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Violence and the Censor

With the outbreak of uncivil wars on a regional scale, in central Africa, the Arab-speaking world and eastern Europe, readers shocked and sickened by their terrible violence may find of interest my short foreword to the just-published Chinese edition of Violence and Democracy.

Presented below in both English and Mandarin translation, the foreword offers a short summary of my appeal to see violence in all its forms as a contingent historical (not ‘natural’) phenomenon that is politically curable; and it does so by asking Chinese readers to reflect on their own past experiences of great violence, and how they might come to terms with their legacy, and their lingering unjust effects.

In contemporary China, of course, the episodes of massive violence stretching from the civil war between the nationalists and communists in 1946-49 to the ‘anti-rightist’ campaign of 1957, the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are still treated officially as taboo subjects, as if they had never happened. Violence and Democracy is a small backdoor contribution to breaking the taboo, but in order to reach the bookshops the translator and publisher had to tread carefully. I did the same. To sidestep the censors employed by the Central Propaganda Department, the foreword resorts to allegory. It speaks of an imaginary place of cruel horrors, a dystopian Land of Violence where unspeakable cruelty against the minds and bodies of many millions of people is practised without restraint. Chinese readers won’t miss the target of the allusion, hopefully.

It is a great honour and personal pleasure to share Violence and Democracy with my Chinese readers. They should be warned that the book is an adventure of the political imagination, an experimental essay designed to stimulate fresh thinking about the origins of violence (bàolì), its consequences, its functional purposes and possible remedies. Taking issue with the common sense view that ‘human nature’ is incorrigibly wolfish, the essay probes the disputed and changing historical meanings of the term violence. It examines the new forms of violence gripping our 21st-century world and asks searching questions about the problematic relationship between violence and democracy, and why mature democracies are unusually sensitive to violence.

Running through Violence and Democracy are unavoidable ethical questions, such as the circumstances in which violence against others can be justified. In such matters as the maltreatment of children, the rape of women by men, police and battlefield brutality, the essay steers an unorthodox course through narrow normative straits. It raises doubts about conventional pacifism but it also radically questions the blind acceptance or aesthetic worship of violence. It does so by proposing that violent behaviour and weapons of violence can and should be ‘democratised’: made publicly accountable to others, so encouraging political efforts to consider public alternatives to violence, and to erase surplus violence from the world.

Throughout these pages, in order to get a sense of perspective on things, and what is at stake, readers are asked to imagine violence in its pure form. The essay carries readers to an imaginary Land of Violence, let’s say, to a place where violence, collectively delivered as political theatre, takes on a life of its own, without open public questioning, or public resistance, or public alternatives. In this imaginary territory of horrors, those who practise cruelty against the minds and bodies of others do so without restraint. They seem thoroughly to enjoy what they are doing; they have a passion for the poetry of cruelty. They revel in screaming mobs, cowering victims and rituals of violence. Hooked on savagery, they are sure that violence is necessary, and that they are always right, and so they think of themselves as entitled to deploy violence at will, without penalty or sanction. Hence they track down, punish and eliminate all dissent.

In the Land of Violence, lynch mobs are public rituals. Murder is rife, and displayed openly, for all to see, and to fear. Arrests in the night, blackmailing, persecution and disappearances: all are normal practices. So, too, is paranoia, fuelled by the frenzied creation of an unending supply of ‘objective’ enemies: flesh-and-blood individuals and groups whose subjective identity is secondary to their objective position in the political order of things.

In the imaginary Land of Violence, where sincerity and smiling are compulsory, there are always opponents, even if and when they protest their innocence. That is the reason why people must be tortured: not just to inform on others, used like tigers to bite tigers, but to admit their own corruption, to change their ways, to liquidate their own sense of self. Their freedom of silence is not an option. Lawlessness and terror and self-annihilation prevail, no more so than in the institution known as the concentration camp. It is there that violence in its purest form is practised.

Often called houses of correction and labour camps, these thoroughly modern inventions in fact operate as political laboratories. They are sites of liquidation, crazed experiments with the bodies and souls of their victims, who forfeit their rights to have rights of any kind, not even the elementary right to withdraw from the world through suicide. Everything is permitted in these dungeons of horror. Bizarre inversions are commonplace. The unimaginable is real; reality is unimaginable. The singular aim of these camps, if aim it can be called, is clear: the reduction of inmates to mere molecules of matter, so proving that violence can purge disobedience, along the way eliminating all traces of what people once called democracy, self-government by people through their chosen representatives.

《暴力与民主》中文版序言 约翰•基恩 非常荣幸能与中国读者分享我的《暴力与民主》一书。应该指出的是,本书既是关于政治想象力的大胆尝试,也是一次启发性的试验,旨在激发人们思考暴力的起源、后果、功能性目标和潜在补救措施。本书深入探讨了暴力概念长期以来存在的争议及其不断变迁的历史内涵,本书并不认同“人的本性”具有难以根除的狼性这一观点,对人们这一通常的认识提出了不同看法。本书检视了萦绕于人类21世纪的各种新的暴力形式,提出了一些探索性的问题,包括怎样理解暴力与民主之间的关系,为何成熟民主国家通常对暴力都非常的敏感? 贯穿《暴力与民主》全书的主题是人们无法回避的的一些伦理问题,例如在什么情况下对他人的暴力是正当的。在如何看待诸如虐待儿童、强奸妇女、警察和战场暴行等问题上,本书通过狭义规范路径提出了一些自己独特的观点,对传统的和平主义表示怀疑的同时,也从根本上质疑对暴力的盲目接受或审美崇拜。为此,本书认为暴力行为和暴力武器可以而且应该“民主化”:即对他人公开负责,并鼓励通过政治努力寻找暴力的替代方式,将过剩暴力从这个世界清除出去。 纵观全书,为了获得对事物的真知灼见和洞察其中的利害关系,读者需要对暴力的纯粹形式进行思考。本书将带读者进入一个虚构的暴力之域,暴力之域指的是这样一个地方,在那里暴力作为集体的政治舞台,具有它自己的生命,不会受到公众的公开质疑,不会遇到公众的抵制,也没有其他公开的替代方式。在这个虚构的恐怖之域,一些人毫无忌惮地对他人的精神和身体施加残忍的暴力。他们看上去正在享受这个过程,流露出一种对残忍行为的嗜好。他们沉迷于暴徒的呼喊尖叫、受害者的畏缩怯弱和暴力的典礼仪式。他们已经迷上了野蛮,相信暴力是必需的,而且认为自己永远是对的,所以他们认为自己有权随意运用暴力而不受处罚或制裁。也因此,他们压制、惩治和消除所有不同意见。在暴力之域,暴徒滥用私刑成为公开的仪式,杀戮盛行并公开展示,让所有人都能亲眼看到并感到恐怖。诸如晚间逮捕、勒索、迫害和失踪等手段,这一切都是家常便饭。偏执狂也是如此,他们疯狂而无休止地构想出一个个“客观存在的”敌人:即真实存在的个人和团体,其主观身份从属于他们在政治秩序中的“客观”位置。 在暴力之域,人们被强制展现诚意和露出微笑,但总是有反对者,即使是当他们声明自己是无辜的时,也有可能是在表示反对。这就是为什么一定要对人进行残酷折磨的原因:不只是用“狗咬狗”的方式达到检举别人的目的,而且是为了让他们承认自身的堕落,去改变他们的行为方式和消除他们的自我意识。人们已经无法自由地选择沉默。无法无天、恐怖残忍和自我毁灭的行为盛行,在被称为集中营的机构里尤其如此。正是在那里,正在上演最纯粹形式的暴力行为。 矫正室和劳改营是十分现代的发明,实际上被充当政治实验室的作用。它们利用受害者的身体和灵魂进行惨无人道的疯狂实验,这些受害者丧失了几乎所有权利,甚至包括通过自杀离开这个世界的最基本权利。在这些恐怖之地,各种恶行毫无禁忌,令人匪夷所思的反常行为在这里真实上演,任何暴行都可能出现。在这些地方,无法想象的东西真实存在,真实存在的东西又让人无法想象。这些地方的唯一目标,如果还有目标的话,是非常明确的:将囚犯挫骨扬灰以证明暴力可以清除不服从,人们一度称之为民主,即通过民选代表进行自治的行为,也一同被抹去所有痕迹。 2014年4月于悉尼和柏林


During several decades of contact with writers trapped in stressed and strained political circumstances, I can’t ever recall meeting a literary figure who was brave and principled enough to offer herself up for arrest and imprisonment by the authorities. That’s what the young Chinese writer Murong Xuecun has just done.

After contributing to a private event in Beijing to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen June 4th uprising, Murong sided with several other contributors who’d been arrested. He took the unusual step of issuing a public ‘statement of surrender’, in which he confessed to the crime of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’. ‘For the next 24 hours’, he wrote, ‘I will be waiting in my home in Haidian District, and request that those who come bring the appropriate documents.’ He added: ‘please telephone in advance to arrange a time’. A few hours later, the police came for him.

Murong Xuecun, Sydney, June 2014 John Keane

Murong is a rising young star in the Chinese literary scene. Otherwise known as Hao Qun, he’s the author of several important works, among them Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (2002), Dancing Through Red Dust (2008) and China: In the Absence of a Remedy (2010). He’s a blogger with a big following of millions inside and outside of China, and he writes a column for the New York Times.

He first came my way at the University of Sydney, during a stay as a writer in residence. Colleagues were impressed by his irrepressible democratic spirit. As if sent by the heavens, just for a few short weeks, there he was in our midst: a chain-smoking raconteur, a good listener, a young man of understatement, thoroughly modest, always open-minded, a lover of black humour, a very talented young writer unwilling to suffer fools gladly, or to be pushed about. I came to think of Murong as living proof of the difference between brave and ordinary people. He knows the dangers and risks of being an honest writer. He fears beating, disappearance, imprisonment and ‘death while dreaming’. Yet the really remarkable thing about him is his capacity for hope, his belief that the world can get better, and that the long dark night of censorship spreading through contemporary China will sooner or later come to an end.

Featuring Murong, with his permission, granted after his release from police custody a few days ago, here’s the first short video produced by our Sydney Democracy Network. It’s entitled Granite Brain. It’s a pungent spoof on state censorship, and might just make you smile. More video material by him is to follow:

Telling stories: Murong Xuecun, under the famous old jacaranda tree in the University of Sydney’s Quadrangle, May 2014

Operation Sovereign Borders

Operation Sovereign Borders specialist teams (Transit Security Elements: TSEs) in training. ADF/Andrew Dakin

There’s a time-tested ‘law’ in the history of modern self-government: when a bounded nation-state democracy prosecutes war abroad, the spirit and institutions of its democracy are usually vandalised at home.

The Life and Death of Democracy analyses many historical instances of a rule that most definitely applies to the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders. Let us not mince words. In waters well beyond Australia’s north-west shores, it is now prosecuting a form of war against people who have already suffered rape, torture, war, poverty and humiliation.

At taxpayers' expense, with guns at the ready, the war involves physically pushing and shoving these unfortunate people back towards the places where they suffered injustice in the first place. Those who are captured are locked up in ‘detention centres’. There they become victims of military speak: renamed ‘transferees’ and ‘customers’ of law-breaking ‘people smugglers’.

At home, the government directing the military operation behaves no better. It grows more arrogant by the day. As if dressed in battle uniform, the macho men of arbitrary power handle the truth carelessly. They peddle the misleading impression that our Southeast Asia neighbours are happily content with the whole risky military operation.

The government talks tough: ‘budging’, ‘rolling over’ and suffering ‘intimidation’ and ‘defeat’ are not its thing. It prefers the cavalier abstractions of ‘national interest tests’ directed at ‘illegals’ said (somehow) to threaten domestic order and public safety.

With the recent announcement that the government will establish ‘a single frontline operational border agency’ known as the Australian Border Force, matters of immigration and customs are about to be put on a war footing. That is why government ministers refuse to answer questions at press conferences; and why, by default, they reveal their hidden contempt for citizens presumed to be drongos (idiots) who’ve long ago given up on politics, hence willing to let their rulers get on with the business of keeping the country safe from unwanted invaders.

Asylum seekers processed by HMAS Wollongong. ADF/Sgt Rob Nyffenegger

In a fighting mood, the government meanwhile seems quite happy to annoy the UNHCR, even to violate Australia’s legal obligations to the Refugee Convention. In defiance of a rebuff in the Senate, it now seems to be preparing to deploy its troops against the High Court. And why not? Soon the generalissimos will be trying to win a re-election campaign by claiming that their Operation Sovereign Borders campaign has been an unqualified success.

If democracy is about humility, public openness, equality and the non-violent refusal of arbitrary power, then all these bellicose efforts to ‘stop the boats’ are anti-democratic, in every way. I tried to explain this point in an earlier posting on the concentration camps of Manus Island and Nauru.

The piece examined the political implications of the decision by the Abbott government to award Transfield Services a $1.22 billion contract to manage these camps. It targeted Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, and the newDemocracy Foundation he runs, showing how both are implicated in the whole dirty business of Operation Sovereign Borders.

It asked Mr Belgiorno-Nettis several political questions, to do with double standards: for instance, why he hasn’t divested his interests in Transfield Services, and whether he’d be willing to fund a deliberative democracy session in the camps, to give its inmates a public voice?

What has been the result? Silence. Sullied silence, even from the scholars involved in its work. The Foundation continues to snub calls for a public reply to the questions, which to many thousands of readers seemed straightforwardly reasonable.

Behind the scenes, following the publication and re-publication of the piece on many web platforms, the newDemocracy Foundation played rough. In effect, it alleged the piece was written out of sour grapes: never having received a cent from their coffers, ran the story, I plotted revenge. Then they alleged that the whole issue was a case of vox pop spin, crude media hype designed to raise a rabble against their good reputation as champions of reasoned public deliberation.

These cooked-up ad hominem allegations are diversionary. Seen from a public relations point of view, the allegations are just plain daft, in essence because by its silence the newDemocracy Foundation runs a high risk of reputational damage. Who will take seriously a privately-funded foundation that refuses to explain its view of a company that has taken on the dirty business of running offshore concentration camps?

Sadly, those who run the foundation seem unconcerned with the dangerously anti-democratic effects of Operation Sovereign Borders. For an organisation whose charter speaks of the need to find ‘a better way to do democracy’ it’s all rather surprising, and more than a bit politically curious.