On diversity and the weaponisation of food
‘I’m here to address concerns that too many perky white males are contributing to a lack of diversity on our screens,’ says perky white male and X Factor host Luke Jacobz (‘with a zee’), introducing Meat and Livestock Australia’s advertisement for ‘the meat that doesn’t discriminate’—Aussie spring lamb, of course. Jacobz then makes way for Bengali-Australian actor Arka Das, who perkily tells us ‘We couldn’t agree more’ before striding into a typical Australian park, where an atypical (by the standards of Australian television) group of Australians has gathered for a typical Australian barbecue.
Those lining up for their helping of ‘the ultimate cross-cultural protein’ represent a diverse array of racial and religious backgrounds, as well as a male same-sex couple holding their newborn baby, Greek trans-gender comedian Jordan Raskopoulus, a woman who communicates with sign language and an older man using a wheelchair. Further signalling that times have moved on since the years during which footballer and ‘lambassador’ Sam Kekovitch ranted that those who don’t eat lamb and drink beer on Australia Day are ‘unAustralian’—and even since 2016’s Australia Day ad in which a SWAT team under the command of SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin took a flamethrower to the coffee table of a hapless vegan—the food on offer at Jacobz and Das’s barbecue included a token vegetarian dish for the equally token Hare Krishna participants. And in a display of respect to the traditional owners of the land on which the barbecue is held, the advertisement even manages to incorporate a commercial version of an acknowledgement of country. When Das prepares to serve sizzling lamb to the diverse multitude by asking ‘who was here first?’, Aboriginal sporting legends Cathy Freeman and Greg Inglis respond with ‘aaah, that’d be us’.
The ad attracted 5.4 million views and international acclaim, plus multiple complaints to the Advertising Standards Board of Australia from those who took offence on behalf of the nation’s not-so-perky white men. This is a familiar process for Meat and Livestock Australia, which fielded regular complaints over Sam Kekovitch’s annual Australia Day rants from 2005 to 2014 and then again in 2016 when more than 747 viewers complained about Lee Lin Chin’s anti-vegan violence, which made their ‘Operation Boomerang’ Australia Day advertisement the most complained about advertisement of the year. However, the complaints about the spring lamb campaign sounded like the kind of rants that Meat and Livestock Australia had once paid Sam Kekovitch to deliver. For these viewers, the type of masculinity that Kekovitch had valorised for so many years was now being sidelined and mocked. And ranting white men are not ready to give up their rightful place at the centre of the national barbecue.
The Soldiers of Odin were white males (plus a token female) distributing food to the masses, but they couldn’t be described as ‘perky’. And they hadn’t set up base on a sunny spring day in a park overlooking the beach, but on a cold, damp night in Melbourne’s City Square, a couple of blocks from Flinders Street Station. Dressed in black combat jackets with Viking helmets and the Australian flag emblazoned on the back, they were serving soup and cupcakes rather than lamb, but they were there to defend Australian values all the same. And as they would no doubt have pointed out, many Aussie families would have trouble affording a traditional lamb dinner these days.
Cupcakes with a side-order of racism, I thought as I read the leaflet they were distributing. ‘Patriotic Australians, Protecting Our Citizens, Defending Our Streets, Our Culture & Our Great Country,’ it proclaimed. ‘We are Anti Racism, Anti Nazism, & Do Not support Anti-Semitic views. We are anti Islam and anti-sharia law on our soil.’ Because everyone’s an anti-racist these days—even (and perhaps especially) organisations whose very raison d’être is racism.
Named for the Norse god of war, the Soldiers of Odin are the Australian off-shoot of a Finnish far-right organisation that claims to be protecting ordinary citizens against crime by conducting vigilante patrols on the streets, as well as providing succour to ‘The Homeless, Less Fortunate & The Elderly’. Like Reclaim Australia, the Q society, the United Patriots Front and of course Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, they also claim to be a frontline defence in the battle against Islamisation and sharia law. I had interviewed other members of the so-called patriots movement at their highly publicised rallies during which they had clashed with anti-racist protestors and the police, but somehow I felt more threatened by the four Soldiers of Odin than I had by the crowds at those earlier events. Perhaps the hate-speech against my religious community sounded more sinister in the darkness and the shadows, but most of all, I think it was the cupcakes.
‘Seriously, they were giving out cupcakes,’ I told my friends. ‘With love-hearts on them! It was terrifying.’ Because while the Meat and Livestock Association advertisement evokes a multicultural idyll in which Australians of all backgrounds unite to enjoy a barbecue together, food has also long been deployed as a potent weapon of division. Under the Spanish Inquisition, conversos and moriscos were scrutinised for evidence of pork consumption to ensure that people were not secretly maintaining their Jewish or Muslim identity. One of the triggers for the 1867 Indian Mutiny (or as the Indian Government prefers to call it, ‘India’s First War of Independence’) was the rumour that the cartridges for the new Enfield rifles were greased with a mixture of beef and pork fat and hence deeply offensive to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys who had to ‘bite the bullet’. What we eat, abstain from eating and serve for others to eat has always held a latent potential for violence.
The surreal contrast between the dainty cupcakes and the menacing-looking men who were serving them distracted me from the realisation that the soup was likely to be the ideological as well as the culinary main course. Only later did it dawn on me that the Soldiers of Odin were probably following the precedent set by the European far-right organisations from which they drew their name and their inspiration. In 2006, authorities in Belgium and France closed down soup kitchens affiliated with far-right organisations on the grounds that they were inflaming racial tensions by providing the needy with servings of so-called called ‘Identity Soup’—‘identity’ of course meaning pork. However, a decade later various right-wing councils in France banned school canteens from offering students an alternative option when pork was on the menu, a policy that former president Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to make nationwide if he were returned to power in 2017 (a promise that failed to take him past the first round of voting for his party’s nomination).
In Australia a small group of protestors from the United Patriots Front roasted a pig on a spit during a 2015 demonstration outside the ABC studios in Melbourne after the highly publicised appearance by Zaky Mallah on Q&A. Speakers at a Reclaim Australia rally that I attended later that year in the outer Melbourne suburb of Melton gloatingly invited their supporters to join them for a barbecue in a nearby park—of course, with pork sausages as the main attraction. And in December someone planted bacon rashers on the prayer mats in the Bankstown hospital prayer room, while Christmas cards containing bacon were sent to Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim Association.
But perhaps the strangest manifestation of the weaponisation of food is the moral panic around halal certification. The ‘boycott halal’ movement entered Australian public life as a social media campaign, became a slogan at Reclaim Australia protests and then crossed into mainstream politics when then Liberal senator Cory Bernardi succeeded in establishing a Senate inquiry into third-party certification of food. While the inquiry’s terms of reference also covered kosher certification and various health campaigns’ hallmarks of approval, most of the public attention and submissions received focused on the hazards (or otherwise) of halal certification.
The patriots movement denounces the halal certification of groceries with as much passion as they do other, more explicable fears. When I asked protestors at a Reclaim Australia rally to explain their ‘Stop Sharia Law!’ placards, they cited beheading and burqas but also complained that sharia had been smuggled into ‘our’ food in the form of halal certification. According to the anti-halal conspiracy theorists, the fees that companies pay in order to have their products halal certified are used to fund terrorism and amount to an Islamic tax on non-Muslim Australians. This language mirrors the campaign against kosher certification (also referred to as the ‘Jewish tax’ or the ‘kosher nostra’) by white supremacists in the United States. However, most anti-halal campaigners claim not to be concerned by the issue of kosher certification because they do not regard Judaism as posing a threat in the way that Islam is supposed to do.
The campaign against halal certification came as a shock to many Muslims, who were used to regarding food as a means to build bridges and soothe troubled nerves, rather than as yet another way in which we post a threat to Australian values. After all, improvements to the Australian diet are regularly cited as one of the benefits of multiculturalism, with wogs having rescued ‘mainstream Aussies’ from the monotony of the British diet. It’s by far the most popular item in the multiculturalism of consumption, some distance ahead of the full frontal nudity in European art house movies on SBS.
But as the Meat and Livestock Australia’s spring lamb advertisement illustrates, diversity is far more palatable when overseen by a perky white male. While most of the dialogue (not to mention the food) is provided by a brown male, the ad opens with Luke Jacobz (‘with a zee’) providing the seal of approval for diversity and closes with a shot of him sprawled contentedly in the foreground, still perky and still the most prominent figure against the backdrop of diverse minions.
This wasn’t enough for the disgruntled complainants to the Advertising Standards Board of Australia. ‘The very first thing the person says is both sexist and racist,’ one fumed. ‘The person points out that they are white and male saying that this adds to a lack of diversity. Pointing out someone’s race and gender in an advertisement and then denigrating such race or gender is both racist and sexist.’
The mere act of pointing out the race and gender of a white guy (perky or otherwise) is often regarded as a denigrating attack in itself, even though those of us who are not (presumptively cisgendered, heterosexual) white guys are routinely framed in terms of our racial and/or our gender and sexual identities in explicitly denigrating terms. And both food and diversity are regularly deployed to avoid any meaningful discussion of racism. As Luke Pearson from NITV has pointed out, a quick glance at the Meat and Livestock board of directors shows it to be dominated by white males (none of them perky). It’s far more straightforward to line up a diverse range of guests at a fictitious barbecue than it is to implement diversity in employment practices, let alone to critique the origins of the national day, which has formed the core of the company’s publicity campaigns for the past 12 years.
Neither the Senate inquiry into the third-party certification of food nor the complaints to the Advertising Standards Board provided much comfort to the ranting white men and women of Australia. The Senate inquiry recommended the introduction of a government-led halal certification scheme to replace the current piecemeal landscape of rival certifying bodies but found that ‘there is no direct link between halal certification in Australia and terrorism funding’ and that it did not force non-Muslim Australians to participate in a religious ritual. Some of the submissions made to the inquiry were withheld from public release due to their discriminatory content. Similarly, the Advertising Standards Board dismissed the case against the spring lamb campaign, finding that ‘overall the advertisement is inclusive and the humour is employed equally across all the races/ethnicities portrayed in the advertisement’.
However, the MLA’s next campaign sought to acknowledge the increasingly vocal campaign to change the date of Australia’s national day and to reinforce the brand’s association with diversity. In what director Paul Middleton described as ‘one of the proudest moments of my life and career’, the Meat and Livestock Association’s January 2017 advertisement was a vibrant display of nationalism that dared not speak its name. It depicted a convivial beach barbecue in which a group of Aboriginal Australians are joined by European explorers on tall ships, followed by wave after wave of settlers and migrants from around the world (including a cameo appearance by Sam Kekovich wearing Serbian national costume). The words ‘Australia Day’ are never spoken. Rather, Cathy Freeman asks ‘What’s the occasion?’ only to receive the reply, ‘Do we need one?’
Aboriginal journalist and party pooper Amy McQuire tweeted, ‘Wow what a way to sideline the invasion, massacres and theft that January 26th represents.’ Others joined her in complaining about the whitewashing of Australian history and the commercial exploitation of Aboriginal dispossession. At the other end of the political spectrum, Pauline Hanson commented that: ‘It’s bloody idiots out there, ratbags. It’s pretty sad when it’s basically shutting us down for being proud of who we are as Australian citizens.’ However, the advertisement received a rapturous reception from those who credited it with opening up a national conversation about Australian identity, as well as allowing Meat and Livestock Australia to broaden its appeal beyond its ageing traditional customer base.
The price of inclusion, then, is a willingness to be mocked by and alongside the dominant culture, preferably teamed with a commercial incentive for tolerance. It’s safe to assume that the lamb on show in the meat foundation ad would have been halal certified in consideration of the Muslim guests at the barbecue and the livestock industry’s South East Asian export market. WA Liberal MP Luke Simpkins, who had warned that ‘by having Australians unwittingly eating halal food, we are all one step down the path to conversion’, was defeated at the 2016 federal election by Australia’s first female Muslim member of parliament. However, that election also saw Pauline Hanson returned to parliament, alongside three other One Nation senators (one of those, Rod Culleton, has since left the party, and Senate)—all of whom of course regard halal food as a threat to Australia’s national security and values.
If nothing else, the Soldiers of Odin and their cupcakes provided me with an insight into an aspect of the anti-halal campaign that had always puzzled me: the descriptions of physical disgust at the thought of consuming ‘Muslim’ food. ‘Ethnic’ food and migrant lunch-boxes have of course long been stigmatised as repulsive and smelly, but this campaign was directed at mainstream products like Cadbury’s chocolates. I had never understood the testimonies of people who described their revulsion at discovering that a brand of food they had been eating for decades had ‘secretly’ become halal certified—even if the ingredients were exactly the same as they always had been. As one of the protestors at a Reclaim Australia rally told me, ‘It’s hidden inside the cheese packet! You can’t see it until you open it!’
What’s wrong with these people? I asked myself. It’s still the same cheese. But after shuddering at the thought of accepting a cupcake from the Soldiers of Odin, I could understand how the prospect of eating food that bore the label of an enemy ideology could induce a feeling of physical disgust. The crumpled plastic packaging showed that the soldiers had purchased their cupcakes at the supermarket, rather than baking them themselves or delegating the task to a female minion. They were the same cupcakes as the ones that I might buy myself, just as the halal-certified cheese was still the same cheese.
Except that the label makes all the difference. ‘I didn’t eat the fascist cupcakes,’ I assured my friends. ‘I should have asked whether they were halal certified.’ Leaving aside the fact that the cupcakes were supposedly designated as food for the homeless, there are sound tactical and ethical reasons to refrain from entering into gift transactions with one’s ideological foes. However, my response to the Soldiers of Odin’s cupcakes did not arise from my reading on the anthropology of gift-exchanges and reciprocity. It came from my gut. Like the anti-halal panic merchants, I had managed to identify an item of food with the qualities of the person who had handled it.
A few days before the Trumpocalypse was unleashed in the United States, I encountered the Soldiers of Odin again in a setting as idyllic as the park that had featured in the Meat and Livestock Foundation spring lamb advertisement. A program by St Vincent’s Health and CatholicCare to provide newly arrived refugees from Syria and Iraq with temporary housing in a disused section of an aged-care facility in Eltham provided far-right organisations with a pretext for yet another protest in defence of Australia’s citizens and values. Local residents responded to the so-called ‘Battle for Eltham’ by decorating the town with painted butterflies, anti-racist activists held a ‘Welcome to Eltham’ rally a short distance away, and the police turned out in force to the quiet, leafy neighbourhood.
As always, the patriots were in a belligerent mood. Mostly male, they favoured black combat jackets with Australian flag logos and T-shirts with logos such as ‘Stop the Rapeugees’. After a series of speeches denouncing Islam, multiculturalism, political correctness and ‘the left’, the organisers announced that some of the Marxists from the anti-racist rally had managed to break through the police lines. However, the ‘Marxists’ turned out to be the Soldiers of Odin marching into the park in military-style formation, with Australian flags held high above their heads and chants of ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi oi oi!’ as their battle cry.
It was a relief to retreat to the civilised surroundings of the local bookshop. As it happened, I’d first visited the Eltham Bookshop to speak on a panel about Muslims and multiculturalism and had enjoyed memorable conversations with its Indian-born owner Meera Goval and her family about the old days before Partition, about the senselessness of conflict and racism—and of course about food and cooking.
I had thought that the bookshop might have been closed for the day, given the warnings about possible violence and the high police presence in the town, but Meera’s husband Navin laughed. ‘We’re not going to close because of a bunch of fascists! Would you like a cup of tea?’
‘Oh, thank you! That would be wonderful.’
‘How do you like it?’
‘Milk and one sugar, thanks.’
‘And a bit of cardamom?’
Surrounded on all sides by books, I sipped the delicately scented milky brew. Indian and Pakistani friends and family have served me this Punjabi-style chai in locations ranging from London to Lahore to Melbourne. Tea, sugar, spice—over the centuries, the appetite for these commodities has powered and been powered by global trade routes, imperial conquest, the brutality of slave plantations and the mobility of migration. This particular cup of tea was infused with the qualities of the person who had prepared it and the location in which it was served. It was civilisation, it was healing, it was hope.
It was the best cup of tea that I have had in my entire life.