Theseus’ paradox and the search for Australianness

In the thought experiment known as the ship of Theseus or Theseus’ paradox, the boat in question, due to the decay over time of the wood from which it was originally built, is gradually rebuilt, plank by plank, until none of the original planks remain. The question then goes: Is it still the original ship of Theseus, or is it a new ship entirely?

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked what would happen if you used all the old, discarded planks to build a new boat. Would that be the true Theseus’ ship, or would it be the one gradually replenished, over time, with new planks? Which represents the true heritage of Theseus?

While I’m looking at the website of Reclaim Australia, one of several groups involved in anti-Islam protests in Australia last weekend, it occurs to me that ‘White/Anglo’ and ‘Christian’, when viewed as being fundamental to what it means to be Australian today, are like the planks in the second boat, the one recreated out of old timber.

In which boat would I rather set out on a long voyage? The boat built of newer, sturdier planks, always being replenished, or the boat built of discarded planks, weak and rotten in places?

* * *

Riding on the Cranbourne line a few months ago, passing through suburb after suburb – from Toorak to Springvale to Dandenong and on through Merinda Park – I realise, as the houses flash by, and people of all kinds get on and off, that I don’t know this country at all.

I mean, I know plenty of stuff about it.

But I’m not sure I really know who ‘we’ are, or what is constant, apart from the ground beneath our feet.

Is the land itself all that keeps us from floating apart?

* * *

On the Left, it is often said that our conservative government has used fear to curtail our freedoms and to turn us against the people who have risked their lives to find asylum in Australia.

But I am beginning to think that the fear goes deeper than that. That it has to do with the fact that the Australian identity feels so nebulous at times that we have trouble knowing what we are; knowing what is constant.

Because of that, I think many Australians fear newcomers who appear to be more sure of their identity, especially when they are so sure that they flag it with distinctive clothes and customs, which they retain even after they become Australians themselves.

Has that fear come to define my country?

* * *

One of the groups involved in the anti-Islam rallies is proposing a complete rewrite of the Australian Constitution and a radical revision of the structure of government. They feel the current Constitution and system of government are failing ‘We the people’. They have helpfully provided a draft Constitution on their website.

The hubris of it is breathtaking, but the feeling behind it – deep frustration with almost everything the government says and does, a sense that we only seem to be going backwards – may be something that is shared across the Left/Right divide. For what that’s worth.

* * *

Mind you, the Australian Constitution does contain some weird nuggets from the past.

It still lists New Zealand among the possible original states (with New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia). It specifies the salaries of the Governor-General (ten thousand pounds per annum) and the Ministers of State (twelve thousand pounds per annum). It greatly emphasises the role of the Governor-General, while not mentioning anywhere the role of Prime Minister.

Worrying rather than merely quaint, though, are the sections which take for granted that the state and federal governments may wish to create legislation with a specific racial bias.

Section 25, for example, relates to ‘Provisions as to races disqualified from voting’.

Section 51 (xxvi) allows the federal parliament ‘to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to … the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.’

The intention of the latter, often called ‘the race power’, was expressly to enable parliament to control ‘alien races’, as is described in ‘The Races Power and the 1967 Referendum’ by George Williams. The particular concern at the time – in 1900 – was to do with foreigners, especially Chinese, gaining mining rights and hence, presumably, threatening the livelihoods (and, it was often suggested, the morals) of British Australians.

Section 51 (xxvi) was adjusted in 1967, following a much celebrated referendum, to remove the words ‘other than the aboriginal race in any State’, which were seen as being discriminatory against Indigenous Australians.

However, ironically, given the intentions of the 1967 decision, Section 51 (xxvi) has actually allowed the federal government to pass legislation that negatively targets Indigenous Australians, as in the case of the Northern Territory Emergency Response. Even the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 is no protection, as the federal government may override it.

I am happy to report that the Constitution does, at least, prevent the government from ‘prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’.

* * *

In 1873, in Clunes, the gold-mining town where my grandmother was born (somewhat later than 1873), there was a riot.

Management at the South Clunes mine had tried to force its miners to accept Saturday afternoon shifts or lose their contracts. As Saturday afternoon was a customary time of rest from a job that was already dangerous and hard on miners’ health, the miners, understandably, went on strike. When the nearby Lothair mine decided to abolish contracts altogether, and to force its miners to work not only Saturday afternoons but Sunday nights as well, they went on strike as well.

While the strike at South Clunes was resolved fairly quickly in favour of the miners, the one at Lothair continued for several months. The mine directors attempted to bring in European miners from Ballarat, but they refused to come. Perhaps they were persuaded by the appeal, published in the Ballarat Courier by the Clunes Miners’ Association, to refuse the work.

Eventually the directors decided to turn to Chinese labour. A large party consisting of mine directors, Chinese miners and police descended on the town, preparing to break the strike. Having got word they were coming, something like a thousand townspeople – men, women and children – turned out to greet their arrival with a ‘fast and furious’ barrage of sticks and stones, and succeeded in driving them away.

Was it a racist riot or simply a matter of economics – of feeding the family?

Whatever the underlying feelings and motives of the Clunes strikers, the commentary which followed was like a tidal wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, such as this relatively mild example (noted in ‘Class and racism in the 1873 Clunes Riot’ by Jerome Small):

Why should these Mongolians … enjoy the advantages of this colony, which were only intended for Europeans.

Somehow, I think, that sentiment hasn’t entirely gone away.

* * *

Later my grandmother lived in Box Hill, an area of Melbourne that changed dramatically over the fifty years that she and my grandfather lived in their war service home.

At the Box Hill shopping centre, the largely Caucasian population has gradually become more Asian in appearance. With its Chinese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai and Korean businesses, its overflowing and raucous Chinese markets, it is a different world from the one my grandmother knew.

The old-timers who’ve been living in their houses for half a century find that their neighbours are different and that somehow values have shifted in ways that are deeply felt and often resented – for example, in the choices made about real estate and appropriate housing for the area.

Some of these old timers, not all of them, refer to ‘Asians’ with a certain hard emphasis on the ‘A’. The ‘zh’ sound is a baring of the teeth.

Crossing a street in Box Hill with my grandmother one day, her hand tucked under my arm, I try to move us gently to the left to avoid mowing down a young woman of Chinese appearance coming the other way.

My grandmother jerks at my arm, hissing, ‘We don’t give way to them.’

I know her feelings are different things rolled into one – her resentment of the changes to the place she knows, the shared attitudes of people she loves, and the distrust of ‘Japs’ still lingering from the war – but still I’m rocked by this aspect of my grandmother that I’ve never seen before.

It had darted out like a snake’s tongue, then disappeared again. Just the once.

* * *

The cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, documenting his history of taking in foster dogs, describes how an incumbent animal ‘Glares at each new dog like the child of migrants who hates asylum seekers.’

It reminds me of the taxi driver – a migrant from Turkey, perhaps? – who complained to me about the ‘Asians’ taking over Box Hill. That word. That same bite.

Him a migrant.

Me too, going back a few generations.

* * *

The ABC reporter Sarah Dingle in ‘My interview with a white supremacist’ describes how Matt (the supremacist’s) early impression of ‘Asia’ was of a mass of people trying to take over Australia. He’d had family members fighting in Vietnam; fighting the Japanese in World War II. His grandfather had died in a Japanese POW camp.

‘At the time, especially in Western Sydney, we were just told that, these Asians are trying to take over like they did, you know, the Japanese tried to take over,’ he said.

‘So, you know, they’re just trying it again, but this time they’re trying to come in and live here, you know. Buying up all the property and all that sort of stuff. So, just because we have that background anger and the whole community going on about it, that’s why we only targeted Asians.’

He was angry, and his reaction to that, and to what was being said in the community, was to form a group of violent extremists. They had planned to carry out a massacre. Not just on Asians – on ‘Lebanese homeboys’ too.

He sees things differently now, he says; but he also says that, to some degree, the hate is still there.

* * *

In her article, Sarah Dingle also mentions, by way of introduction to her article, the ‘covert’ assumptions she experiences as a person of Malaysian Chinese background. That she is a poor speaker of English. That she is part of that Asian-looking group being shepherded through the boarding queue at the airport. That it is appropriate to ask her where she is from.

* * *

There is a young man with dark skin standing at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston streets, facing the Flinders Street tram stop and the traffic which has stopped for the red light. He is holding a large sign in front of him that says: ‘We experience racism every day.’

Who is the ‘we’ he is referring to? People of dark skin (of any background)? Perhaps the asylum seeker community? I want to step up and ask him, but feel daft. It seems not to be, after all, the right question, given what he’s trying to communicate, standing there bravely by himself.

Then again, his message isn’t ‘Racism happens in Australia every day.’ It is ‘We experience racism …’ So perhaps the ‘we’ is not irrelevant, at least not to him.

I sympathise, only half understanding the message; but I don’t stop.

* * *

Amal Basry, one of the few survivors of the 2001 Siev X disaster in which 353 people died, speaks in Steve Thomas’s documentary Hope of spending 22 hours in the water. She survived by clinging onto the floating body of a woman who’d died.

The things she has known are almost overwhelming.

Why would we waste the things she has to tell us? Why would we not want to know?

* * *

I’m getting a lift home. The driver is about to move into the right lane, but stops at the last minute.

‘I’ll just wait for ISIS guy,’ she says. ‘In the turban.’ As if it wouldn’t be a good idea to cross him.

‘That would be Sikh,’ I say. Avoiding the enormity of what she has actually just said.


* * *

And so the ship sails on, being perpetually rebuilt, plank by plank … toward a time when we might not even recognise it, except for a certain something about its shape.

Whether we like it or not. Whether it’s easy or not.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015