A mediocrity of lies

Other methods, not madness
Ghassan Hage

Hundreds of thousands of Australians walked to voice their opposition to John Howard's insistence on involving us in the war against Iraq. They came from all walks of life and from all social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. They were not all committed pacifists. Many - I am sure most - would be very willing to go to war to defend Australia were it in any way endangered. Many would also be ready to accept that there comes a time when one has to fight for what is right. Some would even accept that one might have to fight for the sake of a special relationship between our country and an ally like the United States.

But what was absolutely clear was that the marchers were not prepared to accept that we ought to go to war for the sake of a special relationship between Howard and US President George Bush. Because of the lack of consultation before Howard inserted Australian troops in this US venture, this is what our soldiers would be fighting for if war broke out at this very moment. The only way to change this would be if Howard tried to obtain a mandate for his decision through an immediate referendum or some other democratic mechanism.

Some of Howard's supporters in the media and in politics are pushing the incredible line that he should be supported because he is a man of conviction, and that it is nice to have a politician driven by convictions rather than by polls. But one minor thing is missing from this argument: democracy, where politicians still have to convince a majority of the people before they can act on their convictions. You cannot go to the polls after having involved your country in a war and, if defeated say, "Oops. Sorry. I didn't actually have a mandate to have all these people killed."

After all, it is not the first time that Howard has been a man of conviction. He stuck to his conviction about the unpopular GST, but he still went to the people and obtained a mandate. He also stuck to his convictions by opposing the republic, even though many thought a republic was a foregone conclusion. So why not have some democratic debate and decision-making in an environment where all polls show that the majority of Australians do not want war? Is the decision to send Australians to die less important than the decision to adopt a new tax? Or is it because Howard doesn't think he can win this one until after the war has started?

The slogans carried by the demonstrators - "no blood for oil", "no to American imperialism" and "why Iraq, not Israel?" - all question the motivations behind this war, and some present an alternative explanation. They are not all necessarily convincing, but they denote a fundamental mistrust of the official line presented by the US and uncritically endorsed by the Australian government. Howard should address this distrust, not simply ignore it.

It wouldn't be exaggerating to say that not a single demonstrator was pro-Saddam. Everyone would be happy to see him go. Everyone would be willing to approve of a creative way to help the Iraqis get rid of him. But no one is convinced that war and the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians is the only way to deal with him. No one is convinced that, out of the blue and just because Bush says so, Saddam has become the most urgent threat facing mankind: more urgent than Osama bin Laden; more urgent than a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict; more urgent than hunger in Africa (or in the US, for that matter).

But perhaps most importantly, no one trusts the motives behind those who are suddenly so eager to see Saddam go. At the march, I met some Arab-Australian activists from the 1980s who, like me, used to sit and listen to the horror stories of the Saddam dictatorship that Iraqi migrants shared with us. We reminisced on how frustrated we were then at being unable to share these stories with anyone in the media or the Australian government because they were simply not interested. Now we can only stare at each other in disbelief as we are lectured by our latter-day warriors about the "evil" of the Saddam regime. If only they knew how false and hypocritical they sound to our ears. But we are not the only ones to feel this.

Everyone knows very well that politicians have to lie. But in relation to justifying a war on Iraq, it is the sheer mediocrity of the lies that amazes people most. The Bush administration lies in the grossest of manners for anyone with half a brain to see. And when the Howard government and some of the media start treating the supposed link between al-Qaeda and Saddam seriously, the logical loopholes are so many as to be insulting. Likewise, to everyone I've spoken to, Colin Powell's justification for war was totally unconvincing according to any normal Western standard of presenting evidence in a court of law. So people wonder what is going on when, the day after, they read journalists and politicians mind-bogglingly defining the presentation as "compelling" and "historical".

How far does one go into pumping the truth value of a friend's lies? Paul Keating was worried that we might become an economic banana republic. It looks like we have become a political one. The US ambassador intervenes in our national affairs and we make hardly anything out of it. So one cannot blame people for asking how far we will go in this politics of subservience. Just before the election it was all up to us - we decide who comes into this country and under what circumstances. Now it appears to be all up to the US - it decides which country we go to and under what circumstances. It can make the big decisions while we sit down and play with our little anti-terrorist kit and nurture our paranoia.

Many of us believe there is a better Australia out there which we should focus on rather than squandering our energies and potential on a war bearing all the marks of a modern colonial venture.


Ghassan Hage is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. His latest book, Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, was published this year by Pluto Press in Sydney and Merlin Press in London. This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 17 February 2003, and is reproduced with the author's kind permission.


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