‘Dumb, Drunk and Racist’: On Looking at the Self through the Other
When this innovative new ABC2 series first went to air, and in the viewers’ discussion of each of its episodes, many wondered why a group of Indians had been chosen to reflect us back to ourselves. Those with or without Hansonian tendencies posted their varying degrees of outrage on ABC2’s Facebook page, on the Daily Telegraph column by host Joe Hildebrand, and on countless personal blogs and media stories. They could not believe that a country with a rigid caste system, the lowest rungs of poverty, and frequent eruptions of communal violence was pointing the proverbial finger at ‘us’. I do not wish to portray the people making such comments as racist or intolerant. Having said that, I was more than a little surprised when acquaintances who I would otherwise classify as ‘worldly’ posed similar questions about the series. Self-reflection through the eyes of the other, it appeared, is still antithetical to most national self-projections.
Given the above, I am inclined to try and justify why it was a good idea to pick four urban, middle class Indians to tour Australia and view a wide spectrum of its contemporary social practices. I am not sure, however, if such a justification would achieve anything other than a further culture war, or a thinly veiled show of unreflective patriotism. What I suggest is important about this series is not the nationality of its participants per se, but what they symbolise, especially in relation to contemporary Australia’s views of itself in a world with a rapidly shifting geo-political order.
Not only are international relations in a state of flux, with the Asian region playing the role of usurper and catalyst, but so is the state of global media production, reception and subsequent influence. Michael Curtin has written extensively on the rise of the ‘new media capitals’, and their impact on current and future flows of information and goods. In this new emerging media world order, the BRIC nations (or Brazil, Russia, India, China) are set to de-stabilize the thought leadership of the imaginary community that is ‘the west’, and to query the very artificiality of the distinctions between the east and the west. Whether these nascent powers will imitate their hegemonic forebears, or resist and produce alternative modernities is a debate that is beyond the scope of this piece. What appears to be certain, however, is that the narratives of economic and social development being generated by these nations is sending tremors through the constructed national sense of self in the developed world (both economically and culturally).
It is in the above context that ‘Dumb, Drunk and Racist’ ought to be viewed by activists, scholars, politicians and wider audiences alike. The series is as much a national self-allegory as it is a topical examination of why Aussies may be viewed as intolerant in light of recent events such as the Cronulla Riots and the attacks on Indian students. It is like holding up the mirror to see oneself thoroughly and courageously though an-other lens that reflects a sometimes uncomfortable reality. What must be celebrated, still, is that denial has been cast off and branded inappropriate for the current cultural epoch, at least by the nation’s public service broadcasters. As for those still holding on defensively to their larrikin self-image, Hildebrand has this to say” “I am surprised at that attitude as well. I think a lot of people live sheltered existences where they are not exposed to the sort of comments we received – and which I still do every time I talk about the program. I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to expose and shame such views rather than just shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘that’s life’. In a sense that’s almost condoning it” (in email interview with author, transcript available on request). Can we rise to the challenge instead of disowning it as someone else’s problem? That televisual mirror may not be accurately reflective, or even adequately representative, but it doth tell a significant cultural tale.