Two weeks ago, if someone asked me what springs to mind at the mention of Cronulla, I’d have said their rugby league team, which has not won a flag in the Sydney/National rugby league competitions, despite forty years of trying.
But now Cronulla has topped the ladder worldwide. Amazingly, the global blog search website Technorati currently lists “Cronulla” as the top search request. It’s fairly rare for an Australian search term to be featured in the Top 10, let alone at Number 1. Sadly, this ‘achievement’ is as a result of something Australia should be very much ashamed of.
Alcohol-fuelled mob violence is not completely new in our country, but yesterday’s frenzy of hate at Cronulla in Sydney is rare in its size, with thousands of people reportedly involved. However, the ‘out and proud’ racism that appears to have infused the event makes it even more unsettling, and the use of the national flag and symbols of kitsch ‘Australiana’ to reinforce the violence and to act as a rallying point for the ‘real’ Aussies is close to nauseating.
I can’t help feeling that this is the sort of thing that can happen when people sense that it’s OK to be openly racist. Clearly, the images and reports from the event have struck a big chord with people from all perspectives. If you want a sense of the huge range of opinions and feelings it has elicited, do this search at Technorati. Many comments will have as much validity as most of the opinion pieces on the topic that will undoubtedly appear in the newspapers in the next few days.
To me, this sad and ugly event raises the question of what it means to be an Australian. No doubt many people of non-white background will be feeling a bit more uncomfortable and unsafe in our country as a result of Cronulla’s outbreak of white supremacist violence. But for me, and I suspect many others, it also inevitably creates apprehension about what our country may be moving towards. The division set up between ‘us and them’, or more specifically between ‘real’ Aussies and those who supposedly aren’t, has been voiced a lot of late as if it was some sort of truism.
Is it antecedence, contribution to the society, a feeling of belonging to a place, or just where we happen to find ourselves living which makes us Australian? One could argue this point forever but I have never put much stock in ancestry, or merely being born in a particular place, as being the sole or main marker of one’s true nationality. Likewise, relying on ethnicity isn’t much help. Everyone contributes to society to varying degrees and the feeling of belonging is only as good as the extension of enough goodwill and inclusiveness to allow all types of people to be accepted in our society.
But clearly for the yobbos and hoons on Cronulla’s beach, you can only be a ‘real’ Aussie if you are white, of Anglo-Celtic background and Christian (or at least not Muslim). You’ve clearly got to blend in and not be visibly or physically different in any way that deviates from the Anglo norm. If it wasn’t so depressingly tragic it would be funny, given that undoubtedly the families of some of the Lebanese people who were made the targets of the weekend’s violence have been in Australia for longer than the perpetrators’.
This sort of antagonism and targetting loses its impact if you have to actually tell the truth and accept that people of Lebanese descent are ‘real’ Australians too. Bending to the racist agenda that people who ‘aren’t white, aren’t right’ is unrealistic, offensive and only breeds further unrest and insecurity for all.
None of this is to dismiss the unacceptable nature of the aggression and violence from some Lebanese-Australian men at Cronulla the week before. Violence should be opposed, regardless of the skin colour of those who commit it. Hatred and incitement to violence based on ethnic, national, religious, gender, sexuality or other differences is particular dangerous, as it targets a wide group of people purely based on perceived difference. If this is seen as OK, it makes actual acts of violence far more likely, and also is more likely to set off a spiral of violence which can be very hard to halt.
The suggestion that these sorts of riots occur because of ‘softly-softly’ policing is just stupid – the usual refuge of irresponsible ‘tough on crime’ law & order politicians and commentators who have no real solutions to offer. Of course. effective police action against perpetrators is important. I noticed an AAP report of a comment by the state Green Party MP Lee Rhiannon the day before the riots saying that “rushing dozens of police to Cronulla is a public relations exercise, not a necessary police operation.” While overt displays of police force can sometimes exacerbate sensitive situations, it’s hard to see how anyone could blame the police for this outbreak, or indeed have expected them to prevent it. By the time social tensions have got to this stage, it is just ridiculous to expect the police to fix it.
It is a consequence of too many people turning a blind eye to reality, and it needs a long-term solution. Anyone who suggests that there isn’t an undercurrent of racism within Australia is either a fool, or is deliberately dog-whistling. This isn’t an anti-Australian comment, it is a recognition of an aspect of human nature which is present in almost all societies to varying degrees, which can break out unless consistent and strong leadership is shown at political and community level against those factors or people that inflame it, (and by definition, in support of those people and factors which counter it).
I believe the long-term solution has to involve multiculturalism. Not just the concept, but the political will to see the concept work as it should. There is an oft heard argument that multiculturalism leads to ghettos and that people, in the words of Pauline Hanson, “don’t assimilate”. I doubt assimilation ever worked as a policy or as a viable reality, but even if it once did, it certainly can’t these days. Forcing a monoculture on people is a form of oppression that is incompatible with democracy.
When you drill down into the arguments of those who blame multiculturalism for racist outburts, it usually ends up as little more than ‘we shouldn’t allow migrants here in the first place’, or only those who accept ‘our way of life’. Given that last year alone, Australia issued over three and a half million visitor and tourist visas, plus over 400 000 temporary residence visas and over 130 000 permanent residence visas, trying to make everyone here fit into some mythical uniform notion of ‘Australianess’ is simply absurd, and will just generate antagonism and resentment.
On the other hand, multiculturalism, when it is allowed to operate, encourages integration of groups into the wider community within a framework of shared values. As a policy, it sees the benefits to our society from gaining an active appreciation and involvement of other cultures and views. Diversity should be a by-word for democracy, and we might as well get used to it and encourage it. We do not live in a cultural vacuum, and Australia is growing and changing whether people like it or not. We are a country made up of many cultures and ethnicities and we all want to fit in, but if the weekend’s racist uprising is any indication we have a long hard struggle to ensure that we are all regarded as ‘real’ Aussies, and indeed ensuring that being a ‘real’ Aussie is something many of us would want to be anyway.
ELSEWHERE: As Technorati currently lists over 1700 English language blog posts that mention Cronulla (and disconcertingly about 700 in other languages) , including 200 in the last 10 hours, it’s a bit difficult to give a representative summary of other posts on this topic. I have a special interest in the wider social and political issues that situations like this throw up, as it touches on the same sorts of concerns I’ve expressed regarding excessive fear-mongering about terrorism – that we will just end up with a far more divided and unsafe society, where minorities (of all sorts) will feel more and more anxious, insecure and disconnected. However, for those of you that don’t have time to trawl through Technorati, here’s a few that I found of interest in one way or another.
Andrew Norton suggests it’s “the ugliest day in Sydney in 2005, but on the evidence so far it is not a portent of looming social disaster”;
the perceptions of one migrant to Australia about whether there is underlying racism in Australia;
A range of descriptions on Tim Blair’s site;
A eyewitness description from the cabbie’s blog, the Man of Lettuce ;
Glen Fuller provides more of an academic cultural studies viewpoint.
Sometimes the short personal entries are as insightful as the longer analytical ones. A couple of examples:
Rachel from Newcastle: “I have to say I am feeling disgusted to be an Australian at the moment”;
“My opinion, If it didn’t start in Cronulla, it was bound to start somewhere else. Boths sides are at Fault, everyone is to blame.”
From the mainstream media:
How the New York Times reported it; the view from the Scotsman; from the English language Al Jazeera site; this comment piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Paul Sheehan – who is usually vehemently anti-multiculturalism – gives some useful local and historical background.
And finally, to show that some racism isn’t underlying, but very much upfront, this from the Australia First website promoting last weekend’s gathering as “an effective demonstration of solidarity with the victims of anti-Australian race hate and violence”, urging participants to “observe restraint and offer self-defence only if attacked”. The day is labelled as a “rightful method of mass action, which will … cow the hatemongers”, and a day of “mobilisation of Australians against the terror of multiculturalist ideology and practise.”
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