An academic’s dilemma

Some years ago I realised that giving academic papers at conferences or setting out a logical argument in academic journals was but one (and not a very effective way) of communicating progressive social justice ideas. This is so because even when people are convinced intellectually of the need to adopt an anti-war, pro-poor or non-racist stance they are often not sufficiently emotionally committed to get actively involved in the struggle for a better world. The important organising principle which has guided my community involvement is trying to find a way to bring people’s hearts and minds together to focus on the issue at hand.

I cast around looking for ways to do just that and now try to employ as many skills as I can bring to bear on each issue. Sure, I still try to set out logical arguments in journal articles. I am after all an academic. But I write poetry, plays, satire that I employ as part of campaigns. In the last few years of the Free East Timor Campaign rather than speaking at protest rallies I just read poems such as:

Tourism in Timor

Visit Militia City,
admire their home made guns,
count the dead
from your hotel bed;
daughters, mothers, sons.

Tour the burnt out suburbs,
fondle a hand grenade,
bury a battered body –
democracy, militia made.

You can bath in blood and gore.
Shoot the fleeing by the score.
See freedom delayed
and justice betrayed.
There is a whole lot more.

We’ll show you Kopassus compassion.
You can dig an unmarked grave.
Teach you how to kill the wounded.
It’s cheap you’ll save
and save.

(Kopassus is the Indonesian Special Forces unit responsible for the Militia in Timor on-going atrocities in West Papua)

I would like to sing songs in preference but, being absolutely tone deaf, this would simply inflict cruel and unusual punishment on the audience.

Australia automatically imprisons for indefinite periods asylum seekers who arrive on our shores without visas. Many stay locked up in detention centres in remote arid areas of our continent. Nine months after reading the following prose poem at a pro-refugee conference a woman came up to me and said how moved she had been by my poems and went on to tell me what she had been doing to assist refugees and asylum seekers.

Why are there no flowers in Australia?

A young asylum seeker secreted behind the shafts of razor wire at Woomera asks “Why are there no flowers in Australia?” What can I tell her that would make sense in such a desert landscape? Will the Wackenhut guards who confine would-be refugees be displeased with my answer? If I told her that there are wonderful flowers in Australia will that further wound her, knowing she is being prevented from seeing the blooms? Will she be bewildered trying to understand why the Government, which claims to be inspired by humanity and compassion, prevents her seeing Australia’s flowers?

Would it be kinder to tell her that the cleared red brown earth which she and her fellow inmates daily pound, the distant salt bush and spinifex (observable through the detention camp’s steel mesh) is the totality of vegetation she is likely to observe in this country? Or, should I tell her that about every 7 years the desert country around Woomera is deluged by rain and the desert comes alive with flowers? Will that news create so much excitement in this young woman’s heart that she will not be able to put up with the day-to-day drabness of the detention centre, the sameness of the daily routine of imprisonment and the meanness of spirit of her incarcerators?

I don’t know what to tell her. I would appreciate it if you and your readers would write to juvenile detainee number 433 and explain to her why there are no flowers in Australia.
Thank you.

Written circa 2001