Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Misappropriaters of Orwell: Ben Brooker is watching you

Orwell. The name, just now, is inescapable. It leers out of countless newspaper columns, blog posts and online comments sections like the face of Big Brother himself. There is virtually no current political debate which is not laced with the authoritarian-denoting adjective which bears his name, from the still-unfolding National Security Agency spying scandal, to the noxious asylum seeker discourse in this country.

But Orwell was not, whatever his shameless misappropriaters may imply, a prophet. He had no interest in foreseeing the rise of possible future technologies. In the last years of his life, ravaged by tuberculosis whilst eking out his final, career-defining novels in virtual seclusion on the island of Jura, Orwell’s sole concern was to the warn the West about the absolute menace posed by totalitarian government. He didn’t perceive these dangers by looking to the future (or, for that matter, to the United States), but by looking at what the Soviet Union was doing to the people unfortunate enough to live under it in his own time. Whatever our concerns about what the NSA revelations have made known about the capacity for any of us to control our privacy – and they are not, or at least ought not, be trivial – Orwellian will not do. The adjective can now safely, I think, be added to the sorry roll call of words and phrases that have been corrupted beyond usefulness by partisan politics and sheer illiteracy.

The distortion of language for political ends was, of course, Orwell’s other preoccupying fear. In Spain, he saw Franco’s fascists turn black white and white black on a virtually daily basis, their newspapers filled with pure invention and outright lies. The lesson never left Orwell, and nor did the one taught to him by Communism’s unbending apologists – that blind ideology is always and everywhere the enemy of truth, and that truth is always and everywhere the mother of justice.

There is almost certainly no other issue in contemporary Australia so riven by lies as the asylum seeker ‘problem’. On Thursday last week, The Australian’s Greg Sheridan rounded out a characteristically asinine opinion piece on the issue with this glancing requisition of Orwell’s distaste for unclear sentiment: ‘... there is a vast, pervasive pressure against people, especially journalists, speaking plainly and truthfully about this. As Orwell observed, control language and you control thought. This issue needs clear thinking and plain speaking.’ It takes a genuine and unrepentant ideologue like Sheridan to not notice in concluding in this way that the preceding paragraphs – littered with untruths, deceitful language, and general ideological windbaggery – could scarcely have been more contrary to Orwell’s reverence for maximum clarity in thought and expression.

In the first instance, it is necessary to point out that Sheridan’s repeated use of the term ‘illegal immigrants’ is a disgraceful deception. It is, bluntly, a lie, designed to criminalise the legal actions of desperate, vulnerable people with few, if any, recourses open to them. (That many of these people are fleeing one of the few truly Orwellian countries left in the world, Iran, seems to have escaped Sheridan’s notice. He calls the Iranian theocracy a ‘horrible’ government, a ridiculous understatement used to undermine the very real fear hundreds of thousands of Iranians have for their lives under the country’s dementedly corrupt and repressive political system). The Australian Press Council recently ruled that ‘asylum seeker’ should be used by journalists, as other terms – including ‘illegal immigrant’ – have the potential to be ‘inaccurate or unfair’ and to imply ‘criminality or other serious misbehaviour.’ Sheridan understands, as Orwell did, that the way language is used in such matters is deeply important. What he fails to grasp is that the term asylum seeker is not, as he contests, politically correct – it is simply correct, full stop. The Press Council ruling is accurate in that it reflects the actual, as opposed to perceived, legal status of people who enter Australia by boat without visas. The facts, which I sorely wished did not need repeating after all this time, are these: it is not a criminal offence for people to seek asylum in Australia, whether via boat or any other mode of transport; most refugees who arrive in Australia by boat do not attempt to avoid the authorities as it is their desire to establish a legal right to stay in the country; almost all asylum seekers end up being granted refugee status and allowed to live in Australia – those who don’t are deported, but they are not regarded as criminals.

In Sheridan’s world, the Press Council’s edict is an intolerable (and, yes, Orwellian) trampling of his capacity to speak plainly about a difficult issue. It is no less than ‘an effective abridgement of free speech.’ Orwell perceived that in Western democracies it is not the erosion of free speech by the state that is to be feared, but the corruption of it by  ideologically-enslaved politicians and journalists. Sheridan should be ashamed to use the term ‘illegal immigrant’ because it is factually incorrect, pejorative and inflammatory. If this isn’t the kind of language Orwell had in his sights – and that the Press Council is right to firmly caution against using – then I do not know what is.

Sheridan’s second great lie, and it is one which has infested the political discourse in this country since 2008, is that John Howard’s asylum seeker policy ‘worked’, and that the present Labor government, by ‘dismantling’ it, has let in a disastrous flood of ‘boat people.’ I’ll come to a consideration of the consequences of asylum seeker policy under Howard in a moment, but for now let’s consider the other half of this oft-repeated claim. Sheridan, in line with most of the Australian right, wants us to be afraid of asylum seekers. Very afraid. Perhaps he even wants us to share what I can only call his hysteria on the subject: ‘... once an illegal entry flow is established, it will grow and grow and grow... there is really no natural limit to the level it might reach... hundreds of thousands of low-skilled, mainly Muslim immigrants... a devastating crisis [is] building up for Australia.’ Sheridan does not inform his readers what this crisis will entail – no plain speaking here, just fear-making and weaselish subtext – but he does tells us, once again shamelessly employing language designed to equate asylum seekers with criminals, that European countries are ‘toughening up’ their immigration policies. Indefinite offshore detention, inadequate medical facilities, and conditions – condemned by Amnesty International – which have led to routine incidents of suicide, self-harm and hunger striking are not tough enough for Sheridan. Yet another fundamental truth eludes his grasp: that the current Labor policy is virtually identical – arguably, in fact, harsher – than the Liberal one under Howard and Ruddock which we are told was so successful.

Here’s another thing Orwell said: ‘He who controls the past controls the future.’ This, too, has seen more than its fair share of misrepresentations but its usefulness is hard to overstate. Here, it tells us everything we need to know about how Howard’s ‘dark victory’ is now being used to justify every kind of brutality against asylum seekers by what is in all likelihood the soon-to-be-in-power Liberal government. We are told, again and again and again, by conservative politicians and their stooges in the Murdoch press, that Howard’s Pacific Solution ‘fixed’ the asylum seeker ‘problem’.  It is incontrovertible that the numbers of asylum seekers entering Australia by boat was reduced by Operation Relex, the naval blockade instituted by Howard in September 2001. What is rarely discussed – what our aspirant controllers of history would like us all to permanently forget – is the cost. David Marr and Marian Wilkinson spelt it out in Dark Victory, first published in 2003, and still the essential book on the subject: ‘They put lives at risk. They twisted the law. They drew the military into the heart of an election campaign. They muzzled the press. They misused intelligence services, defied the United Nations, antagonised Indonesia and bribed poverty stricken Pacific states.’ This is the unpalatable truth of what the Howard government did, and what the Abbott government will do should it win the election in September.  

History is beginning to repeat. Howard’s ‘victory’ was tarnished at virtually every juncture by army and naval officials arguing Operation Relex was putting the lives of asylum seekers and Australian Defence Force personnel at risk, and by diplomatically damaging stoushes with Jakarta over questions of sea law, sovereignty and the people smuggling trade. We have this year already heard several Indonesian officials, including most recently Vice President Dr. Boediono, state that the country would not accept the towing back of boats into its waters under a Coalition government. The navy continues to loudly reject the idea, arguing that it is always unsafe to turn around and tow boats that are unseaworthy and overcrowded with desperate people. Even a prominent member of Abbott’s own party has expressed his doubts about the workability of this policy.

I have here attempted to drill down to the heart of Sheridan’s two great lies. They are important because the same lies continue to frame the national debate out of all proportion to their virtually nonexistent intellectual or moral merit. This last point brings me to Sheridan’s final, and perhaps most damning, failing in regards to this issue. Sheridan would have us believe that, like him, the Australian people have a ‘decent humanitarian desire to stop the drownings that accompany the people-smuggling trade.’ (Note, once again, his emphasis here on the criminality of asylum-seeking). What Sheridan’s politically-contingent humanitarian concern will not stretch to is the other tragedy which awaits asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat – the grave, long-term physical and psychological harm guaranteed by this country’s policy of offshore detention.

We are not allowed to see what goes on inside the Manus Island or Nauru detention centres, and the Immigration Department will not tell us. Instead, the best picture to date has been provided by the independent website Detention Logs. Their data, drawn from a nearly 20 month period between October 2009 and May 2011, includes details of over 900 actual, attempted and threatened incidents of self harm; one a day. Where is Sheridan’s compassion, authentic or otherwise, for these people? What kind of a conscience is it that is stirred by accidental deaths at sea, but not by the prolonged, state-instituted torture of crimeless men, women and children?
In parliament yesterday, retiring Liberal MP Judi Moylan – once part of a backbench revolt to end mandatory detention in Australia – passionately reiterated her long-held view that this country’s asylum seeker policies are ‘a matter of great shame’. She argued that ‘in politics, heart and mind should move as one.’ Orwell would, no doubt, have approved in precisely equal measure to the amount he would have despaired of Greg Sheridan’s ignoble politicking in the face of a plainly avoidable human tragedy.

1 comment:

  1. you refer to orwell i notice. that's kind of ironic for somebody who is in another context drumming up the new world oppression of propaganda that environmental catastrophe is. unless you're just naive in that sense? seriously, that climate change science has changed and that the evidence has been backdated in an effort to obscure the conflicting previous theories, you're actually doing exactly what orwell observed hitler and his nazi propaganda machine did. that your environmental catastrophe is mikhail gorbachev's suggestion for invoking the new world order, interesting thing to be following? wonder what orwell would think of that?
    it's kind of offensive that you're using orwell like this, but also it works for me, because if you acclaim orwell, then understand, he criticized what you're writings in effect with his criticism of nazi propaganda, cause you've done the same thing as they did and for what i can ascertain, pretty much the same reason.