Celebrating survival

Austin, TX

When Arthur Phillip first planted the union jack on the salty shores of Port Jackson, the now-much-maligned sea captain and inaugural governor of New South Wales could never have imagined this inhospitable island at the arse-end of the world would one day be a proud and prosperous nation in its own right.

In all of the discourse about Australian history, the constant argy-bargy between self-confidence and shame, we often forget that we are an accidental country.

Unlike the very deliberate Puritan settlement of America, those first European settlers were not concerned with the creation of a utopian society but with carrying out their orders and establishing a penal colony to dump the (mainly Irish) convicts that were spilling out of overcrowded prisons from Dundee to Devon.

Because they never set out to create a functioning society, the incentive to negotiate peace with the existing inhabitants was far lower, unlike Canada and New Zealand where the handshakes came (relatively) early and atrocities were (relatively) scarce.

I don’t point this out in order to make excuses. So let me be clear: It was on this day, January 26 1788, that life changed irreversibly for the original inhabitants and custodians of the land, and in many ways changed for the worse.

What followed was nothing short of systematic genocide and atrocities which continue to blight Aboriginal communities – and indeed the entire nation – today.

For this period in our history, and for the atrocities that followed for more than a century after settlement, we – all of us – should be deeply sorry. Not because it is politically correct to apologise, but because there is a direct causal link between how good our lives our now and how bad the experience was for generations of Aboriginal people.

But this was also the day that our national character, our values and folklore, started to form. Those early, struggling years of penal servitude fermented a larrikinism and egalitarianism that are still evident.

This was the day that we started to fall in love with the sun and surf, the flies and floods, the sand and the smoke – the ancient land that the Aboriginal people hold so dear.

To say that this was a bad day is to say that Australia’s very nationhood is illegitimate.

To change Australia Day’s date until, say, Federation, erases the years of settlement, the convict past that still leaves a lasting legacy.

While some fringe dwellers and fashionistas may conclude that our national fabric is only one of hate and bigotry, deep down even they know this is not true. They know that – despite the past scars of adolescence – Australians enjoy freedoms and a quality of life almost unrivalled on this Earth, and that this is something worth celebrating.

The great irony is that so many of those who, once a year, hashtag their white guilt or engage in viral squeals of ‘Invasion Day’ do so while lying on a beach in the sun on their government-mandated public holiday, sipping their coconut water or cold craft beer and generally enjoying the many fruits of life that the events of January 26 1788 have directly provided.

Of course, many Aboriginal people do not enjoy these aforementioned freedoms or qualities of life to the same extent. This is one of the most acute and shameful problems we face as a nation.

But denigrating the very premises of the Commonwealth of Australia does little to improve the status quo for indigenous people. In fact, it actually makes it worse.

By fuelling the notion that Australia’s founding was abhorrent, we continue to insist that our conversation on Aboriginality is focused on injustices of the past, rather than solutions for the future.

Rather than crying that our national story is corrupt, we should be placing Aboriginal culture more firmly at the centre of our identity, while still remaining rightly proud of the nation we have built.

Rather than encouraging disunity and marginalisation, we should be doing all we can – even at this late hour – to welcome indigenous people into our national discussions, not just about their own fate but across a range of policy issues, and into mainstream Australian life.

Instead of hash-tagging and band-wagoning, maybe these armchair critics could spend some time in Aboriginal communities, or donate funds to Noel Pearson’s good work in North Queensland, helping to spur the economic growth that may actually see tangible improvements in living standards, and with them, a resurgence of confidence and self-esteem.

In some ways bagging out Australia Day, and confronting the horrors of the past is less painful than confronting the dire circumstances of the present in remote and inner-city Aboriginal communities. This is where our efforts should lie.

Many Aboriginal people use the term ‘Survival Day’ to reference the 26th – a far more positive and progressive message than the ‘invasion’ narrative.

Without doubt, Australia’s enduring Aboriginal culture – against all odds and despite the best efforts of the governing class for well over a century – is one of the great survival stories of humankind.

In order for its subsistence to be assured, much more needs to be done, but inciting hate and disenfranchisement and a sense that life was better before 1788 and will never be good again is counterproductive and ultimately only leads to a continued cycle of poverty and resentment.

We can acknowledge the sins of the past, and develop better solutions for the present and future without being ashamed of our foundation stones.

Aboriginal people survived in the face of adversity, but so did the convict settlers and the waves of migrants who have come since.

For those of you not too sanctimonious to enjoy yourselves, Happy Australia Day.


Published on 25 January 2016


Immigrant irony

Merrillville, Indiana

From the bustling Chinatown of San Francisco, to the African and Caribbean villages of Brooklyn and the vast Hispanic suburbs of the southern border states, the US is home to more migrant communities than perhaps any other place on Earth.

Driving through the ‘rust belt’ on my way to visit relatives recently, I gained a little insight into just one of these communities dotted across the American landscape.

The declining manufacturing towns of western Indiana – really outer-lying reaches of the Chicago metropolitan area – are the headquarters of the Serbian diaspora in the US.

Kinda like Melbourne for Greeks, this grey and snowy corner of the Midwest contains the largest population of Serbs outside the Balkans. The small town of Merrillville for example has not one but two separate – and most likely factionally warring – Serbian Orthodox church communities despite having a population of just over 30,000.

Since I was cruising my rented, bright yellow Kia Rio – providing high visibility that any Mediterranean grandmother would approve of – at 10am on a Sunday morning, and since I had (negligently) not spent much time inside a church in this land of Christianity over the past months, I thought I would stop by and clock up some sorely needed spiritual brownie points.

The St Sava Cathedral stands tall from the well-mowed front lawns, its Byzantine domes proud alongside the respective flags and a ‘God Bless America’ sign adorning its front door.

The icons, frescoes, candles and strong waft of incense were all instantly familiar to someone who spent much of their childhood inside an Orthodox church.

But differences were visible too: the welcome introduction of Protestant-style pews – something I could only have dreamt of as a whingeing, whining, knee-buckling 8-year-old – as well as an English language sermon and a congregation not segregated by gender.

All three are modernisms not yet implemented Down Under, perhaps a reflection of America’s more fervent insistence on assimilation, or perhaps the fact that many second- and third-generation parishioners in the outwardly less religious Australia have stopped turning up to church, leaving these socio-cultural and theological decisions to more recent migrants.

After the service, as is the ritual, I lined up to receive a personal blessing and a small chunk of bread signifying communion. The bearded and heavily-accented priest knew his flock well:

“You not from here,” he accused in a typically Belgrade staccato, offering a kind and somewhat knowing grin.

When I explained myself, I was not only treated to a highly calorific lunch prepared by elderly ladies – the best kind – but a standing ovation from the congregation, welcoming the “very special guest all the way from Australia”.

While humbled, I must admit my concentration on the subsequent and no doubt enlightening dissertation about the ‘star of Bethlehem’ was thwarted by the hushed whispers of two craggy looking middle-aged men sipping firewater at the table behind me.

Being Serbs, it didn’t take long for their conversation to turn to politics.

“What do you think about these Syrian refugees?” the one with the scar asked the one with the gut. “I’m with Trump,” the portly Slav replied. “No more Muslims”.

Animosity between the Christians of the Balkans and their Islamic co-habitants is age-old and a can of worms far too hazardous to open here, but their lack of concern for the plight of the world’s newest displaced people is remarkable given the fate of their own parents less than half a century ago.

Just like the Armenians of Los Angeles, Cubans of Florida and Italians of Jersey, almost all of the former Yugoslav Americans present on the pews this Sunday were once asylum seekers or the direct descendants of displaced people graciously taken in by American domestic public policy. So too, the majority of White Americans who came earlier had escaped war in continental Europe or famine in Ireland and so on.

And yet, survey after survey suggests a majority of Americans is against accepting any more Syrian refugees, with President Obama resorting to unconstitutional executive orders to circumvent the will of the people.

To be fair, there are significant problems associated with this particular group of asylum seekers, hailing from a country where Jihadists occupy significant territory and where social views such as those relating to women’s rights are archaic at best.

The alleged sexual assault of women in Cologne, Germany on New Years Eve by freshly arrived Syrian refugees, as well as an attempted murder carried out by a Syrian “ISIS sympathiser” and recent arrival in full Muslim garb in Philadelphia last week, have only added fuel to the fire.

However, the majority of those fleeing are not enemies but clearly supporters of freedom and prosperity, else they would have stayed on in favour of one of the two evils that remain: an Iran- and Russia-backed maniacal regime or the bloodthirsty chaos of insurgent Islamism.

The notion that they should have stayed and fought against these two well-funded and barbarically violent forces is rich coming from anyone in Australia or America whose forebears escaped a similar scenario in search of a better life.

At a briefing at the US Capitol in DC I attended a few months back, a top brass General said he believed there is not a “single square mile of Syria that is safe”. Ponder that for a second and think about what you would do.

The hysteria about security is not completely unfounded. There does need to be a vetting process and, more importantly, those lucky ones that do get in need to respect the local laws and customs, not view women as having loose morals simply because they show their hair and wear bikinis.

Americans are entitled to make up their own minds about whom they permit into their country and whom they deny – and as a recent beneficiary of the US immigration system it would be ungracious to protest too much.

But those Syrians currently displaced that are truly committed to the tenets of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness may just add more to the national fabric than they subtract.

They might even place a ‘God Bless America’ sign  and welcome mat on the front stoop of their mosque, so that a prodigal son may one day visit to pay respect to homelands old and new.

merrillville 2

St Sava Cathedral, one of two Serbian Orthodox churches in Merrillville, IN.

Published on 16 January 2016