A daily bulletin of news & opinion

29 October 2012

It’s that time of year when cities around the world become draped in fake cobwebs and pretend they’re American. It’s almost Halloween.

But for all the fake blood and werewolf masks, it’s never really that scary is it? If you really want to frighten me, dress up as a dusty unpaid mobile phone bill that only becomes visible once a pair of bailiffs remove the kitchen table it’s fallen behind. Though that would be a pretty elaborate costume.

Or perhaps try hanging up a plastic version of a laptop that’s fallen to the bottom of a drain after being accidentally dropped during an unwanted public argument with a spouse. These aren’t actual things that have happened to me but they’re terrifying aren’t they?

After all, in the modern world, it’s not ghouls and ghost that petrify us, it’s severe financial uncertainty, political instability and above all severe social awkwardness.

If I were in charge of branding Halloween, I’d have people shaking. I’d carve pumpkins into the latest unemployment figures and swap apple-bobbing with a stern lecture on the volatile relationship between Iran and Israel. If it’s fear you want, then forget monsters all together. The fictional freaks that unsettled our ancestors seem laughable now, because in the wake of a spirituality-based western society, our real fears come not from the unexplained but from within.

What hasn’t changed is the way authority can use fear to control. Much in the way the Christian Church used hell as a mechanism for manipulation, governments around the world use fear to justify policy. You needn’t look much further than my native Australia. Just recently, Prime Minister Julia Gillard tried again to justify her plans to re-establish the offshore processing of illegal immigrants in places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The move is a step backwards for the human rights of people who illegally come to Australia and has projected a black mark on our national brand. Gillard’s angle is that offshore processing will deter what the Australian media, so embarrassingly, insist on calling “boat people”.

There’s an argument the plan has the safety of illegal immigrants in mind. If they are deterred, there’s less likelihood of them boarding unseaworthy vessels that could potentially sink en route, which has recently happened. But, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s really got more to do with the xenophobia of many voters. Because as one of the country’s most respected neurosurgeons, Dr Charles Teo, the son of Chinese immigrants recently said, “Racism is very much still alive in Australia.”

Racism, like most fears, isn’t based on much when you look it in the eye. Putting aside for a moment that Australia’s multiculturalism is one of its best assets, the country is estimated to have only around 60,000 illegal immigrants – most of them Britons or Americans who’ve outstayed their visas. Compare that to around 750,000 in Italy and the 11.5 million in the US, and you get an idea for the scale of the problem.

It’s just one example of why, when it comes to fear-driven policy-making, you can’t help feeling a little more tricked than treated.


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