Sunday, May 23, 2004

Old stuff

Going through my files, seduced by the idle moments and endless procrastinations of writing, I found this speech I gave when asked to read an event for East Timor, shortly after that country voted for its independence from Indonesia in 1999, with horrific results. So I thought I would post it here, as the dilemmas it outlines are as current to me, five years later, as they were then.

I am honoured to be asked to read tonight. I wished to say something briefly, and then to read some of my poems.

It is well documented that the Indonesian military, especially the notorious Kopassus, has been trained at taxpayers' expense by the US, the UK and Australia, and that the arms used to quell the populations of East Timor and elsewhere in the archipelago were supplied by the armaments industries of the so-called "free world". This is only one of many instances where the rhetoric of Western Governments for human rights rings more than a little hollow. Remember how Slobodan Milosevic was an ally whom the West could, quote, "deal with"? It was the case in only November last year. Those with longer memories might remember when Saddam Hussein was a good guy.

I think most of us know that Western foreign policy has precious little to do with human rights or ideals of justice, and rather more to do with the interests of finance. Australia's relationship with Indonesia is no different. When our governments are complicit in murder, as Australia has been in East Timor, the least we can do is protest. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and, most of all, to the people who have had their hopes for justice, peace and freedom betrayed. It is impossible to maintain the fiction that what happens elsewhere has no implications for us. As the hopes of others are betrayed, so, insidiously and inevitably, are our own. Whatever the hopes of the East Timorese now help has, finally, arrived, the fact remains that it is too late for more than 200,000 of their people.

At the very least we must refuse, again and again, to be misled by the lies of politicians and the veiled interests of big business. Those interests are not the same as ours. Those interests commodify everything that is irreplacable and sell it to anyone who buys. Justice, hope, peace, freedom have become merely advertising slogans. Dissent, in such a world as ours, is almost nonsensical, so beset it is by contradictions. The most successful dissenting is commodified almost immediately, and so consciences are vaccinated in advance.

Nevertheless, I dissent.

It is difficult for me, in the face of situations like that in East Timor, not to feel art's impotence: what poem ever fed a hungry child, or housed the homeless, or staved off a gun? However, there are two things that can be said for poetry: firstly, unlike many other human activities, it causes little harm, and secondly, as a commodity it is a triumphant failure. It is still a place where the search for truthful language may exist. I present my poems humbly, as places where I am seeking truths: for it seems a little difficult, at the end of this century, to say with the inimitable confidence of a Picasso: I do not seek, I find. They are attempts to say, where silence seems impossible to maintain.

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