Luke 2: 1-4
In the Old Testament, the census was employed as an embodiment of hubris and of mankind’s increasing distance from God and things spiritual. This can be evidenced by a consideration of the following excerpt of NKEE’s front page article of 3 July 2006: “The five-yearly Census of Population and Housing is the largest statistical collection undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and it aims to accurately measure the number of persons in Australia on, their key characteristics, and the dwellings in which they live.” Now contrast this with the following excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles, known in Greek as the ‘Paralipomena:’ “Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel.” No more savage indictment against a simple act of addition exists in literary form.
Perhaps though, the preceding excerpt is as apt as it is vitriolic. Its’ traditional interpretation is that King David’s act of ordering a ‘numbering of the people’ arose from pride and a self-glorifying spirit. It indicated a reliance on his part on the tangible and earthly, an estimating of his power not by the divine favour but by the material resources of his kingdom. He thought only of control and the utilisation of resources not of his own in order to extend his own power, forgetting that he was God’s vicegerent. In all this he sinned against God. While his official Joab was engaged in the census, David’s heart smote him, he became deeply conscious of his fault; and in profound humiliation he confessed, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done.” He was then punished severely.
Presumably, the August census could be seen in the same anarchistic light. It is a numbering of the peoples designed to provide our rulers with the information they require in order to, to use the democratic euphemism for ‘rule,’ “govern us more effectively,” or to use the newspeak of economic rationalism, ensure “adequate planning.” As Tom G Palmer put it: “The government has become a mechanism for distributing largess, and your census form is your ticket.” It constitutes good housekeeping on the part of any government, though this not without danger of abuse. For in this increasingly paranoid War on Terrorism world, while the census provides a useful way of obtaining statistical information about a population, such information can sometimes lead to abuses, political or otherwise, made possible by the linking of individuals’ identities to anonymous census data.
It is thus not unusual in many countries for census data to be processed in some way so as to obscure individual information. Some censuses do this by intentionally introducing small statistical errors to prevent the identification of individuals in marginal populations; others swap variables for similar respondents. Whatever measures have been taken to reduce the privacy risk in census data, new technology in the form of better electronic analysis of data pose increasing challenges to the protection of sensitive individual information.
In many respects we are fortunate. Our governments on the whole are benign and are sensitive to issues pertaining to the protection of privacy, despite the fact that recent invasive legislation has caused greate unease within the community. Further, they tend to use the census in order to gain information, not distort it. Contrast this with the situation in Albania, where although the Albanian government protests vociferously at what it terms “unfair” census gathering that will result in an underestimation of FYROM’s increasing Albanian population, in its own 2001 census, it refused to gather information as to the ethnicity of its population, obviously in order to underestimate its own significant minorities and consequently, deny them basic rights.
This is because a census assumes a status almost as close to Gospel Truth. It makes official the existence of hitherto non-recognised sections of the community and facilitates their treatment on that basis. The case of the Greek community, especially in Melbourne, seems to be the only case where myth, instead of statistics are accepted as the ultimate reality and expressions such as “300,000 Greeks” and the largest Greek city outside Greece” still endure, emanating from the lips of even the most careful politicians, though one would venture to say that this is a well-calculated foray into the world of winning friends and influencing others, among our people.
It is no small wonder then that Greek community leaders, (whoever they are) are urging all Greek-Australians to declare their Greek identity in the August census. Again this is not without precedent. Just as Joseph of the New Testament was compelled by the Roman census to return to the land of his fathers, so too must we return, at least noetically to the land of our fathers and re-affirm our kinship with them, if there is to be any room for our kind, in the greater societal inn.
Such an affirmation, expressed as a willingness to stand up and be counted is said to be necessary for two reasons. The first is that, as reported, “it is particularly important for people from non English speaking backgrounds as the information is used to plan services like funding for local community centres, retirement homes, schools and broadcasting time on SBS.” The caveats that could be put on such a statement are so numerous as to send the Victorian Titles Office into a frenzy. Since when did proportions or community numbers translate into greater viewing time on semi-commercialised SBS? Most immigrants abjure SBS because they cannot read subtitles and Greek-speaking Australians would sooner find a needle in a haystack than wait for the odd Greek program to be aired. Further, in an era of diminishing numbers of monolingual Greek-Australian viewers, diminishing linguistic competency of bilingual Greek-Australians and the ubiquitous presence of satellite television, sadly, the ‘ethnic broadcaster’ is becoming of marginal importance for the ethnic communities it purports to serve and more of a mouthpiece for the ideal of a melting pot of cultures, from which an amorphous though exotic mass of hybrid homogeneity is to emerge, rather than the preservation of each unique tile of our societal mosaic. Similarly, in an epoch where multiculturalism is under siege and funding for schools and retirement homes is drastically reduced, causing ethnic communities to fall back on their own resources though it is to their credit that they are able to do so, it is becoming difficult to distinguish the sphere of policy from its speedy rotation upon the axis of expediency.
Nor are greater numbers necessarily indicative of greater influence upon our governors or society, though this is fatally injurious to the myth we have constructed of our own community. Evidence in chief of the soundness of this proposition is the oft-cited democratic lament of members of our Greek community, when our plans fail or are thwarted by other groups: “Why do they (meaning our governments) listen to them, instead of us? After all, they are more of us, than them.” The answer of course is that despite what any census may find, our tendency for facadism is well known. Our community is too fragmented, self-interested, conflicted and convoluted to present a quantifiable and coherent whole to be dealt with on little more than a symbolic or semantic basis and no amount of census over-inflation of figures can mask this.
Why bother with the census at all in this case? Simply because while it is infantile to suggest that a census alone can serve to improve or elevate our standing as a community within wider Australian society, it can work wonders on an intra-communal level. For it follows logically that if people are willing to officially identify themselves as being of Greek origin, then it is they who can be considered to be constituents of the Greek-Australian community. It is in this light then, that the paradoxical injunction of our ‘community leaders’ must be understood, whether they are conscious of this or not. For what other reason would they feel compelled to urge us to do something so natural as to identify ourselves as who we really are, if they were not terrified that we are no longer who we once thought we were or worse still, do not wish to retain that identity at all? And sadly, there do exist persons, some of whom are even possessed of poor English, who for diverse reasons, ranging from the tragic and veering off into the ridiculous, desist from declaring their Greek identity in the census. Census results that portray our community as a populous and growing one, will psychologically at least, arrest the unspoken fatalism that pervades all of our community endeavours. It may even provide the impetus for renewal.
It is a sad indictment upon our community when we need an externally-imposed census to cause us to re-assess our identity and tremble lest the world learn that some of our ‘brothers’ are lost to us. Yet perhaps this is necessary after all. As time passes and the seductive embrace of benign monoculturalism lasciviously draws us tighter to its absolutist bosom, a census is possibly what we need to shake ourselves from our complacency, separate the wheat from the chaff and publicly commit to our identity as our ancestors did, sometimes with tragic consequences, during the tribulations of Roman times and the Ottoman occupation, not for the prospect of receiving largesse, not for anyone else’s sake but our own. Maybe thus, we are provided with a last chance to divest ourselves of the pride and self-glorifying spirit that have deluded us until now and threaten to punish us, as they did David. And after all, if the Australian Burueau of Statistics tells us that we exist and in large numbers to boot, who are we to argue?
© First published in NKEE on 26 July 2006