Photograph: Guardian

Luke Pearson: Statues, nationalism, and Trump’s white pride bazaar

IndigenousX editor-at-large Luke Pearson. Photograph: TimeOut

IndigenousX editor-at-large Luke Pearson. Photograph: TimeOut

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The language and experiences of the long oppressed are now being co-opted by White pride movements in their effort to maintain their privilege, writes IndigenousX founder and editor-at-large Luke Pearson.

7 September 2017

The past few weeks in Australian media and political life have been a bit of a blur. Even trying to recount them now sounds far fetched.

As a writer you look for moments to enter the public discourse – to add some value, to raise new ideas or discussions or to counter what you believe to be erroneous claims or actions from others.

The last few weeks I’ve watched, tempted to enter the fray, as increasingly bizarre, and usually racist, things happened.

The best thing about writing for IndigenousX is that we aren’t really bound by the news cycle, so with enough going on in my own life between work and home, I thought I’d take my time, pick the eyes out of it all, wait for something to really jump at me. Yet, on and on it went, the increasingly bizarre, becoming curiouser and curiouser.

Stan Grant was compared to the Taliban, Stalin and Mao for his proposals regarding memorials to Australia’s colonial past

Looking back, trying to sum it all up and now piece something together feels a lot like I’m trying to wash my hands with sewerage.

Did someone really pull a ‘prank’ by wearing a burqa into the senate? Did some guy compare same-sex relationships to the relationship he has with his cycling buddies? And then did someone else compare it to marrying… a bridge? Did I really see a bunch of Nazi-themed anti-Same Sex Marriage posters?

And what about the recent rush to the high court? Challenges to the Same Sex Marriage plebiscite to the left of me, challenges to section 44 of the constitution to the right, because #DualCitizenship suddenly threatens the positions of so many of our political representatives at the trough.

And didn’t the Prime Minister compare people who think Captain Cook didn’t actually discover Australia to Stalin murdering his henchmen and erasing them from history? Actually, that wasn’t even close to the dodgiest statements in the public debate about statues.

There was a headline in the Tele about the ‘Taliban left’ and ‘Stalinist terrorists’; there was Alan Jones tweeting out that if Stan Grant wasn’t careful he’d go the same was Yasmin Abdel-Magied; and then Jones tweeted out that Australia needs strong leaders to keep its minorities in their place in order to make sure they don’t get what they want.

Nick Cater wrote an article in the australian earlier this week attempting to take the whitewashing of Australian history to heights unseen in the past 50 years. While extolling Cook’s virtues he made one of the most amazing claims, one that to me exemplifies the pathological paternalism of colonial oppression.

Carter wrote that Cook believed ‘a deal could be struck between the old world and the new, that land could be exchanged for the marvels of 18th century technology’. He also wrote that was how many Australians still feel today about Aboriginal people.

He ignored the fact Cook – like our politicians throughout history and up to today – didn’t think that Aboriginal people needed to have a say in striking this deal.

“As the son of a farm labourer who became a sea captain, he embodied the spirit of egalitarianism. He approached the ­native inhabitants respectfully believing, like those who followed, that the old and new worlds could strike a deal: land, seemingly in abundance, in return for the technological wonders of the 18th century.”
Nick Carter, the australian

It demonstrates the most amazing belief that adult human beings do not deserve a say in their own destinies. That they do not have the right to say no. Or to negotiate. Or to oppose. It reflects a belief that flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that is: white people know best and that the theft of land and resources and the attempted destruction of Aboriginal lives, families, communities, languages, and sacred sites is so much in the best interests of Aboriginal people that they should actually be thankful for it. Such is the pathological paternalism of colonial oppression.

All those freedoms we are so often told about – freedom of speech, the right to be a bigot, the freedom that is meant to come from living in a country like Australia – these are things not for Aboriginal people. This was also part of the deal. We give up not just our land but our sovereignty, our individual and collective rights to choose. We are seen as children unable to make decisions, unable to look after our own children. Never to be trusted and instead to be controlled, but still expected to be grateful. Forever grateful.

Another aspect of modern colonial oppression is its refusal to acknowledge its own existence. We usually call it institutional racism these days, but it’s basically the same thing. And the ways that institutional racism endorses and encourages racism within its citizenry is rarely discussed either.

It is the very thing that led to the media circus about statues, though with all the other stuff going on you’d be forgiven for forgetting that.

We talked about statues because in America Nazis, Proud Boys, alt-right and any other number of white nationalists emboldened by Trump marched in Charlottesville, demonstrating about the removal of a statue of the Confederate army general, Robert E. Lee.

Nazis marching in the streets, driving a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing somebody, injuring dozens more – and Australia’s take away from that was to talk about statues? Really?

Amidst all the other headlines there has been a few other stories worth noting on this topic.

What these stories have showed is that white nationalists are actively engaging and recruiting. They feel emboldened by what has been happening in America since Trump’s electoral campaigns, and they feel endorsed by the racism and homophobia so painfully evident within our media and government. They are seeking to gain access to the media to recruit through propaganda, and they have been invited on numerous media programs to do so. They seek to get media attention through posting racist posters, and it works every time. They are communicating, strategising, and recruiting online and increasingly in real life too.

And in Australia, we are talking about statues. We are talking about it in a way that shows a massive part of our country, up to and including our Prime Minister, is more than happy to play to that same extreme element that is rising up in America. In that sense, and that sense alone, talking about statues is talking about white nationalism, but instead of talking about how we can prevent it we are talking about how we can preserve, glorify, and perpetuate it.

People here have looked closely at Trump and instead of thinking ‘how can we stop this from happening here?’ they are thinking ‘how can I make that work for me too?’; how can I turn that into clicks, or into votes?

White Australia, like white everywhere else, doesn’t like to talk about anything white. White privilege, white power, white nationalism, white pride. It likes to play to them, to defend them and embolden them, but it doesn’t like to name them. That makes whiteness far more elusive and impossible to rationally discuss. Just look at what Stan Grant copped simply for pointing out that Captain Cook didn’t actually discover Australia.

Many of the alt-right have suggested that people naming whiteness and talking about it is what has led to a resurgence of white nationalism and the rise of Donald Trump, and that is a startling admission. When white people are confronted with the realities of whiteness and are asked to stop being invisible and address the issues that are specific to whiteness, white power, white fragility and white privilege, many would rather grab the nearest swastika flag and fight to completely reinstate that power rather than acknowledge that it has been and continues to be a very destructive force for those who are on the receiving end of it.

It is not that people are incapable of having honest and respectful debates, but when they are bombarded with constant headlines about how minorities are trying to steal power and oppress them, it opens the door for the propaganda of white nationalism and other forms of extremism.

Just think about all the things that you hear on a regular basis that minorities are trying to steal or pervert: free speech, statues, tax dollars, the rule of law, children’s education.

In this form of discourse, minorities are not ‘fighting for their rights’, they are ‘fighting to steal yours!’

Not only must minorities be viciously attacked and vilified for their views, this form of modern colonial oppression must now be framed as fighting against oppression. Even some of the most violent and hateful racists, members of the KKK and other hate groups, will swear they are not racist. They are simply trying to defend their race from attacks by minorities. They are fighting for free speech. They are fighting to preserve their culture.

They have coopted the language of those they oppress in their fight to maintain their privilege.

Just take a look at Australia’s discourse towards same sex marriage, Indigenous people and refugees, and ask yourself what impact this is having on those prone to various forms of white nationalism. Every argument that effectively aims to deny the rights of these groups is framed as fighting to protect the rights of ‘ordinary Australians’. Ordinary Australians of course being white, straight, and usually male.

Victoria Police were criticised for publicly shaking hands with a United Patriots Front marcher in July 2015. The group later labelled the officer a 'patriot' of their cause. Photograph: Twitter

Victoria Police were criticised for publicly shaking hands with a United Patriots Front marcher in July 2015. The group later labelled the officer a ‘patriot’ of their cause. Photograph: Twitter

Compare that to our national discourse on white nationalism and our attempts to stop it, or to condemn it, or even to name it. You can’t. Because that discourse doesn’t even exist in Australia to provide a basis for comparison.

So, the next time Nazis march in the street and kill people somewhere in the vicinity of a statue, can we please actually talk about Nazis and white nationalists instead of statues?

And if we don’t want the ‘next time’ to actually happen in Australia, perhaps it would be wise to, you know, not just wait for next time.

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