Friday, January 20, 2006

First person plural

Opening sentences from Gunther Anders, Die Anitquiertheit des Menschen Band II. Uber die Zerstorung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution:

To change the world is not enough. We do that anyway. And, in large part, this change happens even without our collaboration. Our task is also to interpret. And this, precisely, to change the change. So that the world does not continue to change without us. And so, in the end, there is no change in a world without us.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Twilight of the Anglosaxon Model

Sarajevo 1992

The following article was published in Il Manifesto on 28 December 2005. The Italian version is available here:

There are those who declared, at the height of the revolts in the French banlieues, that the time had come to recognise that the Anglosaxon model of multiculturalism has delivered greater peace and stability than the French model of republican integrationalism. By now, the course of events has overtaken such proclamations. For anyone with doubts, the violence that occurred at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach earlier this month must shatter the illusion that communitarian models of racial tolerance have been more effective than integrationalist logics in reconciling the complexities of life in diverse societies with the identitarian demands of the modern nation-state. The situations in Paris and Sydney have to do with a wider global conflict that has levelled the distinction between the civil and the foreign war and insinuated itself in the daily rituals of metropolitan life.
Symbol of the affinities between the conflicts in these cities is the detritus that both have left behind: suburban streets lined with cars burned or smashed to pieces with baseball bats. For those who have not followed the events in Australia, these were acts of Middle Eastern youth following the pogrom perpetrated against them by a crowd of 5,000 angry whites gathered at Cronulla Beach, a popular seaside resort in the city’s southeast. Part of the Sutherland Shire, one of the whitest and most racially homogeneous areas of Sydney, Cronulla, unlike other city beaches, is served by the railroad, making it for many years a popular picnic destination for Lebanese and other Mediterranean families that live predominantly in the city’s west. In more recent times, with the construction of bridges and freeways that make car travel from the Western suburbs more feasible, it has also become a gathering spot for young Arabs who cruise the city in modified cars, listen to U.S. gangsta rap, and engage in occasional scuffles with the white surfers who claim the beach as their own. To be sure, this racial violence has acquired a sexual dynamic, partly as a result of a gang rape that became a cause celebré of tabloid racism and amplified the fiction that Muslim men harass white women more than their Anglo counterparts. Thus, it is no surprise that the white backlash rally of 11 December, organised by SMS that were subsequently read out on talk radio and published in the mainstream press, should announce itself as a defense of white women, even as its ostensible cause was a fight between Lebanese youth and two off-duty lifeguards. What occurred that Sunday afternoon will go down as a heavy chapter in Australia’s racial history: white youths draped in Australian flags, tearing the veil from Muslim women and pulverising the male ‘lebs’ and ‘wogs’ who happened to get in their way.
While the images from this event were quickly relayed around the world, the local response was an official attempt to talk down the racial dimensions of the rampage and the passage of emergency laws granting police powers to ‘lockdown’ suburbs and randomly search cars. The following weekend, the beaches of Sydney were heavily patrolled and accessible only to residents of the beachside suburbs, a situation long desired by the racist elements who orchestrated and participated in the progrom. Importantly, the beach has long provided the ground for egalitarian fantasies of public access in Australia, not least among the white intellectual classes. But it is also the space where the otherly complexioned are apt to feel the least comfortable.
It is worthwhile to remember that the Australian coastline is legally designated as Crown land, a peculiar juridical category of the settler colonies that at once extinguishes Indigenous territorial claims and grants the sovereign the right to control private rights and interests over landed property. In this sense, the presence of the Union Jack on the national flag brandished by the white ramapgers demonstrates that their claim on the beach was not a result of some neo-Nazi infiltration but precisely an action in the name of the public or the sovereignty of the people, the very basis of Australian democratic expression. Perhaps this is why the New South Wales Commissioner of Police could describe the rampage as ‘a legitimate protest and expression of disatisfaction.’ And perhaps this also explains why conservatives from the Prime Minister and Leader of the Oppostion down have scrupuously disavowed the racial dynamic that fueled the violence.
To be sure, there are dangers in assuming a stance that denounces the racism of the Cronulla rampagers as vulgar and unbefitting of a nation that prides itself on its multiculturalism. Such a position seeks merely to absolve the national elites from responsibility in the situation, indirectly justifying the populist claim that it is not their business to interfere with expressions of the people. It also fails to ponder the complexities of multicultural tolerance, not least the way in which it leaves unchecked the capacity of those with social power to act intolerantly. By the same token, it is dangerous, given the public disavowal of the episode’s racial aspects, to skirt or complicate the question of race too much. Certainly, it is necessary to point to the sexual dynamics that fuel this and, as we know from Fanon, all other instances of racial violence. Equally, it is crucial to understand the elements of social class, the history of beach subcultures, mateship, or the participation of white women in this anti-Muslim rampage. But to draw the discussion away from race is to risk foreclosing an analysis of how the Australian model of multiculturalism, particularly in the context of global war, fails to deactivate the confluence of racial and nationalist feelings that culminates in episodes like Cronulla.
It is a well-known paradox of Australian multiculturalism that it is the same government department that organises events such as Harmony Day in schools that is responsible for the administration of the nation’s notorious migration detention camps. Under the current war conditions (Australia has been a willing participant in both Afghanistan and Iraq), the presence of internal Muslim communities, particularly those who refuse, often with stridency, to accept their proletarianisation or crimilisation through racist law and order agendas, has posed a consistent problem for the white political classes. Indeed, in the wake of Cronulla, the local conservative member of parliament went as far as to characterise the rampage as revenge for the 911 attacks and the Bali bombings. While Morris Iemma, the recently appointed Premier of New South Wales, wasted no time in describing the police response as a war.
More frightening is the rapidity with which the state of seige has been normalised, at once pushing Muslim and ethnic groups away from the beaches while, for the sake of seaside businesses, compelling Sydney-siders to return to their usual patterns of summer consumption. As we know from cities like Sarajevo, it is often in contexts where the intimacy between cultural groups has been strongest that racial violence assumes its most shocking and vivisectionist forms. For this reason, it is safest not to assume that the thick cultural mixing that one finds in parts of Sydney provides any guarantee against the escalation of the situation. What the city faces now is nothing less than civil war, one which, like the foreign wars we see (or rather don’t see) nightly on our television screens, all too quickly become part of metropolitan life.
It is likely, under the current global conditions, that these urban conflagrations will not limit themselves to Paris and Sydney, but flare up with increasing frequency here and there around the globe. Who knows, Rome or Milan may be next.