Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Enough Rope

Do you remember in John Safran vs. God when Safran interviewed the Grand-Master of the Ku Klux Klan? The blonde-haired blue-eyed Safran sat across from the military-clad Grand Master and, surrounded by a number of the Klan leader’s bodyguards, asked whether a Jew, such as himself, could join the organisation. The leader had clearly been lulled into thinking he was speaking to a nice Aryan boy and the physical jolt of his reaction to Safran’s revelation could not be disguised. The Grand Master remained civil and apparently relaxed, but the rest of the interview, which ended soon thereafter, was fraught with repressed violence directed towards Safran and his crew. Before Safran’s declaration, the Grand Master had been jocular, happily asserting a well-honed offence, that the organisation he presided over was racist; their exclusionary beliefs were the reason for their existence. While Safran pressed the Grand Master on ways that he might renounce his Judaism and become eligible for Klan membership, the sense that if it were not for the camera, Safran and his crew would be physically harmed was palpable even through the television screen. I remember feeling sick at the stench of fury engulfing the overcrowded room in which the interview took place.

Last night as I watched Safran’s current program, Speaking In Tongues, which he hosts with Catholic priest, Father Bob Maguire, I was reminded of the Ku Klux Klan interview. On this occasion the interviewee was an academic from Macquarie University’s Department of Public Law, Associate Professor Andrew Fraser. Fraser was invited onto the program following the demonstrations and riots at Cronulla Beach in Sydney to offer his learned opinion about how to prevent the reoccurrence of such events.

Earlier in the program, Safran and Maguire had interviewed a scientist, Gerard Tarulli, who explained the genetics of racial difference. He noted that the differences are miniscule and suggested that any attempt to preserve racial purity by confining reproduction to within any one race and thus promulgate a superior race is in fact misguided. Limiting the gene pool leads, rather, to the entrenchment of genetic weaknesses and thus, one might argue, an ‘inferior’ race, at least through the lens of genetics. It is better for the survival of humanity, according to Tarulli, to ‘outbreed’. On the one hand, I can appreciate the impulse to resort to the apparent rationality of science as a tool to refute the irrationality of racism. Since science presents itself as ‘truth’, to fail to be swayed by its arguments places the racist individual outside of societal norms. Tarulli was clearly sincere in his science-backed repudiation of any basis for racism, but his conviction that scientists are trained to present their findings and observations without interference from their personal emotions or judgements is problematic. In response to Safran’s question about whether scientists self-censor, Tarulli conceded that they might in order to secure funding for their projects; there is an imperative to operate within dominant discourses about what is worthwhile, and perhaps any research that purported to find a scientific basis for overt racism would not be supported. To my mind, what is more significant than the question of whether self-interest might affect any scientist’s reporting of his or her findings, is that of the plausibility of conducting any research without some sense of subjectivity on behalf of the researcher entering into the equation. In most areas of the contemporary Humanities, the recognition that subjectivity is inescapable is an old realisation, but the belief in objectivity remains a powerful myth in public discourse—the recourse to science in this debate is evidence of its pervasiveness—which is why it’s worth repeating the former view in this forum. In eras past, the public has been presented with the objective ‘truth’ about the smaller brain size of women and thus our inferior intelligence and ability for moral reasoning, and similar claims have been made by comparing the skull shapes of a Greek man and a Creole Negro with that of a chimpanzee. With the benefit of hindsight such scientific findings have been exposed as serving the interests of the dominant and powerful—historically, affluent white men—by preserving the existing power structure from which they alone benefited.

Even while science continues to make rational arguments which lay claim to the truth, how effective is that ‘truth’ in countering the apparently irrational claims of those who embrace a racist outlook? Is it possible to appeal to a world view that would exclude on the basis of appearance or even, as Andrew Fraser suggests, ‘cultural incompatibility’ with the rational discourse of science?

Andrew Fraser’s comments about the events at Cronulla and other beaches around Sydney, carry the weight of his position as an Associate Professor in Public Law at Macquarie University. Briefly, he advocates a ‘White Australia’ immigration policy. He believes that Australia is being colonised by the third world. Fraser argues that African immigrants contribute disproportionately to crime in Australia. He argues that immigrants from Asian countries are being educated in Australia with the intention of creating a ruling managerial class who will deny Anglo-Australians opportunities in their own country. Earlier this year, Fraser was suspended by his employer for articulating his views in the name of Macquarie University. He was reinstated with the support of the National Tertiary Educators' Union (NTEU) , who argued that while they didn’t agree with his views, the university failed to comply with the procedures for their action as outlined in their own Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA). The university was obliged to say that it didn’t agree with his views but would defend the role of the university as a ‘marketplace’ of ideas and a forum for vigorous debate, and therefore wouldn’t prevent Fraser from expressing his views by exacting further disciplinary action.

Can Fraser speak in the public realm without his views being associated with those of Macquarie University? If he didn’t have that position, at that institution, wouldn’t he be just another flag-wearing thug on the streets of Cronulla? I think it would be disingenuous for anyone to argue otherwise. He was introduced by Safran as an Associate Professor in Public Law at Macquarie University; that’s what the on-screen title said as well. We demand better public behaviour of our sporting stars, and the management teams of the various games are more able to respond to behaviour (including racial vilification) that reflects badly on their club and their game. Why must any university tolerate such a slur on their reputation, one that will almost certainly have a negative impact on their ability to attract not only international students but domestic students who are concerned about any defence of racism and bigotry as free-speech?

Safran asked Fraser what he would do about preventing a reoccurrence of the racially motivated violence in Sydney. Fraser explained his ‘White Australia’ position. He also suggested that Australia could entertain a North American proposal whereby (racialised) groups who currently reside in Australia, and who are deemed inassimilable, be offered whatever sum of money necessary to repatriate them to their country of origin: ‘Go back to a little village in Lebanon and half a million dollars could set you up in, ah...’ I wonder where those who were born in Australia and identify with a non-Anglo culture fit into such a plan? Indeed, where do I, someone who has to fight a gag reflex at the sight of someone wearing an Australian flag as an expression of their cultural identity, fit into this plan? Will I be offered half a million to go back to my birthplace, which is decidedly Anglo—England—because I’m not culturally compatible with whatever version of Anglo-Australian that might be proffered in Fraser’s plan? Safran went on to ask how the ‘White Australia’ argument fared in view of Australia’s original inhabitants. For Fraser the dispossession of Australia’s Indigenous population (to say nothing of the attempted genocide!) is an object lesson in what he is trying to circumvent. He counselled that we shouldn’t let the same thing happen to ‘our’ Western society in Australia. When Father Maguire suggested to Fraser that we lived in a ‘global village’, he returned ‘Tell that to the Japanese’, before citing Lost in Translation as a film that extolled the benefits of a low immigration policy.

Fraser used a similar tactic to deflect a question about whether Jews were ‘in or out’ in his proposed White Australia policy. This is the moment that recalled to my mind the interview with the Ku Klux Klan Grand Master. Fraser seem to be less articulate on his position when Safran directly asked about his own place under the proposed policy. Fraser began to note that the ‘Jewish community’ advocates a restrictionist immigration policy for Israel. Safran was insistent, would Jews be welcome in Australia under Fraser’s White Australia Policy? To this Fraser answered ‘From my own point of view... I dearly think, ah, wish that Jews would identify with European Christian civilisation. They’d be a huge asset. But if they want to keep subverting it, turning it into a multiracial... you know, then they’re a problem for white Europeans’.

Fraser’s statement, in view of his White Australia proposal seems to suggest that Jewish people cannot be ‘white’. What, then, does ‘white’ mean if it can’t encompass John Safran’s pasty white skin? Clearly, whites ain’t whites; it’s a question that was raised earlier in the program. Safran revealed that the question of whether Croatian people are sufficiently ‘white’ is currently a matter for intense debate on a white supremacist website. Surely there are millions of white European Jews? Jesus, Mary and Joseph, where would ‘white European civilisations’ around the globe be without Sigmund Freud? I wish that those who advocate such a limited definition of ‘white’ would call themselves something else. Can you be a white supremacist and of a religious persuasion other than Christian?

Safran’s reply to Fraser’s statement was, ‘Wrong answer. Wrong answer.’

The feeling that was palpable at the end of this interview was one where Fraser seemed to recognise the offence he had caused his host. Does this realisation suggest a flicker of insight into the hateful consequences of his proposal? Safran seemed unable to hold Fraser’s gaze. What would he have been feeling? The humiliation that Safran must have experienced in the face of such an effacement of his cultural and religious life (Jewish people should identify with Christian beliefs?!) was visceral. I sincerely hope that Associate Professor Andrew Fraser of the Department of Public Law at Macquarie University held onto the sensation of shame I’m convinced that he felt in that moment, at the close of the interview, when he seemed to briefly meet John Safran’s gaze.

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