Haldon Street, Lakemba

Last week, National Review, a conservative American magazine, sent writer Kevin Williamson on a visit to East St. Louis, Illinois, a predominantly black area. Williamson’s report began:

“‘Hey, hey craaaaaacka! Cracka! White devil! F*** you, white devil!’ The guy looks remarkably like Snoop Dogg: skinny enough for a Vogue advertisement, lean-faced with a wry expression, long braids. He glances slyly from side to side, making sure his audience is taking all this in, before raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge. Luckily for me, he’s more like a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg, a few inches shy of four feet high, probably about nine years old, and his mom — I assume she’s his mom — is looking at me with an expression that is a complex blend of embarrassment, pity, and amusement, as though to say: ‘Kids say the darnedest things, do they not, white devil?'”

Behold the genre we might call “White Man on Safari”, where the story consists as much of the writer’s bravery in briefly mingling with brown people (he’s in the territory of the primates, don’t you know?!) as anything he actually reveals (hold the front page: “Child is rude!”).

Yesterday, The Daily Telegraph ran its own “Explorer in the Jungle” piece, when it sent right-wing provocateur Tim Blair to — gasp! — visit Lakemba.

As expeditions go, it was a doozy.

“We’re for Sydney,” boasts the Tele (and it is all for a “Fair Go For The West”) — but its sometime opinion editor seems to have never previously encountered a suburb just 30 minutes from the CBD.

When he makes the hazardous trek to (as the headline put it) “take a look inside Sydney’s Muslim Land”, our correspondent installs himself in the Lakemba Hotel, where unnamed locals and the pub staff voice the usual barroom complaints about Muslims, who — get this! — don’t drink enough to keep the place running.

Earlier this year, the Tele was hyperventilating about alcohol-fuelled violence. In Lakemba, however, the absence of boozers signifies an Attack on Our Way of Life.

Across the road from the pub, Blair finds an Islamic bookshop (possibly visible from the bar window), where he’s shocked — shocked! — to uncover some prejudiced and sexist religious tracts.

“The problem for conservative populists is that the racial and ethnic divisions on which they depend are fading in comparison to the yawning gulf between political insiders and everyone else.”

Maybe for another scoop, he could check out the Bible — say, Deuteronomy 25:11-12, where the foundation text of Western culture explains: “When men fight with one another, and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him, and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand.”

Christianity, you so crazy!

And that’s it. A pub closing, a few nutty pamphlets and some photos of signs in Arabic: clearly, the caliphate’s upon us.

It’s fascinating to watch the right-wing press drum up a campaign for Tony Abbott’s new security legislation. How do you convince people in the safest country in the world to accept unprecedented powers for secret police agencies? If you’ve been agitating for freedom from section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and the nanny state, how do you justify George Brandis’ men accessing all of Australia’s metadata?

So The Australian runs pompous meditations on the clash of civilisations and other neocon faves — and the Tele does scare pieces about Muslamic ray guns in the city’s south-west.

The bigotry of all this goes without saying. Every newspaper in Australia would quite rightfully run a mile rather than send some old white guy to take photos of shops and interview local barflies for a feature on the “Judeification” of, say, Melbourne’s St Kilda.

Muslims, though, seem to be fair game.

But the “White Man on Safari” pieces also hint at the limits of right-wing populism. In the United States, Fox News and the Tea Party have hitched the Right’s wagon to a declining demographic of older white people. Or, to put it another way, the Republicans have oriented to a constituency of angry granddads, even as the country as a whole becomes more youthful and diverse. Likewise in Australia, where Cory Bernardi can sell books to a readership aghast at religions other than Christianity, but Tony Abbott needs to placate ethnic community organisations over 18C.

The problem for conservative populists is that the racial and ethnic divisions on which they depend are fading in comparison to the yawning gulf between political insiders and everyone else.

In the culture war skirmishes from which he makes his bread and butter, Blair can pose as Joe Sixpack, channeling the outrage of plain-speaking Aussies about political correctness gone mad. But in the real world, where no one cares about that stuff, he’s just another wealthy white columnist amazed at a suburb in which ordinary people are living out their lives.

Peter Fray

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