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Dreyfus redivivus



Any government decision can cause hurt to some groups in society. There is a difference, however, between decisions that are only painful and those that are vindictive. The former may be regretted but forced by circumstances, and inflicted out of a concern, well or badly founded, for the common good. Vindictiveness implies a satisfaction in causing pain that does not arise out of need. The reason for it must be sought in the minds and hearts and culture of those who devise the policies.

Main image: Detained asylum seeker watches protest (DAN PELED/AAP)

Two recent Federal Government actions evoke this reflection. The first had to do with the treatment of ill refugees brought back to Australia for medical treatment under legislation opposed by the Government. They were confined mostly in hotels where they could see and be tormented by the sight of people living free lives and going about their ordinary business. Some remain in confinement.

Many were released into the community and left unsupported to fend for themselves. The Minister justified the release on the grounds that it they would cost the government less. The remark was consistent with the contempt for people seeking protection which has characterised the treatment of those on Manus Island and Nauru.

The second decision was to raise Jobseeker by under four dollars a day, a sum that will do nothing to ease the pressures that finding housing imposes on people. The raise, which will replace a substantially greater payment in response to the coronavirus, was the result of pressure from economists, employers and bankers. It has been widely criticised for its meanness. The Government will also reimpose more stringent obligations to seek work and introduce a line to dob in people who refuse jobs. It is hard not to see in these decisions, too, a long-standing disrespect for people who cannot find employment.

When reflecting on the vindictiveness that appears to underly these actions, I found some illumination in the treatment of Alfred Dreyfus by French authorities at the end of the nineteenth century. The loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany in 1874 was followed by a strong nationalist reaction in France, particularly in the army. Rumours spread of spies who were disclosing French military secrets to Germany.

On the basis of insubstantial and later falsified evidence, the army charged Dreyfus, already suspect as a Jewish military officer from Alsace. He was tried in a closed military court on a charge supported by the most tenuous of evidence, ceremonially dismissed from the army, and sentenced to imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guyana. He was the only prisoner on the island.

As the sketchiness of the evidence led to pressure for a review of the verdict, the army and parliament closed ranks to defend the verdict and the reputation of the senior army officials who had brought the case. During the public controversy Dreyfus was treated with increasing brutality on Devil Island, manacled during the day and night in case by some miracle he escaped. His main supporter in the army was imprisoned, exiled and dismissed. A second military trial was held in a climate of virulent anti-Semitism. It again found Dreyfus guilty. Eventually through a change of government he was freed, pardoned, and later found cleared of the charge and received back into the army.


'To see its victims as human beings like ourselves worthy of respect and crying out for justice would discredit both policy and its officers.'


The salient points of comparison with the latest instances of Australian treatment of people who seek protection and are unemployed lie in the unreasonable nature of the actions taken both by the French army and the Australian Government, in the animus directed against their victims, and in the persistence and intensification of animus against all decency and reason. All these cases display vindictiveness — an infliction of pain that is neither demanded nor decent.

In Dreyfus’ case it arose from the felt need to justify unethical decisions and actions, with all the bad faith that this involves. Once senior military figures had made him the convenient victim of a politically expedient trial, they had to continue to see him as a threat. For them his increasingly harsh treatment on Devil’s Island and the popular hatred of him as a traitor confirmed his guilt and the danger that he posed to France, as did the representation of him as Alsatian and Jewish, both seen as signs of divided loyalties, and as a poor soldier. The military could justify their conduct because, regardless of the evidence, he was the hated outsider unentitled to respect, a Dreyfus who had to be crushed. He was no longer a human being.

That dynamic also characterises the treatment by successive Australian Governments of people seeking protection and sent to Nauru and Manus Island and of people who cannot find work. The exclusion on the basis of their date of arrival of people seeking protection in Australia was an initially cruel and unreasonable decision made for reasons of deterrence and political gain. The regime established on Manus Island, as analysed by Behrouz Boochani, who was one of its victims, was a superflux of cruelty designed to dehumanise and demoralise people. It expressed the need to justify an unethical policy by proving that its victims were less than human and therefore dangerous and deserving of their treatment.

Like Dreyfus they were subjected to brutal treatment in order to demonstrate that the policy and the character of its administrators were just and reasonable. To see its victims as human beings like ourselves worthy of respect and crying out for justice would discredit both policy and its officers.

Seen in that light the arbitrary freeing and abandoning of some vulnerable people from confinement while leaving others confined and justifying it on the grounds of expense is also best understood as driven by the compulsion to prove that such people are less than human and are not worthy of the respect due to fully human beings. The humiliation implicit in such reasoning served to prove to the policy makers that the decision which led to confinement and illness was reasonable and just.

The harsh treatment of people who are unemployed has long been justified and continued by the same kind of reasoning. They can be left below the poverty line, subjected to onerous and unreasonable rituals of applying for jobs that are not available, and humiliated by stories turned up by the dob-in line, because they are supposedly a lesser breed of human beings. Whereas such 'fully' human beings as politicians work by choice because of the satisfaction that their work gives them, lesser beings avoid work by choice, and work only if compelled by stringency and by humiliating conditions. By ensuring that they live in poverty and humiliation, the deprivation of support ensures that they despair of finding work. They then are confirmed as beings of a lesser status who deserve their humiliating treatment. The devisers of policy may then congratulate themselves as stern but benign masters.

As was the case with Dreyfus, the punishment of people to justify those who administer unjust policies is linked with discriminatory social attitudes to minority groups in society. The attitudes to people who are unemployed and who seek protection from persecution in Australia echo those to Jewish people in nineteenth century France. These public attitudes are the seedbed for administrative injustice and the suffering of its victims.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Detained asylum seeker watches protest (DAN PELED/AAP)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, people seeking asylum, JobSeeker, Alfred Dreyfus, unemployed, welfare



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Existing comments

Andrew thank you for articulating the abhorrence I feel toward those who establish, implement and maintain inhumane policies that dehumanise the weak and powerless. We would do well to reflect on the notion of the ‘shadow’ that Carl Jung gave us. That which we most despise is the very aspect of ourselves that we do not/choose not to observe and acknowledge in ourselves. Lord have Mercy on us and may we be merciful toward others!

Martyn | 04 March 2021  

Thank you, Andrew, for this very thoughtful piece on the inhumane treatment of people who are seen as a problem to the government and, by extension, enough of the electorate for them to continue such policies. I cannot imagine the devastation felt by those who long since came seeking asylum, become unwell in prolonged off-shore detention, and are now confined to hotels. It just seems so unnecessary, and it is hard to avoid seeing it as vindictive too. Along with Martyn, well may we say Lord have mercy on us!

George | 04 March 2021  

Our attitude to those who are genuine refugees has been conditioned so that it is very similar to classic European Antisemitism. We know where that led. The world refugee problem is now horrendous and open to exploitation by people traffickers. Meanwhile, national governments, overwhelmed by other problems, seem powerless to deal with it.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2021  

Your article once again reminds me that Australia is far from being an ethical and compassionate society. I am saddened. Thanks Andrew. Carole

Carole McDonald | 04 March 2021  

IMHO, the actions of Minister Dutton, and by extension the PM and the rest of his cabinet, are pure unadulterated vindictiveness. There is no rational justification for this continued persecution.

Ginger Meggs | 04 March 2021  

Thanks, Andrew, for your thoughts. Let's hope that our fellow citizens soon realize that violence condoned seeps into us all. As you write, we physically and psychologically injure those who are innocent of little else than fleeing violence. Lack of respect for one group can easily pass onto another. Time to cease and desist and declassify. Women, first Nation people, refugees, disabled and mentally ill cry out for compassion. We are all diminished when their pleas fall on deaf ears.

Kimball Byron Chen | 04 March 2021  

I don't understand why we, the Australian people put up with these policies. Letters to politicians seem in vain. Have our society and our Federal politicians always been so blind? Was there a period after colonisation when everybody was accorded dignity by the government? Please explain.

Henri | 04 March 2021  

Thank you Andy for voicing and clarifying an issue which has been worrying me for a while. I have long thought the treatment of asylum seekers and the unemployed was cruel and punitive. I now have a better understanding of how and why it happens.

Christine Locke | 05 March 2021  

Many thanks Andrew. Unfortunately, the cruelty and vindictiveness displayed by the Federal government is not only confined to those who are unemployed, or refugees & asylum seekers detained on Nauru, P.N.G. or Christmas Island. In relation to the latter, the parents & children known to us all as as the Biloela Family have just experienced today their third year of detention, which in itself is an indictment on our federal government. They also represent the grave risk faced by all Sri Lankan Tamil refugees in Australia who are constantly theatened with deportation to a country which continues to persecute the minority Tamils. The recent change of government in Sri Lanka has placed returned refugees in grave danger. Our government won't listen to the facts and are complicit in this continuing cruelty.

Peter Coghlan | 05 March 2021  

Well done, Andrew. Can I particularly support the comments of Peter Coghlan in relation to the Biloela family. Hauling a peaceful settled family from its beds at 5 am and imprisoning them for three years (at vast financial cost to taxpayers) is wicked and vindictive. The local MP Ken O'Dowd should hang his head in shame for failing to take extreme action to protect them. With the government's ethical stocks currently rock bottom, the new immigration minister could salvage a few brownie points by admitting the administration has erred, and sending them back to Biloela.

Llewellyn Davies | 05 March 2021  

Sydney's Anglicans spent a million dollars opposing marriage equality, maybe they will dip into their funds again to oppose this travesty of justice ? But don't hold your breath waiting.

Ginger Meggs | 06 March 2021  

Oh Andrew, you disappoint me so, "j' Accuse..." leaving out the name of Nobel Literature prize winner novelist Emile Zola who was instrumental in being an (the) activist for Dreyfus, buying the front page of a leading newspaper L' Aurore and ultimately fleeing France rather than face a libel case for his prosaic accusations. It's fairly important you don't plead "harsh" 1890's French law in Australian situations; there it has been the onus of the accused to prove their innocence rather than our more accustomed "innocent until proven guilty.." which we rely. I cannot know of Dreyfus' innocence or guilt other than the very complex allegations but put the case that due to the 1892 Panama (canal) Affair and "Boulanger" both which had made violent anti-Semite actions popular that the quiet, expedient dispatch of one scapegoat to somewhere else (oooh, Devil's Island has a ring to it) was to try to maintain civil stability and save lives. Bear in mind it was the Catholic church who pressed for Dreyfus' two convictions and only 100 years later La Croix published their apology for their anti-Semitic publications. Ultimately, Dreyfus was not exonerated and the pardon by a later government was delivered to anyone involved in the affair.

ray | 07 March 2021  

The most obvious case of Dreyfus redivivus is that of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (et al), The parallels are almost unnerving to the point of plagiarism. Minority scapegoat, army dishonorable discharge, tried and convicted twice, cause taken up by Nobel literature writers (Zola & Dylan), poetic licence appeals, liabel cases lodged, claims of squalid detention, unreliable witnesses and ultimately pardons years later through frustration. My thoughts are with their significantly less famous co-accused; I'd have to suggest few readers know the names or circumstances of the convicted accomplices, even Dylan's song fails to identify Artis who stood trial and convicted for the same crime and penalty. Am I missing something or is there some perverse justice to elevate someone to innocence because they're good at punching people in the face...? Andrew suggests that the seedbed for administrative injustice is discriminatory public attitudes but I don't see evidence of this. What I do see is the laws are written for the "common person" but frequently allegations are made at persons who are less than common; previous convictions, drug misuse, refugee and first generation immigrants, first nations people, history of family violence...the usual suspects. You can't turn a vegetable farm into a cattle ranch without changing the fences.

ray | 08 March 2021  

As usual, Andy, a stunningly well-crafted essay, placing eloquence at the service of exposing a brutal and unalloyed truth and the tenderest of mercies then applied to restore right relations. Its only by working on both fronts that injustice can be combated and virtue restored. I'm not sure why Ray prefers to raise red herrings when, plainly, it was Zola's stupendous weight that turned the tide on l'affair Dreyfus and made it the cause celebre of the century. While that called for drastic action, it exposed anti-semitism for the first time in modern Europe as an act of bastardry and stripped it off its faux respectability, departing from the milder but equally pernicious cover-up practices of the Anglo-Saxon world in similar contexts. My other observation is that unless such scapegoating behaviour is publicly challenged it seeps its way into the underbelly of society and poisons the minds and hearts of everyday people whose exposure to vindictive practices has blinded them into seeing just how ethically co=opted and compromised we have become. I hope and pray that happens here and have circulated your marvelous piece de resistance as far and as widely as I can manage. God Bless Those Who Read!

Michael Furtado | 10 March 2021  

Sydney Anglicans feel themselves 'besieged' by the rest of their fellow Anglicans here, Ginger. They are typically apolitical, unlike their English counterparts, such as Wilberforce and Salisbury.

Edward Fido | 10 March 2021  

Dear Ginger, Sydney Anglicans, while undoubtedly categorically different from their British counterparts, are no less political - though conservatively so - than those of their co-religionists in the UK. The catalytic difference here has been the size and former growth of the Irish-Australian community and the enormity of the sectarian stoush between Broughton and Quinn on state-aid. This has historically attracted political conservatives of all protestant denominations to their cause through the institution of state schools (with their Low Church evangelical agenda), while forging, in more recent and less-sectarian times, closer links between them and conservative-minded Catholics, even in the instance of an evidently cordial episcopal project - ominous in my view! - on bioethical questions, as some Catholic bishops resile from support for Papal Social Teaching and seek to build an alliance between contemporary conservative Catholicism and politicians of the Right. Michael Hogan of Sydney University has mapped the politics of this development, while Edmund Campion the history of such parallax effects as they currently impact on our politics and theology. While radical approaches to advancing a vibrant social Christianity are clearly not on their theological agenda, it happens at least that both sides are committed to low-fee schools.

Michael Furtado | 13 March 2021  

Though racism is not a factor in the abject scapegoating this government employs the blaming of whistleblowers who reveal the sordid facts about spying on East Timor and holding a trial in secret instead of prosecuting a certain minister for espionage for commercial advantage does show similarities. It is none these so sad that the Jewish centre in Canberra must be guarded at all times against racist thugs .

Karis | 02 April 2021  

While it is an atrocious and absurdly targeted miscalculation for Holocaust Centres to become the victim of hooligans, whether racist or otherwise, around the world, Karis would do well to remember that such Centres now tragically constitute the collateral damage for hot-heads opposed to Zionist ill treatment of the Palestinians that no contemporary champion of Alfred Dreyfus, such as I, would ever support. Thus, anti-racism, amidst racism's many atrocious and unspeakable forms and arising out of the execrable treatment of Jews during the Second World War, has now come to be associated with the horrific punishment and persecution meted out by the State of Israel to the Palestinian people in the name of the Jewish people. That grotesque paradox is enough to rouse the sentiments of latter-day Dreyfusards around the world to extend our justice-seeking sympathies towards the support and protection of the Palestinian people, who still suffer a holocaust of their own as they have relentlessly done over the last eighty years. The villain in the piece is the Israel Zionist Right-Wing which has consistently misused the terrible and wicked tragedy of Belsen, Auschwitz and Treblinka to pursue a policy against the Palestinians every bit as pernicious as Hitler's.

Michael Furtado | 06 April 2021  

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