The problem of sacredness

The major problem with making things sacred is that it inevitably leads to both commercialism and hypocrisy.

The pre-eminent example of this in European history was the pre-Counter Revolution Catholic Church. In Australia the pre-eminent example is the Anzac Day commemorations which will take place tomorrow.

The Catholic Church was outstanding at both. If you don’t feel up to re-reading Chaucer or a history of the Popes you can always look at the DVD of A Knight’s Tale to see a living breathing pardoner and the corruption which was endemic to the Church, the invention of Purgatory, the indulgences and all the other dodgy tricks the Church used to rip off money from the faithful. But commercialism like this was pretty insignificant compared with the Papal history of hypocrisy featuring murder, illegitimate children, nepotism and the odd other sin. But simony, of all both sets of sins, is perhaps the best guide to contemporary Anzac celebrations (after all it seems odd to use the word commemoration given what takes place before and on the day).

For in Australia simony is alive and well with Anzac Day. We pretend to keep it in bounds with legislation and the occasional outing of the Camp Gallipolis and the Woolworths. But these are but scapegoats for the commercialism practised by government and others. Woolworths’ campaign was stupid, but useful, because it acted as a lightning rod which distracted attention from other activities. After all the Australian Mint sells commemorative coins which probably have the same value as a piece of Royal commemorative porcelain or a Channel Nine signed picture of a cricket milestone.

And hypocrisy is also alive and well. It always seems, as the blog’s ex-service father said, that some of the most gung ho Anzac Day supporters are those who never heard a shot fired in anger. And where do you start with governments? Tony Abbott may not be quite as bad as George W. Bush but he is equally as good at wrapping himself in the flag while trying to dud serving military personnel with a derisory pay offer and trying to dud returned service people with a pension indexation system which would progressively make them worse off. In George W.’s case the cutbacks in benefits for veterans were dwarfed by the appalling neglect of wounded veterans in hospitals. In days of yore if you got wounded you probably died of disease or lack of treatment. Today, even with horrific wounds, sophisticated medivac operations whisk you to a military hospital in Germany where you get great life-saving treatment only to be (in many cases) then dumped in a facility in the US where you can rot away.

What is also depressing is that what Australians are encouraged to believe about Gallipoli is wrong. They didn’t land at the wrong beach; they weren’t singled out for destruction by the British (who after all lost 21,000 dead compared to our 8,000) or the French (who lost 10,000); or even the Indians of which 15,000 fetched and carried while many of them died; and, most importantly, it is not the defining moment in Australian history which successive governments had tried to make it.

We should not forget any (well most)Australian men and women who have served in the military but we should first be celebrating advances in social welfare; our industrial relations conciliation history; votes for women and many other things. We should be commemorating the indigenous warriors who died on the frontier wars. Why are the first soldiers listed on the honour rolls at the Australian War Memorial those who were unlucky enough to die of disease in obscure colonial wars when the indigenous dead of our colonial wars are ignored? Why do we have an AWM Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, who believes the honour rolls honour those who ‘died under the Australian flag’ when any foule (as Private Eye says) knows that most of them fought under flags very different from our current one? Why are we spending more, in absolute terms, on WWI commemorations than the British government is?

One saving grace, however, is that perhaps it has all been just a bit overdone. Just as Catholic excesses unleashed the permanently constipated Martin Luther so perhaps the overkill on the Anzac Day Centenary may lead to commemorative Anzac Day constipation. There are already indications of this as some recent Gallipoli-themed TV programs have rated poorly (perhaps because they were too realistic) and there is the odd traitorous media outlet trying to balance the coverage by pointing out, for instance, that Indians served there too and that Gallipoli was not the most significant event in our history. Perhaps also there are signs that our short attention spans might not get through the full four years of the WW1 commemorations.

And, by the way – on the subject of overkill: the blog’s local City of Port Phillip, posted out a letter to residents and ratepayers saying one of our roads would be closed on Anzac morning Sunday (sic) April 25 for commemorative reasons. It may have been incompetence, which is probable, but it may also just be a product of further confusion about what Anzac Day is and evidence that much of the money spent by governments on what they think it might be is misspent.