Why 18C Must Stay: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Turnbull

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Image: The usual suspects, but Australia’s extreme right has some unlikely forebears

By Damian West

Widely regarded as the godfather of Australian Nazism, Dr James Saleam is reported to contest the pronunciation of his own name.

“Sail-em”, Jim is said to insist when presented the sound of Sal’eem – an Arabic name referring to peace. Sal’eem – an Arabic name that betrays the good doctor’s Lebanese migrant heritage. Doctor – an equivocal moniker for a man written into the pages of his own PhD; a lengthy dissertation on right wing extremism in Australia….gonzo academia at its finest.

“It’s Sail’em, and it’s Greek Orthodox, fuck ya!,” I can hear Saleam retort from the bowels of his dingy Sydney lair – a grubby suburban fortress that has doubled as incubator for the vanguard of Australia’s racist far right since the early eighties. The compound now serves as headquarters for the Australia First Party that the 61-year-old rules with an iron fist.

At least one murder has taken place within its walls along with the coordination of numerous violent campaigns. Saleam served several years in prison during the nineties for his involvement in the attempted murder of African National Congress representative, Eddie Funde. He served an earlier two years for insurance fraud. His movement is alleged to have unleashed various violent assaults on Asian and Jewish Australians throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

So in considering the events of late, it’s worth noting that there’s nothing particularly innovative or interesting about Blair Cottrell, pinup boy of the United Patriots Front. The stalker, thug, burglar, white supremacist, steroid user, and all round charmer took his lead from Brando. From Sal’eem. Although Cottrell strikes me as the fanboy type – he probably says it Sail’em too.

The WAP’s not dead – it’s just frozen  

The emerging racist street and online protest groups of recent years are just the latest incarnation of a movement conceived the day the White Australia Policy died. Not that the WAP’s passing can be marked with the same singularity as the assassination of JFK. Its antecedent was a decades-long redefinition of whiteness itself – the gradual redefinition of battle lines, and a frontier war that wages on to this day.

This line and everything it represented seems to have done a real number on a younger Saleam, carving his heart and mind in two. Each side of this line was well understood by other Lebanese descendants in Saleam’s childhood home of Maryborough, Queensland, who saw how the white side stretched to envelop the Italians and Greeks, but fell short of reaching the Syrians, Turks and Lebanese.

It’s said that in the earlier years of last century – when the WAP still reigned supreme – it was common practice for Queenslanders and other Australians of Lebanese extraction to deny this heritage in favour of claims to Greece, and with good cause: by definition of the WAP itself, Lebanese were classed ‘non-white’ and, worse yet, were deemed ‘illegal immigrants’ with no entitlement to property or business ownership – a status shared with the Japanese, Chinese and Indians. Standing side-by-side Maryborough’s most successful merchant families, the Saleams had a lot riding on which side of them the line dropped.

But most Lebanese families in town have restored their pride and reject Saleam’s claims to the Hellenic Republic:

“Jimmy, Greek? Greek! Ha! Ha! Jimmy was a Leb, just like us,” said Dr Michael Monsour in a 2009 interview with Greg Bearup of the Sydney Morning Herald. Bearup also reports the Saleams and Monsours were close family friends for generations.

The Sail’em Conundrum

It probably went something like this, Mr Prime Minister:

In an earlier social climate of paranoia and war, a forefather to Jim – his grandfather George, perhaps – hatched a beautiful lie; the kind told to others but never to one’s self. The lie traveled down the line before reaching young Jim in the 60’s. But in splendid isolation from the forefather and context that conceived it, the lie inspired confusion, fear and self-loathing. This confusion, fear and loathing was initially turned inwards (self-hate) until later blasted outwards as hatred of the ‘other’ – an ‘other’ that housed (and will forever house) a rejected, racialised image of itself. Of himself. Not of Sail’em, but of Sal’eem.

Such is the power of cognitive dissonance, Mr Prime Minister. A racism-inflicted, life-long psychological fracture that runs through Australian history like a scream, Mr Prime Minister. A Lebanese, Maryborough school-boy coordinating Nazi marches beneath the monkey bars in the 60’s, Mr Prime Minister! The same Lebanese descendant later ‘mentoring’ young white supremacists in violent, racially motivated street clashes with other Lebanese descendants in Cronulla, Mr Prime Minister! The father and leader of Australian Nazism and Australia’s extreme right, Mr Prime Minister! Fuck me dead, Mr Prime Minister!

On Freaks, Kooks and Memory

Remember is a word as profound as it is simple if we dare sit quietly and listen to what it has to teach us….

Re: To take back, to go back to beginnings, to start again, etc.

Member: Referring to singularity, to oneness, to unity, wholeness, belonging, being part of a whole, etc.

Dr Jim Saleam is in desperate need of re-membering.  To remember is to construct a big truth from smaller truths. But an earlier concerted campaign of self-rejection means Saleam sits in shards. He forgets and instead lives a lie. He wages daily war against an exorcised and self-denied image of himself – i.e. the Leb, the refugee, the ‘other’. He wages war to project the lie, to protect himself from himself. Hence the murders, the violence, the extreme racism, the hatred….the preoccupation with 18C.

Saleam’s wish to see 18C pared down is his wish to advance the exorcism of self through broadening the license to hate – It’s simple self-preservation, Mr Prime Minister, as it is for some of the other more vocal proponents of your new offensive, Mr Prime Minister. As it is also for Pauline Hanson and Corey Bernardi, Mr Prime Minister.

Saleam’s reach and sway suggest the following: a charismatic brand of hate; the depths of his own dissociation from fact, and; the sheer ferocity of Australian-brand racism that initiated this whole absurd chain of events.

It’s easier to fly apart and forget than it is to re-member.

Australia’s multiracial white nationalists?

Saleam isn’t the only one in need of remembering, nor does he have a monopoly on the title of unlikely suspect in the story of Australia’s extreme right. Sri Lankan-born evangelist Pastor Danny Nalliah of Rise Up Australia is also every bit the surprise packet. Racist? Not in the sense he carries a pair of calipers and copy of Wells’ Guide to Phrenology in his top pocket as Sail’em might well. But absolute in his assimilationism and intolerance for cultural and religious diversity.

The party’s website hails straight from the pages of a Jehovah’s Witnesses brochure in the late 1980s. A multiracial pantheon of eerie, sterile smiles grafted onto blank faces with good skin, all laid over the revisionist Southern Cross-clad imagery of your One Nation or your Family First. Multiculturalism is an abomination in Nalliah’s world, though ethnically speaking he’s down with whatever – as long as you eat Vegemite, love Jesus and hate fags.

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Image: Rise Up Australia campaign in Western Australia, October 2016 (Source: Rise Up Australia)

Yet his constant and extreme vilification of Islam and Muslims means he is now embraced as an ally and ‘honorary white’ by Australia’s white supremacist movement, often sharing the stage with Blair Cottrell and others of his stripe. Similar contradictions plague the United States’ alt-right movement. Could things be any more strange, Mr Prime Minister?

And what of those Rise Up Australia photos fit for a United Nations of Benneton catalogue? Perhaps some are drawn by Nalliah’s particular brand of Christianity – the vivid end-of-times allusions, of fire and brimstone and apocalypse. A confusing, cruel world stripped of all complexity. Of black and white, of simplicity and eternity shared within a community of like-minded believers. But maybe, for some, it’s the offering of life in a safe haven that attracts. A life free of the burden of shouldering a minority cultural identity. They tell you the waters out there are kind, and multicultural and easy to navigate. But there’s a parallel truth that speaks from the gut – that not far beneath those waters’ surface, the sharks circle, the WAP thaws, and that Australian multiculturalism is under siege once more.

The young earth creationist may not have spent his formative years submerged in Australian environmental racism like Saleam but is a clear reaction to the mounting exclusionary logic of Australian nostalgia, and wants in on the party.  Others seem to have taken his lead. Like Saleam, Australian history runs through Nalliah’s heart and mind like a scream. The WAP lives on in all of us.

Dr James Saleam and Pastor Danny Nalliah are the EXACT reason that 18C must be retained, but perhaps not for the reasons you think I mean, Mr Prime Minister.

I’m not coming from a position of fear of the hell they might raise, though I do fear the hell they might raise.

No, Mr Prime Minister, I write this because they’re case studies par excellence of the maddening impacts of Australian racism and discrimination as it already exists with vital protections still in tact. They’re living, breathing examples of what this country can do to people, even with legal protections on their side. They’re both psychologically fractured, insane extremists who wield influence over tens of thousands of our nation’s existentially displaced. They’re outlying examples of the denial that runs through our nation’s DNA. Hanson’s the same. We don’t need to make a bad situation worse.

The Strange and Untimely Death of a Cartoonist

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Image: Bill Leak’s cartoon now stirs posthumous controversy (Source: The Australian)

Want evidence that the White Australia Policy lives on as the front line of a war, and that this front line now sits just shy of Section 18C, Mr Prime Minister? Here it is:

The untimely death of cartoonist Bill Leak and your party’s response to it. A response that translated and militarized Leak into a slain comrade and fallen soldier the moment the ghost evacuated the machine. A cartoonist killed on the battlefields of national identity and now a death to be avenged by the most downtrodden social caste the world has ever known – the white, male, middle-aged, Australian Torey. “It was the ‘multicultural supporters’ who killed Leak, so we must now invade their holiest of sites. 18C must go!”#PrayForTheSquattocracy

The Tories have the extreme right on their side along with every Australian who attended The School of Hard Knocks according to their facebook profiles.

This is no hyperbole.

Only three weeks ago you stood up to that rabid, borderline alt-right racist backbench of yours. Your front bench had your back. Less than three weeks later and it’s all gone to hell. The death of Leak provided that momentary license for hate to run wild, and those vicious, back bench bigots became too dangerous to mess with.

Led by its back bench and outsiders on the extreme right, the LNP has savagely exploited the death of a man it purports to admire in order to push the agenda of those same back-benchers and right wing extremists as foot soldiers for the WAP; namely to close in on 18C and advance the offensive. To keep at arms-length the scream of a centuries-old lie that runs through Australian history, that splits their hearts in two, that leaves their heads an insane hot mess. That keeps them from re-membering.

The oppressor always harbors the oppressed, as does the oppressed the oppressor. Remember this, Mr Prime Minister.

I’m no doctor, Mr Prime Minister, though I do know that people die, and that the rate of dying for men in their 60’s is higher than for men in their 50’s which is higher also than for men in their 40’s. Leak is said to have died of a heart attack, a common cause of death for men in their 60’s.

I have no reason not to believe claims that Mr Leak was on the receiving end of significant blow-back during the final months of his life after publication of the now infamous father-and-son cartoon in August 2016. It is in no way acceptable if this included criminal forms of intimidation and harassment (e.g., death threats, etc.).

But let’s iron one thing out right here right now, Mr Prime Minister. People had every right (I would say duty, even) to be disgusted and outraged by this piece and to make Mr Leak and The Australian newspaper aware of it. Peel back the layers and the cartoon leaves an unequivocal message: That Aboriginal parents are drunken and neglectful and devoid of ordinary paternal/maternal love to the point they can’t be fucked remembering their children’s names. That’s it. That’s the message. Ha Ha Ha! Hilarious, right?!

The cartoon denies time and history. Colonialism, land theft, forced removal of children from families, none of these things ever existed. There is no past. All that ever was is now. This moment. Moment. Moment. Moment. The last thing Murdoch wants is a nation that re-members. That would be terrible for business, Mr Prime Minister.

Yet it beggars belief that the current front line of the war for Australian identity and 18C centers on this piece and the death of one white man in his 60’s from heart failure. Where did we go so wrong? When did calling out overt and obscene racism published in Australia’s national daily become synonymous with cultish opposition to free speech? The public backlash captured the true essence of free speech. Publication of the cartoon was the problem.

If you still think there’s a modicum of logic and internal consistency to your party’s defense of Leak, Mr Prime Minister, then where were you and the henchmen in February when a 26 year-old Yassmin Abdel-Magied became subject to numerous death threats and an endless tirade of racism, obscenity and Islamophobic vitriol, all for stating her mind and deflecting ad hominem attacks launched by Senator Jacqi Lambie on ABC’s Q&A?

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied (Credit: Daniel Boud)

It’s a sad and sorry thing, this death business, and there’s an undeniable air of tragedy to Bill Leak’s sudden departure. Leak was a talented cartoonist who amassed an enormous portfolio of oftentimes brilliant work. It’s unfortunate that a single cartoon along with the events that followed is how history will mostly likely define him. But history, as they say, is written by the victors. And the victors are the ones who aren’t dead yet. And Leak was just another casualty of the scream.

Brighter than a thousand suns – in defense of J.S. Mill

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Image: When good ideas are hijacked for evil

Now my following point may sting just a bit, Mr Prime Minister, so brace yourself to get dabbed on grazed knees with linguistic Betadine.

But you Tories just LOVE John Stuart Mill! Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A man is free to love whoever he chooses, Mr Prime Minister. JSM, the man himself, would concur according to his own philosophy. He’s giving me a thumbs up from the grave right now, Mr Prime Minister, I can feel it. But enough. As you were now.

The fact remains this. I’d have the down payment on a yacht if I had a buck for every time I’ve heard yourself, Abbott, Morrison, Costello, Downer, Howard, and so on and so forth mention the great philosopher’s name. Dutton’s never heard of Mill, of course, but he’s the exception that proves the rule that – as I’ve said already – you Tories just LOVE John Stuart Mill!

That you love him is not a problem, Mr Prime Minister.

The problem is you misrepresent his ideas.

The LNP to Mill is like the inventors of the A-bomb to Einstein. An idea that protects life, freedom and dignity is pushed aside in exchange for its shadow and Hiroshima happens.

John Stewart Mill would regard the LNP’s rendering of his political philosophy with the same horror Einstein came to regard the bomb and, sadly enough, his own original ideas.

There is no area the LNP misrepresents Mill’s thinking more frequently or aggressively in relation to than 18C when a new 18C offensive looms large.

A distinction between liberty and licence was always at the core of Mill’s thinking, but opportunistic interpretations deny this tension and assume a position at one end or the other. Mill’s point was that liberty can never mean the license for one to do as one pleases, because that would mean the absence of law and order, and ultimately the destruction of liberty.

It’s perhaps ironic then that 18C represents JSM’s ideas more accurately than the LNP does, Mr Prime Minister, for this is the exact balance it seeks to strike.

The recent report into Freedom of Speech and S18C of the Racial Discrimination Act from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights indicates the law continues to work well in practice, striking the right balance between protecting people form racism and protecting people’s freedom of speech. The report also acknowledges that a great many Australians don’t understand the purpose of S18C, making it a soft target for political manipulation. Public education and awareness raising is needed says the report.

John Stuart Mill’s thinking on liberty was one of history’s greatest social inventions, and its near cousin in 18C one of the greatest achievements of the Australian political process. It’s a dark time when history and great monuments become the object of destruction, but that’s where we’ve come from and that’s where we’re heading once more.

Australian Existential History 101 – Why 18C Must Stay

This piece is raging on way too long, Mr Prime Minister. I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’m a long way from home.

So let me wrap this thing up. Let me get back to the line. The line that runs through us all like a primal scream and drives some of us mad and sees others locked up. The line that runs through all of us whether our Australian ancestry dates back a single week or sixty thousand years.

The line was what stood between the earliest invading colonizers and these lands’ first owners. The founding lie of terra nullius was and remains the foundation lie of all Australian myths and collective suffering – yours, mine, everyone’s.

I mentioned cognitive dissonance earlier, Mr Prime Minister, in relation to Sal’eem. Here’s a crash course on European cognitive dissonance in action some 230 years ago.

  1. Story/statement: These lands are terra nullius
  2. Sense data/observation: Other human beings live in functional, organised societies on these lands

What you have here are two diametrically opposed positions, Mr Prime Minister, the seeds of insanity. So to protect itself from itself, the human brain hustles to make things merge.

Sometimes this is achieved by erasing one of the positions altogether (a common coping response to trauma) – Essentially, we forget (individually or collectively).

In other cases, one, or the other, or both positions are compromised somehow  to make them fit (again, this can occur individually, or collectively through political and social processes including education, media propaganda, rewards and punishments, and so on).

So, again we have the juxtaposition of a mind’s narrative in opposition to an obvious empirical truth. Early European dissonance was resolved by modifying the humanity of the people they saw, of denying them their humanity, of adopting willful blindness to their achievements, and by classifying them as fauna. A land inhabited by animals.

The fact that land was never ceded and that wars were bravely fought in defense of country and sovereignty are still rarely mentioned. In a bizarre irony, to admit war would be to concede humanity.

So, the new and emerging Australian psyche takes on board a second contradiction:

  1. We are not at war
  2. We are at war

Europeans live in a new country where they coexist with animals/humans that they are at war with/not at war with, and there is no line or frontier to advance but there is a line and frontier to advance. These schisms explain the horrific violence of some of the massacres as a form of collective conversion disorder. These schisms run through countless Australian minds today, either consciously as problems to be addressed and resolved (good), or unconsciously as the justification for various racist biases (terrible).

Broadly, the frontier line pushed forward from the south and the east to the north and the west. The frontier remains alive and well in Australia’s far north and west which goes a long way to explaining why Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and to a lesser extent, Queensland, have particularly horrific track records in relation to Aboriginal policing. They remain literal (though, denied) Australian frontiers and a ‘trooper’ style of law enforcement prevails in comparison to the east and south.

In other locations, fragments of line were broken off and bent around in circles to quarantine existing places or to create new spaces that people were herded into. The circle is a perfect, unbroken line. Infinity. Denial perfected.

Some inside the circle were programmed to be white and issued a Certificate of Exemption, the ‘dog tag’ – a passport to life the other side of the line with the attached condition never to return.

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Image: Certificate of Exemption or ‘Dog Tag’. Check out the date, Mr Prime Minister. You were alive then!

As I said already, the line had to be denied because it never existed, because to acknowledge the line would be to acknowledge Indigenous humanity, ancient civilizations, wars and stolen land.

But denial is not erasure. The line lived on in the collective subconscious of a new and emerging nation. Federation and its earliest laws helped ease the psychological burden of the European man, taking the invisible-visible unconscious-conscious line, wrapping it instead around the circumference of the entire continent through the WAP,  and allowing the subconscious to give birth to a new conscious form that shielded the original set of myths from self-examination….

Let’s wrap this up quickly, Mr Prime Minister.

Australia grew rapidly into the world following WWII. Always and forever the geopolitical client-state owing to our obvious isolation, even our largest security and trade alliances shifted quickly in the years that followed. These are shifting once more as we speak. As Kissinger once said, there’s no such thing as permanent allies or enemies, Mr Prime Minister. Only permanent interests. It’s the reason we’re always at war, Mr Prime Minister.

What changed most though, was a gradual societal shift from a dominant provincialism to dominant cosmopolitanism reflected through waves of successive leadership. The real line started to bubble up at last into our nation’s conscious awareness; not just the WAP, but its roots in terra nulius. Many from the white side crossed over to the other side and momentum for change continued to build. Our leaders responded and – to their credit – displayed some great leadership. The line was removed in institutional terms at least. Multiculturalism was enacted through various policies and programs. 18C was born.

For a brief moment, there were signs that Australia might finally re-member, to integrate historical truths and to exorcise the myths.

But power is a paranoid thing, Mr Prime Minister. While the WAP may have been dismantled as policy, the line itself never entirely disappeared. The squattocracy (the foundation members of the line) feared terribly for what was at stake, and have spent the last 30+ years shoring up their numbers, manipulating hordes of their historical enemies back to their side of the line to help protect their immense material wealth; wealth seeded from the proceeds of crime.

I’m talking here about millions of salt-of-the-earth working class Australians. ‘Howard’s battlers’, J.W. Howard called them as he sold Australia into the new world order that cost these same battlers their jobs and future prospects.

The poor and the super rich are now strange bedfellows in the reinvention and ramping up of Australian hate-based politics. It’s been building since the early days of Saleam’s influence in the 80’s; pumped up by Hanson in the 90’s; and is now – buoyed by the success of North America’s alt-right movement – completely out of control.

I don’t want to rob anybody of their agency and capacity to form view points of their own, but I believe there’s been a grotesque and deliberate manipulation of Australia’s poor and working classes in relation to: What Australia is; where Australia has come from; where Australia is headed; where the world is going; the direction(s) in which restructuring of Australia’s economy is likely to continue; etc.

This manipulation of the Australian public’s expectations has been led by the squattocracy for decades. We’re now at a point where the gap between these expectations and the realities this country needs to face up to are dangerously exposed.

It seems absurd that as a generation of Australians now struggle to come to terms with the fact they’ll never own their own home, the undermining of 18C is currently the LNP’s most urgent policy priority, Mr Prime Minister. But then again, it makes perfect sense…

18C is a modest piece of legislation that seeks to strike a balance between the freedoms of the individual and the needs of the Australian community to prosper. Trademark John Stuart Mill thinking right there.

The location of 18C at the heart of current political debate speaks volumes about modern Australia.

It’s the story of Nauru and Manus Island.

It’s the story of Aboriginal deaths in custody.

It’s why particular aspects of our history are seldom taught in school, at least from the perspective of those who lived through them or their descendants (e.g. Australia’s Chinese history, or Japanese history, or Sikh history, or Indonesian history, or the story of  the ‘Afghan Cameleers’).

Did you get a load of Pauline Hanson on Friday, Mr Prime Minister? Brace yourself for a lot more of this if the reforms you hope for come to pass. You can see already how Hanson comes from an opportunistic place. Just through discussion alone, the LNP is generating a license and fertile climate for these kinds of statements to be made. Imagine an Australia where Hanson is able to express the true depths of her hate without reprisal.

Your party like all others claims to condemn violence against women, Mr Prime Minister. Around 2 years ago I interviewed Mr Kevin Cocks, anti-discrimination commissioner for Queensland who I spoke to in relation to trending abuse and vilification of the state’s Muslim community.

“We’re finding it’s targeted mostly at women and children, and usually by men,” Mr Cocks told me.

So what we have here is also a women’s issue, Mr Prime Minister. It’s no accident that so many of Australia and the United States’ far right ranks identify with the Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW) movement, well known for their hostile attitudes towards the feminist movement and women in general.

At any rate, I’ve gone on long enough, Mr Prime Minister.

Australia came from a place of denial before showing signs in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s of a will to re-member. The abolition of the WAP and the introduction of Australia’s anti-discrimination laws represented a particular high-water-mark in our country’s history and indicate the potentials that lie within.

But then the waters receded – slowly at first but now at an alarming rate.

We need 18C right now, Mr Prime Minister, as a sign of hope to get us through these dark times, and to help us find a way back towards the fulfillment of our collective potential. Back towards re-membering. Back towards becoming an example to the rest of the world of what a pluralistic society can look like and achieve.

I think on some level at least you hear me, Mr Prime Minister.

Thank you.

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