ANZAC Day Not for Faggots and Towelheads
[This piece is a few years old, but age has not wearied its sentiment.]
At least, not according to the Australian Christian Lobby. Sure, their main man Jim Wallace used slightly more careful language, but that was the sentiment of what he said. “Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!” was the thoughtful missive he left via Twitter on the 25th.
I generally couldn’t give two shits in a waffle cone what people have to say on Twitter, the place where relevance goes to pick out its funeral clothes in pale blue. But once in a while you get something juicy, someone reposts it, and suddenly giant kerfuffles are exploding over everyone. (They’re kind of like soufflés.)
Generally, also like soufflés, these are massive beat-ups: think Nir Rosen, Catherine Deveny, that poor bloody lady with the horse. But Wallace has more reason for contrition than most. Aside from the fact that most of the towelheads and faggots could demolish him in a grammar challenge, his opinions (which he may have extensively pondered) only reinforce the ill-thought-out prejudices of thousands of other people. At least, they do once they make it onto the evening news.
Wallace said he would stand by his comment “if people read it in the right context and realise I’m not slurring gays. I have a lot of friends and associates who are gays, in fact one even tweeted me last night…” That must’ve been an illicit thrill, Jim. So, not slurring gays, you just don’t think they should have the same rights as proper normal people. Ok, check.
He went on to explain that this revelation of his came about after sitting with his father, a veteran of Tobruk and Milne Bay, who said that he didn’t recognise this Australia as being the one he fought for. Thought Jim, it was a good time to make a statement about our Judeo-Christian heritage, despite the fact that most of Australia these days is about as Christian as a bag of wet socks.
The extra-bad taste in the mouth from all this, though, is his invocation of the ANZACs to back up his point. We shouldn’t have gay marriage because ‘the ANZACs’ didn’t fight for that. We should keep an eye on dodgy Muslims because ‘the ANZACs’ sure as hell didn’t fight for them either. It was in the same vein as a particularly lunk-headed individual named Mick (natch), commenting on my pokies article, that restrictions on people’s gambling meant “the anzacs would be turning in their graves.”
To quote another commenter’s rejoinder, “Everyone loves making the ANZACs say what they want them to. They’re kind of like Jesus like that.”
And spot on. As recent years have ticked by, I’ve increasingly come to loathe ANZAC Day. Not the soldiers it honours, but the modern way of supposedly honouring them. Before you get all down on me for my disrespect, check my credentials. Through high school, my uni major, and my honours year, I specialised in Australian First and Second World War history. I’ve read dozens of biographies and memoirs by servicemen, interviewed WWII vets, and spent countless hours in archives here, in Canberra, and in Singapore. I spent a year in Thailand and Borneo researching prisoner-of-war camps, walked across northern Borneo to retrace a forced march of Aussie soldiers, then drove back and forth several more times to follow up on leads. I wrote a book of poems based on the stories I found, and I’ve done readings from it in all kinds of places to try and make sure those stories are heard. My best mate since primary school is an infantry corporal. I probably have a more direct emotional connection to that history than just about anyone who now chooses to invoke its name when April rolls around.
The fact that I do care so much is why ANZAC Days have increasingly become a time to cringe. It’s the resurgent nationalism and mythologising championed by Keating and Howard. Sentimental crud like ‘the ANZAC spirit’, gets thrown around by every chump with a lectern. People get tagged with it for playing football. The modern understanding of the phrase makes it more and more synonymous with a kind of Aussie boganeering. Thousands of young Australians go to Gallipoli to pay their respects by getting shitfaced, watching rock concerts, unrolling their sleeping bags on the graves of the dead, and fucking off the next day leaving the place completely trashed for the Turks to clean up. Much like 1915, but with a bit more piss. It’s a short step from this ‘spirit’ to the Aussie pride that saw flags tied on as capes down at Cronulla a few years ago. It seems to appeal to the same demographic that have made “Fuck off, we’re full” such a big seller down at Bumper Sticker Bonanza.
The most recent dawn service I went to sounded more like a school assembly, with the officially-voted Most Boring Prick on Earth conducting the service, then the tokenism of some Year 12 from an all-girl private school reading us her revelations after a trip to Gallipoli. The same myth-heavy sacred-worship shite. The ANZACs were this, the ANZACs were that. No, Hannah Montana. The ANZACs were a bunch of different people. The ANZACs weren’t one thing. ‘They’ didn’t believe in this or that, ‘they’ didn’t have these characteristics. They were a group of individuals.
The sanctity shtick is also popular with politicians who want to push a particular view. But the use and misuse of that history is the topic of my next post, which is an actual essay (as opposed to rant) on that subject. Yes, an essay. The internet will fall over when someone posts more than 500 words in one hit. Mind you, the 5000-worder I wrote on Balibo is one of the most popular entries on this site, so, give this a shake. I promise it’s interesting.
All of which brings us, bereft of a segue, back to Mr Wallace. His Twitter post, he said, “was a comment on the nature of the Australia [his father] had fought for, and the need to honour that in the way we preserve it into the future.”
So let me just make sure I’ve got this, Jim. Because soldiers fought and died in 1943, we need to maintain the values they had in 1943. Or do we maintain the values of the ones who fought in 1945? But hang on, they fought and died in 1915 as well… and 1914. So do we wind our values back to then? Do we bring back the Australia Party and the Northern Territory Chief Protector of Aborigines?
Let’s settle on the 1940s in general – Milne Bay and all that. And look at the values of the 1940s. This was an era when it was ok to smack your wife around a bit if she gave you lip. If you went too hard on her too often, then people might tut disapprovingly, like they did with a bloke who kicked his dog. But the odd puffy cheek was nothing to be remarked upon.
This was an era when women were supposed to show respect to men as the heads of the households and their natural superiors.
This was an era when you could pretty casually rape a girl who ended up somewhere alone with you, because if she’d got herself into that situation she was probably asking for it. Girls who said no or changed their minds were just playing hard to get. You know women, right? So fickle, so flighty. It was an era when the Australian occupation troops sent to Japan post-war were involved in the consistent rapes of Japanese women. Not traumatised vengeful former combatants, mind you, but fresh recruits, straight out of training.
This was an era when capital punishment was legal, and conscription was encouraged. This was an era when dodgy foreigners were kept out of the country by being made to sit a test in a language of the examiner’s choosing. Oh, you don’t speak Aramaic? Sorry, you failed. This was an era when Aboriginals weren’t recognised as people. Despite having been here when everyone else rocked up, they weren’t even given citizenship till 1967. Twenty-two years after the war had ended.
Were these the values that our Aussie heroes fought and died for too? Or were these not-so-good values, ones that we can discard? Where’s the distinction, Jim? Where do your values end and your values begin?
Well, guess what. I don’t want to live in the 1940s. I don’t want to live in 1918. I don’t want to brush off Vietnam, Korea, Malaya, because they were morally ambiguous. I don’t want to be part of a culture that makes people saints. I want to respect them for being people. I don’t want to live in a society where people are encouraged to hate each other, either. That kind of hatred is one of the most corrosive things in existence.
When I was in Year 9, I went to a boarding school for a year with this kid named Chris Millet. Word on the street was that he was gay. It was never clear why – I don’t think he even was. The story was along the lines of him being dared to touch another kid’s dick in the change room, and doing it to impress the tougher kids daring him. Presumably it was a set-up, and from that moment on he was branded “faggot”. I don’t mean that kids called him a faggot. I mean that they flat out swore that he was a faggot. And to 14-year-old boys there was nothing more terrifying in the world, nor so potentially destructive to one’s social standing. Millet was a fag, the lowest of the low, and in all my years I have yet to witness anyone treated in such a consistently awful fashion.
Chris Millet was bastardised and ostracised for that entire year. He was mocked, reviled, heckled, and spat at as a matter of course, the mere sight of him passing by enough to prompt a volley of abuse. Some of it was the comic genius of teenage boys (“Bums to the wall, Millet’s on the crawl!”), but usually it was just plain old invective. A big country kid, quiet and thoughtful, he just bowed his broad shoulders and kept on walking. We lived in small dorms of sixteen kids apiece; he was socially frozen out of his. His size meant not many would risk straight-out assaults, but he was routinely pushed and whacked and scuffled with; his belongings stolen, broken, or sabotaged; clothes and bed dirtied or thrown around the dorm; fair game for anyone, anytime. He ate alone, sat in class alone, walked the paths of the school alone. Even the nerdiest of the nerds only associated with him by default. He had no recourse, beyond reach and beyond help.
Even then, I was sickened by it. Even then, I could see that the fear was irrational, like being scared of catching AIDS from a handshake. Even then, I wanted to reject it. But I rarely had contact with Chris. He was in a different dorm, different activities, different classes. It was impossible not to know who he was, but our paths seldom crossed. Whenever they did, walking around school, I would smile and say hello. It was nothing, but more than he got from most people. It still felt so useless, though, that all I could offer was “Hey, Chris.” An actual smile and the sound of his real name. I don’t know if he ever noticed, but I did.
And while I wanted to do more, it was dangerous. I was a new kid that year, only just managing to fit in. Awkward, strange, providing the kind of comic relief that was mostly jester or dancing chimp. Even though I was sickened, I couldn’t seek him out to talk to, or it would have been obvious. There was the risk his personal opprobrium could have deflected onto me. I felt like a coward, but couldn’t see a way out. Even talking was dicey. One day I said hello to Chris while a kid from my dorm was walking with me. “What’s going on there?” said Will as we continued up the road. “Are you and Millet special friends?” And while he was mostly taking the piss there was still an edge to it; I could still sense that moment balancing, the risk that if he decided to push the topic with others around, it could easily tip the wrong way.
That school was tough. We spent three days a week hiking – proper stuff, 30-kilo packs, heavy old gear, 30-kilometre days through the Vic Alps. More than one stretch of mountains I crossed crying, or trying not to, or bent double, crawling up slopes with hands as well as feet. Other times I was painfully homesick, weeks spent with just the indifference of other kids and the professional distance of teachers. No phones, no internet, no way home. Physical exhaustion and isolation.
It was one of the hardest years of my life. The small group of friends I made were the one blessing that meant it could be borne. And that was exactly the thing that Chris Millet didn’t have. I cannot imagine how he made it through that year alone. Not just alone, but in the face of constant and targeted aggression. I would have buckled and gone home broken.
The last night of that year, there was a big get-together in the dining hall. When it was over I left the building looking for one person. I wandered around till I spotted him, that round-shouldered trudge, a fair way off up the hill towards his dorm. I don’t know if he was a great guy underneath it all. We never even had a proper conversation. He was just a big, quiet kid, brutalised into shyness. But I did know he didn’t deserve what he’d got. I ran up the hill after him and called out, and when he stopped, looking back a little hesitantly, I jogged up and shook his hand. “Congratulations on surviving the year,” I said. And I hope he understood how much I meant it.
That wasn’t the 1940s. That was the 1990s. And I don’t doubt you could find similar instances today. It’s attitudes like Jim Wallace’s that give legitimacy to the kind of reflex hatred that was thrown at that kid all those years ago. It’s attitudes like Wallace’s that legitimise dudes throwing molotovs at mosques in Sydney because something blew up in Bali.
And that shit doesn’t just go away. Dealing with homophobia isn’t a matter of surviving your awkward adolescence to find the inner-urban Greens-voting world has become yours to enjoy. Not every gay man gets to flower into Benjamin Law’s dashing-young-homosexual-about-town persona. Some are awkward and nervous and clumsy and just plain uncharismatic. And the kind of damage done by that early hatred will stay with them for good.
Memo: Jim Wallace. Relax. Gay marriage does not entitle hordes of faggots to come round to your house and fuck you in the mouth. At least, not without your express consent. I kinda wish they would, because at least that might shut you up, but it’s not going to happen. So what exactly is your problem? None of this legislation has any effect on your life whatsoever. Your only connection is that it makes you uncomfortable from a distance. And guess what, champ? That doesn’t give you the right to have a say. Take a pew, Jim.
As for citing ‘Anzac values’, or however you want to phrase it, it’s a rolled-gold furphy. There was no charter of mutual ideology at the recruitment office, in any of our wars. Reasons for joining up were as varied and individual as the men themselves. You have no right to start designating what those men believed.
But if you want to boil things down to the basic principle on which the war was fought – the national political principle – it was that smaller and weaker powers should not be dominated by larger ones. It was that men (and yes, it was men) should have the right to determine their own form of government, and reap the rewards of their own lands. It was (putting aside the attendant hypocrisy of the Allies’ colonial pasts) that Germany had no right to push around Poland or Czechoslovakia, and Japan no right to stand over China or Korea. It was that those people should live free, and free from fear.
Australians deserve to live free from fear too. There were nearly a million Aussie servicemen and women in WWII. Stands to reason more than a few of them were gay, even if they didn’t admit it. How could they have, when most of the population would have regarded them as either criminal, deviant, disgusting, or mentally ill? How about the 70s or 80s, when gays starting to live more openly were bashed and killed in parks and streets? Or the Sudanese kid bashed to death in Melbourne a couple of years ago? How do you feel being a Lakemba Muslim when racial tensions start heating up? Living your life in fear doesn’t only apply to warzones.
Australian soldiers fought and died in 1943. Australian soldiers fought and died in 2011, too. And in 2010, and in 2009. So what about protecting the values they represented? Like the freedom to be yourself and love you who want. The freedom to practice your religion in peace. Values like a tolerance of difference. What about protecting a society where warmth and kindness and generosity of spirit are promoted ahead of distrust, segregation and disapproval? I’d like to live in a society like that. I might even be prepared to fight for it.
Because guess what, Jim? Faggots and towelheads are people too. And in a society that still calls them faggots and towelheads, they’re some of the most vulnerable people we’ve got.
If you want to talk to me about values worth dying for, protecting the vulnerable would be a good place to start.