Fight them on the beaches?

LAST week, the day after Sydney witnessed some of its worst racial violence in living memory, a woman in the affected suburb answered her doorbell only to find a pair of men, of “Middle Eastern appearance”, wishing to be let in. She demanded to know what they wanted. They reminded her that she had requested the installation of cable TV. They were there to install it.

The alarmed woman toyed with the idea of telling them she had changed her mind and was no longer interested in cable TV. But something told her that the risk of allowing the two men into her home was worth taking. She took it. The installation took longer than might have been expected, and she and the men, who were indeed of Lebanese origin, got talking. She fixed them sandwiches for lunch.

She subsequently told a friend that they were among the nicest people she had ever come across.

The incident underlines an obvious truth: that direct experience is an ideal means of banishing stereotypes. One must, of course, bear in mind the possibility of such encounters producing the reverse effect. However, a breadth of experience is a generally reliable antidote to prejudice.

It does not make any more sense to judge all people of “Middle Eastern appearance” on the basis of crass behaviour by small gangs of second-generation Lebanese Australians than it would to write off all Anglo-Celtic Australians as racists on the grounds that a few thousand of them came across like neo-Nazis on Sunday before last at Cronulla beach in the south of Sydney.

The gravity of the situation was brought home to Sydneysiders when the New South Wales (NSW) government advised them to stay away from the city’s beaches last weekend. The stricture was unprecedented anywhere in Australia. It would have caused concern at any time of year. At the height of summer, on the eve of the Christmas holiday, it was tantamount to sacrilege.

Yet hardly a voice was raised in protest. Even random searches by police and arbitrary checking of SMS messages on people’s mobile phones elicited no resistance, prompting one commentator to point out that Australians are, by and large, fairly obedient. That may be so, but the shock of what happened ten days ago, and the swirling rumours that followed those two nights of violence, may also have had something to do with it.

The trigger for the Cronulla riot was evidently an attack the previous day on a couple of lifesavers – who are posted on all popular beaches, mainly to assist swimmers who find themselves out of their depth – allegedly by a bunch of young Lebanese men. Details of the incident are murky, but it sufficed to provoke an organized backlash.

Quite a few of the 5,000 or so mostly white Australians who gathered in Cronulla, summoned by a spate of SMS messages, sported T-shirts bearing racist slogans. Others had scrawled similar messages – “We grew here, you flew here” was the politest – across their bare chests. Still others had wrapped themselves in the Australian flag. They sang the national anthem and “Waltzing Matilda” as they ranted and raved and cast around for potential victims – who, not surprisingly, were rather thin on the ground that day.

A young girl got her headscarf ripped off. A few lads required police protection. Unlike most other parts of Sydney, Cronulla is largely an Anglo-Celtic preserve. When news of the events there reached suburbs with a high Lebanese concentration, a convoy of cars, packed with young men and rudimentary weapons, headed south, looking for a confrontation. Fortunately, they were waylaid and disarmed by the police. Some clashes did erupt at other beaches, and there were a few incendiary attacks on churches over the next couple of days, conveniently substantiating the “clash of civilizations” thesis that has inevitably been trotted out by interested parties.

A substantial proportion of Australians of Lebanese origin are Christian – including the highly erudite governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir. The Muslims are, by and large, more recent immigrants, having left Lebanon in the wake of the civil war. The extent to which political Islam fascinates the younger generation, mostly born and brought up in Australia, is uncertain; but the Islamists among them are hardly likely to be regular beachgoers. If anything, those seen as troublemakers seem to take their cultural cues from the world of American hip-hop.

One of the most persistent charges against them relates to the intimidation and harassment of young women, especially but not only at beaches. It is not an altogether frivolous accusation. But it’s ridiculous to extrapolate from that the assumption that unacceptable behaviour of this variety is restricted to a particular ethnic group, or that all members of that ethnic group are somehow complicit in it.

The same goes, of course, for overt exhibitions of racism by the dominant ethnic group. At the same time it’s worth noting that this isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. Until 50 years or so ago, governments officially adhered to a White Australia policy: immigration was restricted to those of a particular colour of skin. Even so, there was scope for discrimination and Irish Catholics bore the brunt of it. In the postwar period, the policy was relaxed – and the children of Greek and Italian immigrants grew up with epithets such as “wog” being flung at them.

The Chinese and the Vietnamese went through even worse experiences. During far-right politician Pauline Hanson’s ascendancy half a dozen years ago, the incidence of abuse and even physical violence against Asians increased sharply. Since 2001 it has been fashionable to demonize Arabs and Muslims, with the government of John Howard doing its bit to cultivate disharmony, distrust and fear.

There can be little question that Australia is in many ways a multiracial society: Melbourne has the largest concentration of Greeks outside Athens, and Sydney for the most part is a refreshingly diverse metropolis. Yet there are those who frown upon the multiculturalism that this diversity inevitably portends. It’s un-Australian, they contend. Anyone who comes to this country is duty-bound, they say, to adhere to the dominant culture. Never mind that it’s not very clear what that involves, apart from sun-worship by the seaside and the consumption of copious quantities of beer.

If that sounds facetious, so does the absurd demand for uniformity, which in turn is related to Australia’s identity crisis as a Western outpost overshadowed by the Asian behemoth. A decade or so ago it was beginning to get comfortable about its geography. The advent of Howard led to a backflip: since 2001 he has been in friendly competition with Tony Blair for the favours of the lord and master of the Anglosphere. More recently Howard has made more of an effort to improve relations with his nation’s Asian neighbours, but it is unlikely many Asian governments have forgotten his characterisation of Australia’s role as deputy sheriff to the US.

There is something profoundly pathetic about Australia’s eagerness to participate in other nations’ imperialist misadventures, beginning with the First World War: the rout at Gallipoli in Turkey is somehow supposed to have forged the national character, and it is not particularly surprising that this myth resurfaced at Cronulla, with some of the louts referring to themselves as Anzacs. Fifty years later, Australia more or less invited itself to South Vietnam. It now maintains a militarily irrelevant token presence in occupied Iraq, more or less unnoticed by anyone other than the US.

In 1996, at the outset of his reign – which has lasted so long primarily because of the incompetence of the opposition Labor Party and the impotence of its reactionary leadership – Howard announced that he wanted Australia to be relaxed and comfortable. It is anything but that, although the prime minister has had his way all along.

The events in Cronulla served as a rallying call for all manner of racists. Talkback radio, which boasts some of the most obnoxious personalities in Australian media, was first off the mark. The Murdoch press wasn’t far behind, trotting out all manner of disgraced academics and pseudo-intellectuals to push the line that multiculturalism is a disaster and to imply that the White Australia policy ought never have to been abandoned. One academic has gone as far as to recommend that everyone who does not “fit in” should be offered a one-off payment to leave Australia – including those who have never known any other home.

The dozens of white supremacists who have been arrested in recent days with a variety of weaponry would wholeheartedly concur with that. Weapons have also been confiscated from “Lebos”, and on Monday the NSW government said that it was safe for everyone to return to the beaches. It added that hundreds of extra police would patrol the beaches until the end of January.

Hopefully that will prevent the summer from turning bloody. But throwing police at the problem means tackling the symptoms rather than the causes. A relaxed and comfortable Australia – in every respect, not just the Cronulla context – requires a concerted effort at the community level, supported by every tier of government. There are certainly enough people of goodwill in every sphere of life who would be willing to undertake such a task, but regime change may turn out to be a prerequisite for extracting anything more than empty rhetoric from Canberra.

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