You can learn a lot from Schapelle Corby. Or, more particularly, from the coverage of the Corby saga.
Since Corby’s arrest for drug smuggling, every development in her case has spurred a media blizzard. Most recently, of course, the prospect that she might receive an early parole became front page news everywhere.
Or, at least, everywhere in Australia.
In Indonesia, Corby’s remembered only as ‘the Marijuana Queen’, a criminal notable only for her audacity and the sheer quantity of ganja crammed in her boogie board. In that country, insofar as the reduction of her sentence became news, the response took a familiar shape, with politicians and pundits decrying the prospect of governmental weakness on crime. Corby’s parole derives from a program called asimilasi (‘assimilation’), meant to foster the integration of well-behaved inmates back into society. Hence the following:
[S]uspended sentences and lenient sentencing outrage the community and ignore its expectations because of an apparent preoccupation with the rehabilitation of the defendant.
Where is the justice? These four words are often asked by frustrated families. An undue emphasis on the rehabilitation of the offender causes victims of crime to seriously question the justice system.
What is wrong with cracking down on crime?
But wait. Actually, the text above comes not from Bali but from Melbourne. It’s a passage from the Melbourne Herald Sun, touting its collaboration with the Baillieu government drumming out support for tougher sentences.
All very normal, of course. You can find much the same in the Daily Telegraph’s crime coverage, for which the headline ‘Lenient courts let crims walk’ can serve as a general placeholder.
Yet the response to Corby is quite different. A Sunday Age survey revealed that readers thought Corby guilty but still agreed with a reduction to her sentence, which seemed to be the sentiment underpinning most of the tabloid coverage. As the Daily Telegraph put it, ‘Jailed Corby has paid for her sins’.
When it comes to Corby, the ‘crack down on crime’ rhetoric disappears, and the articles focus on precisely the sorts of issues preoccupying those notoriously lenient courts: her youth, her mental illness, her obvious suffering, her prospects for rehabilitation and so on.
What are we to make of this?
In debates about law and order, a distinction between the general and the particular has often been noted. When discussing appropriate penalties for, say, murder, many people will opt for the death penalty, whereas when they confront an actual defendant, they more likely to consider the impact of the perpetrators’ own miserable background.
Schapelle Corby is no longer an abstraction but a real person, someone whom, for better or worse, many Australians can imagine knowing. They empathise; they put themselves in her shoes.
In the context of a neoliberal culture that has raised an amoral individualism to unparalleled heights, the expression of both sympathy and empathy is worth noting because it points to the ongoing viability of a Left project. Despite all the pressure on them to withdraw from any social solidarity, many, many people still do think in collective terms.
The question for the Left, then, is how, and under what circumstances, does that identification with a collectivity manifest itself.
We might equally note (as many Indonesians have) that, while the fate of a young Australian woman has preoccupied Australian editorialists and politicians, very little attention has been paid to the many, many young Indonesians jailed for years as people smugglers.
Consider this account from the Jakarta Post:
Late last year tougher sentencing laws were pushed through Australia’s Parliament in an effort to bolster the government’s hard-line stance on border protection. “People smugglers” are now subject to a mandatory prison sentence of five years for assisting the passage of asylum seekers regardless of whether they are people smuggling organizers or cooks.
There are currently 453 Indonesians languishing in Australian prisons and detention centers. According to the Department of Public Prosecution, of the hundreds awaiting trial only three are considered ringleaders.
The costs of penalizing them for a crime they are unaware of are staggering. Each trial routinely costs the Australian government about US$250,000 and the bill for a year in prison is around $75,000. In the meantime, the families of these Indonesian men struggle to provide basic meals while the family breadwinners are locked up in Australian prisons.
Even more troubling is the jailing of Indonesian children. In October last year there were reportedly 50–60 Indonesian juveniles in Australian adult prisons and detention centers. Those in prisons were living alongside murderers, rapists and pedophiles. They were there because authorities relied on the discredited wrist X-ray analysis of age determination rather than the word of these young men and proof provided by their legal representatives and Indonesian consular officials.
In a clear violation of international conventions and an affront to common decency, most of these boys remained detained for months. It wasn’t until Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono met with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November 2011 and reportedly raised concerns about the jailing of Indonesian minors that there was a rush of secretive releases in the December and January period.
But disturbingly some are still imprisoned. Ali Jasmin from a remote village east of Flores was as young as 13 when he was arrested as a crew in December 2009. Indonesian consular representatives say he was obviously a child but wrist X-rays indicated he was over 18. The Perth consulate even obtained a copy of Ali’s birth certificate and passed it on to the relevant Australian authorities in late 2010.
In a show of insolence, the Australian prime minister and the attorney general continue to question the validity and veracity of official Indonesian documentation. Ali is still in Albany high-security prison in Western Australia.
As Colin Brown points out, the indifference to the fate of Ali Jasmin contrasts not only with the concern about Corby but also with the outcry last year when an Australian boy was busted for buying marijuana in Bali.
Alternatively, we might situate the Telegraph’s concern that Corby has ‘suffered enough’ in light of the treatment of Ranjini, the Tamil asylum seeker found to be a refugee but nonetheless facing indefinite detention on the basis of an ASIO assessment she’s neither allowed to see nor challenge.
Ranjini, 33, is the 47th asylum seeker in the current caseload to receive a negative ASIO assessment and, as a consequence, be cast into a kind of limbo land with no solution in sight. Under existing laws she cannot be released into the community and it is extremely unlikely that she will be accepted by another country for resettlement. She could never contemplate a return to Sri Lanka, not least because her fear of persecution in that country has been found to be genuine.
Because she does not know what she is accused of doing, or saying, she cannot defend herself. Because there is no mechanism for an independent review of ASIO’s finding, she, like the other 46, faces indefinite detention, along with two boys who were beginning to show signs of recovering from the traumas of their past.
The lack of transparency, and the capacity for long-term and indefinite detention to do harm to those deemed security risks, was amply demonstrated during the Howard years. It was then that two Iraqis spent more than five years on Nauru before one was finally cleared for release into the Australian community (after attempting suicide and suffering acute mental illness) and the other was accepted by Sweden.
Whatever the judicial peculiarities of the legal regime Corby encountered, it was nothing compared to the Kafkaesque persecution that ASIO inflicts upon its victims.
How, then, to understand the peculiar prominence of the Corby case – and the corresponding neglect of far greater injustices?
The most obvious explanation emphasises a racialised nationalism. Corby’s a white woman suffering at the hands of Asians, not an Asian woman suffering at the hands of whites. Her fate embodies the darkest fear of a colonial settler state – the awful prospect that Young Australia (which was, after all, generally depicted as a pretty white woman) will sink to the level of the teeming yellow hordes massing outside the border.
Undeniably, that’s part of the Corby phenomenon. Had she looked less like a character from Neighbours, she would, without doubt, have featured less in the Australian media.
Yet if the Corby phenomena is reduced to a case study of racial attitudes, it becomes tempting to imagine that Australian prejudices will never change, that ideas today remain largely the same as a hundred years early.
Actually, when you think about the last decade, what’s most interesting is how the war on terror has shifted attitudes to guilt and innocence in ways that don’t necessarily correspond to older divisions. Jacinda recently drew attention to Zizek’s invocation of the notion of homo sacer – the Roman category for someone who could be killed with impunity. It’s a category upon which all the debates on national security implicitly rest. To draw up secret registers for summary executions – that would be abominable in a democratic politician. Yet the New York Times can print detailed description of President Obama curating his death lists, and present it as evidence of Obama’s moral seriousness, because the ‘terrorist suspects’ he kills don’t really count as people.
Likewise, indefinite detention without charge and without trial is the hallmark of a dictatorship. Or, at least, it would be, if those being detained were human, rather than asylum seekers, who now belong to a different order altogether.
This new category – people who aren’t people – mostly accords with ethnic identities. Those on the receiving end of waterboarding or indefinite detention in black sites or whatever are usually non-white. But not always. Increasingly, we’re seeing techniques pioneered against the traditional victims of imperialism employed against homegrown dissidents. To give merely one example, consider how counter terrorist- entrapment techniques deployed against Islamists have now become part of the arsenal used against anti-NATO demonstrators.
Once upon a time, refugee activists suggested that white asylum seekers would never face the same casual brutality meted out to those fleeing our wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s no longer clear whether that’s the case – the category of ‘terrorist’ seems sufficiently elastic that, under the right circumstances, it might be stretched to cover just about any ethnicity.
But there’s a flipside to this. One might also argue that the new plasticity of the distinction between political subject and political object provides opportunities for the Left, precisely because it implicitly illustrates the arbitrariness of identities such as citizenship, which would otherwise seem immutable. In the US, for instance, Obama has now shown that he’s as willing to assassinate American citizens as non-citizens, something that surely breaks down the wall between abuses inflicted on foreigners and locals.
In other words, the extraordinary times we’re going through have created new possibilities for the Left to reframe old identifications. Occupy Wall Street’s distinction between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent achieved such worldwide popularity precisely because, for a while at least, it seemed intuitively a more accurate descriptor of how societies worked than racial or national divisions.
None of this is to suggest that the ongoing interest in the Corby case represents some breakthrough for progressives, since that’s clearly not the case. But it does hint at some possibilities.
Solidarity’s like a muscle – it grows the more that it’s exercised. If Australians feel moved by an ordinary young woman in a terrible situation, well, that’s all to the good. The task for the Left is to recast that gut sense of ‘one of us’ so it’s not experienced in racial or nationalist terms pushed by politicians and editorialists but rather as an identification with all victims of authority, an identification that encompasses rather than excludes Ranjini and Ali Jasmin, along the lines of Eugene Debs’ famous declaration: ‘While there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.’