Their inhumanity and ours

The setting: half the London parties I’ve ever been to. The scene: the kitchen. Some languorous five-years-behind fashionista is introducing himself.

‘Hi, I’m Esteban, I’m doing video sculpture at Goldsmiths.’
‘I’m a journo, from Melbourne’.
‘Australian – you killed the Aborigines.’
‘Well uh yeah, no, I mean, a colonial process …’
‘You killed them all.’
‘Well, that’s insulting to Indigenous Australians, because their survival is a heroic …’
‘Are you trying to get out of it?’
‘You’re Spanish! You’re Spanish, you c—! We weren’t nearly as bad as you!’

Opening gambit to stalemate in six moves. Colonial comparisons are odious, as are imperial ones. There’s something a little bizarre in sections of the Australian public flagellating themselves over national policy because, say, a small number of Germans are rushing to train stations to welcome refugees. Or because Germany’s government, for a variety of reasons, many of them realpolitik, has opened up a massive refugee intake, perhaps 800,000 over a number of years. Suddenly, our policy is ‘our great shame’ as shown up by Europeans. A simplistic narrative is taking over: they are urbane and civilised; we are rednecks and arseholes.

None of this adds up of course. First, we don’t know what the effect of this policy will be on European policy and European publics. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland, nativist parties have embedded themselves into the political mainstream. In Sweden, where many of the refugees want to go, the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are now the third major party. It is not going to take that much of the standard fraying and disarray that comes with large people movements to fuel a new political crisis in cultures which have a long history of monoculturalism, and have never really abandoned it as the ideal of nationhood. Yes, crowds have come to greet the refugees – as they would in Australia, if they were landing in Sydney Harbour, rather than some distant island or shoreline in our deserted North.

Second, we’ve got to get away from selecting angels and demons from among the nations when it comes to refugees and immigration – and look instead at the way that different fears and acceptances combine into ensembles of kindness and cruelty, without any single overarching moral principle. Europeans have always been more understanding about the refugee imperative, and the right to seek sanctuary, without ‘queueing’. Thus it is that someone like UKIP’s Nigel Farage can call for increased refugee intakes, without damaging his base – which is concerned about legal EU immigration on a larger scale  –  and why things like migrants trying to tailgate their way into England from Calais by stowing away in trucks has never really sparked outrage, demonstrations, hysteria etc. It’s been the same in Sweden and the Netherlands for decades. Refugees pose no threat, because they are not coming to change anything. They’re just getting out of danger.

Indeed, it’s that idea of refuge that licenses Europe’s xenophobia – towards larger-scale orderly migration and settlement. Such migration is seen as annihilating because it comes with demands: people will take jobs and pay taxes, and want to be part of the culture. For many, this is simply a category error – you are Swedish by virtue of ethnos, not citizenship – but the acceptance of a refugee frees you from any further obligation towards them. You’ve saved their lives, so nothing more is required of you, least of all to accept them as Swedish. So a country like Sweden has always been able to maintain a high-volume refugee program because it was not accompanied by a large-scale immigration program. Ditto in Germany, where the masses of Turks were guest-workers for decades. It’s only in the past 20 years that this has started to shift; in countries like Sweden, it’s because the second generation has arisen – children of, for example, Chilean or Greek political refugees, olive-skinned Davilas and Papadopouloses who speak native sing-song Swedish, and have a taste for mustard herring. That’s what it takes.

Our ability to analyse this anomaly, and its reverse in Australia – hysteria about asylum seekers and a calm acceptance of culturally transforming immigration – is made difficult by that weasel-word ‘generosity’, as though giant public meetings were held to set immigration targets, rather than labour-market needs. The plain fact is that seventy years of social and cultural engineering, followed by a real cultural shift, has given us an entirely different set of criteria for acceptance. Most Australians now accept what many Europeans never will: that to live, work, and be part of a neighbourhood here makes you an Australian – and the idea of Australianness shifts with it.

Now, I’m not denying the existence of everyday racism and cultural tension, but there is simply no strong nativist discourse to speak of in Australia. But from that changed sense of Australianness many, from many ethnic backgrounds, feel liberated to treat refugees with disdain and contempt.

How great that disdain and contempt really is remains to be seen. As several people have noted here, there is no firm evidence as to how great a role the refugee issue has played in many people’s voting and party support – there’s simply been a paralysing fear that it might. If the photo of the body of four-year-old Aylan Kurdi gathered up from the beach is sufficient to change that, it’s a measure of how much of the whole issue was in the Imaginary sphere, capable of being challenged by savvier discursive tactics if the will had been there. But let’s wait and see what happens. It’s a bit early to be declaring Europe, of all fucking places, to be a haven of racial tolerance that puts us to shame. At its worst, such discourse plays into an elitist discourse which equates high – that is, European – culture with morality, something the last century proved to be very, very wrong indeed.

One of the difficulties in talking about this analytically is that Australia’s particular ensemble of pro- and anti-immigration positions has been constructed around a single term: generosity. For most people, the steady arrival of new immigrants – authorised economic migrants, family reunions, and authorised refugees – simply ticks on without raising any notice whatsoever. The pitiful attempts of the Right to start a nativist movement have got nowhere – all the more remarkable since, in the past decade, in Sydney, Melbourne, and elsewhere, we have passed a critical mass moment with regards to the proportions of non-Europeans in Australian cities. Melbourne, which into the 1990s remained a European city with a largely suburbanised Asian population, is now a clearly Eurasian city, courtesy of its large education industry. This was the doomsday scenario the racist neo-Nazi groups ‘warned of’ in the 1980s – and no-one has turned a hair. By contrast the similar transformation of Dutch cities has given Geert Wilders party up to 30 per cent support in some areas.

But of course there is nothing ‘generous’ about any of this; no-one has played an active part in this result. Instead it’s a product of a bipartisan immigration/labour market policy over several decades. What it indicates is simply a different idea of identity, citizenship and legitimacy. And before we go using the ‘welcoming Europeans’ as a stick to beat our own culture with, let’s wait and see what emerges – especially in Germany. Refugee issues are an issue of universal humanism if they’re anything, and a humanist universalism is the best approach to the vagaries of fear and indifference that move across the face of the waters.


Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Guy Rundle can dress it up in academic jargon if he wants but the fact remains – Germany has a government which is showing humane leadership on a serious issue while Australia does not. The fact that Merkel and her colleagues recognise the long term benefit of accepting the refugees in this case shows that their thinking is more sophisticated. It has nothing to do with arguments over colonial pasts – it’s about doing the right thing NOW.

  2. Guy Rundle you are wrong! We should not “wait and see what emerges”. We should just help people because it is a humane thing to do. No calculations. And could you please clarify what is “our own culture”? I’m sure you mean Anglo but you won’t ever admit it. This a a thinly veiled attempt at “we’re-not-that-racist-after-all” argument that Aussies who never met a refugee in their lives are telling themselves so they can sleep better.

  3. I think this is a suitably balanced piece, thank you Guy. Not everything has to be entirely rational, nor entirely emotional. It is always better to have patience.

          1. people are dying and here you are typing people are dying and saying we should be doing something to stop the people from dying. Perhaps get off Overland and go into politics and try to do something about the policies, or go work for a refugee agency. I know good people who work in refugee programs in this country that help to relocate people here from Africa and other places and they haven’t even heard of Overland. You think you’re helping by replying to Tom? Ridiculous.

  4. Way ahead of you “helpmeifyoucanI’mfeelingdown”. I was a refugee and now I work in sector that helps them. And yes I think that replying to people like Tom is important. You can never let them know they’re winning.

  5. Francis

    In ‘wait and see what emerges’ I pretty clearly wasnt saying we should stop campaigning for refugee rights. I was saying that we shouldnt rush to celebrate Europe as ‘more humane’ as a way of attacking bipartisan australian govt policy.

    As it turned out, Germany closed the border almost as soon as it opened it, and Slovakia and other countries simply refused to accept EU quotas, pushing the organisation to crisis. So not so idfferent from our own situation.

    That’s all i’m sayin’

  6. Secondly, as for ‘our own culture’ i’m talking about our political culture, across a whole range of ethnicities. As has been comprehensively established, much of the most virulent anti-refugee opinion can be found in Australian post-anglo groups – Greek-Australian, Vietnamese-Australian etc. So it’s a pretty general opinion.

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