insanity, twice

Two clips from today's Globe And Mail, both subscriber-only, so here they are.

First, a poem by book editor John Allemang.
Arnie the barbarian
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.
Next, an Australian now living in Canada writes about the anti-immigrant violence in his home country, and the culture that fostered it.
Surfer Madness
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.


barefoot hiker said...

It can happen here.

I know there are some differences between Australia and Canada but the basics are the same -- Anglo-Saxon communities who quietly see themselves as the "real" people of the country, and those who came later...

I think the one saving grace Canada might have that might ameliorate this is that unlike Australia, from the beginning, we've had to govern and live by accommodation. By and large, that's been with the French, but also with the Natives who were -- and this is often forgotten -- extremely important in maintaining Canada as a separate entitity in communion with the British Empire as opposed to absorbed into the United States. This may be way that Canada is different from Australia that's spared us so far...

But still, we're on the verge now of crossing over from being majority-white to majority-visible miniority, at least in our major cities. Will we segue with style and grace to our new identity and destiny? Or will we fight to cling to what was, who we were rather than who we will be? We have to keep the lessons of Sydney in mind, because Australia is in most ways a society markedly like our own.

laura k said...

It can happen here.

I guess one of the most dangerous traps a society can fall into is thinking "it can never happen here".

Your mention of the Native population makes me think of something else I've been meaning to mention for a time.

First Nation issues are so much more in the forefront in Canada than they are in they are in the US. I realize all the problems that exist, but in the US, Native Americans are simply invisible. You never hear about their issues. They're not on the agenda at all. Most people only associate them with casinos, I think. In Canada, there is much more awareness.

My next post. :)

barefoot hiker said...

First Nation issues are so much more in the forefront in Canada than they are in they are in the US.

I think so, yes. I'm not really sure why that is, but I can hazard a guess or two.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 was the first seed of the division between what became Canada and the United States. It prohibited settlement beyond the Appalachians, and so it was abrogated by the US. But it was never repudiated in British North America, where it still has the force of law; in fact, the parts of it that still apply form part of the Constitution, read in by the Constitution Act, 1982, if I'm not mistaken. Among those valid sections are ones securing traditional rights for Native groups. These have been pretty rigidly upheld by the courts in Canada, especially recently. Natives here have very real constitutional clout.

Combine this with the nature of Canadian federalism. Some people like to pretend power in Canada is very centralized, and while on paper it appears that way, in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. Try to imagine the President getting together with all 50 governors to set policy, amend the constitution, discuss trade strategies, consider responses to foreign challenges. Hard to picture. But that's what happens here. The prime minister routinely meets with the premiers in First Ministers' Conferences. When discussions touch on Native issues, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is typically in attendence. This gives him a status, in this role at least, as something akin to a de facto premier. This is, I think, due to the peculiarities of the Canadian federation: there are relatively few members, so it's not unwieldy to bring them all together; there are areas of overlap in federal and provincial jurisdiction that implicitly require such meetings; and Canada has always been a patchwork of agreements and understandings that, while bereft of the simple elegance of the US model, is at the same time more organic, fluid, and adaptable. It's not pretty, but it manages to cover all and keep them comfortable whatever their body size, instead using patriotism to coerce members of that federation to 'fit the suit', as it were. And so, in this loose and pliable system, it's easier to provide a platform for Natives to express their concerns in a unified manner, and have them addressed.

In the US, even were the Natives to form the equivalent of the AFN, it's hard to see how it would find an effective voice -- outside of the courts, perhaps. The US federal model affords no such opportunities that are readily apparent. Further, since the US Constitution explicitly represents a break with the very tradition represented by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, an American AFN would not be buttressed by the same undeniable constitutional prorogatives. None of this is to say it would be impossible, simply more difficult to achieve.

laura k said...

Thank you, LP - very interesting.

For a long time, Native Americans simply wanted the US to honour its own treaties. The treaties were generally not awful, they were negotiated on both sides, and usually called for land, autonomy and peace.

Obviously, time and again the US signed a treaty, then ignored it and did whatever the hell it wanted. (Sound familiar?)

I recently saw something on the Simpsons - one of those great throwaway lines that show does so well. There's a Native American float in a Christmas parade, and the announcer boasts that "...and the papier mache is made entirely of broken treaties!"

James Redekop said...

First Nation issues are so much more in the forefront in Canada than they are in they are in the US. I realize all the problems that exist, but in the US, Native Americans are simply invisible. You never hear about their issues. They're not on the agenda at all. Most people only associate them with casinos, I think. In Canada, there is much more awareness.

Part of the reason the First Nations are more visible here is because of a sort of "awakening" Canada had to some horrid policies towards them -- including forced steralization, forced adoption, forced settlement or re-settlement, banning of languages and religious practices, abuse in schools, etc.

The most recent case to get public attention is Davis Inlet, an Innu community with horrendous rates of suicide, alcoholism, and addiction, largely resulting from those older policies -- older, but not that old, as some of them lasted until the 1970s.

laura k said...

Part of the reason the First Nations are more visible here is because of a sort of "awakening" Canada had to some horrid policies towards them -- including forced steralization, forced adoption, forced settlement or re-settlement, banning of languages and religious practices, abuse in schools, etc.

Then the difference is that the US had the same policies and the issues they wrought - without the awakening.

laura k said...

A great movie about the forced re-location programs - and resistance to them - in Australia is Rabbit Proof Fence. Not only is it a true (and heart-wrenching) story, it was filmed with the cooperation of the Aboriginal community - including the women whose stories the movie tells. Most of the people in the movie, especially the children, were non-actors, who trained in workshops. The movie also features some famous aboriginal actors, along with Kenneth Branagh.

The DVD has some terrific extras about the filming and the true story behind the film - a real cut above the usual DVD "making of" featurettes. Very worth seeing.

Scott M. said...

Staunch nationalism, unfortunately, is often coupled with rash xenophobia and racism as displayed as recently as last Friday in a Quebec Major Junior's Hockey League game.

laura k said...

Ugh, how disgusting. Further proof that assholes and bigots live under all flags.

Thanks for posting it, Scott M.

Beausejour said...

Yeah -- and with an Olympics around the corner, expect the xenophobia to get even worse.

And not to be flippant -- but i think there actually IS a Little Australia -- off Bloor near Spadina...