Given the role of religion in US politics these days it is perhaps not surprising that the great biblical yarn, Exodus, seems to be enjoying a re-run since the recent election.
According to New Zealand’s Dominion Post inquiries from the US about immigrating to NZ are now four times what they were before the Presidential election. Normally the New Zealand Immigration Service website gets about 2,500 inquiries a day. That’s now jumped to 10,300 with a sharp upturn at 11 pm on election night. Phones in NZ marketing offices in Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco are also running hot. Some of them apparently also want to come to Australia, and Canadians are offering refuge – just as they did during the Vietnam War.
Fallujah and Vietnam
Thinking of Vietnam, it has become almost axiomatic that Iraq and Vietnam are not the same – if only because one had a dense jungle before the US tried to defoliate it.
But reading the reports out of the Fallujah battle, I couldn’t help but think of some of my experiences as a young artillery officer in South Vietnam some 30 odd years ago. Military leaders – and politicians – are making remarkably similar statements about “final” victories and the need to stay the course. Just a bit more firepower, some strong government and more determination and the war will be won, democracy will come and the liberated populace will be rejoicing. Indeed, it would all happen so much faster if there were not a few foreign insurgents supported by other governments (read North Vietnamese, Russia and China in the Vietnam case and Syria et al in the Iraqi case).
Each day as the war rolled on another decisive battle was fought. The locals lined the roads and looked sullenly at their liberators. The guerrillas slipped away to fight another day in another location. It wasn’t safe to go out at night in the cities and you never quite knew when the next contact would occur. The same racist stereotyping is used to characterise the enemy. This is complemented in Iraq by some old-fashioned religion as illustrated by one US spokesperson (a Colonel no less) who said his troops knew who the enemy was and it was Satan.
The US troops still think firepower is the solution to all problems and seem happy to destroy areas to save them. …and as everyone who fought in Vietnam remembers, the US troops are bloody dangerous to be near whether you are friend or foe.
The rest of the world is finding it more and more distasteful and anger and resentment is growing.
On the ground in Vietnam the chasm between reality and rhetoric was always apparent. Now the US administration just discounts those who live in what they call a reality-based universe ignores the chasm.
Of course, there is another similarity between Vietnam and Iraq. Those who sent the troops – Menzies, Bush, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz etc – nearly all shared similar notations on their career CVs: “promising military careers cut short by the outbreak of war” or, “other responsibilities precluded service”.
Museums and politics
In the US and Australia museums and history are fiercely contested areas. On the one hand are the post-modernists trying to pretend that everything is relative and disputing the value of narrative. On the other side are the right who want museums and history to uplift us and airbrush out all the unfortunate bits.
Recently I had the good fortune to visit a great museum which shows that you can present a national story with a strong narrative and – at the same time – a nuanced view of competing interests and interpretations of the past.
It’s Te Papa Tongarewa, the NZ national museum in Wellington. Like all museums these days you need to negotiate through the shops and restaurants to get to the displays but when you do it’s worth it.
It starts – as all good national stories should – with the geographic and geological realities and then moves through a contemporary Marae (meeting house) into a series of displays which deal sensitively and comprehensibly with myths, race, treaties, technologies, art, social, political issues and flora and fauna.
Indeed, it is very much like the great museum Australia might have had in Canberra if as much community and political effort had been spent on developing the place and exhibits as was spent on right wing witch-hunts and getting rid of Dawn Casey.
But the problem is probably not the contest between the post-modernists and the populist right – rather it is the convergence of their mutual determination to blur the distinctions between myth, reality and truth.
For the right this is a commercial enterprise. The Herald-Sun and other tabloids regularly devote as more space to soap stars, celebrities and “reality TV” as they do to news. This is not new for those old enough to recall the “who killed JR?” publicity, but is probably more pervasive and more effective in dumbing down readers.
The commercialization cancer – driven by neo-liberal economics – also affects great institutions. The British Museum recently opened its magnificent Enlightenment display but at the same time mounted a display of costumes from the film Troy. There seemed to be more tourists taking photographs of the costumes than visiting the Enlightenment display let alone the stunning collection of antiquities the British looted from various places. At the Troy excavation site in Turkey the government has erected a huge and ugly wooden horse because the tourists expect to see one, climb into it and get photographed by it. Admittedly this pre-dated the film but the principle is the same.
In New Zealand it is impossible to escape Lord of the Rings, and in Punakaiki on the west coast tourist information centres seem to have as much information about the sites at which the film Perfect Strangers was filmed as they do about the blowholes and geological oddities. The site for Field of Dreams became a major tourist attraction in the US.
The Museum of Sydney is a post-modernist delight with drawer after drawer of unconnected artifacts with nothing as vulgar and academically improper as a narrative to explain them.
Not that there was any academic purity about archaeology or museums before post-modernism and neo-liberalism. As Mary Beard has described in her short book on the site, the excavators at the Parthenon destroyed invaluable buildings and material as they stripped it back to an illusory vision of classicism. While the Epheseus site in Turkey is fascinating there are rather more artifacts – including an Artemisia which may date from soon after Alexander – in the Vienna Epheseus Museum.
It is considered a bit of a joke to quote Marx and Engels these days but their comments about the reduction of everything to the status of a cash commodity, religion as the opiate of the masses and false consciousness look strangely relevant when you look around – whether to the radical right or the liberal left.
Who would get Osama’s vote?
Murdoch’s New York Post distorted the Osama bin Laden tape content to make it look as if he was supporting John Kerry. Not quite as bad as in the Thatcher years, when British tabloids had front page stories about mediums claiming that Winston had said he supported Maggie and Stalin’s shade was conjured up for long enough to declare for Michael Foot, but bad enough.
Osama probably doesn’t think much of voting but, if he was more motivated by self-interest than by jihad, he’d probably be a Republican. After all Ronnie Reagan and the CIA gave him a big start in the jihad business in Afghanistan and George Dubya has become his chief recruiting officer. He could also sit around and talk about religion with the US fundamentalists who support George. However, one suspects that – unlike overly indebted Australians – he is an exception to the rule that self-interest is always the horse to back.