Friday, May 23

Among the Barbarians - Paul Sheehan

Subtitled The Dividing of Australia, this treatise by journalist Sheehan was a controversial best-seller on its release a decade ago. Inspired by an article he wrote two years earlier ("The Multicultural Myth" in the Sydney Herald Sun), and by the vituperant response that article received, Sheehan aims to support two interwoven claims about modern day Australia - first that unrestricted multiculturalism is a force that will destroy Australia; and second that anyone (or at least anyone white) who questions any aspect of immigration, multiculturalism or social services for non-Australian born inhabitants, or who discusses any ethnic aspect of anything relating to crime, unemployment or other social unworthy act or behaviour, is denounced as a racist. According to Sheehan, in modern Australian culture the term 'racist' is synonymous with ignorant, uninformed and/or erroneous, and anything a racist person says may be dismissed on the face of it, without anyone evaluating the truth of the statement or claim.
Woven through the text are discussions about the nature of the Australian landscape, focusing in particular on eucalypts - both the way they're particularly well adapted to arid Aussie conditions (they became the dominant tree species by knocking out other species competing for their various niches) and (which I didn't previously know) that indigenous colonisation of Australia dramatically altered environmental conditions 60 - 80,000 years ago, primarily through the use of fire.
Along the way Sheehan discusses the evolution of (white) Australian culture and identity, including the well known cultural cringe. He links this, and leftist ideology, to what he says is the marginalising of white/Australian/Anglo-European culture in favour of rampant multiculturalism. It is this marginalising, and the almost (I believe he wouldn't concede the 'almost') mandatory colour blindness of governmental and media reports, that led to the rise of Pauline Hanson's One Nation party.
I was very conflicted reading Among the Barbarians - on one hand I do have a degree of white guilt and the leftward-leaning, pro-multiculturalism ideology typical of my age, race, class and level of education, and many of the statements and arguments Sheehan makes seem poorly and/or selectively supported - for a more educated criticism see Anne Henderson's review. On the other hand I believe he's justified in claiming that the word 'racist' is an epithet in modern Australian society, that branding something or someone instantly marginalises and disempowers it, and that Western multicultural countries are comfortable ignoring the blatant anti-white racism of other countries (most notably China).
Sheehan makes some very interesting points - I was particularly interested in the opening section about indigenous law vs white law, using the story of Warlpiri member Stephen Jungarrayi, and his analysis of some of the issues around negotiating between indigenous and white cultures (including whether banning alcohol in indigenous groups is paternalistic, even if decided by the tribes' elders) was realistic in its inability to find a simple solution to what is a Gordian knot of complexity.
However, though he oftentimes acknowledges the contributions to Australia that immigrants have made in the past, there is little reflection or acknowledgement that, at the time of those migrations, similar concerns were raised - foreign ideologies incompatible with (undefined) Australian values, disease, enclaves of unassimilated migrants speaking their own language and not contributing to our society. In my life time this has included Greek, Italian and Turkish migrants ('60s + '70s), Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and other Asian migrants ('80s + '90s), and Indonesian and Middle Eastern/Islamic migrants (the last decade, particularly post September 11. More troubling, Sheehan makes some broad claims without support - though he provides a bibliography, and on occasion statistics are referenced, this is often not the case. For example: "Are we importing criminals as some would have us believe? Yes. Check the prison statistics." That's the full response.
On other occasions statistics are presented misleadingly: "The truth is that all migrants undergo character checks before they get a visa. Fantasy. According to figures in the 1996 NSW Inmate Census, twenty eight percent of the non-Aboriginal prison population of New South Wales is foreign-born, not exactly a bargain for tax payers. Somehow the Department of Immigration also did not notice that career criminals were arriving among the refugee intake in large numbers."
Although precise figures for twelve years ago are time consuming to gather, in 1996 30.9% of Sydney's population was born overseas; as the majority of NSW's population lives in its capital city, if Sheehan's percentage is accurate (he does not explain why the indigenous inmates were excluded from the data), this reflects a roughly proportional percentage of overseas born inmates.
Granted, this is not an academic text, and perhaps it should not be criticised for these omissions. But if one writes about a controversial topic, presents oneself as a professional journalist, and writes with the intent of informing the general public, I think it behooves one to support one's position as robustly as possible.
Migration is the foundation of Australian society - Australia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries on the planet, and it cannot be coincidence that, despite our small population size, we are over represented in the international arenas of sport, entertainment and literature. I'm not saying there's a direct link to the composition of the population, but there's definitely a connection between that level of achievement and the national identity - a fundamental part of which includes respect for and appreciation of diversity.
Thanks to immigration the increase in aging across the population has slowed; a 1995 report showed that the cost of immigration is neutral (Williams, L., 1995, Understanding the economics of immigration, Canberra : Australian Govt. Pub. Service p. 25 - as cited here); and UK statistics from 2002 show that migrants contribute 10% to the GDP.
Many things have changed on the migration landscape in the last decade. Of course the most significant change since Sheehan's book was released is the aftermath of September 11 - globally there are tighter restrictions on travel in general, and particularly with immigration, which is often conflated with refugee intake. A month after the attacks the Howard government, in the throes of an election campaign, took advantage of public panic about terrorists hiding in refugee groups to demonise "asylum seekers" and, with mandatory detention of refugees/asylum seekers, introduce some of the most draconian legislation in the world.
The book is a somewhat light-weight, populist attempt to address real issues around multiculturalism and population size and composition in Australia. While some aspects are no long relevant, the topic is far from resolved. I agree with much of what Sheehan wrote. That Australia cannot sustain indefinite growth (through any combination of immigration and birth rate) is without question - though geographically immense, the soil quality and aridity of much of the continent precludes agriculture and large scale living, even without taking preservation of native flora, fauna and ecosystems in to account.
It's also true that policies that reduce migration, and even talk of them, are quickly branded racist - in no small part because it's rarely directed at Western white migration (from the UK, the US, Canada and New Zealand, for example), but also in general. And there are enclaves of non-assimilating migrants, though their children usually assimilate significantly. And there are groups of criminals, both organised and otherwise, from non-Anglo backgrounds; some of these have, without question, taken advantage of immigration policies and/or the small range of names in some Asian countries in order to enter under another identity. I believe this is a strong basis on which to review immigration screening procedures, but not for changing policy, and I believe it is this that Sheehan had an eye to when he wrote Among the Barbarians. - Alex

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