It is not a problem that is easy to solve by mere condemnation or even by having proper policies
Commenting too quickly in the wake of a massacre can be like cheap “politicking”, a form of trampling on the bodies of the dead. Those dead are on my mind. They haunt me and I don’t want to instrumentalise them to score points. I will try to speak with them in mind rather than about them. So let’s be clear about the nature of the problems they faced, and the problems facing us.
The first is the problem of white nationalism. This nationalism expresses itself primarily as a sense of white entitlement. To put it succinctly it is the belief that, if you are white and you are not doing well, economically or in whatever way you imagine you are not doing well, you have every right to expect better precisely because you are white.
As importantly, you think you have more of a right to expect better than non-whites, who you feel justified to perceive as illegitimately taking away from you your chances to live a good life. You think they do so by trying to enter what you consider is your country, to benefit economically from its/your wealth, or simply by just being there.
Most immediately we know this white nationalism is a way of experiencing the decline of the welfare state and the crisis in social mobility that has marked Australian society for some time now. But one also needs to go back to the nature of the colonial encounter in the making of Australia, and to the encounters with successive waves of non-white immigrants, to fully understand the form this nationalism has taken.
It’s a combination of a sense of decline, a sense of being besieged, and a sense of privilege that has long been in the making. It is part of the very structure of Australian society. It is not a problem that is easy to solve by mere condemnation or even by having proper policies. As such, on the fact of it, it is not reasonable to make the media and Australian politicians responsible for its rise.
But if the media and politicians are not the cause behind the rise of this toxic nationalism, they are nonetheless responsible for not recognising it as one of the most dangerous trends that we have in society today. This is our second problem.
That this culturally violent political trend is dangerous should go without saying. It entitles certain white people to unreasonably depict non-whites as illegitimate and to consider them responsible for white people’s problems. It legitimises the feelings of hatred and the harbouring of violent fantasies of extermination towards them. All packaged with a veneer of self-pity and self-righteousness.
While it is clear that only very few Australians would be willing to act out an exterminatory fantasy on Muslims today, there are those pleased that there are some who are willing to venture into that wild side. Or to put it more succinctly, while they would never do it themselves they are happy somebody has done it. They see it as a mode of disciplining an enemy. Their political representatives are in our parliament and they openly danced on the body of the victims while those bodies were still warm.
Yet a large section of the media and most politicians have serious problems recognising the danger this political movement represents. When talking about “social cohesion” they are more likely to point to the fictive problem of “migrants” (who have never ever endangered whatever social cohesion there is in this country) and they continuously ignore this white nationalism.
This is despite it being the most divisive political movement that Australia has known, and despite it being the source of some of the most toxic chapters of our history. Instead large sections of the media and a great number of Australian politicians, continue to legitimise and even encourage this movement.
Politicians and the media, even when opposed to this politics, have normalised the idea that white nationalism expresses some “legitimate” grievances or concerns, whether it is Labor and Liberal politicians speaking about a certain part of Queensland or Western Sydney electorate, or Tony Abbott launching a book by Pauline Hanson. The idea that she and politicians like her express the “legitimate” concerns and grievances of “battlers” is made to circulate as if it is the most ordinary and benign concept there is.
Yet it is hard to see in what way expressing such grievances is legitimate when “battlers” always explicitly or implicitly is made to mean “white”. It is certainly legitimate for all Australians, and indeed all human beings, to aspire for a better life. It is also legitimate to expect your government to preserve your dignity and not impoverish you or humiliate you. But in what way is it legitimate to think that you are more entitled to all this because you are white? Yet many sections of the media, continue to allow and to help this fiction of white legitimacy to circulate freely without questioning its racial content.
As for politicians, they support it either for manipulative short term political gains or because they are genuinely sympathetic to it (Pauline Hanson epitomises the mixture of envy, self-pity and self-righteous hatred of others that is present in this white nationalism).
In that sense, and contrary to what was stated earlier, yes, a large part of the Australian media and many Australian politicians do have a share of responsibility for the tragedy we are facing today. Until they recognise and face up to this problem, their laments and condemnations in the face of disaster will be hollow.
They will be the kind of people of whom the Lebanese say: “They kill the deceased and march in his funeral procession.”
- Ghassan Hage is a professor of anthropology at University of Melbourne
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