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John Howard the crocodile grieves for the Iraqi people

A Meditation after Tampa

It is quite possible that in the period of the Tampa stand-off, just prior to the 2001 Federal Election in Australia, tens of thousands of Australians felt deeply disturbed about the invasion of something in Australian society that was deeply troubling them. Not the 'invasion' of boat people, but the invasion of a politics that was so devoid of honesty and morals, that it traumatised them deeply, spurring them on to action.

Image: thanks to Peter Nicholson cartoons and The Australian.

Below is an expression of that troubling of our mind, written by Cedric Beidatsch, who is a historian, completing a PhD in History at the School of Humanities at the University of Western Australia. Mr Beidatsch was also the Chair of Project SafeCom for a term following November 2005.

Meditations on a new millennium
After the Tampa

by Cedric Beidatsch
September 2002

Ric, a man, not yet middle aged, African born, Australian resident,
A viewer of the western sea; an ordinary guy, a microcosm.
I think and feel, I love and hurt, I fall and feel pain; I laugh and cry;
Know joy and sadness, hope and fear, long for the good life.
A man, no more nor less, a human being; citizen of the world.
A world in myself; but not complete without the world.

I lean on my spade and look down at the garden.
I marvel at flower waiting to be born; the iris blue
Or tulip white, its form and shape coded in the dormant bulb
To burst forth again when cold and rain and sun and wind are right.
I marvel at the rose, waiting to see the tight buds unfurl;
Waves of colour waiting to explode into the world.

The force that drives the coloured blooms - reproductive urge.
The same force that drives me and you to conceive;
And more than that, the force that drives the arts of life.
The true mystery of life - DNA choosing paths of replication;
Reproducing with constant variation;
Life an experiment in living adaptation;
Creating beauty on the way.

What is this thing called beauty? Surely the signature of the earth;
We are of the earth: rose, tulip, iris, cat, dog, spider, human;
Beauty is the sign that tells us we are home, where we belong.
A blue planet, spinning in the dark void of space.

I breathe in and out - atoms of air - present
Since the atmosphere first formed. I breathe oxygen,
Exhaled by countless plants. Exhaled by animals numberless.
Ancient atoms.
I breathe air that first was here when our ancestors crawled to land
From out of the primeval sea.

I drink water. Water of atoms, hydrogen and carbon;
First element and element emerging from electrified primal soup;
Elements recycled endlessly around the globe -
And up into the atmosphere and down again through precipitation -
I drink water that dinosaurs drank.

I observe my body in a mirror; short, chubby, hairy.
I feel flesh and wonder at its solidness; knowing the organic cells
Reconstitute themselves in full every three years.
Matter is sloughed off and rebuilt, the solid body in fact constant motion.
My body; made of atoms; ancient atoms older than earth;
Atoms from the dust of stars gone supernova; the light of which
We may never see.
Atoms of past creatures strange, of plants,
Of long extinct fern forests, of men and women long dead.
Dead and gone to dust; dust recycled; dust that is me.

I am a part of all that I have met, says Ulysses; ay, that's experience;
But I am also made of parts of all that has ever been, and will give parts
To all that ever will be - that's physical reality. Are we not of the world?
Truly microcosm - who dare tell that we are not of nature?

In the inky black of midnight I gaze from the edge of the sea
Into the bowl of heaven and marvel. Marvel at the myriad lights
Of stars - all suns, all surrounded by planets, and planets by moons
Orbiting, endlessly orbiting, worlds beyond count. Light from stars
Some long since dead; burnt out, exploded, now perhaps black holes.
And also some old but so far away, that light is not yet seen.
Imagine the infinite space....
Marvel at the ability of the human brain, to imagine and contemplate
Such infinity, a concept, a number, a thing never experienced.
How can the brain conceive of abstracts beyond perception -
is this an example of that enormous interconnectedness of all existence,
that I sense when I breathe or drink? A sympathy of brain and cosmos?
Infinity outer and inner, calling to each other through the skin?

Oh life so precious, because so statistically rare.
Think on it, the innumerable stars; and only a proportion
Of them all the spectrum that suffices for life. And of that portion,
A smaller portion with planets in the right position, not too hot nor cold;
And with companion planets that act to balance and defend and ward off
The incessant bombardment of asteroids.

And of these solar systems, how many have planets atmospher'd;
The right axial tilt to generate weather; the right balance of organic soup;
And then for life sufficient time to unfold in all the marvelous variations
Of natural selection? There will be more such earths; of that we may be sure;
But rare all the same, and in the vastness of space may never be found.
How many Mars' spin thorough space around their suns?
Many more than Earths, We can be sure.
What mathematical odds are these; what total percentage;
Small chance piled on small chance; coincidence upon coincidence?

And all this in our universe; and how many more in parallel?
Each collapse of a Schroedinger wave equation, we are told,
Creates another alternative universe with outcomes different.
Billions upon myriad of parallel universes, multiply the odds.
Oh life, so beautiful, rare and precious!

This is no argument for mysticism, but for wonder; wonder that it happened at all;
Wonder at the rarity of a planet of beauty, teeming with life. For rarity is precious, and valued high because it is rare. How much then,
Must we value life - not just our own, but all life? For all avoidable extinction
Is a net subtraction from total life; a diminution of my - and your - existence;
A reduction in that beauty that is common to life; the sign of our home.

For no man is an island, saith wise John Donne. And true; but even more so
Than he knew. The bell tolls not just for individual death, but also for species.
Life as a brilliant picture - as on a computer screen, with species as pixels.
Now steadily remove pixels; oh sure there is no difference at first,
But soon the time will come when the picture fades, and the colours die...
Europeans, said the bald headed politician, need to bury political differences
And have regard for their common home. But our common home is more.
The fullness of the earth and all that is in it, and NONE to have dominion.
Conscious life, should be the guardian of the Earth, a common home
To all life forms. Preserve the pixels!

In a city of a million or more; all absorbed in everyday life, all rushing;
Hundreds of thousands cross the river spanning bridges every day.
I marvel at the bridges. I marvel at the ingenuity, the cleverness of humans.
I marvel that the bridge stands up at all. The design of the bridge,
A feat of engineering. Engineering, the fruit of physics.
Physics, child of mathematics. Mathematics, purest product of the mind.
A language of its own, with rules consistent. Not messy like natural languages,
But pure, rational. Where did we learn mathematics? We invented it.
Look around;
There is no math in the world; things and creatures yes, but no numbers.
There are many natural shapes and forms, but no lines, squares or triangles.
Abstractions all; that we devised to explain and describe our world.
A human artefact, mathematics, logical and consistent because it is an artefact.
And from this we derive physics - a metaphor for space, for what we see
(and we do not really see - the brain decodes the impact of light waves
on the retina as pictures of objects). A metaphor, a form of poetry.
A poetry of cool, beautiful, pure logic.
And from this metaphor we build a bridge. And it stands.
I marvel at the ingenuity of my fellows.

In my city of a million, I depend on all.
No rich man me, yet I sit in a house (air conditioned) of eight rooms;
An electronic gate keeps the world out, and visitors communicate by bell.
I type at a computer, send e-mails around the world in a flash, load images
From a digital camera, scan papers. I fax, phone - talk by phone while driving
On the road, or walking by the sea. A tap summons water hot or cold;
No trip to the well for me, or chopping wood to heat the bath.

I live, like my fellows, with a mountain of stuff;
Objects, furnishings; none of which I made, or could make.
My clothes, my food, all derive from farms, mines, laboratories, factories
Some on the other side of the world. If Osama detonated a nuke above
And EMP burnt out all electronics, I would be lost. You too.
If disaster forced a reversion to even nineteenth century conditions,
How many of us could grow, gather and find food? Weave cloth? Cure leather?
Work wood? Heat the house? Repair the house? And we have not yet discussed
The computers, the machines, the engines, the tools that make our world.

I marvel at the ingenuity of my fellows.
The world we have built in 40,000 short years
Since the cathedral of the mind opened up and integrated all the side chapels
Of specialised intelligences; since the corpus callosum began it's amazing tasks
Networking the greatest computer in the world. The human brain -
Its neurons capable of seven times more permutations than there are atoms
In the whole universe!

Museums display examples of primitive technology. Specialised fish traps,
Hunting spears, harpoons, stone tools whose use is unclear.
I look at them and marvel at the ingenuity of my fellows!

I marvel at First Peoples still in the world. Me - urban man, proud user
Of electronic and mechanical technology I can't understand or repair.
I see First People use these - make mobile phone calls, send e-mails,
Fly and drive and operate machines; make videos.
And then walk into remnant wilds and name the birds and plants,
Survive and thrive - nay more, they create
tools and weapons of great complexity;
Clothe themselves, treat wounds. Still masters of an ancient technology.
Walking and living in two worlds, multiple cultures. Traditional elders
In high rise hotels, negotiating with bureaucrats, playing politics with the best.
At home to ancient ways and modern tools, and dealing with tourists
From afar. I marvel at the capacity of my fellows!

I walk the world, paying close attention to my skin.
It tingles with messages, the impact of radiation, coded warm and cold,
movement of air, particles brushing lightly. My skin, a radar for the cosmos.
And command central in the brain, decodes the messages, and nerves respond,
To carry instructions through the body. At all times, the body tingles, receiving
And responding to spectra of radiation, a perambulating radar station.
Saintly Walt sung true, so very true, of the body electric. A powerhouse.
Radiation received, information decoded, responses authorised.
Radiation received as light waves through the eyes, as sound waves by ear;
As texture and movement by touch; as chemical reactions by taste and smell.
Microcosm tuned in to macrocosm.

We sense and decode the emotions of life in an animal or a fellow.
Microcosm attuned to microcosm. The subtleties of light, sound and chemistry;
Quick, fleeting, almost beyond notice; message received and understood.
The body electric indeed. We radiate information, respond to information.
I am connected to you by shared atoms, by invisible networks of radiation.
And more, by the ability to interpret the radiation; by the sheer fact of life
And of humanity. A common humanity, in a common home.

A common humanity. Easy, so easy, to focus on superficial difference
To make distinctions and then justify them. And use those distinctions to harm.
And justify the harm with elaborate philosophical or religious terms.
A common humanity; a shared physical existence and an amazing brain.

Ric; a worker in the world of money; a financier.
I hear amazing things from colleagues; soul searching questions.
"What is ethical - quick, find me an expert for advice".
"When an action is wrong - what are the rules?"
"When do I disclose a conflict of interest?"

"If I comply with the law, how can there be ethical issues?"
Ethicists multiply - twelve years ago there were none. Now they consult,
Conduct training sessions, draft codes of conduct.
I marvel that we need professionals
To tell us what we all already know;
Quite simply right from wrong.

Letters to the editor
Deplore the lack of ethics
All the fault of selfish baby boomers;
Deplore the decline of beating children,
Decay of family values
Loss of religion.
Postmodernists quibble :(its all relative; ethics are cultural);
Absolute right or wrong is imperialist, an imposition of values
And then they squirm
faced with honour killings, child labour, female infanticide, sexual abuse.
Others demand the invention of god.

Into this confusion I bring my thoughts: a simple minded fellow.
Gladly rush in - call me a fool, I care not.
More unites than divides us; a common humanity in a common home.
We have the quality of empathy - an emotional compass;
Expressing common humanity.
Empathy. Simply imagine myself as other.
Not how I think I would respond, still
Being me - but another me, a me shaped by what has shaped you.
A me as you.
After all, but for circumstances I could have been you.
People make their own history, but not in circumstances of their choice,
Said clever Karl. The two parts of the equation are balanced.
There is choice, yes
But choice is exercised within a real situation. And that real situation
Shapes the other, shaped you. I was not in it, so I have exercised my choices
In different circumstances. Empathy is not me telling you
How I would behave in your situation, because I would not be.
It is me imagining
Being you and then asking "now what would I want to happen?" The answer will tell what is right.

Nothing new here - this is after all, the old golden rule:
"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".
Kant called it a categorical imperative; the disinterested choice of right action.
John Rawle's blind test - choose an outcome to situations without knowing
If you will occupy those situations.
This is an exercise in empathy

Above all be critical of your answer to the exercise;
If I stand to benefit or be advantaged when thinking of your needs,
Or find a compromise between your needs and mine, then I have applied
A utilitarian calculus of ethics. And then the answer is wrong.
There are no degrees of right or wrong. There is right or wrong.
Six dead is not better than sixty dead; letting die unwillingly is killing;
Allowing starvation and disease to eliminate a people is still genocide.
Children overboard was always a lie.
Benefiting your self at the expense of others is still theft.

How quickly we seek to avoid empathy. We find labels to deny
Common humanity. For then we are dealing with lesser beings
And can give them the crumbs with clear conscience.
It's better than nothing we say. Or charity begins at home.
Or it's more than others do. They don't expect much; after all
They're not like us. Justify, justify; cavilling on the tenth part of a hair,
The Bard called it. How we scramble to compromise, to find excuses.
Oh yes, there are always points philosophical, political, religious
To bolster selfishness. Any old port in a storm.

And what is this caviling, this scramble for justification
But a confession of guilt? Life calls to life; humanity is common;
Humanity calls to humanity; the voice of empathy arises -
And we shut it down. Quick, quick, justify, excuse, justify.
The louder, the more aggressive, the more virulent the excuse,
The greater the guilt, thinks this simple minded man.

What was the sin of Sodom? Oh, that's easy, you say; sodomy obviously;
Homosexuality; possibly incest, salacious stuff ... Actually, no:
"The sin of Sodom: that they were rich and did not share with the poor."

Evil does not lie in choosing to do wrong:
It lies in not choosing to do good.