Ben Winch

Light Traveller

Does Safety Equal Fascism?

Isolation, Brexit, asylum seekers, Australia

June 25th 2016

I’ll tell you my biggest fear: isolation.

To grow old and die in fair-to-middling physical comfort in Australia, never looking too deeply, owing to my natural inclination to introversion, into the sufferings of others, living my life through books and songs and the fantasy that I might have made a difference, if I’d been less isolated.

Isolation, for me, a comfortable Australian, not well-off, not poverty stricken, is cultural isolation – is censored slow internet, is fourth-hand news, is Murdoch monopoly, is slashed arts funding. As a musician, it’s knowing that the obstacles to a viable audience and financial renumeration are virtually insurmountable, not just as wide as an ocean but as non-negotiable as a green card, or an EU passport-check. As a writer of, by Australian standards, obscure and unsaleable fiction, it’s also about language: most books of fiction I love have been translated; they come from mainland Europe, South America, Japan.

Isolation, for me, is a $2000 return flight. It’s red-tape and visa restrictions and not being allowed to work. It’s the deadening sense that nothing changes, nothing inspires, and the outside world is far, far distant. It’s, for better or worse, being wedded to Australia.

But worse – far worse – isolation, for me, is powerlessness. It’s watching on helpless, from a distance, as things disintegrate.

What can I do? If I had influence – “success” – maybe my views would count for something. Across the Anglo world, fear is spreading. In my country’s name, on my behalf, desperate people – far more desperate than I am, desperate enough to pile onto ill-equipped small boats and take to the sea – are incarcerated, according to arcane directives they don’t understand and can see no end to, and held under constant observation until they set fire to themselves or eat screws or slash their wrists in protest, while their children (who themselves are routinely abused by prison guards) watch. The despair of this! The utter, unmitigated disaster for all involved – for those people, for the government that incarcerated them, for the people of Australia, when finally, as must happen, the survivors are released and tell their stories. A disaster, no matter whose side you’re on: humanitarian, financial, political, and in terms of public safety (that holy grail – the ostensible reason for this suffering!), since surely those traumatised children will, in some cases, also be radicalised.

Meanwhile my own friends – members of my own family – deride these “fortune seeking” asylum seekers, say they would never have the temerity to arrive in a foreign country without a visa, say – in other words – that they are happy, or happy enough, with comfort, with isolation, with knowing that through some quirk of history they, and I, and most if not all of you who’ll read this post, have “come out on top” and avoided the suffering of over half of the world’s population. (And does it still need to be said that, in many cases, that suffering is a direct result of the actions of our richer countries?)

But enough! I don’t want to go down that “Who’s to blame?” rabbit-hole. One fact appals me, now, above all others: the fact of increasing, fearful ISOLATION, of closing borders, of country against country, of pointing fingers, of each-to-their-own, of what appears to be the locking-down (and ultimately the locking-in) of Anglo culture.

I DON’T LIKE BORDERS.

That the world, at this point, when the only real cause for hope is increased communication, should turn its back on that hope in favour of borders – that appals me. If I wish freedom of movement for myself, how can I deny it to others?

And terrorism? If terrorism is in the world then I must accept I may be touched by it, particularly if my own country is complicit in fuelling it. Funny, how those who wish to “fight terrorism” can only think to do it by attacking the places that breed terrorists – as if increasing these people’s suffering, especially at the hands of the rich western countries they already mistrust, is going to reduce their anger at us! For my part I would like, if my message could ever reach so far, to show the world a face of compassion, not hate, not ignorance. Ignorant I am, inevitably; ignorant we all are unless we see as everybody sees. But I, a comfortable Australian, who once lived two years in Manchester England and six months in Vancouver Canada, who travelled for three or four months through mainland Europe and the United States as an adult and to Asia and England in his childhood and otherwise spent his forty-two years at home in Australia, am especially ignorant. I don’t know where the world is headed, but I know that borders – that arrogant, increased, wilful ignorance – cannot help. I know that, as one relatively ignorant of suffering, I must be humble. And that, if I hope to partake in the wisdom of the world, then I must share what I have: my comfort, my prosperity.

The “Brexit” win, yesterday, is the occasion of my writing this, but not my only motivator. For months now, it seems, this tide has been steadily rising. Here in Australia, every week or so, another piece of the puzzle of our future seems to fall into place: new stringent anti-protest laws and decreased fines for illegal mining, drops in funding to anti-government-corruption watchdogs, the purchase by police of Long Range Acoustic Devices and illegal spyware, increased powers to police which bypass the traditional court system, the forced removal of entire Indigenous settlements, the imminent demise of Fairfax Media, ever-mounting anti-Muslim sentiment, the raiding of Labour Party offices by the Australian Federal Police, the government’s pledge to increase defence spending by cutting public spending in every conceivable way. With so many precedents in place, how long is it before we grudgingly, but for the sake of relative comfort and safety, accept fascism? What has to happen for Australia to turn that corner? With the balance of powers – political and environmental – in the world so unstable, aren’t we treading on thin ice already?

What we let happen to others in our name, soon enough, will come to haunt us. Maybe Australia will never quite fall to fascism. Maybe the worst vengeance the world has in store for us – as for Britain, as for the U.S. if it’s not careful – is isolation. But that, to me, is bad enough. I do not accept that Nauru, that Manus Island, must exist in order for me to remain comfortable. If that is the price of comfort, I don’t want it. Its taste is bitter. Centuries-old traditions of hospitality to the traveller and the stranger are being made mockery of, for the sake of another fair-to-middling day in “the lucky country”. We will reap what we sow.

Nauru from the air

Nauru from the air

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