Elly McDonald

Writer

Good in the world

7 Comments

Featured image: Screaming Freedom, and Freedom, both by Sina Pourhorayad

This week British MP Jo Cox was murdered by a man who in court justified his actions by yelling “Death to traitors! Freedom for Britain!”

Jo Cox was a champion for Yorkshire. She also championed, across her career, children’s health and safety, worldwide, and multicultural immigration to Britain. She campaigned for Britain to stay in the EU and she campaigned for just treatment of asylum seekers. She believed in humanity and a shared planet. She believed “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

She died for her beliefs. More particularly, she died in consequence of acting on her beliefs.

The tragic death of Jo Cox, at age 41, elected to the Mother of Parliaments just one year ago, idealist and career activist, a wife and mother of two young children, has me thinking about good in the world.

It’s a truism to quote Edmund Burke in this context: “All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good men to do nothing. The only thing necessary for the Triumph of Evil is for good men to do nothing.”

A partner to which might be the verse I quoted to some friends last night, from Julian of Norwich, the famed C14th English anchoress:

And all shall be well
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be exceedingly well.
He said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but he said ‘Thou shalt not be overcome’.

Usually that line is left out. I think that last line is where truth lives.

In a church today I heard the challenge activism presents expressed another way. The question was asked, “If this church closed tomorrow, how would that affect this town’s community? Would this church be missed? How would it be remembered?”

Last night I observed community activism in support of asylum seekers in detention in Melbourne. Richmond Uniting Church made its gallery space, Gallery 314, available for Over The Fence, an exhibition of art by asylum seekers, curated by Uniting Church minister Lisa Stewart. The exhibition is open for two evenings only, as an event within Refugee Week.

At the opening last night, a former detainee, Mohammad, spoke movingly about the experience of being a young man in indefinite detention. He spoke of the corrosive effects of being confined, restricted in his interactions with the broader community, unable to participate and contribute in the ways he wished. He spoke of the extraordinary moment it was for him the first time an Australian citizen with Anglo heritage spoke that simple word to him: “Welcome!”

Welcome. Well come. How can it be I’ve never heard the “Well come!” in “Welcome”?

An advocate on behalf of asylum seekers, representing the Melbourne detention centre visitor program, spoke about her frustration at the questions sometimes put to her by Australians with Anglo heritage who are well-intended and educated and whom she would presume are well-informed.

She asked, “How can it be these people need to ask these questions? How can it be they don’t know the facts about asylum seekers? How can it be they don’t know we have a detention centre here in Melbourne?”

I cringed when she voiced this. I consider myself well-intended and in terms of academic qualifications, I had the best education Australia can offer.

Yet despite a strong sense that detaining people indefinitely is morally – and surely legally? – wrong, I have questions I hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding stupid, for fear of sounding callous. Out of fear I am both ignorant and not nearly as kind as I’d like to believe I can be.

My questions include, “But if asylum seekers who arrive without papers are not detained, what are the alternatives? How can we verify who these people are? If we can’t verify who they are, how can we determine whether individuals among these arrivals without documentation might pose a threat to our community?”

Without realizing it, I have to some extent bought into a perception of asylum seekers as to varying degrees sinister.

There were past and a few present asylum seekers at the art exhibition launch last night.

This morning when I was telling my brother-in-law about my experience of the exhibition launch, he interrupted me and said, “I get it. Good looking. They were good looking. You’ve used the word ‘good looking’ five times so far.”

Without realizing it, I have to a large extent bought into the equation ‘good looking=good’. How very shallow of me.

Yes, the asylum seekers present last night were conspicuously good looking. Also conspicuously ‘normal’, in the sense they looked as eager to please, as motivated, as intelligent, smart, as delightful and frankly delicious as young people generally do to my middle-aged eyes. They looked nervous, too.

I spoke briefly to one artist, whom I will call Ayesha.

I said, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You should be.”

In response, a flicker of what I can only describe as panic crossed Ayesha’s lovely face. Then she smiled, nervously, tentatively, and lowered her face slightly.

What did she hear? Did she hear an older Anglo lady say, “I hope you’re proud of yourself. You freeloader. You fraud.”

God, I hope not.

‘Ayesha’ is not ‘just’ a lovely face, and not ‘just’ a refugee. She is not a freeloader and not a fraud. ‘Ayesha’ is a talented and intelligent young woman, a young wife and mother – as Jo Cox was.

‘Ayesha’ and her fellow artists exhibiting in Over The Fence want to live. They want to live free in a community that accepts them and allows them opportunity.

They want to be “well come”.

I am grateful for the opportunity to meet Ayesha and to see Mohammad and others who have been – or are still – in the detention centre in Melbourne. (What is its name? I heard the acronyms but I don’t know what they stand for. I would ask but I hate disclosing my ignorance.)

I am grateful to the volunteer detention centre visitors who attended the exhibition opening.

I am grateful to the activists who spoke and to those who organized this event.

I am grateful to the young woman employed by the detention centre security company who chose to spend her Saturday evening at this exhibition launch.

I am grateful for having my eyes opened, even if it took “good looking” young people and heart-rending artwork to clear away some cataracts.

Most of all, I am grateful to be reminded of goodness in the world. Jo Cox died and unjust detentions continue, but Good (with an uppercase) acts in this world, and I do believe good can prevail.

 

Author: Elly McDonald

Art lover. Loves her family and companion animals. Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and briefly tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

7 thoughts on “Good in the world

  1. I wanted to acknowledge ‘Mohammad’ and ‘Ayesha’ by using their actual names, but I was cautioned that identifying them on the internet might not be advisable. Sad.

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  2. Wonderful post, Elly. The story of Jo Cox’s death is as inexplicable to me as our treatment of asylum seekers. What kind of world are we becoming?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I heard about Jill Cox’s death with tremendous sadness. Everything I read about her confirmed me in my belief that she was exactly the kind of politician the world needs more of. I wish there were many, many more like her.

    I don’t usually talk much about politics on my blog since I see myself primarily as an observational humorist rather than a satirist. I do have political opinions, though, and I worry very much about what I see as the rise of racism and xenophobia in a number of countries that really should know better. Donald Trump’s disgraceful campaign in the United States and the thinly-veiled racism of some parts of the Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom are two notable recent examples.

    I was very interested in your comments about how you equated good-looking with good. I’m afraid this is something so very deep-rooted in human nature, many people act on the connection without even being aware they make it. There is now a good deal of scientific data to show that people are more trusting of attractive strangers, treat them more politely, listen to them with greater deference and assume they have a higher level of intelligence. Needless to say, this is nice if you are good-looking and not so great if you are a blogger who wears a bag on his head.

    Of course, I share the same human nature as everyone else, so I’m not immune to this tendency to make easy but unfounded assumptions about strangers. I have to make a conscious effort not to misled in this way. (Incidentally, I’m very sorry about this comment unexpectedly turning into War and Peace.) 🙂

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    • Hi Bun, thank you for the thoughtful comments. I’m glad you took time to write at length and in depth.

      I nearly edited out the “good looking” stuff as irrelevant, but I didn’t, because it reminded me of something that happened recently in the asylum seeker debate that bothered me. Asylum seeker advocates created a series of posts that showed a photo of a purported “asylum seeker” alongside a short profile of who that person is and how they came to seek asylum. The short profiles were factual, describing real individuals. But the photos were photos of Iranian actors. The actors may be well-known in Iran but would not be recognized here outside the Iranian emigre community and Iranian cinema film buffs. The posts did not disclose that the photos did not show the people described in the text. When challenged, the posters who created this campaign justified the use of film and TV star photos by saying they of course could not use photos identifying actual asylum seekers. But I feel the failure to make clear that those exceptionally attractive images were not the individuals described was dishonest and an own goal. First, because the choice to substitute exceptionally attractive actors’ photos implies that if the people shown were more ordinary, less attractive, they’d be perceived as less appealing and might have less value (both as prospective Australian residents and as propaganda fodder). Second, because I believe advocates and activists must ALWAYS demonstrate complete integrity, to earn the public’s trust.

      There. I’ve matched your War and Peace with Anna Karenina 🙂

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