First, a poem by book editor John Allemang.
Arnie the barbarianNext, an Australian now living in Canada writes about the anti-immigrant violence in his home country, and the culture that fostered it.
by John Allemang
News report: Tookie Williams, gang leader turned activist, was executed in California after beleaguered Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to commute his death sentence.
In Terminator: Judgment Day,
You never had to stop and say,
"If I don't kill this low-life freak,
Will soccer moms decide I'm weak?"
Death's simpler in your movie roles,
Where no one stopped to check the polls
When Conan made revenge seem sweet
And gangsters ended up dead meat.
But now the swing vote plays a part
In firming up your hardened heart,
And you send Tookie to the grave
Because you've got a job to save.
"I'd like to let him off, I would,
But clemency's misunderstood
As weakness in the face of force,
So I'll just say he lacks . . . remorse."
It took him quite a while to die.
Like you, he was a bulked-up guy,
Which made it hard to find the vein
That adds the killer to the slain.
And so you end as you began,
By proving you're no girlie-man:
While Tookie's muscles feed the worms,
Strong governors seek second terms.
by Jonathan Bennett
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Locals only. If you're a surfer from Cronulla, a suburb of Sydney, Australia, these are two words you know. Your beach is your church, the sand sacred, the waves passed on to you by birthright. At least that's the way it's presented to you by your closest friends -- your mates. And with them you are thick as thieves.
This past week saw 5,000 -- what shall we call them? -- recalcitrant thugs take to Cronulla Beach in an act of vigilantism. They are sick of gangs of "Lebs" (immigrants largely, but not exclusively, from Lebanon) threatening their beach way of life. Make no mistake, they are bona fide gangs; they are responsible for their fair share of violent crime in Sydney.
Yet, in contrast, the pictures of 5,000 drunk "shire boys" (the Sutherland Shire is Cronulla's surrounding district) bashing anyone with skin that was not darkened by the sun alone was disquieting, to say the least.
Especially for me. I grew up in Cronulla.
This fall, the world watched as France was ablaze with racial tension. Now, it's Sydney's turn. Could it happen here in Canada? Surely thousands of Canadians of whatever stripe would never take to the streets of Burlington or Oshawa draped in the Maple Leaf, singing O Canada, looking to beat up anyone they came across with skin a different shade from their own?
So why in the name of Australian nationalism did a crowd take to the beach where I used to surf as a kid? Why did they drape themselves in the flag (an uneasy mix of Southern Cross and Union Jack) and sing Waltzing Matilda as they attacked anyone they came across who looked Middle Eastern?
Australia is a country Canadians are always telling me all about: They were there on holidays for a month back in '89, or their cousin lives in Melbourne or maybe Perth -- perhaps I know him?
To be fair, I've been here for a while now. I'm a dual citizen. I know why they, we, talk like this. Because Australia is about the last place left Anglo-Canadians feel safe in making sweeping and often ignorant statements about. Because, really, who are they going to offend? I'm the rare Ontarian without a diaspora. There is no "little Australia" somewhere down College Street.
Like Canada, Australia is a destination for immigrants. From this premise grows the mistaken belief that the two countries are alike. They're simply not. The irony is that newcomers to Canada, especially those from cricketing or rugby-playing nations, often have a much better understanding of Australian culture than do previously arrived Canadians.
Race riots like the one last weekend are new to Australia. With the logistics aided by text messaging calling on local residents to "reclaim the beach" and the fires fuelled by jingoistic politicians, Cronulla found itself lawless within hours.
Some commentators now are saying it was only a matter of time before a largely white enclave such as Cronulla boiled over.
Tensions between youths of Arabic descent and white Australians have been rising, largely because of anti-Muslim sentiment spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and the bombings on Bali that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, in October, 2002.
They also were heightened by a gang-rape case in 2002 in which prosecutors and witnesses said members of a Lebanese gang hurled racial abuse at their white victims.
In Cronulla, the outburst was sparked by an incident a week earlier in which a pair of volunteer lifeguards were assaulted by youths of Middle Eastern appearance who had been ejected from the beach for alleged rowdiness.
Like most crowds, this one, drunken and high, did truly unpardonable things. The racial hatred that was shouted was deplorable.
Know that the riots have been widely condemned as a national shame in Australia. Yet, horrifyingly, there is a segment that sees them as a good thing. Gangs have grown in Sydney's outer suburbs over the past 15 years. Politicians and police alike are seen as ineffective in curbing the violence. Last weekend's riots were what it all came to.
The hand-wringing, the blaming, the shaming has begun. As you might expect, it has fast become a pox on all houses.
Cronulla is the southernmost suburb of Sydney. The Shire is an enclave cut off, geographically by sea and bush. But it's the end of the train line, one of the few beaches that is easy to get to by public transport. The beach culture there has always been hostile to outsiders as a result. You need only read the Australian cult classic novel Puberty Blues -- set in Cronulla -- to see how little the surfer attitudes have changed since the 1970s.
Eventually, all discussions of Australia come back to mateship. It's a uniquely Australian bond. Unless you have lived within that kind of cultural fraternity, it's hard to describe its influence. My having done so, sadly, it's easy to see how Cronulla Beach became the battleground it did. Even still, this dual citizen will have to work to incorporate, slowly, last weekend's riots into my appreciation, my explanation, of my "home."
For now, as I try to make sense of events, I will lie to myself a little. I will vainly hope that "locals only" is undertow, the last pull of a bygone Australian era, and not the first surge of larger waves growing ever powerful offshore.
Jonathan Bennett is the author of three books, including Verandah People, a collection of short stories set in Sydney. He lives in Peterborough, Ont.