race and resistance

Luke Foley’s spectacular “white flight” headline and clenched-teeth retraction is an ugly reminder of the underlying tone of Australian politics, but it’s hardly an outlier. Its notable mostly for the severity of the online backlash, and Foley’s subsequent comical turn as “guy who didn’t realise the microphone was turned up quite so loud.”

First published at the Guardian

That the Daily Telegraph should gift such an incendiary line with a screaming front page headline should surprise no one, given the paper’s unmatched consistency as an amplifier of the politics of hate. This is the water we all swim in now: Pauline Hanson’s shambolic ascendency may be stalled for the moment, but there is still, as yet, no obvious political penalty for bareknuckle political assaults on whole groups of people based only on their skin colour, heritage or religion.

And there needs to be, because while amateurs like Hanson try to wrench momentary advantage from these provocations, professionals like home affairs minister Peter Dutton are using them in more systematic ways.

At the most extreme end of the scale, Australia’s inhuman and bipartisan experiment in collective punishment of refugees claimed another life on Tuesday, when a Rohingya man trapped for nearly five years in immigration detention killed himself on Manus Island. His death traces back in an unbroken line to the arms race over refugee policy that has disfigured Australian politics now for decades. Not just any refugees, as the recent debacle over the proposed fast-tracking of visas for white South African farmers made abundantly clear, but specifically refugees fleeing carnage and ethnic cleansing in the Middle East and south Asia.

Orchestrated panics over African “gangs”, the fevered aggression heaped on Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and the crushing over-policing and jailing of Aboriginal people all play to the same underlying dynamic, rising and falling with each new fabricated moral panic, all pointing in the same direction.

Nothing here is new, or even uniquely Australian. We’re seeing the deadly harvest of an almost scientific application of the principles of “othering” to our community. Described as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities,” the term describes a range of social and political tools, some subtle, and some as blunt as an all-caps headline in a low-rent newspaper, designed to consolidate a particular identity at the expense of someone else.

Identifying how it is done is easier than agreeing on why it is reaching such harmful magnitudes, or what to do about it. It can’t be a coincidence that this same pattern is on the rise in the United States and Europe, and India, and Japan, and Myanmar, and China. For the political convenience of weak leaders seeking to consolidate a base of support by offering a sense of common identity and protection from these formless “others”, it must be nearly irresistible, because it’s a pattern that echoes back through history as far as we can read.

This alone doesn’t quite explain why global corporate media oligarchies, the Murdoch empire first among them, are such ardent promoters of the technique. One explanation comes to mind, however.

Hypothetically, if you were the architects and beneficiaries of an economic system that was extracting extraordinary wealth from the lands and labour of an entire planet, and in so doing had created the most extreme forms of global inequality in the process, you might want to think about how to manage the social tensions that would inevitably arise. Doubly so if the scale of your endeavour had even started affecting the climate.

If you were even peripherally aware of history, you’d know that people subjected to lifelong exploitation, forced into a precarious existence or buried under annually compounding debts will, eventually, wheel guillotines into the town square and start taking names.

The pressurised anger and stress has to go somewhere – as Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore bleakly mused, “crowd psychology is a blind force. Like steam and other physical forces, it can be utilised for creating a tremendous amount of power”. The greater the inequality – perceived or actual – the greater the potential for outbreaks of this tremendous power.

Rather than having it directed at them, our hypothetical architects and beneficiaries might choose to deflect this anger and discontent at someone else, someone other. With all the resources of modern psychology and mass media networks at hand, they might even get quite good at it. Buttressed by a punitive regime of surveillance and enforcement to keep the wayward among us in line, such a pressure cooker can be kept intact for a time, as more recent history shows.

So perhaps it is not a coincidence that Dutton has taken so ardently to the task of race-based deflection and enforcement at the same time as his prime ministerial and treasury colleagues have been organising tax cuts for the already extremely wealthy and dispensing untold public largesse to the corporate sector at every opportunity. They are one in the same project.

None of this will come as any comfort to the family of the man who took his life on Manus Island, or to those still trapped behind the wire. But it does throw a harsh spotlight on those who claim to offer a better alternative to the self-interested syndicate currently occupying the ministerial wing of Parliament House, and their state and territory colleagues. Fortunately for all, we don’t do guillotines in this country any more, but one enduring lesson of history is that unity eventually prevails over division, and we’ll sure as hell see you in the town square some day soon.