Saturday, August 20, 2016
In a sermon circulated among the Greek colonies of the Crimea in the early 1800s, referring to the Islamic poll tax or haraj paid to the Sultan, the following rather startling anarchist opinion was stated: “Ο κήνσος είναι δόμα και σημείον υποταγής,” that is, the κήνσος, a direct transliteration of the Latin word census, is a sign of subjugation. In the Bible, the word κῆνσος is used to signify a Roman imposed poll tax, being the reason why the counting of a population was conducted in the first place. The Romans conducted censuses every five years, calling upon every man and his family to return to his place of birth to be counted in order to keep track of the population and to determine the available amount of manpower that could be drafted into the army. The census thus played a crucial role in the administration of the peoples of an expanding Roman Empire, providing a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.
Also in the Bible, we are able to find the modern Greek word for census, which is απογραφή. The most famous απογραφή of course is that which caused the Holy Family to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, not because wifi was more readily available there, all the better to complete the census form online, but rather because as was the custom in Greek elections until recently, one had to return to their place of birth in order to be counted: “Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις ἐξῆλθε δόγμα παρὰ Καίσαρος Αὐγούστου ἀπογράφεσθαι πᾶσαν τὴν οἰκουμένην.” Fittingly, for the King of Kings, Jesus was born during a census that Caesar Augustus ambitiously wished to extend to the entire oecumene, or at least, the Roman part of it.
Yet before we dismiss the census as method of collating information about subject populations for the purpose of better fleecing them, (William the Conqueror certainly took a leaf out of the Romans’ tablet when commissioning the Domesday Book, all the better to denude the Anglo-Saxons of their property), it is important to note that censuses have been divinely sanctioned since Exodus wherein the Lord commanded the Israelites to conduct a census of themselves, ensuring or course “that that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them”, in order to levy a tax for the upkeep of the Tabernacle. Indeed an entire book of the Old Testament is based on a Census, the Book of Numbers, which basically records a number of stocktakes of the Israelite population after the exodus from Egypt.
On occasion, Biblical censuses have more nefarious purposes. In Samuel we learn that “Once again the anger of the LORD burned against Israel, and he caused David to harm them by taking a census... So the king said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Take a census of all the tribes of Israel--from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south--so I may know how many people there are.” As this census was done for capricious reasons, the Lord insisted on a punishment, letting King David chose between seven years of famine, three months of fleeing from enemies, or three days of severe plague. David chose the plague, in which 70,000 men died. It is rumoured that persons claiming not to have completed the Australian 2016 online census because the site crashed or their computer was running a system, will be offered a similar choice of condign punishments.
David’s son, King Solomon as we learn in the book of Chronicles, had all of the foreigners in Israel counted, it is this aspect of the Australian census, the manner in which the character of ethno-linguistic groups within Australian society will be recorded that has exercised the attention of the Greek community which broadly believes, anarchist discourse about government as repression notwithstanding, that the Australian Census was a unique opportunity for our community to declare its ethnicity, language and religion. Accordingly, Federal and State government utilise the information contained in the census in their planning for ethnic communities and the provision of services for them. Regardless of the fact that we Greek-Australians are a diverse and mixed lot it was broadly felt that it was important that we all ensure that we, pardoning the pun, stand up and be counted on Census Night.
Yet in all aspects dealing with ethno-linguistic minorities, the 2016 Australian Census suggested that its creators lack the capacity to appreciate the complex relationship between ethnic communities, the mainstream and other ethnic communities. Instead, they tend to view ethnic communities such as ours, as a monolithic bloc of homogeneity, ignoring or rather not realizing the diversity of experience, sub-identities and intercultural relations that increasingly form the norm within most integrated ethnic communities.
For starters, the Australian census assumes that there is no such thing as multilingualism, requesting that the population only declares ONE language other than English spoken. It therefore ignores or does not address the possibility that in many ethnic communities and families, a number of languages other than English, and not just one, are used on an equal basis. Many Middle Eastern and Balkan Australians, where functional multilingualism is the norm were thus unable to record this on their form. Families hailing from Florina, where Greek and the Slavic idiom of the region are both equally spoken were unable to have this linguistic complexity reflected in the Census and had to arbitrarily chose one. Furthermore, such a blinkered view of language fluency completely ignores the phenomenon of minority language acquisition and use as a result of mixed marriages. The members of my household speak three languages other than English on a daily basis and yet only one of these could recorded. While such a phenomenon may not be common, it exists and it is precisely these types of instances of diversity that a Census sensitive to recording the true nature of linguistic and cultural multiculturalism should capture.
Further, no provision was made for people who cannot speak a language, such as infants, or the disabled. Thus, the good people of the Census asked me which language by three month old daughter speaks and I was compelled to respond.
A similar dearth of appreciation of the manner in which ethnic communities self-identify was also displayed in relation to the ancestry component of the Census. How will the ancestry statistics be used and/or interpreted? If someone is half Greek half Italian for instance, will he be numbered both among the Greeks and the Italians or will there be a separate category for Greek-Italians, Greek-Australians, Greek-Chinese, Greek-Lebanese etc and every other possible combination among all the ethno-cultural communities. Furthermore, what if one is only a quarter Greek? No provision was made for composite ancestries. Furthermore, it is difficult to see what purpose answering such a question on its own would serve. It would have been more incisive and useful to include a question about a person’s cultural affiliation, that is, how they identify themselves which often differs to their ancestry or language spoken. For example, in most cases of mixed relationships, many progeny end up identifying primarily with one, rather than both of their ancestral cultures. Others marry into a culture and embrace it entirely. In the case of persons hailing from Florina, or the ongoing debate within the Syriac speaking community as to whether they espouse an Aramean, Chaldean or Assyrian identity, identity becomes a vexed question and questions as to ancestry do nothing to address composite or conflicting identities within the one individual. These are important elements of multicultural Australia which are not reflected in the census and are of concern since it becomes apparent that our statistics gleaners and by inference our government may not understand the true complexity of the mosaic and melting pot of our multicultural community.
The listing of Greek Orthodox on the census form in the religion section is also problematic because while it may feed Greek vanity in that it singles us out as prominent, it allows other Orthodox communities to qualify their Orthodoxy with an ethnic affiliation, thus fragmenting the true number of Eastern Orthodox adherents in this country in the statistics. Thus the census does not take into account that Greek Orthodox refers to jurisdiction, not religion and that the religion that should have been recorded is “Eastern Orthodox” with a space, if required, to record the necessary jurisdiction. It is of concern that after one hundred years of a dynamic presence in this country, the powers that be appear not understand the basic nature of the churches within it.
Some members of the Greek community lament the fact that Australian Censuses are invariably conducted in August when a large proportion of the Greek-Australian community is lapping up the Greek sun, thus resulting in their diminished numbers in the Census statistics. Yet the quantity is not so much relevant as understanding the changing nature of our community, both in how it sees itself as a whole and in relation to broader Australian society. And in this, apart from the Biblical trials and tribulations faced by the populace, especially the elderly and those unable to speak English, the Census has been tied and found truly wanting.
First published in Neos Kosmos on 20 August 2016