Peak White

These observations might anger the reader, or alarm her. Possibly they’ll gratify someone. I’ll be sorry if I upset you.

At some quiet moment recently Australia reached peak white, reached it and left it behind. That’s the observation that I make. The notion dawned on me late. I might have been asleep.

The Australia I was born to was pretty uniformly white. Although I grew up in the country of the Wiradjuri people, I saw few black faces. In my home town in the Riverina, two black boys turned up at my school a couple of times. They owned no shoes. After two days they crept away and I never saw them again. By contrast, when my ancestors arrived here in the mid-nineteenth century, white and black populations were more evenly balanced. Over the following one hundred years, by means more or less shameful, white largely erased black.

Around 1970 I started working in a green village of white people on Melbourne’s edge. Here I became the family doctor of a small girl with caramel skin. She grew up to be a beauty. I had known her for nearly twenty years before she spoke to me of her lineage. The child was Australian royalty incognita, descended from one of the first great indigenous footballers. But I was not to tell anyone. During that same decade, in the United States, Black was becoming Beautiful. And after a while Australia’s indigenous people too began to declare their origins. From the start of the sixties we’d been going to school and university with students from Asia. Successive governments relaxed the White Australia Policy and finally dismantled it. Government and Opposition agreed to agree: Australia would open up. And the world entered, first Asia, later Africa. Australia entered the world and the world entered Australia. So Australia, a black country that became a white settler country, developed into a variegated society.

Over that wider world white has always been a minority. Anomalous then for white to exercise hegemony in so many places and for so long. It’s over now and white should have no complaint. Of course white will fight to protect its advantages. History tells us that struggle will be rough and rude.

What will follow – now the wide world is past peak white? It would be naïve to expect power to practise charity. And why expect peoples, long oppressed by white, to respect the rights of their oppressors? We’ve seen the experiment of democracy take root – sometimes deep, often shallow – in many countries. Few of those non-white countries enshrine human rights after the recent Western example. India comes nearest perhaps. Why expect a dominant China or some ascendant Asian Tiger to be more merciful to us once they overtake and possibly colonise us, than the white West was in the times of its dominance – before the peak? (Of course, here in Australia, we’ve been an economic colony ever since Kellogg made our breakfast, Kraft made our foods, Nestle fed our infants, Xerox made or photocopies, Kodak took our photos.

When change comes people feel threatened. Anxiety begets aggression, aggression begets retaliation. At the level of local communities, neighbours begin to distrust each other. Community suffers. And we can feel confident that the hatemongers in public life, refreshed and encouraged, will monger away at their rodent work. Meanwhile we’ve developed the sweet tooth of America; eating the whirlwind, we achieve American obesity and diabetes, which we treat with medications from Big Pharma. Now the Pentagon directs our defences, while Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the whole gang exercise hegemony in the tax haven they create in Australia. Who can suggest we are not colonized already? With their mass and their electronic power and expertise, who would be surprised when we become a colony of Asia?

If this makes you feel gloomy I can offer one striking example of hope trumping fear. That example occurred in the Republic of South Africa where, under Mandela, the black majority gained power. White had long resisted black rights; there’d be chaos, a bloodbath was inevitable. Black assumed power through the ballot, not by bullets. Although plenty of disorder followed, the feared bloodbath never took place. The explanation? I think Nelson Mandela was the explanation.

Humanity will need more Mandelas.

Done Because We Are Too Menny

I think maybe we are done; humans I mean.

I am a baby boomer. My generation is used to the success of antibiotics. We contracted tonsillitis, we saw the doctor and he – it was almost always a he – prescribed penicillin and we recovered quickly. We didn’t develop a strep pneumonia, we seldom developed a post-strep kidney disease or heart disease.

Same story with ear infections: penicillin cured them.

We had an ear abscess, we had antibiotics and we won.

That might have been our first mistake.

We used them so often and so promiscuously they stopped working. How long is it since penicillin – plain, old fashioned, shot-in-the-bum , narrow spectrum penicillin – worked for an ear infection?

Yonx.

Because we killed off the susceptible ear infecting germs and bred resistant ones.

Those days of successful antibiosis are going. In fact they have probably gone.

My generation never saw siblings dying from whooping cough or double pneumonia. Parents gave birth to a litter and raised the full complement to adulthood.

That might have been a second mistake: we enjoyed the survival of the second-fittest.

My grandparents’ generation – growing up in the nineteenth century – lost numerous siblings to infections. It was natural. It was not unexpected.

That was the way in the battle between germs and humans through all history. All too often, the germs won. It must have been unbearably sad.

In the ‘seventies we were visited by herpes. For a while herpes won: we said herpes is forever . Then came acyclovir, also known as Zovirax. Herpes skulked off with its tail between its legs – our legs, actually.

In the ‘eighties we were visited by AIDS: incurable by definition. But bugger me (and that might have been how some of us contracted it), anti-retrovirals slowed the virus, survival lengthened and now the disease is a disease, but not universally a death sentence.

Horrible horrible hep-C is in retreat too.

So much (and so little) for the immortal killer viruses.

Meanwhile bacteria are doing better. Go to hospital nowadays for surgery and there is a good chance you’ll emerge with a multi-resistant resistant staph. All the perfumes of Arabia, all the antibiotics of Big Pharma won’t touch those staph.

Go to Asia for traditional sex tourism and there’s a good chance the gonorrhoea you bring back will resist all my antibiotics.

We have had our successes. We have seen off smallpox. The only copies of this germ live in research and germ warfare labs. Humans have it in our power to extinguish the smallpox germ utterly. The germ that killed many many more Australian Aborigines than shooting and starving blackfellas is abolishable. And replaceable. Whenever we change one population we affect another. Take antibiotics for your sore sinuses today and your vagina catches fire with thrush tomorrow.

I happen to be a human. I am on the side of humans in this epochal struggle. But nature does not seem to take sides: she seems to love the earthworm, the spider and the king brown snake precisely as much as she loves the species that gave rise to Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King and the Beatles.

Nature, unlike the writer, is not sentimental. She wishes species to survive. She loves us all equally. So fondly does nature love the plasmodium (I refer to the parasite responsible for malaria, still the greatest killer of humans), that she raises the temperature of the infected human to a maximum in the evening, at just the time that mosquitoes take their evening meal. The anopheles aegyptii drink the infected blood that superheats the human skin.  Frequently the infected person expires, but such is the grace of nature, the plasmodium species survives such deaths and is transmitted by the mozzie into the next human it stings.

(If you read any of the works of plasmodial theology, you will understand that their god created humans and mosquitos alike as expendable vectors for the plasmodium, which was created in the image of that god.)

It is possible that nature – implacably fair, resolutely unsentimental, big picture regarding nature – having observed the humans that have bred so successfully that we overrun the earth, has decided that she must reduce our numbers.

Perhaps we humans, like the boy in Jude the Obscure, are done because we are too menny.

Sorry.

Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 30 January, 2013.

(Of course, if I truly anticipated the imminent eclipse of my species, would I claim copyright?)

The title is a quote from Jude the Obscure, a deeply depressing book by Thomas Hardy. Only go to Hardy if my little article has failed to spoil your life or your day. My piece is cheerful in comparison.