Observations from our contributors

Dr Seuss’ books
California dreaming

San Diego is distilled California—palm trees and storeyed Spanish mission architecture. It’s so leisured it doesn’t even feel the need to compete. To get home each night we drive slowly along the sunset length of Del Mar beach where even in the spring chill there are always a few surfers riding the Pacific roll.

San Diego is also a military depot. As you make the first right turn out of the American Eagle plane, a sign tells it straight: ‘The Free, The Proud, THE MARINES.’ This is the town from which President George W. Bush launched his triumphant trip from shore to deck of the troop-laden aircraft carrier moored in San Diego Bay. ‘Boy, did that cost some,’ say our bemused American hosts. Many of the yachts in San Diego Bay fly a yellow ribbon from their masts. In a good wind they flutter like acid sunbeams.

On the campus of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), one of the long chain of state-funded and, to Australian eyes, wealthy West Coast universities, the handbill signs are what you might expect. ‘Civil Rights in America: USA PATRIOT ACT. Guest speaker: Salam al-Marayati, Muslim Public Affairs Council.’ ‘ONE WORLD ONE FUTURE WITHOUT WAR. Keynote speaker, Chalmers Johnson, on US Foreign Policy.’ But another tattered yellow handbill asks, rather desperately, ‘Can you afford an attorney?’ And in the eucalyptus grove (there are gums everywhere—very disorienting for an Australian) between the student centre and the faculty buildings, there are two miniature American flags tied on to a gum sapling above a sign, ‘Fallen American Heroes’, with a forlorn typed list of names like tear-off labels.

San Diego has one of the world’s most famous zoos—every creature imaginable and a few you hadn’t thought of. When UCSD went looking for a mascot some decades back they almost settled on the koala. California is bear country but the koala is still seriously weird here. It’s so small. It’s so cute. It doesn’t eat people. In the zoo it just sits on a low branch right opposite the entrance turnstiles and munches—leaves. Can’t you see it denatured into duffle bags, furry slippers and bear mouse pads? Fortunately, the campus had a sun god festival one year—Mexico is just a trolley ride from downtown San Diego—and the fiery Aztec deity caught on instead of our modest marsupial. So now there is a 14-foot fibreglass bird-god, with gold leaf crest and white wings, installed on top of a 15-foot vine-covered arch on a manicured lawn plumb in the centre of the university. The sculpture, by Niki de Saint Phalle, is part of UCSD’s serious art collection, but there is more than a touch of Disney in Sunbird’s half-toucan, half-roadrunner
visage. The students dress him to fit the prevailing mood. He’s been Sony Walkbird (complete with earplugs) and Rambird. In the climate of the moment, the huge AK47 hanging from his white wings looks more prescient than satirical.

The library at UCSD is a huge concrete diamond on stilts. ‘We get to hire it out to movie companies as the mother ship’, our companion informs us. He’s from New York, and rather wry about California. We have to find out for ourselves that the library was funded in part by the proceeds of Dr Seuss books. America is full of ironies. This is a state-funded university, resourced beyond the dreams of any Australian institution, and here too the private funds flow. Money begets money.

Our New York friend doesn’t read the West Coast papers, he tells us. What need? You can get the national edition of The New York Times every day. We read everything—when in San Diego, etc.—including USA Today, and the copy of the Alamo Christian Ministries World Newsletter that is tucked under our windscreen. Pastor Tony Alamo expends even more words on his revelations of the universal Roman conspiracy than The New York Times does on its four-broadsheet-page confession of the sins of Jayson Blair, the young African-American journalist who let down journalism’s and the Times’ side by faking copy.

Pastor Tony labours his point a little:

Every leader of every country in the world is under Rome’s control. This includes the President of the United States of America. This has been the case for centuries … All major evangelical TV networks are Catholic Jesuit priests under the guise of Christianity, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

(This claim is footnoted.) Every car on campus gets a copy.

The New York Times doesn’t have to resort to free distribution. And if it labours its point about Jayson Blair, I’m not about to mind. Journalism’s integrity in a time of rant and misinformation seems worth defending. It takes two and a half hours to read through all the weekend papers and every second of it is fascinating. And it’s not just the Jayson Blair story, or The New York Times. The Los Angeles Times writes the most incisive, critical commentary I’ve read on Afghanistan and its implications for US policy in Iraq.

America: it’s an extraordinary place. Its own worst enemy and its own best friend.
 
Morag Fraser

Peace under fire
The jakarta peace conference

It was not the most auspicious start to a peace conference. As more than 100 delegates from 25 countries arrived in central Jakarta, they were greeted with the news that the Indonesian military had declared open season in the province of Aceh on separatists and their supporters—some two million people, if attendance at a rally in the regional capital a few years ago was any guide.

Yet the events unfolding as the conference took place—287 schools torched by mystery arsonists as troops stood by; a 12-year-old boy shot dead as Indonesian soldiers fired on ‘terrorists’ among the civilians—confirmed for the activists the importance of their mission.

As the conference’s final statement, the Jakarta Consensus, read:

We oppose war in all forms whether open, declared, interstate war, war against social movements, economic war against the poor peoples of the world or war against political activists and opponents of the dominant order.

Thrown together in a matter of weeks, bringing activists from every continent, the conference was perhaps the first international opportunity to take stock of the war in Iraq and of the peace movement’s attempts to prevent it.

It was agreed that the movement had made huge gains, bringing millions on to the streets in co-ordinated protests all over the world. Helen Salmon, from the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, told delegates that Prime Minister Tony Blair had asked public servants to prepare for the possibility of his government falling.

But the delegates also acknowledged the danger of further US-led wars. ‘We’re back in a period of inter-imperialist rivalry,’ said Filipino academic Walden Bello from the Bangkok-based institute, Focus on the
Global South. ‘We should respect US power but not overestimate it.’

The impact of what is variously known as anti-capitalism or anti-globalisation on anti-war activists is clear. As Rafaella Bollini, of the Italian Movements of the European Social Forum, put it, ‘I feel for the first time part of the global movement. A global plan of domination found global resistance. A global civil society has been born. Our main task is not to lose those newcomers to the movement.’

Salim Vally, of the Anti-War Coalition in South Africa, emphasised the way global capital was fighting war on two fronts—one military, the other that of economic policies. ‘We need to link the fight against war with the daily struggle against neo-liberalism and privatisation,’ he said.

Indonesian union leader Dita Sari took up a similar theme, arguing that the movement had to be taken into national politics. ‘Another world needs to be made to exist for the poor in activists’ own countries,’ she said.

This was indeed a microcosm of a global movement with a global mind-set. The building blocks that made up the Jakarta Consensus were easily assembled without controversy, even though most delegates had never met before.

But there were also ideological fault lines, acknowledged and explored with civility and in a spirit of diversity, but there all the same. It was one thing to agree that the occupation of Iraq by the US and its war allies, including Australia, should end and that the Iraqis should be free to construct their own democratic society. It was another to decide whether the United Nations could be part of the problem or the solution in this process.

Etta Rosales, a progressive MP from the Philippines, said, ‘The future of the UN is at stake. It should not be an organisation where decisions are taken for 189 countries by five or one.’ Medea Benjamin, from the anti-corporate Global Exchange in the US, argued that the UN was more open to pressure than the US. If it took control of Iraq, that would be a defeat for the US agenda.

But other delegates argued that the UN was made up of states with their own agendas and by necessity was dominated by the imperialist powers. Any global alternative to the US had to come from below—like the anti-war movement itself and the World Social Forum.

Mericio Juvinal Dos Reis, from the East Timor Institute for Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis, gave delegates an insight into how the UN operated on the ground.

‘The UN opened the road for overseas financial institutions. The IMF and the World Bank came to East Timor thanks to the UN. There has been no consultation with the East Timorese. Sometimes the UN sees the East Timorese as a stupid people who they have to educate. That makes the East Timorese an object of the reconstruction—not an actor.’

In the spirit of consensus, such objections were noted. Delegates committed, however, to rally around common causes: a global day of action against war and globalisation as the World Trade Organization meets in Cancun, Mexico, in September; opposition to the spread of US military bases; a global ‘referendum’ in 2004 on the legitimacy of President Bush.

And as the decisions were duly noted, the war in Aceh grew bloodier. 

David Glanz

The good life
Summer in madrid

On the first Saturday of August last year, I awoke in my Madrid apartment, convinced that something was wrong. I could hear the birds. I had become accustomed to waking to the sound of traffic: of Madrileños discussing loudly whether to go home or instead to look for the next bar. Living in Europe’s most vibrant city does have its downside—it can be difficult to sleep. Just down the road, a billboard advertised apartments for sale, not with an announcement of the number of bedrooms or the views but with the words, ‘There are 83 bars within walking distance of this apartment. Do you think that’s enough?’

The Spanish understand the value of the more important things in life—a gentle hedonism, good food, passionate music and outdoor living. Summer is a moveable feast of happy crowds sitting in outdoor terraces and 18th-century plazas trying to decide whether to go and see the permanent exhibitions of Picasso, Goya or Van Gogh, or simply to stay and talk.

Traffic jams are not unheard of at 2am on a Tuesday. Parking inspectors go on holidays (an event helpfully announced by the government each year), schoolchildren begin their three-month-long summer holidays and ‘tinto de verano’ (the wine of summer) is freely available.

So on this morning there was something profoundly unsettling about the silence in Madrid. And then I remembered that it was August, a month when many companies close their doors and send their employees on holidays. Despite living in the geographical centre of the Iberian peninsula, the people of Madrid have a greater love for the beach than perhaps any other people in the world, and in August they evacuate the city in droves. On long weekends and at any time of good weather, Madrileños drive for three to five hours to lie by the beach, eat seafood and relax with family and friends. If a holiday falls on a Thursday, most Madrileños make a puente (bridge) to the Saturday and rush from town. If the holiday falls on a Wednesday, they make an aqueducto.

When the weekend (or August) is over, everyone returns, grudgingly, accepting the fact that they will sit in traffic jams nearly 50 kilometres long and for up to ten hours, never doubting for a second that it’s worth it.

This summer, I wondered if I would be able to enjoy my time here as much as I had the last. Three months after arriving in Spain, my legal status had become precarious. Due to marry in Madrid in December, I had visions of the wedding taking place without me, or at the very least, spending my days furtively avoiding police vehicles.

Two days before falling illegal, I visited the police station with my partner and her two uncles (both policemen), armed with sheafs of documents attesting to my solvency and good character. At the
comisaria, they introduced me to the relevant officer, who assured us that her advice had the weight of senior people in the Ministry of the Interior, whom she had phoned before our arrival.

‘I’m not exactly sure why you’re here,’ she began. ‘It’s probably because you are normal and worry about such things. The fact is, we don’t.’ She then proceeded to tell us a few things we could do, but advised that they involved a lot of unnecessary paperwork and had little purpose. ‘Where are you from? Australia? No problem. We almost never deport anyone and as long as you don’t murder anyone, we’ll leave you alone.’ I pointed out to her that for an Australian, such a generous and liberal policy on foreigners and immigration was quite a shock, and that I had left Australia in the months after the shameful days of the Tampa debacle. ‘We’re not like that here,’ was her polite response.

Then, it being almost halfway between breakfast and lunch, my partner’s uncles gathered a posse of their police friends and we adjourned to a neighbouring bar where they proceeded to buy us tapas and drinks. ‘So what do you like about Spain?’ they asked. 

Anthony Ham

Sidney Nolan
Desert and drought

We are in a plane, banking slightly to give a view of a ridge and ranges of mountains. We are seeing landscape from the air, perhaps the first time anybody anywhere has painted this way, and certainly a new view of how to see the heart of Australia. Miles of reds, browns, ochres, in complicated patterns, often of triangular bands, stretching endlessly away to a bright blue line of horizon. We are pitched at all that bare earth, and have to force ourselves to look upwards into the subtly different blues of the sky. Sometimes we have landed at some isolated spot for a more conventional view, maybe of the
delicate wriggling branches and delightful pods of ‘the boab’. But it’s the flying pictures that take our breath away.

In the Burke and Wills paintings, the camels look like slow-moving hillocks, and the outsize birds are often paused and poised in flight over the hapless explorers. In the religious paintings, like ‘St John in the desert’, surreal angels, with wings for arms, fly in from the early Italian Renaissance to bank and pitch themselves over the outback; the Lord himself spins and rolls above ‘St Francis receiving the stigmata’. Maybe it’s a fancy to go back to the ‘plane over the desert’ works and become an angel, exhilarated by the flight over the landscape of this new world. Whatever it is, the outback is not godless.

The carcasses have no specific background, but float in a misty space of greys, browns and reds. Through varying states of decay, they are transformed: ‘Carcass of a ram’ has the thing hitched aloft, upside down, its limbs dangling, with the wickerwork tracery of its ribcage greeny-white, and the splay of its horns springing from the downward thrust of its skull. The black eyeholes look at us looking at it.

Nolan’s achievement, firmly re-established by this wonderful exhibition, is to give us immensely delicate images of the outback. He reveals the otherness of the place by taking us up there—the red heart seen from aloft.

Sidney Nolan, Desert and drought, Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, 6 June–17 August. 

Andrew Bullen sj

This month’s contributors: Morag Fraser is an adjunct professor at La Trobe University, and former editor of Eureka Street; David Glanz attended the conference for the Victorian Peace Network, and the full text of the Jakarta Consensus is at www.focusweb.org;  Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent; Andrew Bullen sj is former rector of Jesuit Theological College.m

 

 

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