Lest we forget – Anzac Day’s not for politics

April 25, 2011

Today is Anzac Day. As always, strong emotions get stirred up around this time. Some wax nostalgic, some speak out forcefully against war – and some use it as their own personal political platform. Whether that be to decry rape of women and girls in wartime, or to criticise the immense Defence budget that appears to remain untouchable despite shortfalls in other areas of governmental responsibility, the response from the media and the public is usually immediate and unequivocal.

It’s simply not on.

Anzac Day is sacrosanct. No matter what you think about any particular war, or the behaviour of soldiers in war, we should honour those who fell in the service of the country. That’s the code that transcends questions of left and right wing – and woe betide anyone who draws attention to themselves on this day by violating that. Those who do usually find themselves the subject of disapproving newspaper headlines and scathing editorials, often for days afterwards. And – for once – social media tends to be in lockstep.

This year that code was broken by Jim Wallace, head of the Australian Christian Lobby, via Twitter. He took the opportunity to use Anzac Day to push racist and homophobic slurs:

‘Just hope that as we remember Servicemen and women today we remember the Australia they fought for – wasn’t gay marriage and Islamic!’

It produced instant fury among tweeters, who fired back that Wallace was ‘despicable’, ‘a homophobe’, ‘a bigot’ – well, you get the idea. After about an hour of this, Wallace tweeted an apology:

‘Okay you are right my apologies this was the wrong context to raise these issues. ANZACs mean to much to me to demean this day, not intended.’

Notice that Wallace is not apologising for the sentiment, only the timing. So, on any other day, Wallace thinks it would be perfectly fine for him to link Australian deaths in war to his organisation’s ongoing campaign against same-sex marriage (and queer people in general) – not to mention his preoccupation with some imagined creeping ‘Arab menace’. Just not today.

Remind you of anything – say,

The Australian initially confined its remarks to presenting the story as an example of ‘Twitter outrage’, but by the time The Herald-Sun published its version of events, the spin was well and truly on.

Wallace’s comment had been ‘misinterpreted’. He hadn’t intended to ‘demean our veterans’. But

‘I think that the nature of our society that our soldiers fought for was based on Judeo-Christian heritage.’

Because, apparently, it demeans our veterans to imply they might have fought for equality and respect.

Not to be outdone by News Limited, The Sydney Morning Herald helped Wallace to further rewrite history. It wasn’t that he wanted to say that Australian soldiers hadn’t fought for everyone – why, he’s sure that during the ‘time of Anzacs’, there were ‘not only gays but Afghans in Australia’ (my emphasis). And he should know, after all, because he was a soldier.

The ‘Judeo-Christian heritage’ chestnut was trotted out in the Fairfax media, too, and this time we were treated to a little more justification. Society back then was very different, that’s all he was saying, and we should try to preserve that.

(@Doc_Loki offered the opinion that the late T.E. Lawrence would probably have been very surprised to learn he wasn’t fighting for ‘Islamics’ – given his British government-sanctioned role in assisting the so-called ‘Arab revolt’ against the Ottoman Turks in World War I.)

Fairfax approached the Returned Services League, but couldn’t get a comment. No one, it seems, bothered to contact any of the various Islamic Councils, queer community groups or even the Australian Defence Forces (which now recognise same-sex relationships) until The Sunshine Coast Daily – not exactly the paper with the widest circulation – this evening. (Sadly, even that paper minimised the issue in its headline, calling it merely a ‘gaffe’.)

So the media has pretty much given Wallace a pass, and politicians aren’t talking.

A bit different to how they treated Catherine Deveny’s now-infamous tweet about Bindi Irwin, which resulted in her being sacked from Channel Nine, isn’t it?

Wallace has the ear of the Prime Minister – in fact, his lobby group has unprecedented access to the highest levels of Australian government, under the guise of representing the ‘largest’ religious group in Australia. No other religious organisation – no other community organisation, for that matter – has so much influence on public policy.

This is the group, remember, who vehemently oppose anti-bullying initiatives in schools aimed at breaking down homophobia … who claim that religions (read: their particular religion) should be allowed to discriminate against single parents, queer people, atheists, etc … who actively endorse misinformation and bullying tactics used by anti-abortion activists … and who, apparently, see nothing wrong with twisting statistics, whipping up community outrage and outright lying in order to further their agenda.

(When the ACL’s website comes back up, dig around again. Their stance on Special Religious Instruction in public schools is particularly enlightening.)

Julia Gillard’s staff was definitely watching Twitter today, so they can hardly fail to have seen the deluge of tweets condemning Wallace for his comments, and calling on her to rescind his special access to the office of the Prime Minister. So far, this has been met with a resounding silence – and I’m not holding my breath for this to change any time soon.

Don’t forget that for all her proclaimed atheism, Gillard holds the Christian Bible in special regard. For all her claims that she would treat people of all faiths equally, she has never attempted to redress the imbalance that ensures that the loudest voice she hears is that of a Pentecostal group masquerading as the definitive representative of ‘Australian Christianity’.

Wallace should be publicly repudiated – by the ADF, the RSL, religious organisations and the government. This is not someone waving a placard at a rally. This is someone who claims to be the spokesperson for 13 million people, who co-opted a day of national mourning and remembrance for the purposes of his own bigoted agenda and made a public statement that was blatantly divisive and hateful.

But, it seems, there are double standards everywhere you look. Say you’re an atheist who vehemently criticises the place of religion in Australian society, and you can be fired for an offensive tweet about another celebrity. Say you’re a photographer trying to depict children in an artistic way, and you can find senior politicians taking time out to condemn you for being ‘inappropriate’. Say you’re a Muslim speaking out against racism and Islamophobic policies, and you can find yourself subject to a barrage of criticism on all sides from religious and political leaders.

Say you’re a Christian with a narrow lobby-group agenda taking advantage of a national day to push your bigotry, and you have mainstream media falling over itself to give you a platform to tell everyone that you didn’t mean to make your offensive tweet on a particular day – and you won’t even get rapped over the knuckles for it.

Something there is deeply wrong. If it’s wrong to use Anzac Day to push a radical feminist message, it’s equally wrong to use it to push a religious fundamentalist one. And that’s something the media needs to learn.

I’ll leave it to Ben Cooper of Gay Marriage Rights Australia to make the final – and most important – point:

‘ANZAC day is a day where we can give thanks to these brave men and women, and celebrate our multicultural democracy and our belief in fairness, justice and equality. It is not a day where people vilify our fellow Australian or play politics.’

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.

Lest We Forget.

(Endnote: Wallace deleted his tweet – but of course, nothing is ever really gone on the internet. Thanks to @mikestuchbery for the quick work on the screen capture.)


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