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The wretched of the Earth

By Jennifer Wilson - posted Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Over the last few days I’ve begun noticing similarities in the facial characteristics of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Both are fleshly, in the archaic sense of plump or fat. There is an impression of a certain self-satisfaction that may be the inevitable consequence of this fleshliness, or that may have more interior causes about which I will not speculate.

Both men are extremely wealthy. Neither man was born entitled, however both have soared to financial and political heights after weathering childhood hardship. In Rudd’s case, the money comes from the talents and business abilities of wife Therese Rein, while Turnbull has business talents of his own. Both men are solidly positioned in the category of masters of the universe, if we are still applying such categories, and if we aren’t, we should be.

It is therefore with disgust and abhorrence that I’ve watched these two privileged financial and political elites engage in a face-off about which one of them can take the hardest line towards the asylum seekers currently stranded on a leaky boat in Indonesian waters. These asylum seekers have been the subject of a deal between that country’s government and our own to keep them out of our sight, and beyond all possibility of their landing anywhere we might have to take responsibility for them.


The asylum seekers are in a state of desperation and utter despair. They cannot live in their own country. They have nowhere to go. There is nowhere in this world where they can make their home. It is not their fault that they find themselves stateless and dispossessed. Just as millions of voters in Western Democracies were unable to prevent their governments forming the Coalition of the Willing and making yet more war, neither can asylum seekers, no matter what their country of origin, prevent the unfolding of circumstances that have led to them embarking on perilous journeys in search of sanctuary from terror, persecution and death. Masters of the Universe take on many guises.

There is no reason to believe that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally is about to decrease. Rather the opposite is the case, and we can also expect climate change refugees as vulnerable countries become uninhabitable or vanish. What do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition imagine will be the fate of these wretched dispossessed?

Thousand upon thousands condemned to an indefinite circumnavigation of the planet because no country will let them in? This is an insane notion. Australia, along with the rest of the rich world, will have to come up with humane options for the stateless and imperilled. Australia, along with the rest of the rich world, will have to get its head around the notion of sharing our bounty with the wretched of the earth. Otherwise, we will have to try to directly or indirectly murder them. These are our choices.

Like Rudd and Turnbull, the stateless and dispossessed dream of escaping the circumstances of their birth. The accident of their birth, because nobody has any control over that. Anyone of us, comfortable and smug in our western democracies, could have fetched up out of an entirely other womb in entirely other circumstances, and we can take no credit for finding ourselves where we are. Rather, we should find it in our hearts to be grateful that we aren’t in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq or the Gaza Strip, at odds with a governance that doesn’t tolerate dissent, or is bent on destroying us because we aren’t the right religion.

Such gratitude might lead us to open our hearts and our very privileged, abundant country, to those whose accidental heritage has landed them in unimaginable difficulties.

I’m not a Christian but I understand the Prime Minister practices that faith. From what little I know about Jesus, I don’t imagine he’d be as proud as Kevin Rudd is of cleverly abandoning dispossessed children, women and men who’ve begged him for refuge, and the opportunity he himself was given, to make a new and productive life. I don’t think Jesus set too much store on border protection, sovereignty, and exclusionary practices either. From my reading of the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount which I don’t pretend to understand at all (thank you, Leonard Cohen), I understand that Jesus gazed with extraordinary love and compassion on the less fortunate, and said they’d inherit the earth.


Well, perhaps they will. Perhaps we comfortable citizens are in for our own unwelcome experience of colonisation. What goes around comes around. Perhaps, if we do not take humane and compassionate action to assist the millions of the earth’s wretched, we will find ourselves overtaken and our worst fears realised, and it will serve us right.

The concept of a human right to ask for help and protection seems barely to exist in this world: such requests are viewed as impositions and those who make them as importunate. The images of the well-groomed visages of our Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition engaged in verbal combat over who is most determined to protect our borders from those seeking asylum, are twin symbols of our collective greed, selfishness and lack of foresight and compassion.

Both these men are in a unique position to reflect on their own escapes from lives that were unsatisfactory. From that, they ought to be able to extrapolate to the experiences of those begging for refuge, and a future free from terror and hopelessness.

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a cross-cultural and timeless adage. Familiarity has rendered the sentiment un-noteworthy - its apparent simplicity is equated with naivety. It seems to lack sophistication.

While it is a simple prescriptive, when fully considered it becomes apparent that it is not easy to put into practice. It demands an attitude, a way of being in the world that is learned over and over again in its transgression. But if it is true, as claimed by Jacques Derrida, "that never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and humanity", then our leaders need to start setting an example of hospitality and inclusion, because there is no way the rich world can continue to remain unaffected by, and disregarding of, the sufferings of the wretched of the earth.

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About the Author

Dr Jennifer Wilson worked with adult survivors of child abuse for 20 years. On leaving clinical practice she returned to academia, where she taught critical theory and creative writing, and pursued her interest in human rights, popular cultural representations of death and dying, and forgiveness. Dr Wilson has presented papers on human rights and other issues at Oxford, Barcelona, and East London Universities, as well as at several international human rights conferences. Her academic work has been published in national and international journals. Her fiction has also appeared in several anthologies. She is currently working on a secular exploration of forgiveness, and a collection of essays. She blogs at

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