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Published (print & online) in Overland Literary Journal #227 (August, 2017):

https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-martin-kovan/

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poem in ISLAND MAGAZINE #146; publ. in print Sept. 1, 2016: http://islandmag.com/pages/146-contents

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Tristes Tropiques

poem, in Southerly Journal 75.2 The Naked Writer 2: http://southerlyjournal.com.au/project/the-naked-writer-2-3/

audio:

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Cerberus

audio:

published (print) in Southerly Journal 76.1, “Words and Music”, Oct. 25, 2016.

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She would say, just to me,

that she heard the language of

two hundred years hence, but

knowing none would understand it

held back from putting pen to paper.

 

Just tell them, she said, that I

heard them all before they came

and how they all faded long after.

She knew enough to know she was

neither liar nor truth-teller. Because

 

she was a passing acquaintance

I believed every word she said.

 

sphinx_by_heartfullofhell-d6ayivt

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It’s a disconcerting and compelling thing to watch an interview on mainstream media turn into a train-wreck before one’s eyes: the first because viewers expect (perhaps even psychologically require) a basic modicum of agreement; the second because while witnessing communicative aporia can be uncomfortable, it usually betrays a deep level of the authentic that is itself frequently suppressed in the form-fit formulas of commercial, feel-good mass media. The recent stoush on (Australian) ABC’s Lateline between interviewer Emma Alberici and Wassim Doureihi, spokesman for the Islamic organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, is an excellent case in point.

I’m not going to weigh in on the substance of the ideological fault-lines that were abundantly on evidence in this A.B.C. Lateline broadcast (Oct. 8), or adjudicate between which antagonist holds the more defensible position: those positions weren’t in fact clearly on offer in those 11 minutes of prime-time television. That first-order moral and political discussion is only background pretext to what occurred, in any case. Something more significant was on offer beneath, beside, to the margins of the predictably ideological static that is now generating headlines.

The communicative dysfunction on evidence revealed a fundamental faultline between local Islamic and non-Islamic secular self-representation that both ‘sides’ need desperately to see and hear, and even, as here, be enacted before them, before making any ostensible justifications for the shedding of more blood, either in Iraq or within Australian borders. Alberici assumed from the outset Doureihi’s personal concession to a commonly-perceived outrage at what she merely called “the tactics” of well-known ISIS strategy; to that extent Doureihi had cause to sidestep the assumption of such an automatic ‘playing by the rules’ of public discourse. This is so despite the fact that ISIS ‘tactics’ are in fact worthy of moral condemnation—few would hesitate to dispute that, as Doureihi himself categorically implied at a later point. His concern, however ill-expressed, was that there was a point of value for him in not simply submitting to the politically-correct stance epitomized by Alberici, even where, as in this case, it might well be entirely correct in its moral intuitions.

My view (perhaps over-charitable to some) is that Doureihi was not maintaining such resistance out of ulterior or under-handed obfuscation, or to defend a personal (and unreasonable) ‘Islamic pride.’ He was recalcitrant simply to serve the end of breaking out of the pre-formed box of mediatised conformism. He held his stubborn ground because he, admirably, saw cause to defend a position that he believes represents a valuable truth. No-one has to agree with him, but he valued it enough to refuse to submit to the unspoken rules of public submission to the polite fiction of a specious national ‘Team Australia’ consensus. He has long-held grievances, and he wants them to be heard; he did the national viewership the honour of, frankly, not bullshitting a moderate or immoderate line in simplifying the issues he believes are ultimately at stake. In that he was entirely, ethically, appropriate: he is not required to toe a politically-correct line just be able to earn entry into a discussion that is, for him, and doubtless many others, morally obscured from the beginning. Many may not agree with the substance of his claims, but he has the right, which Alberici was unable to grant him, to recognize that perlocutionary conformity is not a sound guarantee for respectful and authentic communication.

It is much the same problem that a few months ago had Russell Brand satirizing Fox News’ Sean Hannity’s comparatively caricatural ‘interview’ of Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund. There, Brand was right to expose the ludicrous pushover tactics of a dominant American ideology that was only repeating in mediatised terms the U.S. military pushover tactics in Iraq and Afghanistan (and beyond) that, thanks to Wikileaks and others, has become in the last decade globally transparent. There, it was hard to feel sympathy for either Hannity’s all-American bravado, or the hapless Munayyer’s impotence in being unable to put a period on a single sentence, even though, doubtless unintended, Hannity succeeded in looking like a moronic school bully and Munayyer a thoughtfully harassed innocent.

In this case, the comparatively subdued presumption of Alberici in demanding a ‘yes or no’ response from Doureihi is in principle no different—it just has the appearance of a ‘pro-Australian’ middle-class outrage at heinous acts of violence, assuming immediate corroboration. But that would not be Doureihi’s point, and rightfully so; it’s just that he wasn’t able to make it without, in a perlocutionary sense, demonstrating it for the viewer through his sheer intransigence. Yet that is, despite the emotive static, all only to his credit. If free speech is to mean anything, in Australia as elsewhere—but especially in Australia where standards of open speech have not been as entirely eroded as they have been elsewhere—it means to not come along with a concealed proviso that conversation can only begin with coercion, of however subtle a kind. Alberici, perhaps despite a better judgement, made her terms clear: “Why will you not point-blank condemn the actions of IS fighters?” Even if he agreed with her, Doureihi was not compelled to automatically concede to something that, in real terms, was not a question, but a demand. That is why, on that single point perhaps if for no other, Doureihi was right to stand his ground.

To her credit, Alberici did begin with asking Doureihi to simply state his level of support for ISIS and its practices, not to simply condemn them. But that request is, in itself, an expectation that only reflects the simplified, limited–attention span of commercial media that demands simplified take-home responses. Doureihi’s legitimate point was that simply agreeing to those simplified terms is already part of the problem, as he sees it: a legitimate concern, irrespective of his substantive claims, that demands respect. Alberici bull-dozed it, much as Hannity did Munayyer on Fox News. At this point the actual issues have been obscured, and neither is right, neither is wrong, but both are struggling to find authentic mutual respect.

To elicit moral consensus from an interlocutor is to offer them their own ground and discursive space for doing so, especially when occupying the consensually dominant position. Righteousness clouded Alberici from offering Doureihi that space, which alone demanded his recalcitrance, whose own very similar righteousness hobbled his ability to elicit it. Yet both protagonists had the virtue of self-respect, and a palpable sense of a truth worth defending, in refusing to retreat to a flat level of spurious agreement—of the kind that plagues and only superficially subdues the national discussion regarding fundamental religious, ideological and cultural dysfunction.

This was real dysfunction, for all to see, neither fabricated, denied nor downplayed. It was excellent viewing because it betrayed the truth of that dysfunction, an authentic faultline the fact of which has to soberly acknowledged by the national conversation before anything constructively genuine can come out of it. For that reason, both Alberici and Doureihi are to be praised for refusing to offer up the usual bottle-fed pap. For someone who distrusts mainstream media, it was a moment where the shiny mirrors told something truly and for that we can be, minimally, grateful.

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