Over at Flat7, there’s a bracing list of all-too incredible lies that are routinely dispensed through most media and in the Australian parliament about undocumented migrants who arrive by boat. The hysteria in Australia about the relatively tiny number of people desperate enough to risk the voyage is mind-boggling and devastatingly brutal in its effects.
If racism has been constitutive of Australia as we know it – there at colonisation, there at the settler-styled “anti-imperialism” of Federation (the White Australia policy and the so-called ‘race power’ in the constitution) – people are always finding new ways to present it in a favourable light. Because the older variants of racism come unstuck in the face of struggles against them, have to be cobbled back together with a bit of slippage and dog whistling, crafted for the attention-economy and a constituency that likes to see itself as both victimised and entitled at the same time.
And they adore twisted logic: while Tony Abbott ‘forgets’ his support for a carbon tax, a campaign of sexist vitriol is unleashed replete with Inquisition overtones.
As with Mitt Romney’s and Joe Hockey’s tirades against “a culture of entitlement” (to things like food, no less), those taken-for-granted, supposedly natural entitlements accorded by passports, lineage, inheritance, money, gender and class evaporate in vicious campaigns against those already living well below subsistence levels and in danger.
The Right manages to square its belief in the personhood of zygotes while insisting that, you know, actual people must be left to die. The Right is not really concerned with life but with preserving and expanding a ‘Way of Life’ that is simultaneously racist and misogynistic. ‘Right to Life’ is a slogan about capitalist futurity. So precarious has capitalism become that it must now resort to forcing women to go into labour and everyone into the forced labour schemes of workfare.
But perhaps one of the more cognitively jarring moments of Australian politics in recent times was the parade of politicians who shed tears – on cue – about the hundreds of people drowning off the coastline while enacting even more draconian measures. Not measures against the likelihood of more deaths but of any future applications for asylum made in this jurisdiction and under Australian law. This is “offshore processing,” a cattle trade. Implicitly however, the ALP finally woke up to what noborder campaigns have been insisting on all along: there is no humane way to patrol the border. Either you support the violence that is required to do so or you do not. It seems that they do.
Far from ‘breaking the business model’ of people-smuggling, border controls create the market and make it a dangerous one.
And so for the vast majority in the parliament, misplacing racialised invective on to “people-smugglers” meant consciences could be assuaged, responsibility declined, and those who wanted to could accept Tony Abbott’s edict of “turning back the boats” on the delusional grounds that to do so would be the height of compassion.
People lie, and they lie to themselves, but the changing form of the lies is still surprising.
In other words, far from rejecting the discourse of compassion that has predominated in so-called refugee activist circles and among Leftist lawyers, the Right adopted it and turned it into self-love. And it won by doing so. There seemed little end to the number of politicians who stood in parliament to sob about how terrible our naval personnel must feel about being forced to look upon the faces of people who are drowning. Distressing for them, to be sure. But not fatal. And it sometimes seemed that the politicians were crying more for themselves than for the dead, having to reverse ALP policy against the internment of people on Nauru, and all.
Mostly, the theatrics were all about ‘us,’ making Orstrayans feel better for being assholes by repeating nonsense about how compassionate ‘we’ are and stomping on any residual empathy with paranoid suspicions and impugned motives. They’re just trying to make us feel sorry for them!! We who want to believe, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we are good people. This is the victory of narcissism in the Australian political psyche, unable to hear any criticism without having a tantrum, taking offence at being called racist, sexist, and homophobic — so as to continue being, well, racist, sexist …
The harnessing of (self-)compassion to the task of border policing is remarkable. Or, put differently: politicians of most stripes declared their love for asylum seekers, but only on condition that (as Tony Abbott so eloquently puts it) they are not so “un-Christian” that they “come in by the back door.”
Let’s be very clear: this remark, repeated time and again by Abbott, is an innuendo about un-Christian ‘boat people’ sneakily sodomising Australia. This, at a time when the Catholic Church (of which Abbott is an adherent) is being dragged into public condemnation over its long and verifiable history of priests sexually abusing their congregants. Imagined splinter, eye, GREAT BIG PLANK.
Lies are told in the service of affect. They legitimate boundaries of affection through repulsion, projection. They project – through the doubled and quadrupled entendres of race, sexuality, gender and nation – an apparently common-place of affection, one seemingly always endangered by disgusting perverts, untitled moochers and unauthorised sodomites.
There would have been no Northern Territory Intervention (and subsequent reforms to welfare) without the widely-accepted belief that indigenous people were inclined to be drunken, violent paedophiles who lazed around on welfare.
Few needed proof. Facts changed little because enough people already believed it was likely to be true. That’s what racism is, and racism always deploys through references to sex, gender, class, family and nation.
The amendments to John Howard’s Marriage Act would not have been soundly defeated without the more or less explicit belief that the marriage contract is essentially and exclusively a contract about reproductive sex, endangered and affronted by the reality that sex and reproduction are not connected for most people, not most of the time, and not least not in apparently standard heterosexual and Christian marriages. And this explicit belief in the fundament of reproduction, however inoperative it is in the real world, made it possible to peddle stories about the dangers to children from gay parenting [wink wink] and that the high rate of suicides and depression means “that something has gone wrong deep inside.”
The battleground is the familial, sexual, intimate. If advocates of marriage equality have insisted on “the pursuit of happiness,” the Right emphasises “the orderly pursuit of happiness,” much as they assert the necessity of the orderly waiting line in asylum supplications against the figure of the demanding ‘queue-jumper.’ Genealogy sets out the orderly and legitimate lines of transmission, the flows of people, property, money, bodily fluids, affection and repulsion. Sex, gender, class, family, race and nation.
To be sure, the Right has been somewhat effective in narrowing criticism to characters like Cory Bernardi and Todd Akin – while retaining its agenda (and their positions) through the double-speak of ‘he’s a decent bloke who said some silly things.’ The faux sacking of Bernardi and fake denunciations of Akin were likely part of a trolling effort, a way to redirect newspaper headlines and twitter streams while writing forced motherhood into the Republican platform and soundly defeating the amendments to the Marriage Act in Australia.
It’s a slippery slope in the decline of Christian civilisation, populated by women who do not submit to husbands, promiscuity and bestiality (or, maybe Cory was thinking of furries and bears; who can be sure).
Still, the traditional hierarchical family proffered by Peter Jensen and the Australian Christian Lobby has been in rapid decline since the 1970s – no matter how much state welfare and policy have tried to buttress the apparently more deserving heteronormative moocher class. The last few months of politics may well have consolidated a ‘base’ of polling booth workers for the upcoming election, but it also dragged the Medievalists into the spotlight, openly spouting the doctrinal nonsense which has for some time informed pragmatic politicians such as John Howard and Kevin Rudd, and coming over as indistinguishable from their Far Right counterparts from competing monotheisms.
But since parliaments, religion and the law are not where politics originates or ends, the more interesting conflict is being played out between the desire to belong to already-failing but legitimated forms and being liberated from the fear of ostracism (from the damage done by public insult and internalised shame, from the violence that might make it safer to belong, to pass or find an orderly queue into a safer place somewhere). I suspect that in many instances people tensely embody both sides of that conflict and navigate it, somehow. Penny Wong opting for “we’re not so different” is a version of that ambivalence.
Yet not even the most minor of reforms have been possible without calling out the bullshit and – even more importantly – the brave reclamation of insults. Queer, moocher, queue-jumper, destroyingthejoint cow, slut, bludger, crip, polyamorous people-smuggler …