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Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Lecture series: Fear and Public Policy

Carmen Lawrence


Address to the Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation at  the Australian National University in Canberra. Her next lecture,  Fear of Crime, is here. Webdiary will publish the 3rd and 4th  lectures in the series tomorrow and Monday. Carmen is a Webdiary columnist. See her independent Webdiary archive and her SMH Webdiary archive.


One of the reasons offered for adopting democracy as a system of government is people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination. Democracy has been described as a "fear-less" or "fear-resolving" system and one of the recurrent themes in the evolution of democracies is that government by fear is inherently illegitimate. Most democracies limit the use of fear as a political weapon by developing institutions which ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties.

There is, however, plenty of scope, even in established democracies, to use fear as a device to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters. Such fear is not so much fear of government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. It is a calculated exploitation of both the explicit and the inchoate fears that many of us have.

In this lecture series I will discuss the role of fear in shaping public policy - in particular, fear of strangers, fear of crime and the fear of annihilation. I will suggest that fear and the exploitation of fear has widespread and distorting repercussions - influencing policy, changing the balance of power and overturning long-cherished values.

While many writers and philosophers repudiate fear as the enemy of freedom and reason; others appear to embrace it as a source of political vitality and national unity.

I will argue that fear is a potent (and dangerous) political tool, generated and exploited by political leaders (and the media) because it assists them to pursue specific political goals or to reinforce their moral and political belief systems.

The first lecture, "Fear of Strangers" will focus the influence of xenophobia in shaping policies directed toward refugees, indigenous Australians and Islamic fundamentalists. Refugees make easy targets for fear and loathing in contemporary Australia, despite the fact that their numbers are small and that they pose no threat to our security. Huge sums have been spent on their detention and our human rights credentials have been trashed because governments have seen political advantage in using them as magnets for our insecurity. We've also been invited to regard indigenous Australians as outsiders who threaten to appropriate "our" lands, invade "our" suburbs and "take what does not belong to them."

The second lecture, "Fear of Crime" will argue that the last twenty years have seen a sustained campaign on law and order, with the result that people now have wildly exaggerated, and fearful perceptions of the risks of assault, murder, child abuse and robbery. The effects of these fears on law and justice policies and on public expenditure will be explored.

The third, "Fear of Annihilation" will discuss the effects of constantly being told that biggest risk to our safety comes from terrorists who might attack us at any moment. Our own government and media have adopted without question the "War on Terror" slogan as a representation of how we should respond to these threats. I will question the use of what Greider has described as this "brilliantly seductive political message" that "terror pre-empts everything else."

"In the final lecture, "Relaxed and comfortable?", I will attempt to chart the consequences of the exploitation of fear on the Australian body politic.  I will argue that fear cannot be a foundation of moral and political argument and that the necessary antidote to the toxin of fear is a wholehearted embrace of the principles of freedom, equality and co-operation. Human betterment must again be the prime focus of politics."


Lecture 1: Fear of the Other

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." F.D.Roosevelt, 1933

In this lecture series I will discuss the role of fear in shaping public policy - in particular, fear of strangers, fear of crime and the fear of annihilation. I will suggest that fear and the exploitation of fear have widespread and distorting repercussions - influencing policy, changing the balance of power and overturning long-cherished values.

While many writers and philosophers repudiate fear as the enemy of freedom and reason; others appear to embrace it as a source of political vitality and national unity.

I will argue that fear is a potent (and dangerous) political tool, generated and exploited by political leaders (and the media) because it assists them to pursue specific political goals or to reinforce their moral and political belief systems.

In this first lecture, "Fear of Strangers", I will focus on the influence of xenophobia in shaping policies directed toward refugees, indigenous Australians and Islamic fundamentalists.


Perhaps because of my early training in psychology and my exposure as a young adult to the graphic depiction of the Vietnam carnage, I have often tried to understand how human beings arrive at the point where they can torture and kill one another. I have read fairly extensively - perhaps to the point of obsession - about torture and mass murder as instruments of political regimes, particularly in Nazi Germany.

Like many, I have asked how ordinary people could have become "Hitler's willing executioners"1, how doctors could have employed their skills to experiment on and kill disabled people, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the Jewish people 2. How was it that so many could stand by as their Jewish neighbours were first branded and excluded from normal life, then herded into ghettoes and cattle trucks and say that they did not know what was happening?

How could so many otherwise unexceptional men become expert in torture and murder for tyrants like Stalin, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. How could they so completely deny their victims' humanity, slaughtering them with no more thought than they would give to swatting a fly? How it is that, today, young men (and some women) so little value their own lives and those of others that they appear to have no compunction in obliterating themselves to murder hundreds and thousands of people they've never met?

The easy answers are that they were terrorised into complicity by powerful authority figures, or that they were somehow deranged or, even less satisfactorily, that they were simply evil. These glib assessments allow us to escape the uncomfortable conclusion - which I think is closer to the mark - that under certain conditions we may all be capable of brutality or, at least, indifference to it. Oppressive regimes could not operate without the "willing executioners", without technocrats to keep the wheels of the system turning or without the majority of the populace being willing to turn a blind eye to the disappearances and the brutality taking place around them.

The uncomfortable suspicion that any of us could be persuaded to deal with our fellow human beings as non-human is difficult and many would want to exempt themselves from such a damning conclusion. Yet we know that, in the recent past, cultivated men and women were comfortable with owning, buying and selling other human beings. In our own history, Indigenous Australians were treated as less than human, murdered, mistreated and taken from their families. We know that, in living memory, many Germans voted for a man who made it clear that he regarded the Jews as a "problem" requiring a "solution". In Rwanda the bloodbath that erupted involved so much of the population that the idea of individual psychopathology simply will not do as an explanation. In Bosnia neighbours who had lived peaceably together slaughtered one another without apparent regret.

In all of these situations, and others like them, one of the major contributors to the oppression and bloodletting is the continued depiction of the targets of brutality as dangerous, as threatening a community's safety or way of life. If a group feels threatened in this way, it may attempt to eliminate the perceived threat, sometimes by violent means. Very often, this characterisation is the result of a very deliberate and carefully constructed propaganda campaign by political figures exploiting - indeed cultivating- primitive fears and encouraging people to deny the reality of their senses when they inflict damage on others. At other times, it reflects the longer, slower process of the formation of prejudice. The most lethally effective of these campaigns feeds on ancient group prejudices. Anthony Beevor put it succinctly in his account of the downfall of Berlin in 1945 3:

Berliners suffered from an atavistic and visceral fear of the Slav invader from the east. Fear was easily turned into hatred.

The dark fears of citizens are easily exploited by the unscrupulous. Hitler was only able to construct the awful machine that spawned the Holocaust because of a pre-existing political culture of anti-Semitism on which he could draw to drive the relentless campaign to eradicate European Jewry. His depiction of the Jews as vermin, as dangerous and highly infectious bacilli intent on destroying the fabric of German society both reflected and amplified commonly held fears.

These examples should remind us that such prejudicial ideas, such cognitive models, are socially constructed. They are inculcated by families and reinforced by social institutions and broader social conversations amongst our political leaders, in the media and around us. These cognitive models define and form our understanding of the world and motivate our actions. People come to accept them as self evident truths, especially if they are uncontested. Every time a shock-jock or a politician depicts Indigenous Australians as violent drunks or Muslims as hostile to Australian values, and no one disagrees, these ideas gain credibility. I was stunned that Mrs Bishop's calls for the Hijab to be banned in schools because wearing them was an act of defiance, earned no rebuke at all from the Prime Minister. In fact, while demurring that such a ban might not be "practical", he defended her right to free speech while apparently ignoring Muslim women's right to religious freedom.

There are many - too many - examples of our all too human tendency to diminish the humanity of others; read the letters pages of most newspapers and sample popular talk back radio for a few examples. Hateful attitudes toward Indigenous people and Muslims abound, often with the predictable disclaimer - I'm not a racist, but…."

And in this process, whether in apparently mundane comments or life threatening conflict, fear plays a pivotal role.

As Mattil 4 has observed,

The common thread that weaves violent political movements together is fear. It is not the only motivating factor behind political violence, nor necessarily the most obvious, but it is virtually always there. Whenever we ask why people hate, or why they are willing to kill or die for a cause, the answer is invariably fear.

Fear in Democracies

One of the motivations for adopting democracy as a system of government stems from people's desire to be protected from state-sponsored fear - fear of persecution and death, arbitrary theft of property and discrimination. Since democracy is based on non-violent power sharing as a replacement for arbitrary and despotic rule, democracy has been described as a "fear-less" or "fear-resolving" system. One of the recurrent themes in the evolution of democracies is the view that government by fear is inherently illegitimate.

In the hands of despotic and imperial regimes, the armed forces are as likely to be used to terrorise citizens as they are to attack those threatening the state. Such regimes employ spies and informants, brutal punishments, forced conversions, torture and massacre to "pacify" citizens. Theoretically, in democracies the control of the military and police forces is vested in "the people" through their elected representatives, and such fear-inducing brutality is repudiated as a means of maintaining civil order.

Most would also suppose that democracies "diminish the use of fear as a weapon by those who govern by institutionalising arms-length limits upon the scope of political power, in the form of civil society."5 Such institutions ensure basic freedoms and civil liberties, including protection from the fear of violent death or harm at the hands of others. At the same time, such civil society rests on the corollary assumption that the "other" can be accepted, even welcomed, without fear.

There is, however, plenty of scope, even in established democracies to use fear as a device to maintain and expand the power of governments and their supporters. Such fear is not so much fear of government itself, as it is in despotic regimes, but fear of the other - of other citizens, of outsiders and the marginalised. It is a calculated exploitation of both the explicit and the inchoate fears that many of us have.

There are, of course, many things about which it is reasonable to be fearful - but it is also possible for our leaders to feed and amplify these fears for political advantage. They are often aided and abetted by the media in generating what Cohen has called "moral panics". At the same time, it suits our political leaders to minimise the really frightening prospects which would require substantial changes in our life-styles if they were given proper weight - global warming and growing inequality, to name just two.

Fear can be manipulated and attached to objects and circumstances which do not pose an objective threat. We learn what to fear and can be induced to behave fearfully and seek protection, even in the absence of a tangible threat. One of the consequences of such tactics is a profound distortion of public policy so that we apply the ineffective remedies to poorly defined problems.

In the past, it was more likely for politicians to promise to create a better world. While the means of achieving this desired goal might vary, as did the definition of what constituted a "better world", their power and authority derived, as least in part, from the optimistic visions they offered to their people. As the director of the documentary "The Power of Nightmares"6 has observed, with the loss of faith in these visions,

politicians are seen simply as managers of public life, but they have now discovered a new role that restores their power and authority. Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us: from nightmares.

As another commentator put it, "in the wake of September 11 we have been painfully reminded of the virility of fear. "Fear", along with "terror", has become one of the staples of the ensuing political and media discourse." But such atrocities and such "fear" are not new, no matter how much the United States wants to see September 11 as unique in human history. Such terrorist attacks are "as old as history and not likely to disappear soon. Suicide bombers are contemporary versions of an old phenomenon."

In fact, in the early part of the century, Camus described the 20th century as the "century of fear", because catastrophic and terrifying events happened so often and so quickly that people had no time to stop and think, and simply reacted with the visceral reactions of fear. There was much debate following the pointless barbarity of the World War 1 about the "The Age of Anxiety"; an anxiety stemming from the knowledge of the "dread freedom" of humanity.

Fear is arguably the most powerful human emotion. It acts as an alarm to indicate the presence of a threat and stimulates us to respond to save ourselves from damage, destruction, and death. Since fear is one of the primary human emotions, we do not need to learn how to feel fear. But we have to learn what to fear. In his definitive work, Denial of Death, Becker argued that knowledge of our own death is the source of our 'peculiar and greatest anxiety'; it's what makes us human.

Our response will usually be proportionate to any perceived threat. Fear, in other words, is normally an adaptive response to danger, to the perception that we are not safe. When we are extremely afraid, surviving at any cost may become our top priority and we may, at that moment, be willing to do almost anything just to stay alive. Excessive fear can overwhelm rational thought.

If we are frightened enough, we will even be willing to give up our freedom.

The threat of fear is a familiar tool for ensuring compliance. Parents learn early that to threaten unpleasant consequences is often sufficient to change an unruly child's bad behaviour. The American social scientist Lakoff 7 argues that the current United States government (like many conservative regimes) operates like a strict father family, which "sees the world as a dangerous and difficult place, where evil lurks" and believes it has a responsibility through example and painful punishment to instil discipline.

Political Fear

According to Corey it is possible to identify what he calls "political fear" - "a political tool, an instrument of elite rule or insurgent advance created and sustained by political leaders or activists who stand to gain something from it, whether because fear helps them pursue a specific political goal or because it reflects or lends support to their moral and political beliefs -or both." He suggests that such fear can operate in one of two ways: political leaders and elites can define what is or ought to be the principal object(s) of public fear and they can wield fear to threaten those who appear to challenge their power and status.

In the first case, the selected object of fear usually does pose some level of threat, but the threat may be exaggerated or given undue emphasis when compared with other potential objects of fear. It is usually politicians who define what is worthy of attention, who mobilise public opinion and who propose methods to deal with that threat. It does not automatically follow that everybody shares the fear, but rather that it dominates the public debate and monopolises resources. Politicians' success as protectors - not so difficult when the threat is exaggerated and the remedies ill-defined - then consolidates their legitimacy and enhances their power.

Both ideology and political opportunity can determine what is selected for attention. For example, while much was made of the asylum seekers in boats who were said to be potential terrorists and a threat to our national security, almost nothing was said about the much more numerous group of asylum seekers who arrived by air and remained in the community - not to mention the even greater number of those who overstayed their visas. Similarly, while the danger that Islamic extremists pose to national security is singled out for particular attention, Christian extremists, far right political groups and corporations who do business with rogue states or even terrorist groups escape attention.

The second major use of fear in any society arises directly from social, economic and political inequalities. Its purpose is intimidation, using sanctions, or the threat of sanctions, to ensure that one group maintains or augments its power at the expense of another. Such sanctions need not be explicit, although it is usually made clear that failure to behave in certain ways will have adverse consequences. Nor are we talking only about gross violations of human rights; people will often conform as a result of petty tyranny and small coercions, often in ways that stifle criticism and circumscribe policy options. Non-government and advocacy groups in Australia, for example, have been threatened with the loss of funding or tax-deductible status for donations to them unless they toe the government lines. The Muslim community is being told to shape up or "clear out" and to ensure the teaching of "Australian values" in their schools or risk losing their funding.


Fears about losing identity and security are almost invariably at the root of conflict within and between societies. We all identify ourselves in certain ways based on culture, language, race, religion etc. Perceived threats to these identities may arouse very real fears of extinction, oppression and loss of control. It is clear that one of the fears exaggerated and exploited by extremists, both political and religious, is the fear of cultural erosion due to the forces of modernity and secularism.

For such threats to be potent sources of action (or reaction), enough people in the social group need to share a view about themselves (an identity) that they can be galvanised into action to defend that identity. Each person's perception of him or her self will be a unique combination of a number of identities - as wide as man or woman, Jew or Muslim or as narrow as being a member of a particular family. Some of these identities will be entirely personal, others collective. In the latter case, if the identification is central and strong, people will experience distress (and threat) when others sharing their identity are injured or killed. Newspaper editors well understand that their stories of human tragedy gain maximum traction when the victims are most like the readers in nationality or race.

People who share an identity will often think of themselves as having a common interest and a common fate, especially if they are forced to defend that identity. Consider the following perceptive observations by Shakira Hussein, a PHD student at this university:

I am an Australian Muslim. I am also a feminist, a single mother, a proud supporter of state education, a firm believer in secularism. My father is Pakistani Muslim, but my mother is an Australian Catholic. One of my strongest political influences was my grandfather, a World War II veteran who served at Tobruk. My family includes Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, and followers of the Indian guru Meher Baba. Thanks to a very happy period in my life as a housekeeper for an Iranian Jewish family, I can keep a kosher kitchen. I have seen at first hand the damage that religious extremism has wrought to the country of my paternal ancestry; I have interviewed survivors of the Taliban regime. I am not about to be tempted by jihadi ideology.

So if I am feeling alienated and excluded from Australian political debate, just imagine how the average disaffected eighteen year old Muslim male is feeling. The various Liberal politicians who have been lining up to tell Muslims if they don't like Australia they can, in the words of Brendan Nelson, "clear off", would no doubt say that they are not talking to Muslims like me. They mean the extremists, the bigots, the potential suicide bombers. Muslims like me are meant to be part of the solution.

But the call to shape up or "clear off" is deeply alienating for Muslims across the ideological spectrum, suggesting as it does that our Australian identity is somehow conditional on our good behaviour. The most common country of birth for Australian Muslims is Australia. Our Australian identity is not conditional on our subscription to "Australian values", "mateship", or any other ill-defined label. "If you don't like it here, you can go back to where you came from" is the kind of schoolyard taunt with which Australians with dark skin, non-Anglo names, and strange food in their lunchboxes are all too familiar. It is impossible to hear it being expressed by our nation's political leadership without feeling threatened.

She goes on to say,

Bronwyn Bishop claims that Muslim schoolgirls should not be allowed to wear hijab because it is simply a "gesture of defiance". For some girls, "defiance" may be a partial motive, alongside religious conviction - but there are much more destructive ways of expressing defiance. In the last few weeks, I myself have begun to dress in a more identifiably Muslim style, not only in "defiance" of rhetoric such as Bishop's, but also to remind close-minded elements of my own faith that people like me are Muslim, too.

I quote Shakira at length because I think she illustrates just how counterproductive the recent attempts to coerce Muslim Australians into the embrace of a narrowly defined Australian identity are likely to be. As Guy Rundle astutely observed of Nelson's campaign for Muslims to embrace "Australian Values":

So what is the purpose, or at least the result, of this urging on of a grab-bag of universal social values and particular modern ones as 'Australian'? It is racism pure and simple. It is an attempt to paint the global Islamic community as some sort of de-socialised rabble, who are so barbaric that they have to be told to teach their children the virtues of care and honesty.

Such insults may indeed make many people more aware of their Muslim identity and may even reinforce that identity at the expense of other identities as they are pressed into the role of "other" in our social conversation. Or it may make them feel embarrassed and ashamed. It matters because it may feed into the "wounded identity", the sense of isolation and outsider status that some Muslims already feel, not least because they have been subject to escalating levels of racial vilification and even violence.

Following the recent London bombings, many ethnic groups, especially those who are identified as Arab or Muslim, have reported a "climate of fear" - racism has hit new peaks not seen since One Nation was in full flight. The Victorian Equal Opportunity Commissioner reported that complaints about religious discrimination and harassment have doubled since 1999.

There are recent reports that some people from south Asia regret having migrated because of the increasing frequency of racist taunts and discrimination. Muslim migrants from India and Bangladesh, in particular, have experienced regular racial slurs and antagonism which has resulted in great distress and mental illness. Similar conclusions were outlined in the 2004 HREOC report which found that many Muslims felt fearful and isolated and that prejudice was a daily ordeal.

Inflammatory remarks by Federal Ministers who have demanded that migrants who do not accept Australian values should leave or face deportation have contributed to this climate of fear. At a time when our leaders should be calming fears, they are playing on those fears. When they should be doing all they can to help us all to see events from the other's perspective, they are inviting us to retreat into our own narrow identities. When they should be assisting us to recognise how our own actions and words can cause fear in others, they are giving signals that such sensitivities are unimportant. They are, in my view, playing with fire.

They should, on the contrary, be doing everything they can to make all Australians feel more secure, since the more secure a group feels, the less likely they are to feel the need to attack other groups.

Even when assertions are made that it's only the "Islamic extremists" who are the target, many others will have a real fear that "you should be careful, or you might be next."  Furthermore, such tactics - and policies - which appear to make an example of some members of an identifiable community can also silence those who fear they may also be targeted precisely because they share certain characteristics and values. As one Uruguayan citizen who lived through the repressive regimes of the 70s and 80s recalled:

Our own lives became increasingly constricted. The process of self-censorship was incredibly insidious: it wasn't just that you stopped talking about certain things with other people - you stopped thinking them yourself. Your internal dialogue just dried up.


Strong feelings of identity are often associated with prejudice toward others. Some identities are indeed formed - or reinforced - in opposition to others and may incorporate hostile and prejudicial attitudes to those groups. Chief among the sources of such prejudice is fear - the expectation that "the stranger" will do one harm and that other groups' different views of the world will undermine or corrode one's own.

Some group identities include explicit assumptions that other groups are not to be trusted and may be treated with hostility and disrespect. In some cases such prejudices are based on an uncompromising view of the centrality of one's own group; the tendency to see one's group as superior and more deserving than others. The conquest of Australia and the displacement of Indigenous Australians would not have been possible without an attitude of racial superiority. Claims made by many religions that only their own adherents will be saved have a similar character. My own upbringing was blighted by the divisive certainty that only Catholics were eligible for the divine kingdom. I worried a lot about my (few) protestant friends.

Racism is one of the most potent and persistent forms of such prejudice still abroad in Australian society. As the Vision Declaration for the World Conference against Racism states:

Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance have not gone away. We recognize that they persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. And while we recognize that human fear is itself ineradicable, we maintain that its consequences are not…

The 2001 election in Australia was dominated by the dehumanisation of asylum seekers, by fear and xenophobia - the fear of strangers- and a rejection of "the other". While similar prejudices have attached to previous waves of migrants to our shores, the difference this time was that prejudice was officially sanctioned, indeed encouraged.

This raises significant issues for public policy. How should we react to racially based anger, fear and hostility? This is particularly critical at a time when there are millions of men women and children outside their country of origin. There is no continent or region of the world unaffected by the flow of people seeking refuge for economic reasons, because of civil conflicts or as a result of war and persecution.

Such people are particularly vulnerable because their rights are routinely violated as they seek asylum - they face discrimination, further detention and xenophobic hostility. Indeed the UN Commission on Human Rights reported an alarming upsurge in intolerance toward refugees over the last few years. In many cases, such expressions of hostility and negative stereotyping are made to serve a political purpose as we saw in the 2001 election. The dark fears of citizens are easily exploited by the unscrupulous.

In deliberately portraying asylum seekers as a threat, the government succeeded in gaining traction for the bizarre notion that desperate people in leaky boats were somehow a threat to our national security. They counted on being able to arouse our fear of being overwhelmed by strangers envious of our good fortune, to speak to our old dark fear of invasion. Perhaps our own deep knowledge that we are alien invaders who have stolen the land we occupy allowed them to feed this anxiety.

As Anthony Burke pointed out in "In Fear of Security"8, Australian political figures have often portrayed Australia as vulnerable to loss of sovereignty and have generated levels of fear and anxiety that are disproportionate to the actual threats. It is no accident that Ruddock chose to represent the arrival of an increased number of asylum seekers during 2001 as an "urgent threat to Australia's very integrity" and invoked the phrase "national emergency" to describe the increase in numbers. The Government began with the assumption- no doubt carefully tested in publicly funded opinion polling - that to simply mention "illegal migrants" to some Australians would cause them to lose their grip on reality.

As Burke sees it, a community which sees itself in terms which emphasise threat and vulnerability,

is always an exclusive one, bounded by a power which seeks to enforce sameness, repress diversity, and diminish the rights (and claims to being) of those who live outside its protective embrace.

Burke posits the question which I regard as the crucial battleground for the hearts and minds of the Australian people: "Whether an 'Australian' community would be thought of on the basis of a walled and insecure identity, or a generous and outward looking diversity?" Successive Governments have often justified their actions by the "awful moral calculus", as Burke puts it, of defining our security in such a way that it justifies the massive insecurity and distress of others.

Our own governments and business leaders have often used fear as a tool in devising policies which affect indigenous Australians, particularly when appropriating their land. As Day 9 points out, it was after Tasmanian aborigines started to resist the wholesale appropriation of their fertile lands that the "largely benign descriptions of the natives gave way to derogatory descriptions that likened them to (wild) animals."

During the native title debates, we were invited to regard Australia's original inhabitants as outsiders who threatened to appropriate "our" lands, invade "our" suburbs and take what does not belong to them. Remember those maps showing vast tracts of land alienated by native title claims? The more extravagant the W.A Premier, Richard Court, became in his assertions made about the threat posed by native title - to people's prosperity, livelihood and even their backyards - the more popular he became. As I'm sure he calculated, his approval rating climbed from a low 31% before he launched his anti land rights campaign to 53% just six months later.

Hugh Morgan, one of the architects of the new right agenda and the mining industry's campaign against land rights even went so far as to assert divine (Christian) authority for the industry's demands that they be allowed mine on land claimed by aboriginal people. Even more bizarrely, he warned that if land rights were granted that would constitute a sanction of "infanticide, cannibalism and… cruel initiation rights"; a "step back to the world of paganism, superstition, fear and darkness"10 - while plumbing the depths of these dark, racist fears.

I've spent enough hours in community functions to know that such views are not isolated. The rise of Hansonism on the back of her attacks on Indigenous people amplified a continuing theme in Australian's conversations about themselves. For example, participants in the Kimberley section of the HREOC consultation reported that tourist bus drivers and operators made racist comments and spread misinformation about Aboriginal people including that, "the blacks here in Fitzroy are dangerous."

I know it is difficult for many Australians to stomach, but it is fair to say, as Dodson and Strelein 11 have done that such racism was a "founding value of Australian society". It was used to justify the "the wholesale denial of Indigenous peoples' rights to retain their social, economic and political structures, while denying their rights to participate in the polity that was under construction."

Upon federation, the nation incorporated the same values of racial superiority and exclusion. The "White Australia" policy was one of the founding principles of the commonwealth, encouraged by the newly formed Labor Party and enacted in legislation as the first act of the new Federal Parliament in 1901. It was feared, as RD Lang thundered, that Chinese immigrants would "swamp the whole European community of these colonies" and "obliterate every trace of British progress and civilisation."

This "invasion anxiety" has always had racial overtones and is often expressed most forcefully by the same people - and governments - who deny that Indigenous Australians are entitled to recognition as the original owners of this country and recompense for what has been taken from them.

Beginning in the late 60s, progress was made in removing the racist underpinnings of both Aboriginal affairs and immigration policies - and there was bipartisan support for these shifts in direction. Sadly, that momentum has now stalled, and reversed. This has been evident in the refusal by the Government to deal effectively with the Stolen Generations report, the chiselling away at Indigenous land rights, the effective demise of the government's involvement in the Reconciliation process and the abolition of ATSIC.

Public policy in Indigenous Affairs is now in the grip of what Guy Rundle calls "the triumph of reaction". This stance seeks to reduce the government's - and the community's - responsibilities to encompassing only so-called "practical reconciliation"; to replace the need to recognise and protect Indigenous rights with what should be their unquestioned right to enjoy the service provision available to all citizens. Both are essential.

"Invasion Anxiety" has also informed the imposition of a brutal detention regime on those people seeking asylum on our shores and changes to the assessment system for migrants which have resulted in a noticeable increase in those from white, English speaking nations.

Australians have been asked to close their eyes to our past, to deny the existence of racist attitudes and behaviour in our community and to resist the pull of our common humanity which might otherwise inform our relations with Indigenous people and migrants. Part of this shift has been propelled by political expediency and part by the peculiar obsessions of the current Prime Minister and his acolytes whose view of the nation encompasses only our virtues and none of our vices.

People are encouraged, as they were with the asylum seekers, to emphasise the difference between them and those they are ignoring or mistreating. The government seized on the children overboard story and kept it going long after they knew it was not true - because it appeared to confirm the view that these were people unworthy of our compassion. How otherwise could they throw their children overboard? They made it clear that "people like that are not people like us" and - read the subtext - "if they are capable of treating their own children so callously, what other horrors might they perpetrate if let loose in our country?"

We can be seduced into believing that we have no obligation to people who do not share our culture and race or who do not belong to our political sphere of influence. Differences felt between 'them" and "us" can be magnified to a point where these people become so alien that they tend not to be seen as fully human. They stop existing as human beings with whom we share a great deal of common ground. As a consequence our capacity to empathise with their suffering and take in the nature of the hurt inflicted on them becomes partially obliterated. How else could we deny the reality of the experience of the stolen generations and refuse to acknowledge the shattering effects of dispossession.

It is only when people are directly confronted with clear evidence that others are more like us than not, when we see their faces and know their names and stories, that this barrier is breached. The Government clearly understood that keeping a safe distance and reducing the opportunities to "humanise" asylum seekers was necessary to ensure the continuing acceptance by the Australian people of the more brutal elements of the asylum seeker policy. It's also why they spent so much energy questioning the accuracy of the searing stories in the "Bringing Them Home" report.

In housing the asylum seekers in remote camps in Australia and thousands of kilometres from the mainland, in refusing to allow any photographs or personal contact with those who were stranded on the Tampa the government was conducting a very deliberate campaign to prevent any identification with the people on board.

The Defence Minister's press secretary gave explicit instructions to the Defence Department that there were to be no "personalising or humanising images" taken of the asylum seekers.12 It is significant that it was only after the public saw the images of a young woman, scandalously detained for months while mentally ill, but with a familiar face and heritage, that the indefinite detention policy was finally amended. As Susan Sontag observed in her essay "Regarding the Pain of Others"13, "photographs are a means of making 'real' (or 'more real') matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore."

The capacity to ignore the suffering of others and to be apparently indifferent may be stem from what is described in the research literature as "modern racism"14-a surface belief in racial equality that masks latent prejudicial feelings. At a conscious level, people may endorse principles of fairness and equality, but simultaneously experience and express negative feelings toward other racial and ethnic groups, like the original Australians and the Iraqis and Afghanis who have arrived on our shores.

Research has shown that this is more likely to be expressed by a reluctance to engage in interaction and a failure to help people from such groups rather than in actions that directly inflict harm. Of whites studied in the U.S. nearly half demonstrated this propensity. There is no good reason to believe that Australians are markedly different.

This prejudice also feeds on what some researchers label the "just world hypothesis"15, the belief that people "get what they deserve and deserve what they get", that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and the victims of misfortune deserve their suffering. This view is commonplace in the community and enjoys political patronage. People who think this way subscribe to the view that individuals can control their fates, an illusion which allows people to see their world as orderly and predictable. Anyone who appears to challenge or depart from this order is seen as a threat.

People who strongly hold such beliefs are more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups and those experiencing injustice. They see no need to help asylum seekers because they believe they have somehow "earned" their fate. When people who firmly believe in a "just world" witness the suffering of others, they may first attempt to help but, if that is not possible, they will switch to blaming the victim because of their "bad" acts or their "bad" characters, a reaction which quickly developed in response to destructive acts by detained asylum seekers.

Indigenous Australians commonly encounter this interpretation of their circumstances, most recently in the so-called Shared Responsibility Agreements which require them to contract to do certain things or suffer the loss of basic services. Threat is at the core of these agreements rather than encouragement and support.

Fear underpins much racist behaviour - the fear that what we have will be taken away; that we will lose control of our own future; that those who are now powerless might usurp our precarious position in a changing world. Because fear is such a powerful emotion, it is a reckless leader who nurtures and exploits such fears.

What some of our political leaders have done is to appeal to our basest motives; to fear, envy, prejudice, the desire for revenge and hostility to the outsider. These are techniques which have a long and very dishonourable history and never benefit the community, although they may favour the fortune of political parties.

What must we do?

We require change at every level of society, from the individual through to our national government. The ideas and values which underpin our institutional and public policy need to be tested - and continually tested - for prejudicial and racist attitudes.

The task is to dismantle institutionalised racism and discrimination in the Australian state. The Reconciliation process is part of this re-examination, but it cannot take place without governments' participation and leadership. It cannot be left to a minority who are, in any case, often vilified for daring to draw attention to the injustices that many would have us deny.

It requires the re-education of our community about our history and our current practices. It needs governments and community leaders to repudiate hateful and aggressive language and behaviour and as Freud described it "the mindlessness of the group mind" which gives people a false sense of superiority, privilege and omnipotence.

We must be alert to the way in which people can take actions as a group which might be unthinkable to them as individuals. Countering racial vilification and propaganda should be part of our responsibilities as citizens. 

We must all take responsibility for our children and our young people so they can develop without the poisonous distortions of racism. We must all act from a recognition of our common humanity, not out of fear. As Freud wrote in his 1931-32 correspondence to Einstein,

All that brings out the significant resemblances between men calls into play the feelings of community, identification, whereon is founded, in large measure, the whole edifice of human society.

The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians and a generous response to migrants and refugees.

There is everything to gain.

1.Goldhagen, Daniel. (1996) Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Knopf.

2. Lifton, Robert, Jay. (2000) Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, New York: Basic Books.

3. Beevor, Anthony. (2002) Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Penguin Books.

4. James F.Mattil Flashpoints: Guide to World Conflict

5. John Keane (2001) Fear and Democracy. Centre for the Study of New Democracy. www.wmin.ac.uk

6. Adam Curtis (2004) The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear.

7. George Lakoff (2003) Framing the Dems: How conservatives control political debate and how progressives can take it back. The American Prospect, September 1.

8. Burke, Anthony. (2001). In Fear of Security: Australia's Invasion Anxiety, Sydney: Pluto Press.

9. David Day (2005) Conquest: A New History of the Modern World. Harper Collins.

10. Andrew Markus (2001) Race: John Howard and the Remaking of Australia. Allen & Unwin.

11. Dodson, M & Strelein, L. Australia's nation-building: Renegotiating the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the State. UNSW Law Journal, 24 (3), 2001, 826- 830, p 826.

12. Evidence to Senate Select Committee investigating a "Certain Maritime Incident", April 17, 2002, p 1151-1152.

13. Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin.

14. Entman, R.M.(1992). "Blacks in the News: Television, Modern Racism, and Cultural Change." Journalism Quarterly, 69: 341.

15. Lipkus, I. M., Dalbert, C., & Siegler, I. C. (1996). The importance of distinguishing the belief in a just world for self versus for others: Implications for psychological well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(7), 666-677.

The Herbert and Valmae Freilich Foundation


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re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Margo, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since the last vote. It would be interesting to see how Rudd would stand up after the Latham diaries.
Rudd has been very quiet lately. I bet Gillard or Lawrence would be leading on their performance over the last six months.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Carmen, will you please challenge Kim for the leadership of the Labor Party? This country needs somebody with compassion, intelligence & leadership qualities. I'm sure most here at Webdiary will bombard caucus members with letters & e-mails to ensure you have the numbers to win. Think of us as your campaign team.

As long as Kim is leader, Labor has no chance of winning Government. Even if JWH was to retire soon & Downer was elected leader of the Libs, Labor would still find it hard to win. Even on the IR legislation, Greg Combet has been putting forward better arguments & making more public & media appearances than Kim. Every other policy that I can remember Kim has either been silent or "me too" with the Libs/Nats.

Great article, I too am looking forward to reading Lectures 2 & 3.

Margo: Hi Grant. Actually Webdiarists voted for Rudd by a margin or two to one over Beazley. See Raise the white flag: vote Beazley.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

To Carmen: When is your current leader Kim Beazley going to develop some policy other than the "me too" that we so often see?

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

My youngest grand-daughter is only 5 and for the first 5 years and 4 months of her life her country locked children like her in the desert without charge or trial. I say they are just like her but to many Australians they are not just like her.

Mikaela is a blue eyed blond like her mother and nana. The children behind the wire usually had black hair and brown eyes. Did that make them different to Mikaela?

My 15 year old grand-daughter didn't think so when she discovered that for the first 14 years and 8 months of her life Australia locked up children just like her out in the desert.

Think about that for a minute. Stephanie went to day care, to kindy, off to school and got to the TAMPA when she was nearly 11 before she or I knew her country had been locking children out in the desert.

She grew up next door to Aborigines. My daughter doesn't have a racist bone in her (except like me for stupid white people who are horribly cruel to others who they deem to not be like them) and when the TAMPA arrived and she saw it she rang me "Tell that f...g man to send a plane out to those people."

Now she was nearly 11 and understood what was happening and decided it was wrong.

5 years 5 months and 20 days one child spent in Port Hedland before being released. Can any person with an ounce of sense tell me what was the point?

Billions of our tax dollars have been squandered on bigger and higher fences, more and more brutality, more and more guards and jails in the desert.

For what? Peter Mares wrote in 2001: "The more we seek to deter asylum seekers and refugees through harsh treatment, the more Australia comes to resemble the repressive nations from which they fled". Prophetic for what was to follow isn't it?

David Marr and Marian Wilkinson starkly revealed in Dark Victory the cruelty on the boats. Anyone who hasn't read it yet really, really should. It is a masterpiece in anyone's language.

My older grand-daughter thinks her nana rocks because I have supported, helped and advocated for the Afghans and Iraqis and Iranians who came to us for help and that is a great compliment to me.

In November 4 years ago I went to a forum with Peter Mares and a young lawyer called Jeremy Moore at the local St Ignatius church. Imagine my shock to find myself in a catholic church listening to two Australian men advocating for a group of Muslims locked up in the desert.

Which leads me to the most beautiful girl in the world whom I met that night. Her name is Deba and three weeks after her parents were finally released from Woomera she was born a free child. It sounded a bit like the old days of the aboriginal protectorate when some half cast aborigines were born as free children doesn't it?

Anyway her parents were incarcerated in Indonesia for three months after escaping Iran, because the Australian Federal Police turned them in by the way. The mum, Fay we will call her for her safety, caught para-typhoid, they ran out of money and mum got pregnant.

They escaped the prison and begged their way onto a boat to get to Australia or anywhere that Fay could get medical care. They arrived in Woomera and 42 times they wrote to DIMIA asking to be helped. 42 times they were ignored and three times Fay nearly lost Deba due to lack of medical care, rotten food, para typhoid and freezing cold.

They were "screened out" because they didn't say the magic words "we are refugees, we seek asylum under the refugee convention". Peter Mares and Jeremy Moore found them in this terrible state when Mares describes refugees having to drop notes out the windows of a bus. Read his book Borderline if none of this rings true.

Anyway after the talks I demanded of Jeremy Moore, who later became one of my best and dearest friends, that he make Deba an Australian.

She is now and was 4 last month. Anyone would think that would change things wouldn't they?

No way Jose. On Saturday at a farewell party for another great friend who ran the Circles of Friends groups to help refugees, Deba was there.

Time and time again when I was holding her up to adult level I was asked if she speaks English and was met with shock when I said, "Of course, she was born here, she is Aussie."

She has black hair and brown eyes you see.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

PS to my last post: Carmen, just wondering if you have any thoughts after the Labor State Gov'ts revert to the Lib/Nats as they are trying their level best to do. Also, does Kim have any plans to join the Lib/Nats or won't they have him - pity!

Thanks for your Refreshingly Intelligent contribution to Margo's Webdiary - I'm looking forward to reading your other lectures here.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

From Sat SMH Letters Editor's postcript:

"How convenient"; "what a coincidence"; "surprise, surprise" … those phrases appeared frequently in correspondence this week after the Prime Minister announced he had "specific" intelligence on a terrorist threat to Australia, just as he was seeking to get his anti-terrorism legislation through Parliament and on the day his workplace legislation was tabled. Readers were certainly not keen to follow the "trust me" line, as Steven Beletich illustrated: "Reminds me of the specific Iraq weapons of mass destruction threat they received information about. Surely they don't think we're stupid enough to fall for that one again?" Sheridan Williams had similar thoughts: "I must apologise, Mr Howard, but I don't believe you. There's too much of a coincidence here for me to swallow it." The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, came in for harsh criticism as well, such as this from Rod Miller: "If Kim Beazley dumbly mouths 'me too' once more, I think we shall all throw up." Anger, frustration and despair were reflected in so many letters this week. It seems many readers would concur with Debby O'Brien: "If I were a terrorist intent on bringing down democratic countries, I'd feel pretty successful right now."

Jennie Curtin, letters editor

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

I think the problem is created by bullies and greed in society and in particular those in position of power. They really don’t care about anybody or anything except themselves and their own agenda and they are experts at justifying it. They mould and groom the system to protect themselves and they use aggression and arrogance to stop people from questioning them.

The system is set up in a way to desensitise people and it begins from childhood. Take Stranger Danger. Everybody knows that if a child is going to be abused it is more likely to be by somebody they know yet the keep referring to Stranger Danger so as to take the attention away from the truth and take the focus away from those closer to the child so as to muddy the waters and protect those that are guilty.

We are taught from a young age to accept being treated unfairly and unjustly. It all goes back to the home and the classroom and the discipline that is shown and supported during the time our children are growing up.

One of the biggest complaints I hear from young people is that they hate being blamed for things that they didn’t do and being treated unfairly, yet that seems to be the way the system operates and the way they are treated.

Many a time in the classroom all students are punished for the bad behaviour of one or two. This system of punishing as a group in essence protects those that are doing the wrong thing and supports the bullies. The whole class shouldn’t be punished and miss out on an activity or get detention just because Fred and Paul were talking. This system of trying to use humiliation in this manner doesn’t work as instead of humiliating the guilty 2, 28 other innocent kids are the ones that get humiliated and they feel victimised and that they are being punished for something that they didn't do. In the end many end up joining Fred and Paul and misbehaving as they realise that they are going to be punished for it anyway so they may as well deserve it. Others just suffer. Those that are guilty don’t feel anything except power as they watch the whole class suffering as a result of their actions. It is so unfair.

It also happens in the playground where they tell children that it doesn’t matter who threw the rubbish on the ground that everybody should pick it up. Wrong! Of course it matters who threw the rubbish as you can rest assured that the school yard bully’s will delight in just throwing their rubbish on the floor and watching those that they see as below them have to pick it up or get into trouble. For the respectful child who wouldn’t dream of throwing rubbish on the ground and always does the right thing, being punished for somebody else’s lack of respect and having to pick up somebody else’s rubbish is seriously humiliating and unfair and often even makes them feel sick.

The system supports and protects the bullies instead of those that do the right thing and that gives power and protection to those that do the wrong thing as they know that they are protected.

Then these children turn into adults and they don’t change and given that we live in a system that gives all the rights to the guilty party and nothing to the victim except to blame them for their problem or issues – its obvious that things haven’t changed and the playground scenario is played out in society. It’s no wonder why we are in the state that we are in fair and just discipline is non- existent!

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Carmen, some observations, selected out of a rather long list.

"So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." F.D.Roosevelt, 1933

This is an oft-quoted and quite quotable quote, but easily presented out of its quite vital context. Roosevelt was talking at the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s. What he was not saying was something like ‘fear is always a silly response.’ Fear of poverty would drive people to minimize spending and maximize saving, slowing the economy still further and making recovery the more difficult. Thus fear of poverty would be a self-fulfilling expectation or prophecy.

In other words, Roosevelt's statement was not some vacuous platitude. It was quite rational, but only in the context in which it was delivered. In other situations, fear is a quite rational response, and the only thing we have to fear is courage. Vide the case of the Titanic blithely sailing full steam ahead into the iceberg-strewn waters of the North Atlantic.]

Yes, but 1: “There are, of course, many things about which it is reasonable to be fearful - but it is also possible for our leaders to feed and amplify these fears for political advantage.” What comes after the ‘but’ has the effect of diminishing what comes before it. Your aim here is clearly not to assure the reader that ‘There are, of course, many things about which it is reasonable to be fearful’. Quite the opposite. We have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Yes, but 2: “In the first case [when political leaders and elites “define what is or ought to be the principal object(s) of public fear”], the selected object of fear usually does pose some level of threat, but the threat may be exaggerated or given undue emphasis when compared with other potential objects of fear.”

John Howard and the Premiers of NSW and Victoria are currently writing into such a definition 18 young Muslim men arrested in Sydney and Melbourne in connection with an alleged bomb plot.

So is it rational to fear jihadist bombers as against, say, being wiped out in a car accident? Well yes it is, and for an easily understandable reason. One can drive defensively, and do something personally about where you figure in the road accident statistics. You can also take precautions against being struck by lighting. (Where I live we get some classic electrical storms.) You can even defend yourself against jihadist fanatics with explosives by not riding on crowded trains or visiting crowded places. But the ability to personally take control of the situation is least in the last case, which of course, is what one of the main points the bomber wants to make as he triggers his device.

Twenty 9/11 fanatics killed 3,000 people, demolished the two tallest buildings in New York and took out part of the Pentagon. From their point of view, the exercise was very cost-effective. Likewise, four suiciding young men in London in killed over 50 others and severely injured about 600 in the process. But their aim was not just to demonstrate how much damage one fanatic can do. It was also to inspire others to follow their example and to cause a movement to take off. Jihadism breeds more jihadism. Something like this is happening across France at the moment.

Of course, 3,000 out of the 300,000,000 population of America meant that the probability of any one individual being affected was quite small. But people don't think in terms of statistical probability. If they did, there would be no market for lottery tickets.

“In deliberately portraying asylum seekers as a threat, the government succeeded in gaining traction for the bizarre notion that desperate people in leaky boats were somehow a threat to our national security…” If the notion was bizarre, surely no reasonable person would buy it. This is an argument for mass irrationality. Is the Australian population so easily panicked, like a shed full of chooks?

““…They counted on being able to arouse our fear of being overwhelmed by strangers envious of our good fortune, to speak to our old dark fear of invasion. Perhaps our own deep knowledge that we are alien invaders who have stolen the land we occupy allowed them to feed this anxiety. …

Perhaps, but perhaps again in not quite the way envisaged here. We are invited to believe that “desperate people in leaky boats” could not possibly be a threat to our national security. But if border security is lost, then the Australian government loses control of immigration, just as the aborigines did in 1788, in their case never to recover it. Just as the first wave of aborigines lost it to the second wave.

The concept of ourselves as “alien invaders” is intriguing. Who amongst the present population would be included, and who excluded from this category?

Let us consider the major island nations of the world: Australia, Japan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Iceland, the Malagasy Republic, Cuba, and perhaps the problematic case of Taiwan. The only one of these that is attractive to significant numbers of illegal immigrants is Australia, thanks to its first world status, high levels of domestic security, and the narrow body of water that has to be crossed to reach it from Indonesia. The latter could be thought of as an ‘island nation’ too for these purposes, as its land borders with Malaysia, Brunei and Nuigini constitute no problem with regard to illegal immigration, unlike say the border between the US and Mexico. Likewise, the land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. So the UK could be considered an ‘island nation’ too. Of all those I have cited here, it is the only other one with a problem of would-be illegal immigrants.

Countries with land borders have different situations. For example, while the US authorities can simply drive captured illegals back over the border (if they are not required as domestic servants for US politicians), Australia faces massive difficulties in sending illegals back where they came from. That was shown by the Tampa case. Also, Australia is placed in an odious position if the leaky boats sink en route. SIEV-X showed that.

To get from say, Pakistan to Indonesia by air, you must have money and travel documentation. The latter is disposed of somewhere at sea between Indonesia and Australia, for quite understandable reasons, so there is the additional problem for Australia of establishing identity of the boat people on their arrival.

There are 20 million asylum seekers registered with UNHCR. You do not say we should accept all comers, or that you would like us to have open borders. What you do say (in conclusion) is this: “The message should be that there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians and a generous response to migrants and refugees”.

What would be a ‘generous response’ other than accepting anyone who turns up on our shores? We could easily ramp up the quota to make this country the world leader in refugee acceptance on a per capita basis. Suppose we accepted 100,000 refugees a year. What would you do with arrival number 100,001? Would that person be someone to 'fear'? I suggest you would be ultimately forced into a John Howard type deterrent solution.

Which is only to say that the moral issues in all this are not easy, and certainly not as easy as you suggest.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Peter Hindrup, it's offensive that you should say that women who wear hijab draw attention to themselves and therefore deserve any abuse they get as a result. The Jews in Germany and Europe tried to "be good" (except for the Warsaw uprising and few other isolated acted of resistance) and not cause trouble. It didn't do them an iota of good, did it? They were still murdered.

You see, you are shifting blame from the persecutor to the persecuted when you make such assertions. "Don't draw attention to yourselves"; "blend in and hide your differences"; etc etc.

Take, for example, my non-white parents, who took up Australian citizenship and embraced Australia over 30 years ago. They are still the subject of racism, just on the basis of their skin colour (despite them being "good" in the way that you would like - they speak English and wear western clothes).

My in-laws, in contrast, are flag-waving, hysterically patriotic poms who constantly berate Australia (which has given them a life of abundant opportunity compared to the poverty-stricken lives they left in England) and go on about the glory of England ad nauseum. They still, after more than 30 years, stubbornly cling to their British citizenship and refuse to take up Australian citizenship, and yet they are far more accepted in this society than my parents. Why? Because they are white. I haven't yet heard anyone urging them and people like them to "assimilate". Seems like if you are white it's ok to express your "difference".

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Das Rivell, if you think Carmen Lawrence is a ne plus ultra leftie, you need to get out more. Your silly appellation says more about you than it does about the author of the article.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Das Rivell, you have produced a typical apologia and defence of the indefensible we have come to expect from Howard supporters.

What Carmen Lawrence and a host of other commentators point out is that John Howard has deliberately flown in the face of a more inclusive and tolerant Australian society by giving a platform to the bigots in a way never seen in this country since the 70s. He started the process with his implicit embrace of Hansonism and has carefully nourished the juicy fantasies of the delusional by leaping onto the "culture wars" bandwagon and by giving a platform and cachet of acceptance to the sort of religious extremism and its loopy proponents that in the past would have been the stuff of comedic satire.

The rationale for this of course is that thinking Australians, of which Carmen Lawrence is one, will be busy defending the gains made in the past and will hence be distracted from the repressive agendas by stealth of the IR legislation and the terrorism laws.

At the same time Howard has created an "Other", a scapegoat for ignorant bigots to focus on. The Communists have all but disappeared, it's not cool to persecute and demonise Asians any more if you want to snuggle up close to China, you can't bang up indigenous people in Baxter, and in any case he needs the traditional land owners to be tricked into accepting an expanded uranium policy, so he created another expendable, visible and contentious minority.

Very easy for Howard too. You can send troops to Bush's oil wars then conflate the other side and its supposed dark deeds with Muslims and Islam in Australia. You can then make an issue of veiled Muslim women, which is no sillier than any other public religious manifestations from any other group of believers, and you can then get your faux-feminist backbench Rotties to join in the fray, thus pretending to the gullible that you support equality and freedom even though thinking Australians know differently.

As far as your dismissal of Iraq War casualty figures the jury is still out on the total number of Iraq war deaths as you would know if you bothered to look past the screams of the conservative commentariat when the Lancet estimate was published.

I have heard figures for the total number of deaths of between 20,000 from conservative sources and the 100,000 originally quoted by the Lancet. Most of these deaths would have been civilians killed as a consequence of aerial bombardment and combat, and deaths due to privation suffered in the early months of the war would have to be included along with civilian casualties of the insurgency.

The "hostile" and Coalition deaths are here because military dead, unlike their civilian counterparts, are carefully counted and documented.

You will say of course that Coalition soldiers know what they are signing up for, they are not conscripts etc. etc., but a long time ago foreign policy became an arm of domestic political agendas and ideologies controlled by armchair commanders acting on behalf of vested interests (the "military/industrial" confluence long feared even by conservatives like Eisenhower) which took the place of dealing with the ambitions of expansionist dictatorships like the Axis nations in the 30s.

Read some history if you don't believe me. Real history. Not Howard's preferred imperialistic rhapsodies.

Saddam could have been ousted years ago by one of those "coups" which were a specialty of the CIA. In the pantheon of cruel 20th Century tyrants he is small beer indeed. Mugabe, who is studiously ignored by the US, the Burmese junta drug lords and a host of other sociopaths will die peacefully in their beds as did Pol Pot, because their nations are of no interest to a US interest-dominated world. Pity about the people though.

So what made Iraq so special and so urgent?

Ask the relatives of the Coalition dead if they were happy to have their kids die for Halliburton.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

I don't need Carmen Lawrence's article to convince me that Australians have, and have had for the past 200 years, racist sentiments. All you have to do is listen to your friends, neighbours, workmates, fellow bus-passengers, the talk-back blaring on the local bus etc etc etc. I went to a U3A concert last year, and the loudest laugh from the audience of several hundred was in response to a joke about landmines in Afghanistan, a joke that tapped into anxieties and prejudices about gender, race relationships and violence. The problem with such jokes is that it is almost impossible to deconstruct them on the spot, and, the person who attempts to do so is accused of having "no sense of humour".

So, it is important to have well-argued, considered discussion of the whole issue of fear, prejudice and anxiety and the way they imbue the way we relate to people who differ from us in any way.

Thanks Carmen. I look forward to your next contributions.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Das, you sound pretty "cocksure" yourself!

So did George Bush and John Howard. Carmen Lawrence has never been that way.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Thanks, Das Rivell, you have helped me see the light. Emperial Washington is really just spreading democracy and freedom. Don't know how I could have missed the obvious.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

A typical, parroted harangue delivered by a ne plus ultra leftie? And with a bibliography, the authors some of which – well, I guess would be clonally minded.

In Dr Lawrence’s Australia it seems we have racists hissing, coiled ready to strike out from under every bed. There are xenophobes, slavering in anticipation, ready to pounce from every wardrobe. Discriminators covertly lurk in the dim recesses of the far corners.

Dr Lawrence and the like-minded sure do appear to live in a dark parallel universe, voraciously feeding upon each other’s dire predictions and certainties.

All this from the person that uncritically quoted, before the Iraqi war II, reports from the UN, Medact et al:

- Predictions of between 48,000 and 260,000 killed on all sides
- Further 200,000 deaths from adverse heath effects
- 500,000 requiring treatment as a result of injuries in the face of severe shortages of medical facilities and supplies
- Food shortages and consequent starvation and malnutrition affecting some 3 million people and a flood of refugees needing assistance


“The estimates of the toll of death and misery which might result from an attack on Iraq do not include the use of nuclear weapons which the U.S is said to be planning.”

All of which turned out to be BS.

Yet, in her current missive, she expects us to believe that Australia is infested with the mephitis of racists, xenophobes and discriminators. And, ironically, quotes F. D. Roosevelt, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, while drumming up a bit of fear herself.

Then, in her summary, she wants a nice, little “re-education” program to combat the "the mindlessness of the group mind".

Christ (should that be with a capital “C’ or a small “c”), I don’t which is worse. Is it the "the mindlessness of the group mind" of the far-left or the "the mindlessness of the group mind" of the far-right. Or is it their eagerness to forcibly “re-educate” the rest of us to their mindlessness.

May I humbly suggest that it’s about time people started to pull their heads in. If you feel the need to solve Australia’s problems then do so in a moderate fashion. Not with wildly exaggerated rhetoric. That way, more people might listen.


Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) once said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.”

I would, respectfully, amend that to state, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid and/or ideologically blinkered are cocksure and the rest of us full of doubt.”

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Carmen, thanks for a coherent and well presented view. This is something missing from the Australian community, the lack of which has damaged the society.

It matters not from where the views come, politically, what matters is that the ideas are put out there to inform and stimulate discussion and debate.

The following paragraph from Carmen’s piece ought to be learned and understood by all!

As another commentator put it, "in the wake of September 11 we have been painfully reminded of the virility of fear. Fear, along with terror, has become one of the staples of the ensuing political and media discourse." But such atrocities and such fear are not new, no matter how much the United States wants to see September 11 as unique in human history. Such terrorist attacks are as old as history and not likely to disappear soon. Suicide bombers are contemporary versions of an old phenomenon.

The italics are mine.

Any Australian on Australian soil who fears a terrorist attack fears life itself. There may well be an attack a some time, however, even in the event of an attack the risk to any individual is so small, and there are so many real and present risks of much greater magnitude in day to day living that the fear of terrorists is irrational.

Those who flock to holiday places such as Bali where attacks on foreigners — infidels — not specifically Australians, are in the same category as any person who deliberately engages in any high risk activities.

The following paragraph ought to spark a flurry of informed opinion — scholars, educators, medical and other individuals working with communities and individuals where these issues are part of the problems.

This raises significant issues for public policy. How should we react to racially based anger, fear and hostility? This is particularly critical at a time when there are millions of men women and children outside their country of origin. There is no continent or region of the world unaffected by the flow of people seeking refuge for economic reasons, because of civil conflicts or as a result of war and persecution.

The following is not as clear cut as it appears and deserves discussion.

I was stunned that Mrs Bishop's calls for the Hijab to be banned in schools because wearing them was an act of defiance, earned no rebuke at all from the Prime Minister.

New Zealand took many Dutch immigrants after the war. I can not remember any difficulties with the Dutch, can remember no tormenting. However two lads from Austria — I think — arrived at our school in green leather pants and silly little hats/caps. These kids were ‘bigger’ — taller? — than we were and they were tormented mercilessly by everyone.

About three days later they disappeared. Perhaps they were moved to the another school, but it is just as likely that they adopted the ‘normal’ school clobber — we had no uniform — and melded in with the crowd.

Overtime I have come to the conclusion that teasing, bullying — within limits — ostracising are in fact all part of the ‘socialising’ process. Kids, left to themselves learn how to cope with the conflict inevitable in mixing with others. Some learn to fit in, some learn the skills of being useful to those who can protect them, some learn to use humour to deflect difficulties and some of us simply learn to fight, and I don’t just mean physically!

It is my contention that it far better to learn at four, or five or six that annoying others has consequences, to learn that a smack in the mouth is not life-threatening, that you do not die of a bloody nose. I believe that kids that are basically left to themselves learn the skills necessary to deflect the problems that arise in associating with others in a manner that suits their personality.

So to the wearing of the Hijab. Those who wear the Hijab in Australia choose to draw attention to themselves. They do this in the same way as women who choose to wear extremely provocative clothing or gay men who present an exaggerated ‘camp’ persona.

When I was young there were young women who backpacked across Asia who believed that they ‘had the right’ to wear shorts and skimpy tops on their journey, and wondered why they had difficulties while others encountered none.

There are young women today who tell me that they have the right to dress how they like, and go where they like, when they like.

I do not question their right to do this, I do however question their common sense. In an ideal world they would be right, we do not however live in an ideal world.

While not in any way condoning those who attack these people, I believe that everyone has a duty to look to their own safety.

Australian society would have been better served had their been a requirement requiring all immigrant children to attend the local public school up to and including the second generation, and all immigrants been required to attend language classes, social gatherings including swimming sessions and be required to wear ‘normal’ community dress while doing so.

That nobody in the community be permitted to display any religious symbol in public except on whichever day is their religion’s Holy day, on special occasions, and that this also apply to the wearing of ‘National dress’.

If this had been done at least from the beginning of large scale, non English speaking people immigration, with careful management to ensure that no school received more than a small percentage of any one religion or ethnic group, and the social gatherings been organised in such a manner that there was a greater number of established Australian families than immigrants then we probably would not have the problems we have today.

Kids integrate readily enough, women tend to integrate more easily than men and compelling immigrants to mix and socialise with Australians would break down the influence and power of the males much more quickly than the present system.

For those who think this ‘draconian’ I refer you to the imminent anti terrorist laws.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Thank you , Dr Lawrence, and I look forward to reading more. I have been so depressed lately at what that rodent Howard is doing to our wonderful country. As for your leader, Beazley , well as an ex member of the ALP I can say that the sooner he is booted out the better it will be. He is a disgrace.

And the ALP should hang its collective heads in shame at continuing to support such a coward who does nothing but agree with Howard. My Macquarie Dictionary defines the word "Opposition" as "the action of opposing". Someone should remind Beazley of this fact. But no, he just agrees meekly that these laws are needed to fight terrorism.

I am so damn sick of the manipulation of the public's fear by Howard so he can justify whatever draconian laws he wishes to implement. Just how long is he going to get away with it before people start to wake up? Will innocent people have to start to "disappear" before they start to question why? Or doesn’t anyone care anymore?

I am glad that my mother didn't live to see this day. She would be horrified. My mother was Spanish and a little girl living in Spain during the horror of the Spanish Civil War. Many of her family fought on the Socialist side. Her family fled across the border into Gibraltar and eventually to England to escape.

Some family members that remained in Spain "disappeared" under Franco. During the war in England she helped supply the French underground with food and supplies . She was always a staunch supporter of freedom of speech and the rights of the individual. My father was in the British Army and fought in the war against Hitler and fascism. I know that millions of others across the world have their own tales to tell of fighting against oppression. Was all that fighting, sacrifice and hardship for nothing? Today I have to wonder if we have all come full circle and have to start the fight all over again.

I guess I am my parent's daughter as I will fight in my own little way for my right, for my children and their future children's right to a free society where we can all live in peace. It may seem really , really bleak right now but knowing there is a forum like this one, where people really care is surely a giant step in the right direction.
Thank you , Margo, for continuing to care and for keeping us informed.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Margo - OK, both Kevin & Carmen are well suited to the leadership. I hold both in very high regard, but was leaning Carmen's way due to her experience. I certainly would like to see Kevin as leader. For the sake of the nation & effective opposition till the next election maybe we should be urging Kevin to challenge. How much more damage can the Coalition do to Australian society & our reputation on human rights between now & the next election without effective opposition. I know Webdiary is meant to be a politically neutral forum but I think it is definatley PRO-democracy. Without effective opposition, this Gov't has unfettered power. Look at how the institution of parliament & democracy is being bastardised by JWH

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Carmen, this a great topic, very timely too. I won't comment as yet as I would like to read all 4 lectures before jumping in too much. More of these articles please!

One thing I would like to raise is the type of government we, Australians, have today. You see, apart from actually having a right to vote we don't really have much choice, at all levels of government.

We are given the right to vote but no real choice in who we vote for. All Parties pre select amongst people the public will never know. From my perspective we don't have democracy at all, particularly today with our Presidential style of government which demands blind obedience from all MP's and Members of the Party. Horror of horrors, a new Bjelke Petersen has been preselected for the Nationals Party, State level only.

I don't know how people in Peter Garrett's electorate feel, or Malcolm Turnbull's but they had no choice in who was preselected even after preselection was made in Peter Garrett's case. As such I cannot agree that we have a democracy at all.

I look forward to the further lectures but I am sure it will take me a while to digest and think about what you have to say.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

Anyone who knows the feeling of being marginalised and has any sensitivity will be feeling very real fear. I also have been very aware of how people and situations can change.

Multiculturalism could not and did not relieve me of my fears, because it never adequately addressed the existential problems, for my fears have always been with me in this country even under all the labor governments of the past. But at least they were not being openly exploited as they are now.

Carmen’s essay is honest and I only hope the message is understood by the larger Australian population.

re: Carmen Lawrence on fear and public policy

I have been fearful ever since the last federal election of all these things coming to pass. When I look at the public plans for significant expansion of detention centres on DIMIAs website, I fear even more - new centres are being planned in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Darwin among other places (see here).

Only a few years ago Guantanamo bay was a detention centre for asylum seekers, just like Villawood or Baxter. Today it is a detention centre for political undesirables.

AAP reported just yesterday of secret CIA prisons operating all over eastern Europe. Dachau too, began as a detention centre for political prisoners and evolved into a part of the final solution only over a long period of years. I too have read obsessively about totalitarian regimes and how human beings throughout history have been capable of such terrible collective evil towards marginalised, dehumanised "others", and the more I read, the more I fear.

I went into a deep depression after the last Federal election, and even spoke to friends of what I should do if the time came when I would be detained for my political beliefs, or just for my race, for I am a non-white (non-Muslim) Australian in an increasingly racially polarised society. I began fearing for my small children, who are of mixed race, and what sort of society they would be living in. Will there be any place for mixed race families in the worst possible Australia of the future, or one day, will my husband have to come and protest outside Villawood to get me released, a’la Rosentrasse?

I have even wondered, if the crunch comes, if I could dye my younger child's dark brown hair a shade of blonde, so he might pass as white and escape genocide. My older child, well, she looks more like me than her father, so she may not escape if my worst fears come to pass. My husband is informed and sympathetic, but as a white, doesn’t fully understand my fears, nor my obsessive need to devour history books and try to understand the lessons of history. He can only take so much of it, to be able to carry on and function normally on a daily basis.

Interestingly, he is considered more “Australian” than me, even though his family migrated here from the UK some six years after mine did from a less “accepted” country.

On the day after the election, one of my friends, who lives on a farm in Queenland, jokingly told me I could bring the kids and come and hide out with her if things got bad. But even she, a radical leftie when we were at school together many years ago, doesn't believe it will come to that. As a successful professional who in times of increasing economic hardship definitely feels racially based resentment from less affluent white people (because of the cars we drive, the school uniforms our children wear, the house we live in).....the sort of resentment that makes me believe that my neighbours will smile to themselves if I am dragged away one night, and will perhaps even be the first to come with the mobs to loot my belongings and torch down my home.

I was born in a country where such things actually happened in very recent histroy, so don't tell me it can't happen here. I have relatives who hid in a wardrobe while their 87 year old grandmother was being beaten to death a few feet away by mobs, which included their previously courteous neighbours.

I am not being paranoid - just a few weeks ago, while walking in a shopping centre in an affluent part of Sydney, holding my 4-year old's hand, a middle aged white man aggressively slammed his shoulder into me and nearly knocked me down. I was too intimidated and vulnerable (with a small child in tow) to say anything, and other people simply looked away. And if my fears are such, can you imagine the fears of Muslim Australians?

One of my PhD students, a young Muslim man with a wife and small son, is writing one chapter of his thesis on the health and human rights aspects of sylum seeker detention. I suggested to him that he submit a paper, based on his chapter to a medical journal, and his reply was “I just can’t risk it. With these new sedition laws, I can’t put my name to a paper on this topic in the public domain.”

His young wife, also a postgraduate student (who wears hijab) had eggs and other projectiles thrown at her while heavily pregnant and walking to the local hospital. Other Muslims have told me of similar abuse while wearing hijab. So you see, the dehumanising process is already well advanced in Australia, thanks to a decade of John Howard.

We need you as PM, or at least as leader of the opposition, Dr Lawrence. I'm so glad there is at least one decent, moral person in the ALP.

However, research such as the Milgram experiment also shows us that less than 20% of the population are capable of independent thought and of standing up for what is morally right, and that the vast majority will never question even the most abhorrent of commands from authority. The vast majority will succumb to propaganda and the politics of fear, and will be willing particpants in the process. Many variations on the Milgram experiment have been performed, and all show the same, depressing thing. One variation on the experiment did show that, if one among the subjects takes on a leadership role and challenges authority, more people become willing to follow their initiative.

At this time in Australia, the right kind of leadership/opposition is critical, or my worst fears may come to pass.

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Margo Kingston

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