Also- rans tus­sle in race for dom­i­nance

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ni­co­las Roth­well

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).

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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