Shorten on Australians of the Year letter on Refugees

The best that can be said for Bill Shorten’s reply (on IA, November 24, 2017 ) to the open letter to the PM and Opposition Leader on Manus Island from several former Australians of the year is that it could have been worse. On the plus side, the fact that he replied at all, agreeing that Australia has a moral responsibility to care for the asylum-seekers held in its detention centres, could be read as a grudging admission that Labor bears some responsibility for the appalling developments in the centres on Manus and Nauru, although he took care not to say so directly. In fact, to reply by publishing a letter Independent Australia was a low risk strategy for the ALP. It ensured that his letter would be noticed by most readers of social media, who could be assumed to be more sympathetic to the plight of asylum-seekers than those who view the world mainly through the filters of mainstream media. While the original letter was widely publicised, Shorten’s reply was hardly noticed by mainstream media and said little that could be used against him by Coalition propagandists, News Ltd or commercial broadcasters

While indirectly admitting responsibility, the reply itself recycles the tired Australian pretence that our surplus refugees can and should be resettled in other countries, giving the Coalition little to complain about. No risk there! Yet, the point I want to pick up appears towards the end of Shorten’s reply:

Australia can, and should, do more to respond to the unprecedented levels of irregular global migration that has resulted from conflict and environmental factors in other parts of the world

I agree, but this reference to unprecedented levels of irregular global migration has important implications and there is nothing in Shorten’s letter to indicate that he or the party he leads have taken these implications on board. First, if current levels of irregular migration really are unprecedented, it will be much harder than in the past for Australian Governments to find third countries willing and able to take surplus asylum-seekers off our hands. Labor and Australian Governments more generally should abandon the pretence that this can be done quickly and easily.

Second, the appearance of unprecedented levels of irregular global migration suggests that the 1951 Refugee Convention, designed to respond to European conditions at the time, as I discussed on IA a few weeks ago (November 5, 2017), is now seriously out of date and should be assigned to a convenient rubbish bin. This means that Labor and Australian Governments should stop using the Convention’s outdated definition of a refugee as a bureaucratic hurdle that asylum-seekers must overcome or be turned away. The key passage of this definition identifies a refugee as someone who

owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out- side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (Article 1)

In effect, we use the 1951 Convention as an excuse for refusing to admit asylum-seekers who don’t fit neatly into its definition. Its long past time that we stopped using this definition to distinguish ‘genuine’ refugees from other, allegedly less deserving, asylum-seekers, as if the latter were fakes who arrive at our borders to dishonestly seek asylum.

And it gets worse. The Convention also requires that participating states “shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees…” (Article 31). This looks promising since it appears at first sight to suggest that we are required to treat asylum-seekers decently, – that is, not to penalise them. The catch here is that, since the geo-political conditions leading up to the 1951 Convention no longer exist, many, perhaps most, of those requesting asylum may not be refugees as defined by Article 1. In that case, they are not protected by Article 31 of the 1951 Convention. Australia’s practice has been to lock them away while we process their applications – while, in other words, we check their refugee status. Since many can be expected to not satisfy the 1951 definition, there is no governmental sense of urgency about processing them.

None of this mandates harsh treatment of asylum-seekers.Yet, the fear that they may be ripping us off has normally dominated Australian official responses to individual cases. Accordingly, asylum-seekers are presumed guilty until proven innocent, which could easily take a very long time, and our Governments happily label them ‘illegal’. We treat them with precisely the same spirit of generosity with which we expect Centrelink, and now NDIS, to treat Australian welfare recipients, albeit with more individually destructive consequences.

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Cancelling a House of Representatives sitting week

I make no claim to special expertise about Australia’s parliament but I write this because, like many of us, I find it difficult to understand how an Australian PM could imagine himself able to cancel a scheduled sitting week of the House of Representatives and how he could get away with it. After his announcement, there was media speculation about the reasons for Turnbull’s decision, much of it suggesting that his motive was basically one of fear, specifically a fear of losing a House vote over a banking Royal Commission, the minimum wage or the ongoing, government-created disaster on Manus. Yet, there seems to have been little informed discussion about what what in our system of government enables him or any other PM to unilaterally cancel a scheduled House sitting week

Since Australia’s system of government is often said to be modelled on that of the UK, in spite of important differences (we have an elected upper house and the UK does not), it is worth recalling the recent decision of the UK’s Supreme Court that Mrs May’s Tory Government could not formally commence the Brexit process without putting the matter to a vote of Parliament. The Court, in effect, ruled in favour of the sovereignty of Parliament, not of the Government appointed by a parliamentary majority.

Of course, Britain’s Brexit process and the cancellation of a few scheduled House sitting days are hardly equivalent, but Turnbull’s & May’s attempts to bypass the House of Reps & Parliament respectively display an impatience with, if not a contempt for, due process. So, what gave Turnbull the power to bypass the House (Mrs May, the Court decided, did not have that power)? The UK Supreme Court’s decision suggests that Turnbull’s small change may have overridden the sovereignty of Parliament, albeit on a smaller, less significant, scale than Theresa May’s Tories.

The Australian Constitution, which has been in the news a lot lately, does not even mention the office of Prime Minister or the Cabinet. So, whatever gives the PM the power to cancel a sitting week, it certainly is not the Constitution. But what of the House of Reps’ Standing Orders? These have changed over the years but the most recent set, as at 13 September 2016, does not give a PM this power either. Standing orders 29 & 30 give the House itself the capacity to determine its schedule of sitting days while enabling the schedule to be changed by a vote of the House or, when the House is not sitting, by the Speaker. Unlike Speakers of the British House of Commons in Britain, Australian Speakers are normally active members of their party and continue to attend party meetings – but they are nevertheless expected to perform the role of presiding officer in a more or less independent fashion.

The confusing usage of the word independent in Australian politics deserves a full discussion of its own. We might begin by noting, for example, that the NSW ICAC, Independent Commission Against Corruption, often touted as a model for a Commonwealth anti-corruption body, is funded by a vote of the NSW Parliament, in effect, by the NSW Government – a fact that, on many understandings of the term, might seem to compromise its independence. Yet, it is sufficient for the moment, simply to note the tension between active party membership and independence. If the cancellation of a scheduled sitting week simply followed a request from the Government, the Speaker’s Office clearly has questions to answer

Of course, the Constitution and Standing Orders do not entirely determine what happens in the House: custom & practice are also important . In practice, the House usually follows, without debate, pretty much the same schedule from one year to the next, with variations to make room for Easter, the date of which varies according to an esoteric Christian calculation that takes no account of Australian political conditions. This special allowance for Christian Holy Days is puzzling given that, according to our most recent Census, only a little over 50% of Australians identify with any version of Christianity while 30% identify themselves as ‘no religion’, many more than the 22.6% who identify as Catholic, Australia’s largest Christian sect. Fortunately, we have no need to worry about avoiding Christmas, which falls in the middle of our Summer and is sacred in a different, barely religious sense. No allowance is made for days sacred to other religions represented in Australia, not to mention the closet knot of devil worshippers who are reputed to convene around midnight in Peter Dutton’s office.

My guess is that the Speaker’s office normally draws up a proposed schedule for the year and consults with the Government & Opposition’s managers of House business and perhaps a few others before reaching a final decision. Governments are usually able to arrange for additional sitting days to get through what they regard as urgent business – again usually without debate. So, custom & practice do allow limited flexibility. Yets, to the best of my knowledge, there is no Australian precedent for a PM unilaterally cancelling a scheduled sitting period.

Turnbull’s decision to shut down a scheduled sitting week of the House of Reps is unprecedented and so, too, is the Speaker and the Department of Parliamentary Services’ decision to go along with it. Does this mean that Australia is moving away from the familiar combination of Legislature, Executive, & Judiciary, effectively relegating the Legislature to a secondary role? I sincerely hope not. To object to the PM’s attempt to bypass the House of Representatives is not to defend the way the House normally operates. There are many things wrong with what passes for Australian Democracy but stealthy, piecemeal reform by a Tory Government is not a promising way forward.

Concentration camp somewhere else

an earlier, slightly different version was published on IndependentAustralis, 22 November 2017.
While I was a junior academic in England, my Head of Department published a short collection of his own poetry, Earthquake Somewhere Else, with the title piece lamenting the fact that while we worried about a few deaths in road or railway accidents, news of thousands dying in an earthquake somewhere else – I think it was Iran – left most of us untouched. As so often happens with moralising writers, this author, John Barron Mays, a sociology Professor and minor British poet, managed to suggest that, because he was sensitive to this discrepancy, he was ethically superior to most of his readers and other compatriots.

Mays’ poem made such an impression on me that I remember little more than its title and its moralising tone. I was reminded of the latter by some of the twitter responses that followed my last posting on IA ( November 5, 2017). For example, the following tweet, asserted on the basis of no evidence – except, perhaps, the author’s impressions – attracted many likes

“unfortunate but its the reality, people care more abt their phones than others lives. When did we become so apathetic to human suffering?”

Here the word ‘unfortunate’ suggests that the author of this tweet and those who liked it do not count themselves among the apathetic people who care less about others’ lives than their own phones. Good for them! – but I think this tweeter’s judgement of other Australians may be both too harsh and politically counterproductive.

It is easy to get the wrong impression about the feelings of our fellow Australians. For example a headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (4 June, 2014) told us that 71% of Australians supported asylum-seeker boat turn-backs. This does look pretty bleak, but bear in mind that the poll tells us only how people responded to one of several questions in a single survey.

We all know that answers to survey questions depend on the specific wording of the question and the context in which it is asked, particularly on what was said before the question is put. What if, for example, respondents were told right before the question “ Australia introduced the turn-back policy, in part, to discourage asylum-seekers from embarking on the dangerous sea-journey from Indonesia” – a statement that may well be misleading in important respects but is not entirely false? This seems intended to dispose respondents to say they support the policy

It is not difficult to find poll results from recent years that suggest a rather different view of Australian attitudes. Moreover careful studies, which rarely produce such exciting headlines, conducted by Andrew Markus over several years for the Scanlon Foundation show that only a minority of Australians are consistently prejudiced against immigrants ( the results are carefully discussed in David Marr’s Quarterly Essay 65, The White Queen: One Nation and the politics of race).

Do Australians really care more about their phones than the lives of the asylum-seekers locked away on Manus? I really don’t know, but I’d be very surprised. My guess, based only on the evidence of my own impressions, is that a poll on the relative importance of our phones and the lives of asylum-seekers would show only a small minority coming down on the side of their phones. Mike Seccombe, writing in The Saturday Paper (11 November 2017), quotes Greens Leader Richard Di Natale:
“I’ve always maintained that when you drill down on specific issues, people are on the progressive side.”

This seems to me about right, except that you may sometimes have to drill down a very long way.

Why do I say the tweeters judgement of other Australians quoted earlier is not only harsh but counter-productive? The general point is that alienating people you want on your side is not a good look. To say that someone cares more about their phones than the suffering of others would be seen by many as offensive, even if it describes exactly how they behave, just as it would be offensive in Australia today to call them stupid, even if they persist in saying stupid things, or racist, even if they are.

This last issue is complicated. White Australians of my generation will have grown up in contexts in which casual racism was commonplace among English-speaking whites. Most of us learned later in life that we should not be or not be seen to be racist – which was mostly a matter of watching what you say. Others will have learned this lesson at school or at home. The complication here is that there are class and educational dimensions, not do much in the lesson itself, but rather in the extent to which it has been taken on board. A minority of white Australians have not learned how to watch what they say – that is, to dissimulate – and resent the idea that they should have to.

For all his faults, John Howard was a master at not talking in explicitly racist terms. He said nothing that could be pinned down as obviously racist when he described One Nation’s supporters as

a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that in different ways they had been passed over.

Rather than endorsing what are often thought to be their racist sentiments or criticising them for feeling that way, Howard simply implied that he knew how they felt and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. He was trying to win their support. Similarly, when he rejected the ‘black armband’ view of Australian history Howard did not deny that massacres of indigenous people too place inAustralian history, only that this history should not be defined by these massacres – suggesting, in effect, that, even if there were massacres, they were no big deal, but not saying so directly

Compare Howard’s cautious approach to those he regarded as his party’s actual or potential working class supporters to the Left’s treatment of these same working class voters when they accused Howard of ‘dog-whistling’. This accusation draws on the image of the dogwhistle once commonly used in sheep herding. It was designed to sound at a frequency, 20,000Hz or more, which would be inaudible to normal human ears but would be noticed by dogs, whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high-frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for a few splitting headaches, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly.

To accuse Howard of dog-whistling is thus to say that Howard’s working class supporters voted his way without thinking – not a flattering image. The accusation that people care more about their phones than the lives of others is not much better as a way of winning them over

What is a refugee?

The shambolic, destructive closure of Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island and New Zealand’s offer to take some of the survivors off our hands offer yet another opportunity to reconsider Australia’s refugee regime.

So, what exactly is a refugee? After noting that the term was first used to refer to Protestants fleeing religious persecution in seventeenth & eighteenth century France, the Oxford English Dictionary identifies the following meaning as one that is in extended use today:
A person who has been forced to leave his or her home and seek refuge elsewhere, esp. in a foreign country, from war, religious persecution, political troubles, the effects of a natural disaster, etc.; a displaced person.
There are two elements here: someone who (1) has been forced to leave home for reasons ranging from war through persecution to natural disaster; and (2) is now seeking refuge elsewhere. However, in today’s Australia, the more specific definition provided by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is probably the most prominent: it says that a refugee is

any person who… As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out-side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country (Article 1.A(2))

This differs from the OED definition, first, in the specific time-frame, before 1951, and second in the reference to a “well-founded fear,” neither of which figure in the OED definition. The reference to 1951 reflects the fact that the Refugee Convention was designed to acknowledge the widespread European failure to provide for refugees, mostly Jewish, from the Nazis or for those displaced by the changes to national boundaries that followed the war. Article 1B specifies that “events occurring before 1 January 1951” should be taken to mean “events occurring in Europe before 1 January 1951”; or “events occurring in Europe or elsewhere before 1 January 1951”. Signatory sates were asked to choose which interpretation they would opt for. European refugees are central here. Care for anyone else appears to be optional

Its hard not to notice the Eurocentric wording of the Convention. The “or elsewhere” reads like the product of non-European states’ efforts to get round the original focus on Europe. At the time of the Convention, there were many displaced persons in other parts of the world, notably in Palestine, South Asia (following partition) and China (from the civil war). Palestine is covered by another part of Article 1: “This Convention shall not apply to persons who are at present receiving from organs or agencies of the United Nations other than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protection or assistance” (1D) – an introductory note from the UNHCR gives the example of refugees from Palestine who fall under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Here, Palestinian and other refugees from the Near East are not Europe’s problem! Refugees from South Asia & China may be covered by the Convention’s “or elsewhere”, otherwise they don’t rate a mention.

After a few years, it became clear that any remaining refugees from Nazi oppression and Europe’s post-WW2 chaos were declining in numbers. The reference to 1951 was finally removed by a 1967 Protocol, which left “well-founded fear…etc..” still in place. As David Marr suggested some years ago (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/22/iillegals-refugees-immigration-australia) this part of the Convention’s definition appears to have been written more as an apologetic gesture towards those who fled Nazi persecution and post-war chaos and who Western states so conspicuously failed than as a comprehensive definition of those who might need support in the future. Yet governments, in Australia & throughout the world have read it as the latter. In fact, the Convention’s definition tells signatory states who they are obliged to offer asylum – nothing more. Migrants who do not fall under the definition are people to whom Australia is not obliged by the Refugee Convention to provide asylum.The Convention does not say that we have no responsibilities for theme nor does it give us licence to malign or penalise them – for example, by asserting they are ‘economic refugees’ or not ‘genuine refugees’ or to incarcerate them in conditions that reflect, at best, Australia’s traditionally mean-spirited treatment of welfare recipients. We now have the absurd situation in which ABF officials are left to decide whether undocumented migrants fear of persecution is well-founded. Isn’t it enough that someone is sufficiently afraid to up sticks and run?

In fact, this part of the 1951 definition has always been incomplete. As the OED definition recognises, fear of persecution has never been the only reason people flee their homeland; also important are war and natural disasters. We should bear in mind that ‘natural disasters’ may result from, or be exacerbated by, government policies – as they were in famines in nineteenth century Ireland, in Bengal under British rule, 1930s USSR & the American dust-bowl disaster. Moreover, in dry regions and many Pacific Islands, even small changes – a shift from very little rainfall to none at all, increasing salinization of groundwater or changes to the level of the water-table – can render existing agricultural/pastoral practices unviable. Here, New Zealand’s decision to recognise climate change as producing a legitimate category of asylum-seeker should be a welcome model for Australia.

Its high time that Australians faced up to the world in which we live and in which, for the foreseeable future, there will be many people fleeing droughts, floods, wars and other conditions they regard as intolerable. There is no excuse for not respecting their judgements on such matters. For the moment, Australia can decide who to allow in and who to keep out, but this fortunate condition is unlikely to last. Meanwhile, we should, at least, recognise that our responsibilities to others are not exhausted by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

[An earlier version of this post appeared on Independent Australia, Sunday, November 5, 2017]

Moral Panic

Moral Panic 101: safe schools and new folk devils
(another version of this paper appeared in Independent Australia 24 October 2017: https://independentaustralia.net/politics/politics-display/moral-panic-101-safe-schools-and-the-new-folk-devils,10860)

Many social scientists of an older generation will have felt a warm glow at the appearance of Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101. Its title reminds us of important battles over academic & public discussion of deviants at a time when, as now, Universities, and Social Science faculties, schools and departments within them, were under pressure to show that they could made useful contributions to public policy. While Marshall McLuhan had used the term Moral Panic to refer to a pervasive sense of fear, its most familiar usage and the closely associated concept of Folk Devil were introduced by a few junior academics in British Universities, notably Jock Young and Stan Cohen, who put their careers at risk by arguing that significant policy concerns relating to policing and social control were responses, not so much to what was happening in the wider society but rather to what we would now call media ‘beat-ups.’

The British story of Moral Panic – the American story is rather different, while the Australian story draws on both – begins in Clacton in Essex, the closest seaside resort east of London, over the rain-soaked 1964 Easter weekend, when groups of bored young people, collectively known as mods & rockers, deprived of their anticipated beaches, fought in the wet streets frightening bystanders and damaging public property – a few seats and lamp-posts – in the process. Mods/rockers fights resumed a few weeks later at a number of seaside resorts in the South of England.

Mods, for the most part, got around on scooters while rockers used motor bikes. They dressed differently if only because most bikes available in Britain at the time leaked oil onto their riders’ clothing and scooters did not: rockers wore jeans & leathers; mods dressed more conventionally and generally looked smarter.

Media reports of their clashes referred to riots and represented both groups, along with young people in general, as threats to public safety, a view reinforced by ill-informed pronouncements by an Anglican Archbishop, police and politicians. Moral Panic, in this case, was not based on a total fabrication: groups of young people did indeed fight in Clacton over Easter 1964 and in other resorts a few weeks later. Yet, the scale of the violence and the threat posed to innocent bystanders and to public order more generally were vastly exaggerated.

The Moral Panic here was the fear that Britain’s youth were getting out of control, a fear both promoted and reported as fact by the media and by important public figures. The Folk Devils were the mods & rockers who were represented as threatening public order and social values. One important implication of the Cohen/Young approach was seen to be that, rather than allowing media beat-ups or politicians, to define their research problems, social scientists would do better to investigate how social problems came to be identified, if not actively fabricated, both in the media and by politicians.

While they would now be seen as rather conservative, Cohen & Young’s arguments were widely interpreted in their time as a radical critique of current policing practices and of conservative thinking in the fields of criminology and sociology. This critique was soon given a distinctly Gramscian twist in Stuart Hall’s powerful analyses of Thatcherism & neoliberalism. Many of its supporters hoped, naively perhaps, that this critique would reduce the impact of, if not put an end to, Moral Panics around what was seen as deviant behaviour and the associated stigmatisation of the alleged deviants – and, for a time, it did seem that police chiefs and other public figures were becoming a little more circumspect in their pronouncements.

In the longer term, however, the impact of this critique is not so clear. What many of us read as critical of current thinking and practices could also, with a bit of effort, be read as an admirably clear guide to action, showing would-be perpetrators what they need to do to mobilise a successful panic.

Subsequently, police chiefs and senior clergy have become more imaginative in the threats they claim to identify while the mainstream media appear to have fewer qualms and political parties continue desperately promoting Moral Panics, particularly around law and order, in the hope of electoral advantage.

Overall, leaving aside wildly successful campaigns to demonise asylum-seekers and Muslims, Moral Panics involving coordinated action on a national scale between police, clergy, politicians & media organisations seem relatively uncommon, although, in the Australian context, this observation should be qualified in at least two ways: first, the existence of distinct state police forces makes coordinated perpetration of panic more difficult to achieve in Australia than in the more centralised British system; second, it is hard not to notice the contemporary international Moral Panic promoting fear of Islamic radicalisation, which has taken hold right across Australian jurisdictions. Like the British mods/rockers Panic of the 1960s, this last has not been built entirely out of nothing: there have been documented cases of young Muslims becoming radicalised. Yet, again as in 1960s Britain, the extent and significance of this phenomenon have been greatly exaggerated.

We should also note a number of more or less successful Australian attempts to conjure up Moral Panics: John Howard’s campaigns against the ‘black-armband’ view of Australian history; the children overboard affair; the Coalition’s valiant efforts to demonise latte-sipping elites and trades union activists and its unscrupulous use of security as an excuse for granting draconian powers to police and security agencies; Labor’s effective Mediscare campaign during the 1916 election; the current No campaign’s efforts to demonise supporters of marriage equality, representing them as intolerant extremists; and, of course, the anti ‘safe schools’ campaign’s attempts, admirably dissected in Benjamin Law’s Moral Panic 101, to convince us that safety for LGBTQI kids would make schools unsafe for heterosexuals.

As a recovering sociologist, the first things. I looked for in Moral Panic 101 were references to the Cohen/Young material, the work of their successors and the rather different American history of the idea. Since he was not writing primarily for an academic audience, Benjamin Law decided, not unreasonably, to follow a different route by providing an angry but careful account of the scandalous campaign against safe schools. My only worry about his impressive discussion concerns a point noted earlier, that a good, clear examination of an only partially successful Moral Panic campaign might provide future panic perpetrators with a practical guide to action and what they might do to be more effective in future, exactly as the 101 in his title suggests.

Two essays on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers

1.Never Walk Away (a slightly different version was published on the Independent Australia website, 27 July 1917: https://independentaustralia.net/australia/australia-display/never-walk-away,10526)

Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!

Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.

There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.

Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.

Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.

Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.

While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.

The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.

Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.

If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.

2 A Comment on Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’ (final version forthcoming in The Australian Journal of Politics and History)

The core of Paul Muldoon’s ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy’i is a subtle and sophisticated reading of Plato’s tale of the last days of Socrates which he uses it to throw light on the dilemma facing Australians who despair of their government’s asylum-seeker policy. While I do not dispute his commentary on Socrates, its bearing on the position of those who reject Australia’s asylum-seeker policies is less straightforward than Muldoon suggests. I argue first, that the parallel he draws between the situations of the latter and Plato’s Socrates is too big a stretch, and second, more specifically that, while both the Athens of Plato’s Socrates and contemporary Australia present their citizens with dilemmas of democratic citizenship, the two dilemmas are so radically distinct as to render problematic any attempt to draw lessons for one from the other.

From opposition to Asylum-seeker Policy to Plato’s Socrates

Ever since Schiller’s 1795 ‘On naïve and sentimental poetry’,ii Western commentators have derived lessons for their own time from simplified accounts of Western classical antiquity.iii Paul Muldoon performs a sophisticated variation on this manoeuvre, taking classical Athens more seriously than most. His argument begins by identifying opposition to Australian asylum-seeker policies with a kind of cosmopolitanism and noting that cosmopolitans may be tempted by an irresponsible abandonment of political engagement, both of which lead him to focus on Socrates’ engagement as an alienated citizen with Athenian laws and other Athenian citizens. His paper ‘explores how “we cosmopolitans” [among whom he clearly includes himself] might make effective use of our citizenship in circumstances where our views about “aliens” … put us at risk of being treated as enemies of “the people”’. He questions, in particular, ‘the way humanitarians,’ [i.e. cosmopolitans], have distanced themselves from government policy [through] acts of moral dissent’, acts that ‘incline towards irresponsibility and are no substitute for an ongoing interrogation of the ethos of the democratic community.’ In effect, Muldoon ‘calls for an explicitly political philosophy which… seeks to isolate and amplify those strains within the local political culture that open out to general moral claims.’iv

I agree that it would be a mistake for those opposed to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies to withdraw from political engagement but would not invoke responsibility in the Arendtian sense to make the point.v

Arendt’s political thinking draws on an idealised image of the Greek polis, as governed by the collective action of its citizens, to argue, inter alia, that the citizens are collectively and individually responsible for its actions.vi Muldoon endorses her view ‘that citizens remain “collectively responsible” for things done in the name of the political community [and further that] for the future generations who stand in judgement, it will not be the moral stance we take as individuals, but the political action we undertake as a collective, that will really truly matter.’vii Here, two observations are called for: first, for many of those who object to what our Government is doing to asylum-seekers today the judgement of future generations is a secondary concern; and, second, if what matters is our collective action, it seems perverse to treat one individual, Socrates, as an exemplar

Moreover, while it is easy to understand why many political theorists might wish to frame their opposition to offshore detention in universalistic terms, we might wonder how far Australians who oppose such policies are motivated by ‘general moral claims’ of the kind Muldoon has in mind rather than by more straightforward feelings of sympathy and disgust – i.e. by principles that are both particularistic and strongly held.

Some might even appeal to ‘general moral claims’ of a different order than those Muldoon cites – claims that apply, for example, to states rather than to individual humans. A case in point would be the claim that states should abide by rules they have voluntarily agreed to follow – like the rule contained in the 1951 Refugee Convention and many subsequent Conventions that individuals seeking asylum should not be penalised for doing so – or else publicly withdraw from the agreement. Some of us have been angered by the sight of political leaders – who, in other contexts, seem happy enough to criticise others in the name of a rules-based international order – complaining about UNHCR rules-based criticisms of Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers as if it were some kind of interference in Australia’s internal affairs. Such criticism could easily be avoided by our withdrawal from the Refugee Convention.

Muldoon’s appeal to ‘general moral claims’ introduces the topic that takes up the bulk of his paper concerning ‘one of the greatest exemplars of moral individualism in the Western tradition: Socrates …. [whose] example helps to clarify the stakes of principled dissent and to provide an insight into the role that universal moral philosophy can play in relation to local democratic politics.” Muldoon portrays Socrates as both exemplary individualist and conformist, who stands against the customs of his community, yet still follows its laws. The final step leading up to Muldoon’s principal focus is to portray opposition to asylum-seeker policies as acts of moral dissent against the ethos of a ‘general public [that] has either willingly followed or actively encouraged this hard-line approach to asylum-seekers,’ thereby establishing a parallel with Socratesviii

This last point deserves more careful consideration than I have space for here. Suffice it to say first, that media representations of popular opinion are normally less than entirely reliable and second, that, while Muldoon cites evidence to support his negative view of Australians’ perceptions of asylum-seekers,ix it is not hard to find evidence to the contrary, that Australian attitudes towards outsiders may be more welcoming and the ethos of its general public more complex than Muldoon’s opening discussion suggestsx

We should be wary of reading opposition to Australia’s asylum-seeker policies as a courageous act of moral dissent from majority opinion – a reading that serves to legitimise Muldoon’s treatment of Plato’s Socrates as a pertinent exemplar. On June 29, 2016 The Guardian reported a poll purporting to show that a majority of Australians at the time believed that refugees arriving by boat should be allowed to settle in Australia.xi Dissent from Government asylum-seeker policies cannot always be seen as dissent from the views of one’s fellow citizens – although this would not stop influential media outlets and senior politicians from portraying it as an anti-democratic elitism.

Democratic politics in Socrates’ Athens and today’s Australia

However, my principle concern is to dispute Muldoon’s use of Socrates to provide insights into the role Australian dissidents could ‘play in relation to local democratic politics’. If Socrates is hardly an appropriate role model for contemporary citizens who reject their government’s policies, neither is the Athens of Socrates’ time a fruitful model for understanding the Governments of contemporary democratic states. Australia and other contemporary democratic states have little in common with Socrates’ Athens apart from being open to awkward rhetorical appeals to popular rule & popular responsibility – appeals that are central to both Arendt’s & Jasper’s rather different discussions of individual & collective responsibility.xii

At first sight, contemporary democracies seem far removed from what we might understand as government by the people. They are, for the most part, governed by a mixture of elected representatives and unelected public servants operating, at least in part, within institutional arrangements – constitutional monarchy, a quasi-independent judiciary, police and military apparatuses that are nominally under civilian control – inherited from an even less democratic past. In today’s democracies, the people play an important part in their own government, mainly through electing representatives, but in what Madison calls ‘their collective capacity’, they are kept well away from the actual work of government.xiii

In practice, of course, something similar might be said about Socrates’ Athens.xiv Like Socrates himself, many citizens took no part in the activities of the Assembly or Council and the practical work of government was performed by slaves and by citizens chosen by lot, the latter ensuring that many citizens had the experience both of ruling and being ruled, and that democratic Athens was not a case of government by the one or by the few – although what remained of its aristocracy was more influential than those who regard Athens as an exemplary democracy would find entirely comfortable. It would be an exaggeration to say that the people of Athens in ‘their collective capacity’ actually governed themselves – or that they were collectively responsible for the actions of the polis.

Yet, if both contemporary democracies and Socrates’ Athens deviate significantly from the ideal image of the people acting ‘in their collective capacity’ they do so in their own ways and neither is a useful model for understanding the workings of the other. While the same ideal image underlies Arendt’s account – and also, I suspect, Muldoon’s – of collective responsibility, just as it underlies the long history of Western opposition to democracy,xv it has little to offer our understanding of the workings of contemporary democracies – or of Socrates’ Athens – or the role of disaffected citizens within them.

If today’s Australians hardly enjoy collective responsibility in Arendt’s sense for the conduct of their Government, neither are dissidents who, having despaired of their fellow citizens, give up on them exactly irresponsible although they do risk losing any chance of making a difference

Notes

1. Paul Muldoon, 2017, ‘Contesting Australian Asylum Policy: Political Alienation, Socratic Citizenship, and Cosmopolitan Critique’ AJPH: 63, 2, 2017, pp.238-253

11. F. von Schiller. “On Naive and Sentimental Poetry” in Walter Hinderer & Daniel O. Dahlstrom (eds.) Friedrich Schiller: Essays: (London, Bloomsbury 1993) pp.179-201. Schiller was by no means the first to return to the Greeks: cf E.M.Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (Cambridge, CUP 2012)

111. See my “‘The Greeks had a Word for It’: the polis as political metaphor”, Thesis Eleven 40, 1995: 119 – 132.

iv. Contesting…, p. 239 first emphasis added

v. As I have argued elsewhere: https://independentaustralia.net/australia/australia-display/never-walk-away,10526

vi. The Greeks…

vii. Contesting… p. 242 Note Arendt’s distinction : ‘What I am driving at … is a sharper dividing line between political (collective) responsibility, on the one side, and moral and/or legal (personal) guilt, on the other’ (‘Collective Responsibility’, in James Bernauer (ed) Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, (Dordrecht, Martinus Nijhoff) pp. 43-50, at p. 46). In her view, guilt is a moral and/or legal category, whereas responsibility is political.

viii. Contesting…, pp. 239, 40

ix. Cf, Daniel Flitton, ‘Asylum seeker boat turn-backs supported by 71% in poll’ Sydney Morning Herald, June 4, 2014

x. See, for example, Andrew Markus, 2001, Race, John Howard and the Remaking of Australia (Allen & Unwin, Sydney) and his annual (since 2007) Mapping Social Cohesion Reports (Scanlon Foundation with Monash University & The Australian Multicultural Foundation, Carlton, Vic) and David Marr’s 2017 discussion in ‘The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race’, Quarterly Essay 65, pp10f

xi. 2016 was a year of intense debate on the legitimacy of Australia’a offshore detention, culminating in The Guardian’s release of a huge cache of leaked incident reports from the Nauru detention centre, in August. Muldoon hardly refers to the journalism of this period & his last dated reference cites the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 2016.

xii. Arendt, “Collective Responsibility” ; Jaspers, Karl, 1961, The Question of German Guilt, E.B. Ashton (trans.), New York: Capricorn.

x111. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay 2003 [1787] The Federalist Papers (Bantam, New York) #63. cf my ‘Representation Ingrafted upon Democracy’. Democratization 7 (2) 2000: 1-18

xiv. See Christopher Blackwell’s useful discussion, “Athenian Democracy: a brief overview,” in Adriaan Lanni, ed., “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context” (Center for Hellenic Studies On-line Discussion Series). Republished in C.W. Blackwell, ed., Dēmos: Classical Athenian Democracy (A. Mahoney and R. Scaife, eds., The Stoa: a consortium for electronic publication in the humanities http://www.stoa.org])

xv. Jennifer Tolbert Roberts, 1997, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton University Press)

Another Balfour Declaration

Abstract: Arthur James Balfour is remembered today as the British Foreign Secretary who signed a letter, dated November2, 1917, to Baron Rothschild. Generally known as the Balfour declaration, this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’ and added the qualification ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’. In Chapter One of Orientalism, Edward Said examines another, somewhat earlier and less familiar declaration, this time in the course of a speech on June 13, 1910 to the House of Commons. Here Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’1

At a time when what many of us know about Balfour and other historical figures is largely derived from secondary sources, I argue that, while it might seem unexceptional, Said’s insistence on what they have actually said operates as a salutary form of criticism.

Edward Said begins ‘Knowing the Oriental’, the first chapter of his Orientalism by commenting on a speech to the British House of Commons, 13 June 1910, by Arthur James Balfour, a former Conservative Prime Minister and still a senior figure in the Party. Balfour spoke of ‘the problems with which we [the British Government] have to deal in Egypt’, problems that he described as belonging ‘ to a wholly different category’ than those ‘affecting the isle of Wight or the West Riding of Yorkshire’.2 Rather than cite problems that arise from the difference in size between Egypt and these parts of Britain or in their distance from London, Balfour focuses on the fact, as he sees it, that in the history of the East,

you never find traces of self-government. All their great centuries – and they have been very great [unlike, we might add, Yorkshire and the Isle of White] – have been passed under despotisms, under absolute government. All their great contributions to civilisation – and they have been very great – have been made under that form of government….[T]he working government which we have taken upon ourselves in Egypt and elsewhere is not a work worthy of a philosopher… it is the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour3

Balfour insists that the Egyptians have benefited from British rule

Experience shows that they have got under [our rule] far better government than… they have ever had before, and which not only is a benefit to them, but is undoubtedly a benefit to the whole of the civilised West.

Balfour says nothing about how far the Egyptians appreciate what British rule has done for them. On this point, Said notes, it does not occur to him to let the Egyptians speak for themselves, since presumably any Egyptians who speak out are more likely to be agitators who wish “to raise difficulties” than good natives prepared to overlook the ‘”difficulties” of foreign domination’ (p.33)

Following this opening discussion, Balfour’s name does not appear much in the text, except in a few references to ‘the Balfour declaration’. So, we might ask, why would Said start his book with Lord Balfour? One possible answer is that Balfour’s name would already be known to many of Said’s readers as that of the British Foreign Secretary who signed an infamous letter, dated 2 November, 1917, to Baron Rothschild, a prominent member of the British Jewish community who was expected to forward the letter to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It was, in effect, a letter to British and thence to international Zionism. Generally known as the Balfour Declaration,4 this letter affirmed that the British government viewed ‘with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’. The letter adds a qualificatio: ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country’.

Balfour’s earlier speech to the British Parliament about British rule in Egypt, with its striking declarative quality, was written only a few years before its more famous counterpart. Said’s examination of this speech gives his readers who know of Balfour only as signatory of his eponymous Declaration an important clue about how he may have understood the rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. It was clear to Balfour that, like most other peoples of the East and unlike those of Yorkshire and other parts of Britain, they had no understanding of self-government. Except for a few agitators, they would not know what to do with self-government if it were offered to them. What their rights and their interests are is not a matter to be decided by people who have no understanding of what might be involved in governing themselves.

On this reading, Said’s discussion of Bafour’s 1910 speech performs an important critical function by informing his readers what Balfour seems to have thought about the people who were likely to be displaced by the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. It reminds us that little weight should be put on Balfour’s qualification concerning the rights of the non-Jewish communities of Palestine.

We can take this critical point a little further by recalling that, unusually for leaders of the British Conservative Party, Balfour was something of an intellectual who, a year or so before issuing his famous declaration, had published a critical Preface to the English translation of Heinrich von Treitschke’s Politics, a selection of his political lectures. Here, Balfour identifies himself as a liberal, unlike Tretschke, who had once been a member of the National Liberal Party but had abandoned his early liberalism long before the publication of this book,. Liberalism, Balfour says in a footnote, ‘is a name for principles of constitutional liberty and representative Government which have long been the common property of all parties throughout the English-speaking portions of the world.’ (p.ix). ‘All parties’ here naturally includes the British Tories, of which Balfour was a leading light. Since there is no reason to think that Balfour’s 1916 commitment to liberal principles was a recent development in his thought, we see here, and not for the first time, that influential liberal thinkers do not treat their principles as applying to the government of Orientals, to peoples of the East.

Balfour was a senior figure in the British Conservative Party. So, Balfour is a liberal, by his own assessment, and he is also a conservative. This raises the question of who we identify as liberal. One option, which I follow for the most part in this paper, is to say, as political theorists tend to do, that liberals are those who profess something like the principles that Balfour sets out in the footnote cited earlier. Other options are, first, to identify liberalism with a concern for economy in government, as Foucault sometimes appears to do5 and, second, like many historians, to describe as liberal anyone who belongs to a party or movement with the term ‘liberal’ in its name.6 Tony Abbott, Liberal Prime Minister of Australia at the time of writing, would be liberal in this last sense while Malcolm Turnbull, a senior figure in the Australian Liberal Party, would be liberal in all three senses.

I take Said’s insistence on what significant historical figures, like Balfour, have actually said to be a salutary form of criticism. I should qualify this immediately by adding that he would not want to copy out every word that Balfour may have said and nor would we want him to. There has to be an element of strategic calculation, a calculation that determines what is worth focusing on. In Said’s case, this is clearly a political calculation. This focus on what people say may not seem to be anything special, I will devote the remainder of this paper to indicating why I think it is important.

First, I can imagine some of my readers thinking: isn’t this just a standard feature of academic scholarship; isn’t it what we all do? Well, No, I don’t think we do, and for two reasons: first, we all know colleagues who will do anything to avoid critical engagement and, second, careful reading of familiar texts is the last thing that many academics now do. I say this, not because I see them as lazy – most, in my experience, work extremely hard – but for other reasons.

At one level, the reasons for this are fairly straightforward – I’ll add a few complications a little later. Even in areas, like literary criticism, political theory/history of political thought, and parts of cultural studies, most of us already know, from our own training, what the big names – Kant, Hume, Mill, Fanon, Said – have said. So, under pressure of time and rather than challenge the received wisdom, we find it easier to trot out the familiar quotations. Consider, as an example, the familiar principle of individual liberty stated in J.S. Mill’s On Liberty:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good… is not a sufficient warrant (1977 [1859], p.223, emphasis added)

This sounds nice and we’ve all seen it before, but the qualification, ‘member of a civilized community’ is disturbing. While the quoted passage taken as a whole could be read as identifying one of the distinguishing features of a civilised community, Mill’s qualification tells us that the principle need not apply to large sections of humanity, that is, to anyone who is not a member of a civilized society. We can see the consequences of this point in Mill’s next book Considerations on Representative Government, published only a couple of years after On Liberty. He describes representative government as
the ideal type of the most perfect polity, for which, in consequence, any portion of mankind are better adapted in proportion to their degree of general improvement. As they range lower and lower in development, that form of government will be, generally speaking, less suitable to them (1977 [1861], p.413)

In fact,

There are … conditions of society in which a vigorous despotism is in itself the best mode of government for training the people in what is specifically wanting to render them capable of a higher civilization (1977 [1861], p.567)

Earlier in the same book, Mill gives an example of the kind of vigorous despotism he has in mind:
Even personal slavery, by giving a commencement to industrial life, and enforcing it as an exclusive occupation of the most numerous portion of the community, may accelerate the transition to a better freedom than that of fighting and rapine (1977 [1861], pp.394-5)

So much for the principle of individual liberty. Like many liberals of his time, Mill hated slavery. He invokes it here to make the point that it may be acceptable to sacrifice individuals but only under certain conditions – only, that is, if they belong to societies that range ‘lower and lower in development’, societies that, in other words, are not civilized.

Not only do many of our colleagues appear not to have read Representative Government carefully but, without wishing to name names,I have even heard people in conferences and seminars insist that Mill could not possibly have said anything like what I have just quoted him as saying – essentially because of his commitment to individual liberty and his well-known antipathy to slavery.

How can one respond to such comments: ‘Take yourself off to a good library and don’t leave until you’ve read the bloody text?’ One might say something similar to those philosophers who seem reluctant to acknowledge the racist assertions of Hume and Kant.7

My point is simply that the careful reading of texts is not as common amongst political theorists or historians of political thought as one might wish and that, as a result, misleading accounts of the views of significant figures and thus of the doctrines – such as liberalism – they are said to have espoused are widely accepted. This is one reason why a careful, critical reading of these historical figures have actually said can be politically important.

I promised earlier to complicate this straightforward story. The problem is that, in the absence of extensive serious critical engagement with their work, blandly conventional views of significant historical figures are still widely accepted and promulgated, giving us an anemic version of, in this case, liberal political thought. (Of course, Kant and Mill are not the only figures I could have picked on to make this point.) Something similar could be said about significant historical events but I need not go into that issue here.

What are we to make of all this? One complication worth noting here is that the publication of Uday Mehta’s Liberalism and Empire in 1999 provoked the emergence of a minor industry in the history of political thought concerned to explore whatever relationships there might be between liberal political thought and imperialism. Mehta had noted (pp.6-7) that most British political theorists in the nineteenth century were deeply involved with the empire in their writings but the historians’ debate has focused on the narrower issue of whether or not liberals supported imperialism (Bell, 2007). (It turns out, not surprisingly, that some did and others did not.) Some historians (eg Muthu 2003) confuse liberal criticism of colonial practices in particular cases, which, as Mehta notes (pp2-3), was not uncommon, with criticism of imperialism in general.8

Mehta argued that liberalism is centred on an inflexible epistemological stance in which the unfamiliar is forced into familiar schema and that this results in liberals being insensitive to difference. Encounters with others therefore involve subordination, not a conversation between equals. In this respect, Mehta argues, to adopt the liberal stance towards others is to rely on the backing of imperial power. His point here is not so much that liberalism favours empire but rather the reverse, that imperial power favours liberalism. Thus, the focus of the historians of political thought on whether or not liberals supported imperialism evades the point of Mehta’s argument. The major problem with Mehta’s argument, missed by the historian’s response, is that his focus on epistemology lets liberals of the hook too easily – suggesting that what is seriously objectionable about liberalism’s take on empire is not so much its politics as its theory of knowledge.
Leaving the historians’ response to one side, am I suggesting that there is a conspiracy among liberal political theorists to misrepresent liberalism’s past? Well, Yes. Conspiracy theories are not always wrong and there are real conspiracies out there, some of which involve people who identify as liberal: the Liberty Fund, for example, and several competing varieties of Straussian (see the revealing discussion in Jaffa, 2013). Liberals who teach political theory or the conventional ‘ideologies’ or ‘-isms’ courses in politics departments generally aim to present a positive image of their own doctrine.

Another part of the story is that prominent liberals have seemed uncertain about the ramifications of their imperial responsibilities. When J. S. Mill, who, like his father, spent much of his adult life as a senior officer with the British East India Company, discusses in his Autobiography (1873) the different influences on his thinking, it reads as if his work for the Company – in effect, his work in imperial administration – had no real impact on the development of his political thought. Zastoupil’s careful discussion (1994) clearly undermines this congenial fantasy. More to the point, Mill’s reflections on his experience at the London Office of the Company show up in the closing chapters of Representative Government.

Like other imperial administrators in London or Paris around his time, Mill tried to distance himself from the more unsavoury practices of the Company’s subordinates in the field. In his remarks on the people of British India towards the end of Representative Government, Mill observes that, in marked contrast to the enlightened views of the colonial government itself – that is, of Mill himself and his London colleagues – administrators on the ground will often be tempted to ‘think the people of the country mere dirt under their feet’ (p. 571) and to treat them accordingly. He adds that it will always be extremely difficult for the colonial government itself to eradicate these feelings. This observation, and the more general discussion of imperial rule in which it appears, is revealing in a number of respects: first and most obviously it displays Mill’s recognition that practices which he regarded as distinctly unsavoury were an unavoidable part of the Company’s rule over its Indian subjects; and second, in the suggestion that he and his colleagues in the London office would not themselves have condoned such practices, it also serves to convey a corresponding sense of Mill’s own degree of civilisation. Balfour’s reference, in a passage quoted by Said, to ‘the dirty work, the inferior work, of carrying on the necessary labour’9 convey’s a similar sense of Balfour’s own refinement. He does this ‘dirty work’ because it has to be done, not because he enjoys it.

Balfour’s speech brings us back to my starting point. Balfour had been challenged by the Liberal – in the sense of Party member – MP, J. M Robertson, ‘What right have you to take up these airs of superiority with regard to people you call Oriental’10

His reply begins, “I take up no attitude of superiority…” – and this from a man who goes on to say that Egyptians, unlike Britons, cannot be trusted to govern themselves. ‘That is the fact’, he insists. ‘It is not a question of superiority and inferiority.’

Some years earlier, while he was Chief Secretary for Ireland, 1887-91, Balfour had directly linked the issues of the superiority of some people and the relative inferiority of others with their capacities for self-government. His New York Times obituary (20 March 1930) reports him as saying that ‘in many respects they [the Irish] are our superiors. But in one respect they are our inferiors and no amount of Gladstonian rhetoric can make them otherwise. They are politically incapable of self-government.’11

In some of his later writing, Said insists on reminding his readers of what he clearly sees as the chaacteristic hypocrisy of many liberals. For example his Oxford Amnesty lecture refers us to Aimé Césaire’s view (1972) that ‘unpleasant European practices against people of colour’ were routinely covered by ‘a façade of appeals to the greater civilisational levels attained by the white race (Said 1992:184, emphasis added). Said goes on to say that powerful imperial governments ‘ babble on about how really moral they are as they do some particularly gangsterish thing.’ How, he asks, is there any ‘appeal for liberals in such rhetoric’? (190).

It is tempting to see this example just as Said presents it, that is, as yet another instance of liberal hypocrisy, as showing that, like the rest of us, liberals have acquired the habit of saying one thing and doing something else and of varying both what they say and what they do according to context. Yet, this perception would be neither interesting nor informative. Hypocrisy is a common enough feature of public life and pointing out that liberals engage in its practice would not distinguish them from anybody else. Much better, I think, to pay close attention to what liberals say or write and to the internal, if not particularly logical, ‘logic’ that connects its conflicting elements and thereby serves to generate the familiar hypocrisy: we should pay attention, for example, to Mill’s principle of individual liberty, which I quoted earlier. As Mill presents it, the principle applies to some people, who are members of civilized societies, but not to those who are not members of such societies. In these terms, the ‘hypocritical’, differential treatment of the English and their colonial subjects makes some kind of sense. Or when Balfour tells us that governing the people of Britain is not like governing Egyptians, his point, as he understands it, is simply that Egyptians require a more authoritarian kind of government – ‘its what they understand’, he might well have said, ‘what they are used to’ – than the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight or Yorkshire, not that one group is inferior and the other superior. We have seen that this last is exactly what he does think but it is not the point he tries to make in this speech:here are two kinds of people in the world – those who do and who do not belong to civilized societies – and they have to be governed differently.

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Treitschke, Heinrich. von (1916). Politics (with a Preface by A. J. Balfour) London, Constable.

Zastoupil, Llyn (1994). John Stuart Mill and India. Stanford, Stanford University Press.

never walk away

Ursula le Guin’s powerful short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” first appeared in 1973, more than 40 years ago. Yet, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on Australia’s treatment of asylum-seekers. The story depicts a happy, prosperous city, marred by one barbaric practice: it always keeps one young child locked away alone in “a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings.” The people of Omelas all know the child is there. “Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, …. depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” Many are disgusted at what Omelas is doing to this child – Often, when they have seen the child, “the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, …” – yet most of them appear to accept it as an disagreeable necessity. Omelas has made a Faustian bargain in which happiness must be balanced by misery: the “terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” Others who don’t accept the bargain simply walk away. They appear to have despaired of their fellow citizens: “Each one walks alone [as they] leave Omelas … and they do not come back…. it is possible that [the place they go towards] does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.” End of story!

Science fiction writers – le Guin prefers to be called a novelist – rarely aim at prediction. Sometimes they propose a possible future or, as in Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a plausible alternative present, with an alternative history leading up to it, but in both cases the imagined world serves as metaphor. It raises questions about the present. Ursula le Guin’s regards her imagined futures as safe, sterile laboratories for trying out ideas: in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) she invites readers to imagine a society without gender as we currently understand it while in The Word for World is Forest she reflects on the impacts of European colonialism and less directly on what America was doing in its destructive war on Vietnam and its SE Asian neighbours. The Omelas story depicts neither an imaginary future nor an alternative present but a fragment of another reality that could plausibly belong to either. Its partial portrayal of a different society performs a similar function to le Guin’s imagined futures.

There is no exact parallel between le Guin’s imaginary Omelas and today’s Australia. Omelas like le Guin’s America has no hereditary ruler and no slavery and while Australia also has no slavery or none that is legal, it does have an hereditary monarch, at least for the moment, but she is widely thought to play no active part in government. The Omelans, like today’s Americans and Australians appear to govern themselves but, unlike us, they have no stock market, advertising or secret police. Le Guin insists that the people of Omelas are different, but not less complex than us. We would not contemplate keeping just one solitary child locked away in a basement just to benefit the rest of us, although we do lock far too many non-Australians away in immigration detention, a practice that outrages many of us – not to mention the many indigenous people we incarcerate.

Australia’s disaffected citizens, unlike those of Omelas, do not have the option of walking away: whether we walk, drive or take public transport, we still find ourselves somewhere in Australia. Instead of walking away, all we can manage is to retreat into our heads: we can tell ourselves and anyone who will listen that our Government is not acting in our name.

Nor, it seems, does Omelas have any politics. Le Guin tells us there is no King. Otherwise she tells us nothing about how Omelas is governed. Perhaps it is ruled by a few powerful families or by what we now think of as democratic means. Those who despair and finally walk away are not described as engaging in protests, signing petitions, attending demonstrations or joining political parties in the hope of change. They despair, not only of their leaders but also of their fellow citizens.

Omelas’ leaders, like Australia’s, appear to believe that there is no alternative to their barbaric policies. They believe also that most of their citizens do not understand why these policies are necessary. Omelas sticks to its Faustian bargain and we hold fast to the view that penalising several hundred strangers will protect us from the world’s rising tide of refugees. No matter, most citizens are content to leave such issues to their leaders.

While le Guin’s Omelans can walk away, albeit to an uncertain destination and, with some effort, disaffected Americans could walk or drive to another country (Mexico or Canada) without being entirely sure of how they would be received, disaffected Australians can walk away only in their minds. If disaffected Omelans take the risk of not knowing where they will end up – it could be somewhere worse – something similar holds for disaffected Australians who mentally walk away but physically remain – our heads might end up in a worse political space.

The risk of a worse political space is particularly acute for anyone tempted to use the ‘dog-whistle’ metaphor to explainr why many Australians support our asylum-seeker policies. What is going on when we accuse John Howard or some younger Coalition politician of dog-whistling? Obviously, we accuse the dog-whistler of appealing deliberately and indirectly to racist sentiments. But the metaphor also points to those who respond, comparing them to trained sheep-dogs who hear the whistle and follow the command it contains. To use this metaphor is to compare many of our fellow Australians to trained animals – smart enough to follow commands but not to think for themselves. The risk here is the temptation to see those who follow the whistle as lesser beings – not a good headspace for anyone on the left to occupy.

Finally, if disaffected Omelans despair of their fellow citizens – why else would they walk away alone, not in groups large enough to make others notice? – there is no good reason for disaffected Australians to despair of our fellow citizens, although there are reasons to despair of our political leaders. Sure, there have been polls purporting to show majority support for our brutal treatment of asylum-seekers, with a significant minority appearing to follow the dog-whistle script, but we all know that poll results turn on the wording of the question and the context in which it is asked – and there have also been polls showing just the opposite.

If we cannot walk or drive away from Australia except into the sea and we should not retreat into the attractive seclusion of our heads, there is no alternative to the hard slog of engaging our fellow Australians politically.

The White Queen & the Black Prince

Whatever we might think of the Quarterly Essay as a publishing/political enterprise (Not very much in my case ) we should welcome the appearance of David Marr’s The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race (QE 65), a powerful examination of the racism underlying mainstream Australian politics. Yet, there are real problems with Marr’s analysis, with his treatment of Howard’s role in the recent politics of race and with some of the language he uses.

Before I get to these issues, let me comment briefly on the QE enterprise. QE claims to present, in the words of the back cover, ‘significant contributions to the general debate’ in the form of single essays of about 25,000 words. ‘it aims to present the widest range of political, intellectual and cultural opinion’. (QE’s website is hardly more informative.) ‘Widest range’ in just four essays a year is a huge, not to say pretentious ambition, leaving us to wonder who gets to choose which issues just have to be covered this year and which can be left to another day – and, of course, who gets to write at length about them?
There are two major villains in Marr’s story. One is Ms (a title she would likely reject) Hanson, the White Queen of his Essay’s title. Marr quotes her definition of a racist as “A person who believes their race to be superior to another’s”. In this sense, she’s not a racist, although it should not be difficult to persuade a detached observer that much of her conduct rests on an implicit racism – except for the fact that the careful textual analysis required to do so has no place in Australian political discourse. Marr treats Hanson’s anti-Muslim tirades and the more general Australian targeting of Muslims as clearly racist. Many of us would agree and many others would not. Since she makes no reference to Muslim and non-Muslim races, her conduct is not racist in her own terms. I would take Marr’s point a little further here and say that the political enterprise of preventing or containing radicalisation is racist through and through. It simply ramps a conventional anti-muslim prejudice up to another level. When ‘radicalised’ and related terms are used without qualification today, they invariably target Muslims, although, to be fair, the language of radicalisation was also used in America to target the radical Black Panthers and the left-wing student movement, the weather underground in the late 1960s and ’70s. Still, ‘radicalisation’ is talked about in Australia today as something that happens exclusively to Muslims, not to once-moderate reactionaries like Malcolm Turnbull or to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. It is telling that Australia has a bipartisan consensus on radicalisation and the need to combat it. This, too, is an important aspect of the Australian politics of race. Towards the end of his essay, Marr cites Anne Aly – herself a Muslim and a rare voice of moderation in the counter-radicalisation business – as an authority but, as he complains often enough about Howard, without calling this deplorable business out on its racism.

The other, more substantial, villain, call him the Black Prince, is John Howard. Marr accuses Howard of several things. One is simply refusing to call out Hanson’s racism when she first appeared on the national stage in the 1990s. Howard’s own reflections on this refusal in his 2010 book Lazarus Rising are worth quoting:

“Could the impact of Hanson have been less if I had attacked her… immediately after her maiden speech….[It] would have…gratuitously alienated [her supporters] from me – and for what purpose, other than the political benefit of the Labor party” (quoted by Marr, pp.38-9)

Worse, Howard chose to defend Hanson’s supporters from the charge of racism. Rather, he said, they were “a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that in different ways they had been passed over.” Howard, in effect, aimed to appease Hanson’s supporters in the hope of winning their votes or, at least, their preferences. “Something grubby”, Marr observes (p.39), “entered national life at this point.” Howard, we are told, ”shattered the twenty year truce [between the Coalition and Labor] on multiracial immigration.” (p.25) In practice, Labor also chose to appease or, at least, not to offend Hanson’s supporters. Marr maintains that the bipartisan appeasement of a racist minority “tainted Australian politics” (p2)

“Tainted”, “grubby”. These are terms of moral condemnation, not dispassionate analysis. Its not difficult to see what Marr is passionate about here and many, perhaps most, of his readers would agree with him. Even so, it is worth pausing to consider what this condemnation adds to our understanding of the Australian politics of race. Let me begin with the twenty year truce that Howard is alleged to have repudiated. Experienced diplomats know that, even when an agreed text is written and duly signed, the parties to an agreement are likely to take away different understandings of what has been agreed between them. In the case of unwritten agreements, the parties are even less likely to take the same view of what they have agreed. Marr understands the ‘truce’ as an agreement between Labor and the Coalition not to pursue racist votes, This understanding clearly points to Howard as the villain. Yet, a slightly different understanding yields another view. Suppose we understand the truce as an agreement to keep race out of politics. On this view, the truce was decisively broken in 1995 by Labor’s Racial Hatred Act, which amends another Labor (Whitlam) Government’s Racial Discrimination Act by adding the controversial Section 18C and by Keating’s Redfern Speech a few years earlier. Labor, on this view, repudiated the truce by not leaving racist dogs in peace.

This minor variation on Marr’s story hardly lets Howard off the hook but it does knock him off the Black Prince’s perch, leaving him simply as one of the more successful Dark Knights of Australian politics. As for Marr’s ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’, the particular contamination he addresses came in once the dogs had been aroused. Yet we should recognise that, far from being squeaky-clean, Australian politics was already tainted by an underlying racism and grubby enough before Howard arrived on the Dark Side. Nor does the ALP come out of this revised story very well. True, it remained largely on the decent non-racist side – but Labor never found the courage to do much about it.

One final observation: if ‘tainted’ and ‘something grubby’ are terms of moral condemnation, the same is true of ‘dog-whistle’. All suggest that the writer is morally superior to the people under discussion, in the dog-whistle case, Hanson’s & Howard’s white working class supporters. Marr notes that Australian right-wing talk of elites and their attitudes towards bulk of the population has been imported directly from the discourse of the American Right, along with the curious idea that Islam is not a religion. I agree, but, once we examine the conduct of the Australian Left, it becomes clear that the Right’s complaints about left-wing elites are not entirely without foundation. We might also note that the application of the pejorative term ‘dog-whistle’ to political analysis may also have been imported from America – at least, according to some commentators.

Marr describes John Howard (p.5) as “the great dog-whistler, the politician who could send a signal to the bush that went almost unheard in town.” The term draws on the image of the dog-whistle, once commonly used in sheep herding and also known as the ‘silent’ whistle. It was designed, to sound at a frequency, 20,000Hz or more, that would be inaudible to human ears but would be noticed by most dogs whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for the odd headache, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly. Skilled dog-whistlers like Howard knew what they were doing while the dogs – Hanson/Howard’s working class supporters – could be expected to react without thinking.

In fact, the difference between bush and town does not fit the Australian Left’s usage of the term, which is more concerned with distinguishing between the political conduct of Hanson’s, and Howard’s, racist supporters who, Marr tells us, were as likely to be found in the cities as in the bush, and one’s own, more sophisticated conduct. While it appears to be an analytic concept, I have argued elsewhere that ‘dog-whistle’ functions as little more than a means of asserting the speaker’s ethical superiority over the ‘dogs’ who hear the whistle and act accordingly. [“whistling the dog” in John Uhr & Ryan Walter (eds) 2014 Studies in Australian Political Rhetoric, Canberra: ANU Press, free download at the ANU Press website] To his credit, Marr makes little use of this concept in the body of his discussion.

Debating Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act

“You black bastard” Is this offensive, friendly banter, somewhere in between or both?

The Australian Racial Discrimination Act was introduced by the Whitlam Government in 1975 to embody the spirit of the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, which the Act ratified, and particularly its insistence that “there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere.” Along with SBS, the RDA is one of the few Whitlam legacies to have survived more or less unscathed into the 21st century, although it was, in fact, strengthened by the 1995 Racial Hatred Act which laid down procedures for dealing with allegations of racial discrimination and added sections 18C & D, the latter specifying a number of exemptions to the provisions of the former. Both as a Whitlam Act, albeit slightly modified, and one with links to the UN – not to mention its threat to disrupt the minor everyday pleasures of many white Australians – it has been disputed by the Australian Right, who have focused overwhelmingly on the wording of section 18C which they see as impeding free speech – their main complaint against 18C from the beginning (McNamara & Solomon 1996). There has also been some dispute over the procedures to be followed in dealing with allegations of racial discrimination.

The disputed passage of 18C refers to acts that are “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people” specifically when “the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.” Critics of the Act on the Right of the Liberal Party, who seem to have never recovered from the shock of the Whitlam years, object to the terms ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ on the grounds that they are subjective (offense, for example, is said to be in the mind of the offended, an observation that is taken to mean that there can be no reliable legal test); insufficiently precise (although we should note that Australian Courts have found no difficulty in convicting many indigenous people of using offensive language against police officers (who can be trusted to recognise offensive language, particularly when they hear it directed against them); and that, notwithstanding the exemptions listed in section 18D, they serve to limit free speech thereby inviting the critics’ opponents to ask what they wanted people to be able to say that they cannot say now.

In a nicely symbolic act of discrimination – no complaint was lodged with the AHRC – the Chair of the Senate Committee considering options for reform denied a request by the ACT/NSW Aboriginal Legal Service that its representative be allowed to speak to the Committee. The Government finally opted to replace ‘offend insult, humiliate’ with ‘harass’ and to introduce procedural changes, while insisting that the original 18C had been discredited and, further, that this change in wording made the Act stronger by making it clearer – only to have its revisions rejected by the Senate.

Several features of the 18C debate are worth noting. First, for all this interest in terminology, in the meanings of words and what people do with them, critical discussion of section 18C barely touched on two absolutely central terms, discrimination and race – nor, of course, did it touch on the derivative terms, ‘racial’, ‘racism’ and ‘racist’.

Starting with discrimination, we can note that its meanings range from the simple act of recognising difference – between, say, moths and butterflies, indigenous and other Australians or wasps and bees – through the capacity to recognise such differences to action towards others that is unjust or prejudicial. The RDA targets only discrimination in this last sense, which is also the most recent: the earliest English-language use of the term in this sense noted by the OED was in 1819, while discrimination in the first sense appeared as early as 1621.

Discrimination against others in the prejudicial sense clearly depends on the act of discrimination in the sense of recognition of difference. Yet, we should not imagine that prejudicial discrimination is entirely negative in its effects. We often find references to positive discrimination, discrimination that favours disadvantaged groups, for example, through quotas in schools or universities, many introduced as gestures towards rectifying earlier discrimination against them. There is also a second important sense in which discrimination can be positive, essentially because it always cuts both ways. Just as some are victims of unjust and prejudicial actions, many others, who are not victims, experience a no less unjust and prejudicial discrimination in their favour. Discrimination against indigenous Australians is also discrimination in favour of non-indigenous Australians.

Notice finally that, like the RDA itself, the debate treats racial discrimination, as basically a matter of some people or organisations doing something unpleasant to one or more others because of ‘their race, etc…’. This raises three points, two of which I return to later: first, both the RDA and the recent 18C debate take it for granted that races exist; second, treating racism as resulting from prejudice suggests that the problem rests primarily in the minds of individuals. Thirdly, widespread inequities result not only from the prejudicial conduct of one or more individuals but also from the conduct of state agencies and the collective behaviour of banks and other other organisations.

Perhaps the clearest example of the latter is redlining, which led to the de facto segregation of many US cities outside the South. The term itself comes from American investigative journalism in the 1960’s: it refers to the practice of restricting services – whether by not providing clinics, hospitals, schools and supermarkets, pr locating them in places that some find hard to access or by selectively adjusting prices for insurance and mortgages – to residents of certain areas according to the racial or ethnic composition of those areas. Redlining is a clear case of discrimination that is difficult to blame on the bias of any single individual or group.

As to the inequities enacted by state agencies, we need only think of the ongoing scandal of Aboriginal deaths in custody and disproportionate rates of indigenous incarceration, Australian Governments’ cavalier treatment of native title or of the quality of the services provided to Australia’s indigenous peoples by agencies operating at various levels of Australian government. The net result of their actions amounts to massive discrimination against indigenous people and in favour of the non-indigenous population. In December 2007 the Council of Australian Governments recognised the seriousness of the issue, agreeing that steps must be taken at all levels of government to address gross inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in the areas of health, education and employment. To this end, reports on progress are presented every year to the Australian parliament and they have so far been uniformly and predictably disappointing, a fact that is no less predictably deplored by politicians and media outlets before the rest of Australia gets on with other business

We might also think of the Australian practice of immigration detention. The 1901 Immigration Restriction Act, generally regarded as the basis of the White Australia Policy, aimed to prevent or severely limit the immigration of non-Europeans. It prohibited the immigration of various classes of people, with the result that they could not migrate legally to Australia, and provided for illegal immigrants, other than those of European descent, to be held in detention before they were deported. While the Immigration Restriction Act was finally replaced by the 1958 Migration Act, immigration detention has continued in various forms. Under the current regime of offshore detention, which operates in spite of Australia’s obligation as a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention not to penalise migrants seeking asylum, hundreds of refugees are incarcerated on Manus Island in PNG, which PNG courts have declared illegal, and Nauru. While White Australia openly discriminated in favour of Europeans, today’s offshore detention regime does so covertly by incarcerating non-Europeans. So few refugees of European descent arrive in Australia by boat that the question of making special provision for them simply does not arise. We can only imagine what might happen if boatloads of English-speaking whites, displaced, say, from South Africa, Kenya or Zimbabwe, were to arrive on Australian shores

Compared to unjust or prejudicial treatment, discrimination in the earlier sense of recognition of difference might seem to be relatively innocuous. Unfortunately, consideration of discrimination on the basis of race will show that this harmless appearance may be deceptive. Some authors (eg, Fields & Fields, 2014) have argued that the making or perception of racial distinctions should be seen as racist.

As for race itself, 18C renders discrimination illegal whenever “the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person.” Here the RDA clearly assumes that racial differences exist, along with differences in colour and national or ethnic origin. There have been too many accounts of race for me to even attempt to examine them here. (but see Bethencourt 2013, Fields & Fields, 2014, Hund & Lentin 2016, Wolfe 2016) So cutting a long and complex story short, we can note, first, that races have generally been understood as populations distinguished from other races by their common inheritance, this last being variously understood in terms of blood, descent from one or a few common ancestors or genes. In nineteenth century Europe and America racial differences were often treated as natters of scientific inquiry. Alongside the resulting ‘scientific’ discussions of race there were others drawing in part on versions of ‘scientific’ race theory, with some also drawing on tendentious readings of the Biblical Old Testament. Second, while races were perceived as objects of study, racial discrimination, was widely experienced as an intractable social reality – a social fact in the Durkheimian sense of a societal feature that exercises an external constraint on individuals – something that could not be wished away and that simply had to be negotiated.

If racial discrimination is a social fact, so too are the races it distinguishes. The coexistence of the social fact of race and talk about different races raises many issues requiring further clarification, only a few of which can be touched on here. First, is there a causal relationship between talk about races and the social fact of racial discrimination? This would suggest the comforting view, at least for many intellectuals, that the rigorous examination of various accounts of races (which I have not attempted here) which would certainly result in discrediting most of them, would be a practical way of undermining racial discrimination as a social fact. Appealing to some as this view might be, it is hardly plausible. In medieval Europe, populations were distinguished ostensibly on the basis of descent but without reference to any concept of race, with Jews, Moors, Roma (Gypsies) all being identified as outsiders. Yet, if racial difference can appear as social fact in the absence of talk about races, it hardly makes sense to treat it as caused by such talk. If anything, the relationship works in the contrary direction ‘Scientific’ racism and other accounts of racial difference can be seen as serially unsuccessful attempts to make sense of the social fact.

Following this last point, we should not expect too much from critical discussion of influential accounts of racial differences. This is not to say that critiquing these accounts is a waste of time, only that it will not bring about the short-term results that some might hope for. We should not expect even the most powerful critiques to bring the whole edifice of racial discrimination crashing down. In fact, as with many complex social phenomena, there is little point in trying to identify a singular cause of racial discrimination. The more important question for us today is how does racial discrimination continue, or how is it reproduced, and here, I suggest, ‘scientific’ and other accounts of racial difference do play an important part.

Consider, for example, the vexed issue of race and intelligence. Around the end of the nineteenth century anthropologists and psychologists began to seek scientific evidence for and explanations of the superior mental capacities of Europeans – a truth which, for the most part, they simply took for granted. To this end, they compared brain sizes, skull shapes and sizes and adapted the recently developed techniques of intelligence testing. (I leave aside the contentious issue of whether the intelligence of individuals is amenable to testing in a culturally-neutral fashion.) By the mid-1930s psychologists had settled on the view that environmental and cultural factors were more significant determinants of intelligence than inheritance and this has since remained the majority view.

In a striking precursor to recent debates around global warming, a minority of specialists continued to hold out against this consensus – For the consensus view see the 1996 report prepared for the American Psychological Association by Ulrich Neisser and for stand-outs see, for example, Arthur Jensen (1969) and Hans Eysenck (1971)). Eysenck also held out against the medical consensus that there was a link between smoking and lung cancer – thereby providing excuses for an influential kind of denialism that still informs American education policies and political debates about positive discrimination in colleges and universities. (For example in Hernstein & Murray’s disturbingly popular The Bell Curve (1994) (cf Stephen Jay Gould’s 1996 powerful response) and the academic Journals Mankind Quarterly & Intelligence)

What happens in this denialism is that the perception of Black and White as different – which might seem to be no more than a matter of discrimination in the first sense noted above and thus innocuous (But cf Fields & Fields, 2014) – comes together with a problematic psychological measure to justify racial discrimination, in the prejudicial sense, thereby reinforcing & reproducing existing prejudicial regimes.

Finally, what of the individualism of the RDA and the debate around 18C? I noted earlier that both the Act and the 18C debate understood discrimination as a matter of one or more persons or organisations doing something unpleasant to one or more others. There is no doubt that this happens, but I also noted that this focus on individual misconduct tends to discount discrimination by government agencies and other organisations. While the Act does not deny that there may be discrimination by government agencies, section 6 insists that “nothing in this Act renders the Crown liable to be prosecuted for an offence.” Thus, if Australian State or Commonwealth Governments were tempted to indulge in racial discrimination, as I have insisted they are, the RDA offers no protection.

Yet, ignoring government agencies is not the only significant limitation of the Act’s individualistic focus. This focus suggests that the main problem of discrimination is a matter of prejudiced individuals. Suppose that we come up with a reliable explanation of individual prejudice, where would that leave us? In February 2017, the Australian broadcasting network, SBS broadcast a series under the heading “Is Australia Racist?” In practice, the programs in this series interpreted this question as meaning “Are Australians Racist?” and it turned out, to nobody’s great surprise, that many were and way too many others experienced racial prejudice in their daily lives.

SBS drew on the work of psychologists and sociologists, the latter investigating the extent of racist behaviour by or towards Australians and the former providing an account of this racism as a kind of prejudice based on fear of “people who don’t look like we do”, and suggesting that this fear was hard-wired into our brains but that we could change it, if we so desired, with a bit of effort

Unfortunately, even if we were to accept the idea of hard-wiring in the soft tissues of our nervous systems, this account of racism would be seriously incomplete. We all grow up with people who don’t look like ourselves and members of our immediate family and, over time, we learn not to be afraid of many of them. So, we fear, or are prejudiced against, some people who don’t look like we do and we don’t fear as much, or are less prejudiced against, others who also don’t look like we do. What distinguishes the two groups is not that people in one look like we do and those in the other do not, since neither of them look like we do. So, there must be something else going on, something that is not captured by consideration of whether they look like we do.

I have picked on the SBS series here, not to damn the network but rather to bring out the limits of treating racism as a kind of individual prejudice: no account of prejudice as a psychic process can tell us which people are targeted, why these are and those not. Nor is my observation that SBS sought the assistance of psychologists and sociologists intended to undermine the value of these disciplines. My point is simply that, in this case, their assistance did not get us far. Perhaps SBS was just unlucky or asked its hired psychologists the wrong questions.

Yet, if accounts of discrimination as a matter of individual prejudice cannot explain who the discrimination targets, perhaps we should, once again, turn the issue around and consider the possibility that prejudice is turned against populations because they have been and often still are targeted by states, powerful groups or organisations.

To conclude, if racial discrimination is a social fact, then so, too, will be the races it distinguishes. However, these races should be understood as populations identified by the fact of being targeted by racial discrimination, not as the entities specified by accounts of races that focus on heritable features that are allegedly shared by their members. This last point deserves more consideration than I can offer here for if only because, first, colonial territories and their successor states often contain distinct and differentially targeted populations (Wolfe 2017) and, second, racial discrimination and the races it identifies cut across national boundaries. Races as targeted populations are all too real, but races as populations unified by shared genetic traits are no more than dangerous fictions: they are not the products of distinct creations, whether by God, geography or evolution, nor populations descended from Ham, Japhet & Seth, the sons of Noah, as a literal reading of the Book of Genesis might suggest. Again, if races are targeted populations, and therefore social constructs, there are no rational grounds for supposing that any one of the races currently identified is superior to any of the others. Thus, returning to the Preamble of the 1965 International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (which Australia ratified by passing the Whitlam Government’s RDA): “there is no justification for racial discrimination, in theory or in practice, anywhere” and certainly not in Australia.

References

Francisco Bethencourt (2013) Racisms: From the Crusades to the Twentieth Century Princeton: Princeton University Press
Eysenck, H. J. (1971). Race, intelligence and education. London: Temple Smith. [US title: The IQ argument].
Karen E. Fields & Barbara J. Fields (2014) Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, London: Verso

Stephen Jay Gould (1996) The Mismeasure of Man . New York: Norton

Richard J. Hernstein & CharlesMurray (1994), The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Glencoe, NJ: The Free Press

Wulf Hund & Alana Lentin (eds.) 2016 Racism and Sociology. Berlin: Lit
Jensen, Arthur R (1969). “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?”. Harvard Educational Review. 39: 1–123.
Ulric Neisser et al (1996) “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns”. American Psychologist. 51:77–101.
Patrick Wolfe (2016) Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. London: Verso