Following "Racism No Way": on Aussies, Skips, Anglos and other creatures of our imagination…

11 Jan

This is not the promised entry on how to teach the White Australia Policy to Year 10, but it is a contribution. It could even be a source of related reference material in approaching the topic in a way that does justice both to facing the unpleasantness squarely but without self-righteousness or ahistorical moral judgement — without the special pleading that people like Keith Windschuttle indulge in to prove, no pun intended, that black is white after all. (See for example Windschuttle’s essay Why Australia is not a racist country.)

I want to draw your attention not to a historian but to a writer — one some would argue is Australia’s greatest living writer: David Malouf.

In 2003 The Quarterly Essay (an excellent publication born out of informed resistance to Howardite orthodoxy but by no means blindly ideological) published Malouf’s extraordinarily perceptive and off-centre contribution to the debate about Australia and Australian values: Made in England: Australia’s English Heritage; the following issue had responses by Phillip Knightley (disappointingly perfunctory in this case), Morag Fraser, Larissa Behrendt, Alan Atkinson, James Curran, Sara Wills, and Gerard Windsor. Together these furnish a goldmine of thoughts. I found Malouf’s essay totally resonant with my own experience of Australia, even if one or two of the criticisms made by a few of the responders are well made. Most of the responders, including Aboriginal writer Behrendt, essentially confirmed the accuracy of Malouf’s deeply subjective but also deeply true reading of Australian life.

Sorry, none of these is online, but you can order back copies or go to a library. I recommend you do.

What you can read comes from Canada, where you may find the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium, a joint effort of John Ralston Saul and the Dominion Institute, an annual venue to honour two of Canada’s great political reformers and stimulate debate about the historical antecedents and future shape of Canadian democracy. The 2004 lecturer was David Malouf:

We sometimes assume that only in new societies, settler nations like Canada and Australia, is identity a matter of question and doubt. In fact these questions also arise in older places. I’m thinking of the united Germany and how, on a daily basis, whenever rights are under consideration or laws made, or an historic monument is to be restored or a bit of waste ground built on, there is always the need to take account of recent history; not in order to rewrite it — quite the contrary — but to see that the new thing continues some aspects of the past and makes a break with others.

Nations that have suffered defeat and occupation or have condoned or been the victim of tyranny, or of civil war or violent social division — England after 1649, the US after its civil war, more recently Chile, South Africa, Lebanon, Cambodia, ex-Yugoslavia and many more — have in the re-establishment of civil order within a unified and bonded nation to face bitter questions about crimes committed and rights violated before they can be reconstituted as ventures with a foreseeable future.

Australia too, I might just say, has a problem, still unresolved, with history and the need for reconciliation. Unlike Canada, we did not recognise prior occupation of the continent by indigenous people. Until very recently, we considered it, before we arrived, to have been terra nullius, no man’s land. We signed no treaties with native peoples, and till 1967, when a referendum settled the question, did not count them in the federated nation. They were, in 1901 when we drew up our Constitution, no more than an unhappy remnant. Their only chance at a life within the nation was to assimilate or get lost.

But with this admittedly shameful exception, our nation, like yours, does not have a past of violent disruption, of civil war or revolution or tyranny to deal with. Questions of identity in new countries such as ours are about who we are and what we are for, have to do with beginnings and ends. With the kind of worlds we have made through the give and take of daily intercourse, but even more through inventiveness and imagination, that might offer us a security and range of opportunities that are not common elsewhere…

Do continue reading that.

There are some relevant new videos in the VodPod on the right, varying in approach and seriousness but all interesting.

This is also interesting; I found it on the web but as a Word file; the only way I could refer you to it here was to save it as a PDF file: Review of “East by South: China in the Australian Imagination”.

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5 responses to “Following "Racism No Way": on Aussies, Skips, Anglos and other creatures of our imagination…

  1. Jim Belshaw

    January 11, 2008 at 7:24 pm

    Neil, I had not read the W. article before. I have only skimmed it. Given this, and on the surface, I think that he is correct. What are your objections to this particular piece?

  2. ninglun

    January 11, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    That he goes out of his way to avoid the elephant in the room, basically. The White Australia policy, whatever else it may have been, was as racist as the evolving policies in South Africa and elsewhere at the time. Looked at today the greatest thing we have done for our country’s reputation in the world is to have repudiated it. It seems to me quite untenable to argue that the policy was not racially discriminatory, the point Deakin was making in the extract I quote earlier, where in fact he was reassuring more radical racists (like those in The Bulletin) that the indirect policy of the “language test” was being adopted to avert complications with London and some other parts of the Empire where there were “British subjects” who were not white, but that the aim was ultimately racial homogeneity in Australia. Racial, not just cultural. That was and is racism. The fact this racism was commonplace at the time does not make it any less racism. Apologists for apartheid (and John Howard was one at the time) often argued that it wasn’t “really” racist, as it actually was for the good of the “natives”, totally well-intentioned. It is a bit rich when the definition of racism and racist policy is so narrowed that really only Adolf Hitler or the Ku Klux Klan fit the definition. We had (maybe) xenophobia, they do racism: we never have. I find that pathetic. It doesn’t even match the version of White Australia I was taught by Frank Allsopp in 1958 at SBHS. He didn’t use the word “racism” as no-one did, that I recall, but he did explain the dictation test to us and told us what it meant. I don’t imagine the one or two Colombo Plan students we had were all that impressed, but they of course were going home eventually and knew it. (There were lucky exceptions like Kamahl.) I was very naive of course; I can remember another Colombo Plan student at Sydney Uni, when I was around 17, started talking about “colonialism”; I had no idea what he was bitching about, and virtually told him “we” were doing it for his own good… But I digress.

    I do not disagree, I hasten to add, with absolutely every point Windschuttle makes, but this is a total ideologically inspired travesty:

    All that social democrats contributed to Harold Holt’s reforms was to impose on them the doctrine of multiculturalism, that is, a government program to encourage immigrant communities to preserve the cultures of their old countries, no matter how irreconcilable they might be with Australian mores. Fortunately, apart from a number of publicity-seeking spokesmen and the members of Middle Eastern subcultures in a few urban areas, the great majority of immigrants have shown little interest in such backward-looking ethnic compartmentalisation and have opted to join the mainstream.

    He trots out Quong Tart again as if that proves anything much, but we have been there, given the stories in Eric Rolls’s Sojourners, and the equation in so many minds of Chinese, leprosy, filth and vice, well covered by Rolls. I may examine the article more closely in a future post.

    I find Windschuttle’s work to be motivated by a rather perverse desire to say the opposite to what he conceives as his own past sins, or “political correctness”. I find him utterly lacking in objectivity. I do concede his list of other factors, I should add, but add them to racism, rather than seeing racism as thereby “disproven”. Sorry, but so to accept Windschuttle’s thesis is the ultimate in rewriting history according to one’s own wishful thinking. Just as in Aboriginal history he so defined what was “acceptable” evidence that he ended up reestablishing “victor history” in the place of the so-called “black armband.”

  3. Jim Belshaw

    January 12, 2008 at 7:05 am

    Interestingly, Neil, I have just read Blainey’s original black arm band speech for the first time. I agree with him.

    In all this Neil, and as you would agree, its a question of balance.Part of Blainey’s point in the original speech was that balance had been lost.

    The excerpt from Windschuttle that you quote is obviously a partisan expression of opinion.

    To begin with, it’s not historically correct to imply, as W. does, that migrants in the post war period were expected to give up their culture – I wrote a post on this drawing from an official 1949 film – quote from that post:

    “Yes, the film was set in the frame of populate or perish. But what I really noticed were the comments on Australian attitudes, what are now called values. A few examples:

    1. You may worship God in the way that seems fit for you

    2. You may read or write what you like

    3. You may preserve your culture

    Makes one think.”

    Moving forward, it is I think historically correct that the dismantling of the White Australia was largely complete by the time the Whitlam Government was elected. I would have to re-check my facts re developments during the Holt period itself, but I have no reason to doubt W.

    Now W argues that:

    “All that social democrats contributed to Harold Holt’s reforms was to impose on them the doctrine of multiculturalism, that is, a government program to encourage immigrant communities to preserve the cultures of their old countries, no matter how irreconcilable they might be with Australian mores.”

    Let’s deconstruct this a bit further.

    THe use of the term “social democrat” and the linkage to multiculturalism is, I think, suspect at two levels.

    First, I am not sure when the term social democrat first came into popular use as a political descriptor , but think that it was much later than the immediate period W. is talking about. W. is carrying a current war back into a past period. Still, it is an accurate descriptor of a set of views.

    Secondly, while Mr Grasby is often described as the father of multiculturalism, something that I will return to in a moment, it was during the period of the Fraser Government that the concept really became enshrined at an official level. Hardly social democratic in the way W. uses the term.

    Now before going on, a few quotes from Paul Heinrichs’
    April 24, 2005 obit of Mr Grasby – He wrote:

    “It was to Grassby’s eternal credit that, through political vision, his wit and some outrageous stunts, he turned this into a plus, helping to bury the discredited White Australia policy of the Menzies era.”

    And a little later:

    “Grassby’s policies began the transformation of an Anglo-centric, or at least Euro-centric Australia, to one that welcomed Asians and people from every part of the globe.

    When they got here, they were no longer pressed into jettisoning every bit of their culture to “assimilate” into the mainstream Anglo-Celtic community.”

    This is the type of a-historical rubbish that has become enshrined (and taught) and against which W. is campaigning.

    Moving on, and looking just at W.’s content rather than the language used,is it correct to suggest as W. implies that there was a change in approach, in the meaning attached to the word multiculturalism? If so, what was the form of the change?

    I think that the answer to the first question has to be yes.

    The multiculturalism arguments put forward in the 1977 cabinet material, for example, on the setting up of the SBS were a direct continuation of and would have been familiar to ministers of the Government in the pre-Whitlam period. Hardly suprising, since a number of ministers in that period were ministers in the previous period.

    The focus on recognising different cultures, on giving people access to their own cultures and information from home, was simply not new. More pronounced maybe simply because of the transformation of Australia from a society in which 95% were locally born to one in which a large proportion had immediate migrant connections.

    The difference between multiculturalism as expressed in the 1977 cabinet papers and the multicultural view expressed in Heinrichs’article lies in the explict rejection, the discreditng, of Australia’s past. H. and W. lie on the opposite ends of the same spectrum.

    Just to amplify a little.

    In 1977 official policy was based, as it had been in 67, 57 or 49, that there was a core Australian culture, a mainstream. Changing yes, but it was there. Multiculturalism as an ism rejected this, summarising the previous mainstream simply as “Anglo-celtic”, one stream among many.

    I should note that multiculturalism rose as a global term. However, the Australian usage of the term reflects local conditions and history. In particular, it reflects intellectual, cultural and political conflicts dating well back into Australia’s past. H is on side of the spectrum, W. on the other.

    This has become a very long and time consuming comment. I will have to leave things here for the moment.

  4. ninglun

    January 12, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Very thoughtful comment, Jim; I don’t have time to respond adequately now but will, perhaps even in a later post.

    Your point about a spectrum is of interest; I would argue that Australian multiculturalism in practice (whatever the politicians and mandarins promulgated) settled into a workable part of the spectrum that was neither H nor W, but rather developed in concrete day-to-day issues as they arose. Maybe more on that later, but that is certainly what I took from the various ESL conferences and workshops I attended where, naturally, multiculturalism was a core issue.

  5. Jim Belshaw

    January 12, 2008 at 8:14 am

    In broad terms I agree with your last point, Neil.

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