Friday, May 04, 2007

Striking out on Anzac Day

Some left-wing journalists greet Anzac Day like actors in horror films waving crosses at vampires.

This time around the Melbourne Age featured commentary by both Tracee Hutchison and Michael Leunig. It's hard to decide which was the most curiously disordered.

I'll start with Tracee's column. She doesn't like the idea that there might be reason to honour previous generations of Australians. After all, Australia was a bad place from day one. Think Botany Bay circa 1770, she writes.

What's worse, those 300,000 Australian volunteers in WWI signed up when the White Australia policy was in place:

That was a hundred years ago. Food for thought, isn't it? ... Yet that was the prevailing social and political mood that shaped the thinking of those young men who willingly signed up when WWI was declared in 1914. That was their idea of the freedom they were defending.

Bad diggers! Tracee then confesses that:

I don't know anyone who would have volunteered to fight in a war as a teenager ... none of us can imagine doing what they did. Does that make us cowards?

That the men in Tracee's social circle can't imagine signing up is no great surprise. What have they got to fight for? If you think that your country has a past which renders it morally illegitimate, then you have no tradition to love and feel responsible for. I wonder, though, how Tracee thinks her morally illegitimate Australia might defend itself in any future conflict.

Anyway, at least Tracee has been consistent to this point. Things get worse when she adds multi-layered contradictions to her position:

What kind of Australia did our diggers die defending and what kind of Australia did they imagine we would become? Have we let them down?

Are the fear-laced policies of our Government what our original diggers had in mind when they enlisted? Or were they thinking of a different kind of Australia - at peace with its past, its present and future?

... And why does all of it have to come with an Australian flag draped around its shoulders? It frightens me.

A few paragraphs ago they were bad diggers dying to defend the discriminatory White Australia policy. Now they are suddenly good, noble diggers who would feel let down by the discriminatory policies of today.

A few paragraphs ago Tracee was telling us of our evil past. Now she's complaining that we as a country are not at peace with our own past.

And, to cap it all off, Tracee then complains that our Government is "fear-laced" and yet in the very next paragraph announces that she is frightened by ... the sight of an Australian flag!

From the apprentice leftist Tracee Hutchison we move to the old master, the cartoonist and columnist Michael Leunig. He pushes the idea of identifying with the "other" just about as far as it can go - so far, in fact, that it should make sensible readers question the whole process.

His opening contribution to Anzac Day is to praise a rude Turk:

I knew a Turkish man who owned a coffee shop around the corner from where I used to live. Ten Anzac Days ago I went to his shop for a morning coffee to be greeted by his wicked smile and twinkling eyes: "Good morning Michael," he said. "Happy Anzac Day. This is the special day," he declared with mock formality, "to remember that all invading armies must be thrown back into the sea."

I have to say, it was not such a bad way to start the morning.

Leunig is just warming to the task. His next topic is how great the multicultural Western suburbs of Melbourne are (he knows because a friend told him - Leunig himself lives far away in country Victoria). According to Leunig (via his friend) it is African, Asian and Muslim immigrants who are true to the Australian tradition unlike the stupid and boring Anglos:

a delightful aspect of being among so many Africans, Asians and Muslims is the spirited good humour, lively thinking and sincerity that they generate ... "They are what the dinkum, working-class Aussies used to be when we were growing up," says my friend. "They keep the spirit alive, they've got the humour; they remind me of what Australians were like before we became so stupid, boring and up ourselves, like the Americans.

There follows a sustained attack on Anglo Australia circa 1955. Leunig, to borrow a phrase from Tracee Hutchison, is not at all at peace with Australia's past.

First he recalls singing Onward Christian Soldiers at school, a hymn he categorises as a "melodramatic Anglo jihad song". Then on Anzac Day he, poor soul, was forced to sing:

a racist song called Recessional about the glory of battle, boastful Gentiles, "lesser breeds wihout the law" and our rightful domination of their lands ...

Rudyard Kipling's anthem lingered like mustard gas in the schoolyard where we played "war" and invented new torture techniques for various imaginary non-white and non-English speaking undesirables.

The mind boggles at Australian schoolboys of that era even being aware of various non-white, non-English speaking peoples, let alone focusing their schoolyard play on their torture. Leunig is really cranking up the vilification here.

Leunig even gets the message of Kipling's poem Recessional wrong. The poem was published in 1897 at the time of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Kipling thought the English were becoming a little too overconfident and wanted to remind them of the decay of nations which, on rising to prominence, became boastful and power hungry and lost a sense of the higher purposes their civilisation once served.

Kipling at the time was strongly anti-German. He not only saw the Germans as a threat to the English, but believed them to be arrogant and motivated by power alone, and therefore uncivilised. So the line "lesser breeds without the law" is usually thought to refer to the Germans, rather than to any non-European colonial peoples.

Leunig also remembers celebrating Guy Fawkes Day as a boy. He calls Guy Fawkes "the famous terrorist bomber" and "the bomb-making terrorist", once again attempting none too subtly to place our own culture on the same plane with that of the jihadist suicide bombers.

Finally, Leunig describes a novel, Breakfast of Champions, in which a visiting writer insults the sporting achievements of some philistine citizens of a small town and is beaten up. Leunig writes that "This tale often helps me to understand Australia". Leunig appears to be suggesting that, having used Anzac Day to spit in our eye, we are to value his artistic spittle highly, otherwise we are hostile, violent philistines.

Would anyone want to end up like Leunig? Would we really want to inhabit a mental world in which we seek to vilify our own tradition in an exaggerated way, deliberately ascribing to it the worst faults identified in other traditions, whilst giving over to others the best features of our own?

Leunig is not a misunderstood prophet. The insults, the disloyalty and the intent to do damage are all too clear in what he writes.

When you end up applying hatred to your own kind, isn't it time to reconsider your politics?


  1. My issue with present Anzac Day media coverage is with the way that Howard uses the imagery in an attempt to add honour and glory to his own misguided and mis-calculated involvement in Iraq.

    Within days of Anzac Day we hear how returning soldiers are not receiving adequate access to support for dealing with post-traumatic stress.

    Even more illustrative is that Jake Kosovo, who died under mysterious circumstances in his own room was accorded a State Funeral. Another Australian soldier was killed in action (a first in Iraq?) yet we've heard nothing about it. No hero's memorial. Maybe it's not politically convenient right now.

  2. Nice deconstruction, Mark.

    Most liberals apply at least a bit of logic to veil their creepy narcissism, but Hutchison and Leunig don't even bother.

    Those two pieces provide the kind of camp value that future generations will look back on like we look back on 80s fashion.

  3. I wonder if it is the whole idea that a person can believe in something greater then the self that is behind liberal hostility to overt displays of patriotism that comes out on days of significance, like Anzac Day?

  4. Shane, I had the same thought myself, that one day such columns will be looked on as oddities of our time.

    Scott, I think you're on the right track. Sir Walter Scott once described the non-patriot as someone who was "concentrated all in self".

    If you think the highest level is your own autonomous self, and if your mind is concentrated on your own existence at this level, then being confronted with the existence of a communal loyalty might seem alien and threatening.

    What you get is a kind of inversion. Instead of seeing your co-nationals as a source of support - as people naturally sharing a common loyalty - you see them instead as a threat to you as an individual.

    It's something that seems to unite both Hobbes and Locke - the idea that there is an imminent threat to my own person from the community, so that politics is to be conceived as securing my person from this threat.

  5. Leunig describes the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers as an Anglo jihad song. We're supposed to think that this makes us no different to the Islamic terrorist "other".

    As it happens, on the very day Leunig's column appeared The Australian published a story about an Islamic jihad song.

    A Muslim website in Sydney posted a video promoting a soccer tournament. The video featured a jihad song, the lyrics of which include the line:

    "With swords we shall exterminate the infidels and death is the desire of the pure."

    In the Christian song there is admittedly use of a military metaphor: "Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war."

    But these Christian soldiers aren't armed with swords but with the cross of Jesus. Nor are they out to kill infidels, but to make Satan's host flee with a shout of praise. They call on people to join their "happy throng" and be "one in charity".

    Not surprisingly the Christian hymn doesn't seem to inspire large numbers of Christians to commit suicide bombings as an act of martyrdom.

  6. Michael Leunig grew up in Footscray and his parents lived there until the late 1980s. Just thought I'd point that out.

  7. Slim,

    You're not one of those "all war is bad" tree hugger types are you?

    Our involvement in Iraq is tied with our alliance to the US, something I would find difficult as a conservative to depart from.

    The war itself was a bungle. But, and this is a big 'but', our continued involvement now is a different, albeit related, kettle of fish.

    We have acquaired a responsibility to ensure that when we leave, the vacume isn't filled either by Tehran or Riyad.

    If it is, we may as well surrender Europe to the green hord, and put up the white flag here in Australia too.

    As for me, I'd rather stand my ground and have no qualms identifying with the ANZAC tradition in doing so.

  8. I don't really know why Leunig has such "stature". As for Tracee Hutchens, these "men" she knows wouldn't volunteer, are they the same "appalling" men who don't want fatherhood and leave her high and dry that she was moaning about a little while back?

    Slim, I don't think Howard has actually done a lot of that, it is more a case of some in our society being obsessed with the whole Iraq issue, and thus seeing anything "military" as being part and parcel with it. In fact the dire predictions prior to the invasion have not actually come to pass. These were that the Saudi monarchy would fall, to be replaced by an Islamic extremist regime, and that the whole Middle East would erupt in flames. No doubt the whole thing has been mishandled, but don't forget, nice "lefties" like Pilger were claiming that 500,000 CHILDREN were dead because of 10 years of sanctions. At that rate, they'd have been at least another 250,000 dead children by now. The whole situation was a mess, and the Yanks were in Saudi to maintain those "sanctions". The "post-traumatic stress" talk is quite subjective as well - can anyone really put their hand on their heart and say what “adequate access” is? Little if anything was provided to the troops of the world wars, it was basically accepted that they deal with it themselves unless they had a complete breakdown. As for the soldier that was killed. Is he the one that was serving in the US Army? Presumably he had to take out US Citizenship as well. Maybe that's why we're not hearing so much about him. I certainly can't imagine The Age or the SMH trying to shield the Howard Government.

    As for Leunig and "Tracee". They are certainly inconsistent - the Turks themselves are "invaders" as far as the Greeks are concerned, many still want to get Constantinople and the Haiga Sophia back. Will Leunig see any irony in that? They all seem to be forgetting that the Turks declared war on us, not the other way round. The "Young Turks" hoped that if the Germans won the War, Turkey could reclaim some of its recently lost territories in the Balkans, and in the Caucuses (they'd have joined with Britain and France if they could have offered them these things). A Christmas Picnic at Broken Hill was shot up by an Afghan in response to the Sultan's call to arms in 1914.

    I've said before, the problem with left liberals, especially those who've achieved an affluence they want to keep, is that they have to constantly justify themselves. They normally do this by contrasting their superior morality to the immorality (usually hypocrisy) of the previous elite. In the past they sought the working class as allies, but have now changed to ethnic minorities - but both groups are made to conform to the intelligentsia's view of them. They so inhabit their own world of opinions they are genuinely stupefied when others don't accept them. I saw Leunig on Denton, and was struck not only by how "spaced out" he was, but by the fact he seemed to genuinely not understand that some Jews might find his cartoon comparing contemporary Israel to Auschwitz offensive. He didn’t defend it by claiming he was trying to be confronting to force people to re-evaluate their stance, he simply couldn’t understand that anyone would be offended by it. It is a fairly gross comparison, a better one would have been with the old ghettos where Jews lived in medieval times, or even the exile to Babylon. Personally I find this disconnected attitude amongst our supposedly brightest and best terrifying.