The threshold of another trembling world

‘I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world. May God have mercy on my soul.’

With that diary entry in 1981, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands launched his famous hunger strike in a British prison. But the words might equally have come from Omid Sorousheh, the Iranian asylum seeker, near death in Nauru after 45 days without food.

Has Omid kept a record of his ordeal? We don’t know, since Nauru remains largely off limit to journalists. Last week, the Age’s Michael Gordon hiked to the perimeter fence, where he witnessed scores of asylum seekers raising their arms as if manacled and chanting ‘We want freedom’ and ‘Don’t kill refugees’. But he didn’t manage to speak to Omid – and neither has anyone else from the press.

In other words, while British government detained Sands in the notorious Maze ultramax prison, the public remained far better informed about his protest than Australians are about Nauru where, according to the Refugee Action Coalition, Omid is paralysed and no longer taking fluids.

The writer Hannah Arendt once noted how the treatment received by the oppressed in the 1930s had been largely determined by their oppressors.

‘Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth—Jews, Trotskyites, etc.—actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere,’ she wrote. ‘[T]hose whom persecution had called undesirable became the indesirables of Europe.’

That’s precisely what we see today. Omid fled the dictatorship in Iran. He’s no longer suffering at the hands of the Iranians. He’s dying in an internment camp run by Australians, as if the clerical regime had outsourced its policies here.

For Arendt, the refugee – that symptomatic figure from both the thirties and today – posed a radical test for nations that called themselves civilised. Yet, she said, the supposedly inalienable ‘Rights of Man’ seemed to collapse when those who espoused them found themselves confronted by people with no other political claims on which to fall back.

‘It seems’, wrote Arendt, ‘that a man who is nothing but a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man.’

Or, as the philosopher Giorgio Agamben put it in his gloss on Arendt, ‘When the rights of man are no longer the rights of the citizen, then he is truly sacred, in the sense that this term had in archaic Roman law: destined to die.’

The Irish nationalists traced their hunger strikes back to the pre-Christian tradition of Troscadh or Cealachan where a wronged person would fast outside the home of the transgressor, relying on strong indigenous traditions of hospitality to force justice.

Australians claim to be hospitable, too. But charity only applies to people – and Arendt’s argument implies that refugees are no longer understood in that category.

Certainly, in most discussions now, asylum seekers feature not as wronged parties entitled to redress but simply as a problem, a burden unfairly foisted upon innocent Australians. Hence the increasingly punitive response. Refugees have fled unimaginable suffering. But they are not received as victims. They are seen, on the contrary, as oppressors – and it is white Australians who are being persecuted.

The cruel measures imposed duly become their own justification.

Writing about the slaves of the eighteenth century, Montesquieu famously concluded that ‘it is impossible for us to assume that these people are men because if we assumed they were men one would begin to believe that we ourselves were not Christians’. Australians might be led by an atheist but the same principle applies. If we allow ourselves to think about the evil places to which the so-called ‘refugee debate’ has taken us, we might begin doubting our core self-beliefs. Better, then, to all agree: the refugees deserve to languish in camps on Nauru.

There’s an old joke from the Irish struggle that captures the sentiment precisely. A British soldier has bayoneted a rebel, and as the Irishman slowly dies, the Brit kicks him again and again. In his last moments, the rebel gasps, ‘Why do you hate us so much?’

The soldier looks down and says: ‘You bastards – we will never forgive you for what we’ve done to you.’

Sands died and so did nine of his comrades. But their unimaginable suffering spurred a major political crisis for the British government. In his agony, Sands became, for millions, recognisable not merely as an Irish figure but a universal one, a representative of oppression struggling against injustice.

Omid’s not alone standing on the threshold of another world. Australia’s reached the edge of something very dark with refugee policy. But it’s not too late to turn back. Omid does not have to die; we don’t have to go down this path. There’s still time. But it is quickly running out.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. I think it’s very true that we look at refugees as an enemy and not as someone needing help. And as for Christians, it’s funny the word came from Christ,if he did exist he would be appalled at what his teachings and life is being used in the name of “Christianity today”

    An athiest

  2. Thanks for this.

    I think the link you make between Nauru and Arendt and Agamben is a very important one.

    The brutal joke about the British solider reminded me of this passage from The Kindly Ones (a disturbing novel by Jonathan Littell narrated by an SS officer), which always strikes me as providing a useful way of understanding certain types of extreme human cruelty:

    I now thought I could understand better the reactions of the men and officers during the executions. If they suffered, as I had suffered during the Great Action, it wasn’t just because of the smells and the sight of blood, but because of the terror and the moral suffering of the people they shot… In many cases, I said to myself, what I had taken for gratuitous sadism, the astonishing brutality with which some men treated the condemned before executing them, was nothing but a consequence of the monstrous pity they felt and which, incapable of expressing itself otherwise, turned into rage, but an impotent rage, without object, and which thus almost inevitably had to turn against those who originally provoked it. If the terrible massacres of the East prove one thing, paradoxically, it is the awful, inalterable solidarity of humanity… Their reactions, their violence, their alcoholism, the nervous depressions, the suicides, my own sadness, all that demonstrated that the other exists, exists as an other, as a human, and that no will, no ideology, no amount of stupidity or alcohol can break this bond, tenuous but indestructible. This is a fact, not an opinion.

    In some ways I think we are cruel not in spite but because of our shame.


    1. Yes. That rings true to me. It’s a fascinating book, The Kindly Ones. In some ways, completely out of control, but really compelling at the same time.

  3. I don’t agree that we (the Gillard government) look at refugees as enemies at all, or as oppressors. I think we look at them more as unwanted pests. In the Howard era, we looked at them as enemies, oppressors and criminals: queue jumpers, boat people, unlawful non-residents, illegal immigrants. BECAUSE they were seen as criminals, we were allowed to say ‘Mandatory Detention’, ‘Deportation’ etc. It was transparent racism and therefore much easier to engage with rhetoric-wise. But what’s so scary about Gillard & Co. is that they have done away with that language of fear, and have begun using a language which basically denies that they are imprisoning people. ‘Detention Centres’ have become ‘Offshore Processing Facilities’. ‘Forced Deportations’ have become ‘Involuntary returns’. ‘Women and Children’ have become ‘Family Groups.’ I’ve been too busy to write news commentary on this, but am really surprised it hasn’t been picked up. Maybe you could write the article, Jeff – I’ll go you halvies in the cheque:)

    1. I dunno about that. I agree it’s slightly different under Labor but Bowen’s plan to prevent refugees from working seemed pretty unequivocal, while Howard et al also deployed bureaucratic rhetoric (‘Temporary Protection Visa’). Maybe one of the distinctions is that the ALP is still under slight pressure from its Left (indeed, from its membership) to keep a veneer of decency. But, gosh, they’re no longer pretending very much, are they!

  4. You’re right about the veneer of decency. I think the term ‘temporary protection visa’ is an openly oppressive term designed to appeal to the public, not bureaucratic rhetoric. It says: these people ‘allege’ they need protection from something. Ok then we will give it to them, but only in a limited way and we can withdraw that protection document as we see fit. Calling it a ‘bridging visa’ would not have placated Howard’s followers. Oddly I find I much prefer Howards language of fear, to Gillard’s language of denial.

  5. It is hard for a simple mind like mine to understand how Australians have the chutzpah to stigmatise “boat people” given that the main difference between their own ancestors and the arrivals today is that the former came on boats that were organised and protected by a global criminal and racist conspiracy — namely the british empire.

    The “boat people” today are the victims of the global legacy of that empire, whereas the Australian state and its appendages and hanger’s on like the ALP show clearly, in their barbaric treatment of the “boat people”, not to mention Aborigines, that they represent continuity with that racist and criminal legacy.

  6. Well… if My Rights as a citizen of this country had not been entirely usurped by My Government, Omid would be permitted, upon my request, to share My Home with me. As it stands, My Rights as a citizen of this country are negligible. They were negligible under the language of Howard and his, and they are negligible now under Gillard and hers. You can put my language down to fear, denial, Snoop Dogg, or whatever tickles your fancy.

    Therefore, please don’t anyone try to lump me in to this country under the name of Australian.

    Dear My Government,

    If Omid’s not already in the morgue of that undisclosed hospital you moved him to, please release him to my care. What forms do I need to fill in?

    Put yo mutha[CENSORED] choppers up if ya feel this, mutha[CENSORED]!

    Or don’t. Up to you.

  7. Good point JN – I don’t think it’s pointed out enough that, put simply, Australians are the ongoing beneficiaries of developing countries misery.

    That said, there is every reason to believe that the class violence that has been wrought by capitalism through economic, social and military means on people in the periphery, is increasingly going to be brought home to bear on the people of countries in the core of the system, such as Australia (just look at the nightmare being inflicted on people in Europe).

    De te fabula narratur as the saying goes.

  8. Jeff,

    I’ve been asked recently why I write like this (like how I reacted above), what is my point, and what am I railing against. Apparently, I don’t like Jeff Sparrow, and it’s all about that. But I don’t accept that.

    I care about people, and you are a part of the people. The tone of ‘my voice’ is not driven by anything about you, or the people. It is driven by a heartfelt desire to get at the issue. And it feels to me like when I ignore the feelings of people and just run at the issue, I am marginalised by the very same people who claim to want to listen to marginalised voices.

    I think people like you are listening, Jeff. But I don’t think people have learned yet how to react. So they remain silent, and marginalised people remain – intent on committing themselves to their own self-destruction.

  9. It is a bizarre comment on what currently passes for Left analysis in the Great South Bogan Villa (turn in your graves, Jim Cairns, Clyde Cameron and Bill Hartley) that Sparrow should compare Bobby Sands at the historical tail end of a millennium of English imperialism in its first colony, Ireland, with the Iranian asylum seeker Sorousheh. It is true that I know nothing of this man and his motives for leaving Iran. But does Sparrow? Or does it suffice for Sparrow that the Iranian shares postmodern victimhood with Sands, thus ennobling both of them in equal measure? What sort of political thinking is this?

    How does Sparrow as self-styled “leftist” come to smear and delegitimise Iran as a “dictatorship”, with all the resonance of that word, at a time in world geopolitics in which his own country, as faithful page to the Knights of NATO and to a USA which has jettisoned habeas corpus, is gunning for the destruction of Iran in many economic and foreign policy ways?

  10. Fardowsi! Overland doesn’t always permit pingbacks. Thus, I offer this response, in agreement, upon the condition that it is received not in the spirit of an ad-hominem argument against someone who put their name up in support of a system that still needs some work!

    We need people, like Jeff Sparrow, to put their name up!

    I don’t know much at all about my Grandpa Frederiksen. If Jeff Sparrow is right about Bobby Sands, my Grandpa could be Omid Sorousheh for all I know.

    No-one ever talked about him, but (or maybe so) I’m fascinated enough by the concept of him to occasionally try to learn something about him. I think it’s connected mostly to the feeling that neither Australia or Canada feel like my home, as much as I love them both. Maybe that’s why I’m not a conservative? Need to keep my options open? I imagine Denmark, Norway or Germany could just as much serve the same role – but I don’t want to go there

    for anything more than a holiday (and maybe to track down part of my family).

    I don’t want to diss my Grandpa Robinson though, after he went and fought so hard to keep Australia free for me. So maybe I am a bit Tory? I’m getting a bit fed up with being my age and still wavering.

    If I was a pearl
    I’d want to grow up
    to be the first Father
    of Pearl to be used
    in an inlay.

    Thank you, Val 🙂 People who include, including and like (but not necessarily like) you are a blessing.

    p.s. I’m going to put this Blackadder link to Pitt the Younger here just because it came to mind while I was trying to figure out what is a Tory, and my spirits lifted when it did.

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