A few months ago, the New York Times announced it was shipping its controversial op-ed writer Bari Weiss off to Australia for a little while. Now, we are finally seeing the results of that trip, one of which comes in the form of an op-ed in yesterday’s Times titled, “Australians Have More Fun.” Folks, it’s very bad.
I moved to Australia from New York about ten months ago, which is not nearly enough time to really get know a place. But even using my relatively basic understanding of Australian culture and politics, it’s painfully obvious to see that Weiss has absolutely no idea what she’s talking about.
In her op-ed, Weiss paints Australia as basically a warmer and more chilled Sweden: a social democracy with free healthcare, a high minimum wage, and bountiful economic opportunity, plus plenty of time to relax and drink beers on the beach. (Interestingly, I can’t find support in any of her other columns for instituting policies that would allow for any such things in the U.S.)
It’s true that Australia is far ahead of the States when it comes to treating its population with a modicum of decency. Paid maternity and paternity leave, child tax benefits, and unemployment benefits make a huge difference in quality of life. Weiss notes that Australians are better at vacationing, which is true, but it sure helps when you get five weeks of paid time-off.
But Weiss’ central argument is not that Australia’s social safety net or pretty beaches make it great, but that people here are less divided than we are in the States. This is where her piece goes from pointless and inane to obnoxiously stupid and misleading.
“It is a place where things just work. The politics are moderate. The economy is roaring (at least for now). The strangers are helpful,” she writes early in the piece.
Later on, she hammers home the point:
Australians are also, mercifully, not in the midst of a raging culture war. At home, friends are largely delineated by political tribe; couples that date across the divide are newsworthy. Here, it is normal. The political is not personal, and that’s not just because so many of the big issues that tear Americans apart (health care, guns, the social safety net) are settled. It’s that Australians never seem to doubt that there is more to life than politics.
This idea of Australia as a place where people can simply agree to disagree on the hot button issues of the day in no way resembles my experience of living here. You don’t even have to leave the major cities to find white Australians seething with resentment over immigrants invading and “transforming” their country. A study in 2017 found that half of Australians would support limiting the immigration of Muslims, while three quarters felt Australia couldn’t accommodate more immigrants. In a country roughly the same size of the continental U.S., but with a population 13-times smaller, anti-immigration bumper stickers reading “Fuck Off, We’re Full” are commonplace.
That Weiss’ piece came out this week emphasizes how clueless it is. Last weekend, 150 virulent racists in Melbourne, where I currently live, rallied to “take back” a beach from African migrants who dared to play soccer in public. The far-right mob was allegedly there to “discuss” the manufactured “problem” of “African gang violence,” a fear-mongering tactic that is a cover for xenophobia and racism against recent immigrants, functioning similarly to the overstated threat of MS-13 in the U.S.
At the rally, hosted by convicted criminals Neil Erickson and Blair Cottrell, the fascists were caught on camera giving enthusiastic Nazi salutes and sporting Nazi insignia, while waving billowing Australian flags. The event was attended by Fraser Anning, a senator from the northern state of Queensland. Anning, formerly best known for invoking Hitler’s “final solution” in his first speech to parliament, gave the protesters and their disgusting ideas an air of legitimacy. He has billed the public for his business class flight to attend the rally.
These people may be on the fringes, but their hatred, like the bigotry of Trump supporters, didn’t appear out of thin air. Starting in the ‘90s, Australian Prime Minister John Howard began fanning the flames of xenophobia and racism in order to whip up the fear of resentful white conservatives. Since then, governments on both the right and the left have become progressively more hardline on immigration and more brutal in their treatment of refugees and migrants. The current conservative administration’s Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, is a vile racist who repeats white supremacist talking points about “white genocide” word for word. Though there hasn’t yet been a moment here like Trump’s election, or Brexit, which demarcates a new age of reaction in Australia, horrific abuses of minorities and alarming demonstrations of hatred are happening all the same.
There is one aspect of Australian culture that Weiss nails: the complacency that many upper-middle-class, white Australians feel in the face of conflicts raging around them.
“Another obstacle [to Australia’s success] might be how generally pleasant life here is,” she writes. “When you’ve got a good thing going, it’s hard to justify taking a risk that will most likely result in failure.”
It’s true: Australia has made life just bearable enough for most people that it’s not particularly hard for them to put migrant camps and racist ministers out of their minds. But intentional blindness to reality doesn’t make that reality go away. When you get outside of the privileged circles with whom Weiss seems to have spent all of her trip and actually talk to immigrants, Australians of color, indigenous people, and sexual minorities, Australia begins to look less like a paradise, and more like any other slowly degrading neoliberal state, stuck in a struggle between cynical reactionaries and people who want to live in a world that works for everyone.
The ability to look away from these problems is finite. In Australia, like almost every Western democracy, the rich are getting richer and politicians are gutting the safety net as quickly as they can. Insecurity and instability leads people to search for answers, and the right is ready to provide them. As we’ve seen in America, the more studiously people ignore these problems, the more unprepared they’ll be when the results finally catch up with them.