is multiculturalism a myth

The first time somebody posed this question was in my undergraduate household in St Leonards, when I was completing my literature degree at Macquarie Uni in 1975. The argument ran that by exaggerating someone’s ethnicity I was denying their humanity in common with my own. In fact, it was a typically clever clever undergrad verbal strategy; it allowed a member of the establishment to get out of acknowledging the differences that happened to non-English kids like me, all our lives. He was an English kid, whose dad was being a colonial overlord in Hong Kong. He was parked in another colony [at least English speaking] for the duration.

I was reading Durrell’s Alexandria Quartets & the poetry of Cavafy, so I enrolled in Arabic 1 at Syd Uni, mistake in so many ways. Curiously, the dept structure acknowledged the semitism in common between Jews & Arabs; their home rooms were next door to each other.

The head of Arabic studies was a likeable Jordanian, but our tutor was an Englishman, who managed to killjoy the subject; we had started with a large class of enthusiastic people. By the time I decided to leave I noticed another gay guy with flamboyantly dyed hair who stopped showing up at tutorials. What clinched it for me was when the Pom set us a sentence to translate: I HIT THE MAN WHOSE HAND WAS IN MY POCKET.

Soon after, I flew to Europe, London, took the magic bus to Athens & got a visa for Egypt; the embassy had endured a recent bomb threat, indicator of things to come. I spent 6 magnificent weeks in Egypt, exploring the gay community, which seemed so ubiquitous I often made the mistake of thinking everyone was gay. “Shufti ami” was the phrase gays used to identify each other. At the pyramids I devised a strategy to distract the persistent hawkers, I would say: “mish-kelim englizi”, “I don’t speak English”. Reactions to this had my Egyptian friends pissing themselves laughing. I flew to Amman, Jordan, where everyone, on exiting the plane, was body searched; never had I been so thoroughly groped. When I recovered from the shock, I stood around, enjoying the reactions of my fellow travellers. I shared a taxi with others, from Amman to Damascus; at one point the river Jordan was pointed out to me, gleaming in the moonlight. I wanted to stop & enjoy the spectacle, but was told we would have been shot at by Israeli border guards.

Last week’s ABC Q&A session focused on the prospect of Islamic terrorism; at the left hand side of the panel, a geographical fact noted by the speaker, was placed an Iranian Marxist writer, who rubbished the emphasis on multiculturalism. Culture, he said, was a myth. From a dialectical materialist perspective, I guess this had to be so. It tallies with the argument above, from my undergrad housemate.

But as the discussion progressed Gareth Evans spoke as the elected rep of one of the most linguistically diverse areas in Oz, in the world. He added that communities had not only rights, but obligations, to get on with other, adjoining communities.

When SBS showed a doco about an Arabic youth dropin centre in western Sydney, there was a scene where the hijab wearing receptionist was opening a letter from a gay newspaper, she handled it as if disposing of a dog turd; her face wore a really unpleasant sneer.

Similarly, when I moved into my current address 20 years ago, I discovered it to be a predominantly Macedonian Yugoslav community; I thought I would be welcomed as part Yugoslav. Instead, the illiterate drunkard next door translated my Slovenian heritage into Croatian; his label for me was “hrvatski pedar”, “Croatian poofter”. His wife & uneducated son would also sneer & call me “poofer”.

The issue of same sex marriage rights for members of the GLBTQ communities was not taken seriously by the Federal Labor governments of Kevin Rudd & Julia Gillard because substantial constituencies in western Sydney were composed of multicultural communities which were profoundly conservative about gay rights. Not just Arabic but Hindu & Asian. Darlinghurst was a refuge for GLBTQ members of those communities, escaping familial oppression.

Of course, we will be the last to achieve recognition as a community. So, perhaps, it might be felicitious to join with the Iranian Marxist; sadly the format did not leave enough time to explore exactly his ideology. The last gay communist I engaged in conversation I broached the subject of internment camps in Cuba set up by Castro to sequester GLBTQ folk, as described in Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series of novels about life in San Francisco. His response was that at least Castro had retained control of his country’s means of production, a fair indicator of his ideological priorities.

I know, we simply have to learn to get along with each other; in the words of a great gay poet, W. H. Auden: “we must love one another or die”.


About anton veenstra

tapestry weaver, fibre artist, gay/qr activist, multiculturalist
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2 Responses to is multiculturalism a myth

  1. Steadfast says:

    I like that Q&A. The young Tasneem Chopra, Chair, Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights was so articulate. The questions asked caused some good discussion and the Marxist in the left corner reminded one of some of the value of Marxist criticism/analysis – which has suffered in the post-modern period and then with the collapse of the /soviet bloc of countries. (I’m saying that Marxist analysis has some value but that it is not everything and other analysis also throws up viable propositions.)
    A question from the floor of a person from the Melbourne Islamic Council was not sufficiently addressed by the panel except Gareth Evans used it to point out the banality of our current Prime Minister’s “Team Australia” position. The questioner pointed out that the slogan was being used to put people off side BEFORE any consultation, in the same way as the fundamentalist Christian thing of George Bush – ‘you’re either with me or against me’.
    The issue of Multiculturalism in Australia I think, will only become an issue once the dominant Anglo Saxon heritage is no longer the dominant one. People of other heritages have to conform to the dominant Anglo one and have had to since European settlement on this continent. Even the indigenous people, in order to survive in any way, have had to adjust their ways of living to be apposite to the Anglo cultural norms.
    Islam will challenge the current notion of Australian into the future. Until recently, the migrant influx, if not always Anglo, was at least Christian of some sort and through that some elision with the Anglo Australian happened with the Italian, Greek, Balkans and Baltic people. Even the Asians who have arrived since the 1970’s have Christian facilitated cultures. People from the Islamic countries have different social norms and there are more vast difference between Shia and Sunni Moslems then there is between Catholic/Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

  2. Boswell’s books about Christianity Judaism & Islam co-existing peacefully in Syrian ruled medieval Spain are pertinent to today’s situation.

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