They hanged Tommy…and still do

Cruel Australia hanged Tommy-types 200 years ago. Now, we imprison them in foetid cells on far-off islands, so that only sweet smells permeate our cocoons.

They hanged Tommy…and still do

By Louis A Coutts*

I was watching the news on television the other night and there was a scene of a guy who was standing on a beautiful lawn with a long stick. He used it to hit a little white ball into a hole about 10 metres away. Suddenly he pumped the air with his fist as though he had just saved the world and then, in the background, you could see a huge crowd of people applauding in unison.

I learnt afterwards that in addition to the adulation of the crowd, he won $1.5 million. I can’t recall the guy’s name but I suspect that millions of people around the world have hit a little white ball with a stick into a hole with few people noticing. It doesn’t seem to be an earth-shattering accomplishment and I am sure that if this guy had never hit that ball into the hole, the world would not have stopped.

I turned on my computer and there was a flash news item on Yahoo that someone called Jetta-Jones (or at least I think that was her name) had been admitted to a clinic for treatment of bi-polar disorder.

I suspect that there are many people around the world admitted to clinics for the treatment of bi-polar disorder and many other ailments without getting their name in the newspaper. Being admitted to hospital is not an earth-shattering event and certainly, the world is not going to come to an end whether this woman is or isn’t admitted to hospital.

The thing is that the guy who hit the ball into the hole won the US Masters and the woman admitted to hospital is married to a well-known actor by the name of Michael Douglas.

So, if you are a celebrity, what you do seems to be important but if you are just an ordinary guy who hits a ball around some unknown golf course, you don’t rate.

That brings me to the story of Tommy who is unknown to most people unless they have read the second volume of the History of Australia by a guy called Manning Clark. You see, Tommy was a young aboriginal lad who got on the wrong side of white man’s law back in 1827 and in December of that year was hung in George St Sydney in accordance with white man’s law.

Now, strangely, Tommy means a lot more to me than a guy who hits balls into holes or women who marry actors.

Tommy’s hanging was an earth-shattering event. Fifty years earlier, his parents lived in their own land and their people didn’t realise that they needed border protection because they had occupied the land without interruption for tens of thousands of years.

Suddenly, everything changed and Tommy’s parents and all their fellow aborigines had to stand aside so that the white man could bring civilisation to this land and tell the aboriginal people that, from now on, they had to get to understand white man’s civilised law or watch out. Some of the aborigines witnessed this civilised white man’s law when some white men were flogged horribly by other white men and some had a rope tied around their neck and hanged until they died. Tommy somehow got caught up with all of this as did quite a few of his fellow aborigines, some of whom didn’t get to experience white man’s law so much as the white man’s ability to exterminate them without due process.

Section of a government-issued pictograph in the New South Wales colony’s early days showing how Aborigines would be treated ‘equally’ under British law.
Section of a government-issued pictograph in the New South Wales colony’s early days showing how Aborigines would be treated ‘equally’ under British law.

There are events both tragic and heroic occurring every day throughout the world involving ordinary people who never get their name in neon lights. The trick is to get known on the silver screen so that you can become a celebrity. We have become a celebrity civilisation which elevates people with skills in particular areas such as hitting little balls into holes or playing a part in a film: they are idolised. There is a guy who was good at hitting balls into holes called Tiger Woods who lived a disgraceful private life but people still go along to see him hit balls into holes and applaud him.

Then there are all the hangers-on like the “experts”, for heaven’s sake, the coaches and assistant coaches and trainers and doctors who attend these celebrities so that they can hit balls into holes or kick balls between posts or hit balls across a field or who can throw balls at sticks in the ground or who can hit balls over a net or who can swim in swimming pools or…etc. They all get paid and become important: some of them write books of their own. There will be scenes such as a person whispering to another person as a celebrity is whisked away in a limousine so that he or she is not contaminated with the hoi polloi “He is so and so , the world’s greatest marble player; he has hit 454 marbles straight without a break”.

In the meantime, today’s Tommy hangs himself in a detention centre. Other Tommies risk their all in frightened flight from the agony of war in their own country, a war that we started without invitation.

The stories of bravery and stoicism from these people fleeing terror match anything that the person who hits a ball into a hole can come up with. But today’s Tommies are villains. They are coming to our country uninvited and selfishly plead that they risk terror in their own country because of the havoc we have created.

“What baloney” say some of our politicians, revelling in the roar of adulation from their onlookers and supporters who realise that these people with strange customs such as women wearing scarves are going to pollute our Anglo-Saxon way of life (not that many of them would understand what Anglo-Saxon means).

And so we turn our back on today’s Tommies and lock them up in distant places so that their kids’ first education experience is learning how to live in prisons. In the meantime, 100,000 fans turn up to the MCG to see guys kick a ball between some posts.

Then of course there are the other Tommies like the disproportionate number of aborigines in our gaols or like the two aborigines packed in the back of unventilated police van in the back blocks of Western Australia in the heat of summer and died of asphyxiation.

That is not to mention the majority of the world’s population who are heroically suffering deprivation, poverty, starvation and the theft of their freedom, and privacy.

We are living in a state of delusion. We, the affluent members of Western society are living in a cocoon, where celebrities are the focus of our attention and debate while, outside, the world threatens to split open the flimsy membrane that perpetuates our delusion and suck us into the vortex.

We are preoccupied with honouring celebrities be they politicians, people who hit balls into holes or the hangers-on who feed this frenzy and spend too little time concerning ourselves with the poor Tommy’s of the world. Perhaps this preoccupation with celebrities, many of whom in private lives have little to recommend them, is the “opium of the people” that enables us to detach from all of those terrible things that are going on outside our cocoon.



Louis A Coutts is a Melbourne lawyer and member of Civil Liberties Australia

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