STRAWS IN THE WIND: by Max TeichmannNews Weekly
More history wars / Betrayal / Guilt by association / ALP founding
, May 22, 2004
More history wars"The evil which men do lives after them,
The good is oft-interred with their bones."
Like so many of us, I have just seen the two-part documentary on Lawrence of Arabia on SBS, and it is a finely-made and most illuminating production: a tragic and ultimately infuriating story. Good documentaries are better than bad teachers which is why so many teachers are leaning on documentaries but, as one might expect, too often they gravitate towards the bad ones. The radical agitprop, the slick oversimplifications.
But this new documentary told of things which I'd never learnt at school but had to discover much later for myself. And had been in danger of forgetting for it was all "so long ago". Yes, it was - but the decisions taken then produced the semi-permanent chaos with peoples periodically being brought to order by force or fraud which we associate with the Middle East.
The situation still resembles the predicament in 1918, when the Ottomans had collapsed; everything is up for grabs and outside powers, yet again, are trying to set the regional agenda
That the Arabs, sweating under Turkish rule, were promised their own state if they joined in the Anglo-French war against the Turks who were part of the Central Alliance with Germany and Austria, is clear. That Lawrence, who led them and whom they trusted, told them so, because he believed it, is also clear. That they and Lawrence were betrayed by the British and the French - the secret agreement drawn up by Sykes and Picot - even while the Arab uprising was gathering force and winning ... is also clear.
Then, on the heels of this secret betrayal, came the Balfour Declaration in 1917, whereby the British Government granted the Zionists their own homeland under the aegis of a British Mandate over Palestine. The Arabs had expected their own state because of the intrinsic right deriving from long-term, very long-term, occupation: with their previous rulers, the Turks, being generally regarded as foreign occupiers and interlopers.
If the Turks had no right being in Palestine, neither did they in Syria-Lebanon, nor what was to become Saudi Arabia, Iraq, etc., nor for that matter, rather earlier, Egypt, Libya, etc. Everyone acknowledged this. So, the Arabs of the Middle East felt they had been doubly betrayed and still feel this. Indeed, they know this.
No one consulted them about a British Mandate over Palestine, nor were they genuinely consulted during that whole period of British rule.
But the Zionists were.
We are still living with the consequences, and consequences take wings, as they are now doing. The wicked or stupid old men of World War One, who hung on after the war until the fascists and communists threw out their challenges, have a great deal for which to answer. But, as the Arabs and many in the West said and still ask: "If the Turks had no right there, what right do the British or French or (later) the Americans?"
I don't believe that the French, whose policies have perpetrated an unbroken series of disasters - mainly for others, but sometimes for themselves - ever give this a thought; but many British and Americans have had secret nightmares or been opposed to what has been done. Lawrence epitomised this duality.
A strange reflection on this tension of incompatible aims and values can be seen with the British Foreign Office and military leaders - especially long-time workers in the Middle East. They were, and occasionally still are
, accused of being pro-Arab and, with respect to Palestine, anti-Jewish. As have some of our
officials in similar positions.Betrayal
British military leaders knew of these political betrayals and understood the Arabs' feelings. The politicians
, for whom the military men had scant respect, had done it. But the soldiers had to carry the can and restore order; which meant standing over the Arabs. Over time, the politicians had to shift or retire many of the old Middle East hands - for they knew too much. And over time the British changed, the Arabs changed, the Jews changed. A modern tragedy.
Military men value order above democracy and thought that one might on occasions be forced to choose between the two. So they would accept regimes of absolute rulers, hereditary ones if you could find any, to keep order so that foreign soldiers weren't needed or could stay in the background. Democracy was a difficult thing to construct or preserve, and given Muslim history might even be something that they didn't want. (These are British and French speculations remember, rarely those of Americans, who say everyone wants it really
So indirect rule was a perfectly acceptable institution in some places. And the oil had to flow, and the sea lanes be kept clear. Nevertheless, you shouldn't have to oppress decent people, and it is galling to work for the victory of those - especially outsiders - who aren't decent but whom your job is to help to win.
Furthermore, thought many British military, the great majority of the Middle East peoples are Arabs and will continue to be. So where's the sense in what's being attempted by the West militarily and politically (leave morality out)?This
, I suspect, was and is what the "pro-Arab lobby" is about - and not an unreasonable point of view.Guilt by association
Every party, every church, every person has their own history, constructed by themselves, and normally putting themselves in a favourable light - which is not to say "history" is subjective or relative, or the facts are as you wish them to be. No - just that people are subjective, intellectually self-serving or with an interest in advancing one version of the passage of events rather than another.
The trouble is not with history, or the facts: they are as they are. But with people
- especially when they become historians. Indeed the search for a wholly objective person or observer is like Diogenes holding a lantern in the middle of a clear day, searching for an honest man.
So it was not surprising that Labor gilded the lily when they met to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of "the first working-class government in the world" led by Labor's first Prime Minister, John Christian Watson. He ruled with minority support for four months. But according to Paul Keating, his good management provided the model for others to emulate. And, he (Keating) and Bob Hawke gave the country a new economic model. "We left the Libs to run the franchise."
This is poetry
rather than history but ... Hawke and Keating did
bring in economic rationalism, globalism, tariff-cutting, downsizing, and the corporate state. And Latham seems a true believer.
Poor Watson - guilt by association.Anointed one
The fact is, the conservatives could never have got this social and economic counter-revolution up: which is why we had Labor anointed. The counter-revolution we had to have. But the admirers at the book launch of Ross McMullin's new study of Watson appeared not to know certain crucial facts. As Michael Bachelard noted, "When the faithful hissed at Hawke's mention of Billy Hughes" - that advocate of conscription and crosser of the floor, no mention was made of the fact that Watson was expelled from the party in 1916 for supporting World War One conscription and Hughes. And was very active in the new Nationalist Party.
Then, Paul Kelly pointed out Watson's strong and successful push for the White Australia Policy - with coalition backing. Watson was not satisfied with the dictation test but pressed an amendment - lost by 35 to 31 - setting unambiguously, race and colour as appropriate grounds for migrant exclusion. The dispute nearly split the alliance between Watson's Labor and their non-Labor parliamentary allies. So Watson was not politically correct - at all. Hence ALP amnesia.
But ... when people say that Watson was just the product of a racist redneck time, what did Labor and Watson see at the beginning of Federation?
They saw the British treating the colonies very much as multinationals and transnationals and their local allies are treating nation states now
. In order to develop export industries, the British had poured very large numbers of people from the mainland of Asia into various colonies - Indians in Ceylon, East Africa, South Africa, Fiji and British Guyana; Chinese and Indians in Malaya. The British eventually walked away, leaving rising ethnic strife, and fierce political competition. ALP founding
The locals had refused or were unable to work in these new colonial mining and cash crop industries. So ... bring in cheap foreign labor. The ALP - recently created because of the dreadful blows in the 1890s depression and repression - was working to create a Labor movement based on strong unions and well-paid unionists, sheltering behind economic protection, a homogeneous society and social democracy. Floods of cheap labor from elsewhere would ruin this project and in time produce the internecine ethnic warfare with which we are now familiar. Whereas the overseas giant companies and compradors saw no problems.
Furthermore, Labor set out to prove that Europeans and British could work in hot climates. Labourers worthy of their hire. No need for cheap non-union labor there ... nor in the cities
Watson was a creature of his times - and those were the times. The issues are back on the table, only still concealed for some by double-talk and correct speak - and the protagonists are the same. Labor did well - doubtless unconsciously - to reintroduce Watson. I think he was wrong about World War One - but Australians, conscription referenda aside, supported Hughes until 1923. After which Stanley Bruce ruled campaigning on the slogan of "Keep the reds out and Australia white!" And he won on it ... But I don't suppose our Liberals would want to talk about that.
Watson's Labor was no party of rednecks, but realists. And is not economic rationalism and globalism about labour-shedding, the marginalisation of the poor and the use, where required, of cheap atomised foreign workers? And the anonymous foreign control of a sovereign country from afar? As it was in the good old days of Empire and free trade?