Sunday, April 26, 2015

War and memory

War and memory: reflections on a week

I teach about war and memory. I work in the area of International Security, Japanese politics and history and Australian politics and history. There is an intersection, the place where all the venn diagram circles meet and that tends to happen around Anzac Day. 

When I started my studies about Japan, I really didn't imagine I would end up doing so much work on the topics of war and memory. But it is important.
Our lecture images

Last week's lecture in my course about Japan was just about this topic. It coincided with the week when one large supermarket chain, --OK, Woolworths-- was pilloried for launching a marketing campaign which many considered crossed a line in exploiting images of Gallipoli and its marketing slogan. 

I put it next to a Gold Coast landmark covered in poppies made by local schoolchildren. The poppies were recycled and reshaped bottles. The response to the poppies was positive; the ad campaign...negative. 

When I asked students to articulate the differences, it would be fair to say that beyond the idea of 'it's just wrong' (the ad), the class found it challenging. 

Coincidentally, I saw a play today, called Brisbane, about Brisbane in 1942, perhaps the closest this city came to war. Plenty of talk about 'yanks' and 'japs' and Curtin sending prostitutes to Brisbane to save the good girls of the town. It was mightily uncomfortable in places.

The same thing arises when we talk about Japan. The soldiers who perpetrated horrendous acts of torture versus the victims of Tokyo firebombing and Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings. Japan as aggressor versus Japan as victim. It is a dichotomy that underpins much of contemporary Japan: those who oppose changes to the constitution to permit forces, versus the present prime minister and his supporters who would seek to re-arm Japan. 

The issue came to a bit of a head today, albeit on twitter. A sports journalist on SBS was sacked today, publicly, on twitter for making comments contrary to the Anzac story, our Anzac 'memory'. His comments referred to the bombs dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and included a picture from the Hiroshima blast, one of a person's shadow on the stairs of a bank. 

I've been troubled by the twitter incident for a few reasons. The journalist's twitter bio indicated he had some connection with Japan. I can kind of understand where he was coming from then. Visiting Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum two decades ago, and speaking with Aust POWs since, was formative in my career as an academic and finding ways to ensure this kind of thing should never happen again. In introducing related topics to my students, I speak to them of the impact visiting this city has had on my work and career. 

It doesn't mean I ignore the atrocities that happened in the name of the Japanese state (and the Emperor). War is atrocious. I've listened to former soldiers and POWs speak of it this way. I've heard them say it should never happen again. I heed their experience. I've also spoken over the years with victims of the atomic bombings--those who lived for years with the injuries and sickness, those who nursed those who were sick, those who lost family. I've also spoken with people who survived the Tokyo bombings. These experiences have taught me much and compelled me to understand human nature, the human condition that seems to sometimes struggle with what is right and what is wrong; what is history and what is memory? It is why I read Kant and Arendt. I'm still trying to understand. 

One of the places where some serious scholarship goes on is at Japan Focus. Some years ago, they published an article on Hiroshima, especially its images by elin o'Hara slavic. I was reminded of it today when the image of the Hiroshima stairs was tweeted by the now former-SBS journalist. I saw the stairs at the museum, I recalled it being the shadow of a man sitting on the stairs, the journalist said it was schoolchildren, another report suggested it was a woman waiting for the bank to open...



I understand the journalist wanted to temper the Anzac memory with what he saw as another kind of truth about war. I was surprised at the degree of opprobrium which rained down on twitter. I was also interested in the way others rallied in support. I'm sure it will be Storified somewhere. 

I don't think he deserved to be sacked. War and its memories--real, or constructed; fact or mythology--are always contentious. But we need to talk about them. Not just as history, as I have learned. But from our elders. I'm yet to meet one who lived through a war who wants to go through it all again. 

It's probably no coincidence that both Prime Ministers Abbott and Abe are children of the post WW2 era and appear to want to lead their respective countries back down a glorified war path. We need to sort our memory from myth. Sometimes a truth is unpleasant.

This post is written as a brief response to events of the past week: poppies and ads, my lectures, Anzac Day, a play and a twitter storm. I continue to work on these issues in greater depth as part of my research and teaching and publish in peer-reviewed journals. I have a couple of book manuscripts in draft that address these questions as well. It never really goes away. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

On ending the death penalty, everywhere

Is there a right to decide to kill another person?

I was initially surprised to learn of Kant's support of capital punishment and much has been written about that. My other great influence, Hannah Arendt's views were informed by the horrors of World War Two. I am caught traversing their thinking.

I have written previously in this blog how transformative my time working as a senator's staffer was as far as influencing my present career direction. Seeing politics working 'from the inside' drove me to ask questions that hadn't been in textbooks or in the media. It tentatively set me on the philosophical path as I wondered and marvelled at the very 'rawness' of human nature as it unfolded before my hitherto world-weary, yet clearly still naive, self. Naive to the blunt machinations of power as played out in the corridors of Parliament House. I'm still seeking, if not answers, then explanations.

I was employed initially for a period of six weeks although it ended up being two and a half years in the end. Along the way, there was a media roller coaster, protective/defensive mechanisms, politics good and bad, Telstra and so on. But I haven't said much about that first task, the reason I was employed--researching and writing a speech on one of the Senator's passionate causes: the International Transfer of Prisoners Treaty legislation. It has come to mind as we are bombarded daily by the fate of two of the so-called Bali 9, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran who, as I write, sit in cells on an island awaiting, and waiting, execution. By rifle. Awful.

For a first assignment as researcher/speechwriter this was a challenge. I believed myself sufficiently cosmopolitan to be against the death penalty as a general rule. Just prior to my joining the office, the Parliament had debated euthanasia legislation. Euthanasia was something I could support. I was disappointed it was defeated at the time. My now boss, was one of the parliamentarians, in a conscience vote, who voted against it. His speech for that was one I was to read to begin to develop my craft as speechwriter. I recall thinking at the time, glad I didn't have to write that--something I couldn't agree with. 

Indeed, it was one of those questions I had to often ask: is my writing the speech merely a job I must do regardless of my view? Did I need to have a shared view in order to write the right speech? Could I have written the euthanasia speech? It remained hypothetical but planted a seed of challenging my conscience which continues today in my work.

Back to that first job though. What was this about and why the boss's particular passion? He wanted me to draft a speech which would support the exchange of prisoners, returning Australians to jails in Australia from jails overseas. It was largely aimed at Australians on drugs charges, facing life imprisonment or in some cases, the death penalty. And mostly in Asian countries. 

I recall as a university student, the plight of Australian pair Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, convicted drug traffickers, hanged in Malaysia in 1986. It was big news at the time. I was probably of the view at the time that although it went against my opposition to execution in general, perhaps it is not for us to interfere in the law of other states. It was an uneasy position but...

Five years later, in the early 1990s when I worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs, I was to learn quietly that one of my colleagues in the same branch had in fact been one of the consular officials in Malaysia at the time. It had a major impact on him personally and my chance to 'see the other side' effectively had a profound impact on my thinking too.  

Back to the days in the office of drafting the speech. Let's just say that while my views weren't rock solid, I initially took a little persuasion to come around to the Senator's thinking. A little bit of research, a little bit of discussion, a little bit of recollection...I met and spoke with people who had returned to Australia under less formal agreements. Their rehabilitation was real.

It didn't take long for me to review my 'do the crime, do the time' position, in flagrant contradiction I suppose of my strong anti-execution views. Likewise, were not the Senator and I in different ways, contradicting a base logic in our opposing views of euthanasia? Who chooses when and how a person's life is to end? 

Many of these thoughts and memories and challenges have misted through my mind these last few weeks. Could not Chan and Sukumaran (and the remaining Bali 9) be transferred home under the legislation (which eventually passed)? Turns out, Indonesia is not a signatory (some 60 or so countries have signed). More work needs to be done. I join with many in the public sphere who argue that Chan and Sukumaran have rehabilitated and taking their lives by firing squad will simply be a waste. To watch the abuse of force and trumped up securitisation of this matter as the two were transferred simply defied commonsense. It is yet another example of nations contriving an overt security environment where one doesn't exist, for domestic political gain. And yes, I am critical of the Australian Governments of recent history for this too. 

It is not just Indonesia as a nation in Australia's orbit which continues to use the death penalty. Japan and the United States of course also persist with the death penalty. 

There ought to be a moratorium, with a view to a total ban. It occurred to me today that a moratorium, like that in my other area of research, whaling, might go part of the way to drawing to a close such brutal practices of another era. (There is much more work to be done there though.) 

In that speech I wrote eighteen years ago, we appealed to humanitarian issues and people's ability to rehabilitate and rebuild. I've also learnt, read and thought much more about life in those eighteen years since. I simply cannot reconcile the ongoing use of the death penalty under any circumstances. I also hope for the mercy of these two young men. 

I shall continue to reflect on Kant the man who gave us Perpetual Peace and his view of the justification of public execution. Time and tide. Time. 


Postscript: A copy of that speech from May 1997, can be found here

And as a second postscript, the senator not long after the euthanasia debate, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a particularly aggressive and painful one which contributed to his death some years later. One night, in the office between divisions when we used to talk about many things, I asked him not long after the cancer started eating away and the pain and illness began to take over, how would he vote if the euthanasia legislation returned to the Senate? It changed his mind, he said he'd vote for it. Time. Tide. Time...we don't always have.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Our mental health, we need to take care

...we need to be mindful.

To expect truth to come from thinking signifies that we mistake the need to think with the urge to know
Arendt, The Life of the Mind, 1971. 

Welcome back to Psephy's~ologies. That's more a welcome for me than the readers I guess. I've been working a lot behind the scenes with this one--working on Hannah Arendt, updating the manuscript on the Japan-Australia security community book, lots more on our friend Watanabe from the 1893 and all that blog, and I'm soon to launch the whaling story. 

There has been much to write about politics too. We've had a change of government here in Queensland. Let's hope the commitment to a new and different politics of integrity is carried through. 

And, I'm about to recommence the teaching year and one of the purposes of this blog is to walk through all things Japan, security, university with students who take my classes. Indeed, there is so much to write, to think about, to post...and as much as the daily #project365 is a great recreational blog, the time has come to restart the writing here. 

For all the many objectives this particular blog has, another one is for those tweeting moments when, try as I might, I simply cannot tweet in 140 characters a suitable response to something I have heard on the radio. 

This morning, I listened, as usual, to Background Briefing, a Sunday morning staple for me on Radio National. Today was on mental illness, psychological injury and the toll it is taking on our workplaces. I drafted a tweet or three in tentative response, but I didn't send them. It needed a more thoughtful, less ambiguous response from me. 

The program identified mental heath issues in fields such as the law and in NGOs. It mentioned the expression 'toxic workplace'. It could have also looked at universities, for there is much there to consider as well. It made me think about why it is we are finding ourselves in this situation. 

It is the cookie-cutter phenomenon. It is a senior management imperative to knead and press everyone in the workplace into looking the same, sounding the same, producing the same things at the same rate. Universities don't actually function well when you try and apply a desiccated version of Taylorism. It has, in recent years, cost my friends and colleagues their jobs, and, tragically in some cases, their lives. When I hear programs such as today's Background Briefing, I think of them. I think about them and wish I could do more. 

But of course, I am one of the management annoyances, I am an old-school academic, with a view of education and scholarship that is vocational, intangible and a value that shall not be measured in dollars. My research doesn't bring in big dollars, I don't need them and it would be a contrivance to even pretend to do so. And yet, I'd like to think my work enriches our knowledge, our shared histories, it allows me to teach students a little more about ourselves that we knew before. I might get to publish an article or two about it, perhaps a book. It is research I do on my holidays, on leave, at 2.00am or on a Sunday. It just happens. 

Across the sector, managements are boring through academic staff, tossing them aside because they fail to fit that cookie-cutter. We have so many metrics against which our performance is measured that I suspect there are metrics to measure the metrics...oh, yes, the KPIs against which senior managements are awarded bonuses. 

The sorts of things that are happening in our higher education sector for short term gain will have long term consequences. Indeed, I doubt there will be a higher ed sector of any real meaning in the future. So many of us in professional vocations--my friends and colleagues in law, health, primary and secondary education, any of the many strands of public service--are feeling the effects of the neo-liberal putsch of the last two or three decades. We are being pushed to levels of stress and, as my doctor once made the important distinction, "distress" over matters that simply cannot and should not be quantified. We are forgetting our reasons for just 'being'. Or if we are trying to 'be', we are cowered or punished for it.

This is a sector by and large turning on itself, chewing on itself, swallowing itself and regurgitating the unspent. Like a dog, many of us have little choice but to return to eat it up and so the cycle begins again. 

So much of what I heard in today's program could be said about the university sector. 

I hope, ultimately, that I am wrong. I hope that one day, universities can return to be places of higher learning, experiments, challenges and failures, and all without fear or favour. Right now, for those without favour, there is much to fear and we shall all suffer for that. Those of us who choose 'public service' do so for all sorts of reasons. Many more reasons than you will find in a packet of Arnotts Family Assorted. The cookie-cutter just won't cut it.

When all the efficiencies have been dividended (as is the current predilection of those who pull the budget strings) there will be nothing but a dry husk left. We will be the poorer for it. And I'm hoping for a much more pithy epitaph than 'I told you so'.