Yesterday we saw both sides of the national response to racism. History shows that we don’t fear certain people, we fear everyone.
Yesterday was an interesting day to watch our national identity at work. We woke up with Waleed Aly’s acceptance speech at the Logies and went to bed knowing that Angry Anderson was running for the Senate as a member of the Australian Liberty Alliance.
Both events were, if you believe the commentary, about religion – or how this nation deals (or does not want to deal) with Muslims. But, to tell you the truth, I don’t think so. In my mind, the word “Muslim” is just one in a long line of code words we Australians have used to talk about fear. Fear of the Other, especially if that Other is threatening Our special status. Let’s look at the evidence.
It roughly started with the Irish, who were considered “white niggers,” a term that shows you how they were viewed in early Australia. Sure, their skin was white, but because they were mostly Catholic and came from a country that had a history and a reputation for rising up against the British, they were considered not really white. The Irish were “a people hardly emerged from barbarity,” as a British government official said at the time. But paradoxically, that made them extra dangerous. Because they had no “morality” recognisable to British, they were “always alive to rebellion and mischief,” and were therefore “very dangerous members of society.” These were the words of Samuel Marsden, this country’s first Reverend. Marsden became famous as the “flogging parson,” because he was also a Magistrate and loved whipping especially Irish prisoners. The problem with the Irish, Marsden and his friends recognised, was that there were a lot of them, and they had a reason to be angry. That was a bad combination, and it scared the pants off them. But acknowledging you are fearful is not a good tactic. Far better to tell your enemy that you consider them below you, and make sure, by rules and beatings, that they stay that way.
The second group to be treated like this were the Chinese. People from Asia had always been arriving and settling in Australia, long before the Europeans did. After the British took over the country, they sort-of accepted the fact that Asian people lived here. Only in the 1850s, when gold was found in NSW and Victoria, did that change. The discovery attracted people from all over the world, but especially the Chinese, who turned out to be very good at finding and profiting from it. They lived in communities that supported each other, worked very hard and usually did not fritter their earnings away at the pub. Soon, their white colleagues became frustrated, jealous and angry. There were riots, and miners and their unions started petitioning the government to do something about the Chinese. Newspapers wrote that the Chinese were spreading diseases and were out to rape white women and take over the country. Again, it was their strength that made them dangerous, and it was their strength that provoked the backlash. Governments put in restrictions on Chinese immigration and many Chinese who had been living here for generations were thrown out of the country.
Australia is a relatively small island in a big ocean, surrounded by lots of non-white countries, and that has instilled in us a fear of just about everybody else. After the Chinese, there were the Japanese, the Communists and non-white migrants. “Muslims” are just the flavour of the month – especially well-educated, smart, witty Muslims, like Waleed Aly. Australia has been an anxious nation from its very inception. It is part of our national identity, whether it shows itself as racism or a movement against another religion. We suffer from what I would like to call the “crab syndrome”: dealing with fear by attacking, even if that does more harm than good. It is not so much that we believe, like the Americans, that we are better than our foes (non-whites, non-Christians). We lash out because we are scared they are better, smarter, more numerous, harder working, better educated, stronger or wealthier than we are.
In 1947, an Australian microbiologist, Macfarlane Burnet, seriously advocated poisoning South-East Asia. He wanted biological and chemical weapons used to destroy food crops and spread infectious diseases, so that the overpopulated and therefore dangerous Asia could be put in its place. This is what we do with our fear: we attack. Remember Pauline Hanson? In 1997, she published a ghost-written autobiography. In it, she described her fear, which was an Australian nation headed by a lesbian, Indian/Chinese president, part machine, with a brain produced by an Asian research team and steered by a World Government. Same fear, different shape. And again: let’s go after Them before they come after Us. So Angry Anderson is just doing his Australian patriotic duty, following in a long line of little crabs stretching their claws. And maybe Waleed Aly should be proud. In the Australian tradition, being attacked means that they are scared of you. Fear means they are listening and paying attention. Not a bad first step.