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John Howard shoe-thrower's moral miss-hit

By Farid Farid - posted Thursday, 4 November 2010

Writing in the Huffington Post in 2008 about the infamous incident labelled by US media as the Iraqi 'shoegate', comedian Dean Obeidallah said: 'Let's be honest - in what culture is getting a shoe thrown at you while making a speech considered a compliment?' 

On Monday's edition of Q&A former Prime Minister John Howard felt the stinging rebuke and righteous outrage of what host Tony Jones termed the 'smelly sneakers' of what is left of leftist civil disobedience. Or did he? (Continues below)

Peter Gray, a Hunter Valley resident and member of Rising Tide (a Newcastle climate change action group), asked Howard a succinct question about Australia's moral culpability in Iraq.


Amid the recent spectacle of Wikileaks evidence about the Iraqi occupation, Gray raised the uncomfortable truth of decrepit civilian corpses littering the streets of Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Fallujah. These maimed and nameless bodies are not given the dignity they deserve, instead ending up as statistics on the Iraq Body Count website.

The occupation of Iraq has just become what Australian anthropologist and cultural theorist Michael Taussig terms as the 'public secret'. Compassion fatigue has set in for populations of the countries of the coalition of the (un)willing. We all know the secret but repress it deeply within our national psyche. To confront the secret would be to undergo a national process of self-examination.

It is no coincidence that Howard's abnegating stance on the other national secret, regarding the Stolen Generations, has still not changed.

Political bankruptcy and lack of intellectual imagination is at an all time high in western leftist political discourse and tactics, notably under the newly formed Labor Government in Australia. The same goes for conservative forces in Australian, European and American politics, with the rise of the Tea Party movement and the German scapegoating of multiculturalism as a failed social experiment.

This is playing out in parliamentary debates and partisan posturing regarding our military involvements in Afghanistan, which inevitably calls Iraq into question.

In his op-ed piece for the Newcastle Herald, Gray evokes the spectres of the dead and living dead in Iraq and estimates that 60,000 civilians from 2003 have died. Some assessments go as high as 95–110,000. But Gray assumes that shoe throwing in Iraq is the same as shoe throwing in Australia, and in the process he elides and conflates facts on the ground.


Gray explains the genealogy of the shoe-throwing gesture and how Muntadar al Zhaidi, the Iraqi journalist who heaved his shoes at US President George W. Bush in 2008, eventually got jailed. Gray admits he is 'cognisant of the freedoms' that allow him to make his protest, and goes on to argue 'that these political freedoms were hard-fought for, and that if they go unused they will be taken away'.

But Gray does not identify who fought for what, and who will take said freedoms away. This ambiguity is symptomatic of western leftist movements. The culturally co-optive nature of benevolent groups to take on causes and speak on behalf of those who allegedly cannot speak for themselves is disturbing.

In my research with Iraqis living in Sydney, I have heard about trauma and torture prior to and during the occupation, and the struggles of exile, in poetically cogent words. These articulate voices must be heard.

If smelly shoes are the last objects of resistance then this occupation will never end. The larger Australian public, including Iraqi Australians, need not be bombarded with futile projectiles but sensible arguments based on intellectual, ethical and empathic capacities that recognise the disfiguring effects of occupation.

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This article was first published on Eureka Street on October 29, 2010

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About the Author

Farid Farid is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Sydney. His research deals with the politics of exile, race and religion.

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