enacted in July 1956, was a direct blow to the interests of the former colonial power in Egypt, Britain. The latter had looked with apprehension at the rise of the nationalist (and anti-Communist) regime of the Free Officers led by Nasser.

Not only did Nasser challenge the British empire, but was also posing a threat to the imperialist system. Britain in the immediate post-World War Two era was an empire in decline. A wave of decolonisation had swept over Britain’s former colonies. Nasser’s move to nationalise the Suez Canal was a major impetus for anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in other African and Asian countries.

The prime minister of Britain at the time, Anthony Eden, became obsessed with getting rid of Nasser, going so far as to demand the latter’s assassination. Britain, along with its partner France, began a criminal conspiracy to reverse the Suez canal nationalisation and achieve regime change in Egypt. That meant an intensive military operation to overthrow the fledgling Egyptian regime.

Eden presented his conflict with Nasser in existential terms – denouncing Nasser as the ‘new Hitler’. Eden portrayed the Egyptian regime as having the power of blackmail over the British empire – after all, the Suez canal was a ‘chokehold’ point for maritime traffic. The British government, disguising its imperialist imperatives in humanitarian garb, tried to present military intervention as a peacekeeping operation. Invoking the Hitler analogy so soon after the conclusion of the Second World War, Eden was setting a template for ‘humanitarian intervention’; a template of propagandistic deception for imperialist economic and military interests. Eden deliberately misled the public and the international community regarding the extent of collusion with France and Israel to grab the Suez Canal.

Israel invaded first, in order to seize the Sinai peninsula. France, facing an Arab nationalist revolt in its colony of Algeria, intended to send a message to its Algerian opponents that no challenge by Arab nationalism would be tolerated. French collaboration in this war was obvious – French warplanes flew from Israeli airfields to attack Egyptian territory. Britain, always circumspect, invaded the Suez region in early November 1956, and added to its already blood-soaked history of empire-building.

The Egyptians resisted fiercely; the move to nationalise the Canal had popular support. Nasser had stated, when pursuing the nationalisation, that: “Everything which was stolen from us by that imperialist company, that state within a state, when we were dying of hunger, we are going to take back. In the name of the nation, the president of the republic declares the International Suez Canal Company an Egyptian limited company.”

Former US President Dwight Eisenhower, already worried by the apparent drift of Arab countries into the Soviet orbit, ordered that all British, French and Israeli troops withdraw from the Canal zone and the Sinai. Eisenhower, anxious to disassociate America from traditional European colonialism, sought a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Publicly censuring his wartime allies, as well as Israel, the Tripartite aggression was militarily a success, but politically a failure. The Eden government, forced to withdraw its troops, backed down in a humiliating retreat. Eden resigned in early 1957. Ironically, Eisenhower threatened to cut off Britain’s oil supplies if London did not agree to this resolution – the American president and ally of Britain exercised the ‘stranglehold’ on oil which Eden accused Nasser of wielding.

The sun had finally set on the British empire.

What has all this got to do with today’s events?

Sixty years after Suez, Whitehall needs to learn the lessons of that conflict. Reviving the empire, Mark 2.0, is not a vision for the future. The question of Brexit – a question that hangs over British politics until today – has been conducted as an exercise in imperial nostalgia. When English politicians, such as current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, speak of the British empire in glowing terms, they are failing to face up to the toxic legacy of that empire, embodied by the defeat in Suez. Not only does Tory Brexit ignore a brutal history, as Kenhinde Andrews suggests in an article for The Guardian. Colonial nostalgia and whitewashing the empire’s crimes are no foundations for a renewed future. Post-Brexit Britain cannot build a new society based on a myth of empire – a mythologised past that dangerously obscures the criminal nature of imperialist empire-building.

David Olusoga, writing in his article “Empire 2.0 is dangerous nostalgia for something that never existed” writes that today’s British government of Theresa May cannot rectify Britain’s problems by gambling on an Anglophone vision of reviving the Commonwealth as a trading and military bloc. He writes that:

The empire, even at its height, never came close to absorbing the majority of our exports or providing the bulk of our imports, and neither will the Commonwealth, no matter how good a trade deal we win. Empire 2.0 is a fanciful vision of the future based on a distorted misremembering of the past. It’s a delusion and, like all delusions, has the potential to lure us into a false sense of security and lead us to make bad decisions.

The song ‘Rule Britannia’ contains the lyrics “Rule, Britannia! Rule the waves. Britons never will be slaves.” That is true, because Britain spent decades enslaving and colonising others, and attempted to present that conquest as an exercise in humanitarian intervention. The Suez crisis, not only demonstrated that empire-building had come to an end, but that hankering for a mythical imperial past is a dangerous delusion upon which to build a future. London should stop regarding its former empire as an exercise in humane nation-building and democracy promotion.

Since 1956, the British political establishment has accepted a role as junior partner of American imperialism – just like Australia’s obsequious deference to the United States. It is high time for the white sisters to rethink their slavish and cynically-calculated affiliations.

Section 18C is no threat to freedom of speech

As Australians, we should be thankful for the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The PM, in cooperation with other ultra-right politicians, anti-immigrant xenophobes and the NewsCorp media empire, have highlighted the reason why all of us are groaning under the weight of a tyrannical dictatorship curbing our freedom of speech.

The other, trivial issues – such as housing affordability, climate change, increasing homelessness, widening economic inequality, the deterioration of public services – all pale into insignificance in contrast to the most damning piece of legislation on the books today. This law, derived straight from the Kremlin-Bolshevik playbook, and one that requires immediate governmental attention is – Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Jacqueline Maley, writing in that media mouthpiece of loony, left-wing Bolshevik-Leninism – the Sydney Morning Herald – states that with the repeal of Section 18C, we will be able to racially taunt and vilify any ethnic group that we wish. If any ethnic minority is offended, well, they are just being snowflakes and will have to suck it up. Free speech is free speech, is it not? As Maley stated in her article:

My opinions as a white, non-Muslim woman who has never read the Koran, and who already has a platform in a mainstream media organisation, will finally be let loose. Unfettered and free.

We might require a better idea of the kinds of freedom of speech that are necessary in a world unhindered by those suffering under the tyrannical imposition of Section 18C. Richard Ackland, writing in the Guardian newspaper, wrote about the experiences of Maxine Beneba Clarke, an African Australian writer currently residing in Melbourne. She wrote in her book that one fine day, while walking her five-month old baby in a pram, one gentleman pulled up in his ute, wound down the window, and offered the following sterling gem of free speech:

Go on, fuck off. You make me sick, you fucken black slut. Go drown your kid. You should go drown your fucken kid. Fuck off will you.

We can also research the experiences of the Lebanese Muslim Association, a mainstream Muslim organisation based in western Sydney. During the debate about Section 18C, community groups were asked to make submissions to a parliamentary enquiry on the subject. The LMA, as part of their contribution, constructed an amalgam of the comments they receive everyday through social media platforms, as part of the free exercise of free speech by Australian citizens. You may find the collage of commentary on their Facebook page.

The LMA submitted their contribution for this parliamentary enquiry. Let us review a small portion of the comments they receive in the course of one day. One commenter, upon seeing a group of Muslims praying, commented that ‘the things u c when you don’t have a chain gun’. One person, using their impressive detective skills, opined that ‘Wonder how many terrorists or child molesters there is. This is our country if you don’t like our way go back to where you came from.’ Another person helpfully suggested a technique for dispersing the prayer group – ‘Water balloons full of pig piss.’

One of the main proponents of repealing Section 18C is ultra-right wing free-market fundamentalist Senator David Leyonhjelm. The latter has used his position of parliamentary privilege to loudly denounce this provision of the Racial Discrimination Act as a restriction on free speech. He defended, for instance, the Wicked Campers business to drive around with slogans on their vehicles such as: ‘A wife: an attachment you screw on the bed to get the housework done.’ He declared that free speech is free speech; and those who were offended just had to suck it up.

Well that is interesting, because the comedic team The Chaser, drove up outside the Senator’s house with a slogan on their vehicle: “The best thing about oral sex from David Leyonhjelm – 5 minutes of silence.” Perhaps the good senator did not see the funny side, or perhaps he did not understand the joke. He came out of his house, told The Chaser team to ‘fuck off’ and threatened to call the police. Maybe Senator Leyonhjelm does not understand the concept of unrestricted free speech, because, after all, he is a descendant of non-English speaking migrants, and these emigrants require schooling in Australian values.

Section 18C – but also consider Section 18D

Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is only brief, and it states that it is unlawful for a person to perform an act that is reasonably likely, in all circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people on the basis of race or ethnic origin. You may read the entire section here. This section was introduced in 1995, twenty years after the original Racial Discrimination Act. Why? Australia was aligning itself with important international treaties; the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Since this section was introduced, it has been subjected to a sustained, sometimes intensified, sometimes moderated but always persistent, campaign to repeal it. This campaign, part of the culture wars of the conservative Right Wing in Australia, has been deceitfully framed as a defence of free speech. The concerns evinced about the impact on free speech are perverse and disingenuous. Disguising a sordid campaign to remove racial discrimination provisions in a noble wrapping is part and parcel of the Murdoch media empire, NewsCorp, and its political partisans in Australia. Changing the racial discriminations provisions will only result in making bigotry ‘great again’.

In 2011, the repeal campaign intensified when Andrew Bolt, one of the most outspoken literary mercenaries of the white Right, lost a racial vilification case brought under Section 18C. Alan Austin, writer for Independent Australia, covered the case. Bolt claimed that fairer-skinned Australians who claim Indigenous ancestry were only doing so for financial gain and career advancement. Bolt was found guilty of racially vilifying a group of Indigenous Australians in his columns, and was forced to pay damages. However, this finding did not significantly impact his media career, mind you.

Be that as it may, the conservative Right, assisted by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, current Attorney General George ‘everyone has the right to be a bigot’ Brandis, Senator Leyonhjelm, and an assorted collection of ultra-rightist lampreys who all jumped onto the anti-Section 18C bandwagon. Perhaps they should all take a crash course in Section 18C, provided by Professors Gelber and McNamara here.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has absolutely no powers to sue anyone or take anyone to court – an impression left on audiences by the anti-Section 18C crowd. The main purpose of the Australian Human Rights Commission, when it receives a complaint, is to conciliate and find a mutually satisfactory solution. Legal action is always the last resort, and is only undertaken when attempts at conciliation fail.

The majority of complaints brought under Section 18C are resolved through conciliation and arbitration – only a minority make it into the court system. Of those that end up in court, the majority of those complaints are dismissed as trivial or vexatious, or lacking in substance.

The critics of Section 18C should read Section 18D – that portion of the Racial Discrimination Act which spells out exceptions to Section 18C. Numerous exemptions are provided by Section 18D, and that strikes a balance between free speech and racial vilification, according to Tim Soutphommasane, the current Race Discrimination Commissioner. Relaxing the racial discrimination laws would only increase the risk of condoning racism. Soutphommasane stated that:

Much of the criticism of the RDA has been misplaced or misguided. Many critics have ignored how section 18C is accompanied by section 18D, which protects any fair comment or reporting on a matter of public interest, and any sentiment expressed ‘in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose’. Provided something is done reasonably and in good faith, any fair comment or public discussion will be exempt from being in breach of section 18C.

The latest permutation

In November 2016, Prime Minister Turnbull, casting around for a cause around which to unite his fractious party, latched onto the repeal of Section 18C, and resuscitated that campaign. Taking another step in the conservative culture war, Turnbull announced a parliamentary enquiry into Section 18C. The immediate catalyst for this decision was the dismissal of a case brought by an indigenous woman against three university students. The complaint, undertaken within the scope of Section 18C, was dismissed by the judge.

Rather than taking this as evidence that the law is working, Turnbull and his ultra-right associates launched a stinging attack on the Human Rights Commission, and revived the hopes of right wing figures in their effort to repeal Section 18C. The parliamentary enquiry submitted its findings in March this year. The enquiry recommended changes to the process and procedures for submitting complaints, but crucially left the wording of Section 18C alone.

Turnbull, frustrated in his attempts to acquire success in this campaign, went on to behave like a spoiled brat – he ignored the parliamentary enquiry’s recommendations, and submitted a bill to parliament to make changes to Section 18C. His bill was defeated in the Senate. His government is now back to square one on that front.

Posturing as defenders of free speech cannot disguise the underlying motives of the on-again off-again campaign to repeal Section 18C. As John Passant stated in an article for Independent Australia, abolishing Section 18C will only provide freedom of speech for the few – for the ultra-wealthy elite that dominates media ownership and political discourse in Australia. Racial discrimination provisions do not provide a universal panacea against racism. Nor do they mean that racism can be defeated by legislation alone. It does mean that Australians have rejected the phony ‘right to be bigots’, as articulated by Brandis and company.

Section 18C is no threat to freedom of speech, and is an important part of any civilised society. Let’s keep it that way.

The Abdel-Magied Anzac controversy teaches us valuable lessons about ourselves

Professor Michelle Grattan, journalist and expert commentator on Australian politics at the University of Canberra, wrote an article regarding the ruckus that erupted around the Anzac Day comment of Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Grattan’s article, entitled ‘Abdel-Magied Anzac row is a storm over not much’, summarises the main details of the recent controversy. The annual public holiday in Australia commemorates the first day of the ultimately catastrophic landing of a coalition of Australian, New Zealander, British and French troops at the Gallipoli peninsula. The commemorations on Anzac day have long since surpassed their purpose as a day of thoughtful reflection about the Australian veterans and their sacrifices. They have instead become a focal point for a celebration of militarist adventures in which Australian troops have participated.

The ABC presenter and journalist, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, referencing these Anzac day remembrances, posted a Facebook comment (since deleted) stating that:

Lest. We. Forget. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine …)

Abdel-Magied was suggesting, in her Facebook post, that we may also reflect on the current suffering of people such as the refugees locked away in remote detention camps on Nauru and Manus island. She was not disrespecting or ignoring the Anzacs, but inviting the readers to consider the plight of those victims of war who are still suffering for their experiences. Drawing a connection to current events is nothing controversial in and of itself.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and his associated colleagues and co-thinkers on the conservative Right, explicitly make a connection between the Anzacs and today’s Australian servicemen and women currently participating in a number of imperial wars overseas. When participating in Anzac commemorations on April 25, Turnbull drew a direct line between the Anzac troops, and the current war drive of American imperialist power, visiting Iraq and Afghanistan. Australian troops currently serve as auxiliary forces for the United States in those conflicts. Turnbull provided an open-ended commitment to these wars, and stated that:

More than 100,000 men and women have died in the service of our nation. Many more have been left wounded in body and spirit. Their sacrifice has protected our liberty and our values. And their legacy continues in the work of those who serve today.”

Turnbull, during this tightly-controlled lightning visit to Iraq and Afghanistan, made no examination of why Australian troops are helping in these American-led wars, participating in propping up the neo-colonial occupations of these nations. The Afghanistan war is now the longest running conventional war for the United States military, currently in its 16th year.

Abdel-Magied was inviting her readers to consider other aspects of the vast experience that is war and human suffering. Binoy Kampmark, lecturer at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, stated that we reflect on human suffering and sacrifice on Anzac day, let us not exclude considerations of the political calculations and decisions made to send those troops to wars overseas in the furtherance of imperial objectives. He writes that:

What the Anzac Day ceremonies do not do is reflect upon political folly and irresponsibility. This is the event’s greatest triumph — that of political deflection. Human sacrifice is the enormous tent under which political blunders and military catastrophes are subsumed, negating any questioning about decisions made and engagements undertaken in conflict.

Gallipoli in 1915 was a defeat of monumental proportions for the Anzac soldiers, a needless slaughter born from a Churchillian gamble. Editors and politicians chose to see it differently, finding in murderous folly a “baptism of fire”. Importantly, it was an invasion of the Ottoman Empire, a violation of sovereignty that has somehow been lost in the annals of saccharine reflection.

The Anzac Day celebrations have been virtually turned into a secular religion, and journalists and politicians are transformed into votaries of that particular tribal devotion. Commemorate the dead on Anzac Day to be sure; but let us not fall into the practice of Anzackery, an almost devotional, excessively over-the-top worship of the alleged ‘baptism of fire’ that Australian troops experienced at Gallipoli. This kind of patriotic mysticism, while comforting, blinds us to the deliberate calculations of the imperialist powers that led to the sacrifice of so many lives on the battlefields.

Abdel-Magied was not hijacking a ‘sacred cause’ or trying to divert attention from a worthy subject. She was emphasising that we must remember those who were forcibly displaced by imperialist wars, and indeed we must address the real suffering of the refugees created by today’s wars. As David Stephens wrote in The Guardian newspaper:

When you think about it, though, what better day than 25 April to raise important issues such as the fate of refugees in hell-holes? We are told that the men of Anzac a century ago – and servicemen and women since – were fighting to defend our values. So why not bring out some values along with the medals, some things we care deeply about?

The reaction to Abdel-Magied’s comment was vitriolic and abusive; government figures have been demanding her sacking from the ABC. Online petitions have been created to pressure the authorities to ‘do something’ about Abdel-Magied. She has since apologised for the Facebook comment and deleted it, but the hysteria continues. Jane Gilmore, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, stated that the scathing reaction to her post cannot be understood without taking into action racism. Abdel-Magied, a black Muslim woman, is an articulate and intelligent commentator, speaking up against the current crop of conservative white male politicians in the federal cabinet.

Gilmore wrote that:

It’s impossible to separate reactions to Yassmin’s post from her public identity as a young woman of colour, a Muslim, and the combination of those selves in a person who passionately defends Islam when we are indoctrinated to fear and hate it above all else. And it would be naive to the point of delusional to think this plays no part in the weight of the rage that has settled upon her.

Other writers and journalists have written critical commentaries about Anzac day celebrations – Stan Grant, indigenous journalist, has written about how those from the First Nations of Australia who served in the Australian army have been ignored and disrespected, their contribution to Australian wars almost airbrushed out of official historical commemorations. It took long and persistent battles by the indigenous community to have their contribution recognised. Grant has not been on the receiving end of venomous attacks in the way Abdel-Magied has been.

We would also do well to remember, on the day of remembering the Anzac day landings, that during World War One, there were those Australians who fought on the home front to stop participation in the mutual slaughter of Europe. Claire Wright, associate professor of history at La Trobe University, wrote that the issue of the Great War was deeply divisive at the time, with Australian politics being torn asunder. There were huge political battles fought over the proposed introduction of conscription – the Australian government at the time was defeated on that measure.

Wright elaborated that:

The enduring legacies of the first world war emanate beyond the battlefields of Gallipoli, manifested not only in the “shattered Anzacs” whose families bore the burden of care, but also in the class and sectarian divisions that shaped Australia’s social and political relations in the 20th century.

Lest we also forget that the democratic freedoms we hold dear today – freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech — were won in battles fought on home soil by courageous women and men who sacrificed much, but are still accorded little recognition.

Let us assume, just for the moment, that Abdel-Magied was mistaken. If that is the case, then her critics are even worse, and appear downright vicious and atrociously narrow-minded. Madonna King, writing in the Brisbane Times, stated that even if Abdel-Magied’s comment was out of line, then the racist and sexist abuse hurled at her are appalling. It only demonstrated that the supposed partisans of free speech will uphold that right when you agree with them. Let us be mature enough to have a debate about the Anzac Day without it degenerating into a hysterical typhoon of abuse.

Back in 2015, this is what I contributed about reflections on Anzac Day. I stand by it until today.

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.