Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Is it possible to chart an arc in the downfall of the imperial United States of America from the terror attacks of September 11th 2001, to the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school eleven years later?

Certainly, both events were of such shattering force – the fall of the towers, and the appalling massacre of innocents – as to feel almost biblical.

The 911 terror attacks were perpetrated by a group of clever, committed fanatics upon a sleeping empire. The US had felt invulnerable, and was completely unprepared for the dark fury and evil brilliance of the assault that left three thousand people dead and a nation scarred for life.

The Sandy Hook massacre, in which 28 people died, 20 of them young children, was a crime so horrifying and counter to any decent human instinct, that it appeared to move a nation so habituated to mass murder that it seemed nothing could shift its attitude on gun ownership.

Between the two events, the US experienced a decade of war on many fronts, most notably in Iraq and Afghanistan where it chose full frontal invasion to achieve what keener minds would have counseled could be achieved by the use of intelligence.

In the process, it has created potentially millions more who might choose to follow in footsteps of bin Laden.

In that decade it also endured its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – courtesy Reagan-style economic voodoo that became received gospel wisdom – and is now weighted down with a national debt of 16 trillion dollars and growing by the second.

At the same time, the never-ending rise of hardline Christian fundamentalism has so undermined reason and even basic common sense as to have brought science into question with attacks on evolution and the creation of "intelligent design". The numbskull attacks on the vast, vast preponderance of scientific evidence linking global warming to human activity has slowed the all too crucial US response to the climate crisis. (Do the deniers, one wonders, ever think about the science that goes into the car they drive, or the plane they are flying in? No.)We saw the rise of Sarah Palin, a politician so rudely proud of her gross ignorance as to strike a chord with "common Americans". The fanaticism of the Tea Partiers and the Christian fundamentalists further heightens the sense of an Old Testament conflict, twined as they are with Islamist fanatics in the Middle East.

For so long, the US has ridden on its obverse side to all this - the big universities and the liberal intellectual elite, the Gore Vidals and Tom Wolfes, the New York Times and the New Yorker.

What, one asks, have all these fine people - and they are indeed fine - done to stop the everyday mass murders of their fellows, and at Sandy Hook, of their innocents? What is the use of all this cleverness and charming urbanity, if you cannot stop millions equipping themselves with high powered assault weapons which inevitably will be used by those who crack to kill and kill until the magazine is empty?

What does it say of a society where the mentally ill can obtain high powered military-style weapons and use them to murder innocent young children in their classrooms? And what does it say of a society that refuses to learn from that, and fights to keep those same weapons available, and thus permit the possibility of an all too tragic repetition?

All of this has led a number of commentators to opine about an empire in decline. Meanwhile, as China rises, the US weighs up how to deal with it. As usual with the US, militarily is on high on the agenda, as we in Australia already know all too well, with Marine boots on our soil.

Is this that turning point in history when an empire declines, and falls? Was 911 a fatal Old Testament strike?

Obviously bin Laden and Atta felt the US was a soft target, in their terrible plan to murder civilian workers in their thousands. They were right about that. That clear September morning it was dreaming on in its backyard American dream,  blithely unaware of all but itself in all its donuts.

The two events – the Twin Towers and Sandy Hook – bookend an era when the US faced profound crisis. It might have learned, and changed from that crisis. It might have been far smarter about its response to 911, and so saved the world from two inevitably brutal - as all wars must be - long-running conflicts. It might have moved immediately to ensure that there could never again be a Sandy Hook. It did neither, and one can be sure that the president’s move to curb gun ownership will be opposed by the usual lobby groups, state legislatures, and Tea Party extremists. Recent polling suggests more Americans than ever may favour guns and oppose their sane control. Is the US to be considered not merely a rogue imperialist state , but insane too?

As an American gun man said on ABC TV recently - we’re different, we’re Americans. The Egyptians felt the same way. So did the Romans, the Ottomans, and the British. Empires either adapt and change, or decline, and fall. 

Monday, January 14, 2013


Travelling in a tuk-tuk, an autorickshaw, through a dusty little town in central India. It is the day before the Diwali festival, the Hindu equivalent of Christmas, and the streets are even more thronged than usual. The going is very slow through the market area, over bumps, broken roadway, and muddy stretches of stony ground. Cows chew with indecent ease on a little Everests of garbage, and there are grubby blue and yellow tarpaulins everywhere laid out with bananas and guavas, tomatoes and chillis. Children with frizzy hair, lower caste, peer up as you pass, absorbing all the fat of your comfort.

Over the put-put racket of the engine, the driver yells something that equates to having to pull over for a bit, hops out and wanders over to where another fellow is working on the engine of his own tuk-tuk. The driver bends down and peers into the tiny engine for a knowledgeable look-see, seems to do nor say nothing more, and sidles back to his seat and guns the engine.

As he does, a woman materialises from the market crowds, and approaches, apparently wanting a ride. She is head to toe in black, the headscarf trimmed with gold. The only part of her face exposed are the brown eyes, heavily rimmed with kohl, that look towards me, and linger a half moment. I nod, and she hops in, and we take off, two unlikely fellows in the back seat, the Indian Muslim and the Western Non.

I stare straight ahead, as it feels so does she, and we bounce along for a few minutes, each clinging to our sectioned little piece of handrailing, until she calls to the driver to stop, and hands him a five rupee note. As she gets out, the ankle-length hem of her black outer garment rises an inch or two, exposing silver stilettoes and a slash of silky scarlet beneath.

She walks off, carrying a bag in which I see a small wrapped parcel. Has she bought someone something for the Hindu Duwali, I wonder? The driver speeds on, and the crowds merge around her as easily as they divulged her. Merry Christmas, I can't help but think.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013




After my dad had his heart attack
I flew home and two days later
There he was in his hospital bed
A huge bump on his head and
Still groggy from his fall from a bar stool
Onto the thinly carpeted concrete floor
Of the club where he was playing the pokies.
Later I wondered whether he was
Winning or losing when he fell,
Though that can only ever be that much
A matter of fine degree when
You are gambling with five cent pieces.

He asked how my mum was and I said
Not so good but okay, and he asked
How she was fixed for dough at home
And he said there's three grand up the
Budder's bum: I had no idea what he meant
But my mum did and sure enough inserted
Her finger up the back passage of the
Buddha statue that had sat so long and
So incongruously in the living room,
And pulled out three grand or so
In scrunched up twenties and fifties.

The week after he died I was clearing out
A cupboard when I came across a little
Spiral spined notebook, and realized
It was a record of every shopping purchase
He and my mother ever made at Bi-Lo,
Down to the last cent. I did not know
Why he would keep such a book,
As surely receipts would suffice
If you were that way inclined, but
Then there was so much I did not know
About the man, which is perhaps a most
Fitting thing for a son and his father.

(print version can be found in Best Australian Poems 2012, Black Inc)