Monday, September 26, 2016

This foundering polity

Five-masted barque in broken bottle (c.1970), Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, in the Tempest exhibition
I've an essay in the most recent Island magazine, 'The Foundering Polity'. I'm looking at an old, powerful trope: the shipwreck, the marooned sailor, the drowned seaman.

Versions of this metaphor colour our political debate, suggesting insecurity, risk, horror. But it is a reality for those seeking asylum by sea -- the very people we reject to keep 'lifeboat Australia' afloat. A sample:
In politics, as in maritime adventure, to step off the land is to risk becoming marooned and drowned. And we must step off the land: there is no humanity without politics. So it is reasonable and often necessary to feel some fear about our communal existence. But this ‘should depress only those,’ writes Oakeshott, ‘who have lost their nerve.’ As this suggests, the ideal is to recognise the danger, feel the anxiety, without becoming paralysed, reckless or worst of all: cruel.  
Australia is cruel. We respond to literal alarm at sea with rejection (and possible refoulement) and punishment. The risk is recognised in a public relations mantra (‘deaths at sea’), but the policy has what Hume might call ‘a savage heart’. Having survived perilous waters—to say nothing of threats in their home countries— refugees are jailed by multinationals in small countries, all bankrolled by our wealthy state. There they face more dangers, including assault, rape, disease and mental illness. Prospero was more kind to his marooned enemies than we are to these crimeless strangers.
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