An infamous spectacle from the 1980s reveals that Australians are not as immune to irrational fear — and the scapegoating of nonconformists — as we like to think.
As the dust settles on Covid, many Australians are still trying to make sense of the radical hysteria that overtook so many in our purportedly laid-back, larrikin nation.
This week, a married couple shared with me the tragic story of their miscarriage earlier this year, and how hospital staff refused to aid them in the throes of their pain and distress until they took a RAT test. Even then, the husband was forced to wait outside, alone, before hearing the dreadful news.
Gripped by fear, whole cities locked down for months on end, driving up deaths of despair, and running businesses, children’s education, youth mental health and community cohesion into the ground.
A ring of steel encircled not just our continent, but even our states, with loved ones needlessly cut off from Christmases, weddings, funerals — and most heartless of all, dying loved ones.
After a year of promise, the vaccine was promoted — and widely embraced — as a silver bullet. But as evidence of its leakiness, waning efficacy and rumoured risks reached our shores, any who questioned it were ostracised as social pariahs. Holistic health, natural immunity for the already-recovered, and early Covid treatments were comprehensively poo-poohed.
The worst was yet to come.
Following eighteen months of financial hardship, hundreds of thousands of Australia’s best employees were put out of work for refusing these vaccines whose hazards and benefits were still being tested. Doctors were silenced for any dissent.
A not insignificant number of Australians coerced into taking the vaccines began suffering serious side effects. Paralleling events globally, news emerged of Aussies dying from the vaccines. Their stories were ignored. Those who sounded the alarm were censored on social media and howled down as ‘conspiracy theorists’.
All this took place as a US public health agency was suing to hide Pfizer vaccine trial data from public view until the 2090s.
Crowds took to city streets in peaceful protest against the lockdowns and mandates in numbers not seen since the Vietnam War. The media downplayed their size and misconstrued their motives, while authorities assailed them with tear gas, rubber bullets and other deplorable human rights abuses. A majority of Australians apparently approved of this unfathomable response.
Sadly, many churches sat by silent, even dividing their congregants by vaccine status, and demeaning those who questioned the establishment.
Ask Lindy Chamberlain
What madness overtook us? Is there a precedent for Australia’s latter-day fling with frenzy?
Lindy Chamberlain is a legend in Australian folklore: a mother wrongfully accused of killing her nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, while camping at Uluru in 1980.
Chamberlain and her husband Michael maintained that they saw a dingo leaving the family tent where Azaria had been sleeping. Nevertheless, a circumstantial prosecution case built on the brave new field of forensic science saw her convicted of murder and serve three years in prison.
It was one of Australia’s most publicised murder trials, and it divided the country — even after new evidence was uncovered that ultimately saw Chamberlain exonerated.
Decades later, a majority of Australians view Lindy Chamberlain as the unfortunate victim of miscarried justice. But it was not always this way.
In their landmark book on Australia’s Christian history, Attending to the National Soul, Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder recount just how hated the Chamberlains were, largely on account of their lack of conformity to mainstream norms. They were Seventh Day Adventists:
Soon the prejudice was a raging inferno, and a lawyer likened the second Inquest to the Inquisition. The black dress, in which Lindy had clothed Azaria, became, in the popular imagination, a sacrificial garment. The small black coffin which Michael had used as a prop for his lectures or sermons to help people chuck the smoking habit became a white coffin and was transported to Azaria’s bedroom. Lindy, it was said, has ‘killer eyes’, and Aiden, her son, was said to have ‘really weird eyes’. The family Bible, it was claimed, had a passage (Judges 4:21) underlined in red which spoke of one Jael, wife of Heber, driving a tent peg through an enemy’s head. The Chamberlains, it was said, were linked to the cult which had led to the Jonestown mass suicide in 1978. They had a history of child abuse. They belonged to a strange sect which believed in child sacrifice. The child had been sacrificed to atone for the sins of the SDA Church and a memorial erected as part of a religious ceremony.
Piggin and Linder note the role of trusted authorities in driving the anti-Chamberlain narrative. “The press and electronic media spread the rumours nation-wide and beyond,” they write.
Science, a Secular Idolatry
Also writ large in the maltreatment of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain was the public’s unhealthy fixation on scientific progress. Experts and everyday Australians set aside what they’d long known about objectivity and legal impartiality in a race to embrace the state-of-the-art ‘science’ being presented to them:
An element in the anatomy of prejudice is the idolatry of science, the religion of secular society. When the ‘expert witness’ forensic scientist, Joy Kuhl, declared that she had found blood all over the interior of their car, a Torana, it was all over for the Chamberlains. Science can never be that wrong. Not only are scientists never wrong, but they have all the answers. Kuhl demonstrated that a mixture of paint and bitumen was not only really blood, but foetal blood at that. Never had the alchemists achieved so much. The jury accepted all this as gospel.
The complicity of medical doctors and forensic scientists and attorneys-general in the persecution of the Chamberlains is a good illustration of the fact observed throughout history that persecution has often started from the top and not from popular prejudice. The fate of the Chamberlains suggests that secularisation is no guarantee of increased toleration; secularists can be persecutors.
Piggin and Linder wrote their tome long before the Covid-19 saga. Their interest lay in how mainstream Australia cast Lindy Chamberlain to social outer darkness — and the parable this provided for contemporary Christians feeling alienated in a fast secularising country:
As evangelicals struggled in the 1980s to understand what it meant to be Christian in secular Australia, the Chamberlain case serves as a stark backdrop to that struggle. What does it reveal of the dark side of the Australian character that someone like Lindy Chamberlain was hated with such intensity? What irrational fears posses average Australians that they should make someone like Lindy Chamberlain a scapegoat? It would appear from the treatment of the Chamberlains that secularism is no safeguard against prejudice and is no guarantee of rational and enlightened assessment of religious belief. In this case secular distaste for religious faith opened the door to primitive paranoia akin to the persecution of witches.
Nevertheless, what Piggin and Linder observed about the Australian psyche has other applications. When spooked by a sufficiently serious threat — which Covid-19 clearly was for a majority of Australians — our cultural ghouls come out to haunt us.
The Dark Side of Mateship
Another Australian academic, historian Stephen Chavura, likewise contends that “there’s a dark side to Australian mateship”. In one of the brilliant video commentaries he provided during the throes of Covid mania, Chavura explained:
We’ve got this prevailing mateship egalitarian ethos. But the problem is that very often our mateship turns into a kind of tribalist uniformity, where anyone who doesn’t conform — whether they are overachievers (we call them ‘tall poppies’) or they just don’t fit in — we demonise them as traitors. It happened with Lindy Chamberlain in the early ’80s. She didn’t fit the Australian stereotype of a woman therefore she must have killed her baby. It happened most spectacularly in World War I as we all rushed to war and those who questioned the war or didn’t want to fight were demonised as traitors, given white feathers and called cowards for the rest of their lives.
“Every now and then,” Chavura concludes, Australians “like to throw a nonconformist on the barbie.”
As with the Lindy Chamberlain case, most Australians will, I believe, eventually judge our nation’s Covid-19 response as over-the-top, even fanatical. But not yet. The tide of Covid enthusiasm is still a little high.
Source: Stuart Piggin and Robert D. Linder, Attending to the National Soul: Evangelical Christians in Australian History 1914-2014 (Victoria: Monash University Publishing, 2020), 398-401.
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