Should you find yourself this summer with spare time and an itch to understand the national culture, consider the work of Ghassan Hage. Were it not for the stubborn urging of a fellow Crikey contributor, I might never have read the book of an anthropologist, or his later short works, which make a question like, “Is Australia racist?” seem like a shaky foundation for debate.
“I have never found this question useful to ask let alone answer,” writes Hage, in the journal article, Continuity and Change in Australian Racism, a straightforward piece that can be understood by those of us not fluent in obscurantism. Hage suggests that racism cannot be reliably measured in individuals, and, heck, even if it could, researchers would still be left with the problem of deciding how many individual racists or actions are needed to declare an entire nation racist.
I remain unfamiliar with much of Hage’s work — loads of which is quite academic, ergo beyond me — but I get the beginner’s sense that his is a project that seeks to describe racism as a dynamic force. It’s not just an affliction or a misunderstanding, but a thing that cycles. Racism toward a particular cultural group is often expressed overtly (see the Cronulla Riots and their background) even as it is more “peacefully” absorbed into cultural and policy frameworks — see John Howard’s “comfortable and relaxed” Australia, and the general unquestioning ease with which many white Australian “free thinkers” determined that their Muslim sisters were in urgent need of rescue (from Muslim men, those being beaten on TV by our own non-violent Australian brothers.)
Islamophobia retains its hold on policy and many media outlets. But we’re much less likely to see a piece like this one — written in the “Where are the hypocrite feminists protesting Sharia?!” tradition The Australian still observes — in Fairfax of the present. Instead, the “left”, as this term is understood by News Corp, is engaged in a relaxed, comfortable and reputable form of racism, such as it was in the years immediately following 9/11. Back then, many “hypocrite feminists” argued forcefully for sanctions and war against the people of Afghanistan, reasoning that such carnage could only help the sisterhood.
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I don’t know what Hage would point to as the extreme or violent event that permits a rising fear of Chinese folks. Perhaps the violence of our big city housing auctions, reflected in Kelly O’Dwyer’s housing inquiry and articles like this one written in 2015 by News Corp columnist Susie O’Brien. O’Brien, who declares often in her article on the high price of the housing commodity that she is not a racist, said of Chinese money: “It’s a reality that is making housing unaffordable and unattainable to a growing number of local families.”
It’s not clear in the piece if O’Brien is angry with Chinese national investors or Australian owner-occupiers, as she mentions both “foreign buyers with cheque books” and the fact that her local shops are full of signs written in Chinese. Either way, her analysis makes up for what it lacks in market understanding with delusion. Foreign (Chinese) investment is not the problem. Investment itself is. Assets, like money, have no fatherland. For as long as banks can make great profit lending great sums, the housing price will remain greatly absurd.
The first violent conflict with Chinese-Australians was also prompted by a valuable commodity; in this case, gold. While we are unlikely, at least after the passing of Bill Leak, to see a cartoon as vile as the Bulletin’s 19th century Mongolian Octopus depicting Chinese avarice and cunning, we can sure read and see “reputable” accounts of those Inscrutable Chinese.
Sure, Four Corners should investigate the matter of foreign (by which we mean Chinese) influence in Australian elections, but one wonders if they’d add such a sinister soundtrack if questioning more global (by which we mean US) corporations. And, certainly, it’s healthy for Clive Hamilton, or anyone, to “pivot to Asia”, per Obama’s command, if that’s where our foreign and domestic policy truly originates. But it might be nice if equal passion were given to other influential “global” democracies, like that big one who maintains a spy hub here and whose currency dominates our every trade.
For the moment, The Australian need not fear that “left” apologists will rise to defend China, or Australians with Chinese heritage. They’re too busy denouncing the “one-party system” of the Chinese type, rather than the “indistinct party system” of the USA. Intimate business links with foreign political parties are only a problem, it seems, if that foreign party is the CCP.
While current concerns about the movement and influence of money, silencing of Chinese students, or the “silencing” that Clive Hamilton alleges he has experienced, may not be unfounded, we would do well to remember Hage’s view of a cycling racism. Just as we would do well to remember that those we consider not to be “foreign” deserve equal scrutiny.