Two decades ago, the late Ron Tandberg had a cartoon about the Howard government’s jacking up of the mandatory detention system, and the public support it was getting. Australia had just refused to recognise a new foreign government, I forget which, and the cartoon had two people walking past a newspaper flyer — in one of the old wire grids — saying that. “I don’t recognise my country either,” said one passerby to the other.
It was a measure of Tandberg’s genius that he could convey, with a half-dozen strokes in the speaker’s face, a mixture of pain, bewilderment and alienation that many of us were feeling at the time, as the last illusions that Australia — middle suburban Australia at least — was a basically progressive, easy-going country of reasonable people.
Tandberg’s genius, his humanity and political nous, came to mind last week on seeing Herald Sun cartoonist Mark Knight’s vicious racist cartoon, following Victorian transport minister Jacinta Allan’s ham-fisted attempt to ban Sky News (following its softball interview with fascist Blake Cottrell) from the blaring screens that have been foisted on us at rail stations. Knight’s cartoon featured Allan being interviewed on one of the city loop stations, while behind, a couple of dozen African youths trashed the joint and brawled.
To call these figures “African youth” is to dignify its racist caricature as realism. The white person in the foreground is rendered as full-bodied; the youf are black stick-figures, without faces. It could have come from an Alabama newspaper in 1910 (or Australia for that matter); pure Jim Crow-era fear and loathing of a faceless mass, using the leanness of African kids to represent them as less than human, wraiths among us.
The distress and anger this item prompted was not only due to the visceral impact a cartoon can have, but also because Mark Knight is usually seen as being one of News Corp’s more independent-minded thinkers, rarely travelling down these paths. There had also been signs that the Herald Sun was trying to return to being a “city” newspaper with multiple voices, in contrast to the cat-litter tray liner published in Sydney. Knight more than made up for his and the Hun’s with this one, which combined News Corp self-propaganda, with the worst sort of grinning, thickened racism.
Let’s go over the reasons why it’s racist again. Crime is still low in Victoria, but youth crime, when it occurs, is overwhelmingly white, and still overwhelmingly anglo. Mass white/anglo brawls — such as one in Torquay earlier this year — happen on a regular basis, but are little reported and photographed. Yes, African-Australian youth have a higher rate of crime relative to their population numbers, for a variety of reasons. But they are such a small percentage of the population that this makes no appreciable difference to your risk of being a victim of crime. If someone’s going to break a cartoonist’s pencils and tear their floppy beret as they walk to work, it’s likely to be a white dude, probably an anglo. And it’s not likely to happen at all.
News Corp has now committed itself to the precise and calibrated manufacture of anti-black racism on an industrial scale. Politically, it’s to try and win Matthew Guy the November 24 Victorian election. Commercially, they are trying to gain loyalty from an audience keen on getting a daily buzz from fear, resentment and hatred of “the other”. The uneasy alliance of conviction-racists and nihilist cynics who constitute its management are surrounded by a conducting body of journalists, a few malign, most weak and frightened that this will be their last media job.
Thus, there seems to me a failure of analysis in renewed bouts of “I feel ashamed” about my country, and discussion of the racist nature of “Australia”. Both are less than useful, because there is no one thing that “Australia” is. Great currents of racism flow through the polity, nation, state, society, and bounded continent that that word describes, but so too do progressive and anti-racist sentiments, and trying to identify an essential character of the place is actually depoliticising, because it gives the impression that nothing can be combatted.
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“Shame” etc, is stupidly deployed by progressives, even though it appeals to the same notions of an ideal Australia that the right calls on in the history and culture wars. A place is what it does and has done, good and bad. Tandberg’s cartoon all those years ago was as much about not “recognising” your country in its media, as in the place itself.
In the face of this new concerted, and sickeningly malign, attempt to tip whole cities into collective inter-racial violence that would not otherwise occur — and that’s where we’re going — we need to challenge simplistic notions that such media “reflect” opinion, focus wholly on how, in mass societies, opinion can be manufactured, and the places it comes out of blockaded and more.