Today Douglas Wood told of the ruthlessness of his captors who executed two Iraqi hostages next to him and who beat him up for understating the amount of money he kept in his office safe.
At a press conference, Mr Wood called his kidnappers “a---holes”. Most of us would understand his use of such an uncomplimentary term. But Andrew Jaspan, the editor of The Age, Melbourne’s second newspaper, did not.
Andrew Jaspan called Douglas Wood “boorish” for using the term. As Jaspan himself explains it,
I was, I have to say, shocked by Douglas Wood’s use of the a---hole word, if I can put it like that, which I just thought was coarse and very ill-thought through ... The issue really is largely, speaking as I understand it, he was treated well there. He says he was fed every day, and as such to turn around and use that kind of language I think is just insensitive.
Labor Party speech writer Bob Ellis went even further in expressing his respect for the kidnappers by praising them as “honourable men (with) a well-treated captive.”
My point here is not to make a judgement about the morality of the war in Iraq. It’s to point out the capacity of some members of our cultural elite to identify with “the other," even to the point of defending cut-throat terrorists.
This is not a new phenomenon. More than a century ago an English poet, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, chose to defend the Mahdi uprising in the Sudan. When Sir Herbert Stewart defeated the Mahdi’s forces at Abu Klea, Blunt was moved to condemn the victorious British forces as “A mongrel scum of thieves ... without beliefs, without traditions” whereas “on the other side” were,
men with the memory of a thousand years of freedom, with chivalry inherited from the Saracens, the noblest of ancestors, with a creed the purest the world ever knew, worshipping God and serving him with arms like the heroes of the ancient world they are ...
Blunt’s admiration for the Mahdi’s forces was misplaced. The Mahdi revolt was partly a response to General Gordon’s efforts to outlaw the slave trade. Nor was the Mahdi’s programme the kind of idealised defence of an ancient tradition suggested by Blunt. Instead,
The Mahdi maintained that his movement was not a religious order that could be accepted or rejected at will, but that it was a universal regime, which challenged man to join or to be destroyed. The Mahdi modified Islam’s five pillars to support the dogma that loyalty to him was essential to true belief.
Personally, I am not sympathetic to any kind of imperialism. But Blunt was not just a critic of British imperialism. He was fundamentally disloyal to his own people. His mindset was to identify with “the other” almost to the point of reverence.
And these men we have with us still.