Saturday, January 09, 2010

Perspectives on racism

The issue of racism has come to the fore again in Australia after another senseless murder of an India student in Melbourne, scene of an increasing number of such incidents. The issue has been exacerbated by State and Federal governments going into denial about the race aspects; rather they claim that it really is just senseless violence.

Indians are 2½ times more at risk of attack than other Melburnians, but the reasons are complicated, writes Dylan Welch SMH. Barkly Street stretches long and dark in both directions. On a quiet Wednesday evening, several pairs of Indian men confer in Hindi under the neon lights of half-empty Indian restaurants. In a nearby side street in the western Melbourne suburb of Footscray West, unsmiling African teenagers mill about a darkened bus shelter.

Not denying racism and other bigotry, I would argue that in itself these unworthy notions are not often translated to violence; at least not violence against those hated. But yes, it does happen. My own father, like many of his contemporaries bought up under the strict ‘white Australia’ policy was a rabid racist. As with many bullies, for his targets he reserved verbal abuse, the frustrated violence was more likely visited on his family.

I could never understand his attitude. My school mates and indeed some memorable ‘crushes’ were generally from strange countries, strange to me at that time, with a kaleidoscope of languages and accents thrown in. The irony with my father, who had very few friends in his life, was a late devotion to a Korean family to whom he became a loving, surrogate grandfather figure.

What I did observe, growing up and later, is that these immigrant folk would often be the most vocal in their racial hatred. Having gained their safe place in a new society it seemed right to attack the next wave. It is difficult to ignore a violent push in Sydney by young Lebanese, intent on taking over the low level criminal activities. That is not racist, but simple fact. It is a fact which tends to drive bigotry.

IN BC Canada, home to a swelling population of Indian and Chinese immigrants, the story is much the same. Ethnic criminal activity drives some of the problem; a culture of very low paid farm workers finishes it off. It is not uncommon for Europeans locals to cheer each time an overloaded ‘Paki bus’ turns over in a ditch killing workers on board. And this from some of the kindest folk I’ve ever met.

India itself is rife with racial and sectarian violence according to news headlines, though often vehemently denied. There was recent talk of Britain pulling out of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi later this year over security threats. The reality clearly shows numerous sectarian and racial tensions through that vast population, but equally a majority who crave peaceful coexistence; as is the case in Australia and Canada.

Great for grandstanding; but understanding?

Indian students are ''soft targets''. They are ''walking ATMs'' carrying mobile phones, iPods and jewellery as they travel on public transport between university and late-night work shifts. SMH

Yet in all of this verbal shorthand becomes a real issues, whole societies become labeled because the real issues a rarely defined accurately. Put another, worst social responses are generally encouraged, unwittingly perhaps, by the perceived needs of politicians and media to make a quick impact. Immediacy driven comment is clearly an inadequate way of dealing with complex social issues.

In Australia the vast over-reaction by politicians and media to ‘boat people’ and a nebulous ‘war on terror’ drives a distrust of any different looking or speaking people. But that over-reaction is typified by three second sound bites and shock jock media responses; great for grandstanding, not so great for understanding.

Prejudice is alive and well, and generally encouraged. It might simply be city Vs city, or country and city, even suburb to suburb, town to town. Partly that reflects a competitive spirit, but can easily fall over into an ignorant, unthinking reaction. The violence is real enough in our societies an always has been; but is it really about bigotry or is it about a relative few insecure, angry, hateful people who want to lash out?

Footnote: I have often wondered if the epithet ‘Whitey’ used against Australians by Asians is not a product of the old White Australia policy. That is long gone now, but prejudice tends to have a long memory. Regardless of historical relevance the mindless name calling is sure to fuel continuing antagonism.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A rural reflection

If that sounds boring, life in rural isolation has been anything but. The area of north central Victoria suffered in last February’s bushfires, so we are all nervous now as the bushfire season is back with us. I don’t have naming rights to the four acre block, but am tempted to go with the Fishbowl, as the surrounding community is watching for each improvement made.

A close second is Stone Farm. Part of my Christmas reading covered the story of Charles Darwin and his son Horace investigating the power of earthworms by placing a stone on the ground and watching it sink by about 2 mm per year. Apparently that experiment is still being monitored at Down House near London. Well if Charles had gone to Stone Farm he could watch as stones rose out of the red clay, volcanic earth.

I’ve had two major tasks to occupy my time on Stone Farm. Given the extreme fire danger hereabouts, particularly grass and stubble fires, there has been an immediate need to slash back the wild, ungrazed pasture around the house at least. Then the robbery late last year, including generators and water pump prompted the need to at least make a work in progress look like an occupied property – like paint the house!

Since Christmas the weather has been against both those operations. Either/or very hot with low humidity and extremely windy. With the painting it was a simple issue, either the paint was drying on the brush or I was blown off the ladder. The danger of slashing is the blades hitting rocks and other debris and sparking a fire. The kanga pic (note the numerous bullet holes) above is an old road sign, found lying under the rampant grass.

Too much excitement

Normally, if I feel the need for company I’ll do the mountain treck to the pub, a stiff climb 20 minutes away, enough to moderate all but the direst needs. However, over the New Year period I seemed to have a stream of drop ins, none carrying a cheering bottle mind. Among them was a motor bike cop who patrols the area. The Bendigo cops cover something like 3000 square kilometres, or it last the major roads.

It seems the heifers I had been watching, in a paddock across the road, had decided the grass was greener on the other side of the fence – and it indeed was. Said cop was looking for the owner, or at least someone to keep a watch out. The road had been busy all day, including holiday bikers. He was concerned that with shark corners and a steep hill (either end of my boundaries) it was a potentially fatal situation to have cows wandering the road.

So I became lookout, then later in the afternoon rounded a bunch of cows off the road and led them up the lane looking for their home. Well all the gates were padlocked and with ‘beware of dogs’ signs, so I left them a fair way up to find their way home. Then a Vic Roads patrol contractor came by. He pushed then back up the lane, honking the whole way, then saw me and drove in to find out where they belonged. I’unno!

Now with the police and the roads authority in my ear I was keeping a close watch. It was a potentially serious situation. Just on dusk the next day the whole herd of two dozen cows all wandered out onto the road. I was told to call the emergency number 000, but with poor cell phone reception, running up and down shooing them off the road and warning drivers I didn’t get far. Finally I called my son in Melbourne and he talked to the police in Bendigo.

By the time a council ranger arrived an hour later I had 18 of the heifers locked in my yard, eating the fresh, well watered plantings rather than the abundant dry pasture grass. He found the other six just as the owner turned up, raging angry. Well I was too at that stage, but he didn’t clobber me when I refused access to my place until he’d talked to the ranger he’d brushed aside.

The kangaroo sign seemed apposite in all this; it was not posted to protect the poor roos, the which we have many grazing our block, but to protect unsuspecting drivers on a dangerous piece of road. I don’t know who shot it up or when, but that act was as delinquent as allowing cattle to stray on a busy road.

Ownership and possession

I was still sitting out at midnight, on a glorious night, winding down from all this and listening to the conversation as temporary fence were underway. The comment which floored me was a loud “well we mustn’t upset the neighbours. Never mind that I was biting my tongue with the owners only comment “I wasn’t angry at you, I was angry at the cows!” Like maintaining fences was the lot of these poor heifers.

Sure I’m just a city bloke, but I thought I did well to move ¾ of the herd, on a dark night, into my yard without harm to them or me. In fact two I missed nudged me in the back so they could get in as well. Perhaps I’m better with animals than with people.

Whatever, I’m no Marxist, but I do have issues over ownership perhaps different from those Karl expressed. The fact is, if regardless of how you on something, a gift, theft or earned, it will keep on demanding from you. Ownership comes with a multitude of obligations. Possession is something you never stop paying for.

In this instance I could have been sensitive to my outsider status, but I still own my conscience. It would have troubled me if one of those animals had been hit by a car if I did not act. Even though I had no legal culpability if I did not at it would have troubled me more justifying to someone’s loved ones my inaction. My sense of ownership is more about my intellect and a sense of understanding social values.

The cost here was to act on those social values, even when they were clearly opposed to my new neighbours. I expect I have partly resolved the tensions since, but only on a clear understanding that I would do the same thing again. Or perhaps the wilderness is not really the place for me…