The Vietnam War triggered a bizarre youth rebellion in the heartlands of Capitalism. Soaked in a heady cocktail of Marcuse, Mao and marijuana, the disaffected generation brought about a revolution in music and lifestyles. Simultaneously, they reduced the accumulated wisdom of many generations to abusive sloganeering. It became routine and almost a caricature for inchoate rebels to denounce every paid-up member of the establishment with the epithet "fascist pig".
Yesterday's rebels are now in their 60s but their insidious legacy of compressing human experience into capsuled slogans has not merely persisted but been sanctified by cash-rich, talking shops such as the UN. Fading memories have relegated the denunciation of 'fascism' to the archives. In its place has emerged a new political correctness centred on empowerment, victimhood and, in many cases, the forthright rejection of ordinary decencies. In the hierarchy of today's slogan-speak, the charge of 'racism' is almost equivalent to the medieval disavowal of lepers.
A wariness of the counter-prejudice nurtured by the new hierarchy of political correctness should not blind us to the relatively more enlightened set of values that are now the global norm. The feeling of cultural superiority that coexisted with the exercise of power in the pre-World War II era has yielded place to a new moral relativism. Tolerance, pluralism and human rights define today's fashion. For this we have to be grateful to those who shouted "fascist pig" at the symbols of authority a few decades ago.
As a nation that has tried to reinvent itself from a 'white' Dominion to what its PM Kevin Rudd described as a "country of great diversity, harmony and tolerance", Australia has been shaken by the outcry over the assault on Indian students in Melbourne. Despite the official suggestion that the epidemic of attacks - some 1,447 people of Indian origin have been assaulted in Victoria in the past 12 months - are the handiwork of "idiotic thugs", the wide impression that Indians have been targeted on account of their colour have been deeply wounding to Australians.
'Middle Australia' has responded to the charge of racism with visible irritation. Writing in the Herald Sun last week, a columnist couldn't conceal his disbelief that "India which perfected the caste system and is plagued by Hindu-Muslim bloodfests, is telling us that we are too prejudiced".
Leaving aside the archaic condescension with which he views a country that contributes 90,000 students to Australia's $2 billion higher education industry, the writer's indignation isn't misplaced. Australia could easily have remained the predominantly white country it was till the 1980s. With the aboriginal minority edged out to the margins by ruthless settlers, the "Australian way of life" could have become the successful version of the failed experiment in Southern Rhodesia. The point is that Australia chose a different 'multicultural' route, a consideration that must weigh against the charge that it is inherently racist.
No doubt there are Australians who harbour deep racial prejudices. Some, like Pauline Hanson, made a big political splash 10 years ago. There are other Australians who are plain frightened by the demographic and cultural transformation of their cities. The Indian 'students' who work inhospitable night shifts and drive taxis to either pay for college or secure permanent residency are no doubt industrious and law abiding. They are also seen as doing jobs the locals don't want to touch but which are necessary to keep the economy ticking. Yet, despite their contribution to the national economy, they are also viewed by locals with a suspicion that is born of cultural unfamiliarity.
The phenomenon isn't unique. The wariness felt by some Marathi manoos at the growing number of Chhat pujas in Mumbai correspond to the bewilderment of old Birmingham residents at the transformation of some parts of the city into Pakistani ghettos. In Mumbai, the emotionally beleaguered turn to the Shiv Sena or its more excitable cousin, MNS; likewise the British National Party appeals to those who feel strangers in their own country. Both responses are, arguably, "racist" but since similar responses cut across national and ethnic lines there is also a universalism to desperate responses born out of an inability to cope with change.
Yet, the people most affected by the transformation of their neighbourhoods aren't necessarily the ones who beat up hapless students on a Melbourne train. All evidence suggests that the assaults on Indians are the handiwork of social misfits and hoodlums who aren't all white Australians. There is a distinction between prejudice and criminality.
There is a case for an Indian travel advisory against travelling to Australia because its streets are unsafe. But there is no need to go that extra mile and tar the country with the brush of racism.
Sunday Times of India, June 7, 2009