First the High Renaissance setting for the slow demise of Pope John Paul II, the red robed cardinals, the Latin chanting, the tears on young cheeks, glimpses of black clad nuns who had nursed the decrepit papal body. Then Joseph Ratzinger in white stockings and red patent leather shoes transformed before the cameras into benign Benedict XVI blessing the world’s faithful from the papal balcony.
Meanwhile back home in Kingaroy, Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen was also taking his time to die. News bulletins documented his fluid intake, snores and heartbeat. The last photo made him look more like a tin-pot South American dictator than he did when he was acting like one, but in general the comment would not have persuaded anyone too young to remember the facts that, as Premier, he was a scandalous blot on Australian democracy. Such a prolonged departure, mercifully, was not accorded Al Grassby. The media remembered his brightly coloured ties, not what he did for multiculturalism, including the creation of the SBS.
Death is now a media event and therefore a marketing opportunity. Let the marketers at it and watch it take on its own truth. And complex, uncomfortable reality, including memory itself, will go out the window like a puff of smoke from the papal chimney.
The Dawn Service at Gallipoli is such an Event and a developing highlight on the international backpackers’ circuit. It has Events managers and the Bee Gees ‘Staying Alive’ to warm the crowds and get them in the mood for solemn remembrance on sacred ground when the sun rises.
But what are they remembering? Are there any questions in there? Any paradoxes? Any room for doubt? Any relativities to judge? Is there anything to be learned from such an event? Or is it possible that some new nonsense is forming in the collective consciousness. To go by the reporting you would think that the historical event no longer raises questions – none, at least that can compete with questions about the car parks, the litter and the songs.
As the new reality is governed by marketing, this PM takes to it with the same instinctual enthusiasm as those young men took to the great adventure in 1915. The litter was no worse than after New Year in Sydney. The car parks were unavoidable and really you shouldn’t blame the Turks (read – Blame the Turks for not having enough litter bins). He was proud to be these young people’s Prime Minister. As well as a media and marketing event, Gallipoli has thus become, in perpetuity, a not-to-be-missed political event.
Each year, we scale the heights of Anzac Day deeper in sentimentality. More sepia photos fill the newspapers and TV screens. More wide-eyed journalists are sent out to RSL halls and nursing homes in country towns to interview a generation of former soldiers many of whom, if you read between the lines, loathed their experience of war, or remain confused by it; still mourn their mates and kin, and are bemused if not bewildered by the reborn Romance of the Soldier in which they are increasingly enfolded.
It’s the problem with myths, especially those concocted or reshaped by modern media machinery and filtered through media minds that are inclined to say – as one of them did on Anzac Day three years ago – they died to protect our lifestyle. They can’t speak with empathy or knowledge for every human consequence of war, and it would therefore be better if they did not speak at all. Extend the minute’s silence to twenty-four hours – or seven days which is now the length of the media event.
It is probably a sign of things to come, and another sign that those things will be little like they were a generation ago, that when cartoonist Michael Leunig made the connection between soldiering and killing people a week later he was still being belted by the righteous.
Thanks to Michael Leunig
Meanwhile in Iraq, the war we played our part in starting continues. It won’t be won or lost in the conventional sense, now says Donald Rumsfeld – although his most senior military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, disagrees. ‘We are winning, okay,’ he said while admitting that Iraqi insurgency was a strong as it was a year ago.
The killing is again escalating. More than fifty bodies have floated to the surface of the Tigris. The massacres of Shia hostages continue. Twenty car bombs were detonated in Baghdad last week. Iraq is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Three months after the election which was trumpeted as a triumph for democracy, the US Senate has approved a further $US81 billion for ‘reconstruction and combat’ – which pushes the total cost of ‘securing’ Iraq to $US300 billion.
It’s nothing to what the oil will be worth, some people have been suggesting. But only cynics say these things: no one else is any longer asking questions.
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