No One Special

25 June 2011
Like everyone else, I've been quite taken with Go Back To Where You Came From, which screened on SBS this past week. Giving six "ordinary Australians" (five of whom held distinctly anti-refugee views prior to filming) a chance to experience a refugee's journey to Australia in reverse, it made compelling viewing.

It wasn't perfect, sure. The right wingers came rushing to find fault. Most prominent of this brigade was Paul Sheehan in the Fairfax press. Unlike, say, a Bolt or an Akerman, Sheehan writes for people who are generally awake and facing the correct way in their chairs, but he is still an ideologue. Sheehan paints those opposing asylum seekers as the persecuted minority, victims of the "progressive argument about boat people" - the thoughtful few bravely resisting the left-wing onslaught. His comments about the show's methodology are largely meaningless - describing the moment where the participants believed their boat was sinking as an "obvious charade", though if it wasn't obvious to the participants why should it be so to the home viewer?

But it's the obvious falsities in Sheehan's article that rankle. He disputes the statistic that 1% of the world's refugees are resettled by the UN without evidence, claims the asylum seeker debate is about border control not race, and makes the ludicrous statement that "Much to the chagrin of the progressive side of politics, this argument is the one that has carried the day in Australia. After 15 years of being bashed over the head, especially by the ABC and SBS, the public has not budged." I nearly choked on my soy decaf latte. Asylum seekers barely figured as a political issue in the modern political era prior to 2001, when the Howard government rushed to exploit people's fears in the wake of the Tampa issue. With 9/11 occurring shortly thereafter and fear of Muslims enshrined in the culture, the boat people issue was here to stay, gleefully exploited by both major political parties. Neither party has pointed out the facts on asylum seekers - that the numbers are tiny, it's an issue that has no effect whatsoever on the vast numbers of Australian residents, who will never come into contact with a refugee, that it makes a handy distraction from issues of national import. You'll hardly hear this from the commercial radio and TV networks either, still a major source of news for large numbers of people. So much for being bashed over the head with the progressive views - Sheehan destroys any credibility he may have had with such nonsense.

Sadly you weren't given most of these facts from the show either. An anti-asylum seeker view could be maintained after a careful viewing. The series was light on detail - especially in explaining the legal process by which one becomes a refugee. There was little mention of the fact that it's not illegal to arrive in Australia seeking asylum, and none at all of the fact that in many countries asylum seekers arrive from, there's no queue to jump, no legal way to apply for refugee status in Australia. Go Back To Where You Came From did little to break down the divide in people's minds between "good" (patiently waited their turn in refugee camps) and "bad" (those queue-jumping boat people) asylum seekers. Several participants who went into filming despising all asylum seekers came from the experience with empathy for "genuine refugees", but still railing against the queue jumpers.

A result of the show the producers doubtless did not intend was the wave of hatred against participant Raquel, a young woman from western Sydney who freely admitted to racist views prior to filming. From her limited world view and education, her reaction to the problems she saw was that it's not her problem, she's Australian and she deserves better. I'm not jumping on the Raquel-bashing bandwagon - her view is not uncommon, whether it's expressed outright ("I'm Australian, I don't want to use a hole in the ground toilet, I'm not used to it") or less overtly ("stop foreign aid, we need to look after our own first"). It may be the hardest attitude to budge, precisely because there's no good answer to the question - what the hell makes us so special?

Why should an accident of birth, which has meant we were born white in a rich country, entitle us to a lifetime of special privileges? Aren't we privileged enough to begin with? Raquel has apparently never worked, so never paid taxes apart from the GST. Taking into account her education and healthcare, financially she's a liability to Australia not an asset. There's many others like her - you only have to visit The Anti-Bogan to see the number of unemployed racists. They do need help - long term help to overcome generational poverty. We're a rich country and we can afford that and to "help foreigners". But why is someone accorded special priviliges on the basis of their birth location? We can't help everyone, it's true. But leaving aside the notion that money spent helping refugees is somehow depriving real Australians, the smug self-righteousness of the "this is our country" brigade in nauseating. Yes, it's your country and what have you done to deserve it? A person is measured by their character not by their nationality. We're not better than anyone else because we are Australian, or Western, or white. I sat on Thursday night explaining to my unborn child that they are special because they have parents and an extended family that love them very much, and because of all the amazing things they will achieve (starting with being happy, I hope). But as far as being a white child born in a rich country, and all the privileges that will bring - to never forget that that's just luck, and he or she has an obligation to use that luck to help educate and improve the lives of others not so fortunate. In that sense, our baby is no one special. It's who they grow up to be that will set them apart, not who they were born.

1 comment:

  1. Protecting the passing of one's own tribe's DNA to future generations is a primal kind of monkey business, I suspect the difference between lefties and righties is the size of the 'tribe' in a lefty brain is larger.


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