Don Dale fire disturbance riot
Don Dale youth detention facility (IMAGE credit: AAP/NEDA VANOVAC)

When Four Corners aired its expose of the systemised torture and brutality at the Don Dale detention centre two weeks ago, the cry went up across the land: “Is this who we are?” “This is not who we are.”

When, a week later, Bill Leak published a cartoon whose rendering and structure clearly implied that all Aboriginal fathers, every one of them, were alky deadbeats, the cry went up: “This is not who we are.” When, days later, The Guardian released the Nauru files detailing the systematic psychological torture and brutalisation of children and adults, the cry went up: “This is not …”

There’s a point at which such liberal insistence on talking up the better side of our national being becomes something else: the repeated deletion of emails containing bad news. How many more clues do you need as to our character? We’re a white settler capitalist society, born in dispossession and genocide, and with a willingness to damn the excluded as unpersons, outside the civil circle. From the mid-19th century, there’s been a liberal impulse to counter this trend (as well as a reactive backward trend), and from the mid-1960s, a fully progressive impulse. We may have started from a low base, many Australians tell themselves, but we have been heading in the right direction for a long time.

But that progressive trend — once it appeared to have achieved dominance in the debate — instituted a sort of forgetting. Many people forgot, or, if younger, did not know, what had been fought against, what the status quo was. The positive was accentuated, the negative faded into the background. Thus, people celebrate the 1967 Aboriginal citizenship referendum, the huge positive vote, but are unaware of the conditions that preceded it: a literal apartheid system that made it impossible for Aboriginal people to leave their region without state permission, as one example among dozens.

This is a cultural-political undertow in several senses. Not only has it always been there, resistant to the dominant direction, but it becomes less visible the more that elite classes come to dominate media representations, political participation and the like. Society does not move “forward” — towards a rights-based society of equality between different groups — at one speed. Not every section of every class moves together, and some reject the idea that it is forward movement at all.

That would appear to explain the disjuncture between the cascading revelations of the past several weeks, and the actions taken or not taken. Adam Giles can turn the Don Dale revelations into the notion of a personal attack against him by the ABC, because he knows (or is hoping he knows) his audience: not those down south, but (mostly) white Territorians, who see post-liberal, brutal treatment of young offenders as the necessary hand of the state in a place where there’s a lot of running wild. Peter Dutton can shrug off the revelations in the Nauru files as part of asylum seekers’ alleged confabulation, because there is a large audience who require no more than a pretext to turn their mind away from it.

Thus in both these cases, people who are revolted and ashamed by these things ask what sort of brutality has to occur before there is a mass revulsion that politicians can’t ignore. They’re making a category error. Systems of brutalisation and torture are established in such a way that, for supporters of such, the victim, the brutalised is always to blame. They made us do it, with their X, Y, Z. We had no alternative. This is all the more so when a humanitarian counter-claim is used — such as drownings at sea — to license a “lesser evil”.

It isn’t wrong per se to commit a lesser evil to head off the possibility of a greater one occurring — but it can quickly get out of control. This has obviously occurred in the case of Manus and Nauru. Physical offshoring has served as a pretext for mental offshoring — and that licenses unlimited brutality.

Does anyone now really doubt that practically anything could happen on these places and the conscience of a whole section of Australia would not be disturbed? What if tomorrow we found a pit with the bodies of five asylum seekers murdered by guards? Some passive supporters of the system would be shocked out of their complacency. But there would be a substantial body of people who would simply take it in their stride and ask what else the “illegals” really thought they could expect. It would be done with a shrug of the shoulder. That gesture can cover a very large body count.

“Offshoring” non-citizens is pretty easy. Dealing with the Don Dale revelations was tougher, because it was being done to our own. Most Australians are relatively indifferent to the fate of indigenous people, but they aren’t actively hateful. The near-unanimity of the response to Don Dale — down south and east anyway — threatened to spill over into a wider discussion of indigenous incarceration and the reasons for such. Consciously or otherwise, many of the usual suspects scrambled to find a way to neutralise it.

Then the “debate” shifted from how the state treats kids under its care to how they got to be there in the first place. Once again there was the search for an “out”, a way to easily disown any sense of connection with brutalised and state-abused children. Hence the double-whammy of Bill Leak’s cartoon, and the nasty and clearly racist character of the drawing. The racism lies not merely in switching the subject, but in the style of portrayal. The triptych of cop, wayward youth and father had a statuesque, neoclassical style of portrayal.

This was not intended as one Aboriginal father, once, forgetting his child’s name (!). The visual rhetoric clearly conveyed that this was all Aboriginal fathers, that the drawing was not realist, but symbolic and metaphorical. Quite possibly Leak didn’t intend to convey this — a suspicion reinforced by his sad little attempt to attach himself to the “#indigenousdads” campaign, which responded to the cartoon. It seems more a product of the person Leak has become — sycophantic to his right-wing masters, and possessed of an empty contrarianism.

The Leak cartoon led out a week or so of white identity drivel, from Leyonhjelm’s reaction to a forthright bit of free speech by Mark Kenny to the “Party of Freedom” invading the Gosford Anglican church and inevitably to Pauline Hanson waving a placard about methods of defecation (a story I had to check three times to ensure that it wasn’t an Onion-style joke gone viral).

What is characteristic of this fire-cracker reaction is how weak it is, how quickly it becomes a festival of neurotic self-pity. All very amusing, and a reminder of how weak and fragmented the right is. But it covers a deeper truth. The brutality within our system and our culture cannot speak its own name because its ideology — racial superiority — can no longer be attested to proudly. The belief that we had got past it is a comforting illusion. Yes, this is who we are, or part of it, in any case.

Rather than fighting it in the name of a fantasy Australia that we would like the place to be, we have to fight it in the knowledge that we are in a long transition, and the least important part of the struggle is whether or not being Australian makes us feel “ashamed”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey