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Academic, Writing

Letter to Australian senators re. proposed lifetime ban on asylum seekers entering Australia

(The proposed lifetime ban on asylum seekers entering Australia has passed the lower house. You too can email cross-bench senators without even getting out of bed!
* senator.hinch[at]aph.gov.au … (03) 9820 2222
* senator.lambie[at]aph.gov.au … (03) 6431 2233
* senator.xenophon[at]aph.gov.au … (08) 8232 1144
* senator.kakoschke-moore[at]aph.gov.au … (08) 8232 0220
* senator.leyonhjelm[at]aph.gov.au … (02) 9719 1078
* senator.griff[at]aph.gov.au … (08) 8212 1409)

Dear Senators,

I am a concerned Australian citizen and a doctoral student at Deakin University in Burwood, Melbourne. My area of reserach is in international relations; my topic is patterns of moral panic and the political economy of scapegoating in international relations in history, with particular emphasis on the modern period.

Needless to say I have been swamped with data, and my research has been as much (or more) about what to exclude as what to include.

One of my major research discoveries so far has been the extent to which premodern dynamics of mob psychology and persection fuelled by primal fear and hatred of the achetypal other have found their way into what we imagine erroneously to be modernity, with all the assumptions we make about what that means in terms of progress, enlightenment and civilisation.

The more things change, it appears, the more they stay the same – and this only becomes ever more true the deeper you look.

To illustrate that, I’d like to tell you a breif story. Between 1314-17 Europe experienced the Little Ice Age, a climate event that lead to cooling of the atmosphere, which brought torrential rains that destroyed crops throughout Europe. So devastating was the ensuing famine that even the English King had trouble finding things to eat.

This famine combined with the crisis of feudalism reduced European society to a state that was the equivalent of a tinder box for pandemic; fate obliged with a disease that originated with sailors from the Crimea, traveling along the Silk Road – the bubonic plague. The Black Death that resulted wiped out between a third and a half of the population of Europe.

One great problem for people in high places during this era was that, in addition to wiping out their workforce, the Black Death was also responsible for a great existential crisis amongst those who survived. As the Greek philosopher Epicurius pointed out:

  1. If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God does not exist.

As the Black Death existed, then as Nietzsche famously later pointed out, God was dead. If God was dead, then there was no Heaven, and no reason to suffer in this lifetime. Taking advantage also of the seller’s market in labour supply, the European peasantry revolted.

The Catholic Church, the hegemonic power in the MIddle Ages and Europe’s greatest landowner, responded with the European Witch Hunts, which were an innovation on the Inquisition to incorporate a mythology revolving around fallen women who, seduced by Satan, turned to evil works in his service.

In case anyone was thinking of attributing the calamatious 14th century to a random universe in which there is no preordained plan, this the Church declared was the reason for the floods and famine; natural disasters could thus be attributed to the sins of man. The European Witch Hunts lasted three centuries (approx. 1450-1750), took tens of thousands of lives and cause untold amounts of terror, suffering, trauma and misery.

This is the same logic as the narrative of the Great Flood in the Bible that attributes natural disasters to the sins of man (it is believed a comet hit the earth in ancient times and caused a tsumani). The same logic informs the response of fundamentalist christians to the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005; at least one Austrian bishop declared it to be divine retribution for that city’s culture of ‘liberal permissiveness.’

It is a blame-shifting logic, a logic of scapegoating and a logic of persecution. The victim playing inherent to the idea that the powerful are being victimised by those who doubt, question, contradict or are otherwise perceived to be a threat to their power and privileges by existing is a willful conflation of being challenged and being attacked; together with the blaming of the victim that results and the ‘if you question my judgment and think for yourself the evildoers win’ style logic are identifiable as mechanisms of what social psychologists these days call ‘moral disengagement.’ They are those we employ to maintain a positive self-image while doing harm to others.

Such mechanisms and the mentality that goes with them are evident not only in
the abovementioned cases, but throughout history. They are evident in the persecution of Christians in Ancient Rome, on the grounds that they were cannibals (for eating the Eucharist), and practitioners of incestuous orgies; thus demonised, they were persecuted as threats to the security of Roman, and blamed for their own persecution while their persecutors imagined themselves the victims of a cultish conspiracy to destroy their way of life. They appear in Roman foreign policy; as Schumpeter pointed out,

‘There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest-why, then it was the national honour that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbours, always fighting for a breathing-space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.’

Moral disengagement are evident when Christianity became the religion of empire later, as Norman Cohn points out, the Christian empire persecuted the now-minority pagans on exactly the same basis, ie that they were savages without moral restraint who ate babies and had sexual intercourse with their own blood relatives. They are evident in the Crusades, rationalised on tales of rape, pillage and murder by the Muslim infidel and used to justify rape, pillage and murder by the Catholic armies. They are evident in the Spanish Inquisition and its preoccupation with the Conversos. As noted, they are evident in the European Witch Hunts.

They are evident in the Salem Witch Trials in the New World. As the US playwright Arthur Miller pointed out in his classic The Crucible, they are evident in the anticommunist panic of the 1950s, the Second Red Scare, and are comparable to the Salem Trials on that basis. They are evident in the anticommunist panic of the 1920s, the First Red Scare, in which warrantless search and seizure, a grievance that inspired the War of Independence, was used to ferret out the secular heresy.

They are evident in the Cold War and its preoccupation with falling dominos, indistinguishable from movements of independent nationalism based on the assumption that accessing of national resources should be carried out for the benefit of the people of that country, and not for the shareholders of US multinational corporations. They are evident in the Terror Scare, in which the victim complex is evident in the preoccupation with the criminals who hide our oil under their sand and the logic of ‘if you think for yourself the terrorists win.’

They are evident in the Stalinist persecution of dissidents as enemies of the revolution and counter-revolutionary terrorists during the Great Purge and the Moscow Show Trials. They are evident in the Holocaust, as the Nazis proposed to combat what was said to be a campaign for world domination by instagating one of their own, carrying out one of the greatest crimes against humanity in history in the process.

They are evident in the history of colonialism, in the history of settler colonisation of Australia, where the indigenous people were erased from history in the fashioning of terra nullius and then treated as part of the flora and fauna until 1965; such was justified on the grounds of the battle between white civilisation and primitive savagery (even though the savages had an observatory of the stars that predates Stonehenge and lived in harmony with the surrounding ecosytem for 40,000 years). They are evident in our long and sordid history of anti-Chinese racism culminating in the White Australia policy.

They are evident in the hysterical reaction to Islam, as if the role of western governments in beating the wasps’ nest of polarisation, radicalsiation and fundamentalism with its imperialism stick wasn’t top of the list of things making the problem worse. They are evident, Sirs and Madam, Australian government policy of locking up people who come to our shores seeking refuge from the wars we instigate and support in the name of maintaining the style of living to which we have become accustomed.

An interesting facet of the current war in Syria is that the events leading up to it, the protests in Aleppo associated with the Arab Spring, were fuelled by drought throughout Mesopotamia attributable to climate change, which drove Syrian farmers off the land and into the cities – much like the peasants of the middle ages in the aftermath of flood. Such disturbances and upheavels are only bound to continue as climate change – which is very real – only gets worse, creating further instability throughout the world.

Given all of this, my question to you is this: how much do you want to be part of this legacy of horror by continuing to be part of the hysterial, ideologically-driven victim complex that pathetically plays the victim of refugees, as if ‘the boats’ were enough to bring an entire country to its knees, while blaming the victims of wars we support as if the United Nations and international law were so many cobwebs to our entitlement, and invoking the logic of ‘if you think for yourself the bleeding hearts and the terrorists win?’

Voltaire once said that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Today in Australia both absurdities and atrocities prevail. The more things change, the more they stay the same. It takes no courage to fall in line with the dynamics of fear, cowardice and blame-shifting that have produced all the absurdities and atrocities of history. But with the application of
moral courage we can choose anytime to think and act differently.

Please for the sake of this country, the planet and the future, and for the love of all that is good in the world, please find the moral courage to rise above the politics of scapegoating and moral disengagment and not give in to the toxicity and negativity of Australian governments on this issue.

Yours respectfully,

Ben Debney




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