In his Berlin Diary (Hamish Hamilton, 1941) the American foreign correspondent, William L. Shirer, observed that ‘for the last three or four years the Nazi regime has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect has been representative of the people it rules.’ That is, the rise of Hitler and Nazism was not due to the charisma of the leader or an unusually astute political machine, in fact, nothing unique about the movement or its leader could account for the widespread support from the German people. Rather what Hitler stood for and what he pandered to was already there, in the German people: beliefs about German superiority, German purity, an essence of ‘Germanness’ which set Germans apart and above other people. Hitler identified these traits (and, of course, he shared them) and fed them back to the people in a form that both enhanced the values themselves and the people who subscribed to them.

In a recent review of John Dower’s Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering: Japan in the Modern World, (NYRB, 8/11/12) Ian Baruma canvasses traits in the Japanese psyche such as control of personal feelings particularly in the public domain, a commitment to public order, an acute sensitivity to shame, an allegiance to duty and self-sacrifice. It was qualities such as these that, prior to and in the first weeks of the Fukushima disaster had the Japanese people believing official pronouncements about the safety of the country’s nuclear power, pronouncements that were, in fact, lies.

I wonder what culturally induced national beliefs might be identified in we Australians. Equality, a fair go, mateship, support of the underdog, anti-authoritarianism would certainly appear towards the top of any list. And yet are these the values that recent popularist politics have exploited? I don’t think so. From Hanson and Howard to the current bipartisan approach to asylum seekers, these trenchantly believed Aussie values have been blatantly flouted, while other values, values we might be less comfortable about, values that are racist, isolationist and greedy, are being fanned. We believe we are one type of Australian but many Australians act in a manner contrary to this. As for our governments in the past decade or so, rather than showing moral leadership in difficult issues like asylum seekers, they pander to the worst in us.

Back in 1951, the Polish poet and essayist Czeslaw Milosz wrote The Captive Mind, exploring how it could happen that Stalinism had captured the minds of so many. How can people believe they are blessed with the most humane system in the world when they live in fear of betrayal by neighbours, work-mates, even family? Milosz asks. How can they believe theirs is the most benevolent of systems when their own speech or actions or even their thoughts can have them thrown into prison? How can they believe theirs is the fairest system, when ordinary people are forced to manage without sufficient food, heat and other basics. The propaganda says they enjoy the best of lives, their reality is all about fear and deprivation. What twist of mind and heart can make people deny their own perceptions, their own reason?

The entire mainland of Australia has now been excluded from what the government calls ‘Australia’s migration zone’ and we are expected to swallow this nonsense. If asylum seekers land on mainland Australia it actually doesn’t exist for them. These asylum seekers are people who are escaping death and persecution, poverty and repression, they are willing to risk their lives all over again for the freedoms, the opportunities, the cultural pluralism that Australia is so proud of. These under-dogs, these people in search of a fair go, these people who want to be accepted as equal human beings are being treated like enemies and criminals, as people to fear.

Of course we want to save people from death by drowning as they attempt the journey from their homelands to Australia, but punitive measures like removing the nation from the face of the map for these desperate people surely runs counter to those values that we like to think define us.

Australia is huge and Australia is wealthy. We have ample room for people seeking a better life, and we have resources a-plenty to support them while they settle in their new country. Why are we punishing these people?

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