John Howard shoe-thrower's moral miss-hit

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Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008 about the infamous incident labelled by US media as the Iraqi 'shoegate', comedian Dean Obeidallah said: 'Let's be honest — in what culture is getting a shoe thrown at you while making a speech considered a compliment?' 

On Monday's edition of Q&A former Prime Minister John Howard felt the stinging rebuke and righteous outrage of what host Tony Jones termed the 'smelly sneakers' of what is left of leftist civil disobedience. Or did he? (Continues below)

Peter Gray, a Hunter Valley resident and member of Rising Tide (a Newcastle climate change action group), asked Howard a succinct question about Australia's moral culpability in Iraq.

Amid the recent spectacle of Wikileaks evidence about the Iraqi occupation, Gray raised the uncomfortable truth of decrepit civilian corpses littering the streets of Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Fallujah. These maimed and nameless bodies are not given the dignity they deserve, instead ending up as statistics on the Iraq Body Count website.

The occupation of Iraq has just become what Australian anthropologist and cultural theorist Michael Taussig terms as the 'public secret'. Compassion fatigue has set in for populations of the countries of the coalition of the (un)willing. We all know the secret but repress it deeply within our national psyche. To confront the secret would be to undergo a national process of self-examination.

It is no coincidence that Howard's abnegating stance on the other national secret, regarding the Stolen Generations, has still not changed.

Political bankruptcy and lack of intellectual imagination is at an all time high in western leftist political discourse and tactics, notably under the newly formed Labor Government in Australia. The same goes for conservative forces in Australian, European and American politics, with the rise of the Tea Party movement and the German scapegoating of multiculturalism as a failed social experiment.

This is playing out in parliamentary debates and partisan posturing regarding our military involvements in Afghanistan, which inevitably calls Iraq into question.

In his op-ed piece for the Newcastle Herald, Gray evokes the spectres of the dead and living dead in Iraq and estimates that 60,000 civilians from 2003 have died. Some assessments go as high as 95–110,000. But Gray assumes that shoe throwing in Iraq is the same as shoe throwing in Australia, and in the process he elides and conflates facts on the ground.

Gray explains the genealogy of the shoe-throwing gesture and how Muntadar al Zhaidi, the Iraqi journalist who heaved his shoes at US President George W. Bush in 2008, eventually got jailed. Gray admits he is 'cognisant of the freedoms' that allow him to make his protest, and goes on to argue 'that these political freedoms were hard-fought for, and that if they go unused they will be taken away'.

But Gray does not identify who fought for what, and who will take said freedoms away. This ambiguity is symptomatic of western leftist movements. The culturally co-optive nature of benevolent groups to take on causes and speak on behalf of those who allegedly cannot speak for themselves is disturbing.

In my research with Iraqis living in Sydney, I have heard about trauma and torture prior to and during the occupation, and the struggles of exile, in poetically cogent words. These articulate voices must be heard.

If smelly shoes are the last objects of resistance then this occupation will never end. The larger Australian public, including Iraqi Australians, need not be bombarded with futile projectiles but sensible arguments based on intellectual, ethical and empathic capacities that recognise the disfiguring effects of occupation.


Farid FaridFarid Farid is a final year doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney. His thesis examines the cultural politics of trauma and loss among exiled Iraqi artists and writers in Sydney.

Topic tags: shoegate, Q+A, Tony Jones, Dean Obeidallah, Muntadar al Zhaidi, Iraq, Afghanistan, Michael Taussig

 

 

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"sensible arguments based on intellectual, ethical and empathic capacities..." but politicians, insurance company representatives, medical specialists, lawyers, magistrates and judges just wont answer the questions; instead choosing to give nebulous answers to questions which were not asked to fit into a self serving agenda.

As Peter Garrett said, if we don't jump up and down and make a big noise, nothing will change: succinct arguments mean nothing to the deaf representatives that call themselves leaders.
Regards Greig
Greig Williams | 29 October 2010


Thanks Farid. but why just castigate leftists (and how do we define them these days - in Australia and other countries). A liberal is almost a communist in US for example. Memory is the key, it seems to be that sometimes we are witnesses in the wilderness and humans have a capacity to bury and file things away, especially huge things like Iraq. Was reminded of this last night watching Robert Fisk fulminate about Us perfidy over Iraq, which of course he does like few others. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-the-shaming-of-america-2115111.html, and his personal visits to the morgues to talk with those receiving and burying the dead. It is worth chasing on ABC iView just to hear those comments. This revealed the impossibility of getting the numbers of dead right. It is indeed curious Farid that the Iraqi al-Zhaidi was jailed--and where, for his supposed safety--is he now? Yes it was disrespectful, but worth jail and exile? Thanks again
jan forrester | 29 October 2010


"Political bankruptcy and lack of intellectual imagination ... in western political discourse... [and] conservative forces in [western] politics."

A tragically valid observation of western politics, a forum in which throwing shoes is only the latest inarticulate rejoinder to the 7-second sound bites which pass for political discussion in the 21st century.

The various styles of adversarial politics in the west are increasingly modelled on the television game show in which winning advantage over the opponent is the aim, not development and implementation of policies which are likely to bring 'the greatest good to the greatest number' of the population.

The current 'public discussion' re the Murray-Darling Basin is a perfect example. Following hard on the heels of the 'public discussion' re the carbon trading scheme, it was reasonable to hope the government would have handled it better this time around. No such chance!

In both cases, the high emotion from those who feel threatened and the sloganist one-liners from those who simply oppose the draft proposals drown out any clearly articulated well-structured contribution to developing the best policy to meet the current circumstances.

Argentina weeps again for a much-loved and revered ex-president. For whom could we cry in Australia?
Ian Fraser | 29 October 2010


Monday's Q and A was great television, only marginally spoiled by the childish, petulant and unoriginal shoe incident. You ask a question, you get an answer you don't like so you throw a shoe: duh - go back to kindergarten.

I cordially disliked everything John Howard stood for. But on Monday night, he was brilliant: funny, happy, in complete control. What a pity we did not see that JH when he was PM. Come to think of it, Malcolm Fraser also became human when he left office and so did Malcolm Turnbull.

What is it about leading the Liberal Party that brings out the worst in people?
Frank | 29 October 2010


Monday's Q and A was great television, only marginally spoiled by the childish, petulant and unoriginal shoe incident. You ask a question, you get an answer you don't like so you throw a shoe: duh - go back to kindergarten.

I cordially disliked everything John Howard stood for. But on Monday night, he was brilliant: funny, happy, in complete control. What a pity we did not see that JH when he was PM. Come to think of it, Malcolm Fraser also became human when he left office and so did Malcolm Turnbull.

What is it about leading the Liberal Party that brings out the worst in people? I have been told that Tony Abbott is actually a most charming man - hard to believe.
Frank | 29 October 2010


Since all questions are submitted to Q & A prior to the show going to air there needs to be some responsibility with Tony Jones and the production team for allowing so many questions to go hard at John Howard.

So often Tony does clearly indicate his own political leaning - which can be OK when there is a panel.

No matter what one thought of John Howard, he was a strong leader, stuck to his beliefs and was not swayed in order to win votes.

He is to be congratulated on the way in which he conducted himself - and as a former PM of this nation, should have been accorded the utmost respect and not ridicule! By the end of the current parliament we might wish he was still there.
Jane | 29 October 2010


Peter Gray's act was a significant gesture because Howard and Bush will always be associated with the sublime shoe-throwing insult... lets hope we get to throw the book at both of them in the ICJ.
Dr Vacy Vlazna | 30 October 2010


"It is no coincidence that Howard's abnegating stance on the other national secret, regarding the Stolen Generations, has still not changed."
According to the High Court and realist historians, there were no "Stolen Generations".
HH | 06 November 2010


Very good article by Farid. Love to see more from your pen.
Werner | 12 November 2010


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