God’s Law, Or Man’s? – civil disobedience and the bible (a zine)

This zine explores civil disobedience through a Christian lens – looking at what the bible has to say about it, along with some of my own experiences and a few examples of Christians through history who have broken the law of the land in trying to live out the kingdom of God.

Now I love zines as a medium, but it does seem a shame that after finally finishing this, it now relies on me photocopying and distributing all these little booklets. So to make it a bit easier for people to access, I’m putting it up here as as a digital file. If you would like a paper copy get in contact, or feel free to print and distribute copies yourself!

God’s Law or Man’s – Civil Disobedience and the Bible


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Not long ago I had the pleasant experience of becoming for the first time an exhibited artist. This was because some of my self-published zines were included in at exhibition at the Childers art gallery along with a bunch of other zine and comic makers from around Australia.

I was a little bit self-conscious about my zines (which I don’t think are especially beautiful, and which often by the time I’ve finished writing I can’t be bothered putting effort into the layout) becoming artworks in a gallery, but mostly it was nice firstly to think that somebody likes what I make enough to include it in an exhibition; and secondly because it was kinda like ticking something off the bucket list. You know, win a sporting grand final, get arrested, do an art exhibition.

I remember quite clearly a moment that must have been at least 7 years ago. I was living in Miranda (suburban Sydney), studying theology and going through one of those periods, as you do, when I was feeling a bit unhappy and a bit unsatisfied with my life.

One of the things I sometimes do in those times is sit down and write stream of consciousness as a kind of self-administered therapy. And I remember sitting on the train and writing that even though I didn’t see myself as an artist, I wanted to hang out with artists.

I haven’t kept that scrap of paper, but I still think about it sometimes. I think about what it was that I wanted to hang out with artists for. Was it because my life was lacking in paintings and poetry? Possibly, but I don’t think it was just that. I think what I was yearning for was what I still see as the real role of art – to look beyond pure surface value and to see the things we don’t immediately see.

In art this works a couple of ways. One is to look at a blank page and raw materials like paint or pen and be able to see possibilities of what can be created. The other is to look at things in our world or everyday life and to see what is not immediately obvious – to show things in a new way. For me at that time, living in the same suburb as one of Australia’s biggest shopping malls, with foxtel on the tv at home and friends (wonderful people though they were) whose dreams in life mostly included a job, a mortgage and a family; I think what I was yearning for was people who found beauty and value beyond just the values of our consumer society. People who believed that something else was possible. Who could see the unseen.

Years have passed since that day on the train, and I’m blessed to say that I have been friends with some extraordinarily talented artists, be they visual artists, writers or musicians. I am constantly inspired by things my friends create. But I’ve also in a way changed the way that I think about art. I’ve even come to agree with art movements, as pretentious as they were, like Dada and Fluxus; who called for the abolition of art.

Marcel Duchamp and his

Marcel Duchamp and his “Fountain” artwork

Both were inspired by Marcel Duchamp, the French artist from the early 20th century who famously once submitted a plain urinal (which he played no part in manufacturing) as an artwork for exhibition. Years later, Duchamp said “The idea of the artist as a sort of superman is comparatively recent. This I was going against. In fact, since I’ve stopped my artistic activity, I feel that I’m against this attitude of reverence the world has. Art, etymologically speaking, means to ‘make.’ Everybody is making, not only artists, and maybe in coming centuries there will be a making without the noticing.”

In a world where the school careers advisor gives us a list of jobs and tells us to choose our future, where we are told that voting for whichever politician makes us feel the least sick in the stomach is our part in shaping society, where advertising implores us to express our individuality by which mass produced items we buy; true creativity – seeing the unseen – is completely missing from most of our lives.

Of course within this there is space, as a hobby or if you can manage to make it commercially viable, to carve out a niche as an “artist”; whose role it is to create things that look nice or entertain or make people think. The problem with this kind of artist though is that the “creative industry” is an industry like any other – churning out products that will make a profit for the boss or the shareholders.

Or even for the majority of artists, who never make any money from art, we fail because by defining specific people as “artists” and specific activities as “art”, we reduce everybody else’s role to the non-creative consumer. Rather than the artist’s creativity being a spark to light more creativity in the kindling of our world, it is a single flare of imagination that reminds you of the darkness everywhere else. The role of the artist is currently to create things so that the rest of us can be entertained. So that the rest of us don’t have to create.

What I love about art is still that same characteristic – it sees and shows the unseen. It opens us up to new possibilities we hadn’t contemplated before. But like I’ve already said and as I’m sure you’ll agree, not all art does this. And at the same time, our dominant conception of art also rarely asks the question of what if there are better ways of seeing the unseen than just pictures, poetry and songs?

Surely the ability to see things unseen and to stimulate imaginations is not limited to those of us who have the gift of being able to paint or string a few words together. Yet that is who our stages, microphones and galleries are usually reserved for.

The kind of art I’m calling for is not the abolition of what we call art (I quite like pictures and songs after all), nor is it incorporating “non-art” everyday things (like Duchamp’s urinal or Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys smacking a piano with a shoe) into established “art” mediums. What I want for us is to take the things we love in art (beauty, humour, creativity, insight), and try to see and show them across all facets of life.

Make everywhere we go into an installation, every building into a gallery. Turn our lives into moving, breathing artworks that carry everywhere the beauty of a watercolour, the daring of an avant-garde performance piece, the imagination of an expressionist painting, and which fulfill the highest calling of art – to see the unseen, and to inspire others to do the same.

In the end, the creative output I want to leave the world is not a few photocopied booklets which sit in a gallery in Childers, even though I am quite proud of those zines and that someone wants to display them in that way.

The artwork I want to be known by is whether I lived my life in a way that fully did justice to all the creativity I’ve been given. Whether I lived in a way that dug beneath the surface layers to find deeper truths. And whether the way I lived showed others new possibilities for their own lives. If songs or pamphlets I write, or pictures I draw, contribute to that; then all the better.

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Smoke and terrors

The day after Malcolm Turnbull took over as Prime Minister, defence minister (at the time) Kevin Andrews proudly announced that the Australian air force had for the first time “engaged a target” (if you don’t speak militarese, that means killed someone or blown something up) in Syria.

The news came too late for Tony Abbott. Just as he had been a year earlier in Iraq, Tony had been very keen to deploy troops to Syria. In fact, when Abbott announced that the US had asked for Australian support, Fairfax media reported that a source from the very leaky Liberal Party had told them Abbott had actually contacted Barack Obama and asked him to request Australian involvement in Syria.

Whether that report was true or not (I’m cynical enough to believe it possible), another war wasn’t enough to rescue Abbott from declining public and party confidence. But it’s worth remembering that one part of Tony Abbott’s legacy will be that the Australian air force has joined the confusing web of different groups using violence in Syria.

Syrian people are currently caught in the crossfire between the US and its allies, Islamic State, Al Nusra Front (the Syrian Al Quaeda), the Assad government forces and multiple smaller militias. It’s small wonder that over three million Syrians have left the country seeking asylum.

Could Australia’s addition to this mess really just be the result of a Prime Minister’s last ditch attempt to save his own skin? You surely hope not, but the more I try to make sense of the war on terror, the more important it seems to understand that the fight to control the Middle East is only one part of it. Another is the battle on the home front for public perception.

Aside from the endless reports of more people dying, the interesting news to come out of Syria recently is that US intelligence analysts have officially complained about their superiors in Central Command altering their reports to make it look like the US is doing better in the war than it really is. The US congress took the complaints seriously enough that it has launched multiple investigations to see how widespread the practice is.

It’s not the first time in the war on terror that intelligence analysts have had cause for complaint. In 2003, there protests that intelligence had been misrepresented to claim there were Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and justify the invasion there. History would of course prove that the weapons didn’t exist, and the current state of Iraq is testimony to the awful consequences of that deception.

Chelsea Manning was another analyst who found out intelligence was only wanted when it said what the command wanted to hear. She describes one of her earliest points of disillusionment with the military as being told to ignore the US-backed Maliki government suppressing dissent. She would later find many more incidents that had been covered up, and courageously leaked information to the public. She of course is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence for her troubles.

The current issue of reports being altered is slightly different though. Because while those other incidents seemed to have some strategic aim (invading Iraq, covering up atrocities or bolstering support for what was essentially as US puppet government), this is a war that the US is already involved in and not in control of. Lying about the current state of affairs in Syria can seemingly only harm the US war effort and strategy. It seems that the only purpose of altering the reports is to try to convince the public that actually, even after 14 years, America is winning this war after all.

Similarly there has been criticism of American statistics that claim there have been only two civilian casualties in the current round of bombing in Iraq and Syria. US General  John Hesterman has called this “the most precise and disciplined air war in history”. Journalist project Airwars.org though disputes the stats, saying that their studies show at least 450 civilians have been killed in US airstrikes. 450 innocent people dying is a tragedy, though it is a much lower number than the first US war in Iraq or the numbers killed currently in Syria by the other warring factions. But the question remains: why is the US army so intent on lying to the public about what is happening there?

For Australia, our whole presence in the war is mostly symbolic. The Australian army makes only a small contribution in numbers and attacks, but its presence helps to validate the US (who claim international support) and our own politicians (who can construct a perfect enemy out of the “evil” Islamic State and then claim that our leaders are heroically saving Syrian people from the barbarism). Of course, their analysis doesn’t extend to the question of how our current refugee policy affects these people, or of the role the US and its allies played in creating Islamic State. And as the game plays out on newspaper pages and television screens, people in the Middle East are being killed and displaced.

And they are not the only collateral damage in Australia’s war on terror. On the home front, plenty of other people are personally feeling the effects of this very public war.

You might not have heard about it, but last month, 18 year old Harun Causevic was quietly released from maximum security prison after four months. He was arrested in April in relation to the much publicised “ANZAC day terror threat”.

At the time, the gory details of the supposed threat were on the front pages of newspapers around the country. But a few months down the track, four of the five people arrested have been released with no terror charges, Harun Causevic being the latest.

Now let’s get a few things straight about this case. Firstly, police and intelligence don’t have to prove that any of these young men ever did any illegal action. They were charged with “conspiring to commit a terrorist act”, which means you can be convicted if you take actions (legal or not) to prepare for an illegal act.

Secondly, these guys weren’t released because there was a lack of evidence, though this is what some reports seemed to imply. They had been under surveillance for five weeks before being arrested. Five weeks of being spied on and having all their communications recorded. Five weeks worth of evidence, and all of it points to the fact that these men did not conspire to commit a terrorist act.

Thirdly, the gruesome terror plot we were given all the titillating details of not only never happened, it now looks clear that it was never going to happen. Another teenager remains in prison charged with conspiracy. One teenager in England is charged with inciting a terrorist attack regarding the same incident. He was 14 years old at the time. Assuming that the alleged plans actually can be proven, how capable were these two really of really doing it? The police followed this for five weeks, and in all that time, rather than step in to tell these young people that they were being watched and maybe give them some kind of rehabilitation, they waited until a week before ANZAC Day and released a fantastic story about an imminent terrorist threat.

The result was that a group of young men, now proved to be innocent, had their faces splashed across the media accused of being terrorists and were thrown in prison (Harun’s four months were in 23 hour a day solitary confinement). Rather than stopping terrorism, the whole incident gives more ammunition to radical voices claiming the Western world has a vendetta against Islam. All for the sake of a media spectacle in the leadup to Australia’s great patriotic celebration.

The furore of “foreign fighters” has taken its toll as well, as hundreds of Australians (almost entirely Muslim) have had their passports cancelled, often on pretty dubious grounds. The most recent was Omar Chandab, who was with his wife at the airport heading to Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage when he was told his passport had been cancelled. The only reason given was that Omar had three years ago trained at the same kickboxing gym as two men who travelled to Syria and died fighting the Assad regime.

Most of the information regarding these passport cancellations is kept classified, and most of the decisions are made by ASIO and the government without any judicial review. But while those affected are left wondering what legal redress they have for this, politicians and media can claim that every one of them was a potential terrorist thwarted.

The reality is that our media narrative of the “terrorist threat” is also somewhat an illusion – the spectre of Islamic State is so effective in stirring up fear that newspapers gleefully report on their every action without any context or analysis of who they are and why they are doing it. Of course, people killed by Western drones or air strikes are collateral damage, not victims of a terrorist attack.

It’s a crazy war. Details of what’s going on in the Middle East are covered up or ignored, while in Australia we are given detailed accounts of terrorist attacks that never happened. Raids on people’s houses with an invite for every media outlet in the country, only for people to be subsequently quietly released without charge. It’s a war of smoke and mirrors, of public illusions. Except that somewhere, real people are in the firing line of real weapons.

But I think it’s time to stop thinking that this war only affects faceless people in far away countries. Or even just people in our own country with brown skin. Because when the weapons of war includes media illusions, the victims of war becomes all of us.

The “war on terror” has always been scary because of the haziness of who the enemy is, or how we know when the war is over. But now; as military, governments and mass media intentionally lie to the public; we can see clearly that this is a war on us. A “shock and awe” attack intended to keep us all in fear, in compliance and in ignorance of what’s really happening. To push aside illusions and ask tough questions about the all-encompassing, never-ending War On Terror is an act of self-defence.

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Riding the penny farthing down the information superhighway (Isn’t print media obsolete?)

“Isn’t print media obsolete?” a friend asked me the other day when we were talking about a radical newspaper. As someone who has over the years sent quite a lot of time and energy writing, printing and distributing words on bits of paper, I felt obliged to defend the medium.

Well you know, sometimes when you read some of our leading newspapers here in Australia you might wish its demise would hurry up. Unfortunately though I don’t think print media has a monopoly on bad journalism. It has been interesting though to watch the print media industry try to grapple with ever expanding growth of the digital world.

One thing I have followed with interest is the struggle of the street press to stay alive in this brave new world. For those unfamiliar with the term, street press is a free newspaper (financed mostly by advertising from music venues, promoters and artists), which lists upcoming live music or other cultural events amongst reviews and interviews. Ever since I first moved to the city (almost a decade ago!), I have regularly picked up and read the street presses of the various places I have lived or visited. I can remember a time when Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne each had two weekly street presses that were seemingly distributed everywhere.

While in Melbourne and Sydney a couple of papers manage to struggle on, in Brisbane street press is a seriously threatened species. Rave magazine closed down in June 2012. Scenestr (formerly Scene) comes out monthly but has never had much traction in the local music scene. Timeoff was incorporated into the national publication The Music in mid-2013, with only the gig guide and news section remaining specifically local. Also with the change came a new diversity of topics covered, with less of a focus on live music and new sections reviewing bars and restaurants, even interviewing Clive Palmer one week. The Music still survives, but recently has gone from a weekly publication to fortnightly. This is going to sound pretty harsh, but as someone who has read street press for a long time (and I know I’m not alone in saying this), I think at this stage there is very little of interest in any issue of The Music and it’s difficult to see it surviving much longer, at least as a print publication.

My analysis of the unfortunate decline of the street press though I think leads to a broader point to be made about print media. Because my critique of The Music is not so much that it writes about bands I don’t like, but that in its nationally syndicated articles and coverage of overseas touring acts, it has no specific relevance to the city where it is distributed. Like taking the “street” out of “street press”.

It’s not unreasonable to ask whether print is obsolete. Using the internet you can get information out to more people, in more places, quicker, with less environmental and economic cost. Given the potential unlimited reach of the internet (including social media where your consumers do your marketing for you, not to mention the income to be gained from selling readers’ data), producing printed media makes no sense. Unless, of course, your aim is to intentionally limit your reach and relevance.

It’s true, the internet has miraculously given us the ability to communicate instantly with people anywhere in the world. On this blog, I am even given the option to track which country people are reading it from. But what the internet doesn’t necessarily do is answer the question of whether every interaction should be broadcast to the world. Or whether, by constantly taking part in this global conversation, we are missing out on local conversations which could offer us different viewpoints and maybe even different topics altogether.

The sheer amount of information on the internet makes any kind of “conversation” even harder. It’s like having a conversation in a crowded room where everybody is shouting, there is a performance going on, and your phone keeps ringing in your pocket. It’s stimulus overload. Even as you read this, you probably have five or six other tabs open. And the newsfeed formats favoured by websites means we train ourselves to glance at little bites of information as we scroll down.

I’m definitely not the first person to point out that though we are more connected than ever to people on the other side of the world, we are less connected than ever to people in our own neighbourhoods. Or that even when we communicate with our local friends, it is often through a medium we have very little understanding of how it works, and is in fact controlled by massive corporations who make money off our every interaction. The question of how they use that control is not just hypothetical, as several friends of mine have found recently when Facebook suspended their accounts until they are able to provide proof that their “profile name”  is also their legal name.

And then there is paper. Quaint, anachronistic, obsolete. The penny farthing of the media world. In its early pennyfarthingdays it must have been truly revolutionary in the way it enabled ideas and information to travel and live on beyond the mind of the knowledge keeper. John Pairman Brown says it was a major turning point in the history of human freedom; because people could challenge unjust power knowing that even if they were killed, the ideas would live on. Of course, back then paper was expensive and painstaking to produce, as it has been for much of its history. It’s funny that just as new technology has made mass printing accessible to the average person, we are abandoning paper and ink.

Marshall McLuhan famously observed that “the medium is the message”, and now that paper is no longer our main way of sharing information, we are able to analyse what specific properties it offers that online media doesn’t. And I think that one such thing is that while the internet, existing in this ethereal realm we call “cyberspace”, is both global (accessible anywhere on the planet) but atomised (everyone accesses it on their own personal device); the physical nature of print can make it local (because it is limited to where the physical sheets of paper can travel to) and connected (because that physical item has to travel from the hand of the person who published it to the person reading it, and there is often not so many degrees of separation between the two).

Note the can in that last sentence. Just because something is printed on paper does not automatically make it either of these things, and in fact most books and magazines make no real attempt to do so. But I think when we talk about whether printed media has any continuing relevance, the answer won’t come from whether it can out-internet the internet. The question is if it can offer things that the world wide web can’t.

The slow decline of the street press I think is an interesting example. The SPA papers (in Brisbane Timeoff), faced with the challenge of competing with the internet, chose to become more centralised and more varied. The public response has been a lack of interest that means The Music is now a bi-weekly publication with a severely shortened life expectancy. The other option available to those street presses though was to ask what the internet; with its endless music blogs, streaming services and viral marketing campaigns; doesn’t offer. And to in response become more localised and specific to the physical places the paper is being picked up and the physical people who are reading it.

Not that I’m claiming I could have been the saviour of street press. These publications after all exist to make a profit, and whether getting more localised makes you more profitable is another question entirely. In my experience, the most valuable and worthwhile ideas almost never make economic sense, and this is probably no exception.

So rather than a successful business example, I’m going to point to the Zine and Indie Comic Symposium that next weekend is happening in Brisbane. The event features over 40 stalls, representing hundreds of different writers who for various reasons (and you’d have to ask each person individually to find out what they are) have decided, despite not having the support of a publishing company and in the face of all the promises offered by the world wide web, to continue publishing on paper. Judging by the nature of the event, we can assume that they also see a value in some way in connecting with people who might read their publications and with other people who are self-publishing. And it’s in these connections, as well as the actual content of the zines and comics, that we can maybe catch a glimpse of why paper and ink are still a valuable communication tool, even as we continue to hurtle down the information superhighway.

ps. Of course I’m aware of the irony of publishing this on the internet. But the point is not to claim that print is the ultimate medium and the internet is inferior. The point is that the two mediums offer different things. While I will probably make a paper copy of this, I put it on the internet because this topic is not specifically local and because I want it to reach out beyond the people who already seek out self-published political rants on bits of paper.

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Ten dollar poetry

Robert Graves once said “there’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money either”. I think that, like the best poetry, there’s a lot of truth in this quote, but one institution that seems determined to prove it wrong is the Australian mint.

When I was a kid, the nearby town of Gulgong announced with pride on signs at the edges of town that the main street was featured on the old paper ten dollar note alongside a portrait of local poet Henry Lawson. With the change to plastic notes in 1993, both Henry and Gulgong were ditched (those signs are still there, mind you) but replaced with two more poets – Banjo Paterson and Henry’s one-time lover Mary Gilmore.

I appreciate that there’s room for something as fiscally unproductive as poetry (Lawson in particular died broke after a lifetime of alcoholism and interpersonal conflicts) on our national currency, and there are many wonderful things in the writing of all three of these Australians. But the one that got me thinking about money and poetry the other day was the sight of a serious looking Mary Gilmore.

mary gilmore

I don’t know that much about Mary Gilmore. I’ve read a few of her poems, and I know, as one of the many pieces of trivia that float around somewhere in my brain, that she was part of a socialist utopian experiment called “New Australia” which was set up in Paraguay in the last decade of the 19th century.

So it’s a bit strange to squint at those two lines of poetry printed on our ten dollar notes and to note that their tone is distinctly un-utopian and not seeming to have much to do with socialist ideas of “a brotherhood of man”. Those lines, in tiny cursive, read “no foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail.”

So I went and read a bunch of Mary Gilmore’s poems. They are great. Eve-song is a feminist poem, though it’s not a suffragette rallying cry. Rather than political, the tone and subject matter is personal. Like the best art can do so well, the poem finds the significance in everyday relationships:

I span and Eve span
A thread to bind the heart of man;
But the more we span the more we found
It wasn’t his heart but ours we bound…

He said he was strong. He had no strength
But that which comes of breadth and length.
He said he was fond. But his fondness proved
The flame of an hour when he was moved.
He said he was true. His truth was but
A door that winds could open and shut.

The Waradgery Tribe documents the dispossession and murder of Australia’s original owners:

Emptied of us the land,
Ghostly our going,
Fallen, like spears the hand
Dropped in the evening.

We are the lost who went
Like the cranes, crying;
Hunted, lonely, and spent
Broken and dying.

Old Botany Bay meanwhile, is a reminder of another part of our history we so easily forget – that Australia’s cities were initially built on the brutal and torturous enslaved labour of convicts.

I am he
who paved the way,
that you might walk
at your ease to-day;

Fourteen Men is harrowing, like an Australian version of Billie Holliday’s Strange Fruit. The poem depicts 14 Chinese gold miners hung by a racist mob, observed with the dispassionate eyes of a child.

Honest poor men,
But the diggers said ‘Nay!’
So they strung them all up
On a fine summer’s day

Nationality was the first Mary Gilmore poem I ever read, and it is indeed a wonderful piece of writing, in two short stanzas making no dogmatic statements but laying out the contradictions of parochialism and patriotism that all of us in the human race have to grapple with:

I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
But though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.

All men at God’s round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son’s bread.

So with this kind of repertoire, how do we end up with the line that we have on our currency? Isn’t its grandiose flag-waving at odds with the subtlety of a poem like Nationality?

No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest was written in 1940, during the second world war. The war presented a challenge for pacifists and communists in the Allied countries (Mary’s socialism wasn’t just youthful folly – even into her 80’s and 90’s she wrote a regular column for the Communist Party newspaper The Tribune). If you opposed the war, it seemed like you were siding with the fascist governments that were spreading across Europe and Asia. Never mind the fact that those Allied governments hadn’t lifted a finger when communists were the early resisters and the first casualties of the fascist regimes. Activists were forced to choose between the lesser of two evils – war or tolerating fascism. Woody Guthrie’s iconic decorating of his guitar with the words “this machine kills fascists” was one response to this dilemma.

Another response, I suppose, is Mary Gilmore’s patriotic poem. At this stage 75 years old, she published the poem in the Women’s Weekly with a note saying she was too old to fight, but writing was her contribution to the war effort.

Fair enough, but the poem certainly seems to sit a little uncomfortably with some of Mary’s other poems.  In response to the first world war she had written a number of poems mourning the deaths of soldiers, and an explicitly anti-war poem in The Measure (which in its “not friend and foe, but man and man” refrain, seems to sit as a polar opposite to the later poem). But beyond that, when did this land become “ours forever”? It seems to forget the dispossession of aboriginal people and the enslavement of convicts that Mary had once written about so passionately. “We are the sons of Australia,” boasts the last stanza; “of the men who fashioned the land; we are the sons of the women who walked with them hand in hand.” What happened to the feminist critique of men “who had no strength but that which comes of breadth and length”? And that delicate paradox between believing in equality but caring for your own that Nationality had laid out for us is seemingly thrown out the window, replaced by the two line refrain that ends each verse: “No foe shall gather our harvest, or sit on our stockyard rail”.

Suffice to say, this is not my favourite Mary Gilmore poem. And not just ideologically. While other poems are full of acute observations and deep with meaning for the reader to unravel, this one’s about as subtle as the machine guns it celebrates. But you know, I’m glad that this is the one that adorns our currency; because I think it says a lot about these little bits of plastic and metal that we carry around in our pockets.

The Australian government could have gone for a line from Nationality to make us consider how we spend our earnings, but maybe that’s a bit too ambiguous. It could have gone for a line from Old Botany Bay or The Waradgery Tribe to remind us where most of our wealth, both historically and presently, comes from. They could have chosen Fourteen Men to warn us what can happen if we get too obsessed with money.

But instead we get No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest, and fittingly too. Because it’s amazing that even in times of austerity, we are always able to find enough cash to keep others out – our recent budgets are perfect examples. While Joe Hockey claimed “the age of entitlement is over” and cut all kinds of social services, nobody dared question the $30 billion a year we spend on the military, or the $2.3 billion on locking up a few thousand asylum seekers.

On a smaller scale, we replicate this by paying for insurance and security. There’s a lucrative industry based on convincing people we need to spend money to protect our money, not to mention the fact that protecting your own harvests and stockyard rails means that we each have to own one of everything, even though our neighbour might have a perfectly good one that could easily be shared.

That one line says something even more pertinent about the function of money. And it’s funny that it actually uses the words “no foe shall gather our harvest”. Because before money existed, the harvest we all gathered would have been limited to what we could actually use, or at least store. Even with a barter system, there are physical limits to how much wealth you can possibly accrue.

But with the invention of money, the metaphorical wealth-measurer, there is no limit to the amount of riches you can hoard to yourself, no matter how much you need or whether, as Mary Gilmore once wrote, “all men at God’s table sit and all men must be fed”. And so we get today’s world, where the gaps between the richest and poorest are unimaginably vast, where the majority of the world slaves away producing luxury products for the richest third, yet barely manages to survive. A world of debts and debtors, bosses and slaves, shareholders reports, structural adjustment.

Even the seeming incongruence with Mary’s other poems I think is full of meaning. Because isn’t it so true that when it comes to money, all our principles and strongest beliefs can so easily be forgotten or dismissed as impractical idealism.

Our $10 notes are remarkably honest, really. The two lines printed on them are an ugly statement of protecting yourself at the expense of others. But maybe, like the best art, they have revealed a truth about this object that we don’t always recognise.

Mary Gilmore wrote poems about Australia. Honest, perceptive poems that invite us to examine who we are and to imagine what we could be. I’m not sure what she would have said had she known that this line from one of her poems would today pass through the hands of millions of Australians each day. But I think that regardless of what these words were originally intended for, they can still inspire us to question and challenge the society around us, just like the young utopian poet would have hoped. That is, if we stop and try to see the poetry in our money.


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Refugee activist throws shoes at Immigration Minister Peter Dutton in Brisbane

peter dutton

In Brisbane this morning , a refugee advocate threw his shoes at Immigration Minister Peter Dutton as a symbolic protest against the Australian government’s refugee policies.

At a festival for welcoming refugees in Annerley, 33 year old David Sprigg threw his shoes at the minister as part of a long tradition of similar protest actions.

Most famously, Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at George W Bush in 2008 as a protest against the Iraq war. But since then over 50 similar actions have happened around the world, including Peter Gray throwing his shoe at John Howard in 2010.

Mr Sprigg said he took the action to protest Australia’s human rights abuses when it comes to asylum seekers. “It is hypocritical for Peter Dutton to appear at a festival welcoming refugees when his government continues to lock up indefinitely asylum seekers who have committed no crime, and turn back boats at sea who are attempting to seek refuge in Australia.

“Not only have Mr Dutton and the Liberal Party’s “stop the boats” campaign made it abundantly clear that refugees are not welcome in Australia, but by continually exploiting this issue for political gain and using language like “queue jumpers” and “illegal arrivals” they have turned the Australian public further against refugees than they would have been.

“If Peter Dutton and the Australian government were serious about welcoming refugees, they would make a concerted effort to accept and resettle asylum seekers, instead of just turning up to a festival.”

The government’s policy of mandatory detention and offshore processing for asylum seekers have for a long time been criticised by human rights advocates. Mental health advocate and former Australian of the year Patrick McGorry described the detention centres as “mental illness factories”, while the human rights Commission earlier this year described detention centres as a “toxic environment” and called for a royal commission into detention of asylum seeker children.

More recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quoted as saying there was “no way” Australia would accept Rohingyan asylum seekers fleeing persecution in Burma, while last week there were reports that Australian officials paid thousands of dollars to people smugglers to turn around boats full of asylum seekers.

Mr Sprigg said “under our obligations in the UN refugee convention and out of respect for our shared humanity, we should be accepting asylum seekers into Australia and giving them opportunities to live lives of freedom and dignity.”

“Australians actually mostly are welcoming of asylum seekers in our communities, and refugees have shown that they can contribute significantly to our country. But this is in spite, not because, of the policies and actions of the Labor and Liberal governments.”


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They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore (part 2)

As someone who has come to believe that a better world will be one where people have less control over others and more control over our own lives, I have to admit that I have a bit of skepticism when it comes to heroes.

Partly this is because, as I wrote in the first part of this article, I believe heroes are sometimes constructed for us, not to inspire others to acts of great heroism, but instead to reinforce the values that keep certain people or systems in positions of power.

I used the example then of the mythologisation of ANZAC soldiers. But I think that it is much more widespread than that. Look at the examples in our society of “heroes” – the fables we tell are of macho action heroes who violently struggle against evil foes for the sake of some noble cause. Or our real life heroes are either celebrities who through some kind of talent or lucky accident have become iconic figures and now have their every thought and action reported to us; or sports stars who because they have excelled at their sport are seen to be examples of the virtues we believe in.

Now disregarding (though it surely is a worthy question) whether these are people who deserve to be singled out as important, we should ask what relevance do these heroes have to our actual lives? If these people are role models we wish to emulate,. How do we do that when our lives are so rarely about having shootouts with bad guys or being able to run/catch/hit a ball well?

If you are a woman, it is even less relevant. For those without a penis, your heroic role is to be a beautiful romantic interest for the male, inspiring him with your good looks to achieve great deeds.

Basically, the heroes exalted by our mass media have nothing to do with improving ourselves. If we ourselves were living heroic lives, then we would probably no longer be watching TV or reading magazines to get our fix of important people. And that is the opposite of what these media companies want. The purpose is escapism, or substitution – to make up for the lack of heroism in our own lives we become passive consumers of hero stories.

For this model of vicarious heroism to keep growing, two things need to happen – the storytellers have to keep coming up with heroes who satisfy our desires, and we have to keep living lives that are less heroic. But if that’s our trajectory, what kind of people do we expect to become? What kind of world will we be living in?

An interesting question is this: to create a world where individuals take more responsibility for it being a better place, do we first have to tear down the hero myth?

In the late 1970’s, punk bands around the world were championing the idea of Do It Yourself. Anyone can be in a band, they said. Anyone can put out a record, be a music writer. Mark Perry, one of the early fanzine writers, famously printed a diagram of the E, A and D chord shapes. “Here are three chords,” said the caption. “Now go start a band.”

the clash 1977

With this new democratisation of music, most saw it necessary to tear down the heroes of another generation that were taking up space on bedroom walls and turntables. “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones!” sang The Clash on one of the early punk anthems. Of course, breaking down rockstar mythology is not that simple and before long The Clash were the new rockstars of a new commodified style. But that’s another story. (You may at home be questioning the relevance of these whole last two paragraphs. But I just really like punk music, ok?)

I think at some level, encouraging a world where people take personal responsibility means deconstructing the myth of heroism and knocking down a few pedestals. To make something new, you have to break something old. But possibly the idea of heroes is something too ingrained in us to do away with entirely. And as I’ve already said, heroes can be a part of what inspires us to take action. It just depends on who that hero is and what message they are sending.

In the last few years I have certainly used the actions of a few remarkable individuals, for instance courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, to try to inspire myself and others to action. A group of us recently commemorated the centenary of Gallipoli our own way by showing a “Field Punishment No.1”, a film about conscientious objectors from New Zealand who in that war were sent to the front lines and tortured but refused to fight or even hold a gun. It is an incredible story, and there is no shortage of people around the world today or through history that have done amazing things that can inspire us.

I think a new paradigm of viewing heroes is possible. Where we hold up a person as an example, but only relevant to how much they inspire us to heroic acts ourselves.

Straight away, we can stop fussing about every detail of someone’s life, either out of obsession with them or a need to discredit them by finding faults. We can also discard hero myths that are built on simplistic notions of good and evil, since by and large that is not the world we live in (sorry Mad Max). A healthy amount of skepticism is valuable in analysing the merits of actions and also whose interests are served by elevating any person to hero status. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be cynical, because the actions of any person around us are potentially inspiring to others and so we should support people where we can.

But most importantly, we should be thinking that any virtue is only valuable in the way that we live it out. Courage, sacrifice and comradery might be great, but if war is the only way to live out these values, they are only ever going to get people killed. There must be another way to live them out (William James  suggested “voluntary poverty” – and that was even before World War One), otherwise they are useless. The same applies to any virtue. What matters is not whether it makes for a great film character but if it can help us to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.

So basically, what I’m trying to propose here is a world where we spend less time admiring heroes and more time trying to do heroic things ourselves. Which surely can’t be a bad thing? I mean, everybody wants to be a hero, don’t they?

The question is, what do we want out of heroism? Is it to be loved and admired by the masses? Deep down most of us would like this at some level, but even supposing that superstars weren’t something constructed to sell ideas or products, logically we can’t all be this kind of hero – there just isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. But to break the shackles of apathy and conformity to do acts that embody the values we believe in? That we can all do, and we don’t even need a stage, let alone an arch-nemesis or damsel in distress. Most likely it will actually win us friends and maybe a few admirers (though probably a few enemies too to be honest). They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore, but our best chance of a better world might be us becoming the heroes we’ve always wanted.

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