Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Identity Crisis in Australian Riots

They’re beating up on the Lebanese in Australia, they’re blowing them up in Beirut, they’re mocking them in Syria (the Syrian “parliament” had the good heart to “condemn” the latest Syrian-sponsored assassinations in Lebanon), and my middle-school daughter is working on a brief English work sheet about the Lebanese cedar tree, felled, filleted and forgotten two thousand years ago. Not a good day to be Lebanese, ex- or otherwise. (That homework is more murderous than it sounds: its skimpiness shows with what verve our schools are ensuring that our children grow up to be critical illiterates. And they have the gall to call it “Language Arts”!)

Speaking of language arts: John Howard, the Australian prime minister, the thinking man’s George Bush (brains in the service of hubris) decided yesterday that a bunch of Australian thugs singling out, hunting down and beating up on Lebanese-Australians had nothing to do with racism and only to do with a “law and order context.” He’s shocked, shocked to learn that his country’s image is taking a beating in the world’s opinion forums, or that people are beginning to think of that fatal shore as a rather bigoted corner of Oceania. But bigotry is government policy. Remember Australia’s $20 million contract with the tiny island of Nauru and the little concentration camps set up there, for Australia’s sake, to take care of aliens Australia wasn’t quite ready to let tread on her own soil? We should perhaps not be too hard on this land of convicts, of “thieves, whores, highwaymen, and others who had stopped being passive victims of enclosure and unemployment [in Britain] and become the entrepreneurs of their own fortune,” as the Lebanese-Australian writer David Malouf put it in his essay on Robert Hughes’ great book on Australia’s first two hundred years. It’s a past made for nurturing chips on many a shoulder. We should perhaps be even less critical of Australians and more critical of their inspiration. They’ve taken to America so obsessively of late that in policies both foreign and domestic they’re becoming right-wing America’s twin-apparent. Australia’s slavish devotion to the Iraqi debacle is second to none (Britain has more soldiers there, but not more enthusiasm for being there). Australia’s admiration for the USA Patriot Act was such that it couldn’t help outdo it. And Australia’s love of zero-tolerance policing began as the afterburn of a love affair with the American equivalent, criminologists’ warnings notwithstanding. Off to the races then with this outbreak of anti-Arabism: The thugs go after Lebanese cab drivers, the police go after everybody, John Howard thinks it’s just another episode of “Law & Order,” over and done with in sixty minutes, end of story. “Under the laws,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports, police will be able to lock down parts of Sydney and search and confiscate vehicles — measures aimed at ending night-time ‘smash-and-bash’ raids by carloads of young Middle Eastern men.” Funny how the thuggery’s authorship has so quickly, in the Herald’s as in most Australians’ eyes, become exclusively Arab. It’s as much prejudice as habit. Paris and London are still burning brightly in Australians’ memories, and American movies and television shows, including the White House’s daily edition of “Right Wing,” keeps an overriding flame of anti-Arab prejudice burning brightly in the world’s eyes.

Yet not so fast. The trouble with the Australian story is that it doesn’t fit any of the riot-narratives of late. Those “Arabs” their Australian compatriots are going after aren’t even prototypical “angry” Muslims half the time (I’m using the terms as your prototypical whitish newspaper editor might understand them). They’re not seething second-generation immigrants of the Parisian sort who throw stones and set cars aflame because they don’t have jobs. They’re not the Osama sympathizers whose hobbies include weekend suicide bombings. They’re barely Arabs, your Lebanese types—whether they’re immigrants in Australia, in West Africa or in Detroit and Los Angeles—having a racist strain in them that could compete with anybody’s: They’re known, many of them, to disdain being associated with Arabs the way Sunnis disdain Shiites or Kurds disdain Shiites and Sunnis or … and so on. Lebanese immigrants around the world are also not well known for graceful abilities to play well with others, so much as for their knack for imposing their will, crudely and, usually, lucratively. So the riots in Australia have something of the comical about them: racial riots hung up on identity crises. The “suspicious” fire that destroyed a church near an Islamic center is a perfect illustration. Was it set by white Australians who think the church is frequented by Lebanese Christians? Was it set by mistake because drunk Australians couldn’t make the difference between a church and an Islamic center? Was it set by Lebanese thugs who thought they were hitting “back” at the heart of Australian piety? Hen there’s the possibility that the inferno was set by God, or some lesser power—say, crisscrossed electric wires. A misunderstanding? That could well be at the root of the riots. It doesn’t make them less violent, and it won’t make them less prone to being misunderstood by the rest of the world as part of a larger narrative, even though they have no place in it. But logic doesn’t snowball as effectively as prejudice.