In a Culture Wars chapter called ‘Us and them: national identity and the question of belonging’, ANU academic Kim Huynh organises his argument around the ideas of ‘megalothymia’, which he says ‘denotes a desire to be recognised as superior and separate’, and ‘isothymia’, which lends itself to ‘multiculturalism and multilateralism’.
Huynh argues that the Howard government shifted us ‘decisively to the megalothymic right’ (I predict this label will not catch on). The dog whistlers in the Howard government ‘seek to split society along ethnic lines between the white “us” and the coloured “them”.’ The groups he specifically notes as being targeted by the Howard government are Muslims, people from the Middle East, and the Sudanese.
As we might expect, there is plenty in this chapter about refugees. Certainly, the Howard government treated unauthorised arrivals harshly, signalling a clear intention to maintain control over who enters Australia. So there can be no disputing that immigration policy assumes that there are some individuals who should be denied entry. But can we read into it an assumption that some groups should not be admitted or singled out for especially tough treatment?
Answering this question requires looking at immigration policy as a whole, but Huynh makes no mention at all of this, possibly because it would seriously complicate, if not contradict, his thesis. If the Howard government was so against these groups, why did it significantly increase legal migration from North Africa and the Middle East? The annual number of arrivals from the these parts of the world was 27% higher under the Howard government than it had been under the Hawke and Keating governments. Inviting migrants from these places seems a funny way of being ‘superior and separate’.
As with Abjorensen’s chapters in Culture Wars, Huynh has odd ideas about what constitutes evidence. To me, it makes little sense to argue (following Josh Fear) that supposed dog whistles in which Middle Eastern people and Muslims were not actually mentioned is decisive evidence of the government’s approach, while the large numbers of the same groups arrively legally with the approval of the government is so insignificant it is not worth mentioning.
It’s quite possible to make a case against the former government’s refugee policy without resorting to paranoid claims about attempting to split society on ethnic lines, or overblown theories about ‘megalothymia’. Like ‘neoliberalism’ this is a label that distracts rather than enlightens.