Every time I push people to see Syriana, the Arab/Texas oil romp, they emerge impressed, yet bewildered. No-one fully understands the plot, probably not even the writer. It's one of Syriana's many virtues. A geopolitical intrigue touching CIA terror, suicide bombers, spoilt princes, feminist mothers and the rise of China is bound to be murky and complex. Holes in the story are true to life. A furtive achievement is its sympathetic insight into the moulding of a suicide bomber, played by Mazhar Munir, whose performance is gripping, though his chance of an Oscar is slim. While the sweep is global, the metaphoric skyline is Iraq, awash with oil, blood and extracted fingernails.
Another big-picture critique of the West is the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, who feels "weighed down with guilt" for the wreckage he and his colleagues have inflicted on the developing world.
A former Peace Corps activist, Perkins was lured by an executive prostitute into Halliburton Heaven, a vortex of Lear Jets, pillage and dodgy statistics. His inflated forecasts of growth served to increase the indebtedness of client states, adding to the poverty of their people and the profits of his employers. Any odd glitch, such as an elected third world leader with good intentions is dealt with by the CIA. The story is almost too evil to be true, and yet Perkins' case is solid. The book reprints his photo/bio from corporate brochures, names, dates, minutes of meetings, corroborating sources. A veteran hit on the New York Times & Washington Post best-seller lists, this expose was largely ignored by mainstream reviewers. Its revelations make Syriana seem soft.
And yet both works slash away the veils of illusion
The confession continues: "Rivers, oceans, lakes, rainforests, and wetlands that sustain us, even the air we breathe continue to be violated, and global warming goes unchecked while we allow God's creation to veer toward destruction. Yet our own country refuses to acknowledge its complicity and rejects multilateral agreements aimed at reversing disastrous trends. Christ have Mercy". And so on. http://www.wcc-usa.org/news/news-container/article/1099/a-letter-from-the-us-conf.html
In both the US and Australia, the moral centre of public life is shifting from the political stage. "Of course we don't condone torture", says the White House; "of course you do", says Amnesty International and other NGO's, posting heaps of evidence. "We treat asylum seekers with respect", claims the Australian Immigration Department. "Oh no you don't", chorus the activists, producing case studies of the victims.
Naqib Ahmed Noori, was falsely imprisoned for six years. When he finally won an appeal against this decision, based on mistaken identity, they held him another 4 months out of spite ("police & security checks"). An Iranian boy, Shayan Badraie, was put into an immigration camp at the age of six, where he was isolated from other children and witnessed repeated acts of brutality. Today, aged 14, Shayan is still in the throes of post-traumatic stress syndrome and may never recover. The immigration bullies have even deported and jailed Australian citizens. And yet as a result of campaigning by respectable citizens on all sides of politics, the Government was forced to soften its stance. The department is still renowned for its "culture of malice" and its sinister former Minister, Philip Ruddock, was "punished" with a promotion to Attorney General, where he is now expunging civil liberties.
Australia is a nation with a split personality. While posing as egalitarians, we produce our fair crop of political and corporate monsters, many of whom feed off the poor. Media magnates Rupert Murdoch and his local rival/friend, the late Kerry Packer, turned tax avoidance into an art form. For this and other acts of deviousness, Packer was rewarded with a State Memorial Service at the Sydney Opera House. It was his first visit. Russell Crowe performed the eulogy, Tom Cruise and his entourage upped the celebrity voltage.
Spoiling the wake was a former employee, Richard Walsh, who pointed out in the press that Packer "had utter contempt for politicians, for the arts, for idealism of any kind, for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and for those who did not share his world view. His ethics were defined simply as whatever the law allows" In some ways he unfortunately represents all that is wrong with contemporary Australia". (http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2006/02/23/1140670202991.html) .In response to an appreciative email,Walsh, the co-founder of Sydney Oz magazine replied: "I have NEVER had such a tsunami of enthusiasm in all my born days. Clearly I touched a nerve". And that's the nerve that keeps Australia decent.
Am I reading too much into straws? Are we finally watching an awakening in the West? Are Australians, though our swimming pools be full and our global view obscured, becoming aware of an emptiness at heart? Or is it only the emptiness of the landscape that we notice, as featured in the current tourist campaign, SO WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU? Lost, perhaps. Appreciating the gifts Australia has to offer, but all too aware of the little shop of horrors at the core of Government. Slightly schizoid, we zoom off to forest and beach.
As I write, John Howard is celebrating ten years as our Prime Minister. During the round of lavish banquets - $10,000 a head - he was asked on air whether he had any regrets about sending our troops to Iraq. TV footage from the area makes it hard to imagine that Satan's hell would be worse than Iraq's. Beaming in his dinner suit, Howard looked puzzled. "Regrets? Not al all. We were told Saddam had weapons." Even today there appears to be no-one in the media with the courage to quiz Bush, Blair or Howard on their true feelings about the deaths and maiming of over a 100,000 Iraqis. Howard now lectures the nation on the "perversions of Islam", without a hint of awareness that our deeds in the terror wars are a perversion of Christianity.
As the credits rolled on Syriana, the three of us felt so flat as we trudged for the exit. Why? An overheard remark from a teenager offers a clue: "Syriana shows how fucked up the world is and there's nothing anyone can do about it". It's disconcerting for a work of art to leave you wiser, but feeling so disempowered. For how long? Perhaps the confessions by economists and Christians, the rebirth of satire and the rise of politically savvy blogs and blockbusters, are yet more signs of a shift in the public mood.
This is a re-drafted version of a piece on http://www.richardneville.com