Nationalism, history and petty politics: The toxic brew behind our national illness

The acts of state-sanctioned harm carried out against detainees held in offshore detention centres ring like warning bells prophesising self-imposed decline as a nation, unless a different path is taken.

As dystopian and terrifying to digest as the treatment of the detainees on Manus Island has been, I fear it is not a one-off act of indecency, but that it is merely the symptom — the visible wounds — of an illness which runs far deeper than our national narrative concedes.

We cannot afford complacency or to accept the unfolding travesties as forgone conclusions. We must at least understand the full extent of what is being defined through the actions of our political class against detainees — we are deciding not just their future, but that of our nation.

Key to understanding the extent of the implications of the unfolding depravity is the the link between our political class, their loosening grip on authority, and their inability to resonate with the public. Australia’s faith in government is at its lowest since its overall collapse under Kevin Rudd in 2010, according to findings of the recently released Scanlon Foundation’s 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion Report. The same report found Islamophobia sitting at 41 per cent, the highest recorded in the report’s 10-year history.

In such times, one might expect that the role of leadership is to steer society through difficult times, and provide a bulwark against social fractures. Instead, our politicians, devoid of authority, have opted for a desperate agenda of seizing upon this resounding Islamophobia. In an attempt to create resonance with the public, the issue of asylum seekers has been linked to national security and become highly racialised.

During his time as Prime Minister, Tony Abbott introduced a rhetoric of war around asylum seekers, spoke repeatedly of ‘sovereignty’ and advocated accepting only Christian refugees from Syria. One Nation has emerged and openly admonishes immigration and the presence of Islam in the country, and our conservative Government, instead of condemning, lurches its own policies further to the right.

A rise in racially-motivated nationalism has seen clashes between protestors across Australia in recent years

Australia is, of course, not alone in its increasingly ruthless politics against minorities, but is mirroring a trend occurring throughout the west. In recent years, we have also witnessed the rise of white nationalism throughout Europe and the United States. Its mission is to address a rising sense of grievance stemming from the fall of the west as the dominant global power.

This is what Tony Abbott often referred to as a loss of western “self-confidence”. This loss of confidence is perhaps directly proportional to a steady dismantling of the privileges many in the west have grown accustomed to. Gone are the days of secure employment, rising wages in line with the cost of living and unstrained infrastructure. We have arrived at the days of power shifting into the developing world, with Asia and Africa on the rise.

Simplistically, it is the catch-cry of white nationalists around the world to blame culturally incompatible foreigners for their sense of decline. It is a grievance which is becoming increasingly overt, and, as described in a recent essay for The Guardian by author Pankaj Mishra, “the white nationalists have junked the old rhetoric of liberal internationalism … instead of claiming to make the world safe for democracy, they nakedly assert the cultural unity of the white race against an existential threat posed by swarthy foreigners, whether these are citizens, immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers or terrorists”.

This conveniently shifts the focus from where it should be: on western powers themselves. Numerous unsustainable ideologies have been designed to concentrate power and wealth into the hands of an elite few, while public institutions and social protections have been left to erode. Likewise, the repeated military failures throughout the Middle East, the dismissal of climate change, and the lack of vision for the challenges arising as the world arrives at the dawn of artificial intelligence, are problems contributed to significantly by western political powers, and not boatloads of migrants drifting helplessly at sea.

Just as an insecure vision of the future plays a role in our present, so too does our unreckoned past. I do not believe that the current tendency towards xenophobic ideologies can be separated from a long history of imperialism in the west.

For centuries, the spread of European imperialism relied on faith in the idea that its colonial subjects were racially inferior. This is captured succinctly by Rudyard Kipling in his 1899 poem The White Man’s Burden where he lamentingly speaks of the duty of the racially superior west towards its “new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child”. Racism was not an accident, but a deliberate element of the imperialist vision. Racism is, as expressed by Richard Cooke in his recent essay Once Upon a Time in the West, “beneficial to the racist … colonialism is the supreme example of this. The racist can even come to believe that their racism is beneficial to the victim, a kind of custodianship or paternalism”.

Australia, of course, is no exception to such paternal custodianship, which enabled the justification of the abuse of our First People in the name of imperialist territorial expansion. This has remained largely unreckoned with in our national consciousness, and thus allowed for ongoing cycles of abuse to unfold. Its rationale runs deeply through the rejection by Prime Minister Turnbull of the Uluru Statement in October 2017, and the denial of human liberties through our asylum seeker policy. To some, the image of Kipling’s “sullens” can be invoked to this day.

We must remember the extent to which this depraved focus on racialisation and fear acts as a distraction. At its heart, it is not an argument about the cultural compatibility of the detainees in offshore centres. It is, in fact, about the desperation and opportunism of the men and women in Parliament House.

We should prove our political parties right on at least one thing — that they are out of touch with their constituency. We can begin by showing we understand that any attempt to recreate a class of helpless subjects onto which old imperial fantasies and blame for social failures can be projected, portrays not authority but chronic weakness. This is the underlying illness that we must work to heal. Our future relevance and ability to flourish as a nation depends on it.

Durkhanai Ayubi is co-owner of Kutchi Deli Parwana, an Advisory Board Member for the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and a fellow of the Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity.

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