Google and ilk can’t shirk responsibility for ranters

Sydney Morning Herald

December 30, 2011

OPINION

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Welcome to the world of hate blogging. A reported defamation payout of $13,000 by the TV book show celebrity Marieke Hardy gives us an inkling of the dark side of the blogosphere.

Marieke Hardy

Marieke Hardy ... victim of poisonous blog posts. Photo: Damian Bennett

Hardy has been the victim of some poisonous blog posts for more than five years by someone assuming the name of ”James Vincent McKenzie”.

It’s distressing stuff and naturally Hardy is offended. Her error was accusing, in one of her own blog posts, the wrong person as being the author of these ”ranting, violent” attacks.

Under a naming and shaming exercise with the Twitter hashtag of #mencallmethings she pointed to her own blog, which said Joshua Meggitt was the person responsible.

Meggitt had posted critical remarks about the First Tuesday Book Club on ABC TV, where Hardy is a regular member of the panel, but he was not the author of the extraordinarily nasty ”James Vincent McKenzie” blog.

Hence, the payout and apology to Meggitt.

So who is James Vincent McKenzie? The comments on his blog make all sorts of helpful speculations – Kyle Sandilands, a jilted lover, Jack Marx, even Hardy herself.

The blog appears recently to have changed URLs, which adds to the trickiness of the enterprise.

Presumably, if McKenzie’s true identity could be revealed, Hardy might be on her way to getting back her $13,000. After all, she is just as much a victim as Meggitt.

What is alarming is the propensity for hateful and anonymous blogs to continue publishing after the online host would be aware of the content.

How safe can the identity of McKenzie remain? The blogspot.com site which he uses is operated by Google, based in California and registered in Delaware. It requires a Google account and gmail address.

One person posted an online comment about this yesterday, saying they had tried to report the McKenzie blog to Google which replied that it is not responsible for any allegedly defamatory content and it does not remove defamatory, insulting, negative or distasteful material from US domains. It claims that under US law internet services, such as the blogger site, are republishers and not the publisher.

That’s all very well, but increasingly Google finds it cannot hide behind these waivers of responsibility. In this country, republishers can be liable for defamation when they have notice that what they are republishing is actionable.

If she had the time, a small fortune and determination, Hardy could apply to bring discovery proceedings in a US court.

McKenzie is in breach of the blogspot terms and conditions, which require compliance with the laws of the country in which the blogging takes place. In any third-party proceedings, the offender also would be required to indemnify Google.

Proceedings overseas may not be necessary. In October, the Supreme Court of Queensland ordered Google Australia to cough-up the details of the identity behind a blog that called a Gold Coast self-help guru a ”thieving scumbag”.

Last year, a judge in Ireland gave permission to the Irish Red Cross to start proceedings against Google in California in order to obtain the identity of an anonymous blogger who had posted what the charity claimed was ”distorted confidential” material. Italian and French courts have held Google liable for defamations that arose from ”autocomplete” search requests.

In England, the Demon internet service provider was found to be liable for defamation after a judge held that the ”innocent disseminator” defence didn’t wash once an ISP had notice of the offensive content.

The principles of the Demon case got an airing in the Supreme Court of Western Australia in Ives v Lim. There, the material under consideration was published on a blog site owned somewhere in the Russian Federation. Justice Rene Le Miere said: ”In principle, a person who creates a website that hosts an interactive blog may be liable for defamatory material posted by third parties.”

Further, courts have ordered the identity be revealed of people who have made unpleasant comments on newspaper websites or on internet travel sites.

It may not be a real identity but at least the IP addresses of the computers used to post the comments can be located.

The NSW Supreme Court judge Robert Hulme in October found that Google and other global publishers, such as Facebook and Wikipedia, were not out of reach as far as internet take-down orders were concerned, in relation to a pending criminal trial.

In the Gutnick case, the High Court decided a defamation by an offshoot of The Wall Street Journal occurred where it was read, Melbourne, not where it was uploaded.

Despite the internet looking like a game of Twister, Hardy is not without a remedy. However, at the end of the rainbow she may find ”James Vincent McKenzie” doesn’t have a cracker to bless himself.

justinian@lawpress.com.au

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Prejudice and Myths Cloud View of Asylum Seekers

More needs to be done to expose the myths surrounding asylum seekers to break down the prejudices that exist against this group, according to a new Murdoch University study.

The research showed that people with a negative attitude towards asylum seekers are less likely to remember factual and accurate information about the treatment or situation of asylum seekers.

It follows a previous Murdoch research project that found that prejudiced people need to be provided with the correct information several times before it is absorbed.

Senior psychology lecturer Dr Anne Pedersen, who supervised the study by Murdoch Honours student Jared Croston, said it showed the importance of the media in educating the public about these issues.

“We know it takes time to get prejudiced people to accept the truth so it is vital that the media – where most of them get their information from – present the facts accurately,” she said.

Mr Croston surveyed 186 residents in Perth about their attitudes to asylum seekers and their acceptance of a series of myths. First he gauged the level of prejudice of study participants, and then asked whether they believed or disbelieved 11 commonly held myths about asylum seekers.

These myths included that asylum seekers are safe in Indonesia or Malaysia and don’t need to come to Australia; Australia takes more asylum seekers than most Western countries; only asylum seekers who apply through the right channels are genuine and seeking asylum without authorisation from Australian authorities is illegal under Australian law.

Participants were then given the correct information, debunking the myths, and asked to recall what they had been told.

Dr Pedersen said: “Highly prejudiced participants were significantly less likely to accurately recall the correct information that debunked the myths.

“It would appear that prejudiced participants lack the motivation to absorb the information properly.

“What we know is that giving prejudiced people information just once is not effective. They need to be given the correct information more often.

“People who feel negatively towards asylum seekers find ways to hang onto their prejudice, such as denigrating the source of information. That is why these people are more likely to accept the information if it comes from multiple sources.”

This study supported previous findings which showed that highly prejudiced participants were more likely to accept myths about asylum seekers as being true.

Dr Pedersen said the problem was compounded by the fact that when people believe they share a common view with others, they are comfortable speaking out.

“We’ve found prejudiced individuals are more likely to over-estimate their support in the community and are vocal in expressing their opinions,” she said.

“Conversely people who are accepting of asylum seekers may fall silent as they feel they are in the minority. As a result prejudiced people often have an influence that is disproportionate to their numbers.”

Despite a commonly held belief that asylum seekers are not genuine, research has shown that over the last decade, more than 90 per cent of people arriving by boat are legitimate refugees

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Men call me things: it’s not as romantic as it sounds

ABC The Drum Opinion
11 November 2011

KeyboardKaralee Evans
Karalee Evans

Karalee Evans

You know, sometimes I really love Twitter. It’s a love that, like all great love affairs, has its good times and its bad times, but at the end of the day you know the good will outweigh the bad.

It’s a microcosm of society which can enrich your life should you approach it in a certain way; the meaningful camaraderie you build with like-minded Tweeters, the knowledge you can glean by reading content lovingly shared by people you follow, the previously inaccessible conversations with ‘personalities’ such as ABC Radio National’s Mark Colvin (one of my favourite Tweeters) and the network of friendships you can foster which when you move cities, can actually be a God-send and totally safer than relying on OKCupid.

It’s also a microcosm of everything that is bad about society and humanity’s penchant for drama. And the internet as a whole is a much bigger example of this. Not surprising when we understand its hyper-connected ability to amplify sentiment of the masses.

But what is it with the internet and misogyny?

We all know examples of when the internet turns bad. Trolling is not a new thing, it existed even in the days of MySpace and GeoCities. What seems to be on the rise, is compliance trolling and the phenomena of anonymous digital misogyny. When did faceless men decide it was acceptable to take it upon themselves and threaten women online with death threats, rape threats, violence and sexism?

The horrid abuse towards women who have an opinion and dare to share it online, is a scary indicator of the health of our society. The rise of misogynist trolling towards women – and we’re not just talking about the abuse directed towards Julia Gillard, Miranda Devine, Catherine Deveny or Marieke Hardy here – online is one of the things which at times, leads me to question whether my love affair with the internet is actually an abusive relationship that I need to seek escape from. Indeed, there have been times I’ve retreated to the women’s shelter of real-life and re-evaluated the relationship.

This was at its most trying a couple of weeks ago. I made the mistake of conducting an interview with News.com.au on the appeal or not of Google Plus for businesses, and was subjected to days of online abuse, anonymous emails, and comment threads filled with men calling me ‘love’ and telling me to ‘get back into the kitchen’ and my favourite, ‘the world would be better off without you’. Funnily enough, one of the men took it upon himself to email me after he had derided me for my ‘silly little girl’ views, and expressed hope that I wasn’t offended and was tough enough to cop it. Thanks, Jim.

Within the women with opinions that I follow online, I’ve witnessed varying degrees of this sexist trolling committed nine times out of 10 by men who rarely use their real identity, and the impact of which ripples out affecting their confidence, their security and their credibility. Because if a woman complains online over this turgid behaviour, she’s subjected to calls of being too emotional, or soft, or the old ‘if you don’t like it, don’t go online’. Would a woman garner the same dismissive reactions if she called this behaviour out in real-life?

Bullshit.

Leaving aside the discussion that this online abuse by men is just an extension of the continuing battle for equality by women (not because it’s not true or important but simply there are not enough words permitted in this forum) any online abuse is simply unacceptable and must be called out.

This is different. And that’s why I love the #mencallmethings Twitter hashtag and conversations which started on Monday. It’s like Dr Phil came on Twitter; we’re all talking about our experiences and naming and shaming the perpetrators. Started by feminist blogger Sady Doyle, the hashtag is a way to further the discussion of the sexist (and scarily threatening) abuses women who have an online ‘voice’, face.

The movement is empowering women to respond to their abusers with the same functionality the trolls take for granted – a platform to call out, name and shame. Marieke did that on Wednesday and named and shamed her most vocal abuser.

We all need to take responsibility for our own behaviour online. What would your wife, girlfriend, sister or mum think if they knew you anonymously posted comments telling a woman they’d be better off dead, or should get back into the kitchen?

Within this burgeoning discussion, no-one is denying that ‘trolling’ online is exclusively directed towards women. Men definitely cop it, and yes, women troll women. Haters gonna hate (as they say). But what is clear, particularly when you take the time to read through the #mencallmethings hashtag and associated blog posts, is that women are subjected to a unique, and frankly, ridiculous level of abuse almost entirely based on their sex.

‘Bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’ and ‘love’ are commonly thrown towards women online, along with rape threats and deviant violence references, and are very rarely called out by the woman scorned or by the online community surrounding her and the ‘troll’. They’re given seemingly without consequence, and perpetuated by compliance. I’m often told by colleagues, friends and my partner all with the best of intentions (love you guys), not to worry about the abuse or to fight it or even to respond as “it’s just trolls” or “don’t feed the trolls”.

But you know, I can’t remember the last time I was on the bus, expressed an opinion and had a man pipe up that he was going to knock me off. Nor can I think of a time I’ve been in a cafe, reading a newspaper and commenting on the issues of the day, only to have a man in a mask jump out and tell me I’m a silly little girl that deserves to be raped.

So why does this behaviour occur online? Is it simply because these men are empowered with the safety of their anonymity and computer screen and are acting out long-held feelings of disgust over women?

We wouldn’t tolerate this misogyny on the bus, or in a cafe, or at school or at work or in a pub or Church, so why are we allowing it to happen online? It’s time to call it out, ridicule it, and most importantly, make men stop it. The question is how do we do that? How do we reverse this vile and abusive digital sexism?

Perhaps Dr Phil has the answer; “Awareness without action is worthless”. So, now that we’re becoming aware, what’s your contribution to #mencallmethings ?

Karalee Evans works in advertising but still has her soul as well as a passion for writing, snowboarding and politics. She’s on Twitter @karalee_

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Vaunted values too slow to save neglected son from fatal despair

Tom Keneally
November 2, 2011

OPINION

Shooty

Candlelight vigil ... at Villawood detention centre in memory of Shooty, a Sri Lankan who took his life in the centre. Photo: Ben Rushton

An open letter to ‘Shooty’, who committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.

Dear ‘Shooty’,

I’ve just watched our Prime Minister talking about shared Commonwealth values in Perth. My mind turned at once to you and your solitary, late-night death in Villawood detention centre last week.

I say solitary, but you may have had a mobile. You may have talked to your girlfriend on the outside that dismal night. She is said to have urgently rung Villawood to ask the desk there to call an ambulance because you were taking poison or a lethal overdose. But they declined to make the call at that stage. Your girlfriend’s mother was the one who then contacted the ambulance, which took you to hospital too late. An earlier refusal by the authorities to let you out for a day to attend a Hindu festival may have caused the final despair.

So, after telling your girlfriend you were fed up with Serco, the company that runs the place for profit, you died, a man refugee advocates called perhaps the most positive and chirpy in the camp. Never mind. You were a Tamil from Sri Lanka, and a son of the Commonwealth of Nations. Even if that did you no good, I hope it consoles you.

Your suicide came after two years’ detention. But you had been already declared a bona fide refugee seven months ago. You were waiting only for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to complete a routine security check. After seven months they hadn’t. An unreasonable person, like myself, might ask how long they bloody well need. But of course, I don’t understand the subtleties of their situation. And in any case, you short-circuited their efficiency.

Because you couldn’t take any more of what we dished up to you – those Commonwealth values, the ones on which we take years to deliver while we treat you as if you have committed armed robbery with assault. You could have lived in the community awaiting the formality of the routine ASIO check. But that would have been too much dignity paid to you.

Your death comes at the end of a period when the psychiatric advisers to the government had warned the government that self-destructive acts like yours would occur. Yet the funny thing is, Shooty, that had you been able to endure, you would have become a resident and an Australian. A brother. A fellow guest at the table of the Commonwealth of Australia. A mate, clasped by the shoulder and probably praised at barbecues – in that back-handed way – as a decent bloody brown bastard!

At CHOGM, the high table of Commonwealth values, Sri Lanka went un-punished for atrocities against Tamils. But even when the Tamil human-shield civilians were being blasted at the end of the Sri Lankan war between the government and the Tigers, we all knew some people like you would inevitably come to Australia. Good old John Dowd, who is head of our local chapter of the International Commission of Jurists, had already called for the trial of the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia for war crimes against your people. This just cry, like most just cries these days, has penetrated the stratosphere and vanished into space.

Amnesty International has reported death and torture of those asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka. Of course, none of those accusations made it to the high table of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Mateship. The only person who said anything of note at CHOGM, anything that tried to push out the envelope of concern, was the Queen.

It’s important to know none of what befell you was personal. You died for a failing government which has lost its soul and will soon lose an election. That is, it will have sold its essence to no benefit, and you’ll still be dead. A crease-browed, callow young Minister for Immigration can console us in dusk news bulletins as to why the circumstances imposed on you were so necessary to Australia’s security. And the rest of us have the rhetoric of morning radio and, thank you, but we decided some time back we don’t want you adding your static to our heedless days.

At least until the next suicide, the next foretold and desperate death, some Australians, an increasing number, weep for you as for a brother. Some curse the ineptitude, the cosy lies, the political conjuring and party self-deceit that brought you to your death. And the ironic truth is your remains will have a claim on a patch of Australian soil we wouldn’t give you before.

If we could summon up your soul from that place, we would offer you our useless apologies. If we could summon up your soul, we would ask it to remain among us – the man who was on the brink of Australian-ness, led to water, not allowed to drink. But for now, mandatory detention rolls on, a wheel that crushes many and avails Australia nothing.

What we need, Shooty, what we Australians need for the peace of our souls, is a whisper, a breeze from the direction of your vanished spirit. And what it would say is: treat us as members of the same species. What it would say is: I thought you were a just people.

Tom Keneally AO is the Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark. ‘Shooty’ committed suicide in Villawood detention centre last week.

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ASIO, fascism and anti-fascism

Slackbastard

Posted on October 18, 2011 by @ndy

They said it would rain tomorrow.
My garden is full of weeds this year, the herbicide isn’t working.
The Moles snuck into The Garden last night.
The… spotted cuckoo is flying backwards?

Threat of fascist attacks revealed
Dylan Welch
The Sydney Morning Herald
October 12, 2011

FASCIST and nationalist extremist groups are active in and pose a threat to Australia, with the country’s security agency saying there are legitimate concerns they may spawn a terrorist in the style of Norway’s Anders Breivik.

The assessment, in the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation’s annual report to Parliament, also reveals Australia’s right-wing extremists, much like the Islamic fundamentalists they loathe, draw inspiration from overseas via the internet.

”There has been a persistent but small subculture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves,” the report states.

The appraisal also states there has been a recent rise in anarchist or ”anti-fascist” groups, with the ideologically-opposed groups coming into conflict.

”Where such confrontations have occurred, the ‘anti-fascists’ have outnumbered the nationalist and racist extremists and police intervention has been required,” the report states in its ”Australia’s Security Environment” section.

As the recent case of Anders Breivik shows, the dangers posed by right-wing extremists have not abated, despite most intelligence agencies focusing on the threats posed by Islamic terrorism.

A Christian who described himself as a ”modern-day crusader”, Breivik killed 77 people during a bombing in Oslo and a shooting rampage at a teen camp at an island outside the Norwegian capital in July.

While the assessment does not suggest ASIO has uncovered right-extremists in Australia that mirror Breivik’s murderous intentions, it reveals they rely on overseas connections and events to inform and motivate them.

”[They] maintain links and draw inspiration from like-minded overseas extremists, and much of their rhetoric and activity is derivative, heavily influenced by developments overseas,” it states. Websites such as stormfront.org – the web’s most famous and ubiquitous white supremacist and neo-Nazi website – have numerous Australian members.

However, the threat posed by Australian right-wing extremists seems to be limited, with such groups appearing to be interested only in ”propaganda and engendering support”.

”However, there is always the possibility of a lone actor or autonomous group inspired by a nationalist or racist extremist ideology engaging in violence as a means of provoking a wider response,” the report says.

It states the continued existence of such groups has directly led to the resurgence of an ”anti-fascist” movement.

”[The anti-fascist movement] aims to confront those it identifies as fascists, including some of the nationalist and racist extremist groups also of interest to ASIO,” it states.

The security assessment also discusses its monitoring of ”issue-motivated groups” – organisations ranging from community-based forestry groups to neo-Nazi parties.

”There is … a small minority who seek to use protests around a range of emotive issues to further their own (often unrelated) political agenda by provoking, inciting or engaging in violence. It is this fringe that is of concern to ASIO.”

Note that The Australian (by way of its Defence Editor Brendan Nicholson) spins the report rather differently. Thus ASIO “warns that as well as Islamist extremism, fuelled in part by wars in Afghanistan and tensions over Palestine, an anti-fascist movement had recently emerged led by self-styled anarchists determined to confront other interest groups.”

grandparents

Last week,  ASIO tabled its Annual Report in Parliament. Inter alia, it included some remarks on “racist and nationalist extremists in Australia” and took note of the recent “emergence of an ‘anti-fascist’ movement, led by self-styled anarchists, which aims to confront those it identifies as fascists, including some of the nationalist and racist extremist groups also of interest to ASIO”.

There has been a persistent but small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia, forming groups, fragmenting, re-forming and often fighting amongst themselves. Over the past year, such extremists have been active in protesting against various Muslim interests. Local racist and nationalist extremists maintain links and draw inspiration from like-minded overseas extremists, and much of their rhetoric and activity is derivative, heavily influenced by developments overseas. At present, their main focus is propaganda and engendering support. However, there is always the possibility of a lone actor or autonomous group inspired by a nationalist or racist extremist ideology engaging in violence as a means of provoking a wider response. A recent development is the emergence of an ‘anti-fascist’ movement, led by self-styled anarchists, which aims to confront those it identifies as fascists, including some of the nationalist and racist extremist groups also of interest to ASIO. Where such confrontations have occurred, the ‘anti-fascists’ have outnumbered the nationalist and racist extremists and police intervention has been required…

A few comments.

There haven’t been many public protests organised by the “small sub-culture of racist and nationalist extremists in Australia” over the course of financial year 2010-11. In fact, just one springs to mind, held in Melbourne on May 15. The rally was organised by the ‘Australian Defence League’ under the leadership of the Englishman Martin Brennan (who was deported from the country in August).

Heil England

The  rally in Melbourne attracted maybe 20 or 30 “racist and nationalist extremists” and several times as many opponents, who after an hour (or two) pushed the ADL off their location at Federation Square. There were no arrests by police whose policing of the rally was reinforced by private security employed by the Square’s owners.

Another anti-Muslim rally was held in Sydney on July 30 (thus technically outside the remit of the report), again organised by the ADL and heavily supplemented by members of the ‘Australian Protectionist Party’ and patriotik yoof belonging to a splinter from the ‘Southern Cross Soldiers’. The rally in Martin Place attracted a slightly larger number of “extremists” (perhaps as many as 40 or even 50), only a handful of opponents, and a relatively large police presence, who ensured that the rally was unmolested by opponents.

More significantly, on January 16 an anti-racist rally was held in the inner-Sydney suburb of Newtown. The rally proceeded to Sergio Redegalli’s notorious mural ( Cydonia The Glass Studio, Station Street) where the few score protesters were heavily outnumbered by police who arrested seven (or possibly eight?) people. A report in Mutiny zine (No.58, February/March 2011) provides the following account:

On January 16th, more than 100 people gathered at the Hub in Newtown to protest against racism in the area. Following several community demonstrations against a mural that says, “say no to burqas” at nearby Station Street, the group decided to go to the mural in opposition to this racist statement. Together residents threw paint and pasted anti-racism posters over the mural, made noise and held banners with the statements, “fascists off our streets” and “racists out of Newtown”.

Police acted to protect the mural. As people attempted to leave the area together significant numbers of … police continued arriving [at] the scene. Heavy-handed tactics were used to violently arrest 8 people, and to intimidate and harass everyone present.

Witness reports attest to a high level of police aggression, with punches, grabbing people by the neck and threatening to break bones. Charges are being pressed against those arrested and court solidarity will be essential.

On August 15, all bar one of multiple charges against six defendants were dropped, while a seventh defendant received one conviction for “malicious damage” and an 18-month bond (see : We fought the law and we kinda won…, Mutiny, No.61, October/November 2011).

(A previous rally outside the mural on December 19 resulted in no arrests.)

Note that on August 6, 2011 an “extremist” rally was also held in Brisbane. This rally was organised by the ADL and another, Brisbane-based group called the ‘Australian Patriots Defence Movement’. Perhaps 20 or so attended and confronted a counter-protest several times larger. Again, there were no arrests.

In summary: yes, there is a sub-culture of extreme-right / ultra-nationalist / racist and fascist sentiment in Australia. The politically-organised expression of this sentiment is marginal and frequently sectarian.* Animosity towards Muslims has emerged as a major theme over the last decade. Local members of this milieu are responsive to global developments. There is organised opposition to this sub-culture. Such opposition is sometimes confrontational but is generally reactive, similarly small-scale and diffuse.

Otherwise…

The Norwegian anarchist site anarkisterna.com has some interesting analysis in Oslo and Utøya – of words and mass murder (August 11) and From Meta-Politics To Mass Murder – A New Right-Wing Extremism (August 25), while this weekend, a workshop at the London Anarchist Bookfair will be examining some of the issues surrounding these developments:

From Casa Pound to Anders Behring Breivik: Looking at recent developments in European fascism

From black-bloc autonomist nationalists in Germany to ‘third millennium fascist’ squatters in Italy to suit-wearing Nazis in Sweden, the last twenty years has seen huge developments and shifts in the Neo-fascist scene. No longer can Nazis be simply identified by shaved heads, Swastikas and steel-capped boots. Some are even turning to Gramsci, Lenin and international anti-imperialist struggles for inspiration. Paul Hull, a veteran anti-fascist and trade unionist of over ten years in Sweden will discuss the evolution of Neo-Nazi theories and tactics in Northern Europe and will offer suggestions on how the modern militant anti-fascist movement can adapt to these changes.

Co-organised by: Irish, English and Swedish Anti-Fascists

On fishing hooks flicked into faces or squirting dangerous or unpleasant liquids

The ASIO report also states:

Australian issue-motivated groups in general use legitimate protest to publicise and further the cause they advocate. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979 states that lawful advocacy, protest or dissent shall not be regarded as prejudicial to security, and ASIO’s interest in protest is limited to that which is unlawful or violent. Unfortunately, while most issue-motivated groups act lawfully, there are some who do not. There is also a small minority who seek to use protests around a range of emotive issues to further their own (often unrelated) political agenda by provoking, inciting or engaging in violence. It is this fringe that is of concern to ASIO.

ASIO has seen violent and provocative tactics used deliberately by this fringe at a range of protests in recent years, although the frequency and intensity of such violence tends to wax and wane. Provocative tactics used include attacks on police managing protests using ‘invisible’ weapons such as fishing hooks flicked into faces or squirting dangerous or unpleasant liquids in order to provoke an apparently disproportionate police response. The aim is to gain public support and to escalate the anger of those protesting in order to cause widespread violence in an attempt to de-legitimise the government position and undermine the rule of law. Other unlawful tactics used include property damage and sabotage.

The accusation that “fringe elements” have been using invisible weapons is not new. In 2006, for example, former Treasurer Peter Costello claimed that demonstrators at the G20 forum in Melbourne were “ throwing balloons filled with urine at police”. He produced no evidence to substantiate his story. Similar claims were made by police during the S11 protests in 2000 (in fact, the claims were made prior to the event itself). ‘Riot!’, an article by Brett Williams in the April 2010 Police Journal, states:

Public order management trainer Mick Chipperfield knows of the barbed-wire bracelets and fish hooks that rabid protestors have used “in close” against police in Melbourne. He knows that, during clashes at the G20 summit (2006) and World Economic Forum (2000), protestors threw urine-filled balloons and soiled tampons at his interstate counterparts.

According to Jeff Sparrow the story about urine-filled balloons has its origins in the mid-1990s during the course of protests against Pauline Hanson, when water bombs were thrown at some of the boneheads who attended her meetings. Throughout this period, no person, to my knowledge, has been charged or convicted of any such offence.

About @ndy

@ndy lives in Melbourne, Australia. He barracks for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies.

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Facebook refuses to shut rape page run by schoolboy

1:02PM Monday Oct 17, 2011

Philip Sherwell in New York
October 17, 2011 – 11:47AM

Facebook
Controversy … Facebook has refused to remove a page about rape. Photo: Getty Images

Nobody knows better than MJ Stephens that rape is no laughing matter. So as the victim of a sexual assault, she was horrified when she encountered the contents of a Facebook page full of jokes about rape and violence towards women.

But worse was to come when the young American tried to argue with people who had attached comments to a page called: “You know shes [sic] playing hard to get when your [sic] chasing her down an alleyway” – most of them teenagers and young adults from Australia and Britain.

In sickeningly explicit terms, several of them threatened her and expressed the wish that she be raped again.

Such pages, full of ugliness, aggression and pornographic language are multiplying on Facebook, drawing lucrative user traffic to the social networking site.

Now it has emerged that one of the “administrators” of the page – users with the right to edit its content – is believed to be a British schoolboy linked to a network of hackers in Australia, Britain and America who have set up Facebook pages featuring offensive sexual and violent content.

Micheal O’Brien, a Canadian computer systems engineer who co-founded the Rape Is No Joke (RINJ) campaign to pressure Facebook to delete “rape pages” via petitions and boycotts, has tracked the activity on several such pages and contacted participants online.

He told London’s The Sunday Telegraph that associates of 4chan, a loose-knit collection of international “cyber-anarchists” who champion absolute online freedom, including the right to share pornography, have founded and administer several of the pages.

The RINJ’s own website has been attacked by hackers and campaigners have been subjected to virulent online onslaughts since they started to draw attention to the 4chan connection last week. Pro-4chan images have also been posted to the “alleyway” page.

Facebook protects the identity of those who set up and run pages but Mr O’Brien has identified several posters as likely page administrators, including college students in Australia and a teenage boy in Britain.

With nearly 210,000 people indicating that they “like” it, and many million of monthly visitors, the “alleyway” page is the most popular. Others include “Abducting, raping and violently murdering your friend as a joke”, “Pinning your mate down while someone HIV positive rapes him for a laugh”, “Police call it a restraining order, we call it playing hard to get” and “Turning into a chain smoking sexual predator when you drink”.

Many of the regular users who “post” on the pages are young Australians and Britons- many still at school, judging from information on their own Facebook profile pages. The website allows any child aged 13 or older to open an account.

Activists and victims’ support groups in Britain and America, where Facebook is based, have urged the social networking site to shut down and remove the pages. But despite an online petition signed by more than 200,000 people worldwide, the internet giant is refusing to do so.

Facebook did not respond to repeated requests for comment by The Sunday Telegraph. But in response to previous complaints about the pages, the company has said that while they may express “outrageous or offensive” opinions, they do not violate its rules banning content that is hateful or incites violence.

“It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive, another can find entertaining,” a spokesman said. “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

An administrator of the “rape page” posted an online defence in response to the controversy, insisting that he did not support or promote rape but then directing a sarcastic barb at critics.

“i d[o] not support rape this group doesn’t,” the person wrote, with a lack of grammar and in internet shorthand characteristic of many postings. “thanks for supporting us uve made us get even more likes i thank u for that but this group has not dne anything wrong according to the terms and cnditions f facebook groups s if it does get taken down it will result in court because it has done nothing wrong.”

Jane Osmond, co-editor of the Women’s Views on News website, which has led the campaign in Britain, said: “It’s ludicrous to compare the content on this page to pub humour. Rape is a crime and we live in a society where the threat of rape is in the mind of every woman who has walked down a street alone at night. Making a joke about rape is not just not funny. It allows people to dismiss it as something not serious.

“Those who post in this way are certainly mostly teenage boys and young men saying inappropriate things, but we do believe that these sites have attracted sexual predators too. It is a dangerous group with some dangerous users.”

Activists who have gone online to make their case, and to publish images for a campaign promoting consensual rather than forced sexual activity, have been subjected to such a violent response that some have complained to the police.

Campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic have now switched their attention to businesses as they believe Facebook is inclined to allow the pages to continue because of the viewers and hence advertising revenue they bring in.

“Facebook will only listen to money, so we are now targeting the advertisers who have appeared on their pages,” said Miss Osmond.

Major companies that advertise on Facebook were furious to discover that their advertisements were appearing on the “rape page” and demanded they be removed. They included Barclays, 02, John Lewis, Sony, BlackBerry, American Express, Groupon, Heinz, National Lottery, the White Company and PepsiCo.

After complaints from several businesses to Facebook, the “alleyway” page was “whitelisted” last week, meaning that no adverts could be rotated on it. But advertisements continue to appear on other pages where the content was just as offensive.

The Sunday Telegraph, London

Additional reporting by David Harrison in London.

Source

Muslims, multiculturalism and moral panic

by Waleed Aly      ABC Religion and Ethics

Updated 10 Oct 2011 (First posted 6 Oct 2011)

Muslims

So much contemporary railing against multiculturalism and the threat of Islam is the product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.

Fictional news stories ought to be exceedingly rare. But they are not – and where Muslims are concerned, they represent something of an emerging genre.

British journalists Peter Oborne and James Jones catalogue several examples of such stories, drawing on a study performed by the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. Here are a couple of examples from an edited summary published in The Independent:

“Get off my bus I need to pray” – The Sun, 28 March 2008. This was the story of a Muslim bus driver ordering his passengers off his bus so that he could pray. The Sun story, along with footage of the bus driver praying, was widely circulated around right-wing blogs. Dhimmi Watch, the right-wing blog on the site Jihad Watch that catalogues perceived outrages committed by Muslims, even included The Sun story in their ‘ever-expanding You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file’. Well, actually, you can. The bus had been delayed, so in order to maintain frequency the bus company had ordered the driver to stop his bus and allow passengers to board the bus behind. Tickets and CCTV evidence show that all the passengers were on that bus within a minute. The so-called witness, a 21-year-old plumber, who recorded the bus driver praying, had not been on the bus, and had arrived after the incident to find a small crowd outside a bus.

“The crescent and the canteen” – The Economist, 19 October 2006. There was no truth in the article’s suggestion that Leicester University had banned pork on campus. In actual fact, the university Student Union had made just one out of the numerous cafes on campus halal, in a decision which had as much to do with economic factors as cultural sensitivity as Leicester has a large number of Muslim students. The other 26 cafes on the campus, including the main canteen, were still serving pork as usual.

Other examples could be cited in this connection that hold Muslims falsely responsible for an impressive range of social crimes from banning Christmas to risking the lives of hospital patients with unprofessional hygiene standards and mob violence against returned British soldiers.

The connecting thread barely needs to be spelled out: Muslim minorities constitute a threat to the Western way of life by seeking aggressively to impose their norms onto the majority, and displace Western (in these cases, British) culture in the process.

Of course, intensified scrutiny of Western Muslims is understanding in the post-September 11 era, and especially after the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, whose perpetrators were raised in Britain.

Nevertheless this begs a simple question: if Muslims are so obviously threatening, why the need to make things up about them?

Ultimately it is a matter of narrative. These fictional stories exist because a particular conspiratorial worldview, present among some commentators and newspaper editors, demands they do.

Terrorism may have triggered and even legitimised the paranoia associated with this vision, but these narratives transcend issues of political violence and physical security. Terrorism is only one of a range of news events conscripted into the service of a cultural discourse.

It is not that Muslims are necessarily terrorists (though the theme is never far away). It is that they, at least to the extent they are newsworthy, are a kind of cultural cancer: a foreign body whose presence in the host organ may fatally undermine it.

A Cardiff University study is instructive in this connection. It found that the number of reports in the British print news media concerning the religious and cultural issues associated with Muslims had now overtaken the number about terrorism. Such culture-based stories were a comparatively insignificant component of the British print media landscape as recently as 2002. It is a growth area, reflective of a growing discourse.

I’m not meaning to suggest that every such news report is imagined or exaggerated. Many are not. But the social discourses that feast so gleefully on this news have now gained such momentum that they generate their own grist. Such fabrications and distortions then, are ultimately symptomatic of a polemical social mood.

Here, we can observe the textbook definition of a moral panic manifesting itself. Consider Stanley Cohen’s classic description:

“A condition, episode, person or group of person emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values or interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions … Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way society conceives itself.”

As Cohen’s schema makes clear, no moral panic is possible without its “folk devils”: those held responsible for deviant behaviour, who emerge into the public space cast involuntarily in a villainous role. They are, in Sean Hier’s phrase, “stripped of all positive characteristics and endowed with pejorative evaluations.”

Of course, the identity of these devils varies naturally with time and place. We have long been familiar with this phenomenon. Whether it be Asian immigrants, welfare cheats, uncontrollable delinquent youth, or, once upon a time, Catholics, folk devils are a constant of public life. Their presence seems the necessary lubricant for public debate.

So today’s moral panic surrounds the Muslim folk devil. Note how a relatively trivial event is magnified to the point of front-page tabloid outrage. In this terrain, the normal rules of media prioritisation seem suspended: truly sensational news defers to the apparently trivial; foreign stories trump local ones.

Why? Because the narratives that surround the story are more sensational and localised than the stories they appropriate. Newsworthiness resides, not in the literal copy, but in its constructed context.

Allow the cabbies of Minnesota to demonstrate. The Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport is serviced by 900 taxi drivers, around three quarters of whom are Somali Muslims. In October 2006 The Australian reported that these drivers had “declared jihad on duty-free, refusing to carry passengers who are carrying alcohol.”

It is difficult to assess the genuine significance of the story. On one hand, an airport spokesman explained that these refusals had “slowly grown over the years to the point that it’s become a significant customer service issue for us.” On the other, airport commission statistics showed that of the 120,000 taxi rides from the airport in a two-month period, there were some 27 refusals – about 0.02%.

Whatever the case, the story was of limited gravity to an Australian audience, taken in isolation. The same could not be said for the story that broke only two days prior, that a bullet was fired into a Perth mosque while 400 people were worshipping, narrowly missing women and children. That was both local and sensational.

The Australian failed to report the mosque shooting. Yet it found the Minnesotan story sufficiently significant to warrant both front page exposure and an editorial. And it is in the editorial, that the reason for its prominence was made plain:

“What is happening at the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul is just as much of an indictment of multiculturalism as other incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation that occur on a near-daily basis among Westerners seeking to avoid or atone for offending the most prudish or outlandish of Islamic sensibilities. And it shows what can happen when a culture allows immigrants to behave as conquerors, instead of politely but firmly suggesting that newcomers who wish to impose their theocratic ways on a secular community try their luck elsewhere.”

An attempt to cause grievous bodily harm to Muslims in prayer simply does not feed an established media narrative. It remains an isolated incident of no enduring relevance or concern.

But when a cluster of Somali taxi drivers refuse to transport alcohol for clients, a prevalent discourse is reactivated. It becomes another instalment in a series of “incidences of self-censorship and self-flagellation” on the part of Westerners who are over-tolerant of the restrictive idiosyncrasies of Muslim migrants. It is, above all, an “indictment of multiculturalism.”

And indeed, The Australian has expended impressive energy running the prosecution. Only three weeks later, it editorialised even more forthrightly on the “veiled conceit of multiculturalism” in the following terms:

“Many Britons are concerned that multicultural policies that have discouraged assimilation have divided their society and created what one commentator called a ‘voluntary apartheid’ … While tolerance is certainly a positive virtue that should be strived for, it cannot be a cultural suicide pact. A culture that is tolerant of those who are intolerant of its freedoms is ripe for destruction, and bit by bit will see all it [sic] values eroded. And radical Islam knows this.”

This paper is not principally concerned with matters of media malpractice, but with the socio-political narratives that proceed from them: narratives of a Western culture besieged by the descending Muslim hordes, who exploit the “cultural suicide pact” of multiculturalism – that is to say, the most recent and popular incarnation of anti-multiculturalist discourse, which has asserted itself most energetically in the aftermath of the London bombings.

As I will demonstrate, it is a discourse steeped in mythology. We might expect Muslims to be the subject of this mythology, but as Hier reminds us:

“… although moral panics centre on a particular folk devil, the locus of the panic is not the object of its symbolic resonances, not the folk devil itself. Rather, folk devils serve as the ideological embodiment of deeper anxieties, perceived of as ‘a problem’ only in and through social definition and construction.”

This suggests that to the extent it follows the logic of moral panic, contemporary railing against multiculturalism is a product of deeper identity politics that ultimately have little to do with Muslims themselves.

If so, we may predict that any associated myth-making is not only about Muslims, but about the culture ostensibly being defended against them. While anti-multiculturalism condemns a policy that it perceives has been raised disastrously to the level of a political ideology, it produces a political ideology of its own: monoculturalism.

The popular anti-multiculturalist narrative

It is possible to object to multiculturalism on a range of diverse grounds. Zygmunt Bauman, for example, criticises it on essentially cosmopolitan grounds, arguing that it offers only “negative” rather than “positive” recognition; that is basic tolerance, rather than equal participation.

Johann Hari objects to it on the basis (among others) that it artificially deems minority cultures to be monolithic, static artefacts in a manner that denies people their individual agency. This is quite different from criticising multiculturalism as an assault on the majority.

In short, the fact that someone opposes multiculturalism does not immediately reveal their political orientations or their reasoning. There is not one single anti-multicultural narrative. There are several, with varying degrees of overlap.

But it is a fair assumption that the media performances encountered above outline the basic thrust of the most dominant, popular expression of anti-multiculturalism, certainly in Australia and probably throughout the Western world. To be sure, a comprehensive survey of objections to multiculturalism is beyond the size constraints of this paper. Accordingly, for present purposes it should suffice to engage with a broadly representative version of this popular anti-multiculturalist narrative.

That narrative has been introduced above in short form. But it deserves to be rendered in more detail here, so we can more subtly appreciate its key characteristics. And here, perhaps quintessentially, stands Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan.

Although Phillips’ focus is on Britain, many of her arguments are replicated by Australia’s most strident anti-multiculturalists, often in precise terms. In fact, Londonistan represents probably the fullest expression of popular anti-multiculturalism found in Australia.

Phillips devotes an entire chapter of the book to the emphatic excoriation of multiculturalism, which she defines as

“the doctrine that … holds that Britain is now made up of many cultures that are all equal and therefore have to be treated in an identical fashion, and that any attempt to impose the majority culture over those of minorities is by definition racist.”

Her basic argument is frankly apocalyptic: through multiculturalism, British culture has completely surrendered itself to the politics of minority separateness that has nurtured nothing less than radical Islamism.

Britain, then, is “paralysed by a multicultural threat it cannot even bring itself to name.” Its very survival is precarious both physically and culturally, and multiculturalism is to blame.

For Phillips, the twin scourges of relativism and post-modernism laid the foundation for this. Together with the collapse of the British Empire and post-colonial guilt, they conspired to reduce British culture to a nullity. In its place emerged the “revolutionary ideology of the left” during the 1960s and 70s which shattered the moral assumptions of society. Hippies destroyed Britain.

The alleged result was a cultural vacuum into which marched assertive, corrosive minorities. “Muticulturalism and antiracism were now the weapons with which minorities were equipped to beat the majority,” Phillips asserts, making plain what she means in the following passage:

“Britain … has effectively allowed itself to be taken hostage by militant gays, feminists or ‘anti-racists’ who used weapons such as public vilification, moral blackmail and threats to people’s livelihoods to force the majority to give in to their demands. And those demands were identical to those made by the Islamists: not merely to tolerate their values as minority rights but to replace normative values altogether and subordinate the values of the majority to the minority, because majority values set up a hierarchy that is deemed to be innately discriminatory. So when Muslims refused to accept minority status and insisted instead that their values must trump those of the majority, Britain had no answer.”

The point for Phillips is that minorities – specifically migrants and especially Muslims – need to be told how to behave. Left to their own devices – or worse, invited to retain their cultural identities – they will proceed disastrously to inflict their backward cultures on the majority.

So, says Phillips, Muslims commenced “campaigning for public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.” They sought to establish their own schools, and demanded halal meat in others. They sought separate education for girls, and burned copies of The Satanic Verses to coerce the British government into banning Salman Rushdie’s book.

No doubt the lynch-mob behaviour of these last protests were irredeemably contemptible, as was that which surrounded the Danish cartoon imbroglio of 2006. But why should this be lumped together with a desire for halal meat in schools or Islamic private schools as some kind of cultural invasion? There is nothing in the majority British culture Phillips so venerates that precludes the consumption of halal meat. Its impact on majority culture is little to none.

Similarly, non-Muslim (and especially Christian) faith schools are common in Britain. Where is Phillips’ rage towards Britain’s Jewish schools? Or does she deny they exist? After all, she makes plain that British Jews are an exceptional minority because they were always considered too privileged to be allowed to benefit from multicultural largesse. Presumably, then, they never campaigned for “public recognition of their religious agenda by the state.”

Are we to conclude that they never sought to establish their own schools? Or is that only an act of cultural aggression when Muslims do it?

It surely cannot be that Britain’s Jewish schools are necessarily more demographically inclusive. Certainly, some are spectacularly so, like Birmingham’s King David School, about half of whose students are Muslims. (How confounding it must be for Phillips to discover Muslim students – whose mothers mostly wear the hijab and are reportedly devout – who learn modern Hebrew, celebrate Israeli Independence Day and recite Jewish prayers!)

But if this is Phillips’ reasoning, will she similarly condemn the Jewish school that refused to admit a child because his mother was not born a Jew? It doesn’t particularly concern me, but then, I don’t consider the establishment of religious private schools by minorities a form of cultural invasion.

Or perhaps Phillips’ complaints are ultimately about terrorism. After all, the logical extension of this is that “multiculturalism has unwittingly fomented Islamic radicalism in the sacred cause of ‘diversity’.”

So maybe the difference is that Jews don’t detonate bombs on London public transport. True. But then again, neither do all but four British Muslims, none of whom attended a British Islamic school. In fact, it is difficult to identify even a single Western Muslim terrorist who attended an Islamic private school in the West.

Typically the story of radicalisation has been one that climaxes around the age of tertiary education and has nothing to do with secondary-school brainwashing. Most who turn to violence have a comparatively shallow history of religiosity. Their teen years are more likely to have been substantially irreligious.

Such double standards seem to be a regular feature of popular anti-multiculturalism, a fact exposed in Australia with the emergence of the Exclusive Brethren. The Howard Government had been sceptical of what it termed “zealous multiculturalism.” It famously dropped the phrase “multicultural affairs” from the relevant government department. It instituted citizenship tests to require migrants to learn the English language, Australian history and Australian values.

Indeed, as Prime Minister, John Howard had an unabashed emphasis on values: Muslims were often commanded to integrate, which “means accepting Australian values” such as “the equality of men and women.”

The Exclusive Brethren confounded this. News reports depicted this Christian sect shunning democracy to the extent that it forbade voting. It shunned non-believers, requiring its members to avoid conversation with them, and was prepared to separate children from parents if necessary. It shunned university education. It protected men who were convicted of sexually abusing young girls, and vandalised the homes of those bringing the charges. Its women were commanded to wear long, loose-fitting clothes. It flouted court orders.

In short, it rejected such well rehearsed Australian values as democracy, the rule of law, gender equality and tolerance, and it certainly rejected integration. Yet, the values-promoting Prime Minister not only refrained from lecturing this sect on integration, he repeatedly met with its members, while his party benefited from Exclusive Brethren donations.

When pressed on this, John Howard remarked that “it’s a free country … and they were not breaking the law” – which is as true for the Exclusive Brethren is it is for Muslims, whether they speak English or not.

There are several curious features of Phillips’ anti-multicultural analysis that render it ambiguous, even incongruous. “Muslims regard Western values as an assault on Islamic principles,” she declares, echoing the assumption popular among Western politicians that terrorists are motivated by a hatred of the Western way of life.

Yet Phillips has just finished making the case that Western values have been sacrificed to the cult of multiculturalism, relativised out of meaningful existence. “Britain,” she bemoans, “has become a largely post-Christian society, where traditional morality has been systematically undermined and replaced by an ‘anything goes’ culture.”

Precisely which “Western values,” then, do Muslims regard as under “assault”? Or do they take umbrage at the post-modern absence of values in the West? If so, Phillips might consider joining them.

There is something vaguely paradoxical at work here. If recalcitrant minorities fume violently at values that allegedly no longer exist, the solution, it seems, is to enforce conformity with shared values in the defence of liberal democracy. It is a mind-bending prescription.

An inescapable implication of liberalism is the individual’s freedom of thought. That means nothing if it does not permit the individual to subscribe to dissenting value systems that may even be repugnant to the majority, just as freedom of speech means nothing without the freedom to offend.

The liberal democratic state may well reflect one set of cultural norms over another – through its use of an official language and its marking of particular national days, for instance – but it does not seek to prescribe or determine the personal values of its citizens.

Its values are primarily institutional: the rule of law, freedom of speech and conscience. It has no interest in intervening until the law is breached, and it does not use the law as a means of implementing mass culture.

That is, it potentially leads us to something like the position John Howard articulated with regard to the Exclusive Brethren. Until the law turns to something like legalising behaviour that harms other individuals, such as honour killings – which it simply will never do – there should be no existential crisis for liberal democracy.

Yet many anti-multiculturalists too easily resort to a kind of groupism, prosecuting an identity politics of collectivism. Muslims and other minorities are clustered together and judged on the basis of their group membership.

Generalisations are made about their values and attitudes quite inconsistently with liberalism’s axiomatic individualism. Simultaneously, a majority group is constructed whose values are determined for it by the declaration of an elite.

As we have seen, Phillips is anxious that minorities know their place; that they understand they are minorities and behave as such. That reveals a collectivist instinct. Should she not be apprehending them as individual citizens?

As Geoffrey Brahm Levey observes, multiculturalism in Australia has proceeded from the assumptions of liberalism:

“Australian multicultural policy is highly individualistic … It is each individual who enjoys the rights (such as those to cultural identity and respect, and access to equity) and bears the responsibilities (of abiding by Australia’s liberal democratic institutions) under the policy. Lest there be any ambiguity, the National Agenda goes on to state that: ‘Fundamentally, multiculturalism is about the rights of the individual’.”

This does not mean multiculturalism is liberalism’s necessary logical extension. Certainly, liberalism should have no quibble with the presence of several cultures within a single society, but it may quite plausibly object to a state policy of multiculturalism on the ground that the state should engage with citizens as individuals, rather than as members of a cultural group.

The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen mounts precisely this argument: “it’s time for our political leaders to stop engaging with Muslims as Muslims,” she writes. “They are citizens; no special rules apply.” Yet she applauds when they engage with Muslims – specifically and exclusively so – where that engagement takes the form of outlining for them which personal values they must accept.

Of course, it is true that values are critically important to society, for it could scarcely exist without them. But if values are to be promoted within the framework of liberalism, they are not the stuff of government declaration and should not be articulated in group terms.

This government performance Albrechtsen so admires is ultimately an illiberal one. It is not one whereby the government stresses Muslims’ standing in society as individuals – which seems at best to be her starting point. It is not demanding Muslims think of themselves civicly as individuals. It is doing the opposite: addressing and conceiving of them as a collective for the purpose of demanding conformity with a collective majority.

So the groupist orientation of much anti-multiculturalist discourse, often from those who champion liberalism, presents an intriguing tension. It suggests there might be something more at play than the dispassionate application of a political philosophy.

Such double standards also point to something of a parochial streak. There are plenty of non-Muslim Australians whose personal values are affronting to the majority. Often they form religious or political groups. Yet they are rarely chosen for some kind of public, group-based values education – or even values education at all.

In this narrative there are, ultimately, those who belong and those who do not, and in any such dynamic, the rhetorical field is vulnerable to a substantial dose of mythology. Indeed, the examples already canvassed of media fabrication and distortion indicate that the myth-making process, at least to the extent it concerns Muslims, is well under way.

Anti-multiculturalism and the mythical Muslim

Implicit in much of the above is a conflation. Discrete issues – such as faith-based schooling and terrorism – become rhetorically fused in a single, groupist narrative. This is presented as if there is no conceptual difference between the Muslim requesting halal catering and the one who aims to bomb Britain into an Islamic pseudo-theocracy.

To the extent these social menaces differ, they differ only in degree. One adopts a more violent methodology than the other but both are presented as though they are vanguards of the same cause: a cultural war determined to displace the dominant culture by whatever means are available.

In this way, the trivial story is projected hysterically onto the largest available screen, often the front page. Sometimes these reports are simply fabricated, but this is not necessary. It is sufficient that that they fit the narrative being constructed.

So at our breakfast tables in Australia we are invited to bristle at a handful of taxi drivers in Minnesota, in the belief that they signify an existential threat. The fact that Western societies have precisely nothing to fear from, say, halal or similarly kosher food being served in school cafeterias is completely submerged by a discourse of cultural panic.

The associated vision of Muslims is, quite obviously, an unflattering one. Here, Muslims are monolithic, belong to unchanging cultures, and are intolerant of pluralism and dispute. They subjugate women. They use their faith mainly for political purposes and for strategic and military advantage, and have made no meaningful contributions to debates on Western liberalism, modernity or secularism. Islam itself is a successor to Nazism and communism.

Moreover, Phillips boldly generalises this dystopian portrait, insisting that all of the “assertions about Muslims in this list are without exception true, at least in part.” Meanwhile, Only a “small minority in Britain are horrified” by all of these attitudes, while “a troubling number … subscribe to all of them and the majority subscribe to at least some.” She demonstrates none of this, of course. Phillips merely asserts it as unimpeachable fact, warning that any denial of its truth “displays a spectacular proclivity towards national suicide.”

Thus does Phillips see a marauding aggressive minority which, like its medieval forebears, is bent on conquest. For her, this is apparently some kind of coordinated scheme for cultural and political domination: “jihadi Islamism … has become today the dominant strain within the Islamic world,” she asserts without any empirical evidence to support such a startling claim.

She estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of British Muslims – from a population nearing 2 million – “lead law-abiding lives and merely want to prosper and raise their families in peace”. That is to say a majority do not.

On this score, Phillips probably goes further than most of her fellow anti-multiculturalists who deploy safer caveats about a “moderate” majority. But her general characterisation of the Muslim minority has broader support:

“The attempt to establish this separate Muslim identity is growing more and more intense, with persistent pressure for official recognition of Islamic family law, the rise of a de facto parallel Islamic legal system not recognised by the state, demands for highly politicised Islamic dress codes, prayer meetings or halal food to be provided by schools and other institutions, and so on. No other minority attempts to impose its values on the host society like this.”

Really? Official recognition of a parallel religious legal system governing areas of family law (and commercial matters) is what British Jews already have in the form of the Beth Din – which is backed by no less than an Act of Parliament.

Perhaps other minorities have not attempted to secure “prayer meetings” (whatever that means), but we do know that Jewish students have demanded – perfectly reasonably – that exams be shifted so they can observe the Sabbath, even being prepared to resort to legal action to ensure it.

Phillips does not make clear precisely what she means by “highly politicised Islamic dress codes,” but if she is referring to various forms of veiling, it is an absurd argument. Partly this is because Phillips has simply deemed veiling to be politicised when there is no reason this must necessarily be the case – and little evidence that it is for most British Muslim women.

It is, at bottom, a religious mode of dress, and Muslims are far from alone in seeking the right to wear religious items in schools. For example, a Sikh girl in Wales took her school to the High Court for suspending her because she wore a religious bangle. Some 25 years previously, a Sikh boy took similar action against a school that tried to force him to cut his hair and remove his turban.

And precisely how consistently does Phillips maintain that Muslims are the most aggressively imposing minority? What about the militant gays, feminists and “anti-racists” whose demands, you will recall, “were identical to those made by the Islamists”?

It is apparent that Phillips views Muslims, and “multicultural” British society generally, through thoroughly jaundiced lenses. For her, multicultural relativism has so completely eviscerated British values and identity, so unremittingly sanctified minority cultures beyond censure, that it is no longer possible to criticise Muslims:

“Multiculturalism … forbade criticism of Muslim practices such as forced marriages or polygamy … Even to draw attention to such practices was to be labelled a racist. After all, were not these customs now said to be morally equal to British traditions, such as equal rights for women and the protection of children’s educational interests?”

The suggestion that Muslims are now above criticism because of a multicultural orthodoxy that prevails “throughout all the institutions of British public life” is not merely a wild overstatement. It is among the more perverse fantasies circulating in the mainstream Western public conversation.

The Cardiff University study referred to earlier identified that 69% of stories about Muslims in the British press since 2000 represent Muslims as a “source of problems or in opposition to traditional British culture,” while only 5% of stories “were based on attacks on or problems for British Muslims.”

The trend is echoed in the findings of a 2007 study that of all the articles about Muslims in a news week chosen at random, 4% “positive,” 5% were “neutral,” and a staggering 91% were “negative.”

Even if we assume – perhaps charitably – that none of these articles was in any way fabricated, distorted or exaggerated and that all were entirely newsworthy, it is clear that most of these “institutions of British public life” feel no reluctance at all to “draw attention” to negative aspects of Muslim behaviour.

Indeed, as Peter Oborne and James Jones have observed, the preparedness to criticise Muslims and Islam proudly is alive and well across the political spectrum. After noting rather forthright examples from a range of British commentators and novelists, they conclude that the record demonstrates “the power of Islamophobia to unite public culture at every level. It is not just confined to so-called tabloid newspapers. It is to be found in the broadsheets as well.”

Perhaps the most startling example they cite comes from Polly Toynbee, “normally regarded as a model of political correctness” who declares “I am an Islamophobe, and proud of it.” Not much multicultural reticence there.

Perhaps Phillips is right to assume some will deem Toynbee racist. Toynbee herself assumes the same. But that fact, on its own, is of unclear significance. Many others will either cheer her on or say nothing.

It is utterly implausible to argue anti-Muslim rhetoric is being silenced. Toynbee remains one of The Guardian’s most prominent and influential columnists. The same is true of Phillips and The Daily Mail. Indeed, several of the Western world’s most prominent (and promoted) writers and columnists are of a similar view: Mark Steyn, Robert Spencer and Oriana Fallaci are but a few. This is some strange brand of censorship.

Still, this is only half the story. There is some truth to the observation that myth-making about Islam and Muslims has a long Western history of which today’s mythology is the latest instalment. But the popular anti-multiculturalist narrative leaves us clues that suggest a broader rhetorical game.

Phillips’ argument, for example, traverses extraordinary breadth, much of which has nothing directly to do with Muslims: internationalism and human rights law are similarly lashed. A similar tendency is visible in The Australian‘s criticisms of “inner-city post-modernists and progressives” in editorialising in the area.

This places us squarely in the culture wars, in which Muslims are largely rhetorical pawns. This suggests that, at the very deepest level, the debate about multiculturalism is not about Muslims, even if it seems unhealthily preoccupied with them. Rather, it is about the dominant culture. This observation has a symmetry about it that makes perfect intuitive sense. To construct an ideal outsider is in fact to construct one’s self. The relationship is symbiotic.

This is perfectly consistent with Hier’s observations about the role of the folk devil. It exists not merely for its own sake, but as a means of allowing us to engage with deeper anxieties. If it is true that much popular anti-multiculturalist discourse fashions a mythical Muslim, then the corollary is that it generates a similar mythology about the besieged dominant culture.

Making the mythical “Us”

In any essentialised criticism of a social out-group there is another unstated message being communicated: that those criticisms do not apply to us. To berate Muslims for intolerance, militancy or misogyny is simultaneously to celebrate the majority’s tolerance, peacefulness and gender equity. It is both an admonition and an exoneration.

Understanding this helps explain why, in James Button’s words, “responses to Islam confound old distinctions of left and right. A conservative Dutch Government is insisting that would-be Muslim migrants recognise the Netherlands’ commitment to feminism and gay rights before they come.”

Indeed, it is precisely in the interests of a conservative politician to do so. In appropriating these causes they can celebrate them as achievements, rather than as ongoing struggles. This leaves them complete such that the conservative need take no further action.

As long as Muslims remain central, villainous characters in the values conversation, any progressive attack is blunted. The conservative politician can retort compellingly: “we are not misogynists and homophobes – they are!” It has become a common rhetorical feature. Said John Howard:

“… in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is. And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia. That men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect.”

In what other context would Howard celebrate the idea that Australia is “contemporary and progressive”? And who, in this context, can disagree?

No doubt, many feminists will contest the assertion that “men and women do have equality” in Australia, but when the conversation is shifted to a relative one juxtaposing Muslims, any such argument is unsustainable and therefore lost.

And so a heroic self-image is gradually constructed – an ideal self where all vice has been exported onto a demonic other. The constructed foe, then, depends on who we need ourselves to be. The welfare cheat affirms us as honest and hard-working. The uncontrollable adolescent reassures us of the competence of our own parenting.

So, as Meyda Yegenoglu observes, the veiled Muslim woman was once an untamed seductress, drawing animalistic, lustful men into grave sin. That was the view of a virtuous, sexually proper Europe. Today she is a symbol of oppression for a free West, or even a symbol of violent radicalism for a West that is peace-loving (since its many wars are without exception noble and unavoidable rather than self-interested and plundering). This cloth is a flexible symbol indeed.

The self need never be engaged critically in this process. It is simply venerated. This is self-affirmation by declaration. Its relationship to history can, of course, be casual. Thus it becomes entirely possible even for German politicians to talk to its minorities as if the Holocaust never happened.

Recall the case of Ashkan Dejegah, a footballer who plays for Germany but also holds an Iranian passport. Dejegah refused to travel with the team to play against Israel, not as a matter of ideological conviction, but for fear that he would be barred entry to Iran in future. German outrage was understandably palpable, but Christian Democrats general secretary Ronald Pofalla’s choice of words was instructively poor: “Whoever represents Germany, whether he be a native German or an immigrant, has to identify with the history and culture of our society.” Given the “history and culture” of twentieth-century Germany, this is the darkest of ironies.

The invocation of history in this context is far from exceptional. Indeed much popular anti-multiculturalism relies on presenting the besieged majority has the guardians of history and tradition.

The sub-text is hardly subtle: that it is Muslims (or migrants generally) who have brought these vices with them. Hence their exceptionalism. There is something unique about their presence that threatens an unprecedented cultural fracture. The past was certain, confident and good.

Which brings us back to Phillips. A key assumption of her analysis is that Britain’s traditional policy of assimilation, expressed and emerged from a “robust sense of pride in its national culture and history.” Multiculturalism is therefore the product of “a series of developments [that] shattered Britain’s confidence in its own integrity and, deeper still, its very sense of what the nation was.”

This necessarily implies – though Phillips says it explicitly – that “[u]ntil about forty years ago, British society had been relatively homogeneous … British national identity centred upon a set of traditions, laws and customs arising out of its Christian heritage”.

It is a crutch on which Phillips regularly leans. “Judaism and Christianity,” she writes, are “the creeds that formed the bedrock of Western civilisation.” Accordingly, what is so problematic about Muslim migrants, unlike their Jewish predecessors, is that they are “foreign to the Judeo-Christian Western heritage.”

Much is invested in this foundational Judeo-Christian heritage by anti-multiculturalists. The Australian Government makes special note of it in its information booklet for prospective citizens. The Howard Government spruiked it regularly.

It is invoked as a historical anchor, yet the entire concept of a Judeo-Christian heritage, at least as used by Phillips to connote a harmoniously shared culture and values system, is a remarkable re-writing of history.

The idea of that Jews and Christians share values or beliefs does not appear until probably the 1930s, and the mere suggestion of it will have been anathema to many Christians until after World War II (the Jews, after all, were guilty of the most heinous of crimes: deicide).

Moreover this is a historical legacy that cannot be rendered exclusively Catholic, and from which Britain cannot claim to be unproblematically exempt. We forget that the attacks of militant Zionism against the British proceeded in part from Menachem Begin’s belief in the incurable anti-Semitism of Christian Europe, including the British, whom he accused of “determinedly shut[ting] their ears to the cry of Jewish blood dyeing the rivers of Europe” because they “very eagerly wanted the Jews not to be saved”.

In theological terms, the construction of a Judeo-Christian tradition is similarly incoherent. Certainly, Jews and Christians partially share scripture. But they interpret it in fundamentally different ways, evidenced by the fact that no Jewish theologian could have imagined the Trinity.

Indeed, of the great monotheistic faiths, Christianity constitutes the greatest theological departure. Islamic and Judaic monotheism have far more in common. Their legal traditions more closely converge. If there is an odd one out in this triumvirate, it is Christianity.

The forging of a Judeo-Christian tradition as a historical basis for Western civilisation is more a political act than a historical fact. Indeed the term’s very creation was an attempt to resist the fascistic, anti-Semitic discourse of those who promoted the exclusively protestant identity of America. To that end, it was a noble piece of linguistic innovation, quite at odds with the contemporary tendency to use it as a statement of exclusion.

This is how we create new cultures, new histories, new objects of veneration while pretending it was ever thus. The effect is to convey a heightened sense of cultural assault, in spite of the fact that some banks had chosen to cease using them without violating national heritage regulations.

Similarly were we introduced to “the long-enshrined legal principle that taxis are a public conveyance open to all” so undermined in Minnesota. Perhaps it really is a long-enshrined legal principle. We’re unlikely to know because it is hardly a point of law that draws our regular admiration or figures in our daily conversations. It is not the Magna Carta. But there is a message being conveyed in the gravity of the language here.

The Judeo-Christian example provides a nice illustration of how national narratives can change. The outcast, often brutalised Jew in time becomes the ontological insider. When Phillips speaks of a certain, stable British identity, her time horizons are vast: “for around one thousand years, [Britain’s] demographic profile remained remarkably stable,” she writes as though this implies an uncontested British identity.

It is a gloss that might have bemused many Welshmen and especially Scots over the centuries, who have quite clearly identified differently. Even (or especially) today, local identities are threatening to undermine the British union to the extent that The Daily Telegraph saw fit to launch a wonderfully blunt “Call Yourself British” campaign.

The simple fact is that nation states are artificial creations often sustained by mythical narratives, coercion and violence. Phillips writes as though they are divine truths, threatened by the immigration of those who, in the natural order, belong elsewhere.

Here we have the nostalgic fiction of an ossified national culture that has ever been thus until multiculturalism and cultural relativism uprooted it. She assumes, indeed celebrates, a pre-existing monoculture. The main weakness of this portrait of course is that it fails to account for the fact that cultures are always contested and dynamic.

Here we find the residue of the groupist mindset earlier identified. As minorities are essentialised, so too are the majority. Each belongs to a group with a distinct, unchanging culture. This leaves only one option for anti-multiculturalists: to ensure that minorities are pulled into line with their dominant hosts. There is no room for mutual evolution. One must yield to the other.

And yet Australia in particular is a compelling example of the fluidity of culture and identity. “Anglo-Australian culture,” writes Levey, has “been changed in various ways by successive waves of migrants, from the rise of soccer as a popular sport, to so-called ‘new Australian cuisine’, to the now national preference for coffee over tea and wine over beer.”

Such cultural accretions are an inevitable consequence of human interaction. Values and identity are similarly dynamic. This is, after all, a nation that once saw itself in thoroughly British terms, as a colonial outpost with a specific racial composition – that once denied its indigenous population a civic existence in accordance this self-imagination. Human societies are inescapably responsive to their changing surroundings. Would Australian values now include environmentalism?

Naturally, this does not render culture entirely relative. Cultures differ, as anyone who has attempted to conduct business internationally can confirm. There are different boundaries of propriety, norms of formality, and yes, contrasting values systems. We should not be hesitant in acknowledging this.

Moreover, it is true that Australia quite obviously has predominantly a British cultural inheritance. Our government follows the Westminster system. Our courts are populated with barristers, not “trial lawyers” or inquisitorial judges. We continue to play cricket.

Note, however, that these are only broad observations. Beyond this lies the rich terrain of dynamism and contestation; of culture and subculture; of current and counter-current.

Do not the value systems of artists regularly challenge those of the political elite? Have not the values of environmentalists long been at odds with those of big business, and if this is changing, is that not spectacular dynamism? Was not the Howard Government’s WorkChoices policy an affront to the values of a significant portion of the electorate?

Such questions, and the associated arguments, could continue ad infinitum. We could unpack every value articulated in official government literature by assessing it in the light of government action if we wished. How is “compassion for those in need” expressed in the policy of the mandatory detention of children? Was the invasion of Iraq a manifestation of our “peacefulness”?

The problem with these questions is that in attempting to flesh out the meaning of Australian values, they simply end up articulating a contested political position. That is the nature of such intangibles. Any attempt at precise definition quickly becomes a subjective political orientation masquerading as a national consensus.

* * *

Folk devils are useful servants. They at once justify righteous rage and provide us the opportunity to articulate who we are through identifying who we are not. Predictably, more than any other minority in the post-September 11 era, Western Muslims have found themselves conscripted into this service.

Whether it be through the discourse of politicians, or through media reporting and commentary, they have become the central protagonists in a refreshed rhetorical attack on multiculturalism throughout much of the Western world.

Those attacks are diverse, but in contemplating the most popular anti-multiculturalist narrative, we can observe the mythologies surrounding a moral panic in action. Obviously, much of this myth-making concerns Muslims, centred especially on the potentially disastrous threat they pose to an overly-tolerant cultural majority. But equally important is the myth-making concerning that majority.

“As a descriptor, multicultural fits nicely,” writes Albrechtsen on the basis that Australia has integrated millions of migrants. “But once the ‘ism’ was added to multicultural, an accurate adjective morphed into a philosophy.” And it is this “philosophy” to which she objects.

Yet when popular anti-multiculturalists take it upon themselves to defend Western values from multicultural assault, their account of Western culture is by no means merely descriptive. It is ideologically active in its own right – or in Albrechtsen’s terms, philosophical. That is to say it promulgates no less an “ism” than the one they construct as so culturally suicidal.

This newly created “ism” is not liberalism, for as we have seen, it strays too far into collectivist areas to be an untainted expression of liberal ideology.

But consider the mythology that lies at the heart of popular anti-multiculturalist rhetoric: the remaking of history, the ossification of culture, and the attempt to reformulate one’s political orientation as a statement of traditionally shared values. That can only properly be described as “monoculturalism.”

Waleed Aly is a lecturer in politics at Monash University, where he also works within the Global Terrorism Research Centre. He is the author of People Like Us (Picador, 2007). An earlier version of this article was published in Essays on Muslims and Multiculturalism, edited by Raimond Gaita (Text Publishing, 2011).

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Conservatives all at sea over human rights

agendaTracker

AT LARGE:
By Chris Graham, September 25, 2011

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers arrive by boat on Christmas Island, July 8, 2011. (AAP Image/Josh Jerga)

NATIONAL: The greatest threat to our nation is not boat people – it’s been living here for the past 200 years, writes CHRIS GRAHAM*.

Australia, at least for me, is a paradox. As Dorothy McKellar famously wrote, ‘I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges and droughts and flooding rains.’

The extremes in our landscape and our weather seem to have been etched into our national psyche as well, which is something I’ve never quite understood.

As a nation, we are capable of extraordinary acts of generosity. Australians donated more than $100 million to the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami that devastated Indonesia. John Howard, in one of his few genuinely decent acts while Prime Minister, topped up that individual largesse with a $1 billion government aide package.

And yet we don’t actually like Indonesia. In particular, we don’t like Indonesians, especially after what they did in Timor-Leste.

When Indonesian military backed a suppression of the East Timorese in the late 90s, Australians felt genuine outrage and demanded intervention. Howard, quite rightly, pointed out that sending troops into Indonesia uninvited could also be described as ‘an invasion’.

Pressure mounted, and Howard – to his administration’s great credit – got Australian troops in via the United Nations.

It is a matter of enduring national pride that Australia played such an active and important role in helping the East Timorese secure independence.

And having done so, we promptly set about trying to screw them out of their oil and gas reserves.

Timor-Leste, it’s worth noting is one of the poorest nations on the planet, ranking 120 out of 169 countries in the United Nation’s Human Development Index.

Australia is ranked third.

Of course, our national contradictions are not just international in nature. We have plenty of homegrown ones as well. We’ve built a multicultural utopia, a system where people of all races and creeds live together harmoniously.

I work in Parramatta, Sydney. Walk down the street of the CBD any given day and in the space of a few minutes you’ll have passed people from dozens of different countries and cultures.

There’s no suicide bombings. There’s no rampant violence. Everybody goes about their business. It just works.

Yet at the same time, the level of overt racism and hostility towards these very same immigrants can be staggering.

We hate the ‘curry munchers who drive our cabs’ because they smell funny… and are prepared to work harder than we are. We hate the ‘slopeheads who take all the best spots at university’ because they look funny… and are prepared to work harder than we are.

This white angst has its roots in one ugly personality trait: greed. We want it all, and we want it now. We want to be seen to be a sharing nation, without actually having to share it too much.

People talk about kids these days being part of the ‘Me generation’. I think the argument is horseshit. Children today are smarter, more educated and more compassionate than we ever were.

The fact is, the ‘Me generation’ is not a generation at all – it’s a nation of people. Australian people.

We spend our days worrying that someone else might get more than we do. I believe I know the cause.
Conservatives.

I’m not talking about  all ‘conservatives’ – the capital ‘L’ Liberal, for example, who believes in small government and modest change, but also human rights.

I’m talking about the nutter , the loony right-wingers who populate both our major political parties (and beyond), and who dominate the airwaves and the pages of our mainstream papers.

I call them ‘Big C’ conservatives.

They live miserable lives, and they’re determined that you should as well.

Big C conservatives are the scowlers of our society. If they’re not whipping people into a frenzy on some radio station about ‘some PC nonsense’, then they’re the ones phoning in to some radio station to complain about ‘some PC nonsense’.

But if you really want to get to know the Big C conservative, it helps to look at the sorts of social issues that get their knickers in a knot.

They’re the people who predicted native title would threaten the backyards of all Australians. Never happened.

They’re the people who suggested in 2006, when the Single Noongar Claim was handed down, that access to our beaches might be under threat. Never happened.

When land rights was introduced in NSW in 1983, the Big C conservatives howled and screamed that it would be the ruination of a nation. Never happened.

The Big C’s railed against a national apology for the better part of a decade, claiming it would lead to a flood of compensation claims. Never happened.

These are the same people who told you that Italians wouldn’t assimilate; that the Greeks would overrun the country; that the Vietnamese would form ghettos and never assimilate.

They hate Muslims, want to ban the burqa and believe Islam is a threat, as though Christianity is free from extremism. And they’re the same ranters who oppose things like a treaty with our First Nations, or a Bill of Rights, both of which are mechanisms designed – shock horror – to protect basic human rights for all.

And it’s not only helpful to look at what the Big C conservatives oppose. It’s also about what they support.

The Northern Territory intervention has been a disastrous policy for the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments. And yet it still draws widespread support among the Big C’s today.

They wail ‘Who will think of the children’, having sat and done precisely nothing for decades while the adults of today – once also children – grew up in third world poverty in a first world nation.

Aboriginal affairs is littered with the policy corpses of bone stupid ideas from bone stupid Big C conservatives.

They’re the creators of the odious ‘Shared Responsibility Agreements’ and welfare quarantining. Remember the COAG trials. Run by Big C’s. Hindmarsh Island affair. Big C’s again.

If they had a marketing phrase to promote membership to their ranks, it would be this: ‘The Big C’s: exploiting Australian ignorance since Federation’.

Aboriginal people, more than any other group, have been the targets of these misinformation campaigns. But the most spectacular recent example of Big C conservatives getting it wrong on an important social issue lies in the debate around asylum seekers, one of the few groups of people on earth who could seriously compete with the Australian blackfella for the mantle of ‘world’s most disadvantaged’.

If you’ve never seen the SBS series Go Back Where You Came From, you must. It should be required viewing for all Australians.

It is the most impacting television series I’ve ever watched. You can watch it online for no cost at http://www.sbs.com.au/shows/goback.

At the risk of spoiling the ending, six Australians embarked on a 25-day journey to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers.

“Tracing in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia, they travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world,” said the show’s creators.

Each of the participants was chosen not because they were rednecks, but because they were ordinary Australians.

They just happened to have (with one exception) very extreme views. That, I’d argue, is what makes them ordinary Australians in the first place. With emphasis on the ‘ordinary’.

One of the women from the show, Raye Colby, expressed the view at the start of the series that it was a good thing refugees died en-masse at Christmas Island last year.

“Serves them bloody right,” she sneered.

Colby’s primary objection? That asylum seekers get fed and cared for by the Australian taxpayer, and – wait for it – have access to big screen TVs while in detention. But the capitulation of Colby and the others as the show unfolds is stunning.

The most startling turnaround for me was from Adam Hartup, a Cronulla lifeguard who admits to being present during the Cronulla race riots. Hartup began the show referring to asylum seekers as “these criminals” who come to Australia illegally.

Later in the series there’s footage of Hartup in an Iraqi hospital, dancing with men and boys missing arms and other body parts, the inevitable result of an illegal and immoral war in which Australia was an active participant.

It makes for gut-wrenching viewing.

Unsurprisingly, confronted with the reasons why people get on boats to come to Australia, Hartup completely reverses his view. But he hadn’t even left the country before he began questioning the popular Australian narrative – the Big C conservative spin – on asylum seekers.

What got Hartup thinking was a trip just 30 kilometres from his home, to the Villawood Detention Centre.

There, after just two hours talking to detainees, Hartup and his ‘average Australian’ view of the world was knocked for six.

“It shook me up a bit. Bit of a reality check actually,” said Hartup immediately after the meeting.

He quickly came to the view that getting on a leaky boat to Australia was an entirely reasonable response to the circumstances facing many asylum seekers.

Now here’s the rub. On issues like native title and land rights, it can sometimes take a decade or more for the scare campaigns of the Big C’s to be exposed for what they are. Unadulterated rubbish.

But for Adam Hartup, it took just two hours for the whole Big C conservative story that he’d swallowed hook, line and sinker to collapse.

Which brings me to the central point of this column: If the Big C conservatives always get this stuff wrong – and the passage of time shows they do – then why do we continue to allow them space in public discussion on key social issues?

Why do we listen when they play politics with the lives of asylum seekers and Aboriginal people?

And why do average Australians keep looking to Big C conservatives for their policy revelations on Aboriginal affairs? Why does media promote them?

Why do we believe that the people who always get it wrong, might one day get it right? Isn’t that the very definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different outcome?

The fact is, it’s time to shut these people down, to ignore their shrieking on key social issues in public debate.

Dorothy McKellar’s poem about Australia is entitled ‘My Country’. It’s high time we took it back from the Big C’s.

* Chris Graham is the Managing Editor of Tracker magazine. He is a Walkley Award and Human Rights award winning journalist.

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Andrew Bolt, racial vilification and ‘freedom of speech’

Magna est veritas et praevalet”: Great is Truth, and Mighty Above All Things.

Mark Bahnisch

I welcome the decision of Justice Bromberg in Eatock v Bolt, delivered in the Federal Court in Melbourne today. It is, to my mind, a just decision, and not just in law.

Predictably, of course, the decision has not been welcomed by many (and in this context it is very much worth reading the statement of one of the plaintiffs, Dr Anita Heiss). The noise machine has veritably exploded in angry fury, with absurd and risible claims being made that “it is now illegal to discuss racial identification”, to pick just one of the stupidities being touted in the lamentable revival of the hoary and false notion of ‘political correctness’.

Such claims do violence to the judgement, the text of which can be found here.

On Twitter, @Robcorr responded:

Nonsense. The case was lost because Andrew Bolt imputed that some people are too fair-skinned to be genuine Aboriginal people, that those people choose to falsely identify as Aboriginal for personal gain, and that fair-skinned Aboriginal people were likely to be “offended, insulted, humiliated or intimidated”.

The entirety of his note should be read, but the conclusion demands citation:

So, what does this mean for free speech? Will it, as Chicken Little Dodd suggests, “silence debate on irksome and uncomfortable topics”?No.

What it will do is require journalists to conduct proper research, to present their arguments based on facts, and to tell the truth.

Andrew Bolt, also predictably, is presenting himself in the guise of some sort of martyr of free speech.

He can be nothing of the kind, because free speech is not at issue here, and nor are martyrs normally found among the privileged.

And that precise privilege, which Bolt precisely seeks to exercise almost as of right, is precisely the actual issue here.

Free speech, as the judgement in fact indicates, must be speech that is accountable to truth. That is to say, it is not the same concept as ‘freedom of expression’ (one that more properly belongs to artistic domains) or indeed ‘freedom of opinion’. Free speech ought to be both in service to the truth, and oriented to its discovery. That requires, as a very minimum condition of possibility of exercising such a right, a willingness to ground one’s views in ascertainable and verifiable fact.

Michel Foucault, in his short book Fearless Speech, points out that one of the concept’s earliest instantiations, the Greek idea of parrhesia, had its correlate in a proper noun: Parrhesiastes. ‘Free speech’ is a practice engaged in by ‘one who speaks the truth’.

I do not intend to canvass the whole gamut of reactions which gesture to the liberal or bourgeois notion of free speech, a notion people have indeed struggled and even died for (but not the sort of people who write columns in the Herald Sun). No doubt the names of Voltaire and J. S. Mill are going to be tossed around in coming days by people who have probably never read them.

I want to make three very specific points, before moving back to some general ones:

1. The Federal Court found that Andrew Bolt vilified specific named individuals on the basis of untruths, which he ought to have known or through his ‘research’, have been able to discover were untruths. It’s argued that they should more properly have taken action against him for defamation, in that he damaged their reputations on the basis of falsehoods.

2. But, very correctly, they chose rather not to personalise the issues, but to highlight the fact that Bolt’s discourse vilified them insofar as they are Indigenous Australians and identify as such, and had a broader effect of harm on Indigenous people.

3. That is true, and that effect is real. Bolt’s position of privilege derives not just from the fact that there is no attempt on the part of his monopolistic megaphone mouthpieces to counter any of his claims by the remotest vestige of ‘balance’ or accountability to fact. It also derives from the fact that his claims have the effect of offering permission to hold the views he espouses, and indeed empowering others to persist in them and reproduce them. These ‘opinions’ are not just abstract ones, but have actual effects in producing and reproducing social and racial inequality, and in fostering vilification of a whole host of unnamed and unprominent Australians, which not incidentally, silences them.

That, folks, is privilege, and it’s racial privilege, and it’s precisely how racial privilege works in a post-colonial society. It’s a daily, nay, a minute by minute re-enactment of the original Dispossession.

And it is vile.

Vile too was the way in which at least one of the plaintiffs, Larissa Behrendt, it could be reasonably inferred, was subjected to a vicious campaign in the press because she joined in taking this action.

Let me just make two other general points, which go to the risible idea of  ’political correctness’, and its correlate, which is the claim that people’s opinions are being silenced or prohibited:

1. This is related to another furphy, that Andrew Bolt “has been found to be a racist”. I, myself, care very little what his private views are, because they simply don’t matter. Nor do I see it as being remotely useful to try to discover or speculate on what they are. Andrew Bolt is very far from being an original thinker, and his opinions are very far from being interesting. The only point here is that he has massive access to public speech, to a point where the vilification the Court found he had been engaged in can be excused, argued away, or made the subject of ridiculous defences in the name of ‘freedom of speech’.

It is in the public effects of this discourse, and in particular the effects such discourses have in reproducing and in fact increasing the force and pervasiveness of racial tropes which do immense harm, for which he – and those who defend him – must be accountable.

2. Opinion is worthless unless it is groundable in fact, oriented towards a search for truth, and accountable to reason. Hence, there is no surprise, either, that Andrew Bolt is one of Australia’s most prominent ‘climate change skeptics’. In truth, none of these opinions, which it is Andrew Bolt’s business to shore up, are worth a penny.

I refrain from discussing Bolt’s opinions themselves, because their real effects are to be found in the way they reinforce received opinion.

The only point of holding such opinions is to shore up the threatened and endlessly collapsing boundaries of discourses such as that of race thus to re-enact Dispossession, precisely because such discourses can only function in opposition to truth, and always run the risk of collapsing because of their untruth.

Australian racism is one such truthless discourse. Those who articulate it, and those who contribute to its daily reproduction and its woefully pernicious effects, are far from fearless truth speakers. They are the opposite of the figure of the Parrhesiastes. They are, in fact, fearful cowards who persist in the realm of lies, and will do almost anything to avoid accountability to reason.

[I haven’t commented here on the substance of the controversy, in part because I refuse to engage in debate with Andrew Bolt’s ‘opinion’. But I think it is salient to note that his mode of opinionating (I will not say: argument) suggests that the question of identification is somehow an easy one, one that is subject purely to personal choice, and one where it is surprising, transgressive and terrible that anyone should ‘choose’ not to identify as hegemonically white. Both the claim that choice is key, and the implicit but necessarily related claim that to be white is desirable above all things, are absolutely central to the way racism is constituted, and the way it works, in this country. Bolt appears to want a situation where not-to-be-white is invisible and to simultaneously blind himself to the visibility of not-being-white. And he cannot understand why anyone, offered his false choice (which he himself instantly disables) would want to be visible, or would be rendered visible by others.]

Andrew Bolt can hold whatever opinion he chooses.  On the basis of his writing in the two columns which were the subject of the judgement in Eatock, however, he seems to be blind to truth. And to excuse himself from an accountability to truth and to the ethical and legal claims of racial civility negates any right he might otherwise enjoy to defend that opinion on grounds of its relation to truth.

Update: Cross-posted at the blog of the Overland Literary Journal.

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and social commentator. He blogs at Sed probate spiritus and Larvatus Prodeo
 
 
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Freedom of Speech by KKK Member on Jerry Springer

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