June 13, 2018

Issues and policies

Dark + Dangerous Thoughts at Mona

By Jenny Valentish

Moderator Erik Jensen (left) with “Dying for Time” panellists Jack Charles, Vickie Roach and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Photo credit: Dark Mofo/Rémi Chauvin.

The kid gloves come off at this symposium for those with skin in the game

The weekend before MONA’s Dark Mofo festival kicks off in earnest, a new symposium called Dark + Dangerous Thoughts (June 9–10) premieres at Hobart’s Odeon Theatre. We’re promised, among other guests, a sniper, an ex-jihadist and one of the first female Tamil Tigers. MONA’s David Walsh introduces proceedings by explaining that all the speakers have skin in the game, meaning they’re prepared to risk their lives for their beliefs. He demonstrates this theme by standing under a giant photograph of his naked form. “It shows I’m all skin and no game,” he quips. Which is a debate for another time.

Instead, the first argument of the day is “Do We Let Them In?”, which turns into an uncomfortable dinner-party stoush between businessman Dick Smith and journalist Peter Mares – the type where all the other diners make excuses to go out and smoke.

Smith begins by declaring that he is pro-immigration and believes that every person should have the same right to resources. He immediately backflips, stating that overpopulation will destroy Australia, and that he would reduce immigration to the Paul Keating–era annual average of 70,000. Borders, he points out, are unfair, amoral and unethical … but his self-interest requires them to remain intact.

Mares accuses Smith of being motivated by nostalgia for a past Australia. Smith disagrees, but laments that the Australian dream of the backyard is out of reach for many, and that children will be taught in high-rise schools. His own Dick Smith’s Fair Go campaign warns of the “insanity” of endless economic growth. Today he acknowledges that he has benefited from that as a businessman, but also that resources are finite. “Most of the wealthy believe, ‘Let’s put off the day of reckoning that will come, but that will probably come to our children or grandchildren,’” he says. “I think we should tackle that now.” But he’s jack of the left linking the issue to racism, rather than acknowledging that population balance is needed.

Mares counters, “I would say it’s Pauline Hanson that links the issue to racism and xenophobia,” and gets a whoop from the audience. To this, Smith raises his voice several notches and accuses Mares of hypocrisy. “You’re saying, ‘I’m good, her supporters are evil,’” he says, scathingly. “[But] as the Greens only want to let 50,000 in, they obviously have the same self-interest as well. You’re self-righteous. You think anyone who selectively [chooses who can enter Australia] is evil.”

“Thank you for telling me what I think, Dick,” Mares says.

Nobody’s up for dessert.

The next panel, “Dying for Time”, asks who is responsible for the large Indigenous jail population – the colonisers or the individuals – and emotions run high from the outset. At least, Vickie Roach – who spent her life in and out of jail before becoming an advocate for their abolition – cannot help but cry out, scoff at an interruption, and even drop her mic when confronted by the coolly delivered stats of Alice Springs town councillor Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, who recently participated in Mark Latham’s campaign to save Australia Day.

Roach believes “family violence is not part of our culture”. In her efforts to point out the devastating, ongoing effects of colonisation, she is protective of the victimised community over the individual victim. She argues that being a Stolen Generations child – as she and her mother were – sets a person up for domestic violence: “because it tells you right from the word go that you do not belong to yourself. You’re the property of the government.”

Price disagrees. She thinks Aboriginal men need to be held accountable for family violence, citing the recent case of the rape of a two-year-old in Tennant Creek, and insists these kinds of issues predated white settlement. “There are elements of our culture that are bloody dark and we don’t acknowledge that,” she says, to the first of much applause. “Our system needs to recognise women’s rights and children’s rights.”

Moderator Erik Jensen often throws to revered actor – and veteran of 22 jail sentences – Jack Charles for some thespian-like diplomacy, although Charles’s viewpoint seems to largely side with that of Roach. Both agree, for instance, that Indigenous people are useful money-makers for privatised prisons (in fact, Charles refused to make headphones for airlines on one stretch inside). Jensen puts it to the panel that the US prison system replicates slavery. “So does ours,” said Roach immediately, “and deaths in custody are happening at a greater rate now.” Charles agrees, saying the sort of restraints that were used on Dylan Voller are being brought over from America.

Charles has solutions up his sleeve. Wherever he tours as an actor, he visits the local prisons, including Beaver Creek Institution in Ontario, which is overseen by local Inuit chiefs. He recommends that Aboriginal Elders similarly be given the ability to visit Australian prisons, and requests that Price pave the way for him to do so in Alice Springs.

There follows a one-to-one “Angry Inuk” session, whereby throat singer and “reluctant activist” Tanya Tagaq is interviewed by Jeff Sparrow. Tagaq is not so much angry as persuasive in her exaltation of the matriarchal Inuit culture and the power of throat singing in reclaiming that culture. She does arc up, however, when describing being fetishised as something exotic. “A reporter asked me, ‘Are you a modern Inuk?’ I thought, Are you a modern reporter? We’re alive at the same time. How are you asking me this question? For fuck’s sakes!”

“I don’t have skin in the game, I want to wear it,” local trawlwulwuy woman Emma Lee laughs defiantly in the next face-off, “Killing for Culture”. Her opponent, Animals Australia lawyer Shatha Hamade, is no walkover, having participated in many undercover operations in the Middle East to expose animal cruelty. But Hamade admits to having “shat herself” at the idea of taking part in a debate that challenges Indigenous hunting (ironically held in a city famed for its touristy seal excursions). The bottom line for me is the suffering of the animals,” she says. “The cultural significance of hunting is something that everybody must respect, but is the cultural significance diminished by the suffering? It’s not a black and white argument.”

Lee laughs at this, saying that’s exactly what it is. “I’m very concerned with this issue of consultation [with the likes of Animals Australia and Greenpeace], because it’s an issue of colonisation,” she says. “I’ve got a colonised mind and I have to fight it every day. I want to know what it feels like to connect with country through the taking of the seal. I want to smell that blood and guts. I want to know the texture of the blubber that was used on our women’s hand stencils.”

Day two of D+DT begins relatively gently, since both Paul Collins and David Marr agree – in “Should the Church Be Saved?” – that the leaders of the Catholic Church in Australia have utterly failed to protect children or cooperate with the royal commission. Collins, a former priest and theology teacher, does suggest that in the 1970s “we didn’t have the language” to tackle abuse (to which Marr mimes picking up a phone: “‘Hello, a child is being raped by a priest’ – we did have the language”). Collins protests against caricatures of Catholicism, saying, “I will not cop it that we are not changing, because we are.” He points to greater interest in harking back to the traditional leadership roles of women in the Church in centuries past. He concedes, “It’s not coming from [Pope] Francis, who has the views of an Argentinean male.”

Muhammad Manwar Ali appears on the big screen behind foreign correspondent Peter Greste for “The Place of Doubt”, since Australia’s Department of Home Affairs stalled on approving his visa. (Greste points out that Ali has never been convicted of terrorism, yet he himself has and can travel fairly freely.) From the mid 1980s until 2000, Ali radicalised, recruited and fought on the frontline in Afghanistan, Kashmir and Burma. He explains, “Sometimes we want to do more than feel empathy for human suffering. We want to support in practical ways … Religion combined with politics can be a volatile mixture, and that’s what happened to me.”

Greste asks Ali about the recruitment process. “Most of us did not recruit in an insidious, mischievous manner,” Ali says. “Most of us were delivering lessons in being religious – how to serve your parents well, how to fast for Ramadan – but also in how the Islamic identity is compromised.” He gives the examples of American invasions and influence, such as McDonald’s, then continues, “The rhetoric is that we have lost supremacy. We used to have a glorious past – which is a myth – and that Muslims are under attack – also a falsehood. [Then we say] Muslims have lost their favour in God’s eyes because they have lost their way. So they need to re-establish Islam.” This is the point, he says, where real examples of Muslims under attack might be introduced, along with examples of how they stood up to the onslaught.

Greste and Ali agree that jihadi soldiers were manipulated by both the West and their own scholars during the Soviet-Afghan War. “Why did we allow ourselves to become pawns to foreign powers?” Ali asks. He explains how the Koran is being misinterpreted by scholars with ulterior motives, saying, “There need to be more dynamic and robust conversations in the mosques, and more mixing [with Westerners] and hearing each other out … Part of the problem is we stop asking critical questions of our imams and teachers.”

Greste points out that some see Ali as a traitor, for preaching peace and becoming a consultant for the UK Home Office. Ali responds that in essence he is the same as the young man he once was – sincere and doing what he believes to be the right thing; it’s his viewpoint that has evolved. Greste presses: “Some would want you dead.” Ali replies, “I still want to die in the Islamic sense, in the cause of God, so if I walk out of the studio and get shot, I’m prepared for that.”

Disquietingly, after such a generous conversation, the only applause of approval comes when Ali says he’d rather live in a Western country.

There’s bristling, leg jiggling and lip tightening aplenty during “Extreme Free Speech”, chaired by Julia Baird. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller gets schooled for complaining that on Twitter academics are “chilled” by students and social justice warriors for daring to express unpopular opinions. Writer and broadcaster Jeff Sparrow shoots back: “I’m not for academics to be able to say things without criticism.” Hawk Newsome, president of Black Lives Matter’s Greater New York chapter, goes one harder: “It sounds like you’re crying because you’re getting flak for what these people have felt all their lives. Now the paradigm has shifted, you’re having a temper tantrum. Sit back and try and work with these people to try and create this utopia that we all deserve. You know what happened to my people when they stood up? They got hung from trees.” When Miller suggests that arguing over freedom of speech is inconsequential in the face of global warming, he’s smartly accused of embodying white male privilege by Newsome, who points out that his most pressing problem is not getting shot.

The most heated exchanges, however, are between Newsome and Jacinta Nampijinpa Price. Seemingly relaxed at not being on a panel with Vickie Roach, Price reinforces her stance that Indigenous people should be able to sit down and talk without taking offence, commenting that she didn’t know Roach from a bar of soap before being insulted on social media. Newsome interrupts to protest her lack of sensitivity to the reactive tendencies of individuals who have struggled. “You’re feeding into the oppressor’s narrative, and you ignore systematic oppression and hundreds of years of trauma that led us to these circumstances,” he says. Price protests that her grandfather used to be chained around the neck but that he didn’t see himself as a victim.

Newsome asks her, “Are our people oppressed, yes or no?”

“Not in this day and age, I think.”

Okay,” he says, “I have nothing more to say.”

Later, Price wants to return to this point. She cites a Fox News reporter’s claim that more African Americans are killed by other African Americans in six months than the Ku Klux Klan killed in 86 years. Newsome is exasperated. “We were taught to hate each other when we were back in chains,” he says. “Everything is then reiterated on television. Stop using these buzz words and get to the source of the problem, which is government-sanctioned racism and oppression, controlled by capitalists.”

The last of the key arguments is “Sanctioned Killing”, featuring former Tamil Tiger Niromi de Soyza, ex-jihadist Muhammad Manwar Ali and former soldier-turned-memoirist Mark Donaldson. The latter proves to be the odd one out in his reluctance to plumb his emotions and his commitment to dodging a question about a news story involving rogue special forces soldiers killing Afghans unlawfully. Perhaps the SAS is like the Hotel California – you can never really leave.

Much of de Soyza’s story echoes Ali’s. Like him, she came from a middle-class background; she ran away from a Christian girls’ college to join the Tamil Tigers. “When women commit violence we look for reasons, but with men we assume that’s part of his nature,” she says, explaining that part of her reason for joining up was to defy those who told her she couldn’t. The reality was disorganisation and life on the run. After seeing her best friend killed in an ambush that took out half their troop, de Soyza left the Tigers. Eventually she moved to Australia and vowed never to even read a news story about Sri Lanka, because “if I’m not willing to do anything then I’d rather not know about it”.

Now, like Ali, de Soyza is an educator, specifically a high-school teacher. Ali nods as she says, “I had thought I would be controlling my destiny, but we were just pawns in a game. What was the purpose of people dying when we still didn’t have power? The people controlling us had the power.” The intrinsic understanding they have of one another is evident, even with Ali imprisoned behind a screen.

The most gripping moments of Dark + Dangerous Thoughts are not the left–right bickering over current affairs, but those that stick loyally to the brief of skin in the game, offering an understanding of the drives behind radical action. Many of the speakers on this inaugural line-up are also memoirists, but their traumatic stories would be handled with kid gloves at a literary festival. Here, they’re frequently pitted against one another, requiring a new kind of mettle. It’s not hard to picture which allegiances are forming in the green room; twice this weekend I see one speaker dining alone. Still, the overriding message is the necessity of respecting the enemy, be they the irritant on the internet or a more bloodthirsty threat. One to pack for your personal crusade.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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