What is it about the human race that makes us suspicious, paranoid and xenophobic of people who appear different? Andrew E. Hall.
“THE Martians are coming, the Martians are coming” … was a concept that sent a chill up the collective spine of Americans on Halloween in 1938.
Of course, the Martians weren’t coming, nor any other alien species – it was a hoax radio broadcast perpetrated by Orson Welles, based on H.G. Wells’ (1897) novel The War of the Worlds.
But a lot of people fell for it.
They had visions of being invaded by exotic creatures with even more exotic technologies with which to visit destruction and despair upon innocent Earthlings. Such was the extent of people’s paranoia that no one stopped to think for a moment the Martians might well have been a bunch of curly-haired goodniks in a cosmic Combi van come to spread the love.
No, no, when it comes to the “other” it’s always a bad trip.
Furthermore, if they’d read Wells’ book properly, they would have realised that all one need do was sneeze on the extra terrestrials to do them in … the common cold for the win.
Within a month more than 12,000 newspaper articles had been written about the broadcast because of the widespread panic it caused. Orson Welles was well happy.
And in his usual self-effacing way Adolf Hitler referred to the American public’s reaction as “evidence of the corrupt condition and decadence of democracy”. We all marvelled at his alternative.
Our popular culture is rife with the risks posed by those from parts foreign. It all started with what became known as the “invasion literature” genre – the first of which is recognised as the 1871 novella by George Tomkyns Chesney, The Battle of
Dorking (a wonderfully understated title about a fictional invasion of Britain by Germany).
Perhaps the Martians are coming after all.
A filmic alien that freaked me out in my younger days was a thing called The Thing, which was not only able to survive untold years embedded in Arctic ice but, when it thawed out, had a penchant for tearing people to bits – for no particular reason I could fathom. Not only that, if you hacked its arm off with an axe, it grew another one. It was just what I needed in a time when there was considerable publicity against even spookier things abroad in the world … communists.
I’m reminded of an old joke (hopefully some of you are old enough to remember the characters):
The Lone Ranger (of “hi-ho Silver” fame) and his faithful (Native American) companion, Tonto, are surrounded by a tribe of hostile Native Americans who are intent on seeking redress for the trials and tribulations visited upon them by the white man.
“Don’t worry Tonto we will fight our way out of this,” says the Lone Ranger.
Tonto replies: “Who is this we Kimosabe.”
In an excellent rhetorical twist, I am reliably informed that Tonto’s “Kimosabe” translates as “horse’s arse”.
Much of our popular culture and literary tradition speaks about notions of difference and how we, as humans, deal with it.
Is it we who in one moment fibrillate wildly as the Alien attacks Sigourney Weaver, and in the next ring a radio talkback show to remonstrate about how “illegal aliens” are invading “our” fair shores?
In Australia a “debate” has been raging for some time about people from countries that are torn by strife and various forms of prejudice, who risk life and limb to cross the seas – often in less-than-seaworthy craft – to find a better life. A life that is less prone to wanton oppression, slaughter and savagery. These people are the “aliens” Australians are most afraid of. No worries about the man-eating wombat from space, but no bloody way to some “reffo” from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka.
They’re all terrorists you know.
Asylum-seekers have become a political football. They have become the focus of fears that grew out of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon – and a long history of xenophobia left over from being part of the British Empire. The reaction to “them” has brought shame upon a nation that, otherwise, has a reasonable record on human rights issues – if one ignores the outrages meted out to the indigenous peoples who lived there for about 50-thousand years before the white man invaded (and who were “granted” citizenship in 1967).
I am blessed to be godfather to an Aboriginal woman and cousin to her mother who was adopted into my (white middle-class) family when she was a child. Over the years I have been privileged to see the world through their eyes, and as a family, we have been blessed to learn about Ashley and Carol’s cultural heritage, which is rich and profound. But many Australians remain blinkered in their WASP-ish ways – prejudiced and pejorative of the plight still faced by many of Ash and Carol’s people. It’s a fear response in a herd mentality.
It whispers: “This is mine and you can’t have it.”
In similar fashion to how white Australia treated the indigenous peoples in the past (and in some significant ways, still does) both major political parties in Australia have morphed the “boat people” into a modern-day Godzilla. They are a threat to national security. They are a threat to “our” identity.
Some fine examples of that identity can be witnessed in Kuta on any given night of the week.
The current federal government – floundering in the polls and about to get flogged in an election later this year – rather than standing on its traditional (left-leaning) values, is kowtowing to the mean-spirited in an effort to garner a couple more votes. It consigns the weak, the afraid and the vulnerable to veritable concentration camps. As did various governments before it. It spends more than two billion dollars to keep these people locked up.
They’re all terrorists you know.
The government-in-waiting will be worse.
It will engage in a colonialist finger-wagging exercise at anyone and everyone in the region including Indonesia – because this country is an important hub and way station in the people-smuggling business. There are some here who make large amounts of money from the fear and desperation of others.
To be fair, there is considerable pushback (even in some unlit corners of the Australian media) against the current policy as it pertains to refugees … but it’s like trying to have a game of Chinese Whispers in a hurricane.
It was only 40 years ago that the government of the day repealed the White Australia Policy whereby racial profiling was used to vet those who could immigrate to the country. The policy was enforced to a greater or lesser extent from 1901 to 1973. Australians howled at the white South African regime while indulging their own form of apartheid. It was not until 1992 that the High Court of Australia ruled that the lands of the continent were not terra nullius – i.e. that the lands belonged to no one – before European settlement. Aboriginal peoples were finally recognised as the traditional owners of their country after more than two centuries of disabuse and disenfranchisement.
In the cut and thrust of “us” and “them” the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard once remarked to US president, Barack
Obama: “You think it’s hard being black … you should try being a woman.”
Jules, you should try being Aborigine, or Afghani, or Palestinian, or …
Try being a woman in Pakistan where there are those who are wont to shoot you in the head for the effrontery of insisting that women have a right to education, no less so than a man’s. Although it could be argued that the kind of man who would harm a woman in such a manner (in any manner at all for that matter) is less than educated … except in the ways that absolve him of responsibility for such excesses of patriarchy.
In the room of mirrors who is looking back at us?
Is it the person who bangs on about her or his interpretation of the Almighty and refuses to take a sick child to hospital because of blind faith in Divine intervention?
In the game of “who the fuck are you” religion casts an eerie shadow over the contestants. We’re not talking about faith here – everyone should be able to connect with that which is higher than themselves in their own way. Faith is a good thing, although not blind faith (the band was okay though).
Indonesia is an encouraging example of relative inter-religious harmony. The Pancasila recognises five religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism and Buddhism – and in this vastly populated nation there is a notable lack of friction between those who profess their membership of these discreet groupings. But underpinning the religious layering in the archipelago (and on Java in particular) is something referred to as kejawen – a fundamental (not fundamentalist) animist amalgam that binds people together through manifesting the mysteries of the natural, and “supernatural” worlds. Balinese Hindus relate to this amalgam through the concepts of sekala (the seen) and niskala (the unseen).
In other places no such bonding agent exists.
During The Troubles in Northern Ireland the conflict was painted on the canvas of Catholic versus Protestant. What it really was, was a tug of war between the haves and the have-nots. Religion often provides an easy way of identifying the “other” though, and offers an absolution mechanism for doing “them” harm.
Catholics and Protestants derive their understandings of The Divine from the same source, as do Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims – they simply have a different way of interpreting the texts. But in the struggle for wealth and power it is all too easy to don the cloak of righteous indignation and to degrade one’s (real or imagined) foes to the point where they become less than human … easier to kill them that way.
New Zealand recently became the first country in the southern hemisphere to legalise gay marriage. Quite progressive, the Kiwis – they were the first in the world to enfranchise women as well.
I have many gay friends and have witnessed, first-hand, the trauma and discrimination they have suffered for having the temerity to express love for another human being outside the boundaries of heterosexuality.
The gay marriage debate is raging on many fronts in many countries.
There is a quaint notion that “true” love can only be expressed between a man and a woman.
As one of my gay friends likes to quip: “These mixed marriages will never work …”
In some ways he’s right – about 50 per cent of them end in divorce.
When I was at school “poofter-bashing” used to be a popular pastime for some. We all know what the Nazis did to gays … and all the other “others” they didn’t happen to like.
Have we not evolved to a point whereby the franchise on love can be extended to every human being? Are we so insecure, so possessive that we still need to believe in an idea that was more than likely formalised as the result of a simple need to procreate. There are seven billion of us now. We’re fucking up the planet. For the first time in three million years carbon dioxide (and its greenhouse gas relatives) has reached more than 400-parts-per-million in our atmosphere.
And we’re still having a sit-down drag-out brawl about whether two men or two women who love each other are fit to be parents. Are deserving of sharing their worldly goods and chattels with each other inside the legal frameworks that protect heterosexual couples. We’re still doing what the Nazis and some of my contemporaries at school did.
Some of “us” still seethe at the thought of watching “them” standing in a beautiful place exchanging vows and rings.
As Rabbi Julius Gordon says: “Maturity implies otherness … The art of living is the art of living with.”
And back in Australia, despite the current furore about asylum seekers, we can see what this form of maturity achieved from the 1970s onwards when a previous wave of refugees sought asylum from the war in Vietnam. These people who spent long times in leaky boats have become some of the most patriotic Australians. They brought with them a culture that is rich and profound, they have brought a culinary tradition that is delicious and delightful. Vietnamese Australians have added to, not detracted from, the wider Australian “we” for all but the most nationalist troglodyte.
It is more than likely that Afghanis, Iraqis, Sri Lankans, and others – if they are given the opportunity – will similarly enrich the societies they find themselves in if they are offered the hand of friendship.
As British author and commentator, Karen Armstrong, puts it: “ … sometimes it’s the very otherness of a stranger, someone who doesn’t belong to our ethnic or ideological or religious group, an otherness that can repel us initially, but which can jerk us out of our habitual selfishness, and give intonations of that sacred otherness, which is God.”