Contrary to the cliche, silence can be deafening. Certainly this seems to have been the message of and the enthusiastic response to John Pilger’s 2009 Sydney Peace Prize address, Breaking the Australian Silence, which was delivered in Sydney last Thursday. The speaker was verbally forthright, the audience audibly appreciative.
The expatriate Pilger, a left-wing activist-journalist with a deep sense of alienation from the land of his birth, said we have much to be proud of in Australia and, in his lifetime, we have become one of the most culturally diverse places on earth.
However, Pilger’s essential premise is that Australia is inhabited by idiots who are just too stupid to know what is going on around them and so are controlled by outside forces. He told his audience that we are manipulated by great power which speaks through an invisible government of propaganda that subdues and limits our political imagination and ensures we are always at war against our own first people and those seeking refuge, or in someone else’s country.
This statement is long on conspiracy but devoid of facts. What great power? If the government is invisible, how can Pilger see it? And precisely how is Australia’s political imagination subdued or limited? These comments are as meaningless as Pilger’s constant evocation of the word silent to make his points.
Certainly Pilger has not been silenced. He is the author of much journalism, many books and his documentaries have screened on the ABC. The Sydney Peace Foundation, which awards the peace prize, is based at the taxpayer-subsidised University of Sydney. The City of Sydney funds the prize from rates. This year’s lecture was extracted in the Herald and The Age and shown on the Fox News APAC channel (part-owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited). No evidence of silencing here.
There was no new material in Pilger’s address. He did not proclaim any truth that was previously suppressed. And those named in the speech would have been familiar to followers of international or domestic politics. They included Harold Pinter, Daniel Ellsberg, Larissa Behrendt, Henry Reynolds and Patrick Dodson. Pilger praised Reynolds for having stood against white supremacists posing as academics and journalists but failed to mention that Reynolds recently shared the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.
When John Howard was prime minister, Pilger criticised him from the left. Now Kevin Rudd is prime minister, Pilger criticises him from the left. Pilger accused Rudd of telling lies over Afghanistan and ridiculed President Barack Obama, comparing him to a Calvin Klein brand.
Nowhere did Pilger acknowledge Afghanistan as a source of terrorist attacks on the West. What’s more, his audience would have got the impression that the Iraqi dictatorship, under the brutal Saddam Hussein, was a modern utopia where the atmosphere was wonderful. Tell that to those who fled Iraq in Saddam’s time.
As with all ideologues, Pilger engages in hyperbole against Western democracies. The Australian detention centre at Christmas Island is a concentration camp, Israel’s defence against rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza is akin to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews in the Bergen-Belsen camp, bombing is as American as apple pie and so on. All brought to you by the city’s democratically elected local government.
In his lecture, delivered almost on the eve of Armistice Day, Pilger asked: Do the young people who wrap themselves in the flag at Gallipoli every April understand that only the lies have changed that sanctifying blood sacrifice in colonial invasions is meant to prepare us for the next one?
The answer to the question is almost certainly no. Young Australians well understand, for example, that Nazism was defeated on the battlefield and not by one or more pacifist societies or peace foundations. Australia, an independent nation since 1901, has not fought what the left sneeringly refers to as other people’s wars.
Most Australians accept that the country has been well governed by Labor and the Coalition alike since Federation. Pilger hears a silence because he does not want to accept that most Australians do not share his left-wing interpretation of Australian history.