Monday, April 27, 2015

My other grandfather

I have been stuck at home for several days, and so the build-up to Anzac day has been reduced for me to a series of media impressions - fragmentary ones at that, as I actively tried to avoid the coverage. The children brought home some of the work they were made to do at school. Then on Friday, during a downtown parade that Radio New Zealand briefly erred into calling a ‘celebration’, a formation of World War I planes flew over the house. That was the sum of my direct experience.

Having insulated myself from the event, I feel disinclined to comment on it. For that I defer to Dougal McNeill’s first-hand account of the opening ceremony at Pukehau Park, where he and other comrades provided a dissenting voice. Not far from here, voicing dissent, as we now know, will get you fired from your job as a journalist. But I don’t want to talk about that either.

It is one thing to critique the exhibitions and the commemorations, or the commercial promotions ranging from the tacky to the comically absurd; another to interrogate the sentiment and the allegiances that underlie them. Histories writ large and small intersect here. On one side this modern nation, which on those blood-soaked battlegrounds is supposed to have been forged; on the other, family lines shaped or broken by war. What is excluded from both is the experience of the invaded. An estimated 87,000 Turkish soldiers died in what has come to be known as the Gallipoli campaign – ten times as many as the Australian and thirty times as many the New Zealand ones. And while they are increasingly acknowledged, sometimes even included in the official commemorations, their names are not etched in our monuments. Theirs aren’t the stories we tell.

The personal as opposed to collective space of Anzac Day remembrance is full of grandfathers and great-grandfathers, as war stories are still predominantly male, and people have been sharing theirs in a way that I have found quite sympathetic. (I commend to you one in particular.) Adjusted for Italy, mine goes like this:

Of my two grandfathers, one served in the second world war, while the other didn’t serve in the first. I got to know the former, who died just short of my tenth birthday. He was a lovely and much beloved man, the tailor in a small rural village. I struggled even as a child to reconcile the evidence of the kind of person he was with the fact that he had been a Fascist. He was called and briefly served before the Armistice of 1943, already in his late thirties. He was a quartermaster and a prison guard. A farmer from New South Wales who had been one of his prisoners kept in touch with him for some years, which we took as an indication that he can’t have been a tormentor. Still, being a Fascist meant just that. Our story – his story – is one that excludes many others: those of the enemies, foreign and domestic. Those of the deported.

And you... what are you doing? Propaganda poster to enlist in the militias of the pro-Nazi Salò Republic after the occupation of Italy by the German Army, 1943-44

Then there is my other grandfather: born in 1900, dead long before I was born, his life-story largely lost to us due to a taciturn son – my father – and a wife with whom he had grown apart. One of the few things I’ve ever known about him is that he was imprisoned for failing to report for military training near the end of the First World War. I’m not even sure why he made that choice, as he was described to me variously as a freemason and an anarchist. A version of the story, which strikes me as apocryphal, suggests that the command of the military barracks would pull him out of his cell while an officer read out loud one of the fervently patriotic letters sent by his own mother in front of the other recruits. Either way, if he was prosecuted his case would likely have fallen under the general amnesty promulgated for the crime in 1919.

Of this man, of whom I know so little, I would like to claim the heritage. But it isn’t mine, not meaningfully. Not when I don’t even know his motivations.

Yet there is a tenuous connection. When my own time came, in the early 1990s, just as Italy was coming out of its first post-war military adventure in Iraq, I applied for the status of conscientious objector at the same barracks where my grandfather had been jailed. All I had to do was sign a document stating that I held sincere pacifist beliefs. The option was available to anyone, albeit skewed towards the educated urban North like so many others, and it led to my working in a mental health facility for a year instead of undergoing the still-compulsory military training. It was a formative and useful time (I’ve written about that experience here). That I could do this, and not face jail or the prospect of a punitive two-year service, I owed to the pacifists, the objectors, the deserters of previous generations. Those who organised and struggled, but also those who simply failed to report. All of them made the act of refusing to honour that duty to ‘defend the nation’ a thinkable act: first decriminalised, then tolerated, then finally accepted and ordinary, as it was for my friends and I.

The story of my other grandfather, a man I never knew and may not have liked very much if I did, is one of those broken lines, so broken that I can barely lay claims to it. But it’s the only thing I felt like writing about today.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Odyssey

The Mediterranean is a small sea, yet it is mythologically vast. Odysseus wandered it for ten years before finding his way back to Ithaca from the fallen city of Troy. Various attempts to plot his movements on modern maps make his criss-crossings look slightly ridiculous, as if they were caused not by capricious gods but by a drunk steersman.

The Mediterranean must have seemed vast to the ancient Greeks, as it did to Dante, who writes of Odysseus’ final adventure, past the Pillars of Herakles – that is to say, the Strait of Gibraltar – and into the Atlantic, the great unknown. It is a brief adventure, for the ocean swallows them in short order: transgressing that geographical limit means stepping out of history, culture and life itself.

Recent studies indicate that the Greeks, the Phoenicians and the Romans, rather than being limited to hugging the coastline in search of visual points of reference and swift shelter from the storms, were in fact perfectly capable of navigating on the open sea as well as by night, using the stars. But reading the Odyssey one still gets a vivid sense of what it might have felt like to live in a small world with more coastline than land, encircling the sea. This was their universe, with its inward horizon placed like a bullseye somewhere between the coasts of Northern Africa and Greece or Italy.

In the Odyssey, the sea is a source of prodigy and danger but above all it’s the space between the places, and the force the pushes the hero from one to the other. Had he really been that smart, Odysseus might have figured out that he was better off walking to the Greek port nearest to Ithaca. Instead, after each adventure, he let himself and his crew be taken by the waters to a random destination chosen by the gods.

The sea in the Odyssey, then, stands for both fate and myth. The myth part is what transforms real places that Homer’s audience might have heard of into imaginary ones. Thus Scylla and Carybdes, the rocks and the tumultuous waves that guard the strait between Sicily and Calabria, are fittingly reshaped into monsters, and Cumae, near Naples, where the sulphur rises from the earth, becomes the gateway to the underworld. As for the fate part, in the case of the Odyssey it’s never in much doubt. There will be but one survivor.

The Mediterranean is a small sea and just like everyone else I struggle to fathom how hundreds of people could be lost there at a time, attempting to make a crossing of little over 100 hundred miles. As if we lived again in ancient times, fate has become bound for would-be migrants and refugees in the names of ordinary towns and islands in foreign lands. Like Lampedusa, which in my childhood was a tourist destination known for its landscape and its beaches, and hadn’t yet become what it is today: a garrison and a morgue.

We have modern navigation, aerial reconnaissance and the technology to build safe vessels. So how did we turn this small sea back into a place of almost unimaginable danger? The boats on which the migrants are transported aren’t real boats, in part because if they were, they could be turned away. They are lighters, flatboats, wrecks before they even leave the port. They are designed to hopefully get through, hopefully unseen, and often lack the basic means of calling for help. And so two years ago 300 migrants died within sight of Lampedusa when they lit a fire on the boat to attract rescuers, and the boat went up in flames.

Then for a while there was Mare Nostrum, Latin for ‘our sea’, a search and rescue operation designed to reduce migrant deaths and given an ancient name, as if to hark back to a time when the continent still aspired to civilisation. But the operation was never meant to last longer than a year, its costs being both economic and political, and so it was dutifully discontinued last September. Now this week, with six-seven hundred freshly dead – we cannot even count them – the same political forces that marched against that small humanitarian effort have called for a naval blockade.

Thirty centuries of progress, both technical and human, have been wound back by globalisation, war and the vanishing aspirations of our politics. This is what has made our small sea vast again, and impossible by design to safeguard or control: a barrier between worlds to be crossed at one’s peril.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The show can't go on

Discussions about the state of our media have come more and more to resemble that old joke that Woody Allen used in Annie Hall:
“The food here is terrible.”
“Yes, and the portions are so small!”
We complain about the quality of our journalism and simultaneously about its dwindling state. Less often, when we stand to lose a genuinely good show – such as Campbell Live can be – the reaction may seem less incongruous, but then it too quickly morphs into a sort of nostalgia for the present time, when in spite of everything we still have (or, very soon, had) at least one prime-time current affairs programme that isn’t total shit.

So many of the campaigns and struggles around which what’s left of the Left can broadly unite these days are rear-guard in nature, and as such aspire for little, or seek to preserve what until yesterday some of us wanted to leave behind. Say, an economic system that provides a modicum of job security without a meaningful share of the national wealth; or a BBC-style national broadcasting system founded on myths of neutrality and objectivity that most people have long-since stopped believing in.

Yet it is reasonable – important, even – to point out where we are relative to where we used to be, if only because the current iteration of economic liberalism promised to achieve old goals with new means. Thus, to stay with the previous two examples, general prosperity without workers’ rights, or public-service information on a private-profit basis. In this respect one of the most significant moments of this past week was hearing Mediaworks’ chairman Rod McGeoch make the following admission to Matt Nippert and Phil Taylor:
We put news on, but only because it rates. And we sell advertising around news. This is what this is all about.
This would almost sound acceptable if the state-owned channel had any more of an obligation to provide the news as the only other national channel does. But since this is not the case, a suitable response might be to take Mr McGeoch’s frequencies away and see how he likes that particular crate of apples. Which of course requires political will, and possibly an appetite for TPP-style international litigation. But this is where we are at, and it should bother us that it took a corporation’s chairman to state it so clearly.

This Julie Christie, who hastened my sexual awakening by an estimated 16 weeks, is offered in lieu of the one who is currently Head of Firing John Campbell at Mediaworks

Used as I still am to how some things work in the old country, I have not ceased to be struck over the last few months by the lack of a united voice of journalists throughout a series of events that have profoundly affected their industry. Where is their union? Do they even have one? I know, technically it’s the EPMU, and they put out the odd release during Dirty Politics, but nothing at the level and with the visibility that one might have expected in other countries in such tumultuous times. In particular, the lack of apparent solidarity towards Nicky Hager last year and John Campbell and his staff this year has been staggering.

I have no moralising intent: workers do not organise when their working conditions prevent them from organising; workers do not speak when they are gagged. I expect this to apply to journalists as much as to any other category, and more broadly as a country we suffer from this enforced silence. So much so I’m sometimes tempted to call it (with dramatic flourish) omertà, as if it were a code on which the survival of too many depended. But the more prosaic reality is that if you are an intellectual – therefore a person likely to have first-hand knowledge of how the media industry interacts with the public service and other centres of power – you’re also likely to hold down a job that prevents you not just from speaking out, but from speaking at all. And when the topic that can’t be discussed by those closest to it is how to sustain a critical public discourse, it spells a special kind of trouble for a society.

Given the state of things as acutely summarised by Mr McGeoch, I struggle to follow the debate on how much further the commercial model might take us, or credit the suggestion – straight out of Peter Pan – that Campbell Live will not be cancelled so long as we all promise to watch it more often. We won’t be saved by being better consumers, nor would things be significantly better if our business leaders were less short-sighted and awful. We have tasked the wrong people with solving this problem, and as we watch them extracting a diminishing profit from our desperate need for information, we had better come up with alternatives.

Some of these alternatives are staring us in the face, for the same government that kept bailing out Mediaworks could have taken the opportunity to ask itself: ‘Why the hell am I doing this?’ and ‘What am I getting in return?’ But today the Prime Minister has stated again that the conditions for public discourse are none of his business, days after one of his most junior charges saw fit to greet the demise of Campbell as a victory for team Hosking and the forces of good.

Reconstructing basic notions of the public good beyond petty and bloody-minded partisanship – for Labour’s record is hardly any better – is one of the tasks. But a bigger one is to imagine what a diverse, inclusive, critical journalism might look like, how to allow journalists to be central to this conversation, and what we need to do to make it happen before the plates of terrible food disappear altogether.

And yes, in the meantime we really ought to save Campbell Live if we can.