People Hate On Caroline Marcus, and Not Because She’s White

By Charlie Tetiyevsky

Look, I don’t really know what a Logie is. As far as I’m concerned it sounds like “loogie,” which is basically how I’d describe primetime television anyway. But for whatever reason awards shows have insidiously crept their way into our lives and now we have to pretend to care.

Occasionally though there is meta-discussion about awards shows (for instance #OscarsSoWhite surrounding the Academy Awards) that, because of their broad, anti-intellectual, middle-of-the-road appeal reveals the dirtiest side of Australian media (not that it’s so hidden otherwise).

If you’re like me and have no background on the Logies, here’s the situation: apparently the “Best Personality on Australian Television” award was voted on by the public, a pretty obvious referendum on what is popular (a literal “popularity contest,” if you will). And yet talk before Waleed Aly’s win this week was all backhanded comments about The Project being “prosaic” but unpopular—something obviously completely opposite of the actual case. The Telegraph’s Rendez View clickbait blog section (by the way, how is that not some sort of logo infringement) published an article titled “Six Reasons Why Waleed Aly Should Not Win Gold,” which then went on to list six rather good reasons that Waleed Aly should win the award without any actual sense of self-awareness.

The article explains that “the fact that [Aly is] an Australian of Egyptian background and a Muslim should be incidental, not remarkable” and yet the author feels the need to raise the topic in a way that completely centres Aly’s background as if to make clear that it may be “incidental” but it will always be mentioned as though it is “remarkable” even if coded in language that initially suggests otherwise. At play here and elsewhere in media discussions of people of colour is the sort of casual Anglo-centricity that mentions someone’s ethnicity/race/background as though it is important before explaining that it is not important. If it wasn’t “remarkable” to you, you wouldn’t bring it up—and the Telegraph even mentions “the majority of faces on any panel are white, Anglo Australians” without perhaps considering that this itself would make middle-of-the-road Aussies think that people of colour, for their lack of visibility, actually are remarkable.

Even a relatively kind article out of the Sydney Morning Herald called Aly an “unbackable favourite”— perhaps meant ironically, but certainly a reflection of the contradictions between the populace and prime-time television/morning tabloid papers. “Aly insists he doesn’t stand on [his platform] with any barrow to push,” writes SMH, as if not having some sort of a journalistic agenda is laudable and not simply an explicit expectation of journalists.

But unlike other talking heads, Aly is made to stress his motivations as even opposition-friendly publications like SMH feel the need to point out that, along with being “well researched [and] well argued” it helped “immeasurably” that a segment of Aly’s called “ISIS is weak” was delivered by “a Muslim.” I’m confused: newspapers feel that they should call out a man’s work because he is Muslim, presume that affects his work, and then stress that he does not have an agenda because of this identity. They do not need to reinforce the racial divide to discuss his work, they make clear (since it’s, you know, “incidental”) but they still things in an Anglo-centric “oh my god the Barbarian can write” sort of way. You cannot chide people for being prejudiced when your articles only work on the presumption of prejudice to begin with.

It’s nonsense, and exactly the sort of tawdry and unacknowledged self-implication that non-critical audiences seem to be enthralled by. Aly is referred to as “the great rationalist,” when really he should simply be called “a good journalist.”

I can understand why Aly’s politics would annoy Telegraph types: reading his topic focuses, he comes off as a Jon Stewart (former host of The Daily Show) type—irreverent and unaccepting of bullshit, a “rabble-rouser” in the eyes of the status quo. Rich people don’t want to talk about wealth apparatuses like negative gearing for the same reason they don’t want to talk about things like homelessness—they don’t want anyone to notice that these things are problems. But Aly and Stewart alike aren’t martyrs for rational thinking—they’re just, as Aly explained to the Sydney Morning Herald, “curious about things” and “like to engage with issues.”

It’s the sort of curious and skeptical scholarship that characterizes ancient-deriving cultures like Stewart’s Judaism and Aly’s Sunnism, both of which stress their own particular brands of inquisitive jurisprudence (“Halakha” and “Fiqh” in religious Judaism and Islam respectively).

With Australian press freedom currently ranked at 25th place on a global scale (having dropped from 16th place in 2014 [but up from a shocking 50th place in Iraq War-era 2003] – the Kiwis are at number five now, for the record), isn’t this exactly the sort of breadth in discourse that we should be supporting regardless of who a person is instead of supporting them despite their identity?

But that’s hardly the case in this discussion. The Daily Telegraph, as it so often does, puts the media’s problem out in black and white, hiding behind the comments of some low-life rightwing senate candidate: “‘Now, if Waleed Aly was someone who subscribed to the Koran and was preaching verses […] we would have a great problem with that. But he is not preaching that is he? He is not preaching from the Koran. He actually discredits the Koran, because he does not follow it and does not obey it. We have a problem with ideology.”

And yet, it’s pure ideology to suggest that someone has to eschew religious doctrine in order to do their job properly, or else I would suggest that the senatorial candidate strongly reconsider to what extent any ancient religious text (including the New Testament, obviously and especially) “upholds Western democratic values.” Don’t remember the last time that society was super cool with people getting their dad drunk and then “laying with them” outside of fringe erotica. It’s either one or the other: you’re either down with the repressiveness inherent in social control mechanisms or you’re not. A central tenet of modern Western societies is that you do not get to cherrypick what sort of ideological systems people follow—you either allow a disparity of opinions or you tell people what their opinions are.

And yet the internet is rife with people like commentors like those on that article who just “can’t stand people who talk down our country or our culture” as if it’s somehow anti-Australian to question public attitudes—and, moreover, as if Aly, just by being brown, has had his body and thoughts politicised. Even the Telegraph itself admits that Aly is Australian—how is his intellectual version of being Australian any less Australian than Channel 9 Australia?

Indeed, what is the effect that such public opinions have on the “diversity” that even some parts of the Telegraph has acknowledged is important? The newspaper says one thing in one place to save face and then undercuts it with some bullshit like Gary “Upset Small Beer” Anderson’s comments that he has “read history and [does] not want history to repeat itself.” He explains “the social experiments” (as if globalisation were some sort of Tuskeegee eugenics project and not the natural result of a worldwide capitalist marketplace reinforced by people like Telegraph-owner Murdoch himself) “have not worked in many places.” Anderson “does not want to be ‘weighed down by political correctness,’” which, you see, is the ball-and-chain of the cashed-up.

But is it political correctness that’s making Gary so angry? Because there’s a recurring theme in the rightwing of Australia and it’s some serious self-hatred poised alongside other people’s actual racism. Anderson’s very own faith encourages “a gathering place where people of all religions may worship God without denominational restrictions,” and yet Anderson wants to discriminate against certain people who want to immigrate into Australia.

(What does that suggest? Could it be—shocking, I know—that people’s lives are not run by the tenets of their religion, whether they’re Baha’i or Muslim?)

It’s the reality of living in a white Anglo country and not being Anglo and/or white, and people like Anderson and The Daily Telegraph’s Caroline Marcus (who did me “the courtesy” of plagiarising my writing in “one gay blog” in her article this week, so I’ll extend her the actual favour of properly attributing her quotes) are reeling in the face of having to confront their own personal identity constructions.

That’s the thing—people think that being queer or non-white-identifying is a choice, but it’s as much a conscious decision to pass as white and straight, even if that is never really addressed in identity politics. The fact of the matter is that the majority of us have some sort of non-Anglo ethnic background behind us: Marcus mentions being “Singaporean, Eastern European, and Jewish” (without any seeming understanding of the Ashkenazi/Mizrahi/Sephardi racial split within Judaism) and yet none of her writing suggests that her views are from the point of view of someone born outside of Australia (which her wikipedia page said he was). Her origins are never even questioned, unlike Aussie native Aly’s, and that’s the perfect demonstration of the privilege given to the white-presenting in action.

(Regarding the divide in Judaism mentioned above: relative to my cousins of colour, I—an Eastern European Jew—can generally get away with passing as Italian or otherwise white and reaping the privilege of not having my identity forefronted in my existence without me choosing to put it there. I recognise that this privilege is not mutually exclusive with the historical trauma of my family’s evisceration in the Holocaust and pogroms and subsequent persecution in the Soviet Union. It’s all about context: being Jewish here is not a liability for me. Elsewhere in the world, other times in history, maybe even in the future, sure. But not now, not usually, not here. I recognise that being queer or non-neurotypical doesn’t mean I don’t get the specific privileges extended to the light-skinned.)

We all have baggage, and that’s why I stress the importance of not homogenising the human experience and pigeonholing it into the context of Being White. I recognise that Caroline Marcus’ position is a precarious one: the reaction to Waleed Aly by mainstream media showcases perfectly the hostility towards anything spoken by someone who’s not white-identified (news items legitimising the booing of Adam Goodes last year is a pretty solid example). If Marcus were to centre her non-mainstream identities—ones that she identifies with enough to briefly mention them—then she would, perhaps, be unable to retain the privilege of being able to speak without having the public presume she has some “barrow” to push.

I never suggested that Caroline Marcus is a racist (the article of mine that’s gotten under her skin is actually about supporting Jenny Leong). She is rather a victim of racism (and yes, as I mentioned before, the sexism that women are all parry to whether they want to admit it or not), and her need to supplant that victimhood with the concocted victimhood of mainstream whiteness (against “diversity quotas,” or whatever) suggests that explicit and voiced identification of marginalised identities in the white-presenting is unacceptable. “Liberals” aren’t fighting against “white people.” They are rallying against the construct of “whiteness,” the sort of thing that does disservice to some people on a very deep, institutional level and to others in a more passive, backgrounded sort of manner. The way that men are also hurt by patriarchy, even white people are affected by the existence and reinforcement of racism.

I don’t mean to pick on Marcus herself (honestly I feel bad for her in some ways), but she’s the perfect case study for exactly why we need intersectionality and an understanding of diversity. She even has some inklings of proto-feminism peeking through in a 2015 piece on why “so many modern, otherwise fiercely independent, intelligent women don’t [keep their names upon marriage].” She says that “in a name” is “the entire history of female oppression”! She wrote that! It came from her head, which tells me that she knows what’s up — at least a bit, at least an inkling — and that her strict opposition to identity politics is, like that of a homophobic senator who likes blowies in the bathroom, a cultivated and protective barrier against exactly the sort of repressive Anglo-normative society whiteness perpetuates.

So why is it that a woman so receptive to certain liberal ideas — gender equality at least in some form, for instance — would so readily and negatively react to a questioning of sexual or gender or race norms (she calls getting a sex change “mutilation,” which is somewhere between quaint and horrifying)?

If she admits that women are held to a different standard than men (at least in some ways — at least in being expected to change their name upon marriage), why is it impossible to think that there are people — maybe even including Marcus herself—who have to change their identity to make it conform to what others expect of them? What does it say when we can so clearly see that people like Waleed Aly — people who don’t have the option to pass as white the way that I do or identify as white the way Marcus does — are constantly discussed in the context of their identity while whiteness allows others to simply have their ideas without presumption of an agenda? What would it mean if we could accept people like Caroline Marcus as a combination of a complex series of ethnicities and identities instead of encouraging whiteness and occlusion of race as the norm?

Caroline Marcus thinks that I’m calling her “white, hetero, and cis” (which, by the way—not a slur, that last one is literally just a way of saying that someone identifies with what gender they were assigned at birth) but what the point really is is that she’s the mouthpiece of those sorts of ideas, whether she’s Singaporean or Jewish or Eastern European or whatever. But to accept alternate identities is out of necessity to acknowledge that race politics are a thing, which would understandably make her a target for dismissal at places like the Daily Telegraph or A Current Affair that thrive on mainstream audiences not questioning social hierarchies. She gives the spurious example of being turned down for a position because of her racial identity and yet for some reason refuses to see it from the other perspective: that perhaps quotas for diversity exist as a last resort, the only way to integrate not just diverse people, but more importantly diverse voices (no matter what race the mouthpiece is), into our currently #MediaSoWhite atmosphere. You know if the Daily Telegraph is making a point of pushing diversity on television that there’s an unavoidable problem here.

And to Caroline herself: look, I’m not my babushka or anything, but I make pretty decent latkes and you can bring the chilli crab (I won’t tell the rabbi about the shellfish) and we can talk feminism.

I bet we’ve got more to agree on than you’d think.

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