Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Fear and Loathing

This week’s hysteria about refugees on boats brings to the surface an underlying paranoia that has been a feature of our national psyche since white settlement.

If you’ll excuse the cliché, this is a chemically pure expression of fear and loathing. In 2009, it’s as real and tangible for a small proportion of our population as any other aspect of national identity. If you don’t believe me, read Andrew Bolt’s blog. (Or better still – don’t – it’s more than a little depressing).

Exploring the reasons for this slowly diminishing national characteristic would be fascinating, but I don’t have the time or the inclination. In any case, I think I grew out of it at about the same time I grew out of fear of the bogeyman.

And it’s real – I’ve observed it in many shapes and varieties over the years. I’ll provide one example.

Back in 1977, I was running a unit for disabled kids in a Western Brisbane high school. Attached to this unit was a setup for migrant students who were learning English as a second language, prior to enrolling in general high school. From memory, they did a six week course.

Given that it was 1977, the bulk of these kids were Vietnamese, who had arrived on boats. They were given the collective label of “Vietnamese boat people”. The teacher in charge of the migrant unit was an excellent operator, and I found her helpful, as at this time I was learning the ropes of educational leadership. We did a fair bit of resource sharing, and the Vietnamese kids were a bright and resourceful lot, and quite helpful with the kids with disabilities in my charge.

The migrant kids were studying “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and it was showing at a cinema at Enoggera. I had a bus licence, and access (through my base school) to a 33 seater bus. A couple of the disabled kids were studying the same text.

I offered to drive the bus if the migrant kids needed to see the movie, and the offer was gladly taken up.

On the day, we drove across to the cinema, which was close to the Enoggera army base (where I had been discharged in 1971 after Vietnam), with a combination of Vietnamese teenagers, three kids from my unit, and a couple of staff from both units.

I pulled up at the bus stop in front of the cinema and the group began to debus. The Vietnamese kids were always extremely polite, and thanked me individually as they went out the door. As one of them was thanking me in her carefully studied (and fairly pedantic) English, I became aware of a steam of abusive language coming from my right.

A short haired character in his thirties and at the wheel of a car stopped in the left lane beside the bus stop was shouting – “F***ing Noggie C***s, get back to where you came from, you filthy F***ing bastards!”

He was almost foaming at the mouth and completely focusing his rage at the Vietnamese kids. Initially he was unaware of the people caught behind him on busy Enoggera road. Soon they began to honk their horns, and he was forced to move on. Fortunately, he continued driving outbound up the road. I say fortunately, because judging by his behaviour and language, he looked capable of anything.

The Vietnamese kids were largely unaware of the incident, mainly I guess because of their poor English. The staff, however, understood what was going on, and were more than a little concerned. One of the disabled kids turned pale, saying “what’s his problem?” We reassured the kids, got them into the cinema, and I parked the bus down the road. I returned to the cinema, and sat close to the door. I was worried that this character was angry enough to come back. He didn’t.

I still wonder about him. Perhaps he was, like me, a Vietnam veteran – he was about the right age. He certainly looked army, given his haircut. I lived in Townsville for many years, and got to know what the army guys looked like, even when dressed in civvies.

This reaction was not typical of veterans in my experience.

I contend that this level of paranoid anger continues to lurk below the surface for some Australians, admittedly a minority. We saw it raise its ugly head again during the Cronulla riots, and lately the celebration of Australia Day sometimes reveals this underbelly of our national consciousness, especially if alcohol is involved.

Unfortunately, there are those in political life who will use it to their own purposes. On the upside, we seem, as a nation, to have outgrown it. We need to continue to call it when we see it.

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