AMONG THE BARBARIANS – Paul Sheehan (Random)
BLACK ARMBAND DAYS – Richard Hall (Vintage)
THE UNMAKING OF AMERICANS -John J Miller (Simon & Schuster)
My first remembered encounter with Paul Sheehan was at a function in Sydney. Without introduction he approached and criticised my short haircut. The longer version was more flattering. His comments were dogmatic and overly familiar, but when I observed that my hair was my business and his taste somewhat old fashioned, Sheehan seemed affronted. Understanding the prickly Sheehan helps when reading Among The Barbarians.
This is a book with axes to grind and scores to settle. It’s lucidly written and has a clever style. It is also a confusing mix of overstatement and understatement, a tract rather than a considered thesis; much preaching and not too much research.
And it’s already a best-seller. In two weeks, Random sold 20,000 copies, by mid-June 55,000, echoing that right-wing best-seller of 1992 – Brian Wilshire’s The Fine Print (self-published).
Paul Sheehan is a Sydney Morning Herald journalist who returned to Australia in 1996 after a decade in the US and, according to his book he liked what he found: “The overt culture of the nation – its language, cuisine, music, writings, film, dance, architecture, design, sport – all, at their highest expression.” Australia, Sheehan believed, had triumphed from a cultural revolution.
But in his time away, other changes had also occurred. Bob Hawke and Paul Keating had achieved what no other Labor leaders had managed – more than a decade in power in Canberra.
Sheehan is obsessed with the notion that “national problems have been caused by shoddy management and by the racial politics played by the Labor Party and its surrogates in the multicultural industry”. Multiculturalism in Australia is nothing more than “Labor’s prodigious political bluff, a bluff that has cost Australian society uncountable billions of dollars and ruined lives.” Forget Jeff Kennett, forget Nick Greiner, forget Kate Carnell, the only multiculturalists are Labor.
On 25 May 1996, Paul Sheehan wrote a piece for The Sydney Morning Herald entitled “The Multicultural Myth”. In the article, he claimed that SBS television was “a metaphor for the evolving fantasy that Australia should be a cultural federation of glorious diversity”, opined that complaints to the Anti-Discrimination Board were so numerous they were having a “carcinogenic effect on racial cohesion in Australia”, called the president of the Anti-Discrimination Board, Chris Puplick, the “unofficial Godfather of Grievance in NSW” and said one of the reasons for high unemployment in NSW was “the plethora of Thought Police employed by the State”. Somehow multiculturism was threatening Australia’s egalitarian culture “built through trial and error, and fought for and protected with blood and suffering of millions of Australians”.
Then came this classic: “Nation building is invariably bloody. Australia was going to be colonised. And if it had been occupied by one of the imperial cultures of Asia (with their long record of fratricide, liquidation of dissent and ethnic chauvinism), there would probably be no revival of Aboriginal culture today owing to a shortage of Aborigines.” No mention of the mid 1800s “dispersal” practices that culled Aboriginal numbers.
Reactions to the piece were heated. The most extreme form the introduction to Among The Barbarians. Sheehan is dismayed by the comments, even wounded, displaying all the disingenuousness of the child who writes “fuck” on the dining room wall and can’t understand why he’s in trouble.
Among The Barbarians is a longer version of Sheehan’s 1996 article, even repeating the view that Australia will be an eco-superpower, a naive claim given Australia’s stance at the Kyoto summit.
What makes Among The Barbarians a disturbing book is Sheehan’s defensiveness and obsessive selectivity, matched with conspiracy theories. Despite years of key conservatives as regular commentators in Australian newspapers, more than a decade of Hanson-style voices filling talkback radio on race, immigration and indigenous issues, saturation propagandising by top rating radio presenters like Alan Jones and Stan Zemanek, Sheehan earnestly believes that, under Labor, “so strong and so ruthlessly imposed were the protocols constraining discussion of racism, discrimination, affirmative action and immigration, it would be a foolish move to smash through and express, with undisguised resentment, the unpleasant fears felt in much of the electorate”.
Among The Barbarians is a skewed Australian canvass, self-justified as setting the record straight. Just one side of the debate on the grounds that it’s never been heard. Sheehan picks at topics rather than digests them, often relying on a handful of opinions to support his.
In the early chapters Sheehan’s mission is to overturn the dominating leftist and alienated view of Australia’s past. It’s a flimsy attack, however, based largely on Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country.
Something happened to Australian stoicism and nativism during the comfort and success of the boom after World War II. A key record of this change was Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country … more than any other postwar work it created and legitimised the practice of sneering at Australian culture.
However, Horne was no leftie. He supported the Vietnam commitment and when The Lucky Country was published was co-editor (with James McAuley) of Quadrant.
Similarly with “Chinese culture”, Sheehan is light on proof. He believes Australia has a naive and overly favourable view of China. He paints the Chinese character as communist, alien and threatening. No mention of the democracy movement, Hong Kong’s Martin Lee or Emily Lau. One billion people all the same.
The evidence? Start with a few select quotes from Geremie R Barme and little known Australian Sang Ye. Add China scholar Jamie Mackie who wonders “whether (and how) Australian society or culture has been either enriched by the presence of [Chinese] immigrants or put under strain”. Throw in a handful of comments from academics including anthropologist Richard Basham and Sheehan is convinced. Successful settlement of first generation Chinese in Australia is problematic if not impossible. Although he does add, in a somewhat patronising way, that “the beauty of immigration is that most of the children of Chinese wayfarers who stay in Australia will not share this alienation.
In Barbarians, Sheehan argues that the characteristics of the Chinese totalitarian State cannot be separated from the defining characteristics of individual Chinese. This is plainly sinophobic. Try it on NSW Liberal Helen Sham Ho.
Barbarian‘s portrait of Australian Vietnamese carries similar unassimilable refrains. Extended families on welfare taking money for rag trade piecework, drugs and gangs in Cabramatta – the ghetto and tax evasion. There’s nothing to match Queensland author and academic Nancy Viviani’s balanced and expert views. A third of Vietnamese Australians live in middle class suburbs and another third are coping quite well.
Sheehan sees only failures, “Some immigrant groups simply have a different value system to the one prevailing in Australia.” One wonders how Anglo-masonics would have described Sheehan’s own immigrant group, the Irish, in the early 1900s. Papists? Jailbirds? Drunks? Breeding like rabbits? Sheehan knows how to salivate the prejudices.
For over a decade Australia has heatedly debated multiculturalism, immigration, race and indigenous issues. Sheehan missed it. There’s been no silence. Many voices have peddled Sheehan’s line – Geoffrey Blainey, Lauchlan Chipman, Graeme Campbell and Australians Against Further Immigration, Liberal Michael Hodgman way back in 1984, Terry Lane, even World War II heroine Nancy Wake to name a few. Commercial talk back radio has probably done most to push the cause of One Nation.
Moreover, Malcolm Fraser’s Liberals first allowed a generous number of Asians, namely Vietnemese refugees, to settle in Australia. With the Galbally Report of 1978, Malcolm Fraser initiated government funded multiculturalism.
Paul Sheehan ignores this. In Among The Barbarians, multiculturalism is a Labor junket designed to fill Labor electorates with families united by our immigration laws. No mention of the fact that family connections are favoured in the acceptance of immigrants to Canada, the USA and Britain.
The “I’ve got the dirt on Labor” theories in Barbarians are an elaborate conspiracy that Sheehan constructs between ethnic voters, the trade union movement, a Labor government handing out tax dollars and the multicultural “industry”. Add to this a couple of quotes from a couple of Labor heavies, Peter Walsh and Barry Jones, and you have “the dividing of Australia”.
He uses Robert Hughes’ words “culture of complaint” to support his opposition to multiculturalism, but Hughes’ book praises Australian multiculturalism. Wang Gung Wu is quoted calling Chinese “sojourners”, but Wang is a naturalised Australian. Columnist Gerard Henderson appears briefly mocking a Human Rights Commission lunch, although he openly supports multiculturalism.
And Australian Vietnamese may or may not take welfare benefits while doing piecework. But more balance please. Piecework is hardly in a league with the great middle class tax dodge of family trusts. And the sweat trade is no Vietnamese invention.
Catholics were once said to live in ghettos and be over represented in Australian jails. At sixteen, for a week, my six siblings (including a two year old) and I got a taste of bottom of the ladder exploitation. We helped our widowed Catholic mother earn a pittance cutting threads off underpants. We filled bag after bag, worth a few shillings. We were exploited not exploiters. Immigrant families need real jobs like any families.
Contrary to Sheehan’s suggestion, ALP branch stacking wasn’t started by ethnics. It’s been around Labor since Adam. As they assimilated, non-Anglo Celts have copied Anglos and Irish.
Although drugs are undoubtedly a problem for Sydney’s Cabramatta, Sheehan discusses only Chinese or Asian connected drug cartels making no mention of Ireland, the Netherlands, France or Columbia which have more serious problems. These days South Sydney, near where Sheehan lives, is a greater crime threat than Cabramatta.
Like the plague bacillus, racial villification never really disappears, just goes underground. Australia’s latest outbreak of racial intolerance has shocked a majority but vindicated that ever growing vocal minority gathering round One Nation, it’s more strident chords familiar to students of Australian history.
Richard Hall’s Black Armband Days illustrates how the historical antecedants for the One Nation backlash go a lot deeper than regional loyalties or rural recession. The vaccuum or silence Sheehan and others claim Labor enforced, when looked at from an historical perspective, is better understood as the modernising of an earlier Australia which saw itself proudly Anglo and white.
For more than thirty years, Australia has internationalised on an unprecedented scale. White Australia has given way to multicultural mixes, tariffs have fallen and fortress Australia is economic suicide. But official intolerance is not so far back. Unless we understand that, claims Hall, we shall not “be vigilant against those who have learnt nothing”.
Richard Hall, an exceptional raconteur, has created Black Armband Days from library and archive collections. Here are the stories behind the darker side of the Australian character. For Hall “telling the stories of those past crimes, and of how racism was nourished by corrupt ideas and lies, is to affirm that we have to know and own our past to be free of it”. Where Sheehan tries, positively, to reinstall ANZAC herioism and outback stoicism, Hall’s brief is to turn over a few rocks and shed light on the crawlies in the crannies.
It’s not a pretty story although Hall would agree that Australia has a proud record of tolerance running alongside. But where Sheehan is selective, Hall works through the evidence in an objective way. Hall is fascinated by hidden facts of history and is meticulous in fitting the pieces together. His digging into the story of Daisy Bates and her claims Aborigines ate their children is essential reading.
Taking on critics of black armband history Hall writes – “The slogan ‘black armband’ … implies something weak … something wimpish; … something intellectually implausible”. White settlement needs an honest fronting.
Hall sets down the xenophobic record of Australian leaders like Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin and criticises their biographers, Allan Martin and John La Nauze, for hiding this in both biographies. In piecing together transcripts of evidence at the 1861 Select Committee on the Native Police Force in Queensland, he illustrates how institutionalised racism became. And using Hansard records of the debates that ushered in the White Australia Policy, Hall illustrates unanimity among all political groupings.
Australia’s colour prejudices lingered long into the 20th century, in wildly anti-social ways. Even American negro musicians were suspect. Sonny Clay’s tour in 1927 became a national scandal, inflamed by the xenophobic outpourings of Truth editor Ezra Norton and some trumped up charges of loose living. Billy Hughes, at a Nationalist Party Conference, railed against the black musicians saying it was a pity they hadn’t been lynched. The delegates loved it. Later, black US soldiers in Brisbane were a similar worry, even when fighting on our side.
It is early days in Australia’s identity debate, which has become one of calculating blame and recognising past wrongs. Hall is right that Australians must come to terms with their history as it happened, before moving on. In moving on, however, citizens Down Under are going to have to constructively view their make-up in more pragmatic terms. The nation state identity of earlier centuries is breaking down. Even the goliath USA is merging with its geographical region.
John J. Miller is a conservative and a Bradley Fellow with Washington’s Heritage Foundation. His The Unmaking of Americans: How Multiculturalism Has Undermined America’s Assimilation Ethic is an excellent overview and comprehensive account of the movements and policies that developed around immigration to the United States over a century.
Miller believes in “Americanization”. He supports the encouragement of high standards for citizenship, making immigrants assimilate and getting tough on illegal immigrants. He opposes racial preference in government policy and, of course, bilingual education. Many of his answers make sense only in the US while some of his more pedantic American definitions of naturalisation and what immigrants must endure to be part of the American way would raise an Australian’s eyebrows.
However, Miller has written the book Sheehan couldn’t. Whether you agree with Miller’s prognosis or not, you can learn from his research and appreciate his point of view. His arguments also suggest, by comparison, that some of the Australian debate on immigration is at present psychotic. Miller, like Sheehan, is not against immigration, but he can evaluate the success and failures of immigrant groups without resorting to racial stereotypes. And he also sings the praises of Asian American immigrants even while defining them a little differently from European Americans as citizens.
Australians have no choice but to accept their geographical region. With internationalisation some Australian cities will have more in common with international cities across the globe than with regional Australia. But we’re going to have to flush out the remnants of prejudice and racism that Richard Hall identifies, as much as we need to resist Sheehan style backlashes.”
Article published in Australian Review of Books