My previous post about Alison Broinowski generated quite a bit of discussion. However, it’s apparent that most commenters haven’t actually read either her book or her thesis. I can’t really blame them for that. Although the thesis is freely available in PDF format, some people’s browsers don’t cope with it too well (apparently) and many don’t have the time or inclination to work their way through a document of 360 pages or so.
Because I think Broinowski’s ideas actually do merit wider attention and substantive discussion than they’ve received, I’ve taken the time to transcribe and post here an extensive extract from the conclusion to her thesis. I do so mostly without editorial comment, except to note that I don’t agree with Jack Strocchi’s scathing dismissal of her in a comment to the previous post. I essentially agree with Professor Bunyip’s assessment that her thesis had some value, but that her more recent quoted comments were excessive and unfortunate, and exhibit a cultural cringe that serves only to alienate most readers and deter them from examining her substantive ideas with the attention they deserve (that last bit is my view rather than Professor Bunyip’s – I suspect he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to be so charitable to an ideological opponent). Here’s the Broinowski extract:
As its title, About Face, implies, this thesis has sought to turn Australians’ usual perspective around to “face” the other way. Australian perceptions of Asia have been examined elsewhere. Instead, an attempt has been made here to trace the origins, development, and motivations of Asians’ representations of Australia, as far as they are revealed by opinion leaders in ten Asian societies. These have been shown to differ from what many Australians assume about themselves and from what Australian leaders suppose are others’ perceptions of them. They vary with time and country, but recurrent themes have been identified throughout the twentieth century. They reflect observable Australian reality, but are clearly shaped by the interests of opinion leaders in representing Australia, and themselves, in ways that emphasise superiority or inferiority, difference or similarity.
Australia is more exposed than distant or more powerful Western countries to double standards, scapegoating, and exclusion by its Asian observers, and yet its leaders have ignored warnings and many have shown little awareness of the need to improve the national reputation. Australia invites attack. Asian leaders have with increasing confidence and sophistication used cultural strategies, particularly since the 1990s, to Australia’s detriment. “Culture”, together with concepts like tradition, ethnicity, and nationalism, has become a “recognised idiom for self-definition, political negotiation, and international trade and diplomacy”. (Wu and others 1992) Cultural contestation can occur at times when Australia is economically stronger or weaker, politically conservative or reformist. Cultural language from the world’s margins is now said to be more clamorous than that from the centre, and it believes Australia out in the regional cold, neither master nor subaltern, metropolitan nor peripheral.
For this thesis, however, the most important function of “face” is as amour propre. This impels the Occidentalising agenda that has been shown to serve the common interests of opinion leaders in Asian societies through the twentieth century. It resonates when a Thai editor calls Howard’s “Deputy Sheriff” role (as reported) “a bit of a slap in the face”, and when Habibie says Australia has “pissed in Indonesia’s face”. Asian “loss of face” is claimed to be hurt of a different order from what Western societies know as personal embarrassment, or as damage to national self-esteem. The outrage felt by Indonesians, Indians, Japanese, and Malaysians when Australians fail to appreciate the civilisational hierarchies and cultural understandings summed up as “face” finds vengeful expression in marginalisation, hostility, condescension, and withdrawal. They identify Australians racially with the imperialists by invoking the bonding discourse of Occidentalism. So Australia, unable to shed its western identification, becomes the post-colonial scapegoat. Such Asian exceptionalism reverses the Orientalist discourse, and derives its force from proposing not only that Westerners are unacceptable in Asia, but that Australians are the least acceptable.
… Yet the desire to ensure that “face” is preserved is hardly confined to Asian societies. If this thesis work to endorse Asian exceptionalism about the West while deploring Western generalisations about Asia, it would adopt the very double standards and condescension that people in Asian countries so justifiably resent. A guiding approach… has been to deconstruct such exceptionalist arguments and to show how they serve the agendas of opinion leaders in the ten societies, if not always those of all their people. The well-worn litany of much literary/cultural commentary — issues of identity (national, social, sexual, personal) or post-coloniality (gender, class, ethnicity, race) — is said this unit in Occidentalist agenda of blame, responsibility, restitution, and culture wars. Occidentalism implicates Australia both as an individual society and as “Western”.
… [A]n historical survey reveals that Australia in various Asian communities is represented through what Jose (1993) calls “a mixed application of logic, fantasy, and extrapolation from what has already been established”. These understandings reflect factual reportage, reforming or cautionary agendas, and assertions of superiority, depending upon the agendas of opinion makers. Their repetitive patterns are sustained because Australia itself remains proximate and different, conveniently vulnerable, and an “easy enemy”. Often, Australians have failed to appreciate how enduring and potent is the conviction that Asian countries outrank Australia in civilisational terms, and how exasperating his Australia’s failure to appreciate it. “Proper place” in the civilisational hierarchy entitles opinion leaders in Asian countries to lecture at Australians in ways they would resent in others. The discourse of Asian regionalism makes them ten against one, and gives them the option of referring to themselves as nations or as “Asia”, thus including Asia or excluding it, punishing or rewarding it at will.
As a society that “has come about through mutual absorption of life-ideas, often in hostility, among people of many cultures” (Jose 1996), Australia is — and will remain — both like and unlike its neighbours, and they will continue to stress similarities or differences, whichever is in their interests at any time. So representations of Australia… depend on each Asian society’s self-representations. Opinion leaders hark back to familiar themes, and pick up discourse from each other. Reversing the insults of colonialism, complaining of Australian ignorance of Asia, and objecting to being told what to do are persistent responses, or negotiating strategies, that reappear in such crises. Often, as we have seen, Asian opinion leaders’ criticisms of Australia seem to coincide with unrest at home.
Australia’s image problem
The thesis has shown that familiar complaints about Australians as racist, ignorant, countries, lazy, hypocritical, confrontationist, and so on, constitute a serious image problem for Australia. Representations of Australia as lacking real independence, as a client state of the US and a subject state of the UK, and as ambivalent about Asia, are statements of fact. So are many of the representations, voiced particularly by Asian Australians, about the shortcomings of multiculturalism and Australia ignorance about Asia.
But deconstructing them has revealed that more complex agendas operate. Majority opinion in the region supports a continued US military presence; East Asian regionalists would not be much moved by a change to a Republic in Australia, racial discrimination is widespread in Asian societies and between them; any relevance, distance, and Westernness aren’t cited when observers in Asian countries seek the advantage of Australia’s education, health, tourism, investment, exports, and defence cooperation. Australians’ ambivalence about Asia is matched by the dilemmas of opinion leaders in countries. Some Asia-born critics of multiculturalism pursue in Australia the ideological, hegemonic, and racial agendas they bring with them. Double standards and displacement of blame are persistent face-saving strategies.
… The thesis concludes that representations of Australia in the ten countries are constructed by opinion leaders’ agendas of Occidentalism, racism, and regionalism in pursuit of their own domestic priorities and concerns. These representations are skilfully deployed as part of a complex game involving objective observation as well as deliberate manipulation and regional exclusion. In this game, Australia is particularly vulnerable as a result of its proximity, its policies, its difference, its lack of appreciation of its neighbours’ concerns, and its failure to deal appropriately with its own image problem. Much more sophisticated public diplomacy is required of Australia if it is to become, and be seen to become, more useful, interesting, and relevant to countries in the region.
Note that the only authority that Ms Broinowski cites for the assertions of unchallengeable fact highlighted above in bold text is a quote from Malcolm Fraser that “There is a perception that we are making the US, rather than Asia, and a number one priority”. Presumably her thesis supervisor and examiners regarded this as perfectly okay — you don’t need to prove facts that the left consensus regards as self-evidently true!