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Sydney’s burning: but why did it happen?

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 14 December 2005

People will be arguing about Sydney’s racial troubles for a long time. I thought it useful to reflect on where it came from. In doing so, I will have to explore ideas I do not always, or completely, share.

The French Revolution broke out in 1789, but it had many long-standing causes. Similarly, there has been tension brewing in Sydney for many years.

It used to be true that Australian boys grew up with pillars of authority which kept them in check. These were: first, fathers - every boy I interviewed in Fathers, Sons and Lovers grew up afraid of his father and wanting to be like his father; second, teachers, who were respected members of society; and third, other men who kept an eye on boys.


Churchmen were also an important part of the fabric of society. And wider members of the family also helped keep boys in line: mothers, aunts, grandparents, older brothers.

Significantly, all those pillars of masculinity I mentioned have weakened. Fathers don’t have the same authority they once did. Churchmen are suspect. Most men today would not dare reprimand or even threaten to discipline a badly-behaved child.

What about schools? Schools teach toleration and respect for others. But boys are not getting many ideas of masculinity from school. One report after another shows boys around the world are largely alienated from school; are suspended from classrooms in large numbers; get expelled in disproportionate numbers; and often just go to school so they can play sport and be with their mates. Of course there are differences from wealthier schools to poorer schools. And there are a myriad of private schools - Jewish, Muslim, Coptic, Anglican and so on.

My point is that the lessons of toleration and respect for others are not reaching many of these boys.

Instead, their ideas of masculinity come from media, often American, media: 50 Cent, gangsta and rapper culture, and black youth who live on the street. We don’t hear so much about what happens to the older black men, who are held in enormous numbers in US jails. Instead Australian young men are seized by the excitement of black American youth.

In Cronulla and many other places it’s the culture of the surf. Even though they can be from many cultural backgrounds there is a mateship among surfers. They can be sexist and girls are seen as people to prey on, but there seems to be a matey way of treating female surfers. On most of the beaches the lifesavers maintain order. Surfers and bodysurfers, kids and grannies all coexist fairly peacefully. Compared to beaches in dozens of countries, our beaches have been fairly safe, clean and crime-free. The water is clean and the only major menace has been the occasional shark.


We need also take a look at middle Australians. In Australia we can see a gulf between educated and popular opinion. The weekend Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian talk about varieties of feminism, use esoteric new words, tell us what new books are selling, the continuing problems of the war in Iraq. For the readers, multiculturalism is a comfortable idea because it does not threaten their safe comfortable world. To them it probably means coffee shops and any variety of new and exotic foods, virgin olive oil and chocolate. Academics in the universities scoff at a fear of foreigners, dismissing it as a “moral panic”.

But out in the suburbs, ordinary people struggle to make a living amid rising difficulties. Every day I see people booked for overstaying their time in a parking zone. That’s $75 gone. Speeding fines have multiplied: who of us have not been caught? Every day the media chronicle politicians’ “study” trips abroad and increasing superannuation benefits. The Federal Government has spent somewhere between $60 and 70 million advertising WorkChoices. Raising children is a challenge, as kids want to buy more and more things, while challenging parental authority. Every week we are urged to buy the next new TV, a bigger 4WD, get Broadband, watch Foxtel: you name it.

People get angry and frustrated They feel powerless: they have the increasing difficulty of getting to work without getting fined; finding parking so they can do the shopping; trying to relax on the weekend without spending too much. And they are worried about people living in Australia who do not seem Australian.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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