Debate

Talking on the terrace

A FEW YEARS ago, I attended a wedding party in a guesthouse in a Bavarian village. The place was uncomfortably heavy with Jesus – bleeding, enormous and crucified everywhere on the sides of barns. More uncomfortably for me, unlike in larger German towns and cities, there wasn't a Turkish guest worker or Bosnian refugee in sight. But the party itself had collected people from all over the world. These included a friend living by choice outside the Anglophone West, whose perspective I have always treasured and whom I hadn't seen for a very long time. Late in the evening, we slipped out onto the terrace to have the kind of conversation about politics, culture and life that we'd both sorely missed. The sort of talk that's just not possible under bright lights, over coffee and Black Forest torte, amid cheerful banter over lederhosen and hunting trophies.

Within minutes, our hostess, a middle-aged German model of generosity and efficiency, appeared at our side. She was plainly anxious that we had removed ourselves from the gathering. Nothing we could say reassured her that we were, in fact, enjoying the function. She insisted that we come back inside. We did, of course, without demurring. In a real sense this wasn't our party, and any guest has a responsibility to make accommodations. Our own conversation waited for another time and place.

 

SOMTHING SIMILAR IS happening in Australia today. A new breed of commentators, who style themselves as the voice of mainstream Australia, is deeply anxious about those who remove themselves from the main event – the spaces of discussion they dominate, or the topics or perspectives of discussion they advance in those spaces – in order to "talk outside". Unfortunately, in the Australian case, the anxiety of the party police generally manifests itself in much less gracious behaviour than that of my Bavarian hostess. Here the tone is frequently boorish and bullying. Without apology or the thinnest sugar coating of concern for the objects of their criticism, Australia's new cultural gatekeepers invariably characterise the behaviour of people who don't want to play their game – their way – as divisive, arrogant, perverse. Perhaps fancying themselves as warrior-heroes, they go further and call it unAustralian, unpatriotic, an "affront to Team Australia".[i]

"Ethnics" – a polite enough euphemism to describe those of us who aren't white, in the sense described by Australian intellectual Ghassan Hage as a condition not necessarily determined by skin colour – are a particular target of suspicion, if not paranoia.[ii]

 

OUR IMPUTED SINS of association are hydra-headed. We profit from the so-called multicultural industry, draining Australian resources, attention and concern away from more deserving recipients. We're variously too emotional, too defensive, too angry, too passive, too violent, too submissive. We simultaneously overachieve at school or work and inhabit the underclass. We don't speak English at home, or not enough of it, or not in quite the right accent. We choose Mark Philippoussis over Lleyton Hewitt. We stick to our own, inhabit ghettoes, form powerful lobbies, join criminal gangs. Our young men are culturally or genetically predisposed to raping white women, here and abroad. Our extended families and friendship networks are terrorist cells waiting to happen.

Anxiety about the "ethnic problem" moved again to the centre of Australia's public conversations when One Nation founder Pauline Hanson arrived in Federal Parliament. Back in 1996, this kind of message was considered obscene and dangerous enough to draw the loud opprobrium of many politicians, rank-and-file citizens and those erstwhile "ethnic lobbyists". Their combined efforts failed in many significant respects. The hole punched by Hanson was filled by carpetbaggers as much as by critics. The strategic and provocative silences, dog whistles and interventions on race issues by radio shock jocks like Stan Zemanek and Alan Jones, newspaper columnists like Paul Sheehan,[iii] Janet Albrechtsen, Miranda Devine, Andrew Bolt and Christopher Pearson, and politicians like NSW Premier Bob Carr and Prime Minister John Howard, together have given the green light to berate anyone too openly lauding multi over mono. The fateful confluence of the 9/11 and Bali bombings, Australia's participation in the Anglo-American war in Iraq and the domestic ascendance of neo-con orthodoxy on a range of fronts has accelerated and affirmed this tonal shift in public conversation. In the face of the hardening and narrowing of what we're told counts as acceptable debate, is it surprising that more of us want time out on a metaphorical terrace, engaged in more affirming and nuanced conversation? With "our own kind", in our own way.

 

THIS PULLS IN what Australians tend to call the liberal left, what Britons call luvvies. These Australians are caricatured as inner-city-dwelling, tertiary-educated, latte-loving, ABC-watching swillers of chardonnay, whose lifestyles are "a constant, ever-changing celebration of the latest fruits of international cuisine, world music and foreign-language cinema".[iv] They persist in useless chatter about refugees, reconciliation and the republic while the mainstream gaze, as measured by focus groups, is properly elsewhere. There's just one imputed sin here, but it's cardinal. It's a lack of connection with the concerns, language and priorities of John Howard's battlers, Mark Latham's aspirationals, outer-suburban Australians striving successfully towards plasma televisions, private-school education, four-wheel-drives and espresso machines. In a stunning exercise in denial and doublethink, even self-styled progressive commentators define this relatively affluent and entrepreneurial cohort as "working class" and somehow wronged by the latte luvvies, somehow trampled under the heels of our Italian shoes. See, for example, these comments by Dennis Glover, speechwriter and adviser to Simon Crean and Kim Beazley, in his recent analysis of Australia's raging culture wars:[v]

"... the cultural distance between tertiary-educated left-wing intellectuals and suburban Australians has never been wider...The Australian left has many heroes – articulate spokespeople who write for the quality broadsheets, and are guests on Radio National, and do pro-bono work for worthy causes. But it's obvious that they're not connecting...A day seldom passes without an article on the oped pages from a centre-left commentator attacking Labor for its weakness and lack of beliefs. While well intentioned, contributions like this seem to me to be more than just a little artless. They conjure up the vision of an angry old man waving his fists and yelling his rage at the television news. It's bad for the soul, embittering, and a waste of energy... "

 

IN THE FACE of considerable hostility towards arguments about better (and yes, smarter) ways to respond to Tampa, terrorism and the tetchy temper of our times, the latte luvvies are following the ethnics onto the terrace. Like the old Greek immigrants who meet daily in my local version of Fountain Gate shopping centre to ponder the best way to make keftethes, the "wanker commentariat" is finding vital sustenance and support in conversation with "our own kind", in our own way.

Contrary to populist wisdom, these conversations are many and varied. Some conform to stereotype, others don't. Some maintain religious patronage of Late Night Live or Mary Kostakidis. Some wear black and attend seminars on the maligned triumvirate of Michel Foucault, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. Others stretch the conversational envelope beyond Australian Idol over lunchtime laksa. Others linger with like-minds on the steps of kindergartens, bingo halls or yoga classes to raise big questions about the future of public education, nursing homes and Medicare. Others write letters to newspapers, to their elected representatives or to asylum seekers in Baxter detention centre. Lots chat, read, write and opine online. Some converse mainly in their heads, in rich communion with writers from home and abroad.

 

AT THAT BAVARIAN wedding, I was a visitor, a guest, a foreigner, an invitee at an event that was an expression of someone else's culture and values. In a very real sense it was not my party. As a guest, I was happy to suspend an important conversation for the sake of my hosts. That kind of compromise is all well and good if you're a guest – in German terms, an ausländer rather than an inländer[vi] – but it's much less so when and where you're not, in fact, any kind of visitor, foreigner or invitee.[vii] Situations where this kind of compromise is demanded or expected, rather than requested, can quickly turn, become scenes of escalating anger and confrontation. Sooner as well as later, those polarising encounters can be much more corrosive of the social fabric than unilateral withdrawal in the face of hostility.

The hostility both feels and is very real. They don't call these "culture wars" for nothing. Like all wars, they bring injury and casualty. As even John Howard has been known to concede, words are bullets. Some strategic retreat has to happen, at least some of the time, for many Australians who feel disconnected and despondent, on the receiving end of "Team Australia" slogans that degrade the value and values of so-called minorities. These groups of Australians slipping onto the terrace are no less deserving of respect than those who more comfortably wear the team colours and bang the drum.

Stepping outside works best if it's a temporary sabbatical, a breathing space – if we're willing and able to return inside, to participate constructively, but whether that is possible is a whole-of-society responsibility. It's certainly about terrace talkers remaining open to dialogue and what I'll call "non-core" compromise with the powerbrokers and opinion formers inside, as well as their grassroots constituency. But it's also about the attitude of those insiders-that-be. At the heart of their current attitude stands a question. How genuinely open are they prepared to be to differences of complexion, in the widest sense of that word? Openness here requires a lot more than mouthing the rhetoric of tolerance – which can be as formulaic and counterproductive as thinking about equality in terms of quotas or democracy in terms of focus groups.

In a recent essay, Swedish magazine editor Per Wirten recounts the story of another European hostess to reflect on difference and dialogue.[viii] His is Lotte, a character in Ivo Andric's novel The Bridge on the Drina.[ix] A Jew originally from Poland, Lotte came by foot to the small Bosnian town of Visegrad, in the time of the Austro-Hungarian empire. There, by day, she ran the Hotel zur Brucke, but at night her life was different:

"At night Lotte locked herself in her small office to which nobody else had access. There, at a desk cluttered with letters, documents, press cuttings from Austrian papers and lottery lists from every corner of Europe, she led her other and perhaps fuller life. From that cramped space she corresponded with acquaintances all over Eastern Europe, financed university studies for young relatives in Galizia, gave marriage guidance, commented on current topics buzzing in the big cities, bought and sold stocks at the Vienna stock market or studied financial news from distant metropolitan centres. Being profoundly grounded in the multi-ethnic everyday life of Viˇsegrad, Lotte was also part of a borderless Jewish network that connected people separated by vast distances. In essence, home was a multitude of places. Viˇsegrad was her home town, but her true mother country was the set of connections that emerged every time she withdrew to her office. Thus, terms such as home, identity and belonging came with overlapping meanings to Lotte as she led a cosmopolitan life in an inconsequential rural town."

Today, Australia's insiders need to understand more about why Lotte needed to maintain conversations on a terrace. And to consider how that kind of unfamiliar or unfashionable conversation can be valuable and enlarging, rather than a potential threat to the national order. That's a very big challenge for all of us.

 


[i] See further Geoffrey Barker, "Playing at patriot games", The Australian Financial Review, October 20, 2003.

[ii] Whiteness and white paranoia/narcissism are examined in detail by Ghassan Hage in his books White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1998, and Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society, Pluto Press, Sydney, 2003. This essay draws on a number of themes raised in Hage's work and I acknowledge his influence.

[iii] Representative works by Paul Sheehan are Among the Barbarians, Random House, Sydney, 1998, and The Electronic Whorehouse, Macmillan, Sydney, 2003.

[iv] David Burchell, "The people haven't failed", australian policy online, September 19, 2003 (first published in The Australian).

[v]Dennis Glover, Orwell's Australia: From Cold War to Culture Wars, Scribe Publications, Melbourne, 2003, pp 118-9 and 126.

[vi] See further Cem Ozdemir, Ich Bin Inlander: Ein anatolischer Schwabe im Bundestag, DTV, Munich, 1997. Ozdemir, born in the Black Forest to Turkish guest workers, was the first German of Turkish descent to be elected to the German Bundestag, where he served as a Green parliamentarian from 1994-2002. He was centrally involved in the introduction of 1999 reforms to German citizenship law, which since 1913 had privileged German ancestry over birthplace.

[vii] See further Ghassan Hage, "Citizenship and Honourablity: Belonging to Australia today" in Ghassan Hage (ed), Arab-Australians Today, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002.

[viii] Per Wirten, "Free the nation - cosmopolitanism now!", eurozine, November 2002.

[ix] Andric, an ethnic Croat and, until 1941, Yugoslav ambassador in Berlin, wrote this book under house arrest in Belgrade under Nazi occupation in World War II. He was born and raised in Bosnia among Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Roman Catholics.

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