Because the world needs more overwrought candour.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The battle for Cronulla Beach

Despite the embarassment and cringe-worthiness of watching Real Aussie Blokes beating newer migrants with beer in hand, there's something almost farcical about the setting of Sydney's race riots. The battle is over a beach. The humour of these confrontations is that whiter Aussies are laying claim to being more Australian, claiming to have been born here, not flown here. They're defending the old breed against upstart newcomers. So what else could a civil war over Australianness have been fought over than a beach, the symbol of our country? A beach is laconic, understated and relaxed. It seperates two very different mediums; it separates British Australia from Asia, from the Middle East. Australians are coast-dwellers, hugging our long strips of sand tightly. Beaches remind us of where all Australians came from, and what we found there was to do once Australia was conquered as well as Europeans were able (we've left the centre and north for the hardier originals and a smattering of tougher Europeans).

The riots were horrible to watch, especially since it was only recently that I smugly wrote that unlike Europe or the States, Australia has gone furthest along the path to a true multicultural state - not just parallel nations living on the same land. Australia's ethnic tension is nothing, I argued. Maybe I was wrong, or maybe this is just a flash in the pan. How would I know? I don't live in a working class suburb. I don't have to compete with recent migrants for vanishing factory jobs. I live in British Australia, not the rougher, realer outer suburbs. I talked about the riots to a western suburbs boy from Melbourne today, and he said something interesting. "I'm not surprised it happened," he said. For years during high school, he'd been hassled and threatened by what he described as "Lebanese gangs." A couple of others chimed in. "If you go to the Customs Hotel in Williamstown, that's where you'll see the action in Melbourne," one said. "After 11:30, it's the Aussies versus Lebos versus the rest." Is this my city? Is this my country? Do I even know the place I live?

The reaction from the press has been largely predictable, with the bizarre exception of the TV tabloid current affairs shows, who turned on the multicultural charm and resisted the temptation to follow Alan Jones into the realm of advocating violence. But the media intelligentsia attacked the usual target - our racist leader, John Howard, whose lack of commitment to multiculturalism and Muslim-bashing had of course led the misguided proles to miss the IR reforms and attack the wrong target. What crap. Why go looking for a big picture ideology? Why try to pin this on the conservatism of the Federal Government? Most Lebanese migrants are Christian, according to Wikipedia. Why fit it into the trope of a supposed backlash against the anti-Muslim rhetoric following our membership of the War on (Islamist) Terror?

What's far more likely is that this is a conflict based on clashing cultures. While ideological war has produced the biggest bodycounts, the world's most eternally popular form of warfare is still ethnic-based - conflict and competition between ethnically-identifying groups over resources. The white Aussies claim young Lebanese-Australians have been violent, rude and derogatory towards women over a long period of time. For them, the nationalistic riot was an explosion of built-up tension. I haven't heard the opposing point of view put forward - what Lebanese-Australians think of white Aussies. What's interesting to me is that the dogma of multiculturalism offers no solution to problems like these. Commentators have suggested fixes like improved policing (a stopgap measure) and national forums (possibly helpful, but likely to be dominated by the concerned commentariat).

A multicultural nation coexists through the application of a supposedly very Australian value, namely tolerance. There's not much historical justification for our alleged tolerance, and I think the reason that this polite fiction has existed for so long is because Australia has space enough for our migrants, and it used to have jobs for unskilled migrants to do. If we were to seriously prescribe tolerance as an antidote to racism, we'd be foolish to take this value as an end unto itself. Tolerance is a value employed by the white majority towards its minorities. It's essentially permissiveness, a willingness to claim difference does not matter, a postmodern fallacy brought into stark relief by the rise of Islamofascism. Tolerance is useful, but it has limits. Minority groups should not have to tolerate ill-treatment by the white majority. They shouldn't be forced into ghettoes of poverty, or into the mould of state enemy. But equally, the white majority should not have to tolerate infringements on world's best practice human rights simply because another patriarchal culture still produces unpleasant behaviour. The Lebanese minority in Sydney still have an image problem following the vicious pack rapes of a few years back. One of the criticisms repeated over and over again by white Aussies at Cronulla beach is that Lebanese-Australians are disrespectful of women. While white Australians are by no means free of this crime - domestic violence is the biggest killer of women in Australia - feminism has changed the white majority culture significantly. Should we 'tolerate' another culture's messed up methods of male-female relations?

I don't claim to have answers, just more questions. How can a society incorporate minority groups without assimilating them into the mainstream? How can ethnic group identification be reduced in favour of a truly national identity? Is it better that the boil that Pauline Hanson tapped into and fed finally exploded over Cronulla beach, rather than lurking behind this tolerant artifice erected by the commentariat, the elite who tackle the problem by choosing not to live in areas of ethnic tension?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Salivating over technology

I never used to be like this, I swear. Technology was always just technology, just a tool, not a fetish. But more recently, I've felt something shifting in the wind. These days, something moves in my guts when I spot a sleek handheld device - a phone, a BlackBerry, an Ipod. I blame my time in Japan. Mobile phone culture is huge there, and I slotted right in. It was two months before I could afford my own keitai (mobile) and start adorning it with trinkets and photos, two months before I could play games on the train and covertly snap pictures of geisha and check the train timetables on the net, two months during which I felt out of the loop as never before. Since then, I've become a bit obsessed with mobiles. Not because the sleek lines and blinking lights of the sexier models, but because of what is possible with a mobile phone. The phone-walkman is already here, in basic form, but there's so much more that I find myself fantasising about. It's disturbing, I know, but so exciting. In Africa, fixed phone lines remain a rarity - infrastructure and initiative are lacking. But mobile phone use is booming - they've skipped an entire step.

This is what I want mobiles to be able to do:

- Tell you where you are, and display your location on a scalable map. This is readily achievable, I think, given mobiles use the triangulation method
to determine the strongest signal. Mobiles with maps could double as cheap GPS in cars when plugged in.
- Display the locations of your friends on a map. It would work like MSN, so you could choose your status: Busy, Away, At Work, Ready for a beer, and so on.
- Contain a USB-compatible data chip to lug around your work
- Be able to act as a universal remote control
- Incorporate the function of Ipods and digital music players with massive storage. Radio would be a nice touch, too.
- The internet and email. In Japan, you can send a SMS to an email address, and you can email a phone from your computer. Very handy. The net on phones has been pretty over-hyped, but a train timetable and news/sport headlines would be useful.
- Display MSN-style emoticons to make messages more nuanced.
- Double as decent digital still and video cameras.

God, how long must we wait? I need one. I want one. How can we live without something like this?