What’s a Protestor Worth?


How Much is Protestor Worth?

Published on Starts at Sixty January 14, 2014

At the end of June 1971, I found myself in ward 52 of Royal Melbourne Hospital, prescribed complete bed rest and given heavy duty drugs to help my back pain. At the same time, the Moratorium Movement was planning its third march to protest against the Vietnam War. My hospital regime allowed visitors for an hour a day, between 7 and 8 p.m. Several of my fellow-theological students were involved in the Moratorium and were keen to recruit me. It was my first opportunity to march: I had been in country WA for the previous two marches and had not been required to make a decision.

‘We could put you in a wheelchair and push you down Swanston Street,’ my friends said, as though it was a student lark. But it was far more serious than that.  I was torn, but in the end, when June 30 came around, I was too unwell to participate. At 7 p.m. that night I saw the black and white images on TV and heard my friends’ first-hand reports of the 100,000 citizens who marched to the Shrine on St Kilda Road.

Melbourne Moratorium (courtesy ABC)

In the late 60s and on into the 70s many people, particularly those of us who were students, had to decide whether or not to take part in protests. These were not easy or automatic decisions. We saw people arrested and locked up at protests and knew prison was a possible consequence of civil disobedience. We heard of students in Queensland being jailed simply for gathering. ‘Don’t bother applying for a march permit,’ premier Bjelke-Peterson told potential protestors, ‘You won’t get one. That’s government policy now!’

We read about Martin Luther King Jr and his time in Birmingham City Jail in 1963. Founder of the Plowshares Movement, Catholic priest Dan Berrigan, who had been a leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement went to jail for trespass on and damage to the General Electric nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania.

Mrs Bessie Riscbieth OBE, JP

A prototypical West Australian protestor was elegant and wealthy Mrs Bessie Rischbieth J.P., O.B.E. Mrs Rischbieth, a theosophist and feminist, was  a grande dame from upmarket Peppermint Grove. I remember her in 1966 aged 89 wading into the Swan River in front of the bulldozers as her attempt to prevent the filling in of the river for the building of the Narrows Bridge. While she did not succeed there, her direct action earlier stopped the construction of a swimming pool in Kings Park. In court Mrs Rischbieth was haughtily defiant, but paid her fines. I don’t recall if she was ever sentenced to prison. it’s unlikely.  No judge in small town Perth would have risked the fuss!

I learned two things from these protest movements: protestors should expect the normal consequences for their illegal actions. Just because their protests are morally right does not excuse them from the normal legal accountabilities. In fact, doing time is a way of demonstrating moral seriousness. Secondly, protestors need to be part of an organisation, people who can keep them honest, protect them in ugly situations and support them through the processes of court and prison. Solo protestors are extremely vulnerable to early burnout.

I am encouraged by the new round of protests this century, including by groups working to protect the environment. Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace clearly know the history of the anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear protests, and like Bessie Rischbieth and Old Testament prophets, take symbolic actions in the very places where the environment is at risk.

We are poorly served by some of the correspondents writing reports of Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace. They seem ignorant of the history of protest. They seem to believe that the protestors think they should be above the law. For the ‘Arctic 30’ (those detained by Russia for their protests against the Gazpron oilrig), the media have been strident in condemning Russia for their over-reaction, but they have not praised the protestors for the legal risks they ran. They have not even appraised their moral stance. The end result is that they denigrate the moral seriousness of the protestors.

Greenpeace provide strong support to those detained and to their families publicly and it would seem privately, but parts of the media don’t get the process.

I’d like those reporters to read about Bessie Rischbieth, about the Berrigan brothers, Martin Luther King Jr, the Palm Sunday marches, Harvey Milk, all the heroes who have made ours a freer society. Maybe then they could more accurately evaluate the efforts of those who put their lives on the line today to make the world a better and safer place.

Novel Readings of Australian Men’s Emotions


 

I’ve been reading two new and extraordinary Australian novels: Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North and Tom Keneally’s Shame and the Captives. Both deal with the Second World War.

My brother and I were born just after the War. He remarked recently how much the men we had grown up with had been marked by that war. We grew up on a farm, and we saw farmers who spent their time drinking not farming; our nearest neighbours lived with their grandparents, but they turned out to be paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather who shared their house. On a remote farm, one farmer loyally cared for ‘Mad Jack’. Today this eccentric would be recognised as an untreated sufferer of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The novels by Flanagan and Keneally take us to events that damaged many Australian men: the Burma railway and the Cowra break-out.  Both novels, though explicitly fiction, describe the events fully, but exploit what novels do best: they humanise the characters. Both novelists are unusually ambitious. Flanagan’s main character Dorrigo Evans is a doctor who ends up as Officer Commanding the prisoners building the Thai-Burma railway. This is dangerous ground. Australians have made ‘Weary’ Dunlop into a hero and this character is too like the legend of ‘Weary’. But Dorrie Evans believes he is no hero. He is a man just managing to hold himself together in the extreme conditions.

Flanagan shifts the time backwards and forwards between the doctor’s pre-war infatuation with his uncle’s young wife, and his serial womanising after the war. His one real act of heroism may be some years after the war when he saves his society wife and children from a Tasmania bushfire.  But on his death-bed, he has a kind of vision of his heroism on the railway. He remembers when the Japanese guards force him to select 200 men to march to another camp. The men are sick and dying, and he must make selections knowing that he is sending the men to a certain death, others he is saving. Yet he moves through the parade, putting his hand affectionately on the shoulder and naming each man chosen. He gets up early next morning, feeling the heavy responsibility for his choices. In his dream, each man comes up to him, shakes his hand or salutes him with a cheery ‘Thank you, Sir,’ or ‘All the best to you.’ Somehow the little he does, even the mistakes he makes, are seen as heroism, and Flanagan shows us how hollow he feels, almost as though he is a fake, or has been mistaken for someone else.

I was gripped by Flanagan’s depiction of loyalty between ordinary men. Just trying to stay alive in a hellish world, they both helped each other and sometimes failed to help each other. The profound cruelty inflicted on these men created something of beauty, a tiny bloom in the dark jungle. We all know and feel the barrier to giving this bond of mateship its real name. Flanagan dares once in the novel to call it love. The novel also acknowledges how the hardships also ravaged Australian men in ways that their children who are Flanagan’s generation – my generation – are only beginning to understand.

For Richard Flanagan, behind unexpressed emotions the laconic Australian male hides a vulnerability, and many are not only vulnerable but fragile too.

 

Our emotions are unexplored territory, and Tom Keneally, from an earlier generation, knows that our lack of familiarity with the world of emotions makes it difficult for us to explore the emotional lives of others. The Italians and the Japanese in the POW camp at Gawell, the fictional palimpsest for the real Cowra, provide Keneally with contrasting case studies.

I was surprised to learn that most of the detainees were not internees but were prisoners of war. The Italians and the Japanese were kept in separate compounds and had very different attitudes to being captured: the Italians were on the whole relieved. Their allegiance to Mussolini was not deep, and in any case Italy was about to fall to the allies. The Japanese seethed with resentment both towards themselves and their captors. Their ambition as warriors had been to kill or be killed in the service of the Emperor. To be so weak as to be captured was shameful, and they bore their shame with difficulty.

The Japanese despised the Australians for looking after the camp according to the Geneva Convention. This compassion was weakness. They refused to cooperate and found little ways to make life difficult for their captors.

The Italians by contrast were happy to work on Australian farms, to attend Mass with Australian families and to reach out for human contact. We follow Giancarlo, or “Johnny”, the work-release prisoner on the farm of a widower and his daughter-in-law. An affair develops between the two, leading to confusion in the novel’s climax when Tengan is re-captured on their farm after the “break-out”.

Keneally shows us the emotional deafness of career Colonel Abecare and his subordinate Major Suttor, whose main interest was writing a popular radio serial, both to their own feelings and to the cultural-based emotions of their prisoners. The shame of Japanese warrior Tengan and his hatred for his enemy is well-drawn. On the other hand, the contempt of the Koreans for their Japanese superiors is hidden from the Australians. They saw the warrior mentality and loyalty to the Emperor as dangerous and meaningless.

The killings and suicides in the break-out shock the Australians who are not prepared for such extreme expression of emotion. Abecare, the old English soldier, is slaughtered, and the Australians are left to muddle through. And the novelist continues to hint at a kind of cultural autism, an inability in Australian men to read the emotions of others, because they cannot read or articulate their own.

My brother is right. We accepted that generation of damaged men just as eccentrics. It has taken a life-time to begin to understand their impact on us and to learn to love and hate, and fear and enjoy, to be angry and disgusted, and to know that these emotions are the essence of life.

Punishing sharks


I know nothing about surfing or fishing. My ignorance about boats is profound. So I shouldn’t say anything about the recent fatal shark attacks, except to state how appalling they are for the families of the men killed.

Since records started in Australia in 1791, there have been about 220 fatal shark attacks or about one each year. There were nearly 1300 motor vehicle accident deaths in 2011. But each shark attack gets media headlines.

I can’t help remembering that during the Middle Ages, animals that killed people were brought to court and tried. They were led into the court room on a leash. If they played up, further charges of affray were laid against them.

They were always executed: pigs and dogs that attacked their masters whatever the provocation, frightened horses that had trodden people to death, circus animals that escaped and ate for hunger.

It was a farce, of course. Magistrates could not take into account the animal’s intentions. If the animal had responded to one too many whippings, there was no charge of justifiable homicide. If horses trampled people because there were no exits in a crowded barn, the court didn’t care.

But the people probably felt better when the animal was killed. The taking of the animal’s life satisfied somehow the outrage at the human death. Old Testament justice was served: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life.’

We no longer bring animals to trial. We look back at the medieval practice with amazement that people’s thinking could be so defective. Animals don’t form criminal intentions. And even if they do, they cannot defend themselves in a human court. They can’t talk, you know.

Proposals to punish sharks that that take human beings by killing individual sharks or culling sharks generally are not so different from medieval animal courts.

Firstly there seems to be a problem of identity, being sure that you capture the shark that did the killing. Without that certainty why kill any shark that happens to be nearby? Even if you are certain that this shark killed a man, killing the shark certainly guarantees that that individual will not kill again. But scientists know little about the reasons for shark attacks. Is there a reason to think that this shark will attack again if left alive?

Neither can we know enough about bonds between sharks to know whether killing one shark will provoke a family member to kill in retaliation.

Scientists say they do not know why sharks kill. They do not have a clear picture of how many great white sharks there are around the south and west coasts of Australia. They do not know how they interact with top predators like orcas off Bremer Bay. Our ignorance is great. So we can have little confidence in the effectiveness of any intervention. We simply do not know what effect any of our actions will have.

We do know that the ocean is the sharks’ home. I object to a worldview that claims first place for human beings whatever the cost to other species. It seems to me to be arrogance to demand that the oceans be safe for human beings. We are responsible for own actions. We know the ocean has dangers, and it falls on us to take prudent precautions if we enter the sharks’ habitat.

To drive sharks out of the ocean for our comfort is to change the ocean into something with less value, and may have unintended results of changing our environment into something less liveable for all creatures – including ourselves.

So by all means let’s grieve appropriately for those taken by sharks, but let’s also pause before behaving with the same muddled logic as our medieval forebears and executing sharks for murder, because that’s all the sense I can make of polices of ‘capture and kill’ and culling.

As At The Dawn


As At the Dawn

 

Because you love them free as they are
They say you have nothing to say

 

Because you put on a human face
They say you’ve hidden yourself

 

Because you’re all heart God
They say you’ve gone to sleep

 

Because your Spirit cannot be grasped
They say everything has gone wrong

 

Because you refuse to collude with evil
They say you’re good for nothing

 

Because you don’t crush people
They say they haven’t called on you

 

Because you’re not just any God
They say you’re just anything

 

Because you made me in your image
You are also everything they say

 

Dear God won’t you take pity on me?

 

Original French P. Fertin “Comme à l’aurore”, Paris: Desclée, 1974, p. 17
Translated by Ted Witham 2013

 

I am sorry – Podcast for National Sorry Day


Image from the web site of the Pinjarra Massacre Site

Podcast for National Sorry Day

National Sorry Day will be marked on May 26. Some small thoughts to listen to are here.

Information about National Sorry Day is at http://www.nsdc.org.au/.

My review of Cavan Brown’s book on John Gribble is at https://thoughtsprovocateurs.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/rugged-and-painful-past/.

The story of the Pinjarra Massacre is told at http://www.pinjarramassacresite.com/.

PS: A written version of the podcast is on the web-site of the Anglican Parish of Dunsborough. Go to http://dunsboroughchurch.com.au/ and click on the brown folder marked “BLOGGING”.

Keeping alive the rumour of God


One of the few vestiges of “Establishment” in the Anglican Church of Australia is the authority of clergy to act as Commissioners for Declarations. [This authority is unlikely to be withdrawn as it is one of the requirements of Marriage Celebrants.] Several times a year fellow residents of our retirement village ask me to witness their signatures on legal documents. I am glad to oblige. I have even had a stamp made to save me from having to write by hand “The Reverend Edward Peter Witham, Registered Minister of Religion W-ZZZZ.

As a CD, my responsibility is to witness that people have correctly signed their documents. For that I need to know the form of the document – will, passport photo, statutory declaration, bank business, etc. – but not the content. However, most people when they come to sign want to share the background to the document. For my part, I assure them of confidentiality.

So people in the Village do know now that I am a priest – or at least, a handy person for witnessing their signature!

However, when we moved into this village five years ago, we decided we would downplay our faith. We had heard an anecdote about one of the village owners who apparently declared that a public area in the Village Centre would be ideal “for Bible Study or the like”. This remark evoked a strong reaction, almost outrage, among some people.

We thought that if there are people outraged by the thought of Bible study, being public Christians in the village could be counter-productive.

We have discovered the other church-goers in the Village, and we encourage one another in conversation and with cards at Easter and Christmas. We continue all our practice of Christianity outside the Village, both in church attendance and in our involvement in the Franciscan Third Order.

But I treat the Village as though it were a country where wearing distinctive religious garb is banned. I have only once worn my dog-collar in the Village or twice, if you count my performance as the Vicar in the murder mystery one year! I rarely advertise church events within the Village, and if I do, I do it discreetly.

Our stance of being so coy about our faith has been challenged. Once a colleague at church loaned us a DVD of a Passion Play performed in the gardens of Government House. We watched it in our house. When we returned the DVD to our friend, he asked why we had not had a public showing of it in the Village cinema. That was his idea of evangelism. I tried to explain that it might be seen, in our Village, not as an invitation to the Gospel but as an intrusion.

Inspired by Charles de Foucauld and the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus, we just try to keep alive the idea of God in our village. The challenge in that is to evangelise simply by presence requires great holiness. If I am not steeped in prayer, and if my lifestyle lacks integrity and sacrifice, then keeping my Christianity quiet in our relatively benign environment may just be an excuse not to talk about Jesus Christ at all.

I am encouraged that people ask me to witness them signing legal documents, and in doing so, to witness something of their trials and difficulties, but, as Lent begins, I am conscious that I have to use my praying and my decisions to be more transparent to God and the Gospel. Brother Charles de Foucauld has set a very high standard!

Oh, the farmer and the greenie….


The Farmer and the Greenie Should Be Friends …. But

I am sitting in my brother’s farm ute. My brother is driving. His best dog keeps his distance from the slow-moving mob of pregnant ewes. We are taking them to a paddock where they’ll have more room for lambing. It’s a slow progress across the paddocks. It’s important not to stress these sheep: by the time their lambs are born they will need to be in top condition with the best pastures easily accessible to them.

This care for animals is not only prudent business: my brother treats the animals on his farm well for their own sakes. I know many farmers like him. Farmers in general are unlikely to be cruel to animals, or allow others to be cruel to their stock coming from their property.

Like many others over the last few years, I have become concerned about the way some animals are treated. I was too distressed to watch to the end the Four Corners program on the slaughtering of cattle in Indonesia. I worry that cattle and chickens are force-fed in smaller and smaller pens. I wish we could always buy free-range animals and eggs.

But one thing I am sure of is that farmers are not enemies to animals. Most do what they can to look after sheep, cattle, dogs, pigs and hens. I am angry at activists who call for radical changes to farming practices without investigating how the majority of farmers do things. Often activists ask people to rally around causes that are based on old or incomplete information.

Take the story on mulesing sheep. Mulesing is a drastic operation where skin is cut away from around the sheep’s backside. Before farmers mulesed, there was a high incidence of fly-strike. When flies lay maggots in sheep, the maggots eat away the flesh of the sheep while the sheep is still alive. Mulesing – with much milder consequences for the animal – reduced the rates of fly-strike considerably.

PETA and other activists groups called for the abolition of mulesing. They showed graphic pictures of a sheep’s rump after the skin had been cut. Rarely did they mention the maggots threatening the lives of sheep, and they certainly showed no gruesome pictures of half-eaten still-living sheep. The farmers could well have countered the arguments of PETA by demonstrating the benefits of mulesing. Instead, the farmers went a step further and agreed to a total ban on mulesing. An enormous research effort produced chemical mulesing.

Animals Australia tells this story with reasonable accuracy, but its concluding call to action does not follow logically from the story and is any case out-dated.

I don’t believe that a perfect solution has been worked out, but I do believe the farmers wanted the same end result as the activists.  And with their first-hand knowledge, they could be honest about the situation.

Animals Australia condemns all live sheep export and describes their investigations showing cruelty against animals in transit and in market countries. It counters industry claims to improvement; but not with detailed evidence, rather with graphic photos.

Their ethical arguments begin with the assertion that raising animals to eat is wrong in itself, and therefore any instances of cruelty, however isolated, prove the point. The reality, however, is that our society accepts the use of animals for eating. Finding enough protein for a healthy and balanced diet without meat is currently an expensive challenge.

Farmers who grow animals for meat are not acting illegally, nor are they anti-social, and to claim that all their activity is unethical is at the very least controversial, and is usually insulting. Environmental concerns may well price meat out of existence over time and we will simply be forced to find replacement protein. But we are not at that place yet. Discouraging cruelty to animals makes more common sense in the short to medium term than calling for a total ban on meat.

Animal activists come over as either unrealistic idealists or deliberately undermining the livelihood of the very farmers on whom we depend for our food.

The greenies and the farmers should be friends. Both groups are genuinely working towards a world in which there is less cruelty to animals. But polarising the debate by calling for a complete ban on meat and demonising all involved in its production and transport is unwise and unproductive. It is no wonder farmers defending live sheep exports organise their gatherings off-line away from the glare of volatile social media. Their cause is so easily hi-jacked by easy and sentimental appeal of the animal activists.