Democracy and other necessary illusions


‘Compassion is an unstable emotion,’ wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. ‘It needs to be translated into action or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated…It is passivity that dulls feeling.’

Sontag died earlier this month as the tsunami horror was unfolding and the world’s compassion seemed to swell to unprecedented levels. Sontag might have said that compassion is also a selective emotion. As some UN workers have been prompted to remark, man-made equivalents of a tsunami sweep much of Africa every week and never make it into the newspapers. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that the compassion presently being translated into action in Aceh and Sri Lanka will inspire more action elsewhere. And we might also be forgiven for hoping that our compassion does not translate itself into yet another media-driven orgy of narcissistic nationalism.

Not that the Federal Labor Party leader can be accused of any such indulgence. Was there ever a more bizarre failure of a political office? Vaguely reminiscent of John Cain’s holiday in the Seaford ti-tree while a strike backed up trams in Melbourne’s streets, Latham’s disappearance was on a much grander, more mysterious scale.

To anyone who cared enough to wonder, it seemed like a rare case of churlish hari kari. But what was much rarer, Mark Latham’s office appeared to do nothing at all. Of course the media hounded him. What did he expect? He’s had a horrible time “ and a bad haircut. Of course he had to go.

And once again the ALP and the Party machine wastes a leader.

So Latham departs to private life and family values, to practice what he preached. Kim Beazley, declares himself fit, experienced, keen to get back to the ‘kitchen table’ of domestic policy in ‘the age of terror’.

Meanwhile John Howard and his ministers have been generous and sure-footed in dealing with the humanitarian crisis and impeccably civil in their treatment of Latham. Just now you might wonder if Kim Beazley has any need for the fire he says is suddenly burning in his belly.

The war on terrorism is to be expanded and placed under the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld’s control, claims Seymour Hersch in the New Yorker (24-31 January 2005 – The New Yorker). ‘Iraq is just one campaign,’ he was told. ‘The Bush administration is looking at the Middle East as a huge war zone.’ Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is the next strategic target. And Iraq lurches towards the ‘great day for democracy’ on 30 January as violence escalates and the differences between the Sunnis, Shias and Kurds widen.

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