“Whose side are you on?”

Douglas Newton

‘”Whose side are you on?”‘ Honest History, 27 June 2015

First_graders_in_public_school_saluting_the_flag.8d23028vSaluting the flag, New York 1942 (Wikimedia Commons/Marie Winn)

‘Again, I say, the issue for the ABC, our national broadcaster, is “whose side are you on?” Because all too often the ABC seems to be on everyone’s side but Australia’s.’[1] This accusation of unpatriotic instinct is far from the first time. And again, the hounds in the press are unleashed and snarl at the national broadcaster. It is despicable.

To cast doubt on the patriotism of those who do not participate in a hate-the-enemy auction has a long and ignoble history. Those who defend civil liberties, those who wish to hear all points of view, and especially those who have principled objections to war, have always been baited. The jingoes pounce; the doubter is accused of giving comfort to the enemy. The unbeliever is denounced as a traitor.

There are countless examples from the historical record. One is reminded of the smears endured by those who raised doubts in Britain about the righteousness of their nation’s cause during the Boer War (1899-1902) – that vultures’ frenzy provoked by gold and diamonds. The British jingo press routinely incited flag-waving ultra-nationalists to disrupt the meetings of British opponents of the war. The accusation of treachery was flung about.

There was violence outside the Queen’s Hall in London in June 1901 as rowdies attempted to close down the meeting. Amid the angry political exchanges later in the House of Commons, Churchill, a youthful Tory and a supporter of the Boer War, kept his head. He refused to join the throng denouncing those who spoke out against the war. He asked one still pertinent question of the persecutors and their ultra-patriotic newspaper allies: ‘May I ask whether it is not the fact that the policy of allowing extravagant opinions to be expressed in perfect freedom is the best means of bringing those opinions into contempt?’[2]

E.D._MorelED Morel (Wikimedia Commons)

During World War I, one of the greatest of humanitarian crusaders for peace, ED Morel, founded the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) in 1914 to champion the notion of the democratic control of foreign policy. The organisation worked for a negotiated end to the war. The ‘peace cranks’ had no right to speak, according to the Beaverbrook press. ‘Who is Mr. E. D. Morel? And Who Pays for His Pro-German Union?’ So shouted the headlines in the Daily Express. There it was: Morel was an agent of Germany! From July 1915, jingo thugs were incited by articles in the Daily Express, under the title ‘An Appeal to Patriots’, to disrupt UDC meetings. They descended on public meetings in various British cities, roughed up the speakers, and intimidated the audience. They chanted ‘Pro-Germans! Pro-Germans!’[3]

How easy it is to impugn the patriotism of those who oppose war. The grand simplifiers and name-callers exploit the moment. The historical pattern is unmistakable. Those with principled objections to the Boer War were routinely condemned as ‘pro-Boers’. Those with principled objections to the Great War were shouted down as ‘pro-Germans’. Those with principled objections to the firebombing of hundreds of thousands of civilians in German and Japanese cities during the Second World War were attacked as ‘pro-Nazis’ or ‘pro-Nip’. Those with principled objections to our deployment to Vietnam were accused of being ‘pro-communists’. And so it goes. Those with principled objections to the ‘war on terror’ are accused of being ‘soft on terror’; and it is a short leap to say they are ‘pro-terror’.

For the cheapjack politician, the rhetorical slither is always ready to hand. Clamber aboard for a roller-coaster ride, as we slide from one insult to the next. He who hesitates is lost. Those who resist the lynch-mob mentality ‘understand’ the enemy. Therefore, they are ‘sympathisers’ with the enemy. Therefore, they are ‘apologists’ for the enemy. Therefore, they are ‘agents’ of the enemy. Those who doubt, those who question, those who see fault anywhere but in the enemy – well, they lack patriotism.

John_Bull_-_World_War_I_recruiting_posterWorld War I recruiting poster, UK government (Wikimedia Commons)

Is it not the intention of those who ask ‘Whose side are you on?’ to grease the gutter in this rhetorical slither? Of course, best to do it gently. According to the Prime Minister, many feel that ‘the ABC instinctively takes everyone’s side but Australia’s’. He asks that the ABC show ‘at least some basic affection for our home team’. [4] He hints again and again that the ABC has chosen the wrong side, and does not have affection for our side, because they are … traitors? Clearly.

It’s so easy, it’s so tempting, to abuse the emotion of love of country. But to smear those with whom you disagree on matters of national security as engaged in treachery, as being traitorously in league with the enemy, is swampland stuff. It is contemptible.


Douglas Newton is the author of Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War and The Darkest Days: the Truth behind Britain’s Rush to War 1914. He is one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.  


[1] Tony Abbott interview with Karl Stefanovic, Today, Nine Network, 24 June 2015, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2015-06-24/interview-karl-stefanovic-today-nine-network-0

[2] Churchill, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 95: 1066 (21 June 1901).

[3] Daily Express, 4 April 1915, quoted in Marvin Swartz, The Union of Democratic Control in British Politics during the First World War (Oxford, 1971), p. 109.

[4] Tony Abbott interview with Ray Hadley, 2GB Sydney 29 January 2014, https://www.pm.gov.au/media/2014-01-29/interview-ray-hadley-2gb-sydney

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2 comments on ““Whose side are you on?”
  1. Chris Freestone says:

    I strongly agree, Sue! This is definitely the sort of information that should be widely dispersed to counter the Federal Government’s current simplistic propaganda.

  2. Sue Wareham says:

    Thank you Douglas for such a strong rejection of the current cheap attacks on anyone who sees complexity in issues related to terrorism and how we respond to it. Australia is slowly being transformed into a place ruled by fear, divisions and intolerance of any dissenting or even questioning views (the treatment of Gillian Trigs being another one of many examples). The historical perspective that you have provided is important for us to know about, and should ring alarm bells.

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