Monday, May 31, 2004


My most favourite Troy related moment is contained in Alki Zei's fantastic book about children's lives during the Metaxas' era dictatorship, "To Kaplani tis Vitrinas." The children are called upon to choose who they side with during the Trojan War. “The Greeks were in the wrong because they went out to conquer another country,” says one and the other responds: “But we’re Greeks! How can we be on the enemy’s side?”

Ultimately, the Trojan Epic, attributed but not at all certainly composed by Homer is certainly, in skill, the equivalent of the genius of Shakespeare. "Tell me oh muse," he begins... and unfolds a tale of complexity, beautifully expressed, replete with double entendres, drama and word play - all those things that make a work of art last down the ages. Apart from being a masterpiece of the Greek language, so much so that later scholars modelled their own writing on it and German classics students can still be
seen muttering the Iliad, which they know by heart on summer's days while visiting the Acropolis, the Trojan Epic is also the closest to contemporary literary account of a time far gone by - the Mycenaean Age.

The society described in the Iliad and the Odyssey, is that of a youthful and martial nation, bent on action, killing and upholding codes of honour. In this, it closely resembles the later Germanic epics and Viking Sagas. These are not the elevated and cultured Athenians who discuss philosophic concepts in the Agora, nor the wily and ingenuous Ionians busy discovering inventions and building temples. If anything, these Greeks, still organized in tribal fashion are refreshing in their primitiveness, a primitiveness that could still be found aeons later in the martial tribes of the Epirots and Macedonians. This is a time where Lemnos was uninhabited and the Thracians still spoke a strange, unintelligible language.

This was also a time before a 'Greek' nationality emerged. While most scholars agree that both Trojans and their adversaries were 'Greek', it is interesting that the invaders had to form a coalition of forces, described by Homer as the 'Danaans' in order to fight and did not do so on ethnic lines. Therefore the tendency to create a comfort zone, excluding all others and only banding together in times of danger which so characterizes or organized community here has its roots in hallowed antiquity. Nevertheless, the Trojan epic proved instrumental in forging that Greek identity as we know it today, providing a point of reference for participants and explaining the derivation of certain tribes. The Molossians of Epirus for example, gained great prestige out of the fact that their first king, Neoptolemus, was the son of Achilles.

Other concepts of interest, such as the abuse of filoxenia, an already defined concept in those most obscure times (800-1000BC), which after all provided the root cause for the declaration of war, are both poetic and indicative of the continuity in concept and attitude that exists between our ancestors and Greek society today.

Unfortunately, the latest Hollywood attempt to bring this epic to life have been clumsy and crude. Casting aside this writer's belief that any Hollywood epic not filmed in Technicolor is inherently valueless, the current interpretation illustrates the popular proverb "If it ain't broke don't fix it," to a great degree.
The scenery is an abomination. While deviations in costume may be partially acceptable considering the dearth of material from the period to suggest the attire of Mycenaeans, what of King Priam's hippy tie-dyed robes? Indeed, was it coincidence or a decided lack of imagination that caused the director to attire Trojan priests of three thousand years ago in garments closely resembling those of Greek Orthodox Bishops, complete with hats?

If the directors wished to emphasise the Greek connection, they could have perhaps provided us with Mycenaean palaces that looked like Mycenaean palaces and not like scenes from ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ or ‘The adventures of Hercules.’ Similarly, the Trojan palace was also an unacceptable mishmash of anachronisms and styles. I was able to identify ancient Egyptian statuary, classical statuary that would not exist for another 400 years, Assyrian winged god motifs and awkward palace architecture that seemed as if it had been pillaged from the set of "The Mummy Returns," as well as a particularly Stonehenge-resembling ‘temple’ in Thessaly.

What is the justification, therefore of taking a perfectly perfect epic and changing the storyline so that it appears as bland and inane as the sagas of Conan the Barbarian? While some artistic license may be acceptable in order to render a literary work more suitable to the big screen, (after all Nikos Kazantzakis' re-working of the Odyssey counts as one of the greatest poems of Greek literature) in the instance of Troy, we have directors actually "dumbing down" the intricate plot to the point where, if one has read the epic, the viewing is tortuous, and if one hasn't, downright boring.

Quite aside from the extraordinary wooden acting by the likes of Brad Pitt, all characters are as flat and one-dimensional as a comic script. The action is unadorned with the sense of suspense, storytelling and anticipation that Homer provokes in the reader and it is perhaps to his eternal credit that a poet who lived three thousand years ago, can continue to inspire where moderns cannot.

The movie also fails to explain the context of the epic, which after all provided the Greek people with a genealogy and a sense of common identity. Imbued with western, 21st century values, it assumes the form of an egocentric tale of a movie star who is so full of himself, that we cannot look past him, to see the character he is playing.

Ultimately, the gods use us and the directors as their sport. The directors of the movie do not absolve themselves of their incapacities by claiming their movie to be "inspired by Troy." For if it truly were, the end result would not be the banal drivel presented to us on screen, though the sole good this movie may do is to inspire the reader to investigate pre-classical Greece. Do yourselves a favour. Procure an English copy of the Iliad and Odyssey, which retains the original poetic form, (ideally the Richmond Lattimore translation) and prepare to be enthralled. Then go to the cinema and prepare to be revolted. Oh those Gods must be crazy.

First published in NKEE on 31 May 2004

Monday, May 24, 2004


What I love about the Eurovision song contest is how try-hard non-European nations try their darndest to act like funky Europeans. To wit: the male Turkish presenter’s extra-ordinarily bad mop top and dulcet French-speaking tones resembling ritual pig slaughtering, or the equally Eurocool female presenter’s smile, which seems to have been fashioned in plastic and affixed to her face with epoxy resin. Of interest too is how these countries showcase their natural splendours. Last week, while watching the tourism segments of the preliminaries, I noticed that they all showcased Greek archaeological sites or buildings. The ancient ones were classified as ‘pre-Roman’ (decidedly non-Greek), while the commentators could not bring themselves to refer to Byzantium at all. We had theatres at Aspendos, Troy, the Cappadocian monasteries, the monuments of Antiochus at Commagene, the library at Ephesus, Agia Sophia, and the mosaics of the Imperial Palace. All this was vaguely amusing, indicative of the irony of a nation that did its upmost to extirpate its native populations, now using those uprooted peoples’ past to gain legitimacy in the eyes of Europe.
Two things however, made me sick to my stomach. The first, which only evoked a mildly queasy feeling, was seeing a whirling dervish, a follower of the mystic Muslim order of Mevlana strutting his stuff inside the hallowed Orthodox Church of St Eirene, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture and perhaps the only remaining church that bears witness to the crisis of iconoclasm in Orthodoxy. This is cultural insensitivity at its most heinous and betrays a cynical use not only of folklore and ethnic identity but of religion, in the eternal quest for the Euro. Admittedly, this is nothing new. Rather than return this church to the Oecumenical Patriarchate, Turkish authorities have allowed it to crumble, using it for the odd fashion parade and concert. One can only consider the backlash if we decided to hold a tsifteteli competition in the mosques of Ioannina. Not in Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………eece, as the female Eurovision presenter would say. In Greece, as Ali G would say, we have… raspekt.
The second thing that really made me sick, happened instantaneously as the ruins of Panagia Soumela, the great Pontian monastery and centre of Hellenism, were flashed onto the screen. Moments later, I received an sms from a Pontian friend as follows: “How could they?”
For Pontians and for Greeks in general, this is tantamount to Germans seeking to promote their culture by screening friendly images of Auschwitz. Between 1914-1923, it is estimated that more than half a million Pontians were deliberately massacred or walked to death in infamous ‘Death Marches’ by Kurds and the Ottoman military. This event is celebrated in monuments in Samsounta and re-enactments every year, at the same time that the Turkish government denies the Pontian genocide ever occurred and refuses to apologise. That Turkey, knowing full well of the crimes that have been perpetrated against the Pontians in the name of ethnic homogeneity can advertise the remains of the people who they destroyed displays a gravely disquieting cynicism that not only borders on sick, but surpasses it.
Events such as this underline why workshops, such as annual Genocide Workshop by the Pontian Youth at Pontiaki Estia in Melbourne are so important. The Pontian Genocide Workshop is an event organised by Pontian youth in the English language for all those who are interested in learning about the terrible events of the genocide and how it impacted upon the Geek people. For this issue is not a Pontian one, it is a Panhellenic one and we would all do well to remind ourselves from time to time of the transitory nature of our sojourn in the places we call home. We would also do well to attend events such as these so that we can pay tribute to the innocent fallen, sacrificed to realpolitik and to rage against the scale of barbarism that mankind can descend to.
This year’s Workshop, held on 23rd May has taken an interesting approach. Topics such as: “Who are the Pontians? Byzantine Pontus, the Pontian Genocide in Turkey and Russia, and the identity of the Pontian youth,” are presented by young Pontians, and their freshness of approach, provides comfort to those who strive for intergenerational preservation and development of our culture. The fact that the Workshop is created for youth, by youth, puts paid to the widely held view that youth cannot organise Greek functions or feel intimidated by their elders into not doing so. The Pontian youth, working closely with the first generation are proving that a sensitive approach that refers to the past and re-interprets it, can ensure the survival of our culture.
The use of multi-media, a photographic display of Pontos throughout the ages, an exhibition of Pontian costumes, re-enactments of the traditional Pontian home and displays of Byzantine coins from Pontus augments the ‘hands-on approach’ the organisers display towards their heritage, as does the CD full of historical, pictorial and musical resources which have so painstakingly prepared for each participant.
It is encouraging that the workshop attracts more and more youth each year, though the numbers of non-Pontian Greek youth attendees are still inexcusably small. At the end of the day, our community is only as vibrant as we make it and events such as these deserve the community’s full support. Full kudos therefore to the Pontian youth for showing us that while it is vital that we learn to forgive, we must also never forget.


first published in NKEE on 24 May 2004

Monday, May 17, 2004


"Beware of Greeks bearing gifts," is an oft-quoted phrase, ever since Homer, (or whoever the author of the Iliad and Odyssey is) irresponsibly coined it, thus providing other with the weapons with which to deride his unfortunate descendants down the ages. An Albanian proverb runs thus: "After shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers," while an old Bulgarian proverb is also enlightening: "Fear one Greek, laugh at two."
As far as I have been able to glean, no proverb or saying exists to magnify the achievements or nobility of the Greeks to the tune of: "Great are the Greeks and magnificent are their works," or something similar. Even the Romans who grudgingly acknowledged that the conquered Greeks had conquered Rome with their civilization doesn't quite cut the haloumi. It appears that throughout history, ever since Homer's unfortunate faux pas (would we hesitate to state that the great poet "rolled himself and us into the bargain") and Alexander's burning of the palace at Persepolis, which earned for the Greek king the appellation of "son of Satan," that we have been the victims of extraordinary bad press. Why so?
In part, we only have ourselves to blame. Homer's precedent is a particularly bad one. It enabled Illyrian monarchs such as Justinian to actively persecute vestiges of Greek culture, simply because in his subjective opinion, they were anti-Christian or harmful. The bulldozing of temples and destruction of Greek works of art can only have had the effect of making the Greek people feel really bad about themselves. This is why Greek philosophers, fleeing the closure of the school of Athens found themselves in Persia, Greece's traditional enemy, seeking succour from the Great King, and were only allowed back to Byzantium briefly and under a bi-lateral treaty, so they may collect manuscripts for the Great King's library. It has oft been argued that these scholars were responsible for the dissemination of Greek culture throughout the East, providing for its ultimate survival. The jury is still out on this one, but one can imagine the Great King, intent on spreading the Persian State religion, Zoroastrianism, enveloped in waves of mirth, using the leading scholars of his arch-enemy to develop a modern and more cohesive theology.
The nineteenth century and the advent of Neoclassicism in the West reversed this trend. Suddenly, everything that was Greek was good. Western buildings were built in the Greek style of old, Greek sympathizers arrived on the shores of Greece to assist the downtrodden in their fight against the Ottomans and thousands of artifacts admired and removed. This golden age of Greek public relations seems to have lasted until Western sympathises began to realize that Mitso the Greek levendi was quite unlike Socrates or Alcibiades and well, more like Mitso really… Ever since then, it all went downhill. Such was the disappointment in 'Greeks' after the Revolution that pseudoscientists such as Fallmerayer decided that they could not have been descended from the ancient Greeks at all but rather from 'lesser' peoples, such as Slavs. What a crushing blow.
This of course is old hat and while compliments fell thick and fast from our 'Allies' in World War Two for giving our lives to protect western interests and bases in the Aegean area such as "Greeks don't fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks," generally speaking, the world seems to have been reading too much Homer and are once more suffering from the "we can't trust the Greeks" syndrome, in the present era.
Only this can explain the organized worldwide campaign to vilify the Cypriots for rejecting a forced referendum about the future of THEIR country. Suddenly, the barbarity of the Turkish invasion, English colonialism which forced people to be burnt alive, desecrated churches and tortured priests is swept under the carpet and considered irrelevant. Irresponsible journalists portray Cyprus as the aggressor and the invaders as victors. In effect Cypriots are being punished for not towing the imposed line. Ladies and gentlemen, the Greeks are the sole cause of the Cypriot problem. Remove the Greeks and therein lies a solution.
The media hype over the safety of the Olympic Games and Greece's capacity to stage them is also indicative of a general malice towards the Greeks in general. The media seems to take great glee in magnifying, distorting and exaggerating Greece's shortcomings in this regard, as the recent Sixty Minutes 'report' showed. Having an American reporter, who looked as if she had just escaped from Oprah or Entertainment Tonight try to pull controversial faces at her Greek interviewees, thus destroying thousands of dollars of cosmetic surgery and setting at naught the proposition that Botox does in fact kill the right nerves is the height of cynicism. Not only was the report poorly compiled, it was also out of date by the time it was screened. So why then was there need for a shocked Liz Hayes to report on an 'Olympic Tragedy?' Simply, because she knew her viewers would enjoy it.
Assuredly, the media has also obtained great mileage out of the Kallithea bombings. Perhaps what Greece should do is stage a terrorist bust like their northern neighbours in Skopje who killed innocent Pakistani immigrants and presented them as terrorists in order to obtain kudos from the United States of Anti-Terrorism. Or better still, stage a raid of a boat off Greek waters, full of terrorists holding babies over their heads. It is a sad, sad world we live in indeed.
Nevertheless, rather than rage against Homer's legacy, the Greeks should do something about it. Knowing full well that the over-critical eyes of the world would be upon them, they should have taken steps to nip unfair criticism in the bud. Sadly, in relation to the Olympic Games, this has not been done. Gianna Angelopoulou Daskalaki was appointed only to be removed , only to be reinstated once more when the going got tough, works suffered interminable delays owing to strikes and mismanagement and an inefficient bureaucracy frustrated efforts to get things on track. Dora Bakoyiannis' great one-liner "Greeks are like the syrtaki, they start off slow and go very fast at the end," does not exactly inspire confidence in Greece within the international community, especially considering it is one that is not disposed to being indulgent with Greece, adding instead fuel to the fire of the media reputation-burners.
While I personally am fearful of the security issues of living in a country that appears to incarcerates refugee, appears to invent terrorist threats, unjustifiably invades other countries and arguably steals the resources of its third-world neighbours, I am doubtful whether this is seen as more important than whether a small country, with a multitude of problems can organize a sporting event that will outshine the parade of Hills Hoists and thongs that graced our shores here in 2000. Still, criticizing others is the best form of displacing attention from local issues and making us feel good about ourselves. But hey, that’s only the view of a pestilential purveyor of print-media.
Finally, spare a thought for those who would go against the Homerian trend and support us in our time of need. There is something romantic that an Aussie girl, with the aptly Greek name of Delta, is learning Greek so she can converse with our Marko, who judging from his lispy accent in the old AAPT Smartchat commercial (issi tha kirdisseis) is not entirely cognizant of the language himself. This is good and rare publicity so I take Homeric leave of view without further comment than to state a Pythagorism: "Beware of Greeks eating beans."

First published in NKEE on 17 May 2004

Monday, May 10, 2004


I have to confess that I have never been able to get too much into rock music per se. The reason is twofold: Firstly, for having the bodily refuse scared out of me at the tender age of four by two older cousins wearing Kiss masks, recently purchased from the Royal Melbourne Show. I suspect however that the fear factor here was not so much the masks themselves, but the conglomeration of fungi on my cousin’s tongues as they attempted to mimic their favourite stars by sticking their tongues out. I still shudder when I think about it.
Secondly, I was trained in classical violin. The violin is perhaps the most uncool instrument in the world. It cannot lend itself to the interpretation of rock music and when apologists for the violin’s inherent dorkiness have tried to adapt it to this ill-fitting use, the end result is an appalling spectacle akin to the school nerd dressing up in cool clothes and stumbling over the subtleties of coolspeak. This is about as tragic as viewing Happy Days twenty years on and realising that the Fonz was never cool and actually, rather dorky. He was just cool in relation to you. But then again what does that make Mick Jagger, the venerable grandfather of rock?
Thus being the Ritchie Cunningham of music, my taste in music has always been suspect though in my attitude to Greek rock, I would venture to say, slightly justified. The heyday of Greek rock was in the eighties, when young Greeks discovered that they could become European by wearing tight fitting jeans, so tight in fact that they even threatened to cut off the skeletal Stathis Psaltis’ circulation (here the reader is referred to the thousands of quality “Videostar” productions that were so popular that they enabled Greek Video store owners throughout Melbourne to send their children to a good school), and trawl the streets of Athens in motorbikes while tinny, extremely bad emulations of rock music etched themselves on the viewers’ eardrums. This was undoubtedly the lowest point in Greek music (or the highest depending on the ideological direction of one’s music appreciation, since Lefteris Panatzis’ classic «Μείνε μαζί μου έγγυος, είμαι πολύ φερέγγιος»)
And yet the Greek love affair with rock music persisted, changing from a clumsy imitation to something that seems poised to assimilate itself within Greek society. Nevertheless, much of this genre still fits ill within the wider Grecian context. Look at the «Παπαροκάδες,» for example, cassock-wearing fervent idealists who naively believe that they can employ rock music in order to spread the word of God amongst the junior masses. Poor misguided lute pluckers. As if telling people to be good was fashionable, regardless of the method of delivery.
Someone who I do like though, is George Iliopoulos. There is something really special about George. He has a real presence, a knowing and simultaneously searching gaze. He is a person who makes you sit up and take notice, as I found out to my detriment in Athens. I was at the airport, waiting to leave for Australia with my grandmother when I chanced upon the said George and exchanged greetings with him. As he rounded the corner in search of duty free, my grandmother turned to me and asked me: «Ποιο είναι αυτό το όμορφο παιδί;» «Ου Γιώργους; Φίλουζιμ απ’ τν’ Αυστραλία,» I replied in broadest dialect as possible, causing my well to do grandmother’s neck to revolve 360 degrees as if she were a woman possessed in mortal fear that someone was listening to her uncouth grandson’s bucolic utterings. Finally, turning to me with the fastidiousness of a judge adjudicating an important matter, she delivered her verdict: «Με τέτοιους να κάνεις παρέα.»
Which brings me to my next point. George is undoubtedly cool, cooler even than the Fonz and so immured am I in my eternal paradox of uncool Ritchie Cunningham youth, in which age shall not weary me but nor will George’s coolness rub off on me that I find myself admiring yet another of his many talents. He is a Greek-Australian rockstar.
George’s performance as part of the Antipodes Festival last week was second to none. Here is a local voice, exploring a foreign tradition yet successfully translating it into his own personal method of delivery in a manner so expert as to be the envy of many within this sphere. Of particular note in this regard, is the fact that not only is George a skilled musician/singer but that he is also a particularly gifted songwriter and composer as well. He does not only sing tried and true pieces from the modern greats such as Alkinoos Ioannidis and others but engages in an intellectual journey of his own, collecting songs from obscure or unknown poets/songwriters that have a point to make, and he helps them make it, musically. Thus, George has been able to achieve something that comes only after years of soul-searching and practice – to find his own voice and make it an authentic one. Whether he sings of villages in Greece that have been abandoned as a sacrifice to the modern way of life, the desolation and isolation of the outsider or generally about life, George Iliopoulos and his band form a significant and important part of the company of Greek-Australian musicians in this country.
George’s performance is a tribute to an Antipodes Festival that is constantly promoting and encouraging local artists. It also sends a loud message to the Greek community that all is not lost, that from the dung heap of self-interest, introspection and decay, an orchid may bloom, in spite of them all. Peace man.
George Iliopoulos and other artists like him struggling to develop their talents in a society and cultural context that does not engender such non-capital acquiring activity deserve our community’s full support. It was pleasing to note at his recent concert at the Greek Community building that the house was packed and that all had a good time. And so they should, for George is living proof that multiculturalism can work. There is magic in that a Greek Australian, conversant in both of the cultures that make up his identity feels comfortable enough to actively engage in the creative process of interpreting that identity in an original and highly individualistic musical medium and that he has an audience with whom he can engage throughout that journey. At a time when Greek language acquisition and Greek cultural manifestations are rapidly diminishing and hybridising beyond recognition, George’s example is proof that Greek culture is so multi-faceted as to cater for an infinity of diverse interests. Keep an eye out for George. It won't be hard. Next time you see a cool gentleman with a John Travolta twinkle in the eye, go up to him and say hello. Chances are it is George. And support and actively engage in the artistic life of the community, as long as it lasts. In the words of Pigsy of Monkey Magic fame, “we are all far from the Path of Enlightenment. We are not far from the edge of the cliff from which we are about to fall.” Rock and roll man!!


first published in NKEE on 10 May 2004

Monday, May 03, 2004


Humanity has undergone a number of social transformations over the years. Starting of with the tribe, a collection of like-minded, familial persons, graduating to the kingdom, a larger collection of like-minded, familial tribes, rulers began to come into contact with the 'other,' often being possessed of a different language and belief system. Very soon however, it was realized that being 'other,' was not intrinsically bad, as long as the 'others' were under one's thumb, did as they were told and acknowledged the mother culture as superior and the ruler as paramount. That particular invention, is known as Empire. Empires have had a very bad press in the modern era as having rested on flimsy ideology. The bankruptcy of empires and the rejection of the idea of an absolute ruler gave rise to the idea of nation states, whereby each 'nation,' is entitled to build a fence around itself, proclaim its culture superior to all others and engage in interminable wars with its neighbours as to where the fence should actually be. That was what the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and 1992-5 were all about.
Enlightened governments sought to look past the intense fragmentation that nationalism caused and tried to find ways and means of providing an ideology for ruling larger groups of people, without having them kill each other. Thus it was the Soviets who actually first institutionalized multiculturalism in the 1920's. In accordance with Soviet policy, the cultures of all the inhabitants of the Soviet Union would be respected and promoted. This in itself was a revolutionary concept. However, it did come with a caveat, as the Pontic Greeks, Tartars and Chechens soon found out, that is: that one was free to practise their own culture, as long as the displays of that culture were not religious, capitalist or any way contrary to Soviet ideology. How hard this was to achieve is exemplified by the fact that the vast majority of the Crimean Tartars, Chechens and Pontic Greeks were deported from their homelands by Stalin, as 'suspect peoples' and their culture severely circumscribed, to the extent where a new alphabet was developed for the Pontic Greeks to retard their communication with their cultural metropolis.
Ultimately, multiculturalism seems to be whatever the government of the day defines it as being. In Australia, we are blessed in that successive governments since the seventies have actively promoted a benign concept of multiculturalism within a responsive society in which ethnic tension is almost non-existent. Arguably, they cannot afford to do otherwise considering the vast population of migrants in that society and the important and active role they play within it. However, there appears to be no official consensus and certainly no social consensus as to what multiculturalism actually means.
My first indication of the societal confusion as to the definition of multiculturalism was at the age of seven, being accosted by an elderly gentleman for speaking in Greek to my grandmother, at the shops. As he curtly informed me, "we speak English here in Australia." The advent and initial large acceptance of Hansonism and the way many monolingual Anglo-Saxon speakers tend to pull faces and feel threatened when in the company of persons who are speaking another language, tends to suggest that despite the official rhetoric, ie. "a celebration of diversity" is not widely adopted in the mainstream. Instead, migrants and their offspring are expected to 'become Australian.' This tends to mean that while a migrant's culture may be tolerated, for after all he starts off with no other, he and his children are expected at some stage to 'share cultures' and partake of the greater Australian societal construct.
Mark Latham's recent speech on multiculturalism is indicative of the policy-maker's confusion in this regard. In that speech, he sought to "give new meaning and depth to our multicultural identity." From the outset, his critique of the way government policy handles and defines multiculturalism tacitly outlines how hard it is to define it. According to him "we spent a long time trying to prove our diversity and then celebrate it…a celebration of diversity for diversity's sake." The official jargon quoted by Latham is interesting. Attaching words like celebrate to multiculturalism tends to connote a concept that shouldn't be taken seriously. It’s a party for Pete's sake.
Latham rightly and sensibly goes on to state that people should not be immediately pigeon-holed in accordance with "ethnic markers." There is a lot more to a person's identity than their place of origin or the culture they subscribe to. Instead, as he says, attempting to define multiculturalism in one sentence, multiculturalism lies "in the habit of living one's life through many cultural habits" and in being wary of a policy that "separates people from each other, rather than bringing them together to share each other's cultures and the goals of a good society."
Thus, if the crisis of defining multiculturalism can be defined as picking whether we should be a mosaic or a melting-pot, from this speech it appears that Latham is turning heavily to the side of the melting-pot. If so, this is something that is cause for concern. One would have thought that multiculturalism was not at all about celebrating diversity for diversity's sake but a deliberate step away from the assimilationist policies of the past that demanded cultural homogeneity as a prerequisite for social cohesion. Does Latham really believe when he states that "in a diverse nation, social cohesion is as important as respect for difference," that social cohesion can somehow be threatened by multiculturalism? How can one justify this comment in the light of the fact that in the past 50 years in which immigration has transformed Australian society, ethnic tension has never been a serious issue in this country? What have we to be afraid of? Does this indicate that after thirty or so years of official multiculturalism, that Australian society still feels threatened by what is "different?"
Hopefully not. Nevertheless, the melting-pot definition of multiculturalism is one which foists upon cultural groups the burdensome responsibility of 'sharing their cultures,' before it even establishes a framework as to how existing cultural groups can be assisted to retain and develop their culture. It is a most presumptuous definition in the context of Australian society. The fact of the matter is that in today's society, no one is stopping anyone from 'sharing culture.' This comes about as a daily consequence of mixing with a diverse range of people. What policy makers need to understand is that migrant interest in multiculturalism is primarily based in retaining the mother culture without hindrance. Sharing is an inevitable consequence of this.
Ultimately, Latham stops short of advocating a 'hybrid' but homogenous in its application culture made up of various shared influences that should be adopted by all, determining instead the following commonalities that all Australian citizens should share: " respect the law…recognize the Indigenous inhabitants…understand our national language (English) and to learn from each other." However, he comes dangerously close and the psychological undertones of having to spell out what our national language is in brackets (yes, we do speak English in Australia, thank you for pointing this out) suggests what in fact is envisaged: a toleration and acceptance of all cultures, as long as finally, and inexorably, all cultures are subsumed into the melting pot of English-speaking mother Australia, USA-style.
Proof of this is successive governmental policies on foreign language learning. While government funded schools and courses exist, these have all been gradually scaled down over the years. Non-"ethnic" Australians have never seriously been encouraged to learn community languages and foreign language students rarely attain the level of functionality in foreign languages that students in other parts of the world do. Latham is unclear on how he intends to provide a framework for the 'culture-sharing' he espouses.
In an election year such as this one, all parties, and especially the Labour Party, being the party primarily responsible for brining Australian multiculturalism into existence should take the time to reassure ethnic communities that their approach to multiculturalism is one which permits communities to retain and develop their own cultures with the minimum of government interference and intervention that could conceivably see ethnic communities at the mercy of policy and to convince them that the aim of multiculturalism is not assimilation but an active promotion of the retention of community cultures. After all, mosaics and melting pots can coexist and the astute politician will perceive that the mosaic, is for us much more intrinsic to our Australian identity.

first published in NKEE on 3 May 2004