Truth’s a dog must to kennel; he must be whipped out.
— Lear’s fool
If you’d fallen asleep in the fifties or sixties and woken up about now—or say in 1996—how much of a difference would you have noticed in Australia’s race-relations rhetoric? Who—in say 1990—would have thought that the ghosts of the yellow peril and the lazy boong could have been so profitably revived?
STOP TEASING THEM OR THEY’LL BITE
I’m in China as I write this. I’ll be more specific. I’m in Guangdong, the province from which Chinese first came to Australia in the nineteenth century. I’m in Macao, which is where Europe first attached itself like a mollusc to the Middle Kingdom.
China: red peril, yellow peril. China is a special combination soup. This is what Howard and Hanson and I all grew up on. This is deep-seated stuff, perhaps deeper than conviction. Australians have not traded their way out of the feeling that they are threatened by the numbers up above them. They had learned to temper their hysteria so as to be able to talk with the people they needed to trade with. Along the way Australia and Asia became much more familiar with each other. Less hysterical. Here’s the deal that makes it all civilised: you don’t talk about invading us and we won’t talk about being afraid of your invading us. Under that civilised chatter how does everyone feel? Safe and sound? What’s happened to the underlying fear and distrust? The real irony of the Hansonites’ position is that the peak time they mythologise as better, their golden age, is an age of widespread fear. But then the Hansonites perceive the threat as growing, as ever greater. They’re a wake-up to what’s happening. The rest of Austraya are asleep. That’s why Pauline’s maiden speech was titled and marketed as ‘Wake up, Austraya!’
If there’s a childhood continuity of the ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ variety in the ghosts abroad at present, then there’s also a class continuity. The info proles are the people who have to do (strange to say) the dirty intellectual work for Australia. These are the people who’ve slept through the new economy so far. They have to think and speak the bad thoughts about the others, which nice people wouldn’t want to articulate. We don’t use the word ‘race’ much any more because for the folk on the hill it evokes a chain of thoughts that could lead to guilt. An underclass—having nothing to lose and no-one to worry about offending—makes conscious the better left unsaid. It’s the blue collars, the hicks, the unemployable, who get painted into the naughty kids’ comer. You can hear the teacher’s voice in there, can’t you? Stop teasing the foreigners…stop teasing the blacks. It’ll only make them…Make them what exactly?
The question really is whether the naughty voices and the calming voices are doing a service or a disservice to Australia or humanity or the idea of justice. Which of those abstractions is paramount? Who has the right to ask these questions? Who knows which questions are right? Refusing to field questions is a dangerous omen for the openness of a political process. Sometimes the most facile or banal of questions are telling. Sometimes those questions teach us how we’re thinking, who we are.
Over the last five years 5-10 per cent of the electorate have been prepared to go along with Pauline’s sentiments. More or less. More in Queensland, less in Melbourne. Can this be shrugged off, tolerated? Is it the ironic proof of our collective tolerance? Or turn that question around: how much intolerance would need to be tolerated to make Australia intolerable for, let’s say, Asian or Aboriginal Australians?
Intellectuals are accustomed to seeing themselves as more tolerant than the masses baying for blood down below. The masses baying for blood have their reasons, reasons for instance for thinking that others deserve to pay; they have reasons to resent being patronised. They can pick it up just from tone of voice. A dog knows when you’re scared.
ONE WOMAN’S BATTLE
Pauline versus the political correct. One woman’s battle against…against politics, of course. Her battle is a gift to the conservative parties and Labor’s right. Her battle centres their mild bureaucratic approach to the fear of difference. The centrists, like Pauline, are against politics. They merely want to rule.
Everyone wants to disown politics (narrowly defined) because the political process is discredited. Pauline Hanson, on her crusade against the processes that can bring about change, has been uniquely able to portray herself as the non-politician. Her claim is in the purest of virtues: ignorance, ineptitude, common spite.
The thinking (in lieu of a theory) to bring us here was that she couldn’t be up to any tricks. She wasn’t capable of any kind of cleverness. The anti-politician politician. The Pauline-loving constituency in the seat of Oxley and, it turned out, nationwide, essentially consisted of people who were disappointed with the political process because they felt it was not serving them or their needs. Let’s narrow that down. The specific way in which they were disappointed was that they felt they had lost something. Something was gone that had been there in their childhood. Let’s not be so coy. They were sick of seeing Asians everywhere and hearing about Aborigines getting handouts they couldn’t get.
The something that was gone from their childhood was essentially the presumption of racial inferiority: the assumption that non-white people weren’t as good as white people. This assumption was very loud at the beginning of the twentieth century. White man’s burden and so forth. Softer and softer as the century wore on. It became a dangerous assumption.
The Hanson phenomenon has been a field day for journalists and politicians in Asia who are happy to paint Australians as unreconstructed racists. Australia Day (Invasion Day) 2001: the South China morning post reports that Pauline Hanson is to make a comeback in Queensland politics. She’s still popular, she has good prospects…Your average Australian has no idea of the delight that sections of the press in East Asia have had in painting Australia back into its old corner. The Australian government is happy to oblige in that process by reducing Radio Australia’s regional presence to a murmur, by allowing Australia TV, first to become an endless replay of football legends (spiced up with ads for Melbourne real estate), then to expire altogether (in March of this year).
How reasonable an argument do the Aussie-bashing journalists in Asia have?
They remember the White Australia policy. They can smell the nostalgia.
There’s no doubt that Pauline and John Howard, the faces of hard and soft Hansonism, have helped to restore Australia’s bad name. Each has their own kind of unfair go at the issues. Together they have provided taunts for those in Asia who want to get at Australia or Australians. They have provided easy ammunition for those who doubt the sincerity of Australia’s transformation from mono- to multi-culture, from exclusivist racist culture to inclusive open culture.
But the remarkable thing is not Hansonism, but rather what Hansonism draws our attention to: the fact that over two generations Australia was transformed from a proudly racist dependency of the Anglo-American quasi-empire to a nation becoming regionally savvy and proud of not discriminating. We weren’t the only ones. A lot of the world was on that kind of track. Losing racism is a lot more like getting smoking out of public places than most advocates of tolerance would care to admit. Racism is stupid and unfair and we’re all healthier without it. Deinstitutionalising racism in Australia wasn’t achieved without any disruptive voices, without any rocking of the boat. It’s just that the disturbance was pretty well all from the left: from the people who had searched their own souls and who were now prepared to do the job for everyone. A nauseous approach?
The only noise from racists on the right in all that time was a kind of atavistic murmuring: a sports commentator gets carried away, loses it, says something insulting, is given the naughty boy treatment. The left and the indigenes blaze away about the theme of injustice. It’s fundamental. The country is built on an injustice: the wholesale (and at times genocidal) theft of someone else’s country. You don’t easily find higher moral ground than that. The role of the conservative side though all of this period (on Aboriginal questions we can say from the time of the 1967 referendum) is to apply the brakes and/or to release them. Aborigines begin getting land back. Immigration rules become fairer.
The people who continue to hold the opinions on race that were mainstream into the sixties are becoming, not exactly an endangered species, but ever more marginal. They certainly remained in the key marginal area of John Howard’s brain. He had an instinct for them, still has, because they too want the Union Jack in the corner of the flag. They too like to have a portrait of the Queen about. They too find Aboriginal art a little disconcerting. They and Pauline and little Johnny are all attending to the icons at the Feast of the Unanalysed Assumption. Their fetish—the horn of plenty—was filled by means of an unmentionable conquest.
So how inevitable was Pauline?
Until the twentieth century the idea of tolerating other voices had limited support. Efforts in that direction were isolated. Much of that effort was religiously inspired. And of course there were those who worked religiously against the idea. Somehow, though, Western political institutions evolved around the rhetoric of tolerance, which was (only meant at first to apply to the members of the polity concerned. It wasn’t meant for the colonised or for those beyond the pale. Misguided missionary effort aside, it was Christian ethics that ultimately made that distinction of persons untenable. And so, as in Rome and as in Imperial China, the peace imposed by the ruling authority became available to all. Those ancient empires—for all their cosmopolitanism—retained an uncivilised outside. The conversion of the British Empire into the Commonwealth of Nations is by comparison a remarkable transformation. The United Nations and the idea of universal human rights represent an unprecedented extension: the idea of principle without limits, without an outside. This is the realisation of Kant’s rationality as transcending the particular.
The reflexive question bouncing back now is: whose rationality and whose transcendence? Whose conception of rights is to be imposed on the world? Whose ideas are being imposed in this conception? Who is to benefit? Whose world will it be? What we call globalisation is just the latest step along a road that, while it may profit all kinds of people, has certainly shown the greatest and most consistent benefits thus far to Europeans.
Pauline’s critique of globalisation—the critique of those who see themselves as the guardians of a frontier spirit—is simple and heartfelt. The refrain is a straightforward question: What’s in it for us? It seems especially for the John Howards like a betrayal for first-worlders to be opposing the globalisation that profits them most of all, though we mustn’t admit it. The irony is that these are the people whom their own world betrays. Should we blame them for biting back? Should we blame them for biting the wrong people? Should we have them defanged?
WHO’S A RACIST?
What’s racism and what’s wrong with it? Racism I think is the failure to accept the humanity of others, of racial others. I think that the two clearest expressions of racism are in first, the desire to avoid or ignore others, and second, the desire to harm others. Of these the former is by far preferable. Although, as Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa proved, the two can be combined to great effect.
Now there is, however, a third position that neutralises the question. That’s the universalist position. It is as follows: others become as I am, and, as they do, it becomes offensive to think of them as others. We’re all Australians here. Now the rejoinder to this answer—and this is the ethos of multiculturalism in a nutshell—is to say that if you can’t talk about (and embrace) difference (and I think difference includes dislike) then you are not acknowledging the humanity of others. And if you’re not acknowledging the humanity of others you can hardly be participating democratically with them. What’s the alternative to that? You must be imposing your views on them, but without admitting it.
Saying that you don’t like people and don’t want them in your home might be more honest than not wanting them in your home but being unwilling to say so. The feeling underneath might be very similar. Except that the latter position is duplicitous. How can you deal fairly with others if you deal duplicitously? This is a key ethical paradox today. Racism is unacceptable but duplicity is par for the course? One of the most refreshing things about Pauline Hanson and the solid basis of her anti-politician credentials is the effort she makes to say what she means. In her case that turns out to be the paradoxical means of her minority making sense: she becomes popular by championing the unpopular view.
Let’s contrast two ethical failures then: the inability to recognise or accept difference (i.e. seeing only yourself but seeing yourself everywhere), and the inability to identify or empathise with—or see the humanity in—those you recognise as other. There’s a range of response in the case of the latter failure: from the exoticising of orientalism to full-blown racial hatred. And just as it’s possible for violence and rejection to be combined so it is possible to operate a double standard along these lines: I do not accept what it is about the others that disgusts me, I accept that part of them that is like me. Do I want that part of them in my house? Only if they can slough their uncivilised sides. Only if they can be like me. Asians with money I understand. Asian poverty remains inscrutable. But then we never meet those Asians. And so we needn’t speak of them. We’re sponsoring a child!
Universalism is an unconvincing way out of the ethical problem for which the term ‘racism’ provides a less and less useful shorthand as the defences against it become more and more rote. The ethical problem is in how one approaches difference, how one recognises humanity or sentience. How one deals fairly with others.
I think that there are two ways to the problem for which racism provides the shorthand, two ways to the one failure: you only see yourself, you can’t see yourself. In the latter case the difference is impenetrable, can’t be made sense of. So you have to ignore it. But of course the problem is bigger than racism. It’s the problem of identity and difference: how to recognise these, how to deal with them, how to deal with selves and others fairly.
Things turn around, for better and worse. It’s the voices that turn them. Rewriting the past so that we knew who the good guys were all along tends to miss the essential point that there weren’t necessarily any. I mean, despite what they taught us in school, it isn’t often the heroic stuff that does the trick. Australians finally have that right about Gallipoli.
Gallipoli, we were taught, was the defining moment of Australian nationhood—the baptism of fire and blood, the coming of age. We know now that it was stupid and unfair in the way patriarchy and imperialism and greed are wrong and stupid. It was the wrong place for Australians to be. But it still makes us who we are. And that’s why we shouldn’t forget. Here’s the key point: a continuity masks a discontinuity. The reason we should continue to say lest we forget in 2001 is the opposite of the reason why this was the right thing to say eighty years ago. The sacrifice of Australians who lost their lives at Gallipoli wasn’t noble or worthwhile. It was just stupid. They were being used and used stupidly. We shouldn’t forget that. In memory of their senseless credulity, their mindless obedience to people who declared themselves their betters, we should never forget.
That’s an old war. How is it relevant now? Well, I think, somewhere between the 1967 referendum and Pauline’s wake-up call, Australia really did pass through a defining moment, reorienting not only its trade but its ethics from being inward-looking and protective to being multicultural and open. Pauline’s feast proves not so much that the new definition is under threat as that it has happened; it applies.
There are much better reasons for us not to forget the history of race relations in Australia. Compared with the history of race relations Gallipoli is a sideshow: the first big slaughter of whites, not the first big slaughter. The victims of this history are with us: the suffering is ongoing. And if Australians in the process of introspection are taunted for the memories we grow along the way then so much the better. It’s against those taunts that Australians will define ourselves, work out who we have to be.
It’s now 100 years since the colonies federated as states of the Commonwealth of Australia. At the time all sides of politics were agreed that Australia should be a white man’s country. The union movement was the most vehement in this conviction because Australian workers could see nothing but trouble in the importation of cheap labour from Asia or the Pacific. Keeping the Chinese out of Australia was a way of maintaining living standards for white Australians, a way of keeping Australia civilised, Christian, fair. A way of advancing Australia. This view did not begin to slip away with the nation-making event of Gallipoli. This view gathered force and prevailed and was reinforced through two world wars. It began to slip away in the sixties as Australia’s trade relationships changed, and once Europes colonies in the Far East had been dismantled for good, and as Rhodesia and South Africa became pariah states because of their racist constitutions. Had the 1967 referendum not declared Aborigines to be humans, things would have become very embarrassing very quickly for Australia.
WHO LACKS ETHICS?
Illusions of sameness are generated by universalising discourses, by stages on which all bodies may play. (If you prick him doth not the Jew bleed?) Illusions of difference are generated by politicians. It’s because they’re different that you should vote for them and not the others. They’re going to make the difference. That rhetoric is very tired indeed. But this is ultimately the appeal of Pauline Hanson. She short-circuits the distrust that undoes the illusion. Suddenly we’re back before square one. With someone who can be believed because she doesn’t know how to lie. How can she lack ethics? In this manner she presents a kind of magical solution. As if the country were to be run by children.
Pauline seems a simple character but she has the potential to reveal a contradiction by showing how participation is at stake in the political process. Pauline gives a voice (or the next illusion of a voice) to those who feel they had none.
The process as it is in Australia coopts opinion around two political poles that are precariously close to each other. This is the 51 percent/49 per cent principle. The closeness of those poles does not necessarily generate consensus so much as a fear of difference. It’s not that people agree with each other about how everything ought to be. It’s that their opinions get to be represented by positions that need to stay close to a notional centre for fear of being marginalised as different.
There’s the paradox: difference is what you vote for, you can’t vote for difference. This process coopts the range of opinion into two mindsets that have to be almost the same as each other. Otherwise they risk disappearing.
The healthy political process in a Western democracy, for all the shouting and abuse, is something like two football teams trying to carry the same ball through the same set of goalposts. The main difference in their positions is that they want to be the ones. The only way they can come by that privilege is by somehow convincing the spectators that they are actually aiming for opposite ends of the field. In China political survival has long depended on the opposite kind of illusion.
Left and right non-racists in Australia have over the twenty years till Hanson been able to include the racists in their folds, to bury their unreasonableness in mainstream argument. Bipartisan policy notwithstanding, left and right racists have failed to die out. Rather they have wearied of inclusion. That their opinions have been coopted, that kind of bad representation—on one or a few issues—makes a one notion party possible. One Nation is really a revolt against bad representation: the wrong ‘uns are tired of being spoken for, are waking up to the fact that that’s how politics has evolved. Naive enough to think things might be otherwise, they could just be right.
Here’s one of the best paradoxes of One Nation: the one notion party calls the whole political process into question far more effectively than do the parties that claim to speak about everything and for everyone. One notion is all it takes. And the notion of Hanson’s that can be generalised from home to hairdresser to nation is this: Shouldn’t we have the right to choose whom we want to be with? Shouldn’t we have the right to decide who we are? Who we want to be? Shouldn’t we have the right to not have to give reasons? There are many more such questions, each characteristic of the struggle against political correctness.
The answer to each of these and all such questions will always be no. Not because some politician or moral authority says so. Not because anyone else has the right to decide for us. But because rights are negotiated. We are too much implied in each other’s business for things to be otherwise. Pretending to be alone in the world constitutes abuse of others’ rights.
That’s why there’s always been something unconvincing about beating other people over the head with rights. The mythic right to crawl back into one’s shell or to bury one’s head in the sand has never been, and becomes less and less, convincing. Claiming a right not to think will never make not thinking right.
The moral ground under these questions? This is the this is a free country rhetoric of my childhood, of Pauline’s childhood, of Howard’s childhood.
Twenty million people in Australia should think about the question of how and why and by what rights they occupy their territory. By what rights do they extend or grudge their hospitality? Have they been holding a party in someone else’s house for the last 200 years? Australians should think about what it means to exclude others from their privileges, about what it would mean to do something else, to do something different. They should think about where their thinking comes from if they want to decide where it should go.
The tribes aren’t isolated in their little corners of the globe now. Not that ethnic cleansing is anything new. The Old Testament is full of it. Or was that just bravado then, genocide as wishful thinking? How to make a country free?
It’s all very well to say that the Hansonites can’t cope with the reality of the world as it is. A hundred years ago in the becoming polity Australians think of as ours, there simply weren’t any non-racists. There were more and less enlightened and tolerant characters but I don’t think that any of the players deciding what Australia was to be could be considered non-racists. Of course I’m excluding Aborigines here, because they played no part in those decisions. When did it suddenly become normal for good people not to be racists?
There are two variables one would need to study to give a useful answer to this question. The first is how ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ became pejorative terms and accumulated mainstream weight against them, worldwide and in Australia. The second is how the meaning of those terms evolved so as to designate as extreme a particular mindset that had been mainstream. These processes are difficult to pull apart because they are simultaneous and concerted. They are homeostatically related. We manage to go on seeing ourselves as reasonable people by disagreeing with the way we were (and thought and acted) before, when we also thought we were reasonable people.
On the domestic front a nice example of this is in the way good parents (parents acknowledged by their offspring to have been good) no longer remember having hit their children. Even though it was OK to hit your children when they were doing just that. It’s not OK now so it never happened. Prying into that process of losing memory is painful, cathartic. Does it do anyone any good? A lot of the anti-Hansonism from the centre (John Howard’s for instance) is of this type: we don’t want to feel that to become decent and reasonable now we have to express or acknowledge a discontinuity with how we were. This in a nutshell is why Howard can’t apologise. That is, however, exactly what we need to do. That’s what ethical growth is about: understanding yourself as a discontinuity. And I thank the Hansonites for spurring us on to that task, for revealing the contradiction that the ‘normal’ homeostatic progression would bury.
Of course the discovery that we mightn’t have been such nice people in the process of becoming the nice people we are is naturally resisted most strongly by the people who are now the least nice. The blandness of the terms belies the scale of the stakes. Thinking out the last half-century means thinking through the big switcheroo: from having the victims of racism as the definitive outside of the civilised, to having the perpetrators of racism in that fiery pit.
Stop marvelling at Pauline as the aberration. Marvel rather at how far we had come before she came along.
MY KINGDOM FOR A VOICE
Those who feel that Pauline gives them a voice, that they were tricked to feel they ever had a voice before: what would free them from her spell? Only a further disillusion in the form of a recognition that she too was of politics. Would that then mean that she had tricked them, that they were wrong before? Or that she had changed, become a politician, because politics, with or without power, corrupts? Would that leave them still with the grail-like hope for the paradox of the political process mat could include them because they were out of politics?
The problem with One Nation isn’t that they are the only ones in the picture lacking ethics. Pictures driven by public opinion are notorious for that kind of lack.
We won’t get away with reducing this to some narrow kind of Sartrian distinction between good and bad faith. The problem for all of us in Australia is that the homespun authority of the Hansonites is so damn rough. The underbelly of our beast shows through. It draws attention to the assumptions that, though losing ethical force and application, remain the assumptions that brought us to here.
Though they don’t advance the politics or the ethics or anyone’s material position, though they retard the project of realising our humanity (by realising everyone else’s), I thank the Hansonites for reminding us that our ethics of identity means facing the fact that civilisations (and not only or even particularly ours) are murderous. That if that’s what civilisation is then maybe we can hope for something better. Reconciliation between civilisation and its nameless other.
In Australian politics Pauline Hanson has filled the shoes of the down. Fools, like King Lear’s, generally have a powerful, if side-on, affinity with the truth. It’s distressing to be dazzled out of one’s cave by a light revealed by an idiot. But it might be preferable to staying in the cave. The idiot shows us that the world is neither as comfortable nor as simple as we imagined. Of course with Shakespeare’s fools we also feel that they’re really the wisest people on the stage. There’s not much risk of this with Pauline.
The wonderful thing about the Hanson phenomenon is that it has motivated a head-on discussion of the key ethical issues facing Australia. The issues to which she draws Australia’s attention are much more important than the nationhood question posed by the recent failed republic debate. To grudge the debate is not so much to deny democracy; it’s to go on living in the fantasy land where all the racists have gone away or died of old age.
We’ve all got our pants down and it’s doing us good. We have to take a good look at ourselves and our assumptions, now politics and journalism are always able to be connected on the lowest-common-denominator principle, how the ethical questions are short-circuited in that process.
Why should Aborigines get special treatment? That’s a question asked by those with no historical view. Ironically those with no historical consciousness love the First Fleet and all that, the tales of conquest. But not that particular word. They want history as it was. They want the history that we now know—but didn’t know then—to be a lie. These are the flattest of us, those with no sense that the past could be subject to revision, that the future could be full of possibility, that we could make our way. But if Pauline’s followers lack a sense of irony then so do many of her opponents. They too lack the long view; they want a past that’s easily revised in the light of immediate loyalties. They too wish for themselves the privilege of not having to listen to others.
RETURN OF THE DISCONTENTS
Not every idea survives. There’s certainly no reason to think of any of them as eternal. There are great discontinuities. Some conversations tail off and cannot be resumed. But the products of the mind have had a tendency to outlive the flesh. Language is the most obvious example of this. Reading books from other times and places, we get to define ourselves in terms of decisions as to with whom we would agree or disagree, with whom we would have fellow feeling or not. Can the non-readers see that? And for those who do read there’s a question: which books do you invite into your house? Scholars of every persuasion would fight to maintain their privileges there. Life’s too short to talk to everyone. Isn’t that all that Pauline’s saying? My house. My choice. I don’t have to give a reason.
I think we need to keep talking, give our reasons. I think we need to keep open these questions we have about ourselves: who we are, who we want to be.
One of the wild white characters we’ll keep alive is Pearce, the escaped cannibal convict, a personal favourite of mine. (Compare Manning Clark and Marcus Clarke and you’ll get the flavour.) This bloke gets away from Macquarie Harbour with a few of his colleagues in crime. The near-primeval forests are full of the game and bush tucker that have sustained the Tasmanians for thousands of years. But all these blokes can think of to eat is each other. They set to the task with—let’s say—a vengeance. Till there’s only two left. Conversation dries up. It’s just a competition in the end to see who can stay awake. Whoever falls asleep first gets clobbered and eaten.
I argue that we should raise debate over the fundamental issues about what Australia is and who Australians are above the Pearce level. Having the intellectuals clobber the sleepers over the head is not a whole lot more sophisticated than having that the other way around. Wake up Austraya!
. . .
There is nevertheless a question that needs to be asked of those imploring the rest to go back to sleep. It’s simple: if Pauline had the choice, really had the choice, between living with Chinese and Aboriginal neighbours of the 21st-century variety on either side of her, or living with her own ancestors and their bathing and hygiene practices, which would she choose? I rather fancy that she’d opt for epochal rather than racial purity.
Image credit: Oscar Lupton