The ‘megalothymic’ right

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.

29 thoughts on “The ‘megalothymic’ right

  1. Bit to early to use figures to twist history. Oh yes we had the highest immigration, but oh yes your mate Howard knew how to hide facts behind a good dog whistle, and oh yes in the end it all failed him. The fallout for the Liberal party is toxic, I for one ( an ex young liberal) will not be voting Liberal for a long long time.


  2. Any evidence that doesn’t fit in with his worldview is just disregarded. I wouldn’t be surprised (even though he claims to have a teaching and research interest in refugee politics) if he has no knowledge whatsoever of the program through which the bulk of Australia’s refugee intake occurred.

    It is difficult to explain why a government that was determined to ‘separate’ these groups from ‘us’ seemed to not only spend millions flying so many of ‘them’ here (through the offshore resettlement program) but also went to such a great effort to publicise this fact (through press releases and even going as far as producing a glossy brochure series called “Australia Says Yes to Refugees” featuring stories of the African, Asian and Middle Eastern refugees they had flown here.)


  3. This sort of garbage makes me even more sceptical of public funding of university research, at the very least in humanities. Presumably this nonsense wasn’t just invented for a book? Hunyh must have written some papers along similar lines. Where was the quality control?


  4. I’m glad the terminology is catching on. I await Megalothymic Man – the movie.

    As far as I’m concerned, the fact that the Howard government increased the legal legal intake of dark skinned immigrants does not in any way make up for or negate its invidious treatment of onshore asylum seekers of a similar complexion. In the same way, we might applaud the Howard government’s refugee offshore resettlement program while condemning its manipulation of asylum seekers and the Australian public for political gain. It is to this end that I explore in the chapter Kevin Andrews’ comments about reducing the intake of Sudanese because of reports that they were having trouble ‘integrating’. A subtle but important difference between being racist and using the race card. Onwards.


  5. Kim – Google Alerts is efficient:) Neither your chapter nor my post is about constructing some kind of moral balance sheet for the previous government, but rather about how its approach to cultural-ethnic issues should be characterised. It was you who put this into an over-arching theory of ‘megalothymia’, not me. I don’t see how such a theory can focus purely on a relatively small number of people compared to the total migration program, and a tiny number of people compared to the overall non-Anglo population. Nor do I think you can almost entirely ignore other relevant policies (a few get a passing mention) and speeches that are relevant to this issue.


  6. “As far as I’m concerned, the fact that the Howard government increased the legal legal intake of dark skinned immigrants does not in any way make up for or negate its invidious treatment of onshore asylum seekers of a similar complexion”
    I think the way many of the groups were treated was bad too, and no doubt done to score political points. However, I don’t see how that makes it an ethnic/race problem. I seem to remember Howard taking no notice of that WA guy who thought we should intake whites from Zimbabwe (who I assume arn’t having the most wonderful life), so it was more simple victimization of convenient groups that generally wern’t white. Why Australians care so much about 200-300 illegal immigrants (probably similar to the amount Italy gets in one day), which allows them to be used a convenient out-group, beats me.
    As for the Sudanese — I think this is different argument. They do have problems integrating, which is no doubt why there were so few complaints when the Labor party decided to “rebalance” Australia’s refugee intake. Given this, at least to me it boils down into an argument of who you can help more. If you want to help refugees, I don’t see why you don’t maximize the number you can help, irrespective of where they come from. This means if some are likely to cost more than others, you should take the ones that don’t cost you as much. Obviously there are caveats there — in case you were involved in the creation some (such as Iraq), then obviously you have a greater obligation to help.


  7. Kim, as I understand it, the Howard government’s treatment of illegal-entry asylum-seekers – placing them in camps while processing their applications – was exactly the same as the Hawke and Keating governments’ treatment of them.

    Does that make Paul Keating megalothymic too?


  8. Howard descriminated against people on the basis of how they arrived not their skin colour. The “us” is the group that is here legally and the “them” is those that are here illegally. Come illegally by boat and you were well down the ladder.

    It seems to me that you can have open boarders or a welfare state but not both. As such I think the us and them will persist.


  9. It is worth noting that, according to opinion polling, unhappiness about the level of migration decreased notably under Howard, even though migration went up and became notably more ethnically diverse.
    The argument “opposition to migration” is racist had used to justify a “bipartisan” policy that gave the voters no say over immigration.
    Howard gave the voters want they wanted–a hard line against illegal immigration. (Illegal immigration, after all, clearly gives them no say even indirectly.)
    Opposition to migration falls. What a wild coincidence.
    The whole “it is all racism!” line is all about moving back to the voters having no say + status-mongering.


  10. Andrew
    I was upset by the tampa fiasco, it did considerable damage to our international reputation, and as I operate in the international market, it mattered to me.

    I however took perverse pleasure that while Howard was running his dog whistle for the xenophobic we were running the highest immigration rate ever. Suckers.

    But in the end he came a cropper, and once again perverse pleasure, his limp response to Jackie Kelly’s fake pamphlets added to his undoing.

    No Andrew put the paint brush away, far to early to attempt the white wash.


  11. Charles – I suspect the people worried about Tampa overseas were the same kinds of people worried about it here. I don’t recall foreigners ever mentioning it to me, but it is ancient history now so I may be forgetting something.

    Overall, I think Australia’s migration policy has been a huge success, absorbing very large numbers of people – we have one of the highest overseas-born populations in the world – with remarkably little friction.

    One of the keys to that, I suspect, has been the perception that the government is controlling the borders effectively and choosing people reasonably well. So I agree with Michael Warby that the perception that Howard was strict on border control probably was a net positive in persuading the majority population to accept further migration, including large numbers from source countries with high cultural distance from Australia.

    A post I wrote last year showed that acceptance of Muslims had actually increased over the last 20 years, despite the long succession of PR disasters, casting further doubt on the Huynh view of the world.


  12. Francis Fukuyama was the first to use the terms megalothymia and isothymia wasn’t he?

    In The End of History and the Last Man he wrote “The desire to be recognized as superior to other people we will henceforth label with a new word with ancient roots, megalothymia” (p 182).


  13. I’m not sure if Fukuyama was the first, but he did use them, and Huynh takes them from him.

    One of the (many) problems with this book is the decision to talk about both American and Australian culture wars without much analysis of whether this is useful, and in the US context placing far too much emphasis on the neoconservatives. While this is convenient for academics – the neocons were smart people who wrote clearly – they are only a small component of US conservatism, and not very helpful in understanding one of the most important developments in conservatism there and here, of a strong populist element.


  14. Andrew

    One of the men I have the greatest respect for is Fraser. He toured the country to suppress the xenophobic tendencies when the boat people arrived from Vietnam.. That act of decency stood us in good stead for many years. The difference between Howard and Fraser is night and day. To claim Howard’s poor behavior is the reason why we have had a successful immigration policy is rubbish.

    Your right, Tampa and Howard is now ancient history, Howard legacy will get washed away, some things faster than others, but the history is not that ancient that people who care have forgotten. It’s far too early to attempt to white wash his past.

    Pauline Hanson has tested the support for this sort of behavior, it’s around 10%. Howard may have regained that 10% but to go after it was crazy, we have a preferential voting system and the one nation vote was always going to come back to the Liberals ( perhaps the nationals first) . In getting those 10% he completely alienated Liberal voters that believe there is such a thing as humanity. They are the voters who have only one option if unimpressed , Labor, voting Labor for the first time is hard, afterwards being a swinging voter comes easy.


  15. “Fraser… toured the country to suppress the xenophobic tendencies when the boat people arrived from Vietnam..”

    This is one of the interesting assumptions in this debate – that the masses are so easily manipulated by politicians that Fraser can suppress xenophobic tendencies just by travelling the country with his message, or conversely that there are people just waiting for a coded message from Canberra before heading off to firebomb the local mosque.

    While I don’t think the public are as cynical about politicians as they say they are, nor do I believe that they need politicians to tell them what to think about issues like this or take much notice of what they say. After all, if on the leftist account Howard was sending coded messages against migration, why did the public respond by sending support for migration to its highest levels since the 1960s (when migration was almost entirely white)?


  16. Charles:

    Honest question:

    Did Mal Fraser also help quell your racist and xenophobic attitudes towards the boat people or are you one of the few that didn’t need it?


  17. It all comes back to the behavior of mobs, they are quite safe if there is no nutter to lead them over a cliff. Fraser’s contribution was one of preventing the 10% forming a mad mob, Howards contribution was to give them a voice within what was a party that could form government.

    Fraser’s message was not coded, it was blunt and to the point, it didn’t surprise me that in later life he supported the things he has, those that were surprised didn’t listen to him when he was in power.


  18. If Howard’s glorious contribution led to a high support for immigration, why did he lose power?

    You bracketed comment at the end (when migration was almost entirely white) would suggest you believe support fell because the white Australia policy was ending.

    I wonder, did the changing demographics of the Australian population have anything to do with changing attitude? When you have a population of 20 million and immigration is running in the 100’s of thousands per year it doesn’t take long.


  19. “I saw in the paper today that the ALP is looking to cut back on immigration.”

    Slightly off-topic (although not totally), but to a significant extent immigration will cut itself back as unemployment contiues to rise. This is already happening within Europe, and it is already happening here under the totally uncapped temporary skilled worker visa (often called the 457 visa).

    It will be interesting to see if student visa numbers remain at their historic high – it’s hard to see how they can if the economic downturn continues throughout our region.

    The offshore humanitarian intake is one of the few areas of our migration program where the number allowed entry is totally due to a quota or cap set by government, although the government continually tweaks the eligibility criteria for other visas in a way which can make it eaiser or harder to succeed.

    So the record levels of migration were in large part driven by economic conditions, low unemployment, major skill shortages, etc, as well as increasing global competition for migrants amongst wealthier countries – in many ways another export industry. The greater numbers of migrants from Middle East, central Asia and Africa was in part due to market demand rather than conscious government policy. (apart from the humanitarian intake. The locations such people are drawn from each year are influenced to a significant degree, by recommendations from the UN refugee body, although again government rhetoric can create different impressions)


  20. “So the record levels of migration were in large part driven by economic conditions, low unemployment, major skill shortages”
    Not for some groups. If you exclude South Africa from the African groups, then “small part” is a better description.
    Try looking here for example. I imagine this is one of the problems with the current immigration program — taking a more demographically balanced group would no doubt help stop some of the social problems which have evolved, although whether it is legitimate to take professionals from countries that no doubt need them more than Australia is another question. I can’t find the Central Asian or Middle Eastern groups, although I assume more are coming in the work category, as Iran at least is one of the biggest exporters of well educated people in the world (no doubt to their own detriment).


  21. Attitudes to migration seem more linked to employment than anything else, though as I noted in a post last year we have come off recent peaks in support for migration without a drop off in jobs (at the time the poll was taken).

    But the overall point is that support reached very high levels contrary to the theory of the left that racist Australians are worried about non-white migration. If we include temporary migrants (not included in the near-record permanent migration numbers, as Andrew B notes) Howard’s government saw the greatest ever influx of non-European migrants to Australia.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s