Saturday, February 24, 2007

An impossible demand

Word is that the next wave of refugees will be Tamils from Sri Lanka.

Well, my sources were right. I wrote the above line just a month ago, and now we have a new "boat people" incident involving 83 Sri Lankans.

Significantly, the Australian Government is organising with both Indonesia (where the boat sailed from) and Sri Lanka to repatriate the men.

You have to wonder why, if the 83 men really believe themselves to be refugees, they made the very long journey to Australia via Indonesia, rather than just travelling 30km to India.

As I wrote a month ago, India is a safe and increasingly prosperous and self-confident nation for Tamils to relocate to. Furthermore, the state of Tamil Nadu in India is an ethnic homeland for Tamils, in which Tamils from Sri Lanka could feel at home culturally and easily assimilate into.

Australia cannot be an ethnic homeland for Tamils in the way that Tamil Nadu in India can be. Therefore, young Tamils growing up here would likely suffer from a confusion in their identity, a disadvantage which isn't easily set aside.

What is it like to grow up without an easy identification with your country's mainstream culture and tradition?

I read a blog post recently which described the experiences of three young people in this position. The first, a journalist from Sweden with Kurdish and Lebanese parents, wrote of her identity that:

To be honest, I'm tired of defining who I am. Am I Swedish? Am I Kurdish? Am I Lebanese? I'm all of these things, and none. Sometimes I'm more Swedish than Kurdish, sometimes I'm more Lebanese than Swedish.

Then there is the actual author of the post (Osmond?) who is mostly of Chinese descent, though with some Spanish ancestry, and whose family have been living in Australia for 30 years. He writes:

I've rarely referred to myself as Australian or Chinese-Australian or even Chinese except when responding to people's questions. I've never felt honest or comfortable trying to define myself in those narrow categories ...

Do I give wholesale loyalty to one part of my identity and nothing to the rest or prioritise one over the other when I have a greater connection with different parts at different times?

Finally there's Randa Abdel-Fattah, an author of Muslim ancestry now living in Australia. She tells us that,

The inconsistency in my emotions and devotions used to faze me. It used to arouse in me a sense of disloyalty and insincerity ... I don't feel the need to be "fully Aussie". Not because I am not of Anglo background, but because it is an impossible demand ... One's past, whether ancestral or as a migrant, necessarily shapes one's present. The issue is the place of this construction of self in Australia's future.

There are some common themes running through these descriptions. One is a kind of irritation with the whole question of identity; a wish that it could just be made a non-issue.

How different this is to what most of us experience, namely a positive and affirming sense of communal identity which we would never want to give up.

The three writers also seem to share an identity which is shifting and unstable. At times, they feel more connected to their adopted culture, but at other times to their ancestral tradition.

This "multiple" and "shifting" focus of identity isn't the liberation some might think it to be. Randa, for instance, mentions that the "inconsistency" in her "devotions" aroused in her "a sense of disloyalty and insincerity". Osmond, similarly, admitted that he "never felt honest or comfortable" when having to define himself as either Australian or Chinese.

Again, most of us don't have to face this problem. Our loyalties aren't divided, and we don't have to doubt our sincerity or honesty in talking about our identity.

Finally, it's important to understand Randa's comment. She tells us that she can't feel "fully Aussie" because it's "an impossible demand". Why? Because we are shaped not just by our present, but by our ancestral past. I think she's right, and that politicians who insist on large-scale ethnically diverse migration, but who also expect straightforward allegiances to an existing tradition, are ignoring important aspects of reality.


  1. I think you overlooked the main point of my post.

    The main argument was my frustration about the politics of culture and ethnicity which fail to recognise that people are individuals who are not trapped within some rigid prism of culture or ethnicity. We may be influenced by it but in the end we define who we are.

    I have a sense of communal identity. That is my political beliefs, a universal social democratic viewpoint but again that does not completely define who I am as a person just as being born in Australia shaped who I am but I'm not defined by it and it would be dishonest to pretend it does.

    All these aspects shape me as an individual but alone they do not define me. Just as someone who is 'Anglo' is shaped by being born in Australia, their own and their families' experiences and beliefs. Those parts of who they are do not necessarily define them.

  2. What do you mean by "define" here.

  3. Is it an act of will or are we still defined by outside forces albeit multitudinous ones.

  4. Oz, you write in your comment that:

    "people are individuals who are not trapped within some rigid prism of culture or ethnicity. We may be influenced by it but in the end we define who we are."

    This is the orthodox liberal view. According to liberalism, the key thing is that we determine for ourselves who we are.

    Therefore, important aspects of our identity which we don't choose for ourselves (such as our sex and ethnicity) are seen as impediments - as negative restrictions on the individual.

    I don't believe that the liberal view describes the reality of things.

    The reality is that people who are brought up within their own ethnic tradition usually accept it as a most significant aspect of their identity - that it does, in a very positive and rewarding way, help to define who they are.

    That's why I think it's unwise to deliberately settle people in a country whose ethnic tradition they will find difficult to assimilate to - especially when there are ready alternatives.

    People placed in such a situation regularly report a kind of confusion or discomfort in their identity - a tension which they find difficult to resolve.

    One way to try to resolve it is to follow the liberal idea of trying to make ethnicity "not matter".

    I think this is your own strategy. In your own post you write about your Chinese, Spanish and Australian identities and then ask:

    "Do I give wholesale loyalty to one part of my identity and nothing to the rest or prioritise one part over the other when I have a greater connection with different parts at different times?"

    Your answer is to consider giving up on these communal identities in favour of a purely individual one:

    "With all the sh-- about national identity I'm tempted to adopt Nabila's stance, of individual identity, that I'm just "me", I'm not locked into the confines of my heritage or culture."

    Why should someone who a) is not a liberal and b) not so conflicted in their own identity set themselves against heritage and culture in this way?

  5. Even if an ideology like liberalism prescribes it, I don't understand how a human being can feel that culture or ethnicity are something we are 'trapped' by. What is the actual burden? What does it impede? What is the pay off for 'freeing' ourselves of our ancestors?

    If ethnicity is a prison, should we also free ourselves of extended family ties?

    It seems odd to say that these very tangible things don't matter, then that something so trivial and passing as 'political opinion' does.

    Perhaps this is just a personal matter; being 'trapped' is another word for confusion, frustration or alienation. Someone of mixed ancestry or in a minority position may want society to overcome the idea of ethnicity for similar reasons that some in the homosexual community want society to overcome the idea of gender.

    But I think that they have to realise that for many people it does matter, and restricting its natural expression or forcibly replacing it with petty ideology is what leads to trouble - as we saw so many times in the 20th century.

  6. Shane, well put, especially your observation that the replacements to a traditional identity are likely to be petty or trivial in comparison.

    David Brooks, himself a kind of right-liberal, has written about life for "Bobos" (the new liberal creative elite) as being superficial for this reason. For instance he notes that:

    "Bobos pay lip-service to the virtues of tradition, roots, community. However, when push comes to shove, they tend to choose personal choice over other commitments ... And this is self-defeating, because at the end of all this movement and freedom and self-exploration, they find that they have nothing deep and lasting to hold on to.

    There's more along these lines here.

  7. "Therefore, important aspects of our identity which we don't choose for ourselves (such as our sex and ethnicity) are seen as impediments - as negative restrictions on the individual."

    This is simply not true - you misconstrue the idea of creating your own identity. Sex and ethnicity are not negative restrictions on the individual, and just because we haven't chosen them ourselves doesn't make them negative.

    You are drawing a long bow there.

    As Oz says in his comment, things that shape you as an individual are not the sum total of what define you. I am a woman - to me, that's a huge plus, not a negative. If I'd been given the choice, I'd have picked being a woman. My ethnicity's an interesting mix. I'd have picked that too (although maybe with something a little darker skinned thrown in the mix to make me less likely to get skin cancer, since I'm the palest of the pale). And I love Australia, I'd have picked that too. I don't see any of those things as a negative - but they're not under my control, and they don't define me, although of course they shaped who I am.

    But that doesn't mean I unquestioningly accept my own ethnic tradition(s) or accept them as the major part of my identity - I am me, a unique individual, as well as a part of my family and a part of my community. Nor does it mean that I unquestioningly reject it and see it as a negative either.

    Honestly, your views seem to break the world into black and white - no shades of grey, and no real understanding of what it means to be liberal. You're setting up a straw-liberal, rather than arguing against what actual liberals believe.

  8. rebekka,

    If we are to assume there are "actual liberals" in a world of "grey", how would we notice one if we saw it?

    After all is said and done, a true "liberal" will be in a constant state of flux trying to find a coherent identity because the idea of an ability to create a new one is so much more exhilarating.

    I'm not sure you're really a "liberal" in the modern sense.

  9. Ethnicity and culture may be restrictive in some respects but they also empowering.

    If you have a strong affinity with a particular culture and ethnicity you are more likely to have a deep knowledge of that culture at an emotional and intellectual level.

    You can therefore tap into the collective wisdom of thousands of great minds from your culture.

    It also makes it easier to understand why people from other cultures are so strongly connected to their culture.

    If you don't feel an affinity with a particular culture your knowledge base is likely to be shallow and your views on things are likely to be based purely on reason.

    Reason alone does not lead to wisdom and tolerance. In fact people who are highly rational and anti-cultural spent a lot of time angry with the majority of people who do have a strong sense of ethnicity.

    In my experience many anti-cultural liberals such as libertarians and Marxists are among the most intolerant people around and ignore much of what happens in the world because it doesn't fit their narrowly rational world view.

  10. You're setting up a straw-liberal, rather than arguing against what actual liberals believe.

    Rebekka, there are different intersecting strands within liberalism. I'm not claiming that every liberal is most influenced by the idea of determining their own selves.

    But clearly, it's a significant idea within liberalism, one which spans both the left and right of the mainstream political spectrum.

    Oz, for instance, in the first comment on this thread spoke of his firm belief that:

    "people are individuals who are not trapped within some rigid prism of culture or ethnicity. We may be influenced by it but in the end we define who we are."

    This follows the pattern of liberal thought I've tried to describe. It applies a negative, restrictive connotation to ethnicity. It suggests that to be truly an individual we must define who we are and not be "trapped" (limited, restricted) by ethnicity.

    In another recent entry I quoted the poet Shelley who wrote in 1820 that the coming new man would be:

    Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed, but man
    Equal, unclassed, tribeless, nationless,
    Exempt from awe, worship, degree, the king over himself ...

    Here we have the same thought process. To be "free" we must be "uncircumscribed" (unlimited, unrestricted) by class, tribe, nation and be left as the king over ourselves.

    Even someone on the right of the spectrum, like Andrew Bolt, follows this intellectual template.

    He once criticised a tribe of Aborigines for wanting to retain control over an historic artefact. He complained that the Aborigines, by acting as a tribe, were flouting:

    "The humanist idea that we are all individuals, free to make our own identities as equal members of the human race. In this New Racism, we're driven back into tribes."

    Again, the message is that we need to be "freed" from ethnicity in order to be individuals, so that we can make our own identities.

    The existence of this liberal intellectual template, which casts ethnic loyalties in a negative light, helps to explain the failure of the Western peoples to uphold their own ethnic traditions.

    Note too that the same set of liberal ideas is applied to other "impediments" to self-definition, such as gender, morality, sexual identity, family, relationships and so on.

    I think it's important, for those of us who want to argue a consistent conservatism, to decisively reject the liberal template as outlined above.

    It doesn't matter if we are defined, in part, by the ethnicity we are born to, as this aspect of our identity is experienced as a natural and positive feature of who we are.

  11. "It applies a negative, restrictive connotation to ethnicity. It suggests that to be truly an individual we must define who we are and not be "trapped" (limited, restricted) by ethnicity."

    No, see, it doesn't. It doesn't imply negativity at all. You're taking the comment that we're NOT trapped by ethnicity and taking that to mean ethnicity itself is necessarily a trap. That's not logical.

    By saying we're not imprisoned by ethnicity, we're not saying ethnicity is a trap, we're saying quite the opposite.

    And we're not saying it's a negative. It's a wonderful, culturally rich, significant thing. But that doesn't mean it's the sole thing that defines us, either. As individuals, we have the ability - and the obligation, in my opinion - to question things that might not be so great about our cultural heritage (like racism, or not treating women with respect, or not educating children, for example) and to reject those things at the same time as embracing the positives of our ethnic identities.

    Defining ourselves as individuals does NOT mean we reject our ethnicity or culture, and does NOT mean those things are seen as negatives.

  12. But Rebekka liberals do think that we're trapped by ethnicity. This is exactly the terminology they use.

    For instance, John Howard has attacked multicultural programmes on the basis that they "simply ensnare individuals in ethnic communities".

    Andrew Bolt has written that he doesn't like there being a category of Aboriginal art at the National Category because such categories "drive us back into our racial prisons".

    Anyway, I find it amazing that you can think that the liberal mainstream takes a positive, affirming view of ethnicity.

    If this were the case, then why such complacency about the destruction of the European ethnies?

  13. According to liberals, suggesting that ethnicity or human biodiversity have inherent worth - as opposed to being 'socially constructed' - is a form of 'racism' isn't it?

  14. Shane, exactly. Complacency is the best that liberals have to offer when it comes to Western ethnicity.

  15. I think it's possible for ethnic minorities to thrive in a foreign society, but only in small numbers and only by paying the enormous price of total assimilation into the larger culture. For instance, in the U.S. there has long been a very successful community of Japanese Americans. When U.S. culture was strong, they typically took English names, intermarried with whites, and due to their East Asian qualities of intelligence, hard work, and self-restraint were generally successful. Whatever suffering and trauma they went through was generally invisible to the mainstream society. (I'm leaving out that small matter of World War II and the internments just for discussion's sake!)

    However, in the age of multiculturalism, it's said that this very assimilation was bad, that they shouldn't have been made uncomfortable, that they lost something precious and essential in giving up their identity; and many are now turning to an artificially-constructed "Asian-American" identity to find some racially-associated identity they've been missing.

    In my more universalist libertarian days I would have dismissed this ethnic identity-building as a kind of negative leftwing project (and it certainly is that in large part). But as Mark's article suggests, it is a real issue for immigrants who are racial and cultural minorities. The problem for the white majority is that no matter how nice they were to the minority group, no matter how accepting, no matter how intolerant of harassment coming from members of the majority group, there is no way to eliminate the basic fact of racial difference and discomfort suffered by the minority as a result.

    The liberal answer to this is that the majority culture has to change so that no one ever feels left out or alienated. But recent history is showing that in reality this cannot be done without weakening, demeaning, and ultimately destroying the majority culture - the culture whose attractiveness was the very reason the minorities decided to move in.

    White Westerners tend to be the ones who think that ethnicity can be transcended, since they are taught not to identify themselves in terms of ethnicity. When you look at such a Westerner who tries to "go native" in, say, Asia, it's immediately obvious that they're not transcending anything.

    This is not to say that Western culture doesn't allow for quite a bit of personal growth and "identity-building" (one of the nice parts about the liberal side of the West), but that there are certain fundamentals one is born and raised into.

  16. Ok, if you're going to use John Howard and Andrew Bolt as examples of small-L liberals, I don't think we actually have any common ground for discussion.

    But you are actually arguing completely illogically - you're saying liberals say ethnicity *doesn't* define us, and yet you're also saying liberals see ethnicity as a trap. Your two statements are contradictory.

  17. Rebekka,

    1) I nowhere described Howard and Bolt as small l liberals. They are liberals in the broader sense that all mainstream politics in the modern West is based on liberal first principles.

    2) Regarding the supposed contradiction in the argument.

    The liberal argument can run as follows:

    1) Ethnicity shouldn't define us.
    2) Where ethnicity acts to define us as part of a collective, it is a trap or prison.

    Now, although I don't agree with the argument I don't see how it is contradictory.

    The liberal argument can also run this way:

    1) Ethnicity doesn't define us.
    2) There are situations in which ethnicity is nonetheless viewed as defining us.
    3) In such situations it's possible for ethnicity to ensare individuals.

    It's true that liberals following this line of thought have to explain step 2. They have to explain how ethnicity, which doesn't define us, comes to assume this role.

    The most common explanation is that it does so as a social construct; alternatively, it is argued that specific historic conditions give rise to such a role for ethnicity.

    Finally, let me say that there is an element of inconsistency in your own argument.

    You came to this discussion claiming that liberals actually have no problem with ethnicity and that we were arguing against a "straw liberal" and had things entirely the wrong way round.

    So you oughtn't then to have any problem with those of us arguing for a more positive attitude to Western ethnicity.

    But you do. At your own site you have described those of us arguing for a more positive view of ethnicity as "conservative racists".

    So even the most moderate discussion in favour of Western ethnicity elicits a negative response from you as a liberal.

    If our ethnicity is "a wonderful, culturally rich, significant thing" as you claim liberals hold it to be, why do you as a liberal apply such a negative label to people arguing reasonably in favour of it?

  18. I don't think there's much point dialoguing with people who are calling their interlocutors "racist" at another site.

    However, it's true there is an apparent contradiction between two understandings of liberalism:

    (1) liberalism in its abstract sense, as the liberation and equalization of individual wills, and hence opposed to ethnic particularity (and I think few liberals would describe their own beliefs explicitly in these terms);

    (2) liberalism as hatred of a particular culture and tradition, namely the Western, white tradition, for which (1) above serves merely as a tool. I tend to think that (2) rather than (1) is at the core of liberalism, but each reinforces and feeds the other and it may be impossible to separate them in practice.

    On the surface, then, while neocon-type disrespect for Aboriginal culture is consistent with liberalism (in the first sense), it seems to me much less common than leftwing-type celebration of non-Western culture, and so liberals might rightly respond to Mark that they do not endorse this type of liberalism, and that they do respect ethnicity.

    However, in the larger sense Mark is right in that the celebration of "the Other" in modern liberalism is false, not based on genuine respect for other cultures, but using them as tools for "liberation" from Western constraints. This is shown by the selective way in which "the Other" is celebrated. Liberals don't celebrate obscure cultures that have nothing to do with us and don't celebrate the cultures more compatible with ours like the Japanese; they rather celebrate the importation of "colorful," dangerous cultures in our midst and the frisson created by this experience. I think Mark is trying to expose the falsity of this practice by acknowledging the suffering of ethnic minorities in the West but by drawing a conclusion opposite to the liberal one, namely, that mass immigration is not a good thing.

  19. Steve, you're right that amongst left-liberals the situation becomes more complicated.

    It's common to find left-liberals who take an "anti" stance to their own Western tradition, but who nonetheless celebrate other ethnicities (especially the more foreign/unassimilated/marginalised/non-mainstream ones).

    One thing to remember here is that "multi" culturalism does fit in with the whole liberal "self-authorship" theme as does "hybridity" and "fluidity" - key terms within left-wing academic jargon.

    If you're living in a multiculture, then you can conceive yourself to be choosing amongst many different options and authoring your own individuality this way, rather than fitting in with a pre-existing inherited tradition.

    So a left-winger can see a return to a monoculture as the big threat to self-authorship and therefore not want to celebrate the obvious candidate for that monculture (their own tradition) as part of the multicultural mix.

    This is especially likely given that more right-wing liberals often do urge an assimilation to a single traditional standard.

    The right-liberals are pursuing self-authorship not through multi-culture, which they see as dangerously divisive and too much based on the collective, but through assimilation at the individual level to a single polity based on liberal political values.

    So there does exist here a sharpening of differences between right and left.

  20. There's much variation in all this, though.

    Take the views of Germaine Greer. A few years ago she wrote an essay in which she called on all Australians to transform themselves into Aborigines.

    She wrote:

    "Supposing Australians accepted their destiny and, as if by an act of transubstantiation, declared their country and themselves Aboriginal."

    This fits within liberalism in the sense that it presumes that ethnicity is something we can and should choose, rather than something we inherit.

    Part of Greer's argument for becoming Aboriginal was that there was no such thing as an Anglo-Celtic race, as race itself was not a genuine category.

    Having accepted this view, though, Greer then made the logical next step and declared that there was no Aboriginal race as well - that Aboriginality was "not a matter of blood and genes" but a "cultural construction" and a "getting of knowledge" that anyone could participate in.

    Therefore, Greer declared that her strategy required that we "rethink Aboriginality as inclusive rather than exclusive" so that it would not "involve the assumption of a phoney ethnicity".

    As you can imagine, many Aborigines reacted angrily to the suggestion that there was no such thing as an Aboriginal race and that their ethnicity was "phoney".

    Greer's position is different to the usual liberal ones, in that it doesn't seek a multiculture (in which we are supposed to be able to construct a hybrid, fluid self), nor does it defend a mainstream culture defined in liberal terms.

    It's different too in explicitly denying real ethnic status to the preferred "other".

  21. Mark, thanks for the reply. This clarifies the difference between right-liberalism and left-liberalism very well.

    The Greer example is a fascinating variation, with the same goal, of course: the destruction of Western culture.