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.