Australians Love Refugees, Hate ‘Boat People’?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

When it comes to ‘boat people’, majority Australian opinion is in check with government policy and government policy is in check with majority public opinion which holds that boats should be turned back, and anyone who gets through should be sent to mandatory indefinite offshore detention.

Verification of this claim is readily at hand. Simply poke your head out of your terrace house window and ask a passer-by, or stop the next car you see on the main drag of your town, or ask the bloke next door mowing the lawn. People are willing—eager, even—to express their opinions on ‘boat people’.

More rigorous data tells the same story. A Scanlon Foundation survey found that 41% of people surveyed wanted to either turn back the boats or keep the asylum seekers in permanent detention pending removal. Another 30% would allow only for temporary residence in Australia (the instability caused by temporary visas has been shown to cause serious mental health illnesses). Just 24% would allow for permanent residence.

Similarly, a Lowy Institute poll on asylum seekers found that 71% of people thought the Australian government should turn back boats when it is safe to do so, and, failing that, 59% wanted offshore processing. Most polls are broadly consistent with these findings.

However, to confuse the situation, a poll by Essential Research found that 49% of people think boat people should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be refugees—a minority of respondents, but still a significant level of support given the ongoing climate of antipathy.

This raises an important question: what percentage of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum in Australia are subsequently found to be refugees? Historically, the figure has varied year-to-year, but the range tends to stick within 70–95%. That is, the overwhelming majority of all ‘boat people’ are refugees.

Add these facts and poll findings together and a contradiction seemingly appears: most Australians support turning refugees away—the unavoidable consequence of turning boats back when most the ‘boat people’ are refugees—but a portion of those very same Australians think the ‘boat people’ (the ones they want turned back) should be allowed to stay in Australia. Welcome them on one hand, send them packing on the other.

Here’s how the discrepancy makes sense. The Essential Research survey found that 43% of people think most ‘boat people’ are not genuine refugees, and a further 25% don’t know one way or the other. In total, 68% of people are in the dark about the single-most important fact about the asylum seekers who come by boat—that most of them are refugees.

Consider this correlation: 61% of people think that the government’s approach to ‘boat people’ is either just right or too soft, and 68% of people are ill-informed about who ‘boat people’ are. This is not a coincidence.

What is clear is that Australians do not like ‘boat people’. But that finding is very specific and comes with a caveat: it turns out they have little issue with refugees generally. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Australians support the Australian refugee resettlement program that takes refugees who are assessed and placed by the UNHCR.

The Scanlon Foundation found that between 2010 and 2012 support for the program increased from 67% to 75%. To be clear, resettlement refugees come by plane, not boat.

What gives? Well, our politicians have known for years. It’s the boats, stupid.

Australians don’t fear refugees. They fear ‘boat people’. And if you want to know why—read this.

Captain Cook Graffiti Paints a Confused Picture

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Ahead of Australia Day, the statue of Captain Cook in St Kilda, Melbourne, has been smeared with pink paint (never mind that the paint job is actually quite striking, and Cook makes a fine, if unexpected, dandy). The graffitiing of Cook memorials is part of a protest that has been going on for years.

Take the Cook statue in Hyde Park, Sydney. Paint bombs were thrown at it on Australia Day morning in 2013. More recently, on 26 August 2017, the same statute was graffitied with the words, “CHANGE THE DATE” and “NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE”.

There is another well-known monument and memorial to Cook in Melbourne. Though Cook never lived in Australia (British settlement was not for nine years after his death in Hawaii), in 1934 his parents’ cottage was dismantled in North Yorkshire, loaded into barrels and shipped across the seas, where it was reassembled at Fitzroy Gardens.

In 2014, that cottage was vandalised three days before Australia Day. Fluorescent orange, green and yellow paint bombs coloured the brickwork and tiles. Black paint spelled out: “26th Jan Australia’s SHAME!!!” A penis or other human appendage may also have been depicted, though due to poor artistry that remains conjectural.

The year before, two days after Australia Day, the cottage was paint-bombed. Then on 4 February a message was painted on the wall: “Cappy Cook was a crook killer liar theif [and while I was going to put in brackets [sic] to suggest a misspelling, further research suggests the author of the graffiti was really quite clever, using the alternate 18th century spelling of thief from Cook’s time: theif)”.

These actions have proved wildly unpopular in the Australian mainstream, with denunciations across both popular and social media. Yet despite the continuing public interest in Cook, for many years the legend and status of Cook have been on the radar of revisionist cultural-theory academics.

This is part of a backlash against the Great Man History of the 20th century in which predominantly white male figures were credited with almost single-handedly advancing history.

For an unrelenting two hundred years, Cook was the poster boy of explorers.  In Australia, his image and legend were used to promote the greatness of the country. “Australia’s history began, when Captain Cook anchored in Botany Bay in 1770,” stated one poster from the 1950s.

A few years later, Australia’s most famous historian, Manning Clark, said something similar in the opening line of his monumental History of Australia: “Civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century.” He would later regret this.

In the 80s and 90s, the tide began to turn against Great Man History, which meant, given his symbolic value, it also turned against Cook. His name became attached to an altogether different aspect of our history—the dispossession, oppression and slaughter of Indigenous Australians. Australia’s Columbus suddenly became all too Columbus-like.

Cook is now claimed by both camps. By the postmodern theorists who denounce the colonial age of which he was such an integral part, and by popular writers who continue to write laudatory books, articles and television shows announcing his greatness.

Today, the irony of targeting Cook monuments to denounce Australia Day and the colonial history of Australia is that Cook neither discovered nor settled the land. It is a common error.

A survey I conducted at a university among first-year Australian history students found that 43% of those students believed the British were the first Europeans to discover Australia, and 46% thought first discovery occurred in 1770 or later. In fact, it was the Dutch who did the most to discover Australia to Europe, starting in 1606.

The other irony is that Cook truly was a great man, certainly so far as his duties as a naval captain were concerned. He inspired his men, kept them alive in an era where half or more of one’s crew could be expected to perish on long voyages, and he entered and explored Antarctic waters besieged by icebergs in a big wooden ship—arguably the greatest feat of exploration in history.

Cappy Cook was not a crook, nor liar nor thief nor killer. He was an instrument of his time—and now a symbol with little relationship to his uses by patriots and anarchists alike.

Trump Supporters and the Modular Mind

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Now that it’s done—Trump is President—the question becomes, how did it happen? How did all those people see his misogyny, sexual lechery, crassness, and willingness to lie and still decide he was the one to lead America into the future? The answer is the modular brain.

Pundits like Bill Maher would have us believe that Trump supporters are simply vile and stupid people, filled with hate and xenophobia. That does not go far to explaining it, though. So often, when a Trump supporter was engaged—quietly, not in a screaming match—they proved to be sympathetic, even appealing, humans. They were striving to understand a confounding world, they listened to those who had another viewpoint, they seemed to just want good things for people. Many had very difficult lives from which they simply sought the hope of better prospects for self or the next generation.

And, many acknowledged Trump’s enormous character flaws. They recognised the sexism and his bestial approach to women, his erratic behaviour, his love of name calling and fudging facts. For liberals, that was simply grist for their established position: it gave them perfect reasons not to vote for him (which they weren’t going to do anyway). But they also thought they should be reasons for others not to vote for him.

And yet none of it mattered because, as Professor Robert Kurzban explains in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, different parts of the brain take over for different tasks. So, when potential supporters assessed Trump as a personality—assessing him the way we assess every person we meet in a social setting—the social part of their brain completely understood that he was a dubious character. There are so many interviews and clips with supporters where we see this.

But when it came to making a political decision, a decision seemingly about much bigger things than personality—we’re talking things like the economy and immigration and international relations—different modules of their brain kicked in.

These are the modules that were concerned in our evolutionary history with basic survival. Getting an advantage over competitors. Securing enough food. Securing a stable community that protected you and which you protected. In evolutionary times, did it matter that the most powerful members of your tribe were crass cave-men who grabbed their crotch and the crotch of their fellow cave-women? No, there was no time to worry about such niceties when survival was paramount. And that, in the eyes of many Americans, is what was on the line: survival.

When survival and prosperity is at stake, what mattered way back then in evolutionary times, and what matters now whether people wish to believe it or not, is power and projected power. Leaders in evolutionary times had to fight and kill or, at the least, dominate. That is the module—or set of modules—of the brain that were engaged to make the political decision to vote for Trump. Not the module about niceness, personality, or abstract values. It was the modules about threats and survival, and it didn’t matter whether those threats were illusory or real.

For people in America lacking prosperity, whose communities had suffered from job and infrastructure losses while they saw foreigners continue to enter their country and chase the dream that had seemed to escape them, Trump was power and he was promise.

America ended up with President Trump because the decision-making modules in millions of brains simply didn’t care that Trump is a repulsive character. He promised them things that they wanted—bring back the coal industry, make America great again, secure borders, kill unfair trade agreements, all vague things without a plan behind them—and he seemed like the sort of powerful man who could make it come true.

Hillary Clinton? She just promised decency, or at least that is what Trump supporters heard. Decency in a time of national upheaval and during a fight for survival—who cares, thought the brains of the Trump supporters?

And that is why there was so much said about Clinton’s emails. People who held decent values in one module of their brain but wanted to vote for Trump according to a different module experienced dissonance. Their brain sought to resolve that disagreement, and did so with confabulation. ‘Oh, I mustn’t like or be voting for Hillary Clinton because of the emails.’

The brain of the evolutionary beast won out, and so now Chief Cave Man Trump is President.

Australian Characters

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

I recently finished writing an article on male readers of romance novels. I interviewed one particular Australian named Len—a real character.

I’ve lived in London for a year now, and though I continue to have contact with Australians, it’s mostly with the sort of urban or middle-class sorts likely to travel through or live in such a sprawling, cosmopolitan metropolis. Which is to say, there’s not an enormous amount of variety in the Australians here. They—we—mostly sound the same, look the same, talk the same, think the same.

But Len—he’s a different beast. Born, raised and made a life in rural NSW. When he greeted me over the phone from the other side of the world it was like I was listening to a crude Australian film where the director insists his actors ratchet up the ocker accent for the sake of playing to an international stereotype. A guttural, almost crow-like timbre that comes from the bottom of the throat washed every of Len’s words; the cadence was broken and sentences trailed off into…; and there were silences—long thinking silences that might roll into the rest of a thought or might just as well remain a silence. None of this is to suggest Len was anything less than articulate, well considered, and engaging—only that his idiom and his persona were so very different to what most people know.

I suppose I have been thinking about this—about the fact that there are so many interesting sorts across Australia, away from the lights and the cities—because my Mum reminded me in a letter how lucky she has been (and I have been being the child at her side) in the vast array of characters that have passed through her life. The cities have their own benefits, but true diversity of personality, traits and experiences is something that the country produces, par excellence.

The passage from my mum’s letter is worth sharing:

“Sweating like a pig.” These hot days had me thinking. I’ve worked and raised pigs—never seen them sweat; (but must) so asked Big Steve. “Never seen ‘em sweat,” he said. “But I saw an old boar rooting for a solid hour once and he never raised a sweat.” I decided not to ask Steve why he watched for an hour.

The Global Gum Tree Invasion

No Learning No Hugging - the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

You can’t grow up in the Australian bush without being aware of the blight of invasive pests, either because you’re hunting them out with pick, rifle, or poison, or because a tract of land has been rendered useless. Foxes, cane toads, rabbits, camels; prickly pear, lantana, buffel grass, bridal creeper. From desert to coast, hundreds of species have irrevocably changed Australia, almost as much as humans.

Of course, the plants and animals didn’t nefariously seek out a country to conquer. Our European forebears brought the pests to Australia. These men and women (but mostly men) harboured an archaic notion of replacing the uncultivated and uncivilised with the sort of respectable, noble plants and animals one knew back home­—which is to say, throughout Europe, and specifically England. Beast and bush merely did what they were programmed to do: survive and reproduce.

It’s strange to think that once people realised how destructive introduced species could be they didn’t even consider stopping the practice; they doubled down instead, introducing new pests to destroy other pests. Made sense at the time, no doubt.

These days, things have changed. Australians have come to love their landscapes and native plants and animals, and hate the invasive species that threaten them (unless they’re brumbies; neither horses nor horse-lovers are rational).

For me—a lad from the country—it was a powerful and curious experience to finally leave Australia and discover that various Australian species, long the underdog, have reversed the flow in places. On a three month trip through South America, I was looking out a bus window, convinced I was seeing gum trees pocking the arid hillsides of barren Chilean farmland.

There are dozens of different species of gum tree, but they all possess similar characteristics: the laconic and irregular branches; either smooth and pale or chunky and nobbled bark that bleeds colour; evergreen leaves that sprout lime green then dull into leathery pastels; and the scent.

A gum tree is a eucalypt, and there is no mistaking the scent of eucalyptus oil. I had no doubt: our humble trees were reforesting the barren hills of deforested Chile. I presume it’s because the eucalypt is a famously hardy genus of tree. Plant it and it grows. Survives with little water. Builds bulk fast, and the wood of the trunk is good for building.

As I moved north I noticed more gum trees in Bolivia and Ecuador. I travelled to other countries, and again I saw gum trees reforesting slopes or lining the road, purposely planted. The Philippines. France. Belgium. Morocco. Spain.

And here, the motherland—England—the country responsible for so many Australian pests. I see them not randomly poking out of English hillsides, but planted in people’s yards as ornaments.

There is a certain route I travel every other day, and every time I do, without fail, I notice the two homes planted with gum trees. It’s involuntary. I cannot help but see them, gaze at them, smell the air for scent of them, any more than a rabbit can see a spotlight and resist the urge to turn and stare.

It’s the English winter when the gum trees are most obvious, for that’s the time when every other tree has shed its foliage. But not my gum trees. They stand resolute, covered in the hardy green leaves of a tree that doesn’t give a damn.

Every time I see them—and I know this is as irrational as horse-love—I feel a pang of pride.

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