Also- rans tussle in race for dominance
Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality By Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds Melbourne University Press, 371pp, $ 36.95
IN 1893, on the verge of a new age, cerebral, liberal- minded Charles Pearson, for many years a prominent member of the Victorian parliament, published a startling, bestselling piece of futurology. His complex, disquieting National Life and Character: A Forecast is one focus of this complex, disquieting book, published a century later by two of Australia’s best known progressive scholars, and despite the gulf of time between them the works share the conviction that modern history is best explained in terms of ideas about race.
Pearson’s work made its mark across the globe for one reason: it predicted the decline of the West from a position of dominance to one of equality in a world of many contending cultures.
‘‘ The day will come,’’ he wrote, ‘‘ and is perhaps not far distant, when the European observer will look round to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of the black and yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under tutelage but independent, or practically so, in government. We shall wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we once looked down upon as servile and thought of as bound always to minister to our needs.’’
This current of thought in the Englishspeaking world is here put under the microscope: its roots are traced and its consequences examined in detail. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds bring to their collaboration different gifts: Reynolds has a lifetime of bold writing on Australia’s frontier history behind him; Lake, well- known as a historian of feminism, likes to write on a broad, transnational scale. What, together, have they wrought?
Drawing the Global Colour Line is nothing less than an alternative presentation of the early 20th century, with race and racial thinking cast at its core. Often dizzying in its sweep and subtle in its interweaving of linked national narratives, it traces the thought- worlds of the politicians and theorists who shaped the diplomacy and power relations of the age.
Pearson, his historian colleagues James Bryce and Josiah Royce, and others like them exerted a deep influence over leaders such as Alfred Deakin, Theodore Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi: a spiral of suggestive political ideas and reactions leads away from the books and pamphlets produced by such authors in the late days of the British Empire, when the world’s scale was being compacted and people of different civilisations were coming into closer proximity.
As another of their core texts, Lake and Reynolds single out The Souls of White Folk, a famous 1910 essay by African- American leader
W. E. B. Du Bois. It argues that a sense of whiteness was a sign of weakness, the flavour of a time when the world’s dominant societies were increasingly aware of their declining grip. Angloconsciousness was much in vogue when Du Bois wrote; it is one of the core themes of this study, devoted to the charting of ‘‘ the spread of whiteness as a transnational form of racial identification, at once global in its power and personal in its meaning, the basis of geopolitical alliances and a subjective sense of self’’.
Reynolds and Lake view themselves as the geographers of ‘‘ white men’s country’’, tracing ‘‘ the transnational circulation of emotions and ideas, people and publications, racial knowledge and technologies that animated white men’s countries’’. Whiteness, they argue, was a paradoxical project, global in its implications, nationalist, even isolationist in its methods and goals. It thrived in a time of large- scale immigration, it based itself on a stereotype of Anglo- Saxon aptitude for democratic selfgovernment, it was hostile to ideas of racial mingling, it believed in social equality and it hated aristocracy, it was utopian in flavour and it was very masculine.
Do the two authors carry the guns to defend this thesis and read the first part of the 20th century convincingly in its light? Or have they provided us with one of those odd books that interpret human history in terms of one, all- determining variable: chariots, or phosphorus, or salt? Selection is the key in such ventures, when the reader is being escorted through a wide array of cultures and vast sequences of events are being connected with a broad brush.
Australia is by no means the centre of this book, though the authors portray it as the great laboratory for the whiteness project and there is much about their portrayal that rings true: Edmund Barton, the first prime minister of the commonwealth, was clutching in his hand a copy of Pearson’s National Life and Character when he rose in August 1901 to speak in defence of the fledgling nation’s Immigration Restriction Bill.
The times were in flux: ideas such as Pearson’s were constantly being enlisted to make sense of events and were resonating across borders, their potency enhanced by the mass media’s disseminating force. Wars, regional and colonial, economic and imperial, filled the headlines. The fantasy of the British Empire as a kind of worldwide family was on the wane; a fear of oriental economic growth and numbers had begun its rise, fanned by Japan’s unexpected victory over Russia in the war of 1904- 05.
For Lake and Reynolds, much stems from that conflict’s result: Tokyo’s desire to be received as an equal member of the community of nations and the West’s rejection of that demand helped breed a resentful, expansionist Japanese nationalism that in turn spurred a Western fear of largescale change in the balance of political power. The diplomatic negotiations of the era are examined through this optic and the domestic debates of nations as diverse as Australia, South Africa and Canada carefully teased out; arguments in one dominion influence debates in other countries and call forth hectic responses.
Lake and Reynolds see racial resentments active as background factors in many aspects of the international relations of the time. One climax of their narrative comes with the unsuccessful campaign to include a racial equality clause in the documents of the 1919 Paris peace conference and the baleful consequences of that failure. It is a persuasive recasting; once one reads the writings and documents of the time with attentive eyes, racial thinking seems everywhere. Race, though, is best thought of as only one in a bundle of loosely linked concepts that have long contributed to the way nations and communities define themselves. The porous boundaries between peoples are marked out by religious ideas and prejudices, by colour, by language, by social convention. Often the tone and the style of distinct societies define them as much as the ethnic make- up of their citizenry; indeed, multiracial empires are as vital in the grand narrative of history as nations founded on an idea of race. This is the greater impression conveyed by the history in Drawing the Global Colour Line, for the book’s explanatory precision rather evaporates as World War II draws near and the race issue, that child of the colonial age, becomes complicated by the dominance of political ideology and the deeper hatred of anti- Semitism.
In the closing words of their introduction, Lake and Reynolds seek to keep race alive and relevant: ‘‘ Old fears,’’ they say, ‘‘ now return in new forms. The United States plans to build a fence along its Mexican border, Australia imprisons asylum- seekers on offshore islands and riots engulf French cities that are home to thousands of Muslim immigrants from Africa. Everywhere there is renewed talk about national values, social cohesion and the necessity of border protection.’’ The fears may well be returning, but not the pretexts. Race has had its day in the sun; it cast strange, long shadows, with striking consequences. Reynolds and Lake demonstrate, in their excavations of forgotten men and arguments, just how pervasive such thinking once was. Nicolas Rothwell is a senior writer with The Australian. His most recent book is Another Country ( Black Inc).