"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
October 26, 2007

Can You Ever Become An Australian?

It has been very revealing to read the news reports of mobile phone entrepreneur, John Ilhan’s untimely death at the age of 42. His passing is a tragedy on many levels. He leaves behind a beautiful young family; he was becoming an inspirational role-model for the Muslim community in Australia and he was widely respected […]

It has been very revealing to read the news reports of mobile phone entrepreneur, John Ilhan’s untimely death at the age of 42. His passing is a tragedy on many levels. He leaves behind a beautiful young family; he was becoming an inspirational role-model for the Muslim community in Australia and he was widely respected (and liked) in the Australian business and sporting community. He wasn’t just wealthy, he was also a good-hearted man.

But, the news reports also carry a bitter edge in the way politicians, especially the current Prime Minister John Howard, have chosen to focus on Mr Ilhan’s life. Notice the emphasis placed on his being a “migrant,” who “owes” his success to Australia. It is telling (but not surprising) that the politicians couldn’t just pay tribute to him as an Australian, or as an Australian success story, instead they have to focus on his status as a “migrant.”

Especially when one remembers that he came to Australia as a three-year old child.

He did not choose to move to the country, or to leave the country of his birth. His skills and dedication were such that could well have been a success story anywhere in the world. Moreover, he fully embraced Australian values and culture and understood himself as Australian.

But no level of sacrifice, prosperity or respect could be enough to shake the label of “migrant.” Not even having lived 39 of his 42 years in the country. Moreover, the vague word “migrant,” which is used far more often in Australia than most other countries, put the emphasis in the wrong place. The important fact is not so much the choice to migrate in some abstract sense, but the choice to leave one specific place, often for another specific place. The moving isn’t the important bit, the choosing to settle in somewhere new is the important bit.

Before sitting down to write this, I spent a while pondering Mr Ilhan’s words, written on the occasion of Australia Day this year. There’s a lot there that I agree with and would wish for Australia’s future. But, sadly, I think he was wrong in saying “No matter what our background, we are Australians.” If you are born outside the country (as both Mr Ilhan and I were), even if you came to Australia as a young child (as both Mr Ilhan and I did), then you are never “really” Australian (as is clear in the politicians words and as I’ve often been reminded). No, you belong to that sub-Australian class, the migrant, who must religiously display obeisance to the “debt” you owe to the “lucky” country.

Duncan McFadzean 17 years ago

Fernando, that’s interesting. I’d never heard of the guy but I’m not totally surprised – I’ve been out a couple of times to Australia and I was quite surprised in general by some of the comments made about anyone who wasn’t white by whites. My sister has just moved out there, so I’ll be interested to hear how what you say is seen in her experience. Why do you think it is that Australia has such an issue as opposed to other migrant founded nations like Canada?

empedocles 17 years ago

Why integration has failed

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has documented how cultural diversity leads to less civil engagement, more isolation, and more alienation. And it is not just in the United States where integration has failed, all countries that have attempted to integrate racial minorities have ended up with persistent segregation and its resulting social problems. To understand why integration has failed we must understand how it was supposed to work in the first place.

Westgern countries are founded on the Enlightenment view descended from Descartes that each individual is a distinct separate substance. This substance was essentially rational, and could over time acquire various beliefs, desires, etc. In this way it was believed that everything about an individual—sex, race, height, weight, religious and political beliefs—everything except for its rationality was merely contingent upon accident and/or personal experience. Specifically, the individual was born basically a tabula rasa (although Descartes thought there were some innate ideas) that could be provided with experiences that would form ones beliefs and character. It was presumed that if two individuals were provided with the same experiences, they would possess the same beliefs and character. Acting on these premises, the civil rights movement thus had two aims: to remove segregation on the one hand, and foster integration on the other. Integration was supposed to work by providing equal experiences and removing the differences that resulted in a lack of equality and thus prejudice and segregation. After all, on the Cartesian model, by giving all individuals identical experiences, or as closely identical as possible, we would remove cultural differences and result in an integrated culture.

For example, bussing was an attempt to provide all citizens with the same educational experiences, a well as exposure to individuals of different races, in order to dispel prejudices resulting from ignorance due to a lack of experience of others. If all citizens were brought up in similar neighborhoods, going to similar schools, with similar exposures to others, given the same opportunities, we would achieve a society where racial differences no longer mattered since race and identity would no longer be linked. Whereas bussing was an attempt to repair educational inequalities, affirmative action was an attempt to integrate the work force so that professions were not racially determined and that racial disparities would be erased resulting in an integrated workforce with a common culture. Over time, with academic achievement equalized, cultural differences removed, and economic inequalities erased, we would move to a society where race no longer played a factor in determining personal identity, professional achievement, economic class, or cultural differences.

Why then has integration failed? Conservatives claim that integration has failed because ethnic and racial groups insist on self-segregating and refuse to integrate, liberals claim that persistent racism has kept integration from working. It is crucial to see that both sides accept the premises of integration, that the way to achieve it is to provide equal experiences. Since the theory on integration is correct, it is argued, if it has failed the only possible explanation is that it must have failed for moral reasons; someone is behaving immorally and thus preventing integration from succeeding. The validity of the theory of how integration was supposed to succeed is accepted by both sides, and if the theory is correct, then an explanation must be offered on why integration has failed to occur. The offered explanations are moral in character: either people are self-segregating, or people are racists. And so most of the civil rights movement has abandoned integration and embraced multiculturalism. It is my contention that neither explanation is correct, and that integration failed because it was based on a faulty conception of personal identity.

Personal identity:
One of the enduring philosophical questions is the question of what makes an individual the individual they are. What makes me the same person I was yesterday, or last year? What differentiates me from all the other people? If my memories could be transplanted into another person, would I be that person or the previous? The dominant theory of personal identity over the last several centuries was that of Descartes. For Descartes, one is individuated by being a separate spiritual substance. This substance acquires individual beliefs and desires through experience, and these can differ from individual to individual, and within the same individual over time, but the underlying substance remains constant and this is what constitutes the identity over time. Descartes’ views have largely been discarded as they give rise to all sorts of philosophical difficulties—primarily due to the mysterious nature of this spiritual substance and our vastly increased understanding of the workings of the brain. Others have taught that it is ones memories that constitute ones identity, but this likewise gives rise to all sorts of insoluble riddles over memory transplants, lost memories, changed memories, etc.

The truth is that what separates one from all other individuals, what “individuates” is ones history: the one thing that you can share with no other being is your history, no two beings have the same history. Even identical twins have different histories, even from the moment their cells separated. And even if ones memories were implanted into another person, your histories would therefore differ. The main import of this discussion is that, as a result, to understand oneself, what makes you who you are and makes you different and unique from all other beings, is to understand your history. For example, if you want to know why you have the political beliefs you do, say why you believe in democracy, you need to know American history, why America is a democracy, what ideas lead to the political system we have today. But in order to understand this you need to understand the political disputes of the Enlightenment. And in order to understand this you need to know the political theories of the pre-Enlightenment that the Enlightenment was reacting to, etc. In order to understand why one has the religious beliefs you do one would clearly need to know ones personal history, how you were raised and any influences in your life that lead to your current beliefs. But to understand where these ideas came from would require one to know the various religious traditions, their history, the disputes that were involved in their creation, why they ended up the in form they have, and the history of how you ended up with these beliefs. To understand why you are where you are, you need to understand your personal history, why you moved from place to place through your life. But to understand this fully you need to know the history of your ancestors as they emigrated across the Earth even as far back as the original emigration out of Africa. Actually, you would need to know the history going even further back as to why the first humanids were in Africa in the first place, and the whole evolutionary history of life on earth. Race is the result of history as well, it records the migrations of people around the world from the original migrations out of Africa—in your race you wear the history of your ancestors on your sleeve as it were. The same could be said of any taste, desire, preference, aspiration, or conviction one has; to understand why you are the way you are you need to understand your history. Even to understand why one likes something as inconsequential as the taste of strawberry ice cream would require an understanding of history, in part your personal history and your various reasons for liking it, but also in part evolutionary history and why we developed the preference for sweets that we have, as well as the biological processes in play in the perception of sweetness.

In summary, you are the way you are, and different from every other being (although sharing much with them) because your history is different from every other being. If this is the case, as I think it is, integration, i.e., the adoption of a new culture, is the process of dropping one history and adopting another as ones own. Historically, immigrants come to the US and they soon (in a generation or two) more or less forget their history and the culture that results from it and adopt their new one. Soon they’re proud of how “we” defeated the British, the Nazis, and the Communists, even if they’re in fact British, German, or Russian and it was their ancestors that “we” beat. Cultural practices are also the result of history–the traditions, mores, rituals, and celebrations of each culture are the result of historical events and adaptations. In integration the previous historically derived cultural practices are dropped in favor of the also historically evolved cultural practices of the US. However, one can not drop their race the way you can drop other aspects of ones identity. For example, when the British celebrate ‚Äúour‚Äù great naval history, Asian and middle-eastern immigrants know that that “our” does not include them‚Äîthat British history does not include them–but white immigrants to England–after a generation or so–can drop their true background adopt a new history and blend in with the rest of the “we.” Caucasians living in non-white countries come to feel the same thing, that they can’t drop their history/identity and become fully part of the culture. African-Americans can never and should never drop their history the way European immigrants have been able to and see the country as a land of opportunity and freedom when the fact that “they” had no freedom and opportunity is always staring them in the face. This tension between being pressured on the one hand by the political push for integration to adopt the ‚Äúmainstream‚Äù or ‚Äúwhite‚Äù history and the resulting values, politics, and identity, and on the other hand by the obvious fact that ‚Äúour‚Äù history results in a very different lessons, values, and political beliefs– leads to the feeling of alienation that minorities universally express, and finds its way into different political beliefs, social mores, artistic expressions, etc. The cognitive dissonance between the pressure to adopt an alien history, and the impossibility of doing so when ones race and its attendant history is ever apparent, results in the widespread alienation and its attendant social ills. The facts of slavery and Jim Crow can not and should not ever be dropped for the adoption of an alien history, but since integration requires the adopting of another‚Äôs history, integration is impossible.

However, the failure of integration is not a moral failing on anybody’s part, it is the result of the adoption of a faulty theory of identity giving rise to false beliefs, and was bound to fail for this reason. Given the fact that history is essential to ones identity, one of the worst things you can do to a person is force them to abandon ones true history/identity and adopt a false history and resulting values of another race, ethnic group, or religion whose history results in very different values, and cultural identity (as was attempted with native Americans). This is, if I may coin a phrase, “identitycide” and is one of the worst forms of racism imaginable. And yet identitycide is the basis of America’s educational system, and much of the alienation that plagues African-Americans and other racial groups.

I would argue that the solution to this problem is to abandon liberalism and adopt communitarianism.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Duncan – although the Australia most people know is a young immigrant country, almost all of the immigration up to the 1950s was Anglo-Celtic. A great deal of the middle-class values solidified during the Prime Ministership of the staunchly Anglophile Robert Menzies, from 1949-1966. The current (deeply conservative) Prime Minister, John Howard (who has been in power since 1996) has frequently alluded to this predominately Anglo-Celtic identity as an undisputed settlement of the question of Australian identity.

The problem, however, is that after WWII the country was actually starting to change as the first large waves of Southern European settlers (initially from Italy and Greece) started to come in significant numbers, making a visible mark on the urban landscape. Through the 60s and 70s there were successive waves of Central European, Balkan, Lebanese and South American immigrants and then in the mid-70s a surge in migrants from South East Asia; dominated by Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

To be far, Australia actually managed quite well through the 80s and into the 90s to manage its diversity – or so it seemed. By the mid-90s it became a political issue, exploited by both conservative and populist politicians. There’s quite a range of opinions on why this shift came about, but it was probably a reaction to some aspects of globalisation, to greater integration with Asia and to perpetually living with a contested sense of national identity.

Toni 17 years ago

Empedocles – interesting explanation. The issue it hasn’t addressed is a rejection of those with a different appearance by those of similar appearence but differing histories. Something of the reverse of your description.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

“empedocles” – thanks for your comment (which I note is a lengthy cut and paste from your blog). There is quite a bit of your argument against modernist individualism that speaks correctly to the failures of multiculturalism, in so far as we might accept Jonathan Sacks’ analogy of the modern state as a cultural hotel. However, the analysis does seem to be very America-centric.

You conclude by saying we should reject liberalism in favour of communitarianism, which is a nice slogan but I wonder what that means in practice. The UK, for example has up until very recently always done this and the modern mechanism for doing so, the separation of ethnicity (english, scottish, welsh, irish), from the idea of the nation (britishness) is still in place. It goes without saying that britishness is, in any meaningful historical sense, a liberal project (the same could be said of the idea of America).

The challenge is to find a way to have a coherent national story that can parse ethnicicity and political identity. In a lot of ways the US was a great example of this as sucessive generations of immigrants managed to find a truly belended identity (Irish-American, Italian-American, Polish-American). Britain also managed very well on this front. By contrast, speaking directly to the topic of this post, Australia has managed much less well, largely because of the failure to articulate an *idea* of its own nationhood.

Alex 15 years ago

Wow, your thoughts have truly moved me! I became an Aussie in 2007, and since then I grew to become a true Aussie, I am proud to be one of many, from many different lands…I hope you feel the same way as I do these days…xo

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