The Sydney Peace Prize Foundation may shortly find itself in the middle of another controversy. Instead of giving the prize to someone who poses in pictures with sick kids, cuts ribbons, or signs treaties, they’ve given it to John Pilger. Why must they always be so difficult? Don’t they realise what a nuisance Pilger is? Don’t they realise that he has spent over 40 years blasting governments across the world?
Six years ago, they gave the prize to Hanan Ashrawi. We all know how controversial that choice was. Another year, they awarded another troublemaker: Xanana Gusmao. He did not seek peace with the Indonesian forces that raped East Timor. He fought to expel them from his country. The Sydney Peace Foundation even gave an award to Arundhati Roy. Roy noted that her friends were nonplussed — why had they given a peace prize to such a troublemaker?
In a sense, these people would not be satisfied with "peace" when it is narrowly defined. They stand for something more. They have fought against oppression, discrimination and human rights violations. In a sense, they have refused peace by rejecting acquiescence with an unjust status quo. It is easier to recognise the bravery and importance of this when the struggle doesn’t involve us. Everyone admires those who struggled for human rights in Czechoslovakia under Soviet domination. When the Soviet tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring, those who advocated peace were effectively promoting the surrender of those who fought for freedom.
This is not to suggest that violent resistance was good or necessary in such circumstances. It is to acknowledge that the spirit of resistance and the will to challenge the status quo is sometimes necessary. It is for this reason that we admire the Czechoslovakian troublemakers.
Troublemakers have been important to Australian history too. John Chesterman, in his book Civil Rights, documented the important role of Australian activists, in combination with international pressure, in winning civil rights for Indigenous Australians. They faced substantial opposition, some of which decried their insistence on seeing the negatives in the situation they were trying to change, rather than putting on a smile and hoping things would get better. Paul Hasluck, the Commonwealth minister for territories from 1951–1963, held that these troublemakers "helped to bring about the situation in which so much of the public discussion concentrated on Australia’s shameful record instead of on Australia’s attempt to do something better in the future." He considered that a bad thing.
Jingoists have always considered it outrageous to denounce a government that acts in our name. People of principle, on the other hand, share HL Mencken’s view that "every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under." Our troublemakers compared us in international forums to apartheid South Africa and went on the freedom rides led by Charles Perkins. In doing so, they helped make Australia a better place.
John Pilger is an archetypal troublemaker. In 1967, in the early years of his career, he visited apartheid South Africa. When he got back to London, he was informed that he was banned "for the indefinite future". He was able to return 30 years later when apartheid was dead. In his book, Freedom Next Time, Pilger recounts meeting Nelson Mandela, who burst into a smile, welcoming Pilger back to the country. After all, "to have been banned from my country is a great honour".
Today, opposing apartheid in South Africa is considered an obvious position to take, because everyone agrees now that it was wrong. We can oppose the old unjust policy which no longer means fighting an unjust status quo. Yet Pilger remains fiercely independent and continues to fight against unjust status quos everywhere. He sharply challenged Mandela in their interview, in the manner so characteristic of him. In his book, he notes Mandela sold arms to "Algeria, Colombia and Peru, which have notorious human rights records", and that Mandela "recognised the brutal Burmese Junta", refusing to acknowledge the similarities between the current detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and his own former situation. Pilger goes on to note that after the "interview was over, Mandela leaned forward and asked if I thought he had been ‘too soft’ on Indonesia over East Timor. I said yes."
Pilger stirs up trouble in many places. He was able to sneak his way into Suu Kyi’s home and film an interview with her. Yet in his trenchant criticism of the Burmese Junta, Pilger demonstrates that here too he does not just stick to the preferred Western script. In 2007, he also condemned the Australian Federal Police for "training Burma’s internal security forces at the Australian-funded Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation in Indonesia". And he did not overlook the complicity of Israel in supporting the junta, for "its supply of weapons technology to Burma and its reported training of the junta’s most feared internal security thugs".
I could go on and on with Pilger’s brave and honourable fight against the wars being waged upon Afghanistan and Iraq, on the expulsion of the Chagossians of Diego Garcia by the British, on our appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians, against our complicity with the Indonesian genocide in East Timor and with its occupation of West Papua.
Obviously, causing such trouble would bring anyone enemies. Recognising his contributions through the Sydney Peace Prize will obviously outrage those who oppose public discussion concentrating on Australia’s shameful record. Predictably, those who oppose public discussion concentrating on Israel’s shameful treatment of Palestinians are outraged at the award too. Responding to the announcement of the award, the leading representative Jewish organisation, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, was quoted in the Australian Jewish News denouncing what it saw as a "bizarre and disgraceful" decision. According to them, Pilger "does not promote peace, but is a polemicist".
Self-identified moderate Zionist voices have been less restrained on Pilger. There is, for example, the supposedly left-wing Philip Mendes, who co-wrote a critical review of the response of the Zionist lobbies to Hanan Ashrawi winning the Sydney Peace Prize in 2003. Mendes has claimed Pilger is antisemitic. Then there is Sensible Jew, a blog which began in response to what its contributors felt was the inappropriate, heavy-handed style of Jewish lobbyists in their responses to events such as the play, Seven Jewish Children. Sensible Jew holds that Pilger is "far more odious" than the dreaded Hanan Ashrawi. His "anti-Zionism long ago tipped into outright hostility to Jews".
Vic Alhadeff, of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, called the award a "farce", as "[some]of [Pilger’s] work has been noteworthy for its extreme lack of balance or context, which has done nothing to promote the cause of peace."
In a sense, this is true. Pilger is not "balanced" in the way that Alhadeff would prefer him to be, and he is a polemicist. Pilger always takes sides. He does not advocate acquiescence; he stands in solidarity with those who struggle against oppression. His struggle is against the powerful. Pilger’s stance on Israel is typical of him more generally. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is appalling, and our governments in the West are fully complicit in these crimes. Pilger exposes this and behaves honourably in doing so.
Some people consider this outrageous. (How dare he? Why must he always cause such trouble?)
There are other people across the world who may think differently: the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed, struggling against foreign occupations. They need more troublemakers.
I salute John Pilger for his richly deserved award.
Note: All comments on this article will be held in a moderation queue until they can be reviewed by a moderator. If you are posting after business hours your comment will not appear before 9am the following day.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.