Waiting for Arthur

Last year I stood in a packed Brooklyn courtroom, held up my right hand, and with the fingers of my left hand crossed firmly behind my back, I solemnly swore that ‘I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign potentate’.

I became a new US citizen, but a mildly depressed one. I felt gutless—as if I had chickened out in the face of September 11 paranoia. As I prepared for the ceremony, I asked myself: What rational US resident would want to test their worst nightmare of landing at JFK airport with a foreign passport while his wife and two children carried American passports?

I could imagine the tap on the shoulder at JFK: ‘Mr Hamilton, please say goodbye to your family, kindly take a seat in this small, flourescent-lit room. And please ignore that orange jump suit on the hook behind the door.

‘Now, Mr Hamilton, the records show that in 2003 you made two donations of $100 to Churches for Middle East Peace and another of $100 to Foundation for Middle East Peace, which are organisations that espouse and fund pro-Arab causes …’

Aside from the paranoia, I’ve lived for more than 20 years in Brooklyn, and the only ‘foreign potentate’ that came to mind was my mother. I couldn’t escape the vague feeling of shame that the whole point of the citizenship ceremony was to renounce her. I felt that I was betraying my allegiance to a distant way of life that she represented, one that is preserved in my decent memories of silver birch trees on a front lawn, side tables crammed with puddings, and the latest news from the Jesuit Mothers’ Club.

There was one important consolation to my betrayal. I had gained the vote. And in November 2004, my son will cast his first vote, too. I look forward to helping drive the disastrous George W. Bush from office.


I had voted for the first time in 1966. It was a Federal election. I vaguely remember walking from the university to a polling booth inside a red-brick school near Rathdowne Street, Carlton.

As we left the hall, a black Commonwealth car pulled up to the kerb, and out stepped the rumpled Arthur Calwell, the Honourable Member for Melbourne Ports. His large face was famously jowly. It was dominated by a crooked, bulbous nose and a big natural smile. This was to be his final term.

Calwell was the bright eldest son of a working-class family. He left St Joseph’s Christian Brothers’ School in North Melbourne when he was only 15 to help put food on the family table. Educated in what he proudly termed ‘the school of hard knocks’, Calwell rose through the Labor ranks to become leader of the Federal Opposition. A handful of Communist preferences denied him the prime ministership in 1961.

Calwell’s nemesis was Robert Menzies, the son of a Wimmera shopkeeper who grew up to acquire raging royalist pretences. The University of Melbourne-educated Menzies skilfully nurtured the idea that regular Australians would be embarrassed at Buckingham Palace if we were represented by the dishevelled Calwell with his working-class accent. One thing you knew about Menzies: He wouldn’t dunk his biscuits or drink from the royal saucer at tea time. You just couldn’t be sure about Arthur Calwell.

In 1965, Menzies had sent Australian conscripts to fight alongside the Americans in Vietnam. The move lit a flame under Labor’s anti-conscription legacy. The Catholic population was split, and the hard men of the Catholic Right filled the air with charges of ‘treason’ and ‘capitulation to the godless communists’.

Unfortunately for students of my age, this was more than a debating exercise. We could soon be conscripted to fight in Vietnam. Many of us knew draft resisters who were being jailed. Our fate was to be decided by the Army’s birthday lottery. As we waited in our student hang-outs for the ballot to be announced, we were naturally drawn to argue about the rights and wrongs of the conflict. The official line was that the public debate was over. There were only two approved courses of action for the doubters: Shut up! And meekly report for your medical if your birthday is called.

Bitter arguments raged around many Catholic dinner tables, and they left wounds that took years to heal, if they healed at all. After all, it’s hard for a 20-year-old to feel comfortable with a middle-aged man who feels so strongly about a war that he is determined for the youth to do his fighting for him.

I had come to admire Calwell for taking a very tough and unpopular stand. I walked up to him on the footpath, introduced myself, and we shook hands:

‘Mr Calwell, I want you to know that this is my first election, and I’m really pleased that I cast my first vote for you.’

‘Ah, Peter,’ he replied. ‘It’s a funny thing. I first voted in 1917. And what was the bitter issue that divided us? It was whether Australian boys should be conscripted to die on distant battlefields in a colonial war.’

‘And now, it’s your first vote. And what’s the issue? Should Australian boys be conscripted to die on distant battlefields in a colonial war! It seems that nothing’s changed!’

So here I am, a newly-minted US citizen, and I’m only weeks away from my first American presidential election. I wish that I could tell my son that Arthur Calwell called this one right from the grave—that this election is being fought over whether Americans should continue to fight and die in a distant colonial war.

That’s the way I see it, but unfortunately, its not the reality of John Kerry’s election challenge. The indigestible fact is that John Kerry and George W. Bush are on the same page with respect to Iraq. Senator John Kerry voted to authorise the war, and he has not repudiated his support. Both candidates believe that Iraq is too important to lose. Kerry’s wing of the Democratic Party wants to clean up Bush’s mess by fighting the Iraq occupation more intelligently. Kerry wants the occupation to be run by smart planners instead of ideologues. He seems to believe that a diplomatic charm offensive will lure reluctant allies into a murderous battleground.

Iraq is part of a wider struggle for control of the Middle East, so it is even more disappointing that John Kerry and George Bush both align the United States with the Israeli Right in its relentless crusade to dominate all of historic Palestine, including Jerusalem.

For example, soon after the Democratic Convention, Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon dispatched the heavy Caterpillars to raze land in the E1 block of the occupied West Bank to build condos for Jewish settlers. E1 is located due east of Jerusalem, and all parties to the conflict had determined that its seizure would end the viability of a future Palestinian state by dividing the West Bank into two non-contiguous cantons. It would also isolate East Jerusalem’s large Palestinian population deep inside a ring of walled Israeli settlements, thereby removing East Jerusalem as a potential Palestinian capital.

It was a momentous decision that upended decades of diplomacy. The two US presidential candidates responded similarly: Ignore it! This is an internal Israeli matter! Both candidates accept that American and Israeli policies in the Middle East have become strategically enmeshed, and they recognise that a strong Iraq is against Israel’s interests because it would be an oil-rich, anti-Israeli, Arab state.

The likely outcome of both the President’s and Senator Kerry’s policies is that Iraq will come to resemble the condition of the Gaza Strip, though it will be a ‘Gaza on steroids’. Iraq will continue to be fragmented and beset by violent internal conflicts. The Americans will hunker down inside huge and reasonably secure bases. Resistance to the occupiers and their local allies will be classified as terrorism and met with mass internments of young men, sieges, and Gaza-like bombardments of civilian populations. This situation will further inflame anti-Western resentment amongst Arabs, guaranteeing further attacks comparable to September 11, Bali and Madrid.

At the time of writing, the election outcome is too close to call. Kerry comes across long-faced and wooden. He drones. Bush works on projecting himself as a likeable, somewhat goofy, but desirably single-minded leader. The final battle is likely to turn on voter turnout and its well-practised American twin, vote suppression.

America has proven that it has the capability to be a force for justice in the world. Sadly, the outcome of the election doesn’t matter. There’s no understanding of history, no fearless analysis of the current situation, and no political will to implement policies that are not captive to the same lobbies that led the charge into Iraq.

Sometime in October the US mailman will deliver two pieces of mail that capture my citizenship moment. For me, a voter ID that offers a meaningless choice. For my son, a set of US draft registration papers that threaten a possible free, one-way trip to Tehran.

Peter Hamilton is a New York-based consultant. He has worked extensively on projects based in the Middle East.  Foundation for Middle East Peace and Churches for Middle East Peace are inter-denominational organisations that are focused on just solutions in the Middle East. Contact them at www.cmep.org.

 

Recent articles by Peter Hamilton.

Evolving Guatemala
Searching for Borrisnoe

 

 

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