Dark Times

26 July 2011
It was a weekend of bad news. How much sorrow can we take? How much horror can the brain process, how much hurt? The news came out slowly on Saturday, Australian time. Bombing in Norway, the first reports said, a few casualties. It seemed very sad but one of those events that happens in far-off cities from time to time; local group of loons trying to make a point. But then word came through of a shooting, at a summer camp. Summer camp? These were kids. And the death toll rose and rose - 17, in the fifties, at one stage reported in the nineties, now revised back to 76, offering some very little cold comfort. The stories were horrific. A gunman posing as a police officer, pretending he was there to perform security checks and shooting the assembled teenagers; impersonating a rescuer to coax frightened survivors out of their hiding places, then opening fire; shooting victims as they tried to swim to safety 600 metres away. The brain reeled, unable to cope with the sick reality of it all. Who did this?

Sections of the media turned to their usual suspects; al Qaeda. It must be Islamic terrorists. Andrew Bolt was quick to assert that the attacks must call into question Norway's immigration policy. As it became apparent that the gunman was a right wing extremist, there was the inevitable switch of focus. Well, the conservatives harrumphed, he's obviously a lone crazy. A nut. Nothing to do with us. Although, they added...you can understand, really, why people are so angry at their governments these days.

Can we make this clear? The Utøya attacks were fuelled in a climate of right-wing hatred sprouting all over the world. Do you think it couldn't happen here? Of course it could. The right-wing media in Australia is fermenting right-wing bile to a disgusting extent. One of the country's most prominent broadcasters, Alan Jones, states that the Prime Minister and leader of the Greens should be drowned in sacks; an audience member at a town hall meeting tells the Shadow Treasurer that he wants to take up arms against the government, and Hockey says he understands without a word of dissuasion; 70% of newspapers in this country are owned by News Corp which openly peddles its right wing agenda. Of course, this is a democracy, and people are free to hold differing views; that's not the context we're discussing here. I'm talking about the anger people are entitled to feel against the government being used as justification for violence and bloodshed. In the tumult being thrown up by the shock jocks and right-wing media, a massacre such as this would come as no surprise. "But we're angry" is the justification being parroted again and again.  Being angry does not make this okay. Those of us on this side of politics saw 12 years of a government who slashed public services, demonised asylum seekers and lied that they were throwing their children off boats, ran the country into the ground economically in the name of budget surpluses, went to war in defiance of the wishes of 70% of the population, referred to the hundreds of thousands of citizens who marched against the war as mobs...we saw all this (well actually everyone saw it, but the right wingers didn't care) and I don't remember the fury from the left then. Where were the death threats, the screaming headlines? None, because as angry as we got, we understood violence is not okay. The right wingers demanding an election to have their say are the ones loading the shotguns when they don't get their way.

To claim the horror in Norway was divorced from political ideology ignores the reality of the targets. The shootings occurred at a summer camp for supporters of the ruling, centre left Norwegian Labor party. The shooter targeted the country's future leaders from the left and the children of the current leadership; young people who held the ideals of tolerance, multiculturalism and social justice so despised  by the right. To target the children is an act intended to destroy hope itself. And to Norway's eternal credit, they are not allowing hope to be destroyed. They have vowed not revenge, but more democracy. The Mayor of Oslo has vowed: We will punish the killer together, and the punishment will be more openness and more tolerance. Democracy does not come from the barrel of a gun. You can't threaten your way into power then claim you represent the will of the people. Conservative commentators are rushing to excuse the far right from any responsibilities for this atrocity, such as in this offensive piece by Peter Hartcher. Conservatives are the masters of double standards, and can't see that the blame for these events much lie partly with them for stirring up hatred and lies.

If only the right wing sprouters of bile would take a look at themselves for a moment, and stop the ferment of hate before a tragedy happens here.


Still processing the events in Norway, news came through of the death at 27 of Amy Winehouse. It's a measure of the life Ms Winehouse led - or the media coverage of that life, anyway - that reaction to her death was not cries of "Oh my god, no. Really?" but "Oh. Well, that's a bit sad". Unlike the unexpected horror and devastation of the Norwegian attacks, this had a sad inevitability to it. You felt petty for considering the two events in the same way.

Amy Winehouse was no manufactured pop puppet sprung to fame from a reality TV show, polished and packaged and presented to the world with the stunning lack of originality; nor was she a starlet famous for being famous. She was, as Russell Brand touchingly wrote in this memoir, a f**king genius. But Brand's piece is also a reflection on addiction, and that's how Winheouse had been viewed in recent years. An addiction, not a woman, not a musician, her demise as inevitable as the jazz greats who proceeded her. Addiction and genius go hand in hand, the line goes, the former dwarfing the latter in the public mindset.

But in reality addiction signifies nothing. Not genius. Not even pain, often; many addicts come from happy lives. And most addicts are not idiots. You know what you're doing. "Drugs kill" warnings are beyond a joke; yeah, you know that. It seems worth it, the mundane reality of life overruled by the shimmering escape of the substance of choice. Sure, there's the stage where life becomes a support mechanism for the addiction; you need it, but you don't enjoy it. Did Ms Winehouse ever reach that level? We'll never know. Maybe she left delighting in the joys of a high, still. There will be no more music, everyone reminds each other. But more than that, there will be no final, successful trip to rehab; no memoir, no rounds of the talk show circuit. No standing ovation at the Grammys or Brit awards as she collects her Lifetime Achievement award; no OK! magazine cover as she held up a rosy-cheeked toddler and declared she'd finally found true happiness. Maybe she saw that future, and didn't want it. We'll probably never know, but maybe she knew what she was doing and chose to walk away.


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