Through good times and bad with the Socceroos

Despite having one of the worst nicknames in sporting history (and I love a good pun, but that’s not even close), the Socceroos hold the odd place in my heart of being the only Australian national sporting team I have ever really cheered for.

Long before the most recent scandal the Australian cricket team always played with an unpleasant ruthlessness. Or were just too good to offer the emotional ups and downs following a sporting team should provide. The teams from other countries always seemed to have a bit more charisma as well as the classic underdog status.

Same goes for rugby league, where internationals often seem like exercises in ego for Australia. Aussie rules offers its own kind of national pride (it’s even in the name of the sport), but international rules games with Ireland just seem like acts of desperation. Other sports I’ve never really cared enough to watch, and something like the Olympics just allows for ugly displays of patriotic chest-beating (oi oi oi).

I don’t really believe in national allegiance – the idea that just by the fact someone is born on the same land mass as me they share more in common than people born elsewhere doesn’t really make sense; the thought that I somehow share in their success or failure is bizarre.

And yet there’s the Socceroos and the way my heartrate sneakily accelerates when they attack, how it skips when they try to defend. Even the fact that while I have intentionally missed every single television show of the last decade, I make an effort to find somewhere to watch the Socceroos’ big games.

See unlike many Australian sports stars, the Socceroos are underdogs. Underdogs on a global scale (the entire team wouldn’t command as much on the transfer market as superstars Neymar or Paul Pogba). But also underdogs in Australian society. Any soccer lover in Australia can tell you what it’s like – try to find the soccer in the back pages of the newspaper. Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters was the name of legendary former Socceroo Johnny Warren’s autobiography, so-called because they were the names he was called as a white Australian who loved the round ball. I think of Trevor Huon in Simon French’s classic Australian kids novel Cannily, Cannily, whose struggles to fit in at his new school were compounded by the fact he played soccer and not footy.

When I was growing up, being a soccer fan required commitment – it meant getting up/staying up to ridiculous hours to watch games. It meant tuning in to SBS every weekend or buying magazines months after they had come out in Europe to gain insight into the intriguing world of European leagues. It meant tolerating the sport’s petty administrative squabbles and the occasional ethnic sparring of fans. It meant subjecting yourself to the perennial tragedy of the national team’s failures.

I remember seeing Johnny Warren straight-facedly tell the story of a curse put on the Socceroos by an African witch doctor and how that explained the constant disasters. It was a long period of waiting – with hardly any games and even fewer with the best players allowed by their European clubs to play – for the eventual world cup qualifiers that determined whether we could participate in the global soccer party or watch from the outside like wallflowers at a dance.

That moment when it finally came in 2005 against Uruguay – and not only can I still remember jumping out of my seat and around the room, but I also still get goosebumps watching the shootout on youtube – was so special because it released the tension of three decades of failures. That’s what you can hear in the footage as Craig Foster screams his mic levels way into the red, and see as John Aloisi rips of his shirt and starts sprinting around the ground. It wasn’t just about going to the world cup – it was vindication for every migrant who never quite fit in with their rugby loving mates, every kid who preferred chasing the spherical ball to the oval one, every fan who spent their spare time learning how to pronounce “Ruud Gullit” or “Pedrag Mijatovic”.

Australian soccer was never the same afterwards – the national team gained a new respectability; but also that year the A-League started – ushering in a new level of corporate professionalism to the game locally. In 2006, Australia was accepted into the Asian confederation of FIFA, meaning there would be more competitive games and a more forgiving path to world cup qualification.

All positives, but in some ways it lost some of its distinctive character. I liked these clubs with strange names like Marconi and Sydney Olympic and their distinct ethnic histories. I liked the gateway to a whole other world that came from following it. The new clubs were depressingly corporate entities (club bosses included Westfield CEO Frank Lowy and Clive Palmer) with boring names like Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. It was a little bit like the punk music fan immersed in a whole underground subculture who watch their favourite band become just another bunch of rockstars on a big stage.

The A-League came in promising a new era, and in a way that’s what it has been. But it irks me that people want to forget the contribution to the game that all those old clubs, players and coaches made. The old NSL, which was dissolved to make way for the A-League, was developed by brave visionaries in the 70’s long before aussie rules or either rugby code had been game to build a competition that crossed state borders. People smugly insist on calling the sport “football” as though it’s something we’ve just imported from Europe and have no local tradition of. Many of us though used to follow the National Soccer League, and learned our skills playing soccer on the school field or local park.

I still play in those local parks when I can, but have to admit I am a long way from the most dedicated fan in the country. I can accept that these stakeholders who market the A-League etc do so out of a love of the game and that my sentiments are hardly their top priority. It’s pretty rare that I get around to watching a game, but I can guarantee you that I’ll be watching Australia’s games in the world cup (for once at mercifully reasonable hours). And I’ll be cheering them on, not just out of patriotic pride; but for Trevor Huon, Johnny Warren and all the rest of us who despite it all love Australian soccer.

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One person’s trash… (diving into dumpsters)

About eight years ago, I went dumpster diving for the first time. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, this means raiding the bins of supermarkets or other shops and taking out the edible food or other useful waste they throw out. I had read about it before, and more recently had met people who did it. So one night I got on my bike and went to check out the bin of the local supermarket. Fortunately I had some reserves of persistence, because it wasn’t until the third supermarket I checked that I found any good food. But when I opened the lid to that bin full of vegies and bread, I can honestly say it changed my life in many ways.

One of the more minor ways is that fairly regularly I am contacted by people wanting to interview someone about dumpster diving. Sometimes these are people in the media, sometimes university students. The most recent was an ABC journalist this week. Mostly though (the most recent being no exception), I feel like these people come with the story they want to write and try to shoehorn me (a real life dumpster diver) into it. So I figured if I wanted an article that accurately represented my thoughts on dumpster diving, I’d have to write it myself.

So back to that first night. Something clicked in my mind when I saw that bin full of good food. Never one for half measures, I decided that night that I wasn’t going to be buying groceries any more, and I pretty much haven’t since then. But it opened up new possibilities beyond that – I got involved in a weekly community meal that fed anyone who came along (carting dumpstered food to share on the train from Sydney’s southern suburbs to the inner west). Most significantly, I coupled dumpstering with the knowledge there were loads of buildings sitting unused and figured that by utilising this excess I could be free of this whole money business. Within a year I was living with no income, travelling around Australia and having all kinds of amazing adventures. But that’s another story.

In the ensuing years, I’ve eaten out of bins in cities and towns all around the country (plus a few in other countries). If I’m going past a bin I often check just out of curiousity even if I don’t especially need food. I’ve blessed/cursed (it’s all a matter of perspective) various houses where I’ve been a guest with piles of food. I’ve consistently cooked for free public meals on a weekly basis (currently at Food Not Bombs in Brisbane’s West End every Friday). I’ve fed whatever household I’ve lived in (which for most of that time has been at least half a dozen people, often many more); catered for meetings, parties and events; given mountains of food away to others who are more reticent to jump into bins.

I can claim to be one of the few people who has actually been arrested for dumpster diving, and have a few other interesting interactions with cops and workers, though to be honest these are pretty rare occurrences in what is usually an uneventful pastime. I’ve found working electronics, new clothes, bouquets of flowers and so much besides. Plus all the food and the recyclable packaging I have saved from landfill. I’ve taken countless people dumpstering for their first time (the look of absolute shock on the face of a Chinese friend being one memorable example), and walked arm in arm to the bin on romantic outings.

Dumpstering introduces you to foods you would never otherwise try. I remember chatting with my mum on the phone after the first time I ever found a daikon and trying to see if she knew what it was from my description. It also gives the gift of creativity in the kitchen when you learn to make tasty meals out of whatever random ingredients you get. I find supermarket shelves boring and overwhelming compared with the bins which always offer the element of surprise when you open the lid.

After all this time I’m pretty jaded, and nothing found in a bin can really surprise me. I still get a little rush of excitement when I find a block of chocolate or a bottle of chilli sauce; but on the other hand I have to be the bearer of bad news for all those people who put effort into keeping their soft plastic packaging and putting it in the supermarket recycle bins – I know from experience that most of the time those bins are emptied into the dumpster and sent to landfill. When people exclaim things like “but why do they throw this out? There’s nothing wrong with it!”, I just shrug.

I shrug because I’ve become very familiar with what gets thrown out, but also because I don’t see supermarkets throwing out edible food as a shock. These are institutions that exist to make a profit; so they throw out anything that, for whatever reason, is not useful to that end. But I also don’t see food waste as an anomaly in an otherwise perfectly rational society. Look around us. We are the experts of waste.

We knowingly destroy our natural environment; drive whole species to extinction. Churn through natural resources as fast as we can. We design products with inbuilt obsolescence; manufacture trends to keep everyone buying and throwing out more. Governments spend vast amounts of money making and buying deadly weapons but are too stingy to pay foreign aid that will keep people alive.

We waste people too – letting millions die of disease, hunger and war or languish in poverty and displacement. Who knows what those people could contribute to the world if allowed to live up to their potential. We treat the elderly and disabled as burdens rather than assets. We waste people’s talents by forcing them to spend their time doing what will make a profit rather than what their skills or the world’s true needs dictate. We take people who could be useful members of society and turn them into insurance salesmen, advertising executives, or journalists writing about royal births.

Living in this reality, why would anybody be surprised when a bit of food ends up in the trash? Yet media reports on dumpster diving often treat it as a novelty. Which leads me to the other thing I want to emphasise: that the act of dumpster diving is not merely an ingenious way to save a bit of money on groceries removed from the rest of our lives and our broader society.

Dumpster diving, for some of us at least, is looking the society I’ve described above square in the eyes and rejecting it as the only way of doing things. And it’s seeing the seedling of a different way in the cracks of the present one. By exploiting the wastefulness of our world, we can start to develop new possibilities.

Living off the waste we find takes us out of the cycle of consumerism. We are no longer manipulated by the false seduction of advertising; no longer feel the need to define our identity by the products we buy. Once you find yourself regularly fishing through the rubbish, the status games of our society start to seem obsolete – time to give up pretending we are more rich and successful than our neighbours. We can take the burden of this expectation of our shoulders. My own life is proof that dumpstering can be part of a lifestyle that rejects the money-driven imperatives of paid work. That in turn frees up time to experiment with what ways to spend our time we really find useful and meaningful.

It changes how we think about food too. Once you realise you can get virtually unlimited food for free it becomes a resource to share rather than to hoard. When you run into someone else at the bin, food is always shared out freely. You can give away food, throw extravagant dinner parties. Facebook pages are set up where people offer up to strangers excess food they have found. Every week me and my friends plonk a table of food down on the street and sit down to eat with whoever comes along. My hope is that impacts everyone we meet there and they take a little bit of that spirit away with them.

Dumpstering breeds a resourcefulness and creativity that we take into other parts of our life. It teaches us that just because something has been deemed worthless by our system does not mean it is. Constantly being confronted with our excess reminds us that “food insecurity” is a myth – there is enough for everybody if we share resources around equally.

Wise people have told us for centuries that we live in an interconnected ecosystem where the waste of one species is vital to the survival of another; that the decomposing remnants of one meal are the nutrients that enable the growth of the next. The dumpsters of the 21st century hold their own lessons about the possibilities of new life if we are willing to dive in and seek them out.

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Cleaning my room with Jordan Peterson and Tom Waits

At some point last year I was surfing the web (does anyone actually still say that?), streaming music. In the process I found myself listening to Tom Waits’ hobo classic Cold Water. I briefly scrolled down to see the comments on the video and discovered, much to my surprise, a number of people saying they had been brought to this particular song by Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.

Like I have been with everything that’s ever emerged on the internet, I have to confess I was a bit slow on the uptake with Jordan Peterson. In fact, it’s only this week that I have for the first time read anything written by him or watched any of his videos. When I first saw those quotes on that Tom Waits song, I knew vaguely who Jordan Peterson was but found the references to “room-cleaning rock” etc a bit cryptic. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that one of Dr Peterson’s messages was that people should clean their bedrooms.

I can now say I’m a bit more familiar with his work. There also happens to now be a bit more of his work. Not only has his popularity exploded on the internet and in his speaking tours (to the point where he is regularly described as “the world’s most influential public intellectual”), but he has also this year published his first book since he rocketed to viral internet fame.

That book is 12 Rules to Life: An Antidote to Chaos – like a self-help book with a few more references to Carl Jung than the genre usually provides. I haven’t read it, but the chapter headings mostly look like pretty sound, if unremarkable, life advice. I can also agree with his emphasis on taking personal responsibility (mostly for your own life, which is what his motif of “clean your room” refers to, although he does also talk about trying to impact the world around us).

Some of his theories are a bit more strange or worrying – the often-quoted examples being his bizarre thesis that he can’t deal with disagreements with women because if it came down to it he could never hit them; and his promise (since withdrawn) to, like a 21st century Joseph McCarthy, build a database of humanities courses full of “cultural Marxism” to warn people off them and eventually close them down. (So much for rule 9 “assume the person you are listening to knows something you don’t”).

I’m not going to do an in-depth critique of Dr Peterson’s ideas, and wouldn’t be able to even if I wanted given I’ve hardly read them. My cursory scan doesn’t show much of the overt misogyny, transphobia or xenophobia he is often accused of. There is admittedly plenty to dislike about the values of many of his biggest fans (who are strangely keen on labelling his fairly mild monologues “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS LEFTISTS” etc). He certainly does fit the mould of a “culture warrior” given his combative way of approaching ideas other than his own (it’s strange given his extensive analysis of the psychology of beliefs to then hear him talk about “post-modernists” or “cultural Marxists” as if they are one homogenous conspiracy). But if it comes to the battleground of culture wars, I would say if ideas can’t stand up to the critique of someone like Jordan Peterson they probably won’t convince many people outside of the believers anyway.

The thing about his output though, is for all its vast quantity (when I googled his “12 rules” the first video that came up was a three hour lecture!), I just don’t think there are many new ideas there. I mean, clean your room? That is the exact advice your mum gave you your whole life. Using bible quotes, traditional social values and psychology 101 to give a motivational speech? That happens in literally thousands of churches around the world every Sunday. A bit more uncommon are the quotes from Nietszche and Jung, but they are just that – quotes.

You could say it’s symptomatic of our current media landscape, where youtube videos and not books are the dominant medium of ideas, that someone like Jordan Peterson can be called a prophet. But then again, he is hardly the first person to sell millions of books by offering people a dozen steps to transform their life.

Once you’ve watched a few of his videos and your “recommended” feed fills up with his work, you realise how many of his popular videos have titles like “how to attract women” or “what women want”. You realise then that maybe it’s not actually 21st century interpretations of Carl Jung and the bible; not even critiques of post-modernism and identity politics; that people are flocking to him for.

But what I think is a shame, the thing that irked me about all those people proudly proclaiming how Jordan Peterson sent them to Tom Waits’ video, is that Jordan Peterson’s “bear your suffering, sort yourself out bucko” cheerleading is kind of cheating people. It’s that image of all those people cleaning their room while listening to Tom Waits sing about the joys of not having a bedroom.

As well as liking Tom Waits, me and Dr Peterson also have a mutual appreciation of that other famous hobo – Jesus. But what does the professor like about Jesus? Is it his radical inclusion of the outcasts (the disabled, prostitutes, tax collectors)? Or his anarchistic philosophy of social organising (“you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven… The greatest among you will be your servant.”) Or his habit of sticking it to the powers that be in his society (both Roman kings and Jewish religious leaders)?

Well it doesn’t seem to be any of those. He likes Jesus as someone who manfully carried the cross of his suffering, but a big part of it seems to be that he likes Christianity as the cultural foundation of modern western civilisation. There is some validity in that view, but by seeing Christianity as a foundation pillar of the status quo, he’s missed out on the best bits. As well as – importantly – the whole thing that got Jesus killed in the first place.

When he sums up his theories in pithy little points about dressing up in a suit for your self-confidence, or accepting traditional social and gender roles, or becoming more productive and successful workers; Peterson is actually insulting Jesus, Tom Waits, and most of the great thinkers he is so fond of quoting – most of whom had to directly challenge the social norms of their time and place to find meaning in their own lives and to contribute something unique and significant to the world.

Jordan Peterson likes to tell his listeners to do something heroic, to make the world better. In hoping for that I can again find some common ground with him, except I think his manual left out Step 13 – imagine a future for yourself and the world around us that is different – better – than the one we live in now. Dedicate yourself to living for that world, even when it means being out of step, or actively working against, some of the values we have inherited from our past.

Dr Peterson is right – we do live in a world that is tragic and unjust. But in a society riddled with exploitation, greed, xenophobia, social and environmental destruction; lives of meaning and heroism can surely mean more than just clean bedrooms.

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Review of Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum

Few christian saints can match the popularity amongst non-believers of Teresa of Avila. Teresa lived a varied and eventful life, but the aspect which enamours her particularly to the world of artists, and that which inspires this exhibition entitled Ecstasy: Baroque and Beyond at the UQ Art Museum; are her mystical visions of encounters with Jesus or angels.

Most famous is the excerpt from her autobiography of her vision of an angel: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.”

The sexual connotations of the passage are especially drawn out by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baroque masterpiece The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Built in the middle of the 17th century in Rome’s church of Santa Maria della Vittoria; the sculpture depicts Teresa lying on her back moaning, the angel standing over her with phallic-like spear in hand. The couple are surrounded by beams of golden light.

In many ways it is this sculpture that has built the legend of Teresa of Avila. In the intervening centuries she has come to represent the expression of feminine sexuality in a time of repressive sexual mores; of a sensual christianity that rejects the ascetic dualism of the religion.

This is well demonstrated in Audrey Flack’s depiction here of Teresa’s moaning face with a stick of lipstick, the angel with a frosted cupcake. Flack describes Teresa as the antithesis of a middle aged de-sexualized nun, but rather a beautiful vibrant young woman in the throes of intense passionate feelings … That she is a young woman allowing herself to display her sexuality (albeit religious sexuality) is courageous, unique and historically important.”

I’m not sure what Teresa herself would think of this. She was, after all, a nun who took a vow of chastity and devoted herself to lengthy sessions of prayer. As a young Carmelite sister, she was disenchanted with the way her fellow nuns gossiped and socialised with the local (male) gentry. So she founded her own monastery where strict routines of prayer, absolute poverty and vegetarianism were enforced. Her nuns became known as the discalced (shoeless) sisters.

The Teresa who inspires this art exhibition is the sensual orgasmic maiden of Bernini’s sculpture and post-modern mythology rather than the pious nun of Teresa’s actual life and writings. Which is fine, but gives an interesting subtext to the rest of the exhibition.

For one, Teresa’s decision to reject nobility for a life of voluntary poverty is the exact opposite of the scenes of Bacchanalian excess portrayed in works by Pietro Aquila and Girolamo Nerli. It doesn’t have that much in common either with other works in various shades of sexual innuendo that adorn the gallery walls.

Most explicit of these is Salvador Dali’s montage of female faces in orgasmic moans. While the definition of Ecstasy we are given as we walk into the exhibition is one of “self-transcendence”, the depiction of ecstasy here is on very much embodied rather than out of body – the carnal joys of copulation. No question that such desires have inspired much great art over the years, but what relation does it really bear to St Teresa’s ecstatic mystical visions?

Elsewhere in the exhibition the themes stretch further afar. David Wadelton’s sublime Show Them You Want It takes a picture of a couple of AFL stars, and with no more than a change of perspective recasts them gazing heavenwards. Brilliant work of art though it is, it marks a further digression from the transcendence of the divine. Here ecstasy is found in the spectacle of the football.

Chris Bennie’s Mothership, meanwhile, is a video of the artist dancing on his own to trance music, seemingly in his mum’s loungeroom. Bennie says the artwork is about the sublime possibilities of the mundane rather than the mysticalBut in its depiction of rapturous dancing to bad electronic music, it brought to mind the most common use of the exhibition’s title these days. In the 21st century, “ecstasy” is just another product you buy – a little white pill to provide instant transcendence. In Bennie’s video, he dances more and more wildly while his surroundings stay exactly the same. Ecstasy is an ephemeral moment of pleasure preceding the inevitable comedown.

In contrast to these come the artworks most closely aligned with the philosophy of Teresa of Avila – engravings by Claude Mellon depicting St Francis of Paola and St Ignatius of Loyola, and Gordon Stephenson’s oil painting of St Stephen; each experiencing ecstatic religious visions.

Francis and Ignatius both founded religious orders, dedicating their lives to poverty and charity. Stephen meanwhile is famous as the first christian martyr – a man who stood on the witness stand facing the death penalty for blasphemy and proclaimed he saw Jesus at the right hand side of God.

In more ways than one these staid old guys don’t fit in with the rest of the artworks. They are certainly a bit more restrained than the scenes of excess around them, but more than that, these pictures show the kind of transcendent experiences that fundamentally change your outlook on the world. The kind of ecstasy you would die, or give up everything you once thought valuable, for. A quest that doesn’t seek ecstasy as a momentary release from our circumstances, but rather attempts to transform the world around us into a more permanent state of joy.

One of the highlights, as he is in any exhibition, is William Hogarth’s Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism. As ever, it is a hideously dystopian vision of Georgian England. It’s set in a church of religious tricksters – the faith of the people exploited by church leaders motivated by power and lust. The miserable parishioners seeking something to believe in are offered puppets of witches and devils, a clergyman molesting a young girl, and a thermometer of emotions that runs from “suicide” to “raving”. It is of course a critique of the 18th century church, but in the context of the exhibition you can also see in it the marketplace of shoddy salesmen offering the promises of various experiences to liberate us from our daily horrors.

Teresa of Avila’s mystical experiences were the result of and the catalyst for a life of extraordinary resistance to the powers and cultural norms of her society. She rejected the norms of her family, social caste, gender and religious institutions; and faced persecution at every turn. Yet she did it all joyfully out of a powerful belief in something greater. Anyone trying to use her as an exploration of what it means to “transcend the self” would do well to remember that.

ps. The exhibition is over now, but you can view the artworks and read artist statements in the exhibition handbook published digitally here.

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Put Away Your Sword – repentance, prophecy, arrests and media outrage

The sword and the cross

I have subsequently been told the idea came originally from an event I organised. In November 2016, on the 100th anniversary of Australia voting against conscription in World War I, I put on an event to draw attention to Australia’s history of resistance to war. The venue I chose was the “Temple Of Peace” in Toowong Cemetery, built by Richard Ramo in 1924 as “an appeal to all nations to cease from war”.

That day there were a number of people gathered for the event. Among them was Jim Dowling. Jim has been active in the cause of peace (among other causes) for nearly 40 years. He is also, like me, someone involved in the Catholic Worker movement – a tradition of christians who aim to take personal responsibility for creating a better world. Catholic Workers traditionally operate houses of hospitality (like the one I live in in Brisbane and Jim’s farm just outside the city) where we open our doors to anyone in need. We also tend to live lifestyles of voluntary poverty and engage in public acts of witness like political activism.

As we told stories of creative and courageous resistance to militarism, Jim noticed the war memorial barely 50 metres away from the temple of peace. Also built in 1924, the monument was a large cement christian cross with a sword hanging down its middle.

To Jim, this symbol represented perfectly a christian religion fatally compromised by its cooperation with violent regimes. Jesus’ message of radical love has been co-opted time and again by kings, warlords and governments seeking to baptise their conflicts as “holy wars”. And too often, the church has been too happy to acquiesce (plus occasionally wielding a few swords of our own).

The cross in christianity, it should be remembered, is the ultimate symbol of Jesus’ refusal to violently resist his opponents. Jesus would rather willingly suffer brutal execution than break with his radical message of love for enemies. As he was arrested, he literally told his friends trying to violently resist to “put away your sword, for whoever lives by the sword will die by the sword.” As he hung there dying, his words were not of vengeance or justice, but “father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. This was the ultimate example of an ethic Jesus had earlier set out when he said rather than loving our neighbours and hating our enemies we should love our enemies; that rather than taking eye for eye and tooth for tooth we should turn the other cheek.

And yet here was the cross with a sword hanging in the place of Jesus. It was there to commemorate the first world war, that mass slaughter that killed 15 million people for the sake of imperial territories. Weren’t soldiers on both sides professing christians? Weren’t all those casualties people made in the image of God? Wasn’t that sword a complete perversion of the message of the cross? Jim turned to my friend and housemate Tim and said “I want to take that sword off”.

The first time I heard of it, a plan had been formulated. There would be a ceremony to take place on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the 40 days of sacrifice and repentance that leads up to Easter in the Christian calendar. Jim would lever the sword off the cross as an act of repentance for all the wars and violence christianity had been used to justify over the last two thousand years. Tim would reshape it into a garden hoe, symbolically enacting the words of the Old Testament prophets Micah and Isaiah:  “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” They would do the act openly; with prayer, reflection and song; and then wait for the police to come and arrest them.

My feelings about the action were conflicted. I agreed with their feelings about the symbol, and I liked their portrayal of the reshaping as an act of contrite repentance rather than righteous anger. The only thing was, I knew this action was going to be a bit, you know, controversial.

My concern was not theological disputes about pacifism and just war. It was the war memorial I was concerned about. In our very secular society (where Easter means chocolate eggs and Christmas Santa Claus), ANZAC Day is our most significant religious occasion; war memorials our holiest icons. They represent Australia’s genesis story of bloodshed at Gallipoli, our holy commandments of mateship and national sacrifice. To alter a war memorial would be the ultimate heresy.

Now that was a concern, but not necessarily the primary one. Australia’s religion of Anzackery has problematic consequences and dubious origins of which I’ve written about elsewhere. My real concern was that we would be seen as disrespecting those people who had died in the war, though I knew that wasn’t the intention. The worry was compounded by the fact the war memorial was located (even if only just) within a cemetery.

Still, I had to agree with the overall message, and I admired the courage of Jim and Tim who had thought these things over and were still willing to do it. So I said I wouldn’t be volunteering myself to be arrested, but I would help out how I could.

It turned out, as it often does (especially when working with these Luddite Catholic Worker types), that meant technical assistance. I would film and photograph the ceremony and then be responsible for publicising the action. So as we gathered at our house on Ash Wednesday, the 1st of March, and prepared all the necessary tools (pinch bar, hammer and anvil, bread and wine); I packed a camera.

The removal

It was early afternoon when we headed out to Toowong. There was a couple of carloads of us. The plan included the removal and reshaping of the sword; some singing and reading of bible passages, and a short mass presented by a supportive priest. Given the memorial is next to a busy road and the cemetery workers’ cottage, we didn’t know if we would be able to get through any of those proposed stops. We thought we’d leave it up to the spirit.

Still, we didn’t waste time once there. We unloaded the ladder and Jim got to work on the sword. The first couple of pins came out easily as he thought they would, but there was a slight snag when he got to the hilt – it was fastened much stronger than he had expected. He struggled for a while before realising the blade and hilt were not actually connected. He popped the last pin of the blade and down it fell.

While Jim fixed a sign saying “turn your swords into ploughshares” to the top of the cross, Tim set the sword over the anvil and began putting the words into practice. The guitar was brought out and Franz, another of my housemates, sang some spiritual songs suited to the occasion. Others present read some bible passages and quotes from christian history. Tim had reshaped the sword into a reasonable garden hoe and tilled a bit of soil just to test it out. I filmed and took photos.

Amazingly, the police had not yet arrived. In fact, nobody else had made any appearance besides a lone jogger who ran past uninterested in what was going on. So we set up for mass. Our friend the priest did a bit of liturgy, shared a short reflection about Jesus as a prophet – part of his vocation was to show all humanity how things are and how they could be. That was what we were trying to also do that day. We shared the bread and wine of communion and, after all the rushing around, stopped to reflect for a while. It was very moving in the quiet of the cemetery; in the company of people who, though from different backgrounds, were united in our belief in the transformative power of the message of Jesus; and in our desire to live our lives accordingly.

We stayed there for quite some time, until it was apparent the police were not going to show up. This wasn’t what we had expected; but Jim and Tim left a note with their names, phone numbers and motivations for the action on it next to the sword/hoe. We picked up our stuff and headed home.

The next question was what do we do now? Do we make it public? Nobody saw a reason not to, so the press release I had made with quotes from Jim was sent out. I had a lot of good photos and videos (it was of course a very visually symbolic action), and Jim and Tim would either be at work or in the watch house the next morning. So I put my own name on the bottom of the press release as someone who could be contacted for visual media.

Possibly not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but in my defence, I have many times done the same thing for previous actions where people had been arrested. And besides, I don’t really believe in secrets. “there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not brought out into the open.” said Jesus; “let your yes be yes and your no be no”. I believe in not doing things you will later be ashamed of. And despite the butterflies in my stomach that had been my constant companion that whole day, I wasn’t ashamed of what we had done.

With that sent out, I also posted a report on the action on social media and turned the computer off. We had our regular Wednesday night open community meal. A bunch of people came around and we talked about the action. People who hadn’t been there expressed their gratitude and support. It had been a nerve-wracking day, but there was a kind of peace in the room. Jim went home, Tim went to do an overnight shift of support work. And I, after lying awake a long time with the nervous energy of the day running through my veins and thoughts about it running through my mind, eventually drifted off to sleep.

The arrest

There were a few things I had to do the next day, so first thing when I got up was to pick out good images to send to the media. As I sat on Franz’s computer doing this job, I was interrupted by another housemate. The police were here, and they wanted to speak to me. I hit send, and walked out to see them. I didn’t want to say much, as I was sure they had already seen what we had publicly put out explaining it all. They told me I wasn’t under arrest – yet – but they wanted me to come to the station “just for a chat”. Knowing full well that just for a chat in police language never actually means just for a chat, I got in the car with them.

The day before had been a day of nerves, but this was something else. I had, after all, specifically opted out of being publicly associated with the action. Now it seemed I would be facing the full consequences – legal (up to a potential prison term, when I already had another one hanging over my head from an anti-war protest) and social (people were going to be furious, and I am a fairly easily identifiable person). In the police car we had a bit of a theological discussion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cops didn’t agree with my position.

At the station I was arrested. Jim had already been, and we briefly shared a cell. He had been thinking about if for weeks and was at peace. I was a bit of a wreck. We were bundled into police cars and transferred to the city, past television cameras waiting outside. I wasn’t exactly feeling joyful, but I was neither ashamed nor angry (the expected emotions of people arrested), so I smiled for the camera.

Another conversation with cops in the car. One woman had been part of arresting Jim so had heard all about the catholic worker movement and was full of questions about our house. It’s a good idea never to trust people in uniform, but she did seem genuinely interested and was quite supportive. Talking to her was at least a welcome break from my own thoughts. Once we were at the Roma St watch house, with a cop forcing a DNA swab into my mouth, she walked past on her way out the door. She mouthed “good luck” to me.

It’s hard to put a name on my feelings in that cell other than just anxiety – that purely bodily response of fear beyond any immediate threat. I’ve been fortunate in my life to rarely have had to deal with what for some people is quite a common experience. But it was my turn now in that cold cell, and I sat there virtually curled up in a ball.

Eventually, I got talking with the guy I was sharing a cell with – always an interesting experience. He was a straight looking guy who had worked at a bank for ten years and at some point had started siphoning money from his employers. He had been caught, then had tried to leave the country but been arrested at the airport and was now facing indefinite imprisonment while he waited for his trial. He was very critical of the banking system, but the encounter still left me grateful that, conflicted about our action as I felt, at least my crime had been one with altruistic motivation.

After a couple of hours we were charged and released on bail. Willful damage to cemeteries, monuments etc. was the charge; maximum penalty seven years in prison. There was a tv crew waiting for us outside. Jim offered for the first time what would become his standard line – he didn’t damage the cross, he improved it. The damage was when the sword had been put there in the first place. We caught the bus home.

Tim was arrested the next day after he finished work (in the cell he was punched in the face and had his head smashed into the wall by a random psycho who didn’t even know what he was in there for), while a week later Franz was also arrested. He had been seen in the video and had been recognised at our house. That one was even more of a shock – if I hadn’t been expecting to be arrested at least I was used to the experience and had played a fairly active role. Franz was 19 with only one previous arrest. His only crime was playing guitar.

Before we got to all that though I got home from the watch house. There were messages from the media. It was already in the news. “Religious fanatics vandalise war memorial” was one headline, “Crusading cowards charged with smashing up a Brisbane war memorial” another. Brisbane lord mayor Graham Quirk had expressed his outrage, while the Catholic Archdiocese had disowned us, saying the catholic workers had no ties to them. I don’t put much stock in the opinions of church hierarchy, but for devout catholic Jim to be tossed aside by his church was an unpleasant feeling.

I had some lunch. There was a tv crew at the front door (another had already been and gone that morning apparently). I told them I could send them film of Jim explaining why he did the action. That wasn’t the footage they were after though. They stood at the door, cameras rolling, demanding an interview. When I reluctantly agreed to answer a few questions, I was grilled with a rare hostility. “How could you do this to this ANZAC memorial? THIS SACRED SITE!” was literally one of the questions. After trying my best in difficult circumstances to convey the spirit of the action, that night on the news I was naturally edited to look like a maximum scumbag.

I went back inside a bit shellshocked. The cameraman was on the footpath filming the (very distinctive) front of our house. Looking back now, I can’t remember whether we actually locked our front door for the first time that night or if we just spoke about it, but that was the point we were at.

I went out to a couple of meetings – normal commitments. The mundanity of everyday life was reassuring, as the morning had felt a bit like my life was in complete turmoil. On my way home though, the kind of bizarre incident that seemingly only happens at times like this. I stopped on the bike path to help a guy whose bike was broken down. We got his bike fixed, but I was stung by a bee. I’d never had an allergic reaction to a bee sting before, but my foot soon swelled up to a ridiculous extent. By the time I ran into a nurse friend the next afternoon, her horrified response was to send me immediately to the pharmacy for anti-histamines.

Upon seeing my foot, the chemist prescribed me the strongest pills he had. “They might knock you out a bit,” he told me, not knowing how welcome a bit of sedation was right at that moment. I managed to still fulfil my regular commitments the next few days, but all in a bit of a daze. I could hardly eat due to a stomach constantly in flux. I couldn’t bring myself to turn on a computer. To this day I have never read the 100+ comments on my original facebook post (I’ve been told a couple of friends put in the extraordinary effort of responding to the various comments). Same goes for most of the 30 messages sent to me from strangers in those few days (the glance I have given them shows up mostly a mixture of abuse and threats of physical violence).

And yet the response we had feared never came. Someone pulled into Jim’s driveway yelling at him to “come out like a man”, but that was as close as it got. Most of us in the catholic worker movement have had people in our own home tell us to our face they were going to bash or kill us, so a few threatening phone calls or internet posts aren’t the end of the world. The feelings of anxiety took a while to subside, but over the next week or so they slowly began to as everyday life kept going on.

That process was helped by messages of support that came in. A close friend baked biscuits and brought them round with a lovely note. A supportive card came from Tim’s home country of New Zealand, signed by over 30 attendees of the Catholic Worker hui there. Long-term catholic worker peace activist Ciaron O’Reilly sent round a letter of support asking people to sign, especially those who were military veterans or families of veterans. Responses came from all over the world, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Maguire.

I think it’s because my anxieties over people’s responses were so heightened that even now I can vividly remember so many of the individual conversations I had. “I think everything you guys do is great”, said a woman who frequents the free shop in the front room of our house. Friends with intellectual disabilities were very excited to see us on tv. “Someone’s got to take a stand!”, one of them told me. On that insane first day, as irate commentators lined up to denounce us, a camera crew turned up at the office of local Councillor Jonno Sri. Poor Jonno has enough hassles from the media without being dragged into ours, yet that night on the news he was saying “people may disagree with this action, but the catholic workers do a lot of great work in the community.”

I was a bit worried about the reaction from the footy club I had recently begun training with, given there were a number of military personnel at the club. What I got from the coach and board was a heart-warming and kinda humourous example of Australian egalitarianism – “everyone’s got a right to their beliefs; and to be honest people at this club get arrested for all kinds of things. All we ask is that you don’t bring the club into it by wearing a club polo shirt while you do it.” Later on, after the court case was all over, a couple of the army guys told me they didn’t take it as a disrespect to soldiers.

Court

Two weeks into Lent, it was time for our first court appearance. Purely a formality in terms of court proceedings, it was nonetheless an opportunity for the media to report on it again, which they certainly did. Of most interest to them seemingly was the fact that we turned up to court barefoot. In between filming our feet and asking why we didn’t wear shoes though, they did manage to touch on some other topics. As ever though, the soundbite nature of tv news was something to grapple with. I was hoping to let Jim do the talking to the media, but they swarmed around me too leaving me without much choice. One reporter asked me if our action didn’t didn’t violate the right to freedom of religion. The question caught me off guard. The basis of a freedom of religion is a separation of church and state, which that memorial (with its religious symbol commemorating a state war) certainly does not represent. I couldn’t think of a way of cramming that into a soundbite though, so after a pause I said I had no comment. Naturally, despite all the other questions I did answer, that was the clip that went to air that night.

I don’t expect much from commercial news sources, so in a lot of ways I thought the coverage was ok (even at its most ludicrous) because they at least reported our reason for doing the action somewhere in the article. But we certainly got a show of all the tricks, from sensationalist headlines to judicious editing. They didn’t always feel compelled to report our calm responses to some of their more sensational claims. While news reports compared us to Islamic State destroying religious temples in Syria; we replied that, controversial as our act may have been, we were actually the ones saying religion should never be used to justify violence – it was the war memorial which gave the opposite message.

The next day Tim and Franz had their first appearance (our staggered arrests was the reason for the different court dates). They, both introverted and inexperienced public speakers, were quite worried about the media. But as it turned out, they shared a courtroom with a couple accused of murdering their baby. As a journalist friend told me, for the commercial media a crime with an identifiable victim trumps an act of vandalism every time. We slipped past the cameras unnoticed.

I went away for a couple of weeks after that, which certainly helped take my mind off the issue. The drama at home didn’t end, though that was the result of violent, unstable or anti-social house guests rather than this particular issue. We were able to check up on each other to see how we were handling it all.  Easter came, bringing an end to what had been an extraordinary Lenten season.

Our next court appearance came, with it the surprising news that we would not (as we had assumed) be facing a jury trial in the district court. Though our charge was an indictable offence, the reported damage of $16,000 made us only small time criminals to be dealt with in the magistrates court. Rather than dragging on for months, the hearing would be the 19th of July.

The trial

It was with trepidation that we approached that date. We took time to chat to a few people who had done recent prison stints to prepare ourselves just in case. Yet as the trial drew closer, our spirits lifted. This was due mostly to the sudden appearance in Brisbane of supporters from around the country and across the Tasman. By the time the court date came around (and the events we had organised to coincide with it; our house was a bustling community of about 25 people from different places and generations, breaking bread and sharing life together. We started to actually feel excited about court. I have never in my life experienced to such a degree the power of communal solidarity.

The court tactics themselves were slightly complicated. Despite the all-in solidarity we had with each other, we felt it was best for myself and Franz to try as much as we could to get off; given the precedent it may set for future protest actions. I had a number of older activists warn me of the dire consequences for journalism that would come from me getting a conviction just for filming. There was a slight tension between this and the usual unashamed honesty that is my normal approach in court. We would be representing ourselves, though a helpful lawyer friend had given us some suggested legal arguments.

So it was a crew of about 40 of us, holding signs and banners and proceeding in silent single file, that turned up to the court that morning. When chief magistrate Ray Rinaudo walked in to see our supporters overflowing out of the gallery, he said “this won’t work” and moved us into the biggest courtroom in the building.

The prosecution got the trial underway, with a series of police and council witnesses testifying of discovering the altered monument and arresting us. We broke for lunch (a picnic in the park behind the court) and came back for more of the same. As witness after witness appeared, it became clear that the trial would not fit into a single day though that was all that had been allocated. The courts were booked out for the next day. It was ruled we would come back the following Monday. The suspense would be prolonged.

Before the day ended though we did get the chance to begin our case. To be honest the prosecution had kind of began it for us by playing Jim’s half hour police interview explaining the action, as well as an interview I had recorded of Tim and one Jim had done with ABC radio. Our argument in essence was that we were not damaging the monument but restoring the cross to its proper (swordless) state; or at least we had a sincere belief that was what we were doing.

Assisting our case was our first witness, heard that afternoon; Dominican priest Peter Murnane. Despite spirited arguing from the prosecutor, Peter outlined the symbol of the cross in christian theology and how it was incompatible with that of the sword. It was a great way to finish the day.

The next Monday we returned to court with only a slightly smaller group (a few people had to return to their lives interstate or overseas). All that was left now was each of us getting up to make our case. The magistrate had already seemingly thrown out the prospect of me and Franz getting off as merely bystanders, so we were free to speak our hearts on the stand.  “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial”, Jesus told his disciples, “do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.” That was what we were hoping for.

There were a few nerves to contend with though. Franz had intended to sing an anti-war hymn on the witness stand, as that was what he had done on the day. A slightly flustered Jim though interrupted him as he was about to hit the opening note. I had wanted to pick up the bible kept on the stand for taking oaths and read from it. When I was inevitably interrupted I would say “that’s just it – the bible’s used as a prop to give human institutions some kind of divine legitimacy, but you’re not allowed to mention what it actually says.” In the end though, under pressure on the stand, I chickened out and let that golden opportunity slip away forever.

Still, we gave the best account of ourselves that we could. To a media and court hostile to our actions; we wanted to at least give a display as sane people acting out of sincerely held beliefs, as a community of people that supported each other and took seriously the message of Jesus in all its radical implications. To that effect, the way we interacted with each other and the court were as important as what we said on the stand. Our bare feet, so beloved of the news cameras; were a symbol that the court, like our society’s infatuation with violence and economics, was an imposition to which we were not willing to compromise our essential selves. If the media never quite came around to supporting our action, I think they at least gave their audience a glimpse of this. They definitely seemed to get less antagonistic with each report.

In the end, without needing much time for consideration, the magistrate found us guilty. Sentences were read out in ascending order of severity – Franz $1000 fine, me $1500, Tim 100 hours community service, Jim the same plus a three month suspended prison sentence (though Mr Rinaudo later discovered it was beyond his powers to give both these penalties, so the community service was rescinded). Between them, Jim and Tim were ordered to pay the $16,000 restitution.

Jim had repeatedly said he was willing to go to prison (he had previously done a few stints in the old days of Joh Bjelke-Peterson’s Queensland), but we all breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced his sentence would be suspended. Prison does no good for anybody, and someone has to be on the outside to grow all those exotic fruits and vegetables and to keep pricking the conscience of society and church.

Outside the court there were hugs and smiles and time for one last media interview. Jim repeated his previously made offer to pay for repairs as long as the sword was not put back. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn’t be paying. Tim said the same.

We returned to the park for a relieved picnic. The relief was because none of us would be going to jail, and that the court process was over, but also because in the end none of those fears of savage retribution had come to pass. We had seen powerful support from friends and strangers, and we had come through with our faith intact that Jesus’ way of love for enemy and non-cooperation with the powers was indeed preferable to our society’s cult of violence and power.

We could even laugh at some of the courtroom fun. One moment of levity was in the magistrate’s sentencing remarks to me. Regarding the fact that I had merely been documenting the event, he said apparently without any sense of irony: “What you did here was not report dispassionately and independently as some of the reporters that are here today are doing.”

We stayed in the city that afternoon. A Chilean couple we had met at Food Not Bombs, the street kitchen we do every Friday in West End, were getting married at the registry office on Ann St. It was a small and informal wedding, but it was great to be able to be there and celebrate their love even as their families and friends were far away. When the ceremony finished we returned to our house for the reception – a dual celebration! Franz had of course been up late the night before his big court date baking a vegan wedding cake.

Even at the time we felt this was the perfect ending to the whole episode. Because these were really just two notes in the one song of following Jesus and living as part of the community gathered in his name. Times of celebration mixed with times of trial, fears in the end countered by the love of others. We went to bed that night free – not because of the benevolence of the state (something we were admittedly grateful for), but because we had resolved to do what we believed was right and would continue to do so through good and bad circumstances.

To be honest, my feelings about the whole thing are still somewhat conflicted. It’s taken me this long to feel able to write about it, and even as I do this some of those old butterflies have been testing out their wings in my stomach. But I can honestly say I’m grateful for the whole extraordinary experience. And when it comes down to it, we should remember what that cross actually symbolises. It was the method of execution a court somewhat similar to ours passed down on another criminal who challenged the religion of the day. If that cross doesn’t mean occasionally raising the ire of the society around us it means nothing at all. Another quote from Jesus to his disciples: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.”

But that cross is not just a pathway to persecution and masochism. It also represents a wild, utopian hope. The idea of loving enemies and turning the other cheek was as ludicrous in Jesus’ time as it is now. Yet countless people through history have given all out of belief in it. It was for repentance we took that sword down but also for prophecy. The desire to communicate that the cross represents something more than the violence, injustice and self-centredness that surrounds us daily. With some justification, many have come to believe Christianity means nothing more than an affirmation of the status quo. I hope that, aided by those images that brought me so much trouble and were relayed by a media not always very sympathetic, our action at least placed the seed in people’s minds that the cross invites us to so much more.

 

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January 26 and the fight for Australian national identity

Marega, New Holland, New South Wales.

A long long time ago (“since time immemorial”, as they say), the first explorers came to Australia. This was the Pleistocene (Ice Age) epoch; when ocean distances were shorter and it was possible to walk from Papua New Guinea to Tasmania. Aboriginal people settled around the continent; setting up over 500 different nations across the many different climates and landscapes.

For somewhere between 40 and 60 thousand years (it’s hard to be too accurate over that kind of time scale), they lived on the vast southern continent with very little contact from other humans. Slowly though, other nations developed sea transport that enabled them to explore the coastline.

The first visitors were from South East Asia, possibly as early as the 15th century. Chinese people had developed a taste for trepang (commonly known as “sea cucumbers”); a sea slug that lives on the ocean floor and they felt worked as an aphrodisiac. Fishermen from Makassar (now Sulawesi in Indonesia) were their main trading partners in this field; and the search for resources led them to Northern Australia. They christened the land Marega, or “Land of the Sea Cucumber”. They returned year after year for centuries, employing and trading with aboriginal people in Arnhem Land.

The beginning of the 17th century saw voyages south from European explorers seeking riches and the mythical southern continent. There is evidence to suggest Portuguese may have been the first to land ashore; though the closest we get in documented voyages is the 1606 voyage led by Pedro Fernandez de Quiroz. Spurred on by missionary zeal, searching for “Tierra Austrialia del Espiritu Santo” (“South land of the holy spirit”), de Quiroz made it only as far as Vanuatu; though his first mate Luis Vaez de Torres sailed on and just missed the Australian mainland while navigating the strait that now bears his name.

That same year it was another European empire that would land on the Australian coast, this time the Dutch. Willem Jansz, captaining the Duyfken, landed near Aurukun on the Western coast of Cape York. He had some of his crew killed by aboriginals though, and beat a hasty retreat, naming the place he landed Cape Keerweer (“turn back”). A slightly better experience was had by Dirk Hartog in 1616, when he landed on Australia’s west coast. Another Dutchman Able Tasman would land on the island he called Van Dieman’s Land in 1642 and map the north-western coast in 1644. For the next century and a half; the continent would be known as New Holland.

In 1688, Englishman William Dampier landed near Broome on the west coast. Like all the previous explorers, he wasn’t exactly enamoured by the place or its inhabitants. Which maybe explains why no further explorations were made until James Cook, returning to Britain from his voyage to Tahiti and New Zealand, by accident more than design landed on Australia’s east coast on April 29th 1770.

Cook was somewhat of a romantic, so despite having spears thrown at him by the first aboriginal people he met and wrecking his ship on the Great Barrier Reef, he returned with glowing reports of the country and its people, about whom he said “they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary Conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them.

On August 22nd, as Cook left the continent, he raised the Union Jack on the newly named Possession Island in the Torres Strait and claimed for Great Britain the new colony of “New South Wales”.

Still, Britain didn’t seem too excited by its newest colonial acquisition; given the fact no British person went back there for 18 years. In fact it was only a pesky revolution in the United States of America, which stopped Britain dumping its criminals there; that led to them reassessing the value of Australia. On the 13th of May 1787, 750 convicts and 500 others packed into a fleet of 11 ships and, via Brazil and South Africa, headed for Botany Bay and the world’s biggest prison.

On January 18th 1788; the HMS Supply, carrying the new colony’s governor Arthur Phillip, landed at Botany Bay. Like Cook, they were greeted with spears by the locals, though like Cook the relationship seemed to have its more amicable moments too. For the next week, the crew and soldiers wandered around looking for a suitable place for the new civilisation while the convicts sat shackled on the boats. None was found, but a scout ship reported that just north at Port Jackson was “the most beautiful harbour in the world”. It was decided to move there.

In a bizarre coincidence, on the morning of January 26th another European power landed on Australia’s shore for the first time – Britain’s old rival France. The two ships, led by Jean-Francois de la Perouse, were not in fact hostile to the British. They had been at sea for two and a half years, exploring the Pacific in the French tradition of the flaneur. They were happy to find fellow Europeans, but Phillip was now determined to get to Port Jackson before the French could claim it. In their haste to leave Botany Bay, the ships of the first fleet crashed into each other repeatedly like aquatic dodgem cars. They escaped with “trifling damages” though, and managed by 7pm to land at what would henceforth be known as Sydney Cove. The convicts (most of them at least) were unloaded, and the Union Jack raised for the first time on the Australian mainland.

The convict women, mind you, were not there to witness this historic moment. While the male prisoners were put to work clearing land and building their masters’ accommodation, the women remained on the boats for another week and a half until February 6th. According to the journal of Arthur Bowes-Smyth, who came with the fleet as a doctor, their arrival was cue for a night of “debauchery and riot” aided by a wild summer storm.

The next morning the penal colony of New South Wales had its ceremonial birth, with Arthur Phillip sworn in as governor. He used his maiden speech to lay down the law to the convicts. If they didn’t work, they wouldn’t eat. Any male convict caught in the women’s quarters would be shot, as would anyone caught stealing food.

A Contested Date.

The above history can be read in more detail elsewhere, but I give it a rundown here firstly because it is a history not many Australians actually know much about, and secondly because it shows the somewhat arbitrary nature of choosing January 26 as the birth date of Australia as a nation.

The date, originally known as “Foundation Day”, was possibly commemorated by settlers from very early on. Definitely on the 30th anniversary in 1818, New South Wales governor Lachlan Macquarie announced the day would be a public holiday. It remained so in NSW from then on. Despite the unification of the colonies into one Australian nation on January 1st 1901, it wasn’t until 1935 that the other states joined NSW in commemorating “Australia Day”. When they did, it was on the Monday closest to January 26 each year – honouring the great Australian tradition of the long weekend. In 1994, 206 years after those convicts disembarked, it was established that Australia Day would be commemorated on January 26 each year in all states.

In recent years especially, the appropriateness of January 26 as a date has been a source of public debate. There was A.B. Original’s hit song, local councils like Fremantle and Yarra announcing they wouldn’t be holding official celebrations on the day, and radio station triple J announcing it would no longer be holding its very popular Hottest 100 countdown on the day. There has even been a recent film called Australia Day exploring themes of racial violence. Each development has been met with outrage from conservative media and commentators, and that guy at your workplace/sports club/local pub.

But the disputed nature of January 26 is certainly nothing new. In 1888, premier Henry Parkes announced an event to celebrate New South Wales’ centenary. When activist Thomas Walker interjected to say “we should do something for the aborigines”; Parkes replied, with admirable honesty, “and remind them we have robbed them?”

In 1938, on the 150th anniversary, a group of aboriginals; led by William Cooper and including the remarkable sports star/church minister/activist Doug Nicholls staged a “Day of Mourning” to mark the invasion and dispossession of their country. A motion was passed unanimously by attendees saying “WE, representing THE ABORIGINES OF AUSTRALIA, this being the 150th anniversary of the whitemen’s seizure of our country, HEREBY MAKE PROTEST against the callous treatment of our people by the whitemen in the past 150 years.”

The event was a historic moment in aboriginal protest. But white Australia’s leaders didn’t just ignore their demand for full citizenship rights for decades. In fact, while aboriginal people were meeting for their protest, the government was staging a re-enactment of the fleet’s landing at Sydney Cove. Not wanting to let the truth get in the way of a good story, the re-enactment would depict the whites chasing off hostile aboriginals – an event that never actually occurred. When approached, the aboriginals of Sydney refused to take part in it. So the government essentially kidnapped some aboriginals from Menindee in the state’s west. To protect them from being influenced by the Day Of Mourning organisers, the men from Menindee were locked in prison for the week before the ceremony. They were never paid for their thespian endeavours.

In 1972, four young men famously set up an aboriginal “tent embassy” on the lawn of Parliament House on January 26th to protest their treatment as foreigners in their own country. The embassy was repeatedly violently evicted, though in the 90’s it returned

as a permanent camp and now has Australian heritage status.

In 1988, 40,000 aboriginal people and supporters gathered for a protest against white Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. Since then protest marches and events like Sydney’s “Survival Day” celebrations have taken place each year.

Australian Identity.

Of course the vigour with which people defend celebrating January 26th is not because of any real attachment to what happened on that day in 1788. it is the assumed attack on white Australian identity that people react against, in the same way that most of us, when told our actions have offended or injured somebody else, are likely to get defensive as our first reaction. John Howard, citing historian Geoffrey Blainey, famously said he did not subscribe to “a black armband view of Australian history”. “I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed.

Critics of Howard suggested he had traded in his black armband for a white blindfold; while Noel Pearson quite rationally said “To say that ordinary Australians who are part of the national community today do not have any connection with the shameful aspects of our past is at odds with our exhortations that they have connections to the prideful bits”.

But the question of whether criticising Australia Day is an attack on Australian identity surely has to be preceded by a question of what actually is the Australian national identity. As with any question so broad, it’s hard to answer. But this one has specific challenges.

For one, Australia has always been a country with a large proportion of emigrants. From those early convict transportations, to free settlers, gold rushes, “ten pound poms”, “populate or perish” migration schemes. Even in the 2016 census, the data showed 28% of Australians were born overseas, a number which grew to 49% who had a parent born overseas. Those stats, of course, have been vividly brought to life by the recent parliament citizenship debacle. In those circumstances it’s difficult to isolate a uniquely Australian culture.

Also, Australia’s birth as a nation doesn’t offer the same dramatic narrative as you might find around the world. There was no heroic overthrow of tyrants to celebrate like France and the US (around the same time as Arthur Phillip was whipping convicts for stealing turnips) or various post-colonial states. The events of 1788 were tyrannical by any measure before you even get to the relationship with the aboriginals. The birth of Australia as a nation in 1901 was the result of years of peaceful negotiation between the various colonies and the imperial motherland. That could be seen as a positive, but it’s not quite satisfying. So it is that the bloodied birth of Australian nationhood is often associated with a doomed war on someone else’s soil – Gallipoli.

It’s an interesting sidenote here to contrast Australia with another British colony who mark a public holiday on January 26th – India. India also lost many lives in World War One – more than Australia in fact, though like us it was a war that had little to do with their nation. It’s certainly not an event India celebrates today. January 26 in India is Republic Day, and the event it commemorates is the congress of India declaring its swaraj (self-rule) in 1930. The British empire responded, as they often had before and would continue to for many years after, with violent repression. In 1948 the British finally left, and India’s national unity despite its many different languages and religions was forged in its tough struggle against its more powerful rulers. And for better and worse, that struggle continues to colour any discussion of Indian nationhood.

Australia’s unifying struggle is of course harder to find. We certainly had our strongly anti-British elements in the movement that led to federation, but many of our leaders at the time were at pains to protect Australia’s relationship to the mother country. One of the “fathers of federation” Alfred Deakin wrote in a London newspaper in 1901 that Britain had “scarcely among his dominions a more loyal people than those in the Southern seas”. On that first day of Australia’s nationhood, Australian troops were overseas fighting for the British empire in colonial wars in both South Africa and China. Much of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s book Dangerous Allies is spent describing Australia’s historical pursuit of a policy of “strategic dependence” on great powers.

Which is not to say Australia never forged our own cultural identity. The new Australian migrants quickly asserted themselves as people with a remarkable sense of egalitarianism. Union organising in certain industries had limited the work day to eight hours by the mid 19th century – possibly the first workers in the world to achieve the feat. NSW and Victoria led the world in legally enshrining the 8 hour day for all workers in 1916. Only New Zealand passed a minimum wage law before Australia, same with giving women the vote. South Australia had earlier been the first government in the world to give voting rights to all (white) men, regardless of whether they owned property. It was there too that secret ballots were held for the first time, enabling elections free of intimidation. In implementing free education Australian colonies led the world.

Australian culture too carved out its individual identity. One of the early upper-class migrants, Judge Barron Field, had described the country as “where nature is prosaic, unpicturesque, unmusical, and where nature reflecting poetry is not yet born.” Yet quickly the distinctive colours and species of the Australian landscape became the subject of iconic art from Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin; of poetry from Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. The world’s first ever feature length film was made in Australia. Its subject was the cop-killing bank-robbing local folk hero Ned Kelly. Other rebels like shearers on strike and gold miners erecting barricades became the subjects of our most iconic songs and stories. Through the century since then Australia has developed plenty of culture that reflects our own lives and place even as those lives and places have changed.

White Australia.

Not that we should say Australia’s history was egalitarian in every way. Aboriginal people were removed from the land they relied on for survival when it became private farmland. They were often – very often – killed if they transgressed the new laws that had been forced on them, or even if they didn’t. Conservative estimates say 20,000 (many historians put that number much higher) aboriginals were killed directly by whites, and that’s not including those who died of newly arrived diseases for which they were not offered medical assistance.

Where I grew up, west of the Blue Mountains in NSW; soldiers were given free rein to kill aboriginal people following Governor Thomas Brisbane’s declaration of martial law in 1824. Bathurst farmer (and one of the rare allies of aboriginal people) W.H. Suttor said “where martial law had run its course, extermination is the word that most aptly describes the result.” By the end of that decade whites in Tasmania had achieved similar ends. The horrific history of massacres of aboriginal people is only recently being properly documented by historians like Henry Reynolds. For most of Australia’s history it had remained a dark secret.

That was the beginning and not the end though of the horrors for aboriginal Australians. Racist laws, forced labour, children forcibly removed, culture dismantled – these experiences were commonplace across the Australian continent. Even today there is a vast gulf in health, economic status and incarceration rates between aboriginals and the rest of Australia.

Chinese prospectors in the gold rush faced endless hostility; from laws which were written specifically to discriminate against them, to violence from fellow miners – most famously the Lambing Flat race riot in 1861 when Chinese camps were looted and destroyed and their inhabitants beaten by a mob of 3,000 whites.

As Great Britain and the United States were winding up their shameful histories of slavery, Australia was just beginning ours. 60,000 South Sea Islanders were kidnapped from their homes to work unpaid on Queensland’s sugarcane plantations. The practice only ended with the passing of racist laws demanding the deportation of all non-Europeans from Australia.

That law was passed within a year of federation by the new Australian government. Alfred Deakin, Australian Attorney-General, described the Immigration Restriction Act thus: “it means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst.” Amazingly, the law stayed in place until 1966.

Not that you could argue Australian racism stopped with the abolition of the White Australia Policy. There are many examples since that could be cited.

Most famous is the Cronulla riots of 2005, when 5,000 mostly white Australians gathered at the Sydney suburb to indulge in the great Australian pastimes of beer and the beach before going on a violent rampage aimed at non-Europeans. Even this week the news has been full of reports of (white) vigilante gangs formed to combat the supposedly rampant crimes of young African migrants.

Now not all Australians are racist, and indeed if we wanted to talk about our flaws as a nation there are surely others we could include. But I mention these specifically because they show the problem with the construction of a national identity that excludes certain people. Our identity is not merely theoretical – this is an example of how it has tangible effects on people who live in this country. Others, for example many women and homosexuals, could also tell you of negative effects the classic Australian identity has on their day to day lives.

Whose Australia?

Faced with the dual natures (like droughts and flooding rains) of Australian national identity, we should now come back to the question of January 26 and how it fits in with all this.

Like John Howard (I don’t say that very often), I’m not one of those people who thinks everything in our history is bad or that any kind of cultural pride in post-1788 Australia is inherently a bad thing. Even as someone who thinks national borders are an unjust and immoral attack on human freedom, I think it’s normal and healthy to have a pride in the culture that formed you and its contribution to the world -as long as we hold a positive view of other cultures and are prepared for our own to change when it needs to. As a proud Australian I resent the creeping Americanisms and lowest common denominator culture that comes from a nation of television sets in every loungeroom, as well as the elitism of those who look to Europe or North America as the cultural vanguard.

I think in fact that the knee-jerk reactions to criticisms of January 26 reflect a lack of proper cultural pride. Immigrants to begin with, we are alienated from our landscape by faceless urbanism. We carry an incomplete history half gleaned from tv specials, a culture formed by entertainment corporations. Travel for many Australians means chasing cheap alcohol and sex in South-East Asia rather than exploring this continent. It’s awkward when our attachment to the place we are from is shown up as nothing more than flimsy allegiance to a flag or a public holiday date.

The preferred method of celebrating Australia Day (a barbecue with beers and some bangin’ tunes) and ANZAC Day (an hour of ceremony followed by a day drinking and gambling at the pub) reflects an unthinking patriotism that is all to do with blind allegiance rather than actual cultural pride. In a way I think people resent critiques of either day because it requires people to actually think about Australia.

Who is served by this blind patriotism? Is it the average Australian? Someone like John Howard used nationhood as a political device even though if he could he would have dismantled most of the achievements of that egalitarian society I mentioned earlier; his policies on taxation and workplace rights showed as much. His nationalism rejected the good parts of our history but embraced the bad, manifesting itself in overseas invasions and viewing asylum seekers as enemies.

Howard was of course a staunch monarchist whose politics owed much to American conservatism. His Australianism was limited to the sloganeering of war (as if every country in the world didn’t fight heroically and lose a lot of lives in the world war) and sport (naturally, his favourites were the traditional English upper-class sports cricket and rugby union).

Similarly, Tony Abbott would use the symbolism of Australia as often as possible (remember the press conference in front of six flags?). Yet his first budget in 2014 was the most comprehensive attempt ever made to attack the egalitarian welfare state Australians had struggled so hard to achieve. He was born in England, educated amongst the aristocracy at Oxford. When he made his “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods (again note the English upper class connotations) annually on January 26th; it took him precisely one year before he ran out of Australians to choose and knighted the prince of England. Tony Abbott doesn’t even like Australia except when it aids his political purposes.

Abbott this week, asked about changing the date, said Australians need to be “unambiguous about our country: Australia is a great country.” Late last year he bundled up the move to change the date with same-sex marriage and the safe-schools program as “an attack on our way of life”.

The truth is that the virtues we often claim as traditionally Australian – egalitarianism, anti-authoritarianism, larrikinism – don’t fit very well with the agenda of those in power seeking to leverage “Australian pride” to serve their own ends. If Australians really were the underdog-loving race we like to think we are; surely our historical view of colonisation would make heroes of the aboriginal people who tried to defend their country with spears against the guns of the British.

If Australians took a break from the beers and barbies and started talking about Australian history and culture on January 26, those conservative powerbrokers might find there was less in the day they wanted to defend.

An Australia Day for the future.

Like Australia’s history, this article has had a lot of disparate tangents – sometimes related, sometimes not, sometimes contradictory, yet linked by the simple logic of all being found in the same location. So how do I sum it up into a coherent point?

Firstly I should say I support changing the date of our national public holiday from January 26. Mind you, I don’t support rebelling by dutifully turning up to work like some socially liberal law firms have suggested. And I don’t do it because I think we should be ashamed of our history and culture or never talk about it. But there are a couple of reasons why I think it should be changed.

One is Australia’s very real denial of our aboriginal history. We’ve come a long way sure, but the disconnect between having a celebration that marks English arrival two centuries ago and not a corresponding holiday for the 40,000 years that came before is ridiculous. There should be a holiday dedicated specifically to celebrating aboriginal culture and its survival (like NAIDOC except hopefully with a better name).

Another reason is the nature of the cultural identity we invoke by celebrating January 26. It is an official history decreed from above rather than one we have lived and created ourselves. January 26th 1788 was a day of leaders unveiling the flag of their imperial lords while most of the people present were held in chains. And the way it is celebrated often perpetuates the idea of allegiance to flags and leaders rather than to our fellow Australians. Australia’s unique significant contribution to the globe’s culture has mostly come directly from our rejection of that kind of submission – our radical egalitarianism.

So let’s celebrate Australia. But not with allegiance to an arbitrary date. Let’s commemorate our history in a way that honestly marks the good and bad parts of our past. But let’s also do it in a way that looks forward to the kind of Australia we want to create. The migrants who have come here over the centuries, and those whose ancestors had always been here, built the country we have today not by slavishly insisting that things should be done the same way they have always been done; but by asking the questions of what kind of society we could create by working together on this beautiful southern continent. And that’s the kind of tradition we should be seeking to keep alive.

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My top 10 songs of 2017

Another year gone, and amongst the existential quandaries of seeing another year of your life pass you by I can at least have some relief in compiling my favourite songs of 2017. I listened to a lot of new music thanks partly to a new hobby of writing album reviews for 4ZZZ, and so it was a bit tricky to narrow down the list to 10. But here it is; a mixture of old favourites and new discoveries, local park singalongs to artists from the other side of the world. Hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do.

 

Combat Wombat – Let them know

It’s been a long 12 years since Combat Wombat released their last album Unsound System. They haven’t been dormant though – the members have been active in other musical projects and political mischief making. There is something special though about the music they make as a group. It’s more than just the beats and rhymes too – Combat Wombat’s music is a kind of folk music for the Australian activist subculture; their dancefloors a communal and formative musical experience. Their natural environment is played live at a blockade or protest, on their solar powered soundsystem. On this Bollywood-funk banger of a track, Izzy’s verse is a like a tribute and a motivational speech to all those out there struggling for a better world.

And so this year I spent plenty of time enjoying the long-awaited Just Across The Border, but even better was dancing to the band with the whole of the Students Of Sustainability convergence in Newcastle.

 

Paddy McHugh – Sean McDonough

Another long-term favourite of mine; this year saw Paddy McHugh with a  new album and a new label to try to get his music the audience it deserves. The songs are a bit more epic and well-produced, but still beautifully honest stories of struggle, heartbreak and joy set against the Australian landscape.

The album includes this joyous re-imagining of the convict experience based on stories whispered through the ages of early migrants who felt more kinship with the aboriginals than their English masters. My favourite bit is where Paddy sings “I’ve been called many things, but an Englishman ain’t one.”

 

Arcade Fire – Everything now

It’s a sign of the times that bands who once felt truly significant now just seem like one more bit of music piled on a mountain we can’t see the peak of. Arcade Fire’s new album and this title track is about this very dilemma. “Every song that I”ve ever heard is playing at the same time; it’s absurd!” they sing; “every room in my house is full of shit I couldn’t live without.”

But they also recognise the irony of being part of this very spectacle of infinite content. Thus the juxtaposition of the track’s hectoring lyrics with a gloriously cheesy musical backing of 70’s disco piano, pan pipes and ridiculous group vocal chants. The clip is stunning too.

 

Ramshackle Glory – Die alone, live together

With the release of One Last Big Job at the very start of the year came an announcement from songwriter Pat “The Bunny” Schneeweis. He said this would be his last release as his muse throughout his varied and prolific output has always been anarchism – a politicial philosophy to which he no longer subscribes.

Ironically, One Last Big Job is probably the most overtly anarchist of any release he has done. A few of the songs seem to be written in the character not of an individual anarchist, but of anarchism itself. Not that the picture painted is a particularly optimistic one, but there is still a bit of joy found in the struggle. This track being a good example. “Call me ‘idealist’? I was born to lose.  You’re a fucking voter. Who’s living in a fantasy?”

If this really is the end of Pat The Bunny’s musical career (which I personally am not convinced it is), it is a worthy end to an extraordinary output that has meant a lot to a lot of people over the years.

 

Harley Young – Kate and the old XD

I had never heard of the chronicler of suburban Brisbane life Harley Young until this song came on the radio early in the year. But I was instantly converted by this wonderful ode to the restless drifter. The song features a fantastic turn of phrase and a classically dry sense of humour (“You fell in love for the very third time”); but also contains enough insight that those with drifting inclinations ourselves can recognise the truth in it.

 

Tinariwen – Sastanàqqàm

Every year I listen to a lot of amazing music from the continent of Africa. This year I discovered new albums of Soweto township music, Zimbabwean pop, Congolese soukous and of course West Africa’s incredible mix of music styles. It was a massive year for releases of the distinctive desert blues of the nomadic Saharan Tuareg people – a great album from Tamikrest, a trail-blazing effort from the first ever female Tuareg rock band Les Filles de Illighadad, and best of all a new album from the legendary Tinariwen.

The story of Tinariwen is an amazing one – they grew up in refugee camps in the 70’s following an unsuccessful Tuareg independence struggle. Members would go on to fight in another unsuccessful armed struggle. They can claim to be the first band to mix traditional Tuareg styles with rock music, and they built up their reputation touring around desert camps for decades before their music gained international attention. After becoming one of Africa’s biggest musical exports they ended up on the run again following the rise to power in Mali of Islamic fundamentalists who banned rock music. And yet they have continued to make amazing music; drafting younger members into the band as the original members move into retirement.

2017’s Elwan album didn’t tread much new ground (this is, after all, a band who write most of their songs around a single chord), but it was as great as always; mixing polyrhythms, intertwining guitars, group vocals and rebel lyrics. The title of this track translates as “I Question You”.

 

Oumou Sangare – Kemelemba

Another Malian music legend released a powerful new album in 2017. Oumou Sangare is more than just a musician – she is a force of personality who is a fearless and outspoken spokesperson for both her marginalised Wassoulou ethnicity and her gender. A highlight of one interview I read was when she was asked if there is a word for “feminism” in her native tongue of Bambara. She said no, only for her translator to intervene and say “It’s just ‘Oumou’.”

The album is a joyous mix of traditional instruments, electronic beats, afrobeat and of course Oumou’s distinctive voice. All those elements are present on this track, whose title translates at “The Womaniser”. Plus it also features a stunning video with great choreography and cinematography; not to mention helpful subtitles so we anglophones can understand just how great Oumou’s lyrics are.

 

Spindles – Out of seeds that echo the winter’s breath I will spring

So this song didn’t actually come out this year, we’re still waiting for an official release from Spindles. But in any year the songs that really impact you weren’t necessarily released that year. They can be new to us as listeners, or can take on new meanings in our individual context. Anyway, this one is close enough to a new release to include.

I listened to this song so many times – often in headphones while riding around on my bike. The singing and guitar playing is beautiful (I especially love that harmonics bit on the guitar), but also the lyrics are brilliant, especially for those of us who also “can see a new world coming in”. “Oh world won’t you open up?” asks Spindles; “You’re creaking like an old gate.”

 

Old Crow Medicine Show – Heart up in the sky

Once again in 2017 country music played a big part in my listening habits. Again, it’s not always the newest releases that are my favourite tracks or new discoveries; when there is a whole genre that in my younger years I never explored that much.

Old Crow Medicine Show released a best of compilation this year. They are deservedly best known for their immortal ode to hitching Wagon Wheel. But the compilation featured plenty of other good but not quite as great songs, and a couple of new ones including this. It’s not always easy mixing humour and music – sometimes once the novelty of the joke wears off the song also loses its appeal. But in country there’s a long history of weaving humour into songs. And this track still manages to make me laugh, to be a great hoedown and to still be strangely moving.

 

Whoopee Do Crew – Badge of honour

The Whoopee Do Crew formed through songwriting workshops run by social worker and musician Tom Smith. The aim is to get people writing about their own experiences so those people, and our society as a whole, can see a value in those lives.

I had a bit to do with the Whoopee Do Crew this year. For one, our Food Not Bombs weekly street meal and the band share a home ground in West End’s People’s Park where they have Wednesday morning jam sessions. I love most of the songs, but especially this one written and sung by Nigel Quinlan. It’s about an experience many of us are familiar with – an activist asking whether all that struggling for a better world has made any difference and was even worth it. Nigel’s answer is “it’s a badge of honour”.

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