Crosspost: Yassir Morsi
Without question, sliced white bread is a brilliant invention. It says everything about the capitalist West’s cultural and technological capacity to produce essential everyday goods, which are continually refined, through machinery, until all of the bread’s utility has been chemically removed.
With the disappearance of the wheat’s nutrients and fibre, all that remains in the absence of utility is its artistic form – a whiter and sweeter brand that replaces nature’s content for the artifice of marketing.
The genius of selling us a product’s form emptied of its contentis the principle behind the sound of “canned laughter” – the audio track of people laughing that accompanies television sitcoms – that substitutes for a live audience’s reaction: another Western phenomenon, invented by American sound engineer Charles Douglass.
I particularly enjoy listening to the bellow of that one person who laughs louder than the rest. It gives the impression that they really enjoyed the joke. Sometimes, the joke is not at all funny, and the canned laughter works simply to identify it as a joke, and to do the laughing for us. The form of enjoyment that replaces the content.
Here we arrive at Q&A and its particular version of “canned democracy.” It is a show that describes itself as “democracy in action,” a show where “it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from – everyone can have a go and take it up to our politicians and opinion makers.” Unless, of course, you are Zaky Mallah, in which case taking it up to politicians is bang “out of order.”
The issue I have with Q&A is the way it has retreated in the face of the self-evidently stupid right-wing claims that the show hosted a terrorist, or that Mallah himself was giving a “call to arms.” Why not repeat its underlying philosophy, in the face of right-wing posturing: “it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from”?
Maybe because both the left and the right share the same racial fantasies? The collective reaction to the show is telling. It hints at how debates about terrorism and radicalization are invariably dictated by the cultural contours of a paranoid nationalism, in which we hear loud disavowals, and howls of fear, against an encroaching Islamist threat (even as we also confront deafening silence over our own role played through foreign policy, clandestine torture and defence of despots in the Middle East).
Whatever one makes of Mallah’s contribution, one thing that I and many others have learned is that within this national paranoia, when it comes to being a Muslim critic, the public appeal to democracy is an appeal to its artistic form – your speech must be continually refined until its whiter and sweeter and its brownness is removed. In too many debates, the West, like canned laughter, performs freedom for the rest of us; it acts in the role of the sound engineer that plays on cue what is (Charlie Hebdo) and what is not (Uthman Badar) freedom.
The term “freedom” has become simply synonymous with a kind of Western cultural performance. There is thus the form of freedom, like the right-wing performance of “canned outrage” or the political “let me look you straight in the eye” declamations on nation’s security.
In its abstraction, freedom is about the right to intervene, to prevent bloodshed, to adjust rights and settle disputes; the underside of freedom is its restrictions against unbridled and damaging choices made by one group against another. But, whereas the majority’s freedom is so often the privilege of choice within the coordinates of existing power relations, and its cultural formations, a minority’s freedom is shaped by political struggle and its attempts to be the site of an intervention that challenges these very coordinates. The right question to ask, then, is: “Freedom, sure! But, for whom and for what purpose?”
Last week on Q&A, Mallah confronted a representative of white power who was armed with little more than – by his own admission – a faint memory (which proved to be evidently wrong). What worth is freedom if it does not allow a minority to challenge a majority’s right to execute its racism with impunity or to challenge the broad policies that govern its wars? What worth is freedom if that majority can then devote more column inches on Zaky Mallah than on “Reclaim Australia”?
I do not deny that Mallah is a problematic voice, mostly because of his misogynist gang-bang-masculinity, but the responses to him belong to an overall pattern of excluding critical coloured voices – the week-long political reaction is a telling crack of whiteness’ whip.
For as long as I can remember, I have been told that Australia is a multicultural, inclusive, tolerant, democratic country. Yet, I have lost count how often I have been told to “go back where I came from.” Just consider this small sample:
- John Laws, a prominent radio announcer on Sydney’s Radio 2UE, declared that Muslims who opposed the first Gulf war should: “Go home … it’s all simple … if you wish to condemn Australia’s involvement in the Middle East on personal grounds, then go home.”
- Then Education Minister Brendan Nelson explained how Australian schools were required to teach the national values framework, including tolerance. Yet, people who were not prepared to follow these Australian values should “clear off.”
- Then Deputy Liberal Party leader and Prime Ministerial aspirant Peter Costello proposed: “If you don’t like those values, then don’t come here. Australia is not for you … This is the way I look at it: Australia is a secular society, with parliamentary law, part of the Western tradition of individual rights.”
- In an interview with The Australian, Costello also said migrants needed to understand and respect the “core values” of democracy, a secular society and the equality of women. And he warned that Australia needed to be clear that the nation’s core values would not change.
It would seem that one of those “core values” is the imperative of white men telling coloured people who disagree with them to “clear off.” Throughout Australia’s history, there certainly has been a “core” anxiety about non-Europeans, especially from the Asian continent. Australia’s position on the fringe of Asia meant white settlers were constantly aware of their distance from their British origins. It provoked the paranoia of invasion by and violation at the hands of immigrant hordes.
Is therefore not the determination to cancel the citizenship that confronted Mallah the fulfilment of the age-old Australia threat to “love it or leave it”? The idea of banishing the bad guys is little more than the most recent manifestation of the persistent white nationalist fantasy of a pure society needing to be protected from external Asiatic pollutants and cleansed from foreign contaminants. Muslim youth violence, according to this logic is a thing wholly imported from overseas, not created here. It has nothing to do with our culture, or its history, but is simply and always a foreign problem. Hence the “radicals” can always be banished back to “where they came from.”
Yet Mallah, with his tipped baseball cap and his wannabe thug-life manliness, is a product of the cultural and counter-cultural West – of all the symbols of Islamic jihad, the Marijuana leaf is not one of them. He learned the art of confronting government by absorbing the daily congratulation we give ourselves on our liberality, articulated in Q&A‘s own advertisement of “everyone can have a go and take it up.”
Mallah’s mistake was he was performing the wrong type of freedom. The expectation of immigrants (and their children) is that we must perform a freedom that entails a sense of gratitude that we escaped from Saddam or Mubarak or the Saudis. In other words, I must enjoy the freedom given, without necessarily taking it in the form of dissent. My imagined path from the despotic East to the liberated West is shaped by a narrative culled from colonialism, racism and Orientalism, and marshalled to help the majority understand my settlement in Australia as a non-European immigrant. This story is supposed to help maintain an unalterable distinction between the host society and the immigrant’s “speech.”
My role in performing freedom is therefore to play the speech of a transformed immigrant: white in form without its own content. I am expected to pride myself for having gone through a sort of transubstantiation, from real experiences of my life to the imagined immigrant narrative, from bondage to freedom, to wear the native informant’s “I love Australia” t-shirt irrespective of grievances.
It is at this point that we return to the problem of “canned democracy” – where democracy is a signifier of being-white, or just grateful-for-escaping-brown, but not really the site for robust debate. As we carry out this all-too-familiar discussion over the extent to which Muslims are a bone in the throat of Western freedom, we have to ask what is being protected: the Australian fantasy of freedom from minorities, or freedom for her minorities?
It maybe tasteless, but sliced white bread remains visually fresh, mild in taste, soft in texture, thanks to the efficient use of technology – just like we expect our immigrants to be.
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