By Robert Wood
Andrew Bolt has been at it again. He has a long history of race baiting, but recently he has been in a purple patch, railing against Muslims, Aborigines, ‘African gangs’, ‘Change the Date’ supporters and others to boot. It might be time to critique his positions rather than react with simple disgust (but then again, maybe not). Although there are many places to start, one of Bolt’s more pernicious falsehoods is his assumption that there is a separation between traditional and diasporic peoples as it applies to internal and external migration. As might be expected from a neo-conservative, the former are authentic, real, fair dinkum. This is the case despite the necessary incursions into their territories, which is to say that occasionally ‘we’ need to remind those Others who is in power. This applies to people from remote communities on sovereign Indigenous land as well to migrants who have come from overseas.
Bolt maintains a caricature of ‘the Aborigine’ who sits cross-legged in the red dirt surrounded by dot paintings, empty beer cans and mangy dogs. Not only does this do a disservice to those people, it allows him to have a go at urban, educated, bourgeois Indigenous peoples as well, precisely because the latter are not the real deal. Hence, his infamous statements on ‘white Aborigines’.
What it mischaracterises is how people move in and out of places, how one can travel to and from ancestral homelands to cliques in the metropole. It should not be surprising that Tracey Moffatt can be successful in New York and return to her traditional country. These are journeys that are being increasingly made by a growing middle class. It goes without saying that Wiradjeri people are as valid as Yolngu people when it comes to being ‘Indigenous’. But nor should Ngarluma or Martu or any other language group be simply flattened into larger categories of assumed identification.
Something similar holds up in Bolt’s discourse about migrants. One assumes that there is a repository of more authentic knowledge in the homelands where ‘these people’ come from; that these foreign places are the ones in need of uplift, or bombing as he may have it. The white man’s burden is alive and well from Bolt to Mark Latham to Tony Abbott. But, this is false because it makes place into an ideal type that was never real. You might reify ‘India’ but I can tell you it is an internally diverse place with a syncretic history. It could be broken down into Kerala or Kochi or Ernakallum. It could be made up of Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, and that is not to mention everything else that is happening there and always has been. By citing this example, I not only want to say that it is complicated, but that every person has legitimacy and autonomy; every person can lay claim to a knowledge base that is liberated from assumptions about place that the Bolts would maintain.
Recognising the legitimacy of traditional and diasporic peoples, culture and heritage helps white Australians as well. It helps ‘us’ overcome our peripheral anxiety, our cultural cringe, our tyranny of distance. We do not need to play second fiddle to the British or the Americans, and think that the repository of all wisdom resides in Herodotus or Shakespeare or any other cis, het, white man of the establishment, or even the Queen however benign she seems. And that is liberating because it gives us an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of life in its fecund variety and multifaceted beauty. We do not, of course, have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, to think that we must let go of The Iliad or turn off Beethoven or have a go at Meghan Markle. To do so would be a loss for us too.
What we need to understand however is that identity is not a babushka doll – we cannot assume that Scottish fits in with ‘white’, that Malayali is ‘Indian’, that Ngarluma is ‘Aboriginal’, for each of these larger categories can obscure what are distinct belongings based on language especially. This is not to say there cannot be solidarity but that the internal relations of power and privilege must be recognised if we are to understand the particularity of local, embodied subjectivity. Doing so means that every individual is capable of being their own master, of seeing through to their best selves in such a way that is recognisable to every Other. And that is true liberation and might be worth arguing for in spite of the barriers that Bolt and his cronies would maintain as they continue to build the walls to stop us all.
Robert Wood’s writing has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. He has interned for Overland, edited for Peril and Cordite, been a columnist for Cultural Weekly. At present he works for The Centre for Stories.