Loserpalooza: Behind Sydney's 'Race' Riots

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It’s summer in Sydney. That means the tasty aroma of barbeque, teeming beaches, long school vacations and the retail frenzy of Christmas. December lolls into January as people slow down, hang out and chill. This year, however, the sweltering city is on edge, bewildered and a little sad. This year, it's not bushfires threatening the harmony of the city’s 4 million residents, but instead ugly scenes of street violence in what many mistakenly label a contagion of racial hatred.

Rival groups of angry young men are beating their chests and pumping up the volume of hate screech. One mob is mainly white surfer boys, the other tough guys of Lebanese origin. A festival of aggression—glass has been smashed, cars trashed, alcohol spilt and heads bashed—is never a pretty sight. This is a fight to the bottom for males who haven't found their place in the world. Loserpalooza is not the face that upwardly mobile, multicultural Sydney wants to show to the world.

What's been happening these past 10 days is a finale to scores of small incidents that occur in all large cities when aggrieved young men gather at swimming pools and beaches, in car parks, nightclubs and at football games. It's not a clash of religions, civilizations or even ideologies. They may dress or have their hair cut differently, but the combatants are pea brains in a pod: Australian-born, idle and stunted. They're spectators in the new economy, and the rise of the smart worker has left them smelling like losers.

The roots of this rage can be found in place and time. The city's Sutherland Shire, where the troubles first occurred, is a close cousin of the O.C., 4,000 miles across the Pacific. The “shire”, predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, and insular, is unlike the rest of Sydney, which has for 60 years peacefully absorbed waves of immigrants from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Each summer, the shire's surf beaches attract hordes of visitors from the immigrant, working-class suburbs of southwestern Sydney. Not all visitors are welcome. Some behave very badly. Policing has been low-key and the rival groups have felt free to make mischief. Defying conventional science, these guys both attract and repel each other.

The men involved in the latest incidents include many who have missed out, for whatever reason, on Australia's 15-year economic resurgence. As working life has been transformed in most developed nations, men who toil with their hands have seen their jobs disappear, or have been replaced in the economy by women with superior social and learning skills. The girls are going to university, the guys are going to the beach or McDonald's. And while they wait for something, anything, to happen to them, why not have some sport? But this time they're playing with fire: committing crimes, fanning racism, wrapping themselves in a flag they are degrading.

So tolerant Sydney watches as loose lips talk nonsense about terrorists and gangs, as the ubiquitous SMS text-messaging mobilizes fresh trouble by cellphone, and as thugs use the opportunity of an escalating feud to get their kicks—and their 5 minutes of media notoriety. Wiser heads will eventually prevail. Political and community leaders will need to be less complacent about what's really going on in the suburbs. And soon the chatter will return to cricket, high temperatures, the flies and, hopefully, how our quiet way of life should never be taken for granted.