THE UGLY AUSTRALIAN
I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past twenty-four hours on how and when Anzac Day became hijacked by fascists – by the kinds of people Australian servicemen and women have sacrificed themselves in fighting across various wars for more than a century now.
Of course, I’m referring to their howls yesterday that writer, engineer, TV presenter and general over-achiever Yassmin Abdel-Magied be sacked and deported to some unnamed corner of hell for daring to suggest that we might, on our day of remembrance, spare a thought for those we have locked up in indefinite detention – those refugees who by some savage irony have, in their attempt to escape one form of authoritarian evil, found themselves deep inside Australia’s special version of same.
I’m not going to recount Yassmin’s tale here – plenty has been written on her crimes of unAustralianness already, and it’s all already boring. Strip it down to its pathetic nuts and bolts and we have a woman who, in exercising free speech, has not only said something plainly true, but has had it viciously condemned by those who purport to be the great white defenders of freedom in our land. It’s an irony sandwich with onions.
But the conversations behind the headlines have provided rich fields of thought. In one lively chat among a bunch of women, one asked if it was John Howard – the prime minister who went to war with Bush on Blair on a lie, sending the West on a spree of war crimes after September 11 – who reshaped Anzac Day in his own image.
And I replied, no, not exactly. In the red team/blue team death spiral that passes for politics in Australia, the left blames the right for everything morally corrupt (and vice versa) and tends to unremember that ‘their’ Labor leaders have been just as guilty of firing up the undesirables as the conservatives. It was our beer-drinking, working-class Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke who unleashed a new Aussie pride in the build up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, encouraging public involvement in Anzac commemorations that hadn’t been seen since the First World War, painting all in the bright colours of some kind of sport. And of course, lest we forget his Zegna-suited successor Paul Keating, while eschewing reflected military glory or anything that might ruin his manicure, set up the system of offshore immigration detention in which those refugees Yassmin was referring to languish today.
Next, John Howard, being the whore for a score he is, picked up the ball and ran with it. That ball was Australia’s working class. Their new wealth, new confidence and new pride, became a potent political force and remains so. They’re goaded by politicians, conservative commentators and radio talkback narcissists to hate anything and everything they deem unAustralian. They’re encouraged every day and in every election to blame everyone but themselves for any problem the country might face. They are anti-socialist, anti-union, anti-immigration, anti-compassion, anti-thought – anti everything that’s brought them the good life in the first place. It’s revolting, yes, and what they’ve done to Anzac Day – with their jingoistic displays of arrogance, drunkenness and violence – would embarrass and confuse my working-class grandparents.
And it’s this thought of my grandparents that had me walking away from yesterday’s bunfight with a gnawing knowledge that our ugliness runs much deeper than this. Perhaps the unthinking jingoes are louder and brasher now, but they’ve been with us from the beginning.
During the First World War, my Irish grandmother, as a little girl, regularly had rocks and other abuses thrown at her walking home after school in inner Sydney’s Surry Hills, because she was Catholic and poor and deemed a traitorous Sinn Feiner, even though one of her brothers was at that time away fighting in France – and copping mustard gas that would send him to an early grave.
On the other side of my family, my schoolboy grandfather’s name was changed from Schwebel to Swivel, because the violence against German Australians was gathering steam, even though one of his cousins was at that time away fighting in Flanders. In fact, there was a ferocious campaign waged at Marrickville Council to change the name of Schwebel Street to something unGerman, which was only abandoned when Henry Schwebel was killed at Zonnebeke and the jingoes were shown up for deadshits they are.
I woke up this morning with all this ringing in my ears. Because of those who hate, my name, the name I grew up with, is not my own. Of course, I’ve always known this – the stories of bricks through windows and reputations trashed has been with me since I was a little girl – but it came to me with fresh sadness.
How fucking dare you, was my next and predictable thought. You load of nano-minded human pollutants. I could hate, too. But somehow the lessons of history have settled in me – and across my family – with a greater need to love. To learn. To choose to be grateful, too, for the luxury of peace that enables me to love and learn so freely.
I channel those questions of homegrown hatred into all my writings, my stories about Australia, and I throw love at them there, too. It’s curious that this has seen my work labelled as romantic and sentimental over the years, made some literary confreres a little squeamish at what I do. But good grief – fuck you, too.
The Australia I work for is an inclusive one, a fair and just one, and the moral high ground is a figment of the conceited on each side.
I will seek out and sew the threads of all that’s beautiful about us until the day I die. I will hurl my salvos of love at every ugliness – at every hate and every hurt.