How to scare an old lady

burqa-Three women share a bench in Glasgow during a vigil for victims of the London bombingsDuring my undistinguished days as a not-so-intrepid cadet reporter in Brisbane, I had occasion to attend the scene of a home invasion in the northern suburb of Northgate.

The year was 2003 and the planet was gripped by fear. A shadowy terrorist organisation called Kaos ISIS Al Qaeda was intent on global destruction, and only the plucky guys and gals of the West stood in its path.

They were dark days, friends: the first Iraq War; SARS; Delta Goodrem’s final Neighbours episodes.

To calm the nerves of an anxious populace, the Howard government issued a fridge magnet to every Australian home as part of its anti-terrorism kit, Let’s Look Out For Australia.

howard fridge magnet

On this magnet was written the number for the 24-hour national security hotline, which members of the public were encouraged to call should they witness any suspicious activity.

The kit landed on the heels of the government’s Steve Liebmann-fronted “be alert, but not alarmed” TV ad (seriously… wow), which simultaneously exhorted us to go on living our “decent” way of life while remaining terrified that it would soon end lest we employ more police and persecute more foreigners.

And so it was in this world of unnecessary wars and global epidemics and fear-fomenting public awareness campaigns that I went to a home in Northgate.

The property was cordoned off by the time I arrived with the photographer. There were three marked police cars. A cluster of uniformed constables and two plain-clothes detectives milled about.

I chatted to one of the younger uniformed guys. He wouldn’t tell me much, but there had been gunshots and a vehicle had driven away from the scene. It must have been quite the commotion.

Directly across the road from the house there was a small assisted care facility. Just a handful of pokey white-brick dwellings for grey-haired oldies who no longer had the capacity to look after themselves.

One of the residents, a bony, frail thing, was standing in her tiny garden in her housecoat, staring across the road. We made eye contact and she raised a skinny arm to gesture me over.

She was shaking. Wide-eyed. Terrified. She clutched her hands to her chest. She would have been able to see and hear the whole thing from her front window.

She asked me if I knew what had happened. I told her I was a reporter and joked that I had planned to ask her the same thing.

She said, “I didn’t know if I should call the number or not.”

At first I thought she meant triple-0. But then I realised that she wasn’t just clutching her hands to her chest, she was holding something there. A talisman to protect her from the evil forces that Mr Howard and that nice Mr Liebmann from the Today show told her were out to get us.

The fridge magnet.

How do you scare an old lady? Talk about the boogeyman. Show her pictures of the boogeyman. Show them again. And again. Tell her that the boogeyman is coming to get her. Hire blandly handsome celebrities to tell her the boogeyman is threatening Our Way Of Life. Tell her she has to stop the boogeyman. That the boogeyman could strike anywhere and any time. That it’s up to her.

Then the old lady sees the boogeyman everywhere. At the shops. Behind the wheel of the taxi. Across the road from her house.

And then the old lady is scared, and shaking, and standing in her housecoat in her front yard clutching a fridge magnet and wishing her husband was still alive because then she wouldn’t be alone.


The NBA’s great big meaningless gesture

HeadRacist billionaire celebrity racist Donald Sterling has been banished from America’s National Basketball Association after the known racist was caught being super racist in a controversial race row.

The owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a bigot from way back, will also likely be forced to sell his team after he was recorded by upstanding moral arbiters TMZ admonishing his girlfriend for being seen with black people.

Sterling, 80, who made his riches in property, stands to reap as much as $700 million from the sale, which will buy him a lot of cotton farms, David Duke audiobooks and other racist accoutrements.

The incident has united NBA players – 70 per cent of whom are African-American – in condemnation of racial prejudice, and the league’s subsequent decision to come down hard on the daft old duffer has been universally lauded.

But does the NBA really have any right to feel proud of itself? If they’re this quick to punish someone who expressed a personal view in a private place, how much stick would they use against a team owner who actually did something deplorable to actual people?

Someone like Orlando Magic owner Richard DeVos, perhaps. DeVos, who’s worth a breezy $5 billion, is a major donor to Focus on the Family, an ultra-conservative Christian organisation that, among other things, endorses conversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality.

Or what about someone like Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Denver Nuggets? Stan and his wife Ann own a $6 billion stake in retail monolith Walmart, which engages in predatory pricing and bribery and has fought a decades-long war with unions over its underpayment and mistreatment of its mostly minimum-wage staff.

And then there’s Stephen Pagliuca, co-owner of the storied Boston Celtics franchise and managing partner of Bain Capital. You may remember Bain Capital from such US presidential election campaigns as 2012, when it was revealed that the private equity firm co-founded by Republican candidate Mitt Romney was notorious for taking over troubled companies at discounted prices, paying itself massive dividends and bankrupting the business.

There are others of course – few billionaire sports-team owners get to be billionaire sports-team owners without raping a forest or exploiting a workforce along the way.

My point is this: we should rightly congratulate the NBA for doing its best to expunge retrograde imbeciles from its enterprise. Bravo, etc. But what this is not is some great big progressive victory against racism. It’s the dressing down of a doddering geezer for having the kind of opinions you’d expect a doddering geezer to have. That’s it.

If the NBA wanted to make a serious statement about the fundamental rights of all people, they’d kick out DeVos for driving confused teens to suicide and Kroenke and Pagliuca for being complicit in business practices that reduce employees to units of production.

Until then, punishing octogenarians with half-billion-dollar cheques will have to be statement enough.

Everyone’s a racist but me

Newsweek_Racist_Baby_OriginalI was 22 the first time someone accused me of racism.

It was in a Chinese restaurant in Amsterdam, and I was a couple of months into my first backpacking jaunt around continental Europe. That night, dining with a bunch of fellow globetrotters, I spied a cat wending its way between patrons’ legs.

Recognising an opportunity to be hilarious and impress the gorgeous Kiwi girl opposite me, I reached out to said feline as it approached our table. “Here Dim Sim,” I said. (‘Cos Chinese people eat cats, geddit?)

The object of my affection was not impressed, revealing that her grandmother was Chinese and telling me that what I said was offensive to all Chinese people.

I was crushed and not a little mortified. As a white male brought up in a conservative family and educated at a Christian private school there was always a better-than-average chance that I’d end up with a blinkered world view, but a racist? Was making a gag about Chinese food actual, real-life racism and if so, as a racist, would eating Chinese food give me hives?

If I’d been a grown-up, I would have apologised immediately for my poor attempt at humour and offered to buy everyone on the table a drink. Because while we may not be able to prevent ourselves thinking racist stuff (there’s evidence that we’re all a bit racist but – bonus! – it’s not our fault), we do have the power to not say those things – or apologise in the event that we do. An apology might not have been enough to convince the raven-haired maiden that I wasn’t a One Nation voter, but them’s the breaks when you open your mouth a dumb shit comes out.

Sadly, there are no breaks anymore. As our understanding of the world and human nature increases and becomes more nuanced, our ability to view others as anything other than caricatures decreases. Everything is harmful, everything is personal, everything is an attack. Making an observation deemed “racist” automatically makes the observer “a racist”. Nothing is forgiven, no allowances made.

This is no truer than on Twitter, the increasingly irony-free platform where you’re insta-fucked if you’re judged to have transgressed and the condemnation pile-on begins. Satirist par excellence Stephen Colbert discovered this recently when the now infamous “Ching-Chong Ding-Dong” tweet, posted on his show’s official Twitter account, set loose the dogs of outrage. This was the offending post:


Now, I dunno about you, but I find this fucking hilarious. (“Check your privilege, whitey!”, etc.) But that’s because I know that Stephen Colbert is a satirist, The Colbert Report is a comedy show and that this tweet was a reference to a sketch from the show, not some random thought bubble. (Although I suspect I still would have found it funny if I hadn’t known that because OMFG IT’S CLEARLY SATIRE, PEOPLE.)

Others – like, literally thousands of others – disagreed, and the #CancelColbert hashtag became a globally trending topic. Colbert, “they” had decided, must be A RACIST because the tweet was, to any objective observer, clearly racist. No context was applied, no consideration given to the author of the tweet or that author’s history. Offence was sought, and offence was received.

I should note at this time that much has been written to the effect that non-Asians should not be telling Asians what they should and should not be offended by. That’s perhaps fair enough, but in my defence overreacting to inconsequentialities is a phenomenon blind to race, colour and creed. Even white middle-class people do it! Like when Twitter went off on Sunday when, in a Fairfax story, the new Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson appeared to criticise existing racial discrimination laws for preventing non-black people using the word “n***er” (I’ve made an editorial decision not to repeat the word – let’s just leave it at that).

This would, at best, seem like a remarkably inflammatory thing to say. At worst it evinces a terrifying level of ignorance from the man appointed to safeguard the fundamental principles that underpin our behaviour towards each other.

Do I think Tim Wilson is a racist? No. Do I think he’s a massive dickhead who lacks the intellectual capacity for the role to which he’s been appointed? Yes. Do I think that even massive dickheads out of their depth deserve the right to not be called racists until they’ve had a chance to explain themselves? I sure do.

Besides, it isn’t Tim Wilson you should worry about. I have it on good authority that Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane can’t fucking stand caucasians.