Music and Racism

As a one off special, we have Ian Buchanan, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Wollongong writing about Reclaim Australia. Ian was published in Southerly 75.1.


Reclaim our songs

by Ian Buchanan

Legendary rocker Jimmy Barnes (ex-Cold Chisel) not known for his interest in politics, has publicly asked the religious fundamentalists, Reclaim Australia, not to use his or his former band’s music at rallies. The more obviously politically conscious Shane Howard (ex-Goanna), Peter Garrett (ex-Midnight Oil) and John Williamson have done the same.

In all cases, the singers have stated that they personally stand for an inclusive, tolerant, multi-cultural and multi-racial Australia, one that respects the traditional owners of the land and at the same time opens its arms to immigrants (such as Scottish born Barnes). One cannot but tip one’s hat to these men for taking this stance. It is, however, both surprising and interesting that they felt they had had to make these declarations because surely their position was already clear from their music. And yet it isn’t hard to see why Reclaim Australia would think it appropriate to use this music. Cold Chisel and Midnight Oil, particularly, produced music that ‘spoke’ to the Australia of the 1980s and 1990s – it is loud, overtly macho, politically dissident (mostly in the form of anti-American militarism), but most of all, it is anthemic, you can sing along to the chorus, and for that reason it plays well in beer barns.

There isn’t a single Midnight Oil, Chisel or Goanna song that could be mistaken for supporting any of the positions Reclaim Australia state they stand for. One has only to listen. Plainly, though, people don’t listen, especially in pubs when the beer is flowing. This is a frequent complaint in politics. And though it sounds like a whinge it is patently the case that when it comes to music people don’t listen very carefully to the lyrics. They tend to catch a ‘vibe’ or a ‘feeling’ and roll with that. Sometimes this is quite innocent and sometimes not. Psy’s Gangnam Style became hugely popular despite the fact nobody really had any idea what it was about, not least because it was mostly in Korean. But there have been other cases where the failure to listen has been less than innocent. In my own experience, one of the most telling cases was Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning. I remember going to pubs in the mid-1990s and watching mostly white Australians singing along to that song, chanting the chorus ‘we’re going to give it back’, and thinking to myself, that is precisely not what you’re going to do. The same people happily sang along to Yothu Yindi’s Treaty with doubtless similar sentiments: they weren’t about to support a treaty either.

The popularity of Beds are Burning and Treaty clearly did not depend on its overt political message. Neither song could be called subtle, so one cannot think that perhaps their messages were too sophisticated to be grasped by the ‘masses’. At best, those who sang along were paying it lip service. But more likely, they simply didn’t listen to it because it wasn’t important to their enjoyment of the song. I’m tempted to say that this is all the explanation we need, people don’t listen. But I have the feeling that the explanation is to be found elsewhere because to my mind it connects up with another curious phenomenon in Australian popular culture: we constantly borrow and steal images and ideas from the land’s traditional owners, even as we castigate them and treat them abominably.

The Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics was perhaps the most egregious instance of this. It choreographed a fanciful pageant of development and progress from the dreamtime to the present time without any indication that the coming of white settlers was a disaster for the original inhabitants of the land. Failing to acknowledge the truth of the past is as bad as failing to listen to the truth of the present. In both cases it amounts to the same thing: papering over the violent and traumatic caesura that separates present day Australia from its pre-colonial past. The Opening Ceremony acknowledged that there were people living on this land before settlers, but it said nothing about their life after the colonial invasion. It simply assumed that they somehow – ‘magically’ perhaps – became part of the brave new world of Light horsemen, Hills Hoists and Victa mowers thereafter.

Portraying the indigenous people of Australia as the original inhabitants of Australia and then place them in a continuum that leads directly to the present isn’t simply ignorance, shame or white guilt: it is something much more potent, namely fantasy. But what kind of fantasy? History re-imagined as evolution. This fantasy envisages black Australia evolving into white Australia. It conjures up the historical equivalent of a nation-builders baton being passed from original inhabitants to settlers and a bold ‘we’ll take it from here’ attitude on the part of the no-nothing whites who in the first days of settlement almost starved to death amidst the abundance of Sydney Cove. This fantasy is akin to the American fantasy of manifest destiny, it thinks that the Australia of today is and was inevitable and is thereby irrevocable. What is, must be. As such it cannot imagine an ‘other Australia’, one founded on mutuality between the traditional owners and the interlopers.

White settlers to Australia knew that the land wasn’t empty, they knew there were native inhabitants here and in the beginning at least they were fearful of them. Terra Nullius never meant devoid of people. It referred to a different kind of fiction, that the original inhabitants hadn’t properly staked their claim to ownership of the land by ‘working it’. Even though subsequent research has shown that the indigenous peoples of Australia did in fact ‘work’ the land, using fire and dams, among other things, to shape nature according to their needs, this Lockean viewpoint has held sway since settlement and it licensed and it continues to license the theft of Aboriginal land. On this view of things, it wasn’t so much the land that was vacant as the position of ‘occupier-owner’. In assuming that mythological role white Australia created a vision of the nation in which whites were what the blacks were going to become, given time.

Our policy towards indigenous people in Australia has been modelled on this fantasy since the outset. This may sound extreme, but what was the thinking behind the Stolen Generation if not this? It imagined that ‘half-caste’ kids could be given a ‘place’ in white society. There were also hideous fantasies about breeding the black out (not to mention simply exterminating them as a race by violent means). As Deleuze and Guattari argue, racism is not hatred of the other, it is hatred of the one who should be the same but isn’t. Still today, our models of welfare, community, housing and so on all assume that black people really want to become white people. We attribute all problems in ‘black’ communities to a failure to go through this necessary evolutionary change. Doubtless too this is why ‘we’ react badly when indigenous footballers throw imaginary spears at us: we think, they have all the trappings of a white man and they persist with the black ways.

Let me turn then to then final form of this fantasy because I think it will answer my original question about listening. Here I envisage a model of fantasy something akin to the one Freud describes in relation to masochism in which the fantasised image of someone being beaten is slowly unpacked to reveal a desire to be beaten oneself. Having conjured up the fantasy that white Australia is what black Australia was always already destined to become and thereby occupied the position as the nation’s true creators, white Australia has claimed black Australia’s heritage as its own. This explains the popularity of dot paintings I believe – because it is non-figurative, it doesn’t betray our fantasy that the old ways aren’t really our own. We are free to imagine this ancient art form as our own and embrace it as part of the large complex assemblage we call Australia.

This is the Australia that Reclaim Australia wants to reclaim: the one that imagines itself as the white indigene (not to say white Aborigine, which is something quite different). That’s why it cannot register the dissonance between the lyrics of a song like Goanna’s Solid Rock and its own bible-thumping rhetoric. Everywhere it looks it sees only the same and those who aren’t but should be. It doesn’t hear the plangent cry for mutual respect in the lyrics because it has already transformed indigenous Australia into its phantasmatic forebear. But in this fantasy the forebear is no longer black or indigenous but a ghostly white person in waiting. It is not Aboriginal culture that is appropriated, but the ‘place’ of the aboriginal people as first inhabitants and traditional owners. This fantasy does not imagine that we are ‘them’; rather, it imagines that they were always already ‘us’. It doesn’t listen to the music because it doesn’t have to, it knows a deeper truth: this land has always been ‘our’ land.

Thanks to my colleagues and friends who commented on an earlier version.