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Producing Refugees (Editorial 1) Permission to Abuse (Editorial 2)

By John Hinkson

Editorial 1, Producing Refugees, by John Hinkson

The deep distress implicit in responses to the latest developments in refugee policy—where refugees are to be dispersed across the Australian community because offshore arrangements have already collapsed under the weight of numbers—is very understandable. Refugees will become a completely vulnerable underclass subject to the vagaries of an unsympathetic government frustrated by its incapacity to make deterrence work. On refugees Liberal and Labor have differences of emphasis, some of which are significant. But generally on this question they are two sides of the same coin.

Among our political parties it is only the Greens who are insisting on an ethical approach arising from real empathy for the situation of refugees, and the Greens attempt to respond accordingly. They would open Australia’s doors with an offer of real citizenship. To a significant degree this is similar policy to that adopted by Malcolm Fraser’s government in the 1970s to refugees arriving as a result of the aftermath of the Vietnam War, although that approach always seemed tinged with the politics of support for the followers of vanquished former allies.

The Greens’ approach seeks to maintain a form of social life within Australia that is not overwhelmed by social division, one that allows us to feel positively about ourselves and the way we have responded to those who have experienced deep suffering. Implicitly, they know that the policy of the major parties is a downhill road for Australian society in general, not just for refugees. While this judgement may have little support from the public and the media, the Greens speak the truth, or at the very least an important partial truth.

But the refugee question has become much larger than it was in the day of Malcolm Fraser. There are questions of security and there are questions of scale. Both are critical in our contemporary setting.

Firstly, in that earlier period Fraser and the public could, at least relative to the present, take for granted a sense of security arising out of a culture and economy substantially related to place. Local community still had historical substance, as did the family farm; social relations were interwoven with place. The meaning of refugee was tied up with a notion of a distressed outsider being invited into a settled culture. The security offered by that culture was inherent to the offer to refugees. We will see that all such security is dissolving before our eyes today.

Secondly, in the minds of many citizens, refugees are associated with a fear of being overwhelmed. This is a feeling usually taken up by the Right. It was certainly effectively made political by John Howard’s government. It is a feeling that takes on special qualities within settler societies like ours where legitimacy is always fragile, given the history of invasion and displacement of Indigenous cultures. But settler society or not, it can also be a widespread defensive cultural response to the arrival of refugees who seek a place where they have previously had none. The perceived scale of the numbers of refugees relative to the local culture is one important consideration.

While any pro-refugee policy will be predictably controversial, the difference between our times and those of the Fraser government is that the refugee situation today is in fact far more likely to become overwhelming. This is because both these matters―security and scale―come together in present circumstances. Ethical generosity can brush these to one side for a time but that is to ignore a barely articulated cultural disquiet that sits within public concerns. Even if we were to allow quotas for refugees larger than present migration quotas, this is a well-based fear. Although such fears are often based in self-interest and sometimes racism, they may also be validly based on some objective facts. The latter demand a much broader policy perspective on where our society is going.

Refugees are already the obvious consequence of warfare pursued by the West in the Middle East and Central Asia, which has made life intolerable for many peoples. If these situations were to turn into a more universal carnage―a threat that gains prospect every day―the resulting refugee situation would be far beyond what the world, let alone Australia, could cope with. Other facts of a more general nature―overpopulation and climate change―are likely to have even larger impacts, although their timing is less predictable.

However, the greatest impact today comes from sources closer to our core concerns—development and growth—and here the main political parties have much to answer for.

Over the last thirty years development has become socially toxic.  It is now a major source of global social disruption in its own right and, as such, a core source of refugees. This is the elephant in the room in policy discussion. It is a crucial starting point to see that contemporary social institutions are displacing most prior social institutions. Grounded in the social principles of high-tech capitalism that gained momentum in the 1980s, those institutions have little time for craft or production based on the human hand or for situated cultures located according to relations of place. Facilitated by high-tech global markets that substitute global individual mobility for cultures that value place, development has transcended the human-scale economy. Forced upon developing nations by global institutions and powers, it is beyond this form of development to offer security for individuals or communities. As a result, local economies are emptied out and people have no reason to stay.

It is a comment on what stands for political analysis that these matters are not considered in relation to refugee policy. But in the sense of our future prospects they should be a major consideration of policy generally and for refugees too. That we are about to turn refugees into an under-society is not an accident, a development unrelated to the structure of ongoing society. It is a ‘natural’ strategy of a society all too familiar with both the production of refugees and under-societies. In these circumstances we should not simply be ethically open. Nor should the major parties sit back and justify inhuman treatment because the situation is simply beyond them. This would be to ignore how our own social institutions lie at the heart of the refugee phenomenon. Refugees are produced and then placed on the bottom rung of a society of unrelenting movement. The debate will go round in circles unless it can be broadened beyond the immediate reality of the refugee presence.


Editorial 2: Permission to Abuse, by Alison Caddick

In a recent London Review of Books (LRB) essay, we are reminded that sex began in 1963 (Philip Larkin) and that victims used not exist. That the period of Jimmy Savile, and many other paedophiles at the BBC, was a crossover point between a more constrained sexual culture and that of ‘permissive society’ and burgeoning television celebrity, where popularity and predatory behavior came together, were found titillating and were excused. It was a period when, if victims didn’t exist as a cultural category, the culture of the self, the sense of its/my vulnerabilities, had yet to take hold as a central formulation for who we are.

Of course most of us take that outlook for granted now, that vulnerability, the sense of the person as the product of a chancey interior life. The self is achieved through various points of potential crisis; the circumstances of health and growth are discoursed upon and understood, especially, perhaps, by women. When the Catholic Church today makes excuses for harbouring and producing paedophiles, it refers to something like this history of cultural categories: there were no victims; child abuse was a minor sin; no one knew that it did any damage. In a sense that is true.

But of course, victims did exist before 1963, just as sexual power and domination did.Just as rape and domestic violence did—other cultural practices consistently offered the protection of the blind-eye and embedded in a deep culture of patriarchy. Those we now see as victims of sexual abuse often enough became the flotsam and jetsam of the modern welfare institutions or the streets; some surviving, others not; all with secret lives and histories more or less or not internally controlled. Once in that modern netherworld they were likely to be understood simply as social wrecks, possibly as morally weak, in the sense that an older notion of ‘character’ still lingered in the assessments of a person’s fitness.(One used to be able to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.)

‘Permissive society’ was that contradictory moment when post-war capitalism took a new turn—into culture and lifestyle, into sex and the generation of desire, on the one hand, and then spawned various movements that reconstructed the core concerns of the era. Feminism especially benefited from and contributed to the permissive turn (women enjoying sex, burning bras and dumping marriage), while also turning a critical eye to capitalism’s new role in sexual objectification, and to the patriarchy in general. If Savile stands as a creature of a very particular historical moment, the same can’t be said of child abuse within the Catholic church, or within families, though in the same period these issues, a subclass of issues around sex and identity, emerge into daylight and come to constitute the primary (moral-ethical) fault-lines in the culture: as revealing pressing truths about our real nature; revealing the culture’s abject productions, including our abject lies about them.

As the LRB essay also points out, and as we know from any reading of how institutions work, permission is given in all sorts of ways. For Savile and in the case of abuse by celebrity, exception is made for the zany and the talented when those qualities sell. Permission existed at just about every level, from the turning of blind-eyes by individuals uncomfortable with Savile’s behaviour to systematic rewards within the BBC and state structure that made him a powerful figure, to an arguably ‘paedophile culture’ in general carried in the ubiquity of sex-addled television culture, which suggested to young girls they should give Savile permission too.

The example of the church is different, as is that of the family. Every institution would seem to demand its own specific terms. Where celebrity gets its power through ‘talent’, specialness and new media, paedophile clergy acquire their power through a special connection to authority, to God and church, so that parents trust them; operative through a liminal secrecy and institution-specific sanctions and exceptions, as for example enacted in the confessional. Where the clergy are in a formal institutional context, incest takes place behind a different set of doors, where authority is granted along similar but also different lines: father as special, certainly, but ‘simply’ as father, enchanted figure in an intimate ‘romance’, authority granted in relation to family in general, and especially the mother, and operative, usually, on the basis of explicit threat to both mother and child. Of course maleness in this context is a common thread (despite some abusers being women), and so there is also the question of gendered culture, and the permissions granted there at various levels, which raise questions about men’s relationship to children, and to notions of care and growth of the child, admittedly a sphere of massive positive change in the post-1960s period.

There is little doubt that at the end of every era, that era will uncover and define its own primary fault-lines, only to embed yet other complex modes of not seeing and not hearing; new complexes of authority and power. Sex and identity remain at the core of contemporary preoccupations, for better and for worse, as so many in one sense larger issues press down on us—climate change, for instance. Perhaps these struggles about abuse seem (if only after massive effort) to be rectifiable; justice is a cause that is relatively concrete in a world of potential open-ended devastation. But there is no doubting that in our lived realities, sexual abuse has been real and had its consequences, and that justice needs be done.


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