The mourning after (in Australia)
I met this morning at the Glebe Fair a Lebanese-Australian I’ve known for years. He used to work as a maintenance staff at Sydney University when I worked there. He never struck me as a particularly ebullient personality but he looked more somber than usual. I asked him why. He let me know that he lost his cousin in the terrorist bombing that struck the poor neighborhood of Burj el Barahjneh in Beirut killing fourty people and causing massive destruction. It was the biggest bombing since the end of the civil war in 1990. As if this is not enough, he tells me, his sister is married to a Frenchman and they live in the 11eme arrondissement of Paris, one of the main areas that the Parisian terrorists attacked the day after the Beirut bombing. So not having fully recovered from the Lebanese bombing they spent an anxious half a day before they knew that his sister and her family were safe.
He paused for a second and then he said: I know these things interest you so can I ask you a question? I said: sure go ahead. He said: ‘did you see how they projected the French flag on the Opera House?’ I hadn’t seen it. I said: ‘no but that’s great…’ Indeed, for a fleeting moment I thought to myself ‘what a great idea!’ But then I stopped mid-sentence because it immediately dawned on me what he was aiming at, and I said: ‘but not the Lebanese flag right?’
‘Exactly,’ he said, ‘it is very upsetting. They keep giving us lectures about how we should integrate but they act as if we don’t exist. They think that only the French are worthy of mourning. I thought the new prime minister looks like a decent guy and he had it in him to say a few words and make us feel that they cared about what happened to us but he hasn’t.’
'Why couldn't they project both flags?' he asked moving away from Malcolm and back to the Opera House.
I left him feeling I should write at least a few ethnographic notes about this encounter. So I quickly walked back home to my computer, and as I hadn’t seen the French flag projected on the Opera House, I looked it up on the Internet. I still liked what it represented. But I did feel that the absence of any sign of solidarity with the Lebanese made the act of solidarity with the French more akin to an act of colonial solidarity. It polluted what should have been a grand gesture. Not more than a few minutes later I was astonished and heartened to see a Facebook status by my friend and colleague Martha Macintyre. Even though she wrote from Melbourne, it was as if she had been part of the conversation I just had. She wrote:
While I feel devastated and overwhelmed by this terrible event [the Paris event], it worries me that so much vicarious grief and outrage can be mustered around the deaths of people, white Europeans, who we can see as being 'like us', while a similar event in Beirut is not subject to a similar outpouring. No cedar tree silhouettes on the Sydney Opera House. What is more telling is that there are relatively few people of French origin living Australia and a lot of Lebanese.
Martha knew as much as I did, of course, that neither the victims of the Beirut bombing, nor of the French bombing were homogeneously white or not white. What they actually empirically are is not the point. It's what the act of solidarity with France imagines them to be that counts here.
Still, my guess was that since the Sydney Opera House is full of enlightened, cosmopolitan and open-minded kind of people, if I was to approach the person who thought of the French flag idea and say to him/her ‘well, how about the Lebanese flag?’, even though they will rightly suspect that the idea will not have the aesthetic value and universal appeal that the French flag has, they will probably still say: ‘of course, what a good idea, why didn’t I think of it myself’. And this would be exactly where the problem lies: why didn’t they think of it themselves?
It not easy to tell White Australians what they should and shouldn’t do - as always I call White those who partake in a colonially inherited white fantasy of Australia -. Especially following an Islamic act of terrorism. It comes naturally to them to think that it is up to them to engage in moralistic pontification about what Muslims should and should not do to prove their Australian belonging.
At the best of times, it is a difficult spectacle to watch. The inheritors of the Western culture of colonial plunder, land theft, over exploitation of resources, racialised genocides, rape, and over-exploitation of non-Western people are very good at being totally oblivious of the thinness of the moral ground on which they stand. They assume with incredible ease that the moral high ground is theirs to occupy and keep. It is true that this high ground is not so hard to occupy when imagining yourself as facing third-rate petty criminal shits who think they are great because they can mindlessly repeat that their god is great while psychotically murdering people. But the fact is, this is not who White Australians are facing, they are facing a community with whom they have been sharing Australia for more than one hundred years. And so, especially in moments like this, White Australians fail miserably. They fail both morally and socially. They have a lot to learn about the art of building a national society, and despite many people, over the years, trying to teach them, they haven’t learnt much. Jews, Greeks, Vietnamese, Lebanese, Italian, Chinese and many more, each on their own and some times together have tried to make White Australians come to terms with what it means to live in a culturally plural society, and again and again they fall into mindless, unrealistic escapist monoculturalism: anything that will stop them from facing the fact that they are sharing Australia with a whole variety of different people; anything that will stop them from facing the fact that as a dominant culture they are responsible for helping people to integrate and become part of a shared Australia. Again and again, they show that they are much better at disintegrating people than they are at integrating them.
I mean here we have a situation where the Lebanese have been migrating to Australia since late 1880s. It’s not that they are some new unheard of part of the Australian equation. And yet somehow, White Australians find it hard to accept or think that the Lebanese are still connected to Lebanon; they find it hard to understand that this does not make them more or less Australian; they find it hard to keep in mind that if something bad happens in Lebanon this affects in all kind of ways their fellow Australians who hail from Lebanon. They hypocritically believe all this while the most extreme among them are very matter-of-factly still licking British royal arses without this appearing to affect their degree of Australian-ness. White Australians are very big on lecturing everyone around about how they should be part of a single Australian nation with clear cultural values. That’s great, but if part of the ‘cultural values’ they are advocating is to be sharing the same national space with someone for more than a hundred years and not having it in you to express some sympathy when they are mourning, there is no doubt about what they can do with that part of ‘Australian cultural values’. They are seriously lacking in the art of making themselves part of other people’s lives so that others can feel that they are part of theirs.
So, my dear White Australian, if you are unable to do something as basic as the above, you will get the divided society that you deserve. Just don’t keep blaming it on others as if you’ve had nothing to do with it.