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Courting media attention with a half-baked idea

By Jennifer Clarke - posted Thursday, 25 August 2005

Intellectual life, says US philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is about "... the quality of the personal argument". "[Y]our personal status counts for nothing. Claiming something based on fame and authority is death to the intellectual life."

Yet it’s increasingly common for Australian academics to rely on fame or notoriety to sell ideas - including ideas that do not stand up to scrutiny within the academy - to the public.

Professor Andrew Fraser is just an extreme example. But he does have a couple of good points. First, Australians take our relatively quiet race relations for granted, and we should not necessarily expect to avoid the social problems of some European countries or the United States as our society becomes more multi-ethnic. And second, if there are genetic differences between racial groups, talking about them should not be taboo.


The complaint that race relations is not Fraser’s field is a bit of a distraction. These days, legal academics are expected to keep up with debates in science or the humanities related to our fields of expertise. It’s not always possible for lawyers to do this well, but it’s considered irresponsible not to try.

However, you don’t have to be a criminologist or a psychologist to think of obvious counter-arguments to Fraser’s view that social problems in multi-ethnic societies are attributable solely to non-white immigration or to differences in the IQs of particular ethnic groups. For examples:

  • Fraser acts as if there is a single “sun-bronzed, blonde”, “blue-eyed, beach-loving Australian” identity (albeit one which he, as a Canadian from the frozen north, has apparently been able to assume). This is laughable, even for Anglos: how much do Australian women spend on bleaching their hair? Most of my family don’t have blue eyes, and half of us don’t like the beach much. If white Australians descended from Frasers and Clarkes have something in common with white Australians descended from Kasprowiczs or Akermanises, it’s probably been acquired through intermarriage or the influence of a common, but far more complex, Australian cultural environment.
    White Australians are not just “the descendants of Anglo-Celtic pioneers who settled and built this country”: almost half the population is either overseas-born or first generation Australian. Large numbers of Aussies were recently British, many the beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded assisted passages, or New Zealanders.
  • Criminality among migrants is lower than among the Australian-born (Mukherjee, Australian Institute of Criminology (1999)). But migrant groups whose members were more likely to be arrested in Victoria in the 1990s included Russians, Romanians, Yugloslavs, Uraguayans and New Zealanders - i.e. people who often pass as “white”.
  • If “sub-Saharan Africans have an average IQ of 70-75”, would that have anything to do with nutrition? Anyway, it’s widely known that IQ tests are culturally biased. Try taking one designed to reflect the priorities of another cultural group.
  • Offending patterns among poor, marginalised people are similar the world over, regardless of ethnicity. The Irish used to be in this position in Australia and the United States, and lots of African-Americans still are. Fraser’s “cognitive elite” of “overachieving Asian immigrants” would not seem to include Vietnamese who, according to the Mukherjee study, are more of a crime risk than other Asian migrants because of poorer English skills, lower qualifications and higher unemployment in a country which has exported its unskilled jobs to China. Kosovo aside, your average European migrant elects to leave home for Australia: Sudanese refugees have no choice.
    If accepting more Sudanese is “a sure-fire recipe for increases in crime, violence and a wide range of other social problems”, as Fraser told the Parramatta Sun, it could be because (like brown-haired, brown-eyed, Australian-born Aborigines) they’ve been recently dislocated from a very different cultural environment and ended up at the bottom of the Australian heap. It might also matter that African migrant groups, like Aborigines, include more people of criminal offending age (teens to 35) than the wider, ageing, Australian population.
  • It’s not easy to tell whether crime rates are going up or down over time, but Australia’s homicide rate, said to be a good indicator of violent crime generally, was about the same in 2000 as it was in 1915. However, it appears that crime by marginalised groups is a function of relative, not just absolute, poverty: it goes up where the gap between rich and poor is wider (Goldsmith, Israel and Daly, Crime and justice: an Australian textbook in criminology). When you add this information to the fact the Australian-born children of migrants are more likely to engage in criminal offending (pdf file 187KB) than their parents, it might suggest that ethnic crime risks have more to do with Australia than they have to do with migrants.
    Perhaps, in the case of Sudanese refugees to Australia, the social distance between genocide and “affluenza” is just too great? This resonates with what I’ve heard north African mothers say: we used to be able to stop our kids playing up back home when they had nothing, but when we brought them here and they saw how much stuff and freedom everyone else has, we lost control of them. As Clive Hamilton says, "... there is something unsettling about a $7,000 barbecue", yet "Aussies" are buying them. This is probably what it costs to sponsor a displaced African for resettlement on DIMIA’s Special Humanitarian Program. Wouldn’t this money be better invested in a crime-free future by supporting new migrants make the adjustment to Australia?
  • If we wanted to control crime through our immigration program, we’d only let women and girls into the country. Australia’s homicide rate went down in the 1950s-60s (i.e. despite post-War migration) because of the depletion of young men from the population, then went up again when the baby boomer boys hit their teenage years (pdf file 90KB). We might also consider other obvious strategies for reducing crime, like making alcohol less freely available, just as the United States could restrict the availability of guns.

Universities should be places where people examine sceptically the things that society regards as truths. Fraser might argue that this is what he has started doing, but in worrying about Australia becoming “a colony of the Third World” rather than “the homeland of a particular people”, he’s managed to reinforce one of our most persistent national myths. Assuming he’s not lamenting Aboriginal dispossession, we might ask why so many Australians believe that migrants of northern European descent have a greater moral claim to a country in this part of the world than people from Asia and Oceania.

This isn’t “competitive altruism” - this is greed disguised as heritage. Asia currently accommodates more than half the world’s population, while Australia houses 0.3 per cent. While there might be good environmental reasons to limit immigration, the desire to protect the Australian "lifestyle" must be understood as a desire not just for "security" but for continued privileged access to a much larger share of the world’s resources than our population justifies.

Why did Fraser resort to the media to air these ideas? Is it because an academic audience is more likely to censor them, or because it is better able to cast doubt on them than a general one?


Fraser might be an extreme misuser of the media, but he is not the only academic whose relationship with it raises questions about the quality of his thinking. Similar problems are posed by the academic celebrity; someone whose main focus is on selling ideas which are known to be palatable, not unacceptable, to the media, and on publicising their associated activities. Some of these people's work attracts more respect outside their disciplinary fields than it does within them. The public seems to think that this is because they are more engaged with gripping public issues than the rest of us fusty old fools. But the truth is that their work is sometimes of lower quality than others, or that colleagues are doing work of similar quality but not seeking the same attention for it.

While most academics are probably still too media-shy, anyone who has dealt with the media learns three basic lessons pretty quickly;

  • that media work, particularly electronic media work, is for extroverts. In Australia, you might only hear of an introspective academic’s work if it wins a Nobel Prize;
  • that your ideas have to be pretty simple (or, like racist takes on immigration, already understood) for them to be effectively communicated in the media on a regular basis; and
  • that, even if you were prepared to simplify your ideas to this extent, you could still spend hours fielding media inquiries, leaving no time for teaching, scholarship or other important activities like child-rearing.
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About the Author

Jennifer Clarke is a Canberra lawyer

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