Scott Poynting: Racism, Arabs and the media

Issue 

Bin Laden in the Suburbs: Criminalising the Arab Other

Scott Poynting, Greg Noble, Paul Tabar, and Jock Collins
Sydney Institute of Criminology, 2004
352 pages, $45, (pb)

Bin Laden in the Suburbs argues that we are witnessing the emergence of the "Arab Other" as the pre-eminent "folk devil" of our time, which functions in the national imaginary to prop up the project of national belonging. It has little to do with the lived experiences of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim Australians, and everything to do with a host of social anxieties which overlap in a series of moral panics. Green Left Weekly's Jim Casey interviewed Scott Poynting about the book.

Bin Laden in the Suburbs is a serious academic work, but written in an extremely accessible style. How has it been received?

It's early days yet. The book was only launched recently. While the arguments are not always expressed in the style and manner of scholarship, they are based on serious research. If you are going to argue against the [right-wing tabloid commentator] Piers Ackermans of this world, you can't only rely on the strength of your evidence and the coherence of your argument, you also have to engage to some extent in the same type of rhetoric and polemic as they do.

The majority of the book is an exposition of the ways in which the state and the media have defined and criminalised the Arab Other. The impact of south-west Sydney gang rapes [connected in the tabloid media with "middle eastern" gangs] upon the debate is one example of this. How were these events racialised?

The construction of the Arab Other as criminal incorporates the idea of Arab men as sexually violent, irrationally violent, lacking in civilised values, having a propensity toward terrorist action and so on. In some ways the [media] coverage of the south-west Sydney sexual assaults was a re-stating of all of those elements that had already been run out in 1991 [the first US war against Iraq]. The thing about group sexual assault in Australia is that it has a very long history running from the early stages of colonisation, when European men engaged in gang rape of Indigenous women. As Pat O'Shane pointed out, there is something a little wrong with people suddenly "discovering" the phenomenon. There is a long history of these sorts of crimes but they have not been traditionally seen in terms of the ethnicity of the offenders. By racialising these crimes, the problems of masculine behaviour are let off the hook.

You develop the concept of "dog whistling" to particular effect. What role does it play at the moment?

It is called "dog whistling" because the message is like a dog whistle, in that it can only be heard by those it is directed at. So if you want to tell One Nation supporters that you agree with them you say something that lets them know this, without alienating those sections of the community hostile to Hansonite ideas. Dog-whistle journalism is particularly insidious. Tabloid papers and talk-back radio use these techniques well. We use the example in the book of the furor around the McDonalds that developed a halal [Muslim acceptable] menu. The coverage was ostensibly sympathetic, but it opened the space for a whole range of anti-Arab racists to raise their heads. We can see it now in the federal election. PM John Howard and [Labor leader] Mark Latham have raised the "border protection" stuff again. It's code for stopping refugees, but avoids saying that explicitly.

You explain how fear is a powerful tool for the state and the mass media in the way they construct mainstream understanding of these issues. What are the risks for the ruling class, and the corporate media, with this strategy?

The continual manufacturing of fear is potentially a problem. It only works as long as you have the answers to assuage the fears you have called up. If whatever the fear is focused on continues, be it terrorism or gun-toting gangs, then you run the risk of appearing unable to control it. As far as the dangers for the ruling class as a class, they are minimal.

It can, however, be counterproductive for particular coalitions of class fractions inside the ruling class. So US President George Bush and his associates run the risk, if they push the" war on terror" line too hard, of being seen to be weak when the problem refuses to go away. But all that means is that the relations of forces change and a new coalition of fractions of capital will come forward. It is not as if [Democratic Party presidential candidate] John Kerry is any less of a capitalist than Bush.

Where do you see this fear coming from?

It's from the uncertainty experienced by particular fractions of society. For those at the sharp end of the restructuring process (what is often called globalisation), and particularly those who had been in a reasonably privileged position before on the basis of being white Anglo-Celtic, the changes in society have engendered real uncertainty and fear. In the same way that the petit bourgeois and lumpen proletariat in Germany in the 1930s identified Jews as being the cause of their problems, similarly the supporters of Pauline Hanson think their problems are caused by either non-European immigrants or by Indigenous people being favoured over them.

Multiculturalism has been under attack from the right for years now. There is also a critique of the concept from the left. Do you feel the concept is salvageable, and if so how can we go about it?

There is no point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Multiculturalism in the early 1970s had both progressive moments, when it was an organising space for social change, and it also had moments of hosing down the more vocal and increasingly organised demands of the newly active groups. It was both a progressive movement and a moment of social control at the same time.

I think there is still enough inequity that we need the provision of resources on the basis of different needs. This is still important. It doesn't mean that the notion need to be fragmented into a multiplicity of tribes, as the new right would suggest. Rather we need to focus that all Australians have a right to equality of outcome.

You close the book with a discussion of redefining what it is to be an ordinary Australian. Do you see any potential problems with the implicit nationalism of the term?

I am more interested in redefining what it means to be a citizen — trying to develop what we think should be the given human rights of an individual in a given society. Now for some time yet, those societies will be organised as nation states. We cannot avoid that. I am not interested, though, in working out what it means to be Australian. I'm sick of that. The real challenge is to working out how to construct citizenship here, however society is defined.

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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