The Null Device

The centre cannot hold

Two stories have recently made the Australian press: firstly, the government pushed through its sweeping "anti-terrorism" laws, rolling back presumptions of free speech and civil liberties taken for granted with no meaningful resistance; there being nothing in the way of a formal guarantee of rights in Australia, post-Whitlam institutions of free speech and civil liberties crumbled like so many sandcastles in the path of an incoming tide. Secondly, there was mass outcry as a convicted drug smuggler, Nguyen Tuong Van, was executed in Singapore, only to be reborn as a national symbol alongside the likes of Ned Kelly and Breaker Morant, with unofficial national moments of silence at the time of his execution and numerous strangers attending his funeral to pay their respects. It is quite likely that shrines will be erected in his honour.

On the surface, the two stories seem contradictory: though, on a deeper level, they are an example of the larrikin-wowser dynamic at the heart of Australian society. The crucial point being that Australia does not have a strong tradition of civil society. It has a strong tradition of authoritarian and paternalistic governance (from the penal-colony days, through the Menzies era to the present, minus an anomalous period of fashionable liberalism in the 1970s, 80s and 90s) and arbitrary authority exercised as a means to an end (such as has been manifested in the oft-publicised incidents of police corruption), and of censorious social conservatism of the sort that would not fly in more cosmopolitan parts of the world. It also has an opposing tradition of borderline contempt for authority and propriety; the larrikin tradition, manifesting itself in everything from the Rum Rebellion to the stencil art scene, not to mention in numerous incidents of political, artistic or cultural radicalism or impropriety and, of, course the summary transformation of anyone who dies in the course of pissing off authority — even if they were undoubtedly guilty of unsavoury crimes (and most Australians, presumably, do not condone armed robbery or heroin trafficking in principle) — into a folk saint of sorts, as we are seeing now.

That's all very well, but the downside of this is that there is no centre to hold between the two; no entrenched, stable institutions of a liberal culture, but only a precarious balance in an ancient war between two extremes. Usually, these are well balanced, and things stay roughly where they are. Occasionally, one gets the upper hand, pushes the other back, and gains ground. It happened during the 1960s and 1970s, when the wave of cultural change that resonated through the Western world pushed back the the conservative status quo of Anglo-Saxon Protestant wowserism, itself undermined by the challenges of immigration and cosmopolitanism; it's happening in the opposite direction now, because of terrorism and the resulting culture of fear.

There are 4 comments on "The centre cannot hold":

Posted by: steve http:// Thu Dec 8 02:54:04 2005

hmmm. interesting, but i don't think the nguyen case fits your theory. it's simply a case of the media beating up a story to serve their own interests. the criminality of his case was downplayed in favour of stirring up the capital punishment debate, as they did with the barlow/chambers case in 1980s. it's all about selling copy.

Posted by: acb Thu Dec 8 11:37:16 2005

Though the cult of Nguyen-as-martyr seems to have taken on a life of its own, if the stories of complete strangers having minutes of silence in his name and going to pay their respects are to be believed.

I find the whole affair disagreeable; because the underlying subtext is that his death was particularly tragic, and by implication his life was particularly valuable, because he was One Of Ours. Never mind the fact that there have been non-Australians executed far more unfairly (it could be argued, quite apart from the morality of the heroin trade, that smuggling a fuckload of heroin through Singapore is an act of suicidal stupidity on a par with train-surfing in the City Loop). Which strikes me as the ugly ingrained belief that the life of One Of Ours is worth more than that of anyone else. (See also: Australians withdrawing tsunami donations over Our Schapelle.)

Posted by: Steve http:// Sun Dec 11 01:15:03 2005

A week later and the story has disappeared from the papers. Which just shows what a media beat-up the whole thing was.

The interesting thing about the whole affair was the media twisted the thing around to become a debate on the merits of capital punishment. Nguyen became a poster boy for that cause, not a hero, not a cult figure, but a victim of a cruel, insensitive foreign government.

The irritating part of this is of course that he was a convicted drug smuggler, attempting to move a large quantity of heroin into the country.

While this aspect was downplayed in the papers and on tv, a quick flick through talkback radio showed a fairly even division between the "Oh I'm horrified they're going to hang him!" types and those equally appalled by the fact that a convicted drug smuggler was getting all this attention with little mention or discussion or his criminality.

The one thing Schapelle, Nugyen and Leslie all have in common is their almost unbelievable stupidity. Particularly Corby, that woman i

Posted by: Ben Sun Dec 11 12:54:35 2005

And what's darn funny - in yesterday's (Saturdays) Herald-Sun, the cops in SA busted Schapelle Corby's dope dealer and found pictures of them both frolicking among the leaves. 'It's not mine!' Merry Xmas BTW and be sure to check out