Summer 2017-18

Let justice roll on like a river

Nobody says or does anything in a historical vacuum. What has happened and what is happening encompasses and shapes how we think, how we feel, how we treat each other. Everything is connected to everything else. And everyone is connected to everyone else! And yet the ‘music of what happens’, described by the legendary Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) as the best music in the world, is often the music we are prevented from hearing. We fail to hear the music of what happens when it is drowned out by the dissonance of division. And when we listen to and believe this dissonance we end up accepting the norms of hatred and dehumanisation.

The music of what happens is good because it is true. It is not always pleasing but unless we listen to it we cannot do something about the injustices it carries in its sad melodies. It is never only sad though—it is also the medium of indefatigable hope.

As I write this, the government of my country is deliberately inflicting suffering on hundreds of men who remain within the now closed Manus Island Detention Centre. Fleeing persecution, prejudice, torture and war they sought protection from my country. Instead, the government of my country had them locked away on an island in Papua New Guinea. Why? Because the government of my country says that we, the people who live here now—including many of us who have come from far away—need to be protected from these men. So too with the men, women and children consigned to the limbo of indefinite exile and exclusion on Nauru.

I love this country. It is old and beautiful and deeply spiritual. It has also known, and continues to know, deep pain, deep wounds. It has never recovered from the trauma of violent conquest and colonisation wrought upon our First Nations people—those who belong to one of the oldest continuing cultures on the planet and have loved and cared for this country for millennia.

The governments of my country—from the colonial governments through to the federal, state and territory governments of the present day—have built walls to lock the First Nations peoples out of their own country as well as walls to lock vast numbers of them up. As I write, a Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory has just handed down its report, cataloguing a damning list of atrocities committed against children. We know that these abuses of human rights are also happening in other jurisdictions across Australia.

There’s a clear pattern here. In and around our nation, and other nations around the world, walls are being constructed with astonishing speed and viciousness, locking people out and locking people up, be they from Mexico or Palestine, be they Tamil or Rohingya.

Political theorist Wendy Brown, in her book Walled states, waning sovereignty, makes an interesting observation about this profusion of walls. She writes, ‘Rather than resurgent expressions of nation state sovereignty, the new walls are icons of its erosion’.

When nations feel insecure about themselves, they build walls. When people feel insecure they also tend to build walls. And they desperately throw stones at those determined by the dissonance of division to be the alleged enemy. We see examples of this in the hostile populism of some political movements in Australia, the US and Europe, characterised by racism, xenophobia, sexism and hatred of anyone constructed as ‘the other’.

This wall-building is also exemplified in government policy and in public attitudes towards people who are deemed by the neoliberal consensus to have somehow failed to stand on their own two feet: people blamed and pilloried for the ‘crime’ of being poor, of being unemployed, underemployed or in low-paid precarious employment, of living with a disability, of escaping domestic violence, people with caring responsibilities, students, and older people living alone, especially those without assets, such as the growing cohort of single women over the age of 55 who are experiencing homelessness.

There is a growing meanness towards people who don’t have two bob to rub together. As a café owner put it to me at the time of the Federal Budget earlier this year:

What I don’t understand is why the government begrudges even the lousy amount given to unemployed people to live on. Don’t they realise that people who are trying to live on a pension or allowance have to spend every cent they have? They don’t hide it under a mattress. Every dollar they get is put straight back into the economy. They keep nothing! Increase what they get and you’ll not only help them, you’ll boost spending—unlike when you give tax cuts to the rich.

The same goes for people in low-paid work. This is why it makes no sense to business to slash wages and penalty rates. Does any business owner honestly believe that reducing the incomes of their employees will result in a decline in spending for other businesses, but will not affect their own? And does anyone think that by increasing the wealth of the already wealthy, enough additional coffees (or ice-creams!) will be consumed to boost the economy?

Similarly, there is an actively promoted attitude that begrudges the use of public money to ensure that every child gets a quality education—many would rather see it go to the schools that need it the least. How do we benefit as an economy or a society if we increase education inequality? Is it good for any of us if some of us are denied education and training? Is it actually in our interests to limit access to higher education or health care only to those who can afford it, instead of making sure it is accessible to all those who need it?

As the German poet Bertolt Brecht wrote, ‘In the contradiction lies the hope’. Make no mistake, there is enormous and irrepressible hope in the midst of the hatred, division and demonisation that we are witnessing. There is hope because history doesn’t just happen—it is made by people. In listening attentively to the music of what happens, we can hear a beautiful sound that is greater than the sound of suffering. It is the collective song of solidarity, the tenderness of the people in the face of oppression, the hunger for and collective commitment to creating a society that builds housing and hope for all instead of walls that lock out many. This movement for social justice is real. It is deeply practical, deeply human, deeply historical. It is expressed in simple gestures of love as well as mass movements for liberation. It is ancient but always new, as poignantly expressed in the words of the prophet Amos:

Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Dr John Falzon is CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia.

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