‘Talking heads’ were spinning; fingers wagging; and Australia found itself in the centre of a furious storm. What was its transgression? A war crime? A human rights violation? A political scandal and cover-up?
No, none of the above. The ‘eye of the storm’ was a skit on ‘Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday,’ where a group of Sydney doctors, of different races, did a take-off of the ‘Jackson Five,’ called ‘Jackson Jive.’ The doctors painted their faces ‘black.’ The man impersonating Michael Jackson was ‘white.’ One of the judges, American singer Harry Connick Junior, found himself in an awkward situation. He handed the group a big ‘0’ and said such an act would never be allowed in America; it apparently brought reminders of racist minstrel shows in the 19th century. Australian host Daryl Somers quickly apologized for the offense and so did the performers.
Their contrition did nothing to slow down, let alone stop, that which followed. A chorus of condemnation blew with gale-force ferocity, mostly from the United States but also the UK newspaper The Guardian. Without exception, the different media outlets lined up to castigate the black face act and, by extension, Australia itself. The word ‘racist’ was freely thrown around.
Even ‘conservative’ commentator Bill O’Reilly of the Fox Network, while not using the word racist, spoke about Australia’s ‘dopey show’ and ‘stupid producers.’ He said he would have been even more indignant than Connick Junior. Then, to soften the blow, said he had been to Australia and they were not all that bad.
O’Reilly’s colleague, Margaret Hoover spoke in impassioned, even hysterical tones. Hoover then proceeded to lecture about Australia being ‘just behind’ the USA in civil rights and that it was only in 1973 that it dumped the ‘White Australia Policy,’ which favored only white European migrants.
Having been born and raised in the United States, but living in this country for 22 years,...for the first-time ever...I feel compelled to defend my adopted country in the face of this US-led backlash. I cannot remember a time when America was so mad at Australia! Never.
My purpose is not to comment on the actual skit, but the global implications.
Three key issues we need to address.
The first is globalization: in this case, that of ‘culture.’ Globalization means the free movement of goods, capital, services, people, and ideas. This irreversible movement commenced in the mid-19th Century, was interrupted by the First World War, and then revived with a bang after the fall of Berlin Wall (1989) and Soviet Union (1991). The world is becoming one global marketplace. Culture, particularly American and/or westernized culture, is becoming common currency all over the world. High profile performers will have a global audience.
In one sense, the uproar over the Hey Hey Its Saturday skit shows that the whole world could ... potentially ... be watching performances done here in Australia. At least they have access to such clips. Probably very few outside of Australia were viewing the program ... until Harry Connick Junior voiced his displeasure. And the American media followed suit. Like the satellites overhead which can watch a man light up a cigarette and tell which brand he is smoking, the fact is that with globalization ... the world could be watching!
Second, notice the shrill tone, total condemnation, irrationality, ‘more heat than light,’ the unwillingness to listen, the bullying, ganging up to pummel the lone figure, like a school of South American piranhas, a predatory fish that hunt their prey in packs and devour them without a trace. This is the voice of ‘political correctness.’ It is one of the souvenirs of our postmodern age and shows no signs of abating.
While most people have heard of ‘political correctness,’ few seem to really be able to define or describe it. ‘Political Correctness’ (PC) is applied to language, policy, ideas or behavior that endeavor to minimize offense to minorities: gender, race, same sex, disabled, migrants, and non-western religions. The postmodern idea is that reality is not discovered ... but created ... by our words and ideas. For example, two people sit in a room. One complains that the room is too cold; the other complains that it is too hot. Which one is right? Well, if perception is reality, then the answer is: both of them. And by confessing the temperature, that becomes their reality. If it is cold for you, then it’s cold!
PC argues that minorities have been marginalized by politically incorrect language. So one needs to change their vocabulary to avoid, whether deliberately or as is often the case inadvertently, causing harm and offense to long-mistreated groups. This, in turn, creates a new and more favorable reality.
So instead of saying ‘mankind,’ we say ‘humankind.’ Instead of ‘handicapped,’ we now say ‘physically challenged.’ PC has empowered these minorities and now that the table is turned, they are attacking ‘white, male, Euro-centric Christians’ with gusto.
Those who are deemed ‘politically incorrect’ will not just be criticized ... they will be mercilessly attacked. It is possible that in some contexts, like a university or the military, they could be sent for ‘sensitivity training’ so they can discover their hidden prejudices. The interrogation methods can be gestapo-like and any attempt to verbally defend oneself will invite a slapping down. Harry Connick Junior, being from race-sensitive New Orleans, was duty-bound to protest the skit; to do otherwise would invite serious censure.
The (extreme) use of political correctness means that ‘freedom of speech,’ a highly valued component of democratic society, becomes an immediate victim. Innocent people become accused of racism, bigotry, chauvinism, and worse, no matter how unsubstantiated such an accusation may be. PC is no longer just the preserve of the so called left-wing cultural elite. Conservatives like O’Reilly and Christians from Bible-believing churches are falling under the spell of PC; even modern Bible publishers are producing ‘politically correct’ translations.
A good example of PC was the 1999 elections in Austria, which, by all accounts, was free and fair. The ruling party was forced to go into coalition with a right-wing group called the Freedom Party, led by the late Jorge Haider. When this happened, Israel recalled its ambassador, Prince Charles (PC) and the Clinton Administration uttered condemnation and, most of all, the European Union slapped sanctions on Austria, a member state, for doing what the EU expects all its states to be: democratic. Why? Because Haider was perceived to be politically incorrect: he questioned the generous immigration policies of Austria and dared to utter the word ‘Nazis’ as an example of efficiency. He has never spoken a word against the Jews or Israel, the problem was ... he said what he really believed.
Finally, American-Australian relations: these two nations have been solid allies for almost seventy years. It is highly unlikely that the relationship will be endangered, strained, or even dented by this incident. But they are definitely smudged. When it comes to Australia, two things stand out with Americans:
1. They love Australia. Many voice the desire to visit it one day;
2. They know very little about the ‘land down under.’ Kangaroos, koalas, crocodile dundee, and Steve Irwin, are about as much as you will get. I remember being taken aback when my first cousin’s husband David, who lives in Los Angeles, told me that the name of the Australian prime minister. And just last July, I met a 29 year old pastor named Matthew (spelt Mathu) from Idaho who is an avid Sydney Swans supporter. He records every game and watches them with gusto. He also knew all pertinent facts regarding the AFL. Yet Mathu has never put his toe in Australia. I must hasten to add that David and Mathu are the exception, rather than the rule.
Think about the Hey Hey Its Saturday incident. This was a spoof done in Australia, by Australians, for Australians. Yes, there was an American judge but he was judging in Australia. Yes, they did a skit on a US singing group but it has global profile and thus a global icon. As a well-travelled minister, my understanding is that when I visit a country, it is up to me to learn what I can about the place I visit and respect their culture, customs and sensitivities. It would be unreasonable in the extreme for me to expect my host country to conform to the ways of my country. The word we used for that is imperialism.
Should Australians be expected to know about the ‘black faces' of America’s past? Should Australia, with an enviable record of domestic stability unlike the race riots, civil war, and presidential scandals of its superpower partner, allow lecturing on its race relations by the Americans? Should Australia allow comparison between its policies on aborigines with that of African-Americans (the latter were involuntary immigrants who adapted to the dominant culture while the former are indigenous people who have retained some or most of their native culture)?
America and Australia are different in history, heritage, and mindset. Despite American cultural dominance, don’t expect the Aussies to change. It is clear that Americans do not understand Australian humor, which can be far more ‘robust,’ to use Kevin Rudd’s words.
Someone once said that ‘moderation’ is that halfway point when you swing from one extreme to another. Racism is extreme and so is political correctness. May we ask that the voice of sanity, reason, and common sense--that coveted midway point--will be a dwelling place and not a transit point.