Friday 24 May 2002

Alec Campbell, RIP

Last surviving Anzac, Alec Campbell, as a young soldierAt 11am today, we took time out from the UltraDev class to observe a minute’s silence for Alec Campbell, the last known survivor of the Gallipoli campaign—not just in Australia but anywhere in the world. Mr Campbell enlisted in June 1915 when he was 16 and died last week in Tasmania at the age of 103.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, who—by promoting selfishness and hollow individualism for the last eight years—has done everything within his power to divide Australians and undermine the values embodied in the Anzac tradition, paid tribute to Alec Campbell:

In all these ways, love, endeavour, challenge and service, Alec Campbell, Gallipoli’s last sentinel, embodied the Anzac spirit that we have come here to honour.

Howard, a consummate politician, ignores the gulf between the ideals he describes and the reality—the absolute antithesis of those ideals—that he has labored so long and hard to construct. Paying lip service to the Anzac tradition, he reduces it to kitsch, illustrating Kundera’s maxim:

Kitsch is the aesthetic ideal of all politicians and all political parties and movements.

The Anzac tradition is the attenuated thread that connects me to Australia. I have little interest in the everyday concerns of the society I live in and yet, on days like today, I find myself moved to the depths of my being by the “Anzac spirit,” even as another part of me realizes it is simply another of Kundera’s beautiful lies.

Though touched by the song, Sabina did not take her feeling seriously. She knew only too well that the song was a beautiful lie. As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the realm of non-kitsch, thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness. For none among us is superman enough to escape kitsch completely. No matter how we scorn it, kitsch is an integral part of the human condition.

What then is the truth of the Anzac spirit? It is the foundation upon which our uniquely Australian kitsch is built. To paraphrase Kundera:

The first tear says: how nice to recall the sacrifices of our war dead.

The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all Australians, by the sacrifices of our war dead.

It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

The brotherhood of all Australians will be possible only on a base of Anzac kitsch.

Alec Campbell as an elderly manBut equally, by recognizing the attempt to appropriate Alec Campbell’s values of sacrifice and service, we can see through Howard’s wretched lie, demolish its authoritarian power, and restore the poignancy that lies at the heart of the Anzac tradition. Especially as we are forced to concede that the society Campbell and his comrades fought so desperately to defend is now a travesty of almost every value they held dear.

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Great example of kitzch, Jonathon.

Reminds me of the current tendency in America to label everyone who dies as hero.

It used to be that a hero was someone who performed extraordinary events. Now it seems to simply refer to anyone who dies in a cause supported by the current administration.

I guess it sounds better than calling them a "victim."

Posted by Loren on 25 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The good writer tells the ending of a story with a grand flourish; the great writer lets the reader find their own ending.

You write with great subtlety, Jonathon.

Posted by Burningbird on 25 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Well put, although I don't share your feelings about an Anzac spirit. Australia is my adopted country, but I feel completely at home and part of a rich, multi-facetted society. Nevertheless, Anzac day has never touched me and I have trouble relating to it.

The other Australian who died this week means more to me. John Gorton became Prime Minister shortly after I arrived in Australia. He was not an ordinary politician, he was mischievous, unconventional, unattractive and voted himself out of office. And he didn't extracitate us from the Vietnam mess. But I liked him and respected him. He was a giant compared those "liberals" who followed him.

Posted by Marius Coomans on 25 May 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour