sixteen kinds of hurt

When my Dad was mad he’d threaten me with sixteen kinds of hurt.

There was the clip over the ear; the smack on the chops; the belt across my buttocks; the gut punch; the double fisted shirt grab; the single handed throat grip; the thrown object; the arse over tit shove; the chair knock over; the millimetre-close door slam; the bookcase pulldown; the plate slid across the table to smash and send food into my lap. There were probably others. Who was counting? The whole show was all about his abandonment to ferocity, the strength of his feeling and the feeling was entirely of the moment. Wherever he was  and whatever he had to hand, right there and right then.

Thinking back, the hurt never changed much. To me it was always the same goulash of surprise, fear, humiliation, shame and bewilderment. Even today, in moments of stress, these same churning peppery sensations are instantly present when I see hurt coming. It doesn’t have to be a physical blow. The hurt can be emotional, financial, professional  or anything really, they all produce roughly the same effect. My face flushes, my eyes look to the floor, my scalp itches, my hands shake, and my gut goes in all directions at once. I go mute and rag doll: can’t speak, can’t move. I’m thinking “just hit me already.” If I see it coming I am a duplicate of my frightened eight year old self, paralysed, not even able to brace for impact.

As a child this rag doll passivity served a dual purpose.  Firstly, it got the impact over with and I could retreat to wherever might be safe, usually my room or outside with the dog. Secondly, it made the injustice I felt and suffered concrete, and from that materiality I could righteously absolve myself of whatever role I may played in producing the circumstances, in causing him to hurt me. My consoling righteousness enabled fantasies of revenge: hitting back, withdrawing love, stealing hope, sabotaging comfort, crushing dreams, undermining confidence, trivialising joy. I imagined inflicting all of these and, perhaps, with the shaky hands of the afraid, tried to do it once in a while.

But he was my Dad and he wasn’t like that all the time.

He didn’t say sorry, ever that I recall, and he didn’t do remorse, but he was loving. He wasn’t very good at it. He really sucked at it. I didn’t know why this was for a long time, and during that long period of not knowing I was not inclined to be forgiving. I didn’t want to know why he was so terrible at love, or how hard he tried. I was too busy trying not to be terrible at love myself and forgiving him might have required me to directly address the limits of my own capacities for love, as well as acknowledging that my own deliveries of hurt to others were similarly unforgivable, modelled as they were upon his. I didn’t care what broke his heart. I only cared that he broke mine and that my broken heart had led me astray, making hurt a big landmark in my topography of love.

I thought he should pay for this. I thought that whenever I came into view the hurt he did should block every path in his future. I can’t remember when I realised that revenge was an unreliable compass, when I understood that my hurt could be duplicated in my loved ones and it could block all our paths. Later, I knew that my hurt was a duplication of his and that the course laid out by my revenge for this could take us all back to square one. Whenever it was that this became known to me it was already too late for Dad and me. His journey, his hurts and his burdens, demanded a heavy price in health and then he was gone.

I’d like to think that the cycle has been interrupted, that there is no more duplication of his hurts, that violence need not be a gift the men of our family keep on giving. I hope that the hurt and violence he gifted me is quarantined in my dreams of him, and not in the architecture of my children’s lives. I’ve worked hard to this end, to untether violence from a father’s love, from a man’s love. This is a worthy project that can only expand the prospects for loving well, and for being justly loved. It’s not without cost. There’s a weight to carry and not put down: a sadness that the past cannot be reconfigured in a similar light, that hurt cannot be undone, that we can’t go back and find a way for our fathers to forget all sixteen kinds of hurt.

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heaven knows

The day starts with Sex Machine. James Brown shouting his chorus to my sleeping children (Get up! get on up/Get up! get on up) and I feel Bootsy’s deep bass begin the snaking energy transfer from the cold airs to the warm bodies. I make their school lunches and pour one more cup of coffee. Drinking it I dress myself and prepare my kit bag. I checklist the schoolgoers and their necessities. Shoes. Hair. Teeth. Lunch. Afternoon rendezvous. Then kisses and wishes. Off they go, my own little F-Troop, leaving Fort Courage for the vast plains of the playground. Into the Subaru and I join the traffic queue heading south, anxiety a rising tide as I creep through the lights, ever closer to my workplace.

Arriving, I navigate my way from the parking station to the cubicle farm. Good mornings all around, taking my seat behind the partition I slide on my headphones. It’s Wilco (Take off your Band-Aid because I don’t believe in touchdowns) this morning.  Inbox checking: cull the unnecessary, delete the irrelevant and flag the unavoidable. I build my to-do list in my notebook, transferring unfinished tasks from yesterday’s  list to today’s. I answer the easy questions first, get some momentum going. Yeah, I got this, I think checking the time in the lower right hand corner of my monitor. Seven hours to go. Not too long, I can make it. Fingers crossed. I haven’t gone postal yet.

There’s a poster on the door. Today is R U OK day. No shit. From a previous life the Dixie Flatline speaks: what bothers me is nothing does. Switch on the word-smithing. Policy, procedure, guideline, briefing note, file note, clarification, obfuscation, thank you for your inquiry. The tools of the trade. The words come down like data in the Matrix: discovery; learning; transform; intensive; reputation; environments; disciplines; capabilities; global; network; centres; partners; connected; communities; vibrant; ambition; complex; inquiry; earning; collegial; empowered; diverse; inclusive; success; initiative; enterprise; appreciated; fearless; creative; challenge; passionate; collaborative; proud; exceptional; infrastructure; priorities; demographics; skills.

Time passes. Lunch. More coffee I reckon. The students are gathered on the lawn around a stage. There’s a youthful moppet sitting on a kitchen chair with an Ovation guitar. I stand in the sunshine, smoking. I catch a lyric wafting through the eucalypts: See, the luck I’ve had/Can make a good man/Turn bad. Fuck me, the moppet is doing Morrissey. The Smiths. Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want. There are signs all around for R U OK day and she’s singing: see, the life I’ve had can make a good man bad. I reckon she’s onto something, it’s just too close to home so I head off for the coffee queue.

Returning from the south face I again find myself compelled by the moppet. There’s a Paul Kelly tune, something Missy Higgins must have written. Another cigarette. And then she says that this is her last song. I look at my watch. Three hours to go. I’ve got the measure of this day, no problem. And then she sings: I was looking for a job, and then I found a job and heaven knows I’m miserable now. Christ with a dildo, Morrissey again. Momentarily there is a tear running down behind my sunglasses. Am I OK? I ask myself. Fuck. Jesus Fuck. I look at a duck on the pond. I see the eels sunbaking below the surface of the water. I steel myself. Back up stairs into my cubicle, their cubicle. Forget that shit.

Headphones on, anything but Morrissey I think, it’s a kind of Ryan Adamsish afternoon so I dial him up (Do you wish it was me with the windows clear and the mannequins eyes, do they all look like mine?) and I find the point where I abandoned my document. I turn the torrent on again: transition; renewal; technology; service; growth; engagement; deregulation; surplus; market; invest; standards; demand; evidence; quality; literate; mobility; institutional; attributes; innovation; responsive; assets; strengths; emergent; immersive; outcomes; enriched; embedded; performance; teamwork; adaptable; sustainable; optimise; complexity; mobility; enthusiasm; mission; enhanced; benchmarking; amenities; solutions; strategy; explore; impact; wellbeing; dividend.

Eventually it is 4.45pm. I review my list and cross off what can legitimately crossed off. Scratching the sweat from my headphone crushed ears I pack up my shit and go. To the bar. One drink, two drinks, three drinks. What the fuck. Another one for Morrissey. Am I OK? I might have been and I might be again. Good enough. Time for that afternoon rendezvous.

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the curiosity and the joy

Higher education is usually all about the piece of paper, a parchment with heraldry presented at the end. Institutions want their customers to think that without the parchment there is no education; no scholarship without the overarching curricula endorsed by learned elders, those minds trained in the pursuit of established standards derived from the long tradition of disciplined erudition going back to the Venerable Bede and further still to Herodotus and Homer and the painters at Lascaux. And while a fair bit can be gleaned from those traditions, from the ancients to Bede and to his successors, the learning is in our heads.

The growth of new knowledge is within us. It is ours regardless of it being endorsed by one institution or another. The production of knowledge is not an institutional KPI, nor some petty bauble to be counted alongside yield and efficiency. The creative construction of knowledge is a celebration of our own curiosity. Sometimes institutions may assist us with the means to celebrate that curiosity, and by doing so share the joy of learning new things with others known and unknown. But to my mind the knowledge, the learning, the curiosity, and the joy are always our own: we make them, we keep them, and we tend them.

And the parchment and the heraldry matter not at all compared to our own capacity for wonder that, at its best, education strives to imitate.

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It’s not about the baggie

It seems certain that Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran will be executed over the next few days, and there’s no question that executing them is a greater crime than importing all the heroin in the entire golden triangle.

It’s a simple equation to my way of thinking: the state can’t take away what it doesn’t provide and the state doesn’t provide life. That’s something much bigger than simply a by-product of national sovereignty. The  state will often say it’s there to protect life. This is a fallacy. As every good anarchist knows, the state is a self-supporting syndicate that goes through ritual electoral motions to provide implied consent for its activities: tax, defence, airports, welfare, health services and so on. The consent is little more than a comforter, elections simply due process for dummies.  Governments do as they do, whatever the laudable statements enshrined in constitutions, or bills of rights. Such documents are fig leaves to dress the operations of power in decent clothes.

Protecting life is usually about law and order. Law and order campaigns almost always end with the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens being incarcerated. A brief look at Indigenous incarceration in Australia and elsewhere makes this abundantly clear. A bit of statistical jiggery-pokery would also make the poverty-prison nexus so obvious as to be old news. The conclusions we can draw from this are straightforward. Relatively rich people, especially relatively rich white people do not go to prison as much as poor and black people do. Law and order is a barely concealed racist discourse that alibis an unjust apparatus designed to offer a sense of security to those with something to lose, privilege mostly.

It’s pretty obvious that Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran weren’t rubbing their hands together in anticipation of hundreds of millions of dollars coming their way or how they’d be able to top up the paltry superannuation they received as casual workers in the catering industry. They may have had a larger margin but they were just as big a pair of patsies as the other seven. They were better paid mules.

It appears likely that they invested a few tens of thousands (probably leveraged by the last deal, that is to say borrowed cash one way or another) in the dope deal that brought them down. Tens of thousands of aussie dollars is not global capital at work. The best that they could probably hope for was a return on those few tens of thousands that might enable a discreet taste of the conspicuous consumption they saw all around them in post-Olympics Sydney. Chan and Sukumaran weren’t even going to make enough money between them to buy one of Harry Triguboff’s endless apartments into which the beautiful young people of Sydney sunk their investment dreams throughout the early 2000s.

Chan and Sukumaran weren’t, and aren’t, the forces of capital. They were just some guys who saw money as being the key to a good time they weren’t having. They weren’t after a criminal empire, they just wanted a nice second hand BMW. Capital draws its strength not from the vagaries of supply and supply chain management that Chan and Sukumaran were engaged in, but from the revenue derived from demand. It is demand that produces profit, demand that provokes supply*, and demand that coughs up the cash for reinvestment and the capacity to meet even greater demand. And demand, well that’s me and you.

I’ve sat in cars, in dodgy pubs, in various McDonalds and food courts, in malls and service stations sweaty-palmed with cash and demand, sometimes overwhelmingly urgent demand, to buy the products that are deemed detrimental to the protection of life by the State. Mostly this kind of behavior is framed in two ways. Firstly, as a kind of freedom-loving, mind-expanding, fun-seeking surfeit of liveliness that is ultimately harmless, or no more harmful than a big night with Margaritas or endless jugs of beer. Secondly, as a kind of self-medicating practice whereby the illicit product provides the means by which some kind of life can be maintained: overcoming pain, or depression, or anxiety, or grief, or addictions arising from use to manage any of the former, or myriad undiagnosed psychological, social, familial and personal dysfunctions. Drug use is never cleanly one or the other; sometimes it is neither in particular but whatever the prompt, thrill or maintenance or thrilling maintenance, the result is demand.

On the demand side, at the point of sale, supply is about the man with the baggies: the ounce or so divvied up to dole out as the customers lay their perspiration-slippery notes on the kitchen table. The baggies themselves are neat and domesticated often featuring cartoon characters or scenes from nursery rhymes. They are reduced to value by weight, sold by reference to that weight: a point, a gram,  a half, an ounce, and so on. In many respects the domesticity of purchasing renders the process not too different from buying some other homemade, home-sold artisanal product: pickles, sourdough bread, coconut ice, orchids, or tea cosies. It’s easy to see the pot seller who provides RSO and medicinal strains as being in roughly the same movie as the neighborly compost fetishist selling their worm farm juice, or the old guy down the street who sells his tomatoes and aubergines from his veggie patch.

It’s not an accurate analogy though because nobody ever swallowed a condom full of aubergine and went through the customs gate at an international airport, knowing that aubergines could lead to a date with a firing squad. And sometimes, especially in Australia and New Zealand, that is exactly how the product in the baggie got to the point of sale.

It can be comforting for the drug user to think of the product as being something siphoned off from the vast scale of global industrial production and distribution. Just a sideline to the main business of Mexican drug lords and Russian gangsters: another offshore profit centre, a minor export market for a multi-billion dollar industry that is almost exclusively focused on North America and Western Europe. They’d be doing it anyway, so why shouldn’t a bit come our way? It’s not like we don’t pay for transport costs, it’s not like we don’t pay a lot more than everybody else. At any rate it’s easier to think of the shipping container coming through Port Botany, with tonnes of methamphetamine squeezed inside Bratz dolls because who got hurt there? There may also be some comfort in the Burroughesque interzone anonymity of an online marketplace. In which case it’ll be the postie or some courier who brings the gear, or a faceless nobody who puts it in your dead drop or PO box for you to oh-so-casually collect when the coast is clear. We don’t worry about the provenance of books and dvds and shoes that we buy online, why would anyone worry about something so anodyne that it can be delivered by StarTrack Express?

These comforts might be slightly shaken by the idea that ultimately Mr & Ms Bourgeois are actually handing over a portion of their disposable income to organized crime, since it is they who move the tonnes, but mostly this is not thought about. It can be put aside, very easily ignored, because, chances are, you’re still probably buying drugs from someone you know, went to school with, work with, or a neighbour. Communities are what communities do. It’s not like you’re buying an eightball from Tony Soprano or Nicky Barnes. You’re buying it from the son of the bloke your Dad used to play pool with, or some guy like Mike, or Mal, or Bianca, or Lorraine. You’re buying it from some other member of your community in a context as familiar as your childhood home.

And once that baggie is in hand nobody cares about the journey to that point. For the consumer, it is the journey ahead, the overpriced forthcoming internal transformation that matters. Besides, thanks to possession laws the user is instantly very conscious that it is not the dealer or deliverer who is at risk at that moment but the user who carries the risk in their pocket. Better to get that shit done, or at least out of public space, where, thanks to the discretion and privileges of private property, Mr & Ms Bourgeois can be reasonably sure they won’t get a knock on their door from the boys in blue.

If there is a dramatic moment it is more likely to involve the shipping container being delivered to some warehouse in Smithfield or the bust of Simon Bolivar constructed from cocaine shipped via FedEx intercepted at Kingsford-Smith. So even if this happens and Customs display those Bratz dolls on Seven News, or the FBI do their thing to shutdown sites like Silk Road or RedBook, then, as with all industrial scale scenarios, one can assume that the movement of tonnes of such valuable product is insured, legally or otherwise. Organized crime would have a pretty solid risk management framework, given the pulsing red intensity of the likelihood-consequence intersection on the international narcotics smuggling risk map. Further ease is probably derived from the thought that if the police are chasing down organized crime importing of tonnes and tonnes of product, or backlit pseudonymous IT guys selling it, then it’d seem a safe bet that no-one is really going to worry about a couple of grams here or there, which might remain in the sneaky stash spot until the next music festival.

But it doesn’t take much to figure out that if you’re buying a product traditionally associated with South Asia or South America then chances are mules carried your shit. The gear that ends the journey up our noses, started the journey to Australia up someone else’s arse. Or they strapped it on, or swallowed it, or concealed it in their luggage, or stuck it in a used diaper stuffed into a nappy bag ostentatiously paraded through airport checkpoints. Small loads mean small risks. Businesses, especially ones that involve possible firing squads, prefer small risks and, with the returns that a rich country like Australia can offer, even small risks mean substantial rewards. But none of this is given much thought once the baggies are paid for and safely stowed.  Probably it is given no thought at all once the requisite routes of administration have been followed. And most of us know that the next thought after following those routes is about heading back to that kitchen table where the baggies are weighed out, to get a extra little bit of the good stuff to tide us over or to put aside for some special occasion (like a Tuesday).

Demand for drugs, as with all capitalism’s products, is a collective matter. We are the marketplace, we are the revenue, we are the profit. So when we’re watching the news tonight and there’s more bad news from Indonesia let’s remember that those nine young Australians were there at the behest of demands made by hundreds of thousands of other Australians. Very indirect for sure, but those two young men will be shot because of what me, and people like me, want and wanted.

We can excuse ourselves easily. Say it was all about how great that party was, or how awesome that Festival was, or how it was an extraordinarily blissful self-revelatory experience, or how trippy Game of Thrones is with a good blotter of 25I-NBOMe, or how much that powder was needed. All of those probably true things are covering for the fact that some other poor sap, who almost certainly had bugger-all choice in the matter, put their already fragile lives at risk to walk through airports with your special treat stuffed where the sun don’t shine. So it’s not just about the baggie. It’s not about buying or doing drugs. It’s about the fact we outsourced our risk to those least able to manage those risks: those with no choice, those who were already fucked over by the State or other shonky types with guns, and those who never got an opportunity to know better.

And yeah, we should feel shit.

*You can make an argument here about the Opium Wars if you like but given that China is going to be shortly top of the pops when it comes to executing drug offenders, if it isn’t already [smuggling, dealing, transporting or manufacturing drugs are all capital offences], the argument seems moot.

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way out west

It was a long drive, ten hours or so, undertaken in the heat of mid-February. Vinyl seats in the P76, dog at my feet, the handmade yellow trailer behind. It was the beginning of our long migration, our time of itinerancy through the byways of western New South Wales. We started heading west in the shallow cool of the morning, following the Lachlan through to Gooloogong and across to Forbes. Then the sun was up and the irrigated green of the river valley was behind us, we turned north up the Newell.

Familiar towns pass by: Parkes, Peak Hill, Tomingley, Narromine. Football fields and cricket teams recalled, petrol stations and takeaway-post offices, dirt turnoffs, no gutters and abandoned Holdens. The land has changed, a rustic brown low undulating series of pastures and crop paddocks pass by the car windows. Some orchards, rose fields, water storages too. The dish north of Parkes. It’s not green, everything is a hassled beige.

In Narromine we get out for a rest stop, it’s been four and bit hours, a long time for a nine year old, his six year old sister and fat dog to hold it in. But no charcoal chicken says my Dad with a shake of the head. It’s hotter in the car than outside. Next to the public conveniences near the library is the shire pool, tiled azure and shimmering seductively. We stare forlornly, we don’t even know how far there is to go, so blue. We turn northwest along the Mitchell, through the orange groves and past the aerodrome with parked gliders.

The Macquarie River is just over there, the line of casuarinas and eucalypts marking the sleepy waterway’s path, along with the irrigation canals that steal away the river’s flow. Then Trangie has come and gone and we stop at a rest stop which is nothing but heat, dust, a concrete picnic table too hot to sit on, and the stinkiest bins in all of New South Wales, perhaps last emptied by Charles Sturt in 1829.

My Dad provides sandwiches and a quartered orange each for the backseat team. He was always thrifty and thought fast food an unwarranted indulgence. Later in life he would stop for ice cream but he reckoned if you wanted chips you peeled the potato yourself. We sit in the shade of the car and drink orange cordial from a warmed bottle, the sweet stickiness in our mouths not dissimilar from the sweaty adhesion of our bodies to the P76’s vinyl. We spread towels over the backseat and then it’s all over pretty quick, our pause by the side of the road, we’re off again into the flattening brown. It’s a long straight from Nevertire to Nyngan and nothing much to see but the passing gates of the pastoral stations named, inevitably, after Scottish islands or manors of the English midlands. Cattle and sheep stand stunned in the heat in whatever shade they can find, as bored and uncomfortable as we are.

Pulling into Nyngan the trailer springs snap off the axle. The trailer is dragged along behind us for a while as my Dad looks for somewhere to stop and assess the damage. We pull into a huge park beside the Bogan River. He shakes his head and slaps his thigh. Deep in thrall to Billy Graham he doesn’t swear but he wants to. He ropes the trailer body back onto the axle.  He ties the dog to the trailer and we walk into town to eat at a Chinese restaurant in our sweaty clothes. My sister and I are silent for the most part, we can see the tiredness and temper on his brow.

We spent the night beside the river sleeping in the car, sweating and trying not to touch each other. The dog was outside with the mosquitos. Then we spend a half day in Nyngan negotiating with welders to jimmy the trailer back into mobility. We walk up and down the main street of Nyngan, we go to a park and my sister and I play on the equipment until going down the slippery slide is dare involving considerable buttock burn and the metal infrastructure is too hot to touch. Eventually we are mustered for departure, sandwiches handed back with the last of the piss-warm cordial. My sister and I look at each other and figure we can’t be too far away from our destination. But we’re wrong.

It’s miles and miles up to Coolabah and then when we finally got there we take the turn off I put my thongs on in readiness. But a road sign puts me right, it’s another hundred and thirty kilometres, I slide my thongs off again. No pasture now, no crops, no irrigation, and none too many trees. It’s flat and empty and I watch it pass by like test cricket without close ups or replays. The afternoon is hotter than before, and the glare grows ever brighter as the sun sinks, boring the heat into my head. It’s almost two days since we left home to find our new home. Signs for Gongolgon, I sit up expectantly, but there’s nothing, a building clad into yellow weatherboard sits on stilts and then nothing, just road and a turn off down another road. And then we’re there, a tin clad grandstand by the side of the road. Empty and still, like a vast lowtech Machu Picchu. Then a town, houses, gutters, cars, Mum.

We arrive as the sun sets. I remember the colour of the light. It was a glossy yellow that bounced from a thousand surfaces, everything emanated heat, and the tarmac burned my feet.

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Mistah Kurtz’s latest affliction

For a while in the early noughties I worked in the back office of an engineering firm doing back office stuff: procurement, dispatch, marketing, web stuff, travel and tender arrangements, and so on. One of my duties was to ensure matters of occupational health and safety were appropriately addressed for staff involved in onsite operations and in executing this duty I was required to come to terms with the surprisingly arcane world of PPE, Personal Protective Equipment. There is a vast array of PPE to choose from depending on what the circumstances require.

The company I worked for provided end-of-pipe solutions to nasty emission problems arising from industrial production. The company provided filters, extraction, storage and disposal services (all the same really). These toxic nasties required all sorts of PPE. The range and variety of things that onsite staff might need protection from was an eye-opener for me. There was PPE for heat, for cold, for vapour, for dust, for remote breathing apparatuses, for confined spaces, for gaseous environments. Similarly, there was PPE for the whole body, as well as PPE specifically for eyes, hands, mouths, ears, skin, lungs, knees, forearms, and the head. And for those times when the PPE didn’t quite fit, or wasn’t quite right, there was always gaffer tape. After a while in the job it was clear to me that PPE worked. PPE protected, it provided an effective barrier against most toxic materials, and the onsite staff went home safe and sound.

So I’ve watched the footage out of West Africa, Texas, and elsewhere of the Ebola outbreak with great interest. I’ve been looking closely at the PPE and it is not enough. It is inadequate PPE, which is really shocking considering that Ebola doesn’t transmit easily (it’s infectious but not particularly contagious), meaning that PPE on a patient-carer level will be, for the most part, effective in shutting down outbreaks, as it has been on numerous occasions since 1976. I saw a news story from CNN about a young Liberian woman, a trainee nurse, used garbage bags and gaffer tape as PPE while she was caring for her Ebola affected relatives. It worked; three of her four infected relatives survive. PPE works, gaffer tape works, but you wouldn’t know it when you watch the evening news.

This is because lurking behind every story about Ebola is Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone. Full of haemorrhagic splendour The Hot Zone evinces the horror which is attached to filoviruses and the bloody fevers that result from infection. In The Hot Zone being infected with a filovirus (such as Ebola, or Marburg, or Hendra, et al) is characterised as a process of liquefaction in which infected persons literally dissolve on their beds, patients “bleed out” and the virus rapaciously moves onto new victims. That Preston’s book is not really accurate in this regard is not relevant because what the book is really about is fear: fear of the unseen killer, fear of exotic horror, fear of otherworldly-ness, fear of some unprotected vulnerability.

The Hot Zone suggests something apocalyptic; the viruses are a keyhole through which our end might be unlocked. By situating the virus outbreak in suburban Virginia, a mere fifteen miles from Washington D.C, The Hot Zone suggests that harboured deep in Africa (a cave in this instance) are horrors that, once unleashed, might reveal our terrible vulnerability, even at a point so close to the centre of power and authority. Watching the stories played out on the evening news regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa it’s pretty clear that a similar set of tropes is being deployed despite The Hot Zone being not very true. In this schema Ebola is simply Mistah Kurtz’s latest affliction, it is the latest breakage in the quarantining of civilisation.

What’s striking is that instead of sending Marlowe up the river to contain the breakage as per Heart of Darkness this time there is an urge to quarantine whole countries, as if there can be a kind of national or continental PPE applied by closing borders or ceasing flights, as if patient isolation can be duplicated on a national scale, throwing up as many Berlin walls as required to ensure the safety of the civilised world.  National isolation is a pre-emptive practice of PPE for the rich, rather than for the sick or their carers, a prophylactic protection for those not afflicted. It is a suggestion that involves turning away from those in need.

This doesn’t seem very civilised to me: let’s prioritise the sick and provide as much PPE as possible to those caring for them, doing otherwise is simply turning our backs and ignoring the problem.

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awful causes and conscience

As a young man I was impressed by war. The scale of human action, the scale of humans acting in concert was the thing. Compared to the tiresome and repetitive tropes of politics, which to my teenage brain resembled nothing so much as a rolling maul in a game in which there was no tryline, war appeared to be something monumental and uniting. Every little country town I ever lived in had a cenotaph (sometimes it was the only ornamental thing in town and always the largest) and each case the local burghers pointed to the names of their forebears on the cenotaph at the biannual gatherings on Anzac and Armistice Days.

I can see that in some ways I was easily impressed, but my admiration for those who went off and did what is still euphemistically called service has never really diminshed. They did do astonishing things. Like many young men, naive in their admiration for older men who had been placed by history in harm’s way, I didn’t question the moral context for their wars, or any war, until I began to separate those servicemen who marched down the main street from the machinations of great power shenanigans which brought about those confluences of history and agency. In their hands and feet and fingers and eyes and hearts I can’t help but admire those who fought, even when fighting for some awful causes.

I was, for instance, also impressed by Breaker Morant as a teen. I read the bush ballads, the Kit Denton book (still an excellent read), visited the Handcock memorial in Bathurst, watched Bruce Beresford’s film more times than I care to admit. I once went on a driving holiday with Dad to a number of Breaker Morant sites in western New South Wales (not that there was anything Morant orientated at those places, they were just places he had lived and worked –my Dad always liked tooling around ghost towns and neglected pastoral manors). And yet ultimately Morant was shot by his own side for the greater cause of a British South Africa. Yikes. There’s hardly a worse cause in history, except for all the other ones. I also went with my Dad in 1987 to Gilgandra to watch the re-enactment of the Coo-ee March, a recruiting drive for the first world war. Twenty six men started walking from Gilgandra, calling out coo-ee to their bushmates to join them, and to go and fight the Huns. Two hundred and sixty three did so. And, of course, many did not ever come back to rural New South Wales and remain entombed in France. I was, and remain, moved by the whole affair.

The taking up of arms, in the context of a twentieth century that any historically inclined right thinking person would notice took up arms almost continuously (even more than the incredibly violent and militarised nineteenth century), hardly seemed a radical or extreme move. After all, every year, twice a year in all our little towns we applauded those who had done so and survived, and mourned those who had not been so blessed.

Later, as I thought more about the contexts for these and other military matters, I came to admire those who fought for causes. The usual anti-imperialist suspects: Che loomed large, ditto Giap, John Brown and the Osawatomie crew, the Weather Underground, Michael Collins, Augusto César Sandino, the Tupamaros, and so on. Similarly I was always particularly moved by the stories of the Spanish Civil War, and the volunteers who travelled there to fight the fascists. I read Hemingway and Orwell and all about the Abraham Lincoln and Washington brigades. Much later I also took the trouble to learn about Nugent Bull, the only Australian who went to fight for Franco, a no less moving gesture for my horror of the cause. But at the heart of all this I admired them all, for being connected to that big world and being agents within it.

So I wonder about these young Australians heading off to Syria and Iraq. I have no truck with their cause but I find it hard not to extend the admiration I have for those who march(ed) on Anzac Day to those who’ve decided to go off and fight for what they believe in. To point to the politics of their umbrella organization as being distasteful is no doubt true but so too were the invasions of Iraq. So too was the invasion of Afghanistan. The politics of the fight seem to me to rest with the conscience of the fighter when we’re talking about so and so from Bankstown, or whomever from Padstow. To tar all these thinking people, moved by faith (misguided or not), as evil-doers and potential terror threats is a dehumanising process aimed at some future point to enable something like extraordinary rendition, and eventually extra-judicial imprisonment. To listen to George Brandis and Tony Abbott it is clear to me that Australia is preparing the ground to have its very own Guantanamo.

It would be better, I think, to not do this.

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