Monday, July 17, 2006

Praying with the Hoff

24 November 2005

by Jarrod McKenna

Australian youth grow up on a steady diet of Americana. The indoctrination in American culture via the media is so strong that even when mocking it we perpetuate it. For example, at the 2005 ARIAs (the Aussie equivalent to the Grammys), the two biggest awards of the night were presented by David Hasselhoff, who was described as a ‘cultural icon’.

I laughed out loud when I heard that. Over the past few years praying with icons has become an increasingly frequent spiritual discipline for me, so the use of the term to describe Hasselhoff seemed even more ridiculous. The “Hoff”, through no fault of his own, has become for us an icon of the ‘sound and fury signifying nothing,’ distracting us from the pain our world is feeling. We fear being overpowered by pain, so we structure society to escape the pain that would transform us if only we would enter into it.

In Australia, on the periphery of the mainstream media radar, is another American I would like to offer as an alternative ‘icon’ for a more fruitful contemplation. This lesser known figure will never be able to generate the kind of frenzied fluff of infotainment which increasingly replaces the art of journalism in this country. His name is Scott Parkin. While respected for his work in the US, he never attracted the national attention he recently received in Australia. What happened to Scott Parkin is of concern to everyone. It offers us a window to see the disturbing trends present in so many Western democracies today.

Scott’s trip to Australia included what most backpacking tourists experience ‘down under’: enjoying the beaches, seeing the sights and learning to surf. However, on 12 September Scott experienced something you will not find in any tourist brochure. In his own words:

"Walking out of a café in Melbourne, I was snatched off the street by four Australian Federal Police and two Immigration Compliant Officers. They informed me I was being placed into 'questioning detention' so that the Department of Immigration could assess if they were going to cancel my tourist visa or not. In truth, 'a competent Australian authority' had already assessed me to be a 'direct or indirect risk to Australian national security,' cancelled my visa and had begun the process of removing me from the country."

Scott isn’t your average tourist. Like the late civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks, Scott was inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and ‘Mahatma’ Gandhi, and dedicated his life to teaching nonviolent social change in their tradition. What is the national security risk in that? As Scott shared in his defence to interrogating officials “I’m a nonviolent person, a peace activist. I organise peace events. I do talks.”

These talks had him incarcerated in a high-security prison before his forced deportation. He was not charged with a crime nor was he given any further grounds for his arrest – just a bill for $11,000.

The Scott Parkin situation is a window to the condition of many Western democracies that were part of the 'coalition of the willing' in the war on terror. Increasingly in Australia, the US and the UK, we are seeing legislation that erodes and undermines human rights, riding in on a wave of fear called ‘anti-terrorism’.

The proposed Anti-Terror legislation in Australia, the Patriot Act (I & II) in the US and the Anti-Terrorism laws in the UK all share similar characteristics. None of them address the causes of terrorism. Rather, they serve to silence through intimidation views opposed to those in Government. This dynamic of citizens in democratic countries surrendering their rights due to the fear of terrorism is not new.

As John Croft recently pointed out, these anti-terror laws also share remarkable similarities with something called the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act was passed over 70 years ago in response to what was thought to be a terrorist attack on the Reichstag or Parliament. People were fearful of the threat of terrorism, and there was little opposition to the passing of this Act, which altered Germany’s Constitution. After the act was passed, German citizens had little power to oppose the will of the new Chancellor, Adolph Hitler.

Hitler’s right hand man, Hermann Goering, in his war crimes trail explained how easy it was for the Nazi’s to hijack Germany’s democratic government with these words:

“The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

In responding to the alarming restrictions on our civil liberties, I return to the idea of praying with icons. Fixing our eyes on icons allows them to speak to us, often speaking what we do not wish to hear. I as much as anyone would like to opt out of the darkness of our current situation and instead enjoy mocking some poor guy who made a career of talking to a car named ‘Kit’ and running down Californian beaches in slow motion with unnaturally proportioned part-plastic women.

I hope, however, we will find the courage to “sustain the gaze,” as Joanna Macy puts it, on our own pain and see the current reality as manifest in the icon of Scott Parkin’s experience.

Jarrod McKenna is a nonviolence trainer, educator and activist in Perth, Western Australia, and director of EPYC, a Scripture Union school outreach program.

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Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson. Soundings welcomes submissions of 750 to 1000 words that seek to facilitate debate and explore issues of religion, ethics and public policy in Australia and internationally. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Soundings, and the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College, Sydney Australia. Views expressed in Soundings articles are not necessarily those of the Centre for Christian Ethics, Morling College or the Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT.

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