Music, News & Commentary

On equality, whose side are you on?

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Amid the barrage of recent awful news, a lyric from singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn surfaced. The context for his writing of them is, of course, different to what the world is now. But then that’s the beauty of a song. Its resonance can chime for whomever and whenever the bell tolls. 

The song was Broken Wheel. It was on the album Inner City Front from 1981. 

‘‘The word mercy’s going to have a new meaning/When we are judged by the children of our slaves./No adult of sound mind/Can be an innocent bystander.’’ 

It slides easily into the rhythms of these past days. The United States is convulsed by anger and outrage at the death of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer. Dozens of cities are scenes to marches and protests. The President Donald Trump, in perhaps the clearest sign of his lack of leadership, has put up a wire fence around the White House. When he should be hearing words such as these:

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right. Martin Luther King jnr. 

No guilt is forgotten so long as the conscience still knows of it. Stefan Zweig.

Instead, he strides out to the world, Bible in hand, and calls in the military, and the fence builders.

In Australia, marches were held in major cities at the weekend proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and protesting that more than 400 Aboriginal people had died in custody since 1991 after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. 

The weight of racism is heavy upon our Indigenous First Nations people. White Australians used to baulk at having the convict stain, and then over time it became a source of pride. The racial stain on our history is another matter. Justice moves at a glacial rate, not least because its greatest impediment is the prejudice, and ignorance, of those who cannot, will not, acknowledge the past.  Surely, if you know what you now know how can you stay silent?

Surely now, it’s impossible to be an innocent bystander.

At the weekend, tens of thousands had to weigh the chances of receiving coronavirus against the imperative to them of showing their face, giving voice to their rage. They chose the latter to throw light on the lives that have been too often ignored, swept out of view, buried in the past. Surely now, it’s impossible to be an innocent bystander. Racism abides no boundaries. As the events of the past few weeks have shown, the chain of protest also carries around the world. Call it the universal choir. 

The protests against racism have occurred as many nations, notably Australia, are emerging from the pandemic lockdown. Indigenous and African-Americans could well say that racism has defined their past in dimensions and degrees of lockdown.

In Australia, for the past few months it’s been said, sung and written ad nauseum, that ‘‘we’re all in this together’’. The “this” being the pandemic. It’s true a united front has greatly lessened the threat and the casualties, to the point the perilous tide is receding. But as a summation of Australian society it’s a mirage. Or as sporting coaches are prone to say of a team, You’re only as strong as the weakest link. The weakest link in our national life is racism. 

The pandemic has given rise to a bizarre image: the other side. You think you can almost touch it. The other side. You can feel a glance of a breeze called freedom against your face when you leave the house. You hope soon enough we’ll have crossed the river to the other side. For the past few months we have been holding our breath. Daring not to move. Daring fate to move. 

We have now gone from everyone talking about the other side to almost being there, we are led to believe. While other countries number their dead in the tens of thousands, and America in more than 100,000, we have a death toll just over 100, albeit from a much smaller population. Restrictions are easing.

As Dr Norman Swann said recently, the test of prevention being a success is that nothing happened. The curve was flattened; the arc of death from coronavirus did not turn into a spike. Soon enough the evocation of ‘‘the other side’’ might cease. 

When coronavirus does recede to the margins of our lives will kindness prevail en masse? Will the better angels ascend?

No more the Prime Minister Scott Morrison on business providing ‘‘the livelihoods that Australians desire on the other side’’, Transurban boss Scott Charlton being prepared for opportunities ‘‘as we come out the other side’’, or Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham’s concern that ‘‘zoos and aquariums can still operate on the other side’’. There are many other examples.

But what if there is no other side? What if it is all one? When coronavirus does recede to the margins of our lives (for who knows if it will be truly eradicated) will we as a society emerge, as if from a coma, to a glorious other side of our natures hitherto hidden? Will kindness prevail en masse? Will the better angels ascend?

Notwithstanding the government bailouts, for example via Jobkeeper and Jobseeker or to middle-class home renovators, to those adversely affected by the crisis, this is not a socialist state or even a socialist state of mind. Equality does not reign; it is impossible in capitalism. Some have, but many more have not. Before the pandemic, Newstart had not increased since the mid-’90s. That it takes such a threat for change to occur is a two-sided coin. And, the change, as Morrison has said, is only temporary. We care, but just for a little while. Perhaps that could be the motto of the big banks, too. 

It’s the grand delusion of this pandemic that in the pulling together we have survived and that through this there has been a cleansing of the grit and grime of nasty and brutish behaviour. And that when we arrive on this other side, on the blessed shore of enlightenment, we will remain together, a beautiful confluence of compassion and equality. Tell that to the Indigenous dead. Since we were all in this together, as the government ads have told us repeatedly, and pulled ourselves through this together then, ipso facto, we shall remain together once the danger has past. 

This ignores the fractures, and racism is the biggest, that render unity impossible.

For those who possess common decency towards fellow men and women, their actions during the pandemic are just a continuation of their actions throughout their lives. How unutterably sad if we only pulled together under threat of breaking the law if we did not. 

In the end it’s a political world, and the tawdry nature of politics in this country will guarantee that whatever feeling of warm fuzziness is nestling in your breast at present will be killed by year’s end. It has already begun to seep back to the surface. A jab here, a jibe there. 

In the end, the other side is after the other side’s blood. 

In the end, we will not breathe freely as a nation, while some of us are gasping for freedom and equality.

Image: Martin Luther King via Minnesota Historical Society

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