From Cronulla the plan was to take the train west — to Lakemba, to Liverpool — to interview young men of Lebanese descent, Muslim men, about their take on nationalism. Unfortunately, all requests for an interview were declined, albeit politely. I detect a feeling of exasperation towards a media they see as roundly unsympathetic.
One reticent youth, Ali, from the Lebanese Moslem Association, tells me over the phone that the idea of nationalism is alien to the values of Islam. “We don’t believe in it, in waving flags or this allegiance to a country or to a Prime Minister”, he says in a timid Australian drawl. “For us, we believe in one thing only — Allah.”
Herein may lay the problem — if there’s a new whipping boy, it’s Islam. The bombings in Bali, the terror of rapist Bilal Skaf, the sermons of Sheikh al Hilaly, all have worked to stoke the nationalists’ ire. But is there a problem at all? Full-scale riots in beachside suburbs aside (and it’s worth noting Australian beach culture has a history of tribalism), is there any real harm in nationalism, particularly the iconographic style: the flags, the tattoos, the car bumper stickers? After all, many of us identify as nationalists, or patriots at least. We cheer our Olympians, wave the national colours at the cricket and get all puffy-chested on Anzac Day.
Is it merely a case of harmless pride in being Aussie? Or is it more sinister? A kind of politically-correct racism that no longer says: “You’re not welcome”, but rather: “We’re better than you”.
Either way, there’s certainly a new fear. And the new breeding ground is cyberspace. A simple Google search uncovers a trove of right-skewed, nationalist, pro-white sites. Many, as you’d expect, are quite inflammatory and all done under this idea of “free speech”. Most are blogs, written under pseudonyms with no contact details. There’s a wide-held distrust of the media, who are viewed as leftie-sympathisers and pro-migration; which, as you can imagine, makes interviewing these bloggers difficult.
These furtive groups were thrown into the spotlight last December with the shooting death of 15-year-old Melbourne teenager Tyler Cassidy. Three policemen killed Cassidy after he bailed them up with a knife in the northern suburb of Northcote. Rather than acknowledge the mixed-up kid he was, the media instead latched onto his membership of the Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS), a nationalist youth group that is widely described as violently pro-white.
The group has virtually no structure, making it hard to find anyone willing to act as a mouthpiece. Using the social networking sites I track down one member willing to be interviewed. He’s a 16-year-old from Melbourne, a mere foot soldier, who will only talk under the moniker “Nova1”. He tells me there’s been an enormous interest in the group following Cassidy’s death. “He was just a fucked up kid, he was depressed”, he says of the shooting. “It had nothing to do with SCS or him being a white supremacist. The media want to paint us that, but we’re not.”
So what are they?
“We’re nationalists, we’re proud Australians. We like Australia the way it is. You’ve got all these Lebanese groups, these clerics, promoting hatred against Australians; well we’re saying enough is enough… why are these people here? These Muslim rapists, their violence; that idiot Sheikh al Hilaly, spouting his nonsense; disrespecting women; who’s keeping these people in check? They wanted to plant bombs at the AFL grand final. They’re animals, no better than dogs.”
He tells me the SCS’ job is to “keep these people in check because the politicians have failed”, although he can’t expand further when I ask him what that may actually entail.
Of the flags and the tattoos he says: “We love our country, so what! Everyone’s so hell bent on embracing immigrants that if you show any pride in Australia you’re called a racist. Yes, there is a real fear that the people who come to the country disrespect the country.
“Journalists want to portray the SCS as Nazis, as white supremacists, they want to spread this fear to sell their newspapers, they want everyone to believe we’re violent, we’re hell-bent on another ‘Cronulla’. It’s crap — they’ve never even bothered to interview us, to hear our side.
“But I tell you we’re growing, a lot of people now feel this way. I guess you can hide your head in the sand if you want to, or you can open your eyes that migration is the problem.”
If nationalism is on the rise, then it’s all being done under the shadow of the Australian flag. Which in many ways is odd. Australians aren’t great flag-wavers. We’re often embarrassed by our kitschy national symbols. At last count, 40 per cent wanted the flag changed. Few of us know the words to the anthem.
But white Australians have had a troubled history with any new migrant. Take the anti-Chinese riots in the Goldfields in the 1850s, the White Australia Policy that dominated our immigration for two-thirds of the 20th century, to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation a decade ago.
Why it’s happening now may be less clear than in the past — who’s doing it is easier to define. They’re white, middle-class and young.
When three blonde teenagers were photographed at Sydney’s Manly Beach on Australia Day, draped in the flag, FUCK OFF WE’RE FULL inked across their stomachs, it caused a predictable shit storm. The three, all from well-to-do backgrounds, defended their action as harmless because it wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular.
When a Darwin store stocked Australia Day T-shirts with the slogan THIS IS AUSTRALIA. WE EAT MEAT, WE DRINK BEER AND WE SPEAK FUCKING ENGLISH customers queued around the corner to get one. Following bad behaviour by flag-clad thugs during Australia Day celebrations on the Gold Coast, one of the area’s largest RSLs promptly banned all young people from its Anzac Day service.
In an essay published a few days later in The Sydney Morning Herald, writer John Huxley argued the flag had somehow morphed into a kind of weapon — the very thing intended to unite us was doing the opposite. However, Huxley also argued it was the thugs and not the flag that needed curtailing, and cited Big Day Out organisers’ misguided attempts to ban the flag in 2007. Put simply, when Stephanie Rice drapes herself in the national colours it’s a symbol of chest-beating pride — when Pauline Hanson does, it’s hatred and derision.
Professor John Stratton is head of cultural studies at Perth’s Curtin University and is a specialist in race, multiculturalism and youth culture. He doesn’t believe we’re seeing a new rise of nationalist fervour. Rather, Stratton argues, pride in the flag, a white nervousness, fear of immigrants, has existed in Australia since time immemorial. “Australians don’t like migrants, never have”, Stratton says. “They don’t welcome them easily, there’s this constant debate about how many migrants come to the country, whether we can support them, whether they’re the right sort of migrant. Ever since the White Australia Policy became one of the first acts of Parliament as far back as 1901 we’ve been totally preoccupied about who comes in the country.”
In the past, Stratton argues, this xenophobia would’ve manifested itself in direct attacks on new arrivals. However in these more politically correct climes, the 2009 version has moved from shouting down immigrants to shouting up the Anglo-Australian culture. No one likes being called a racist. A patriot is entirely different.
Stratton also singles out the policies of the Howard government that turned back asylum seekers, interned refugees and gave us a “War on Terror”. He believes this created cultural dread that anyone who came to this country was out to do us harm. Not that he paints Howard a racist, merely a shrewd politician who cannily exploited the fears of the electorate.
“You only need turn on the news to see the world’s a disaster”, he says. “Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, Zimbabwe, there’s wars in the Congo, Africa’s got deep problems. Then there’s this huge financial crisis and what that will do will increase unemployment, there’ll be even more of this nationalism, this attitude of, ‘We don’t want these migrants coming here and taking our jobs’.”
~ White With Fear: Flagging a New Hate, John Bastick, Rolling Stone, No.690, May 2009 [Part One].