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Three thought provokers

These have come my way via Arts & Letters Daily.

1. "The Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan" by Nicholas Schmidle (Foreign Policy March 2009)

After eight years of a White House that often seemed blinkered by the threats posed by Pakistan, the Obama administration seems to grasp the severity of the myriad crises affecting the South Asian state. The media has followed suit and increased its presence and reporting, a trend confirmed by CNN’s decision to set up a bureau in Islamabad last year.

And yet, the uptick in coverage hasn’t necessarily clarified the who’s-doing-what-to-whom confusion in Pakistan. Some commentators continue to confuse the tribal areas with the North-West Frontier Province. And the word lashkars is used to describe all kinds of otherwise cross-purposed groups, some fighting the Taliban, some fighting India, and some fighting Shiites.

I admit, it’s not easy. I lived in Pakistan throughout all of 2006 and 2007 and only came to understand, say, the tribal breakdown in South Waziristan during my final days. So to save you the trouble of having to live in Pakistan for two years to differentiate between the Wazirs and the Mehsuds, the Frontier Corps and the Rangers, I’ve written an “idiot’s guide” that will hopefully clear some things up…

2. "Human Nature" by Mark Dowie (Guernica Magazine May 2009) — in the paradox and unexpected consequences department.

Is modern conservation linked with ethnic cleansing? In an excerpt from his new book, the investigative historian explores the concepts of wilderness and nature, and argues that the removal of aboriginal people from their homeland to create wilderness is a charade.

"One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is." —Rebecca Solnit, University of California…

3. "Fear masquerading as tolerance" by Christopher Caldwell (Prospect May 2009).

This article has resonance for Australia, but I suspect our experience with immigration and multiculturalism has been different from Europe’s in significant ways. Nonetheless I add this to paradox and unexpected consequences too.

…The Europe into which immigrants began arriving in the 1950s was reeling in horror from the second world war and preoccupied with building the institutions to forestall any repetition of it. Nato was the most important of these institutions. The EU was the most ambitious. The war supplied European thinkers with all their moral categories and benchmarks. Avoiding another explosion meant purging Europe’s individual countries of nationalism, with ‘‘nationalism’’ understood to include all vestiges of racism, militarism, and cultural chauvinism—but also patriotism, pride, and unseemly competitiveness. The singing of national anthems and the waving of national flags became, in some countries, the province only of skinheads and soccer hooligans.

Prompted by the US, which was addressing its own race problem at the time, and with the threat of communism concentrating their minds, Europeans began to articulate a code of ‘‘European values’’ such as individualism, democracy, freedom, and human rights. These values were never defined with much precision. Yet they seemed to permit social cohesion, and their embrace coincided with 60 years of peace.

Europe was an attractive place for immigrants. But attraction and admiration are not synonyms. The Ottoman empire and China both had a ‘‘power of attraction’’ for westerners in the 19th century. But it was not out of any admiration for their systems of government or their ideals of human rights that Europeans signed treaties with, settled in, and disrupted the national lives of those two countries. It was because they were rich places too weak to look out for themselves.

The EU was not dreamt up with immigrants in mind, but it wound up setting the rules under which they were welcomed. Postwar Europe was built on an intolerance of intolerance—a mindset that has been praised as anti-racism and anti-fascism, and ridiculed as political correctness. Our interest here is neither to defend it as common sense nor reject it as claptrap. It is to understand, first, what Europe was thinking when it welcomed immigrants in such numbers—something it would not have done at any previous moment in history—and, second, what grounds Europe had for dealing with newcomers in the often naive and overindulgent way it did…

 

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A rather odd argument?

I remember without much pleasure the Paul Sheehan of a decade or so ago when I thought of him as “the thinking person’s Pauline Hanson”. What he had to say then about people like M was distinctly warped and unhelpful. In recent times he has addressed himself rather often to the topic of Muslims. You may go back two years to see what I had to say about him then: Paul Sheehan again. (There’s a bit of a connection also – tangentially – to Jim Belshaw’s recent post Saturday Morning Musings – Muslim prayer rooms and the importance of checking one’s facts.)

Today Sheehan argues that Islamophobia is a fabrication.

I’ve been considering a request from a post-graduate student who wants to do a thesis on Islamophobia in Australia. She writes: "I am researching the topic Islamophobia, and I am trying to prove whether Islamophobia is based on religion fear or cultural fear of Islam."

What about proving that Islamophobia exists at all? That would be the logical, ethical and scholarly starting point. But it appears the outcome has already been decided. This would fit the prevailing orthodoxy in academia that the default position for Muslims in Australia is victim. The jargon, "Islamophobia" is part of this ideological construct. Literally, it means fear of Muslims.

I reflected on all this while on holiday in Malaysia and the Maldives last week. This was my twelfth visit to Muslim societies because I do not "fear" Muslims and do not "fear" Islam. Yes, there is ample evidence that Australians have become uneasy about Muslims in general and hostile in specific cases, but this is about cause and effect…

This is suspiciously like “some of my best friends are Jewish” particularly when it is followed by a litany of bad news stories about Aussie thugs and crims of a generally Middle Eastern or Muslim background, the cumulative effect of which must be distrust of such groups as a whole, despite his opening disclaimer.

I would agree that terms like “Islamophobe” and “racist” are sometimes tossed around thoughtlessly, but that does not prove in any way that there isn’t a strong irrational or visceral component in the reactions of some people which can fairly be termed a phobia. Nor, when you think about it, does Sheehan pursue cause and effect very far. Cause seems to end on the Islamic or Middle Eastern side of the equation every time. Strange, that.

I am of course not denying there is a problem; neither, I would suggest, do thoughtful Muslim Australians.

Update 31 March

Irfan Yusuf has a piece in today’s Sydney Morning Herald: Australian Muslims not a monolith. It appears it is coincidental, as he addresses Rev Fred Nile’s and Andrew Bolt’s unhelpful interventions rather than Paul Sheehan’s, but the cap fits.

…On the ABC’s Q&A program on Thursday, columnist Andrew Bolt spoke of "a rejectionist strand" that made Muslim immigration experience different to the experiences of Greek and Italian migrants. Again, the underlying assumptions are based on ignorance. To speak of a recent singular wave of Muslim migration is to engage in historical revisionism. Virtually all waves of migration incorporated an element of Muslims, including Europeans from Albania and the former Yugoslavia .

Some Muslims came as refugees, others as skilled or business migrants. Some have hardly been out of an immigration detention centre for a few years. Others are descended from Afghan cameleers who married indigenous women in the 19th century.

Yet, for some reason, Australian Muslims are treated as some kind of monolith. We hear pundits and self-serving religious leaders speak of a mythical entity called the "Muslim community". The idea that Muslims define themselves primarily by their religion sounds ridiculous when one considers that membership of the Lebanese Moslems Association is limited to adult males eligible for Lebanese citizenship. Yet what happens at this Lakemba mosque is somehow a reflection of 300,000-odd Australians who feel inclined to tick the "Muslim" box on their census forms.

Are such prejudices widespread? Could they lead to violence? It’s hard to say, though some comments published on popular blogs are not promising. Bolt’s blog carries comments calling for a "Carthaginian solution" to be adopted against Muslim countries. One comment this month ended with: "Drop the bomb, kill them all." Another spoke of "a number or an above average percentage in the Lebanese/Arab/Muslim of south-west Sydney who are short-tempered, relatively thick, criminal, and fundamentally violent".

And it took a complaint from an executive member of a Muslim religious body before this remark was removed: "Bombing them, back to the stone age where their politico-religious philosophy belongs, would indeed be the only thing they understand … Islam has no such thing as a peace treaty … You don’t negotiate with that, you shoot it."…

 

On race and policy: worth noting

Again I owe Arts & Letters Daily for pointing to Slate and Sudhir Venkatesh on How To Understand the Culture of Poverty, a review of More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson.

… Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families. It’s like Yankees vs. Mets, and for 40 years there has been no middle ground. (That the current generation of college students might not necessarily share this polarized view may augur an important shift in the years ahead.)

In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, promising to transcend the polarizing discourse on race in American society. (Sound familiar?) Wilson claims his analysis in his new book, titled More Than Just Race, will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race (heard this one before?)—but he is well aware that won’t happen without controversy…

More Than Just Race, which draws on Wilson’s earlier research as well as more recent studies, is yet more proof of his willingness to ignore political and academic pieties and his will to make social science relevant to the public. Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males’ disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion…

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer…

…Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and "jobs-first" agenda will be attractive to our president. Perhaps after addressing the financial mess, terrorism, the Iraq war, "AfPak," education, health care, and the climate, the administration will turn its attention to domestic poverty. However long that takes, it is alas safe to predict that ghetto poverty will still be a pressing national problem.

Despite the obviously US context of this – and do read the whole article – it is clear (to me at least) that some of our more vexing issues here in Australia would benefit from similar thinking.

 

Compass last night: Bridge Over the Wadi

logohand Given so much we see and read out of Israel/Palestine, it was good that Compass screened the documentary Bridge Over the Wadi last night. One reviewer writes:

… Although Hand in Hand is bi-lateral, this film isn’t. It’s Israeli. This will immediately scream ‘bias’ to some audiences. But hold on a minute – and I say that sincerely as I am the most sceptical of audiences on such matters. As an Israeli film, I still feel it bends over backwards to illustrate both sides. Often quite emotionally. And the sincerity of all concerned can be painfully moving to behold.

Views expressed are mostly of the children. Children educated in each other’s languages. Each other’s religious beliefs. Respecting their own culture, but partaking fully – yes, fully – in the opposite culture.

"I’m a total atheist," says one parent. "But I’m Jewish." She is not making some subtle academic point about the separation of Jewish culture and religion. As a parent who’s sent her child to Bridge over the Wadi school, she is already a ‘tolerant’ member of her community, and is consequently looked at askance by many of her neighbours. Yet her tolerance soon begins to waver. She exclaims that Arab parents must think she is "a sucker" for letting her Jewish kids say "Allah is great". We then hear from her the familiar, archetypal, emotional (if disingenuous) homilies about Exodus and about the Holocaust. She removes her child from school.

An Arab boy goes to lunch at his Jewish classmate’s home. The boys just want to relax. Grandma, however well meaningly, interrogates him over his ‘views’ on terrorists. He squirms. This is a five-year-old child being made to feel guilty. But it is normal and reasonable from the grandma’s perspective, with her look of fear and concern…

Bridge Over The Wadi packs a tremendous emotional punch. It doesn’t offer complete answers. It does show a significant attempt to move forward in reciprocal understanding rather than mutual narrow-mindedness. My main criticism is that it still seems a little smug. It fails to give any noticeable credit to the Initiatives on which the documentary is based. It simplifies facts. For instance, considering the vast lengths Hand In Hand go to for accuracy, it seems disrespectful that filmmakers round out the numbers of pupils – applications ‘doubled’ in the second year – they actually increased very significantly. Or, suffering the little children perhaps, should they have omitted to mention that Christianity is also taught alongside Islam and Judaism?

But Bridge Over The Wadi is an impressive piece. One I recommend. It succeeds in presenting issues in a captivating way, without assuming detailed prior knowledge of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

One of the extraordinary things about five-year-olds anywhere is their sense of discovery about the world. Their unaffected and unconscious grasp of what is before their eyes. When they put their cross-border friendships before age-old enmity, the reasoning out of their mouths puts the complex negotiations of adults to shame.

That really says it all, and I agree wholeheartedly.

See also my Vodpod on the right down the page.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2009 in best viewing 2009, current affairs, education, humanity, inspiration, interfaith, Israel, Middle East, multiculturalism, peace, pluralism, religion, TV

 

Nice, but hot

Over on the photoblog I mention it was 39C today – not what the news says, but that’s what it was out of the wind and in the sun on M’s balcony at noon. I was doing a brief house-sit, for reasons I won’t bother with here… But you can see one of his plants.

06feb 022

It was at least cool inside, and it did keep me away from the computer most of the day. 😉 (Today’s other posts went up via automatic pilot just after midnight last night.) Called at The Mine too.

06feb 002

No. Not too close… Photographing school boys is a no-no.

nephew Speaking of no longer school boys, English/ESL scored a visit via my grand-nephew’s (right) MySpace blog. He’d written last year (and I hadn’t seen this before):

With a new school year set to start today, I just thought that I should spread a little bit of cheer in the form of information. Yay!

HSC is a bitch, as we all know, and English is a subject everyone does, and it is a pain in the ass right across all levels. I, however have found a website that takes a little bit of the strain off the extensive English workload.

http://neilwhitfield.wordpress.com/

This website, hosted by former English HT of Sydney Boys HS (along with several other High Schools and Universities) and my Great Uncle…was one of the best resources I had when I was studying HSC English Advanced. But not only does this website cover English Advanced curricula, but ranges from ESL, English Standard, and even to Extension, and includes tips as to how to write proper essays, and guidlines on how to stick to answering the question.

I rate this website to anyone studying the HSC this year as it saved me a few times last year.

So Check it out!

Bookmark it!

Maybe it will save your HSC too…

Go Figure

No, I’m not linking him, but I was also pleased to read (and he is a Shire boy) a really impassioned statement on racism.

…I understand racism still exists. It is appalling that in today Australia, that barriers still exist. I for one am NOT a racist. However, I am an Australian. My heritage is that of English, Scottish, Mauritian, Aboriginal and a bunch of others. I have cousins of Malaysian descent. I was born in Australia and live my life as an Australian. I do not mingle in the business of others, and I certainly do not take offense nor exhibit prejudice to the heritage that of my own nor other around me.

I do, however, take offense to others who label me as a racist, BECAUSE I am what is ignorantly labelled as White Australian. It is an ugly term to be thrown around. My love for who I am and where I live and those who have lived before me does not make me a racist, nor does it make others like me racist. It is, in fact, those who use that term to label others who are the racist ones.

This needs to stop. We need to live together under the one flag. That is what the Australian Flag represents. It represents unity. It represents mutual respect…

Nothing to do with me, I assure you, all his own unaided thoughts. (I don’t see him all that often, though we just had a quick MSN chat in response to the English/ESL link, which I thanked him for.)

I was chuffed though.

Must correct my g-nephew: I was never H(ead) T(eacher) — just a dogsbody crew member, and of course ESL head, in the sense there was only ever one of us!

 

Friday intellectual spot 2

Not all that intellectual today, but two items of interest from the recent Arts & Letters Daily selections.

The first I immediately thought was another reactionary rant on its subject, but closer examination shows it is better than that. I was put off by the A&L’s intro:

Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. All in the name of progress… more»

Much better than that would lead you to expect. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.

The second is from The Atlantic Monthly: The End of White America? by Hua Hsu.

"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged. The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting. The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.

As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.

From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority? ….

Do make sure you read on. It becomes even more interesting, and it is very relevant to our thinking here in Australia, despite its US emphasis, and to our own past. In fact I’ve PDFed it too: Hua Hsu article. Of course there are major differences between the US and Australian experiences, but there is common ground in some of the thinking Hua Hsu alludes to.

Putting both articles together, you might say a 21st century Tom Buchanan would be running an ultra-Right blog! 😉

The relevance to our own past? See earlier entries here: That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” and Updating that hypothetical Year 10 lesson on "White Australia". My contention would be that in the context of the time, given what was “normal” thinking in much of the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been very surprising if Australia hadn’t had a “White Australia Policy”. We don’t have to agonise about it, because we have moved on since then. Sadly, not everyone has moved on, as we know, but generally speaking there has been a lot of progress, especially here in Australia.

It doesn’t hurt our international reputation though to be frank about our own past, while equally assertive about the progress that has been made; I’d go further and claim it is very desirable so to do, setting an excellent example to others less honest about their chequered pasts. That’s why I don’t accept Keith Windschuttle’s special pleading on the subject. Our White Australia Policy was indisputably racist, whatever else it may have been – protective of labour, concerned with Empire and with internal social cohesion, inspired by distance and vulnerability, and so on – all part of the mix too. But it is really not surprising that racist thinking shaped much of the rhetoric at the time.

Jim Belshaw and I have thrashed this one out several times in the past, as visiting those two posts will show. 🙂

 

Fascinating blogging and cultural phenomenon

Day after day – as all users of WordPress.com will have noticed – the top blog post tends to come from one Alvin Lim whose Coolsmurf Domain is dedicated to East Asian pop culture, Korean especially.

200901061535141Alvin is certainly prolific. The latest to hover at the top of the WordPress hit parade is 15-Year Old Park Seo Jin Semi-Nude Photoshoot Draws Controversy. The range of comments (also prolific) includes some that go beyond airheadedness. Here, of course, one immediately thinks of the Bill Henson controversy of 2008 and the panic ensuing which in turn has affected the Australian government’s approach to Internet censorship, a matter much debated, as mentioned in the previous post. One of the offending images is on the right; all rather Calvin Klein.

I should add that Alvin does not have to have words like “nude” in his titles to attract readers. Clearly Korean pop culture is a very big phenomenon.

I find all this fascinating as evidence both of the amazing diversity of our world and its opposite tendency towards homogenisation. Or perhaps of the hybrid world we are seeing emerge.

 
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Posted by on January 8, 2009 in Asian, blogging, generational change, multiculturalism, other blogs, pluralism, www