Thursday, May 28, 2009

Piers Akerman, Arthur Calwell, and Wong jokes about Whites

(Above: Arthur Calwell, Piers Akerman and a cartoon of Calwell at work as immigration minister).

Way back when, before Clare Werbeloff was born and could begin to joke about wogs, the Australian federal Labor party was once led by Arthur Calwell, a boofhead hard man with a grating voice and dour manner, who perhaps achieved his fifteen minutes of tabloid fame when he became one of the few victims of attempted political assassination in Australia.

Perhaps the only other claim to enduring fame was his very own Werbeloff moment in a parliamentary debate:

The [deportation] policy which I have just mentioned relates to evacuees who came to Australia during the war. This Chinese is said to have been here for twenty years, and obviously, therefore, is not a wartime evacuee. Speaking generally, I think there is some claim for him to be regarded as a resident of Australia, and I have no doubt his certificate can be extended from time to time as it has been extended in the past. An error may have been made in his case. The gentleman's name is Wong. There are many Wongs in the Chinese community, but I have to say - and I am sure that the Honourable Member for Balaclava will not mind me doing so - that "two Wongs do not make a White".

The phrase dogged Calwell for the rest of his political life, and his explanation was even more labored than the joke:

It is important to me, at least, to set out the facts about a remark I made in the House of Representatives on December 2, 1947, which has been so often misrepresented it has become tiresome. On that day I was asked a question by Rupert Ryan, brother-in-law of Lord Casey, on the deportation of Malayan seamen, Chinese and other people who had contravened our immigration laws. I said, amongst other things. that an error may have been made in the case of two two men named Wong. The Department had served a deportation notice on one of them, but it was the wrong Wong. I then said, and I quote from Hansard: 'there are many Wongs in the Chinese community, but I have to say - and I am sure that the honorable Member for Balaclava will not mind doing so — that "two Wongs do not make a White"'. It was a jocose remark, made partly at the expense of the member for Balaclava, who was at the time the Hon T W (later Sir Thomas) White. I expected that I would have been correctly reported, as I was in Hansard and that the initial letter 'W' on both the names 'Wong' and 'White' would have been written in capitals. But when the message got to Singapore, either because of some anti-Australian Asian journalist or perhaps because some Australian pressman with a chip on his shoulder, a Labor Party hater, the name of White was deliberately altered into a definition of colour, so as to read 'two Wongs don't make a white.' The story has lasted to this day. I have often answered questions about it from young Chinese students at universities in Melbourne and Sydney. I notice whenever reference is made to it in newspapers or periodicals, or whenever the quotation is used anywhere, the Singapore abomination is generally repeated. Latterly the true version is being printed. There was never any intention in my mind to raise any question of colour. I have repudiated the whole story so often that I suppose there is nothing more I can do about it. But I put the facts on record in this book. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 109. (you can catch more on Calwell here).

Now truth to tell, there's little surface evidence Calwell was a racist, but the play on wongs and whites says it all, even if at the subconscious level he can't rationalize away. 

Calwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the White Australia policy, and when immigration minister he made sure after the war that while shell shocked Europeans were welcome, any wayward Asians were deported. His replacement as party leader by Gough Whitlam in the nineteen sixties was a sign of the new broom sweeping through Labor politics.

Why am I reminded of the generally hapless Calwell, who lost three times to Ming the Merciless? Well of course I was reading Piers Akerman, Trading our future away with very poor politics, and I couldn't help but notice his opening gambit:

Climate Change Minister Penny Wong says the Federal Government is determined “to keep, continue to press forward” on emissions trading legislation because “it is the right thing to do”.

No, it is the Wong thing to do.

Ah yes, the old Wong joke. What a fine and colorful life it leads. But it does ease my conscience. Every so often, I think it's terribly unfair to label Piers Akerman the fat owl of the remove, our very own Billy Bunter, or Janet Albrechtsen Dame Slap, as if she was a severe teacher in an Enid Blyton book.

And then I read Miranda the Devine chortling about wog jokes, and Akerman leading with the Wong sensa huma, and I think what the hell Archy, toujours gai, let's have a go at the dingbats.

The rest of the column is a standard tirade from Akerman about Australia attempting to do anything about global warming, which given that Akerman doesn't believe it's happening makes perfect sense - from his point of view. It also means he can just spend his time in carping criticism rather than attempt to construct any positive alternative to Labor's current flawed plan.

But what's interesting is that a couple of his readers noted his remark about Wong:

Piers Akerman! this sounds like a cheap nasty racist remark.’No,it is the Wong thing to do’. On your part.

Well Akerman wasn't having any of that nonsense. And in best debating style, he turns the tables, by calling the accuser what the accuser has called him. You see it takes a nong to see a use of wong as wrong.

Richard Ryan, it might - to a racist - but not to people of commonsense.

Why then so it is and so it shall always be, that Akerman is Billy Bunter, fat owl of the remove, not just for the physical resemblance but because it's a matter of commonsense. If you have the manners of a guttersnipe, why not be called one.

Even then, another reader had a go at him:

The link to your article from the front page was “The Wong Thing To Do”. This is very similar to Arthur Calwell’s ridiculous joke. Why do you think it’s appropriate to make these racist remarks? Makes jokes on someone’s surname, particulalrly a non anglo surname, is not clever.

James of Alexandria 

James, you should check your reference to Calwell’s remark - it was all about a certain Mr White who was then in Parliament. Racism can be seen anywhere, if one wishes to see it, Wong is a pretty common Australian name these days. Am I Wong about that?

Yep, not only is he recalcitrant, he's determined to remain recalcitrant. 'Am I Wong about that' is just such a clever put down, so subtle and witty. Perhaps he was flailing about because James of Alexandria spelled his name Pies, which when you come to think about it, isn't nearly as side-splitting and hilarious as two Wongs trying to change a lightbulb. Which is almost as funny as the hilarious joke about two Smiths trying to change a lightbulb. Seeing as how they're such common names, you might find them hard to pick apart, and yes indeed Smith and Wong are synonymous in my mind. There's not a social, cultural or indicator embedded in them to give me a clue as to how they might connote different tribes.

But you know when you go back to the days when Australia was a genuinely upfront racist country - with a White Australia policy out there in the open, named and legislated and acted upon - it could still manage an uproar about the mis-use of a person's name as a cheap racist joke. 

These days it almost goes without passing amongst grubby commentariat columnists, especially the likes of Akerman, so full of fury, fear and loathing that he'll stoop to anything, even to deploying Arthur Calwell's rather tragic defence of his grievous political error. 

Dress it how you will Calwell's joke revealed a racist mindset, then deeply embedded in Australia ... dress it how you will Akerman's joke and the current fuss about Clare Werbeloff reveals ...?

The upside of course is it shows that really Akerman and old school Laborites like Arthur Calwell are just two peas in the dinkum Aussie pod. Welcome comrade Piers, ain't it grand you could channel Arthur at the Spiritualist church,  now tell us the one about the celestial and the white missionary and the nun ...

(Below: Arthur Calwell as a cheerful cocky).

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