A new version of this title is now part of my new book, 'The Secular Fundamentalist'.
|Whenever I hear tender hearted liberal humanitarians gas on about the racist villainies of colonial Australian history and its part in the layout of global imperialism, I cannot help but see a social/ideological group that has been so swallowed into its own narrative of colonialism, whether it be Australian or global, that it can no longer see it as political partisanship or a recycled picture of its own values being fed back to it.
This anti-imperialist/colonialist/racist campaign has been going on since WW2 and is now an assumed given. Anyone who challenges it is now no longer regarded as a legitimate interlocutor and is seen to deserve not a rebuttal so much as a shower of high moral dudgeon.
This rhetoric has gained an ascendancy to the extent that its apparatchiks now control much of the education, social welfare, parts of the legal system, and, until recent decades, a majority or significant minority in all political parties. And it is still so entrenched that any attempt to question it is automatically regarded as an assault by 'dark forces', 'prejudice', 'bigotry' and conservative reaction; a whole language of condemnation not so different to earlier heresy and anti-deviationist attacks.
There is enough truth in those accusations to give the lie, but also to decently cover up the juicy and rampant 'prejudices', 'stereotyping' and 'judgmentality' that underpin them. Liberal ‘progressivism’ (whatever that is) isn't all ideological clichés, excuse making and crying wolf, but much of it is.
Argument over these matters always assumes a left right version of itself, when in fact the matter is much more complex. While acknowledgement of an indigenous narrative needs to be given because it ought to be a valued and an important component of any multi-cultural society, that does not mean adopting a crude and simplistic historiosophy characterised by ‘villains’ and ‘poor things’.
That is just another version of the ‘King John was a bad king’ lampoon. It is not hard to ‘prove’ he was a ‘villain’ if the only evidence one is looking for is prosecutorial, because one doesn’t approve of what his policies were, already judged them to have been negative and/or ineffectual and ignores the shenanigans of his very powerful baronial subjects. And that would be doubly so if the prosecutor represented a successor regime that wanted to blacken him, in order to prop up its own policy framework, institutional credentials and legitimacy. Richard III was such a victim of Tudor propagandists of the calibre of William Shakespeare.
While I have never fully subscribed to the theory of historical materialism, for purposes of surveying what Marxists would have called world historical movements, I still accept their substructure/superstructure view that history is made up of underlying economic forces that generate technological, legal, political and social outcomes, which in their turn create the parameters of knowledge, the climate of ideological discourse and the development of cultural norms.
From that perspective, the collision of modern capitalism and Paleo/Mesolithic Stone Age hunter gathering, was never just an ‘invasion’, but a massive time compression of what had been a ten to twelve thousand year span of numerous and violent successions of vast economic change. And that needs to be assessed within its own terms of reference. Importing later values as a focusing lens may or may not be be relevant to managing legacy issues arising from that history, but it always brings with it the partisanships of a later era and attempts to make history part of the propaganda struggle that always accompanies that importation.
And the risk of that is that the conundrum of this historical narrative isn’t just the struggle to include the indigenous voice within it, so much as reconstructing it much in the same way as it was in the Soviet Union in Stalin’s day. The past was regularly mythologize and airbrushed to fit the regime’s changing directions, priorities and policies. It discredited fall guy bunnies who were to be blamed for the ‘mistakes’ and ‘excesses’ of the now ‘inoperative’ previous official line. The gleaming new regime was enshrined as if its parameters had always applied. Its now discredited former functionaries had therefore unconscionably, maliciously or misguidedly subverted its timeless and self evident truths. And these were necessarily crimes against The Party, The People, The State and History Itself!
Stalinist show trials, Maoist ‘Speak Bitterness’ confrontations with local landlords and the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's ‘Bringing Them Home’ exposé of the racist ‘theft’ of a ‘whole generation’ of indigenous children have this in common: their modus operandi of discrediting an old order to legitimize a new one and render the latter’s inevitable failures as infallibly the fault of willful predecessors who ought to have known better.
On contact between the modern newcomers and very ancient peoples, even the hand of friendship offered would arc from one and melt the other, as all that potential energy of millennia coursed its way into a culture completely without insulation, or charge reduction mechanisms, or emergency cut offs of any kind. There was no intermediating cushioning to soften the blow. There were no initial references or hook up points in the indigenous culture, or in the incoming one, that would enable either of them to easily absorb, evaluate and respond to the unprecedented challenges that each presented to the other.
As the old Iron Age legend foretold through the warning of a father of a Stone Age princess, that if her devoted suitor touched her three times with iron, she would die. She took the risk, but the inevitable happened and all too tragically, she did die on the third ‘strike’. That was speaking of the fragility of Stone Age culture and the unforgiving nature of the new order and its technology, nearly three and a half thousand years ago.
Imperialism started as a result of a capitalist driven revolution in the means of production that defined not just the distribution and character of globally projected power, but the nature of modernity itself. And as it drove out of its metropolitan centres across the globe and confronted pre-capitalist economies, it set up mechanisms to force and/or persuade them into the modern orbit, economically, politically, socially and ideologically. Imperialism was the way capitalism, and modern life and ideas globalized themselves; constantly leveraging new opportunities and repackaging themselves according to the local circumstances they found from place to place, with varying degrees of success.
The extent and speed with which its interlocutors were able to respond to this pressure was in direct proportion to the economic and structural distance they had to make up, to catch up. And the robustness, promptness and means of that response said as much about the respondents as the modern protagonists.
The process started with agricultural populations in parts of Europe being evicted from their land as part of a massive transfer of capital and labour into cities, which concentrated manufacturing and demanded raw materials and markets on a global scale. The exercise took around a generation to get up and properly running.
The first European convict migrants to Australia were but one minor export product of this traumatic upheaval in the traditional economic and social order, whose roots were buried in the first agricultural villages of the Neolithic Stone Age.
Disruption and upheaval were its modus operandi.
Only the Japanese were able to match the European pace of industrialization because decisive parts of its ruling class and its already sophisticated urban infrastructure were ready and waiting to go for it when the imperialists crashed in on them. Within just over 40 years of colossal sacrifices, very focussed effort and sweeping decisions about what parts of their feudal cultural traditions were portable enough to take with them into the modern era, they went from being hopelessly out of their depth, to defeating Imperial Russia on both land and sea.
The vastly cultured Confucian Chinese didn't think they had anything to learn from hairy faced white barbarians and they got a very nasty 100 year plus lesson in finding out that they did. But once they got through this unfortunate misunderstanding, cleaned up the mess they had got themselves into and constructed a native vision of capitalism that they were comfortable with, they became the fastest economic growth story in history.
They were, but for an entrenched political/cultural traditionalism, every bit as pre-prepared for industrialism as the Japanese. It is not well known, but in 1342, an imperial edict was issued which virtually threw nascent Chinese capitalism on the rubbish heap of their history for over five hundred years. (See Wikipedia, ‘The Great Divergence). By sheer good luck, Europe was spared the sight of a fleet of giant 100 gun war junks sailing into their ports in the 1390s.
The Indian subcontinent was overrun by the British, but its already sophisticated indigenous ruling class and intelligentsia quickly anglicized, joined the middle ranks of the colonial system and leveraged the new trading opportunities it brought. And while over time they seemed to be becoming a whole class of extremely well spoken and educated brown Englishmen, they were still overwhelmingly Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims etc, who still spoke, read and wrote in their own languages.
The considerable ease and flexibility of Indian intellectuals in dealing with the colonial power was exemplified by the Bengali Poet and playwright, Dwijendralal Ray (1863-1913). He became a very senior British Indian administrator who was capable of ‘robust’ debate with his British governor, in the style of Oxbridge, yet also a very popular literary figure in his own language, with a mass following.
For men like Ray, British influence was but a thin, albeit important layer on top of an enormous population with a very substantial, secure and deeply rooted culture. For a great mass of Indians, adopting British education in English was not compromising their native culture, so much as providing new opportunity for promotion inside a modern system. He and his peers were sufficiently mature to be able to distinguish modernity and tradition in the way the Japanese had, whereby modernity encapsulated the the workaday world of utilitarian administration and economic life, and tradition covered everything else. To this day, English is still the main language of administration in India, along with Hindi.
It is arguable that much of the British colonial attitude to Anglicising native peoples was developed in India, as its British administrative workforce was by far the largest component of the staff in the Colonial Office. The ease with which its anglophile education policy was imposed and the very positive Indian responses to quite heavy British and Indian investment in English language education, seemed to indicate that this strategy would be a winner across the empire. And naturally they imagined that this readiness to absorb the British way of doing things was a reflection of its infallible superiority, rather than just a convenient vehicle for modernization.
What they did not reckon on was that much smaller populations of less sophisticated peoples might find that strategy both overwhelming and threatening. Their cultural backstops were not nearly so robust, so they might feel vulnerable to existential annihilation by what seemed to be an alien invasion, rather than an opportunity. An entity like imperialism does not have to be benign to be opportune, but the ability to see that distinction could be easily lost on weaker players.
By the 1890s, Indian elements inside The Raj were already starting to conclude that the colonial unification brought by the British had created for the first time the possibility of a unified modern state that matched the extent of the Mughal Empire, with an unprecedented common modern administrative and technological language, that they could eventually take over on their own account.
Serious nationalist agitation got under way after the First World War, and then it was just a matter of time and another World War before the British got their irresistible marching orders. And when that moment came, the Indianization of the top levels of governance was seamless. Anglicised Indian education produced not quite the loyal anglophiles that had been hoped for, so much as the means to independence.
Africa represented much earlier Iron Age agriculture and herding, was more completely occupied and its top traditional tribal elite more completely dismantled, but its most talented young people were educated in missionary schools and started to find their way into western university education in the later nineteenth century. The reverend Joseph May graduated from London University in 1868 and went back to Sierra Leone to become a pastor and head master of the Freetown Wesleyan High School.
By way of contrast, it took until the early 1990s for an indigenous Australian to do the same thing.
Having been completely crushed in colonial wars and become direct subject peoples, what was left of tropical and southern African elites looked to modern education as a means of catching up with the new rulers of their continent. Christian missionaries were busy throughout the nineteenth century translating the bible into native languages, which provided literacy starter packs, but beggars could not be choosers when it came to higher education, so they were in no position to be fussy about curriculum or the language it was delivered in, no matter how inappropriate it sometimes was.
The education belonged to the occupying power and its language was, for time being, also the language of modernity. It was mainly the Japanese, but also the Chinese, Indo-Chinese Thais and the Indians who had the wealth and cultural resources to translate substantial bodies of modern written material into their own languages.
European education gave its very small numbers of black graduates more credibility and status with both their rulers and their own people. But that education ineluctably took them out of the ‘backward’ native world and its villages, away from that native traditional culture and into a modern world which kept them as culturally isolated, privileged, but second class citizens of the empire. This was to have profound implications for post independence urban African elites and their relationship with their national hinterland constituencies.
The University of Fort Hare in South Africa was founded in 1916 and educated most of the leaders of post independence Africa until the Afrikaners closed it down in 1959, to prevent further black educational upward mobility. And the struggles that subsequently erupted in South Africa were perhaps most profoundly driven by anger at being excluded from educational empowerment in any language. Forcing black Africans to learn in Afrikaans and English only added insult to the injury. The Bantu education Acts stripped black Africans of all educational opportunity except to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.
Both sides in this struggle were absolutely clear that education was the key to change and Black Africans were as determined to get some as the white ones were to keep it from them.
By contrast, the first indigenous Australian to graduate with a fully academic degree was Charlie Perkins in 1966. And he was not a first because education hungry indigenous communities had fought to overthrow legislation to keep them out of proper schooling and universities. It wasn’t because Charlie was like one of the students at Little Rock Arkansas, where the federal government had to force the state to let blacks go to white schools and universities.
Charlie was not pushed by his community. Rather he was pulled out of his home at the age of ten and sent to an Adelaide boarding school so that he could get more input from people who would push his career prospects to another level; white people.
And unlike the Afrikaners and Governor Wallace of Alabama, the ‘white settler’ regime in Australia promoted him as far as it could, as quickly as possible, in the rather naive and optimistic belief that this might stimulate a more substantial trend of educated upwardly mobile indigenous people.
The first native American to graduate from Harvard University was in 1665, forty-five years after the Mayflower landed. Clearly there were elements inside native American society that were interested in the newcomers and wanted to find out whatever it was that they were having that made them so dynamic, innovative, dangerous, advanced in their methods and ideas, and perversely interesting (and disgusting) in their culture and lifestyle.
You will find very little of that dynamic coming out of Australian indigenous society until very recently.
The Maoris were able to put up a serious resistance campaign because they were adept, enthusiastic and utterly ruthless soldiers. And while they still lost in the end, the isolation of the country, the smallness of the European ‘Pakeha’ population and the sheer expense of having to station large numbers of imperial troops there permanently (up to 18,000), meant they were able to squeeze some serious political concessions that the Africans and native Americans just couldn’t manage.
Again, the Maori were sufficiently interested in the coming new order, that even before the beginnings of permanent European settlement in New Zealand, they sent representatives to Australia as early as 1814, to find out as much as they could about the coming threat. By mid century, modern education had been introduced to them in their own language through mission schools and was taken up with some enthusiasm. Later attempts to force them into Anglophied education in purely English set them back a lot, because while they wanted a piece of the Pakeha (European) action, they were very reluctant to abandon their culture and traditions to get it.
Despite this quite major retarding pressure, they were still sufficiently educationally successful to move leading elements of their people into the modern educated and administrative class by the 1890s and boasted a cabinet minister by 1895 (Indigenous Australia still hasn’t got that far). The Te Aute College was established in 1854 to educate the Maori elite and they had their first arts graduate by 1893 (indigenous Australia 1966), law graduate by 1897 (indigenous Australia 1972) and the first doctor by 1900 (indigenous Australia 1983).
The British settler regime in New Zealand made the understandable mistake of assuming that Anglophilism and modernism were the same thing and necessary to one another, which is partly why they tried to impose their culture on the Maoris. Had they looked a bit harder at the Japanese industrial revolution, they would have noticed that while it was obviously modern, it was not remotely culturally European, as they found to their cost towards the middle twentieth century.
Notwithstanding the cultural battering that they were getting, during WW1 the Maori were still able to supply junior officers to the New Zealand army. In WW2 that had reached the rank of Lt Colonel. The present governor general of New Zealand, Sir Jerry Mateparae, is a Maori ex army general.
By way of really brutal contrast, indigenous Australia still hasn’t managed to get a cadet into the local Defence Academy, let alone a graduate officer. Captain Reg Saunders of WW2 and Korea fame was promoted from the ranks. And the sad thing is that if anybody with a detectable indigenous ancestry in the last two hundred years, who could stand and breathe at the same time and pass a plausible year 12 qualification sufficient to enable him or her to complete the academic requirements of the course, he or she would get in. Even the military indigenous integration unit has had to be commanded by a New Guinean!
The only ‘discrimination’ such an indigenous cadet would have to suffer is the irritating bending over backwards and fussing by all parties to the course, to get him or her through!
West Point turned out its first native American graduate officer in 1822 and its first African-American in 1877. The comparisons with indigenous Australians are extremely invidious.
While we can sympathize with Australian Indigenous people because their journey into the modern period was bound to be harder and longer for them than almost any other colonial people, that never was and isn’t a carte blanche excuse for ongoing failure to adapt to the new order. To try and make it one is defeatism, surrender and submission to imprisonment in a nether world where everything falls to bits and nothing works. It is as close to a vision of hell as living beings can make. And it is purpose built for the historically tardy.
On top of that, we have to be honest enough to admit that indigenous society was archetypally conservative, traditionalist and reactionary. 60,000 years of habit die hard. They refused to respond to attempts to get them into agriculture, or modern education or Christianization; all of which would have assisted in the necessary adaption process and which other peoples in a similar position widely and creatively adopted.
Unfortunately for indigenous Australians, because there were such numerous indigenous languages spoken by such tiny populations (unlike New Zealand where Te Reo Maori was the native lingua franca) the enormous task of translating the Bible into them was beyond the capacity of the missionaries at the time, so most of their work had to be done in English, and it made their job much harder.
In New Zealand, The whole Bible translation and a full Maori dictionary were finished by 1857. In Australia, the first Bible in Kriol (30,000 speakers) didn’t happen until 2007. And there is little doubt that early Maori literacy and uptake of Christian ideas in New Zealand were in some measure a result of translation of books into their language. The Maori, almost to a man and woman, loved seeing books in their own language, and this was reflected in their very high te reo literacy rates before the land wars in the 1860s.
In the labor market, South Sea islanders had to be imported into Queensland’s sugar plantation industry because indigenous people just weren’t interested in getting to first base in the modern wages economy. By contrast, many of the descendants of sub-continent Indians who came to Fiji to work the plantations as indentured labourers, finished up controlling most of the modern economy of that country, because they were economically imaginative, enterprising and committed to success within the new order.
Native Americans, African Americans and New Zealand Maori all responded pro-actively to modern stimuli/pressures, often in ways that they're imperial/colonial masters were not happy about.
The Maori and native Americans loved muskets, became very handy with them and keen to adopt modern warfare technique. During the land wars of the 1860s, the Maori successfully adopted the very latest anti- artillery entrenchment techniques and tied up imperial troops for months on end.
Negro slaves could be liable to be flogged if they were caught worshiping in a Christian service, so many had to do it in secret, for it was an enormously popular pastime and a very dynamic element in their emerging culture. All the above groups experimented with integrating Christian ideas into their own native beliefs.
The father and son, James and David ‘the Inventor’ Unaipon, and Doug Nicholls are amongst the painfully few prominent results of missionary education and conversion that was mainly treated with indifference, because indigenous people just couldn’t see, or didn’t want to see, that missionary Christianization and education was potentially a way out of the hopeless situation they were in. We didn’t even get the emergence of hybrid Christian-indigenous beliefs, which happened almost everywhere else.
All the great civilizational religions; monotheism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism/Taoism (and one might include Marxism-Leninism here as a latterday ring in), represented enormous advances in existential ‘technology’. The animist beliefs of the early periods of our species were superseded because they did not reflect the new realities of classical empires, states, private property and cities, with systems of government, state ideology and land management based on writing.
The development of powerful monotheistic suites that were peculiarly associated with the rise of the most advanced elements of the southern and eastern Mediterranean medieval world (Islam) and the modern western European one (Christianity) were modelled as worldwide franchises.
Until well into the age of science and industrialism, all the above represented the biggest and most powerful packages of existential and philosophical ideas our species had ever come up with. And the written word on which they were based was and is an enormously powerful cultural artifact in its own right. Any non literate society that adopts literacy immediately acquires formidable power, knowledge leverage, leadership depth, organizational resilience and flexibility, and the capacity to innovate and distribute new ideas remotely.
From the 1920s on, one of the first things a new peasant recruit to the Chinese Communist Party insurgency learned when joining, besides weapons training, was how to read. That was what made communist troops so formidable. They could get standardized training and ideological mentoring by the top party apparatchiks and be groomed in the standardized leadership and recruitment model, so that they could replace those above them as the organization took casualties and bring in new recruits to replace themselves, as they moved amongst their fellow peasants. Literacy was the modern version of the phalanx; ideologically lock shielded to the front and constantly sucking in new and in depth social resources from the rear.
Document based religions (including Marxism-Leninism), with their strong association with literacy and the education necessary to spread them, were critical parts of the armamentarium in the struggle of ethnic newbies to get to first base in the new modern world order. For indigenous Australians, saying pass to Christianity was saying pass to all that and being left behind by it.
African Americans, when they found themselves excluded from higher education, particularly in the south, started to found their own institutions as early as 1837. And it was their Christian networks and organizations that mobilized capital across racial divides to build those institutions, that created a broad religious leadership that could throw up great men of the calibre of Martin Luther King. They were able to leverage the power and influence of their literate mass base to galvanize the eventual campaign to secure equal civil rights, against much more formidable, militantly aggressive and racially exclusionist opposition than indigenous Australians ever faced, by a ridiculously large margin.
Indigenous Australia just refused to ‘get it’. Resistance to a massively dominant culture just cannot be done even passively without adopting significant slabs of the power suites that that culture brings with it. Reactionary romanticism is not an answer, and the proof of that, despite a slew of ideological excuses, cant, euphemisms, intellectual fudging and hypocritical double talk provided by sympathisers to obfuscate the terrible realities, is that much of indigenous society continues to be paralysed and reduced to incoherence and disorder.
The overwhelming majority of colonial peoples understood that the technical ability, theoretical knowledge base and ideological artefacts of modern society were powerful leverages that they needed to get a handle on as best they could, even as they were being overrun by them. They had to forget the bruises, get off the floor, dust themselves down and do some serious catching up homework, while starting as bottom feeders in the new world order.
To say that the Australian indigenous response to modernization has been desultory is putting it mildly. Instead of responding, they mourned, retreated into their own cultural dreaming and rituals and all too many drank their despair and defeatism like there was no tomorrow, which there couldn’t be, if there were no vision of their potential place in the new world order. Even now, over two hundred years later, some of them can’t speak English. And one just has to wonder where they think they are heading, except to the end of a perpetual inter-generational welfare queue that keeps robbing their children of the opportunity to escape that trajectory and make something of themselves as citizens not just of Australia, but the world.
Significant sections of Chinese society briefly tried to do the same initially, except opium was their drug of choice. However, in 1911, the greatest educational institution in the world until well into the onset of industrialism, shut its 1400 year old doors, because the brilliant Confucian literary education it provided did not deliver the necessary top leadership skill set to deal with the weaponry, management know how and technological/scientific skills of the modern era. The country disintegrated, fell into civilizational collapse and into the clutches of predatory warlords, gangsters and then foreign invaders. That was and continues to be the price for anyone failing the adaption tests modern history confronts them with.
To morally transfer blame to western imperialism and colonialism for the trauma of modernism simply doesn't make sense if you regard history as the movement of economic forces and adapting to and around them. While the filthy imperialists undoubtedly did some pretty tough, sometimes unconscionable and mistaken things on the way, they also brought with them the means to participate in the new order in ways that empowered the colonized to get their measure, upgrade their status and eventually take control of their own fate in the later modern era.
The fact that Australian indigenous economic and cultural infrastructure was too remote in time and substance for the new order to be able to fully engage them was not entirely the latter's fault. The fact that indigenous society stumbled into a paralyzed inertia was not all the latter's fault. It was not entirely moral deficiency that eventually frustration, incomprehension and contempt got the better of the latter's better instincts in their dealings with indigenous people, because all they could see was incorrigible incompetence, fecklessness, failure and a doomed people in whom further investment seemed to be pointlessly pouring good money after bad!
That negative view persists today for very similar reasons, but much more likely to be articulated by ethnic groups that are racially non European, who have had to deal with colonialism in their own histories and managed to overcome it. European ‘whites’ have had their ‘imperialist’ history so demonized that they have been effectively silenced, along with their critical faculties.
Ironically, it is poorly educated people who have been isolated in bush back blocks and sufficiently insulated from the official line not to have had the courage to honestly speak out knocked out of them. They are easily dismissed as racist rednecks, but the reality is they reflect the unedited truth about how badly indigenous communities have been and are traveling. And their ‘prejudices’ are deeply rooted in long and consistent experience in living cheek by jowl with them.
There was a Soviet era joke about the ignorant backwoods hicks who ordinarily lived in Siberia, whose ideological faux pas were tolerated by regime apparatchiks, because there was nowhere else to exile them to and no one wanted the miserable job of supervising their ‘re-education’. And the implied punchline was that they were the only people in the USSR who could speak the truth.
By way of illustration at how what is being discussed here has panned out at a grassroots level, I submit my own first hand experience of working in the construction industry in the Pilbara, back in ’71. I mixed with both Torres Strait Thursday Islanders and Maoris. They were there in significant numbers in most of the camps I lived in over a twelve month period.
The TIs in particular loathed and reacted badly to being lumped in with mainland indigenes because as mission educated people, they felt ‘the mainlanders’ were letting down ‘the team’. And they felt that they had historically suffered very unfairly by being seen by Brisbane colonial authorities as needing the same kind of ‘protection’ that had been imposed on their incompetent aboriginal counterparts, with whom they were not even vaguely ethnically related.
(By way historical gloss on this, John Douglas, an ex premier of Queensland and The Resident on Thursday Island between 1885 until he died in 1904, resisted the native protectionism going on in the mainland because it was plain to him it wasn’t necessary or helpful. The politically collaborative community model of administration he created worked well because the local community was willing and able to actively and positively engage in the process After his death protectionism was imposed, was universally loathed and eventually it led to a general strike in 1936, that struck the regime down.)
Being very straight laced Christians, they hated the way ‘the abos’ (their term, not mine) preferred to vegetate in fly blown humpies on the edge of Roebourne and sell young girls for the price of a slab behind the pub, instead of rousing themselves to actually do some work in the opportunity rich mining boom, right in front of them. And it wasn’t as if the work was all that gruelling, or that the the conditions of life for even unskilled/semi-skilled labourers like myself weren’t very comfortable, well paid and well looked after, on the whole.
While any indigenous job applicant might have had to overcome employer doubts created by their community’s thoroughly rotten local reputation, if any of them had shown a bit of persistence and keenness, somebody would have eventually said yes. They were always needing more people because of the constantly high labor turnover. If that man did well and brought credit on himself, it would be half as difficult for the next man. And if the word got around that the local indigenous community was pulling its finger out, the construction companies would have been delighted, because it would save heaps on fly in fly out.
There wasn’t a racial problem there. Thursday Islanders are very proud people who are short fused with lack of ‘respect’, and no one in their right mind would ever consider ‘discriminating’ against them; ditto max for Maoris.
If you were prepared to work, you got a job there, whatever your ethnicity. In general nobody gave a damn about race or where you came from. Anyone foolish enough to make any sort of public racist remark in front of Maori or TIs would be out of the camp at the run, if they were to avoid being beaten up. Snide aboriginal ‘jokes’ were just as risky, because despite a universal cross ethnic contempt for them, anything that even vaguely sounded like a racial slur was taken very personally by said TIs and Maori.
If human rights and anti-racism (whatever ‘racism’ is, given its enormous plasticity) is a universal and timeless given beyond the claims of history and culture, where was that lobby in the nineteenth century? How did it fail in its manifest destiny to to uphold what was right when so much was at stake and the issues of indigenous emancipation so crystal clear at the time? Why did it fail to arouse the working class masses to indignation and the appropriate mass action? Why wasn’t it at the time able to morally shame the administrative monsters who presided over so many clear crimes against humanity? Who is now holding the progressive trueheartists of the time to account for their abject ineffectiveness, when so much could and should have been done? How can I contain my moral outrage at their pusillanimous invisibility?!
Long after the fact and out of historical context moralizing is a game we can all play, but of course if we are honest with ourselves and our history, we should know that it is at best propaganda, and at worst, if you are silly enough to really believe it, what Lenin would have described as ‘an infantile petit bourgeois disorder. Those naughty, naughty, NAUGHTY racist imperialists! Poor poor aboriginals! Big SMACKS!
Originally, Marxists gravitated to anti-imperialist analysis because the proletarian uprising inside metropolitan capitalist economies failed to materialize. And they had to invent some laws of history to rationalize the amazing piece of opportunist good luck that was the Russian putsch of 1917, that happened in an economy where capitalist relations of production were far too marginal to account for a real socialist revolution. It was defeat, military and financial collapse, and disruption of basic subsistence supplies to the populace that gave an unlikely underground gang its chance to seize power and impose a socialist styled regime in its own image. And as time went by, its ideological pronouncements became ever more oracular and fictional to the point that eventually the Kremlin outvaticanned the papacy.
Ditto for China, where the difference between ‘revolutionary’ success and oblivion was not economic forces and the development of class warfare, so much as the terrible hammering the Japanese gave Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalist armies in 1944 (a million military dead), the Russians handing over much of the North China Japanese arsenal in late 1945 to Mao’s then relatively modest forces, plus the months of vital Russian protection of The Peoples’ Liberation Army against Nationalist re-occupation in the North, that gave Mao the time to train new armies to use the new armamentarium he’d just been given.
The redoubling of the struggle to clutch at Imperialist straws after it was obvious the class struggle was defunct became a hallmark of post Marxist thinking. In the process it had lost most of its economic and philosophical analysis in favor of empathetic welfare moralizing on behalf of stereotyped cardboard cutout ‘poor things’ that their ideological ‘clients’ had been turned into.
And the unendearing and disabling qualities that helped keep these clients disempowered were ideologically sanitized with excuse making cliche wipes. The indigenous objects of this exercise have been airbrushed from being terribly fallible people into ideological untouchables that insulates them and everyone else from reality, critical judgment and honest discourse. This has helped build a culture of impunity, behind which have been housed numerous indigenous rat’s nests of mutual and self abuse that no one dares talk about because that would be ‘racist’.
The fact is nobody can afford to ignore the modern world and expect that they are not going to get pushed from pillar to post. And the more they ignore it, the harder they get pushed, until they get the message. And if they don’t, everything about the intense, sometimes overwhelming and totalitarian character of modern society inevitably further trashes them. Thus instead of the catastrophe of paternalism, they now have the catastrophe of liberty, i.e., life without boundaries and all the chaos and misery that that brings in its wake.
And the reason that both paternalism and libertarianism have been catastrophes in ways that were not nearly as much the case for many other colonial and semi-colonial peoples, is that they made much more robust efforts to engage with the forces at play and Australian indigenous people, for the most part, either couldn’t or wouldn’t. The overwhelming challenge at hand for all peoples in the world today, no matter where they live or who they are, is meeting the modern world more than half way. Fumbling that enterprise is always disastrous.
Living in modern times is like riding a tiger. It feeds on those that cannot stay on. Those who can, do so because they are smart, tough and committed enough to wear the beast down. And they stay there by never losing focus on what it is that keeps them safe. It doesn’t take much to fall off the narrow ledges on the existential cliff we all have to cling to, for we have long abandoned the once lush hinterlands of Eden.
Read chapter 4 of the report of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse (The Little Children Are Sacred) to get a feel for this subject and what happens to any vulnerable group, no matter what their ethnicity, when only the easy bits, the benefits and rights of liberty, are grasped at the expense of the tough obligations and hard work disciplines that underpin them. A half arsed engagement with modern liberty is an invitation to disempowerment and disorder, no matter who you are, but especially for people who are already punch drunk from the merciless, but so far ineffectual chastisement that history has already given them, to dislodge them and get them to move.
And finally, the ‘beastly imperialism’ scenario requires a suspension of realistic judgment as to what the modern world was supposed to do and think, once habitable land was found on the great southern continent, and the means to project power, resource and population into it became possible.
Who in the right mind at the time was going to say that Australia was anything but effectively ‘terra nullius’, with a land area of over 7 million square kilometres and a population on it the same number as London before the Great Fire, living on around 50 square kilometres? If you created a demographic map of Australia in 1770 the size of an ordinary school world atlas wall chart, and gave it a European demographic scale, the indigenous population balloons would be so small, you wouldn’t see them without a microscope.
The British army lost more men in the Napoleonic wars between 1800-1815, than the entire indigenous population of Australia at the time. That was the modern scale on which the price of land claims and the ability to enforce them was measured!
If they had had radar in those days, indigenous society was under it, as hardly more than an ethnographic curiosity. That wasn’t ‘imperialist arrogance’. It was a realistic measure of the colossal asymmetry of the relationship and the inevitable result of a slumberful ten thousand year holiday from the tumult and change going on in the rest of the world, which indigenous peoples enjoyed by no virtue of their own, but by good luck conferred by extreme continental isolation and very climatically hostile environments on its most accessible approaches. And when that was over, it was bloody over.
Who was going to recognize a land ownership system based on the wanderings of hunter gathering, that died out in Europe 5-10,000 years before? Territorial sovereignty applying to this kind of roving band land browsing that our species had once shared with migratory animals in the African Rift Valley a 100,000 years ago, wasn’t even imaginable to nineteenth century minds. This was the age of nationalism and capitalist relations of production that were eventually rationalized by people like Weber, Durkheim and Marx.
Australia didn’t ‘belong’ to aboriginals any more than Europe ‘belonged’ to Roma gypsies.
Europeans understood ‘territory’ to be consolidated units of frontiered national estate that was then subdivided into marked out private and public ownership plots, administered by the state, the rule of law and defended by armed forces. Notions of some kind of collective commons that could be foraged by anyone living within a given geographic area, completely disappeared with the agricultural revolution that preceded industrialism.
It has required very creative and ideologically athletic wriggling to subsequently breathe legal life into some notion of ancient territorial ‘wanderments’ that could be superimposed back onto modern notions of land tenement. And while this was characterized as restitutional ‘justice’, I would assert that it was much more a very wilful indulgence of old fashioned traditionalist indigenous reactionaries and anti modern recidivists, to spare them from and delay having to make the eventually inevitable journey to being full modern participants in a mainly urban multi-cultural society.
They weren’t doing them any favours. No one can bring a cultural corpse back from the dead. Hunter gathering as a lifestyle is over.
Attempted corpse resuscitation has mythologised and romanticised indigenous society into a bogus sacred site not dissimilar to the noble savageism of The Enlightenment and the popular medievalist gothic movement of the late nineteenth century. And it has perverted and disrupted the process of empowering indigenous people with a realistic picture of what is really possible for them in a late capitalist society. They have traded progress within that system for a mongrel pup that keeps biting them in the bum and delivering the kind of social wreckage described in the ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report’.
If the mythical cultural tribal lands don’t have an operating economy that creates wealth and income, it is just a fake piece of ideological malware acting out a grotesque theatre of the absurd. The whole exercise is fairies-at-the-bottom-of-the-garden lying to them about what their options are. And it hasn’t been a benign exercise, because it has left them in a limbo nothing-to-do nether world which is neither modern nor traditional, and can only be kept going on welfare life support that corrupts everybody.
Collaborations between indigenous groups, charitable foundations and governments can create outback enterprises in the cattle and tourist markets. And while these things are good in themselves, they are no substitute for the basic first step private capital business formation model. It starts small, works its way up not just a steep learning curve in gaining business experience and judgment, but developing adequate capital reserves, initially by crude saving and then gaining access to credit, sufficient to not just support year on year operations, but cover against market misfortune, Australia’s climate and the unforeseeable.
Big corporate scale operations are not for beginners hanging off grants and charities to do community makework! Most corporates originally had very humble beginnings and founders who were often very ordinary people, who did it hard and gambled everything. There really aren’t any shortcuts that lead to lasting prosperity. And if indigenous people are to take their place in the capitalist economy they find themselves in, they are going to have to do what Somalis, Lebanese, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans do. It isn’t rocket science.
If you go up the older main road shopping strips of Melbourne, you can see the enterprise and hard work of newcomers who mostly came with nothing but what they stood up in and not a word of English to bless themselves with. So where are our indigenous brothers and sister?
You can give people money, but you can’t give them wealth. That is something they have to earn, learn and churn back into their culture...often through failures and defeat, by picking themselves back up, saving some more money and trying again.
Nothing so concentrates the mind on the wealth value of money if you have had to do without things to save it; if you constantly and passionately envision what you can possibly do with it, look out for opportunities and study them carefully, then risk your intellectual and financial capital by investing in one of them, and make the resultant enterprise successful with every gram of energy, enthusiasm and persistence that can be mustered.
The questions for indigenous Australians are the same as for everyone else who has ever had to make the journey towards modernism. What is portable from the past into a viable vision of the future? British people had to dump a lot of their traditional world to make the jump into the new one, but the further one gets from that initial trajectory, the bigger and more difficult that dump and jump.
Modernization is always about a balance of how much you can backpack out of the past into the future, without overloading and/or getting pulled back by ingrained conservative sentiment. And traditionalism died hard in all theatres, but much harder for those with the longest journeys into the future.
Even the most successful of industrialization, the Japanese one, involved some serious internal ructions between feudal traditionalists and modernizers, that ended in a major samurai rebellion led by the traditionalist diehards of the Satsuma clan in 1877, on which the film ‘The Last Samurai’ was very roughly based.
Loss of the land and all its attachments into the deep past were the first thing to go in the migration towards cities. And one simply cannot make the journey into modern times without taking that loss. For hunter/gatherers, land is everything in both the real and virtual sense. But unless someone can come up with a really inventive way to create a sustainable and realistic version of a modern economy on remote native title areas, indigenous communities will just continue to languish indefinitely.
The enormous gap between the world of the spiritual home and the utilitarian world of capitalist relations of production can only be bridged by making some large compromises. An indigenous (his mother was the last full blood of her tribe) member of a collateral branch of my own family, who worked as a union organizer for most of his life, would go back to his country for his holidays. He made a little tourist business out of taking non indigenous people to look at it, after he retired from the union. And he has gone back there with his European wife to live out his last years and to meet his responsibilities as a community elder. It isn’t the old way, but it seems to me to be as close as it gets to what it means for indigenous persons to make their way in the capitalist world and juggle that alongside being a legitimate participant in the culture. And multiculturalism is geared to facilitating and funding that as part of its commitment to cultural diversity.
An indigenous person should be able to be successful in the modern sector and still be a loyal member of their tribe. But failure to get that model up as the working template means that large blocks of indigenous society are effectively marginal participants in the modern sector, which means that whatever dynamic there is, is negative. Failure feeds on and contaminates everything, modern and traditional alike.
The reality is, just like the Confucian Han Lin Academy that was forced to close its doors because its knowledge could no longer hold up the Chinese world, the indigenous students are hardly coming anymore to imbibe The Old Traditions of the Dreaming, and the elders who once knew it are dying or have died off. And why would kids who think that Biblical Genesis and older people are rubbish, that Eminem is God, and that getting into trouble is the meaning of life, going to ‘believe’ in dreamtime stories? Most people don’t really believe in Christian dreamtime fairy stories and regard them as quaintly old fashioned, so why would they take the indigenous ones anymore seriously?
Just like the disintegration of imperial China into the chaos of warlordism, parts of indigenous society are disintegrating into community and domestic violence, sexual malfeasance, petty crime and prostitution, disorganization and disorder, lack of community authority and parental modelling, alcoholism, drug addiction, petrol sniffing, wilful damage to community property, domestic filth and squalor, diseases that should never happen and could be easily fixed if anyone could be bothered, a diet and exercise pattern purpose designed and guaranteed to wreck health and a modern education system that’s only there to serve time in until the first welfare bank deposit arrives, if one can be bothered to turn up for morning roll call, even if it is only to go through the motions!
Have I got it all?
I might not like it, but if one day a really seriously large, well organized and wealthy indigenous criminal network replete with dark glasses toting and pin stripe suited gangsters, were uncovered by the police and seen appearing in the local supreme court surrounded by fantastically well paid defence silks, at least we might be reassured that some of them could do something more ambitious than petty crime.
Sure, there are other ethnic lumpen proletarians and corporate cannibal/parasites out there who get up to some pretty poor behavior on the dark side. Nobody in the long term corporate ‘welfare sector’, nor the wider down-and-out gutter variant are travelling well, whether we are talking the criminal looting that caused the GFC in 2008, or the scum who trashed working class districts in London in 2011, but that is another story. However, in the Aussie down-at-heel class in the dysfunctional stakes, indigenous communities consistently win all the medals and set all the course records.
To get a reputation as noxious as that takes training, dedication to failure, intergenerational mismentoring and a methodically unmethodical consistency in adhering to negative standards. Mealy mouthed cliches like ‘Disadvantage’ tell nothing of what they really speak and conceal a wealth of delusional attitude, lousy behavior and breath taking supineness on the part of the ‘poor things’ and a very permanent vacation in the critical reasoning department by everyone else.
So what is needed to make all the ‘progressive’ ideological malarkey make sense is a really good cover story that gets empathetic hearts a’beating, blame shifting into high gear and responsibility sliding off like muck on Teflon. The accusation of racism is as slippery as it is bulletproof as it is deadly. The muck sticks like glue on anyone near enough to get the spray. It insulates the user as much as it acid burns anyone it is aimed at. And it destroys honest discourse with an efficacy that even the venerable Joseph Goebbels would have enjoyed.
No ‘community’ does screwing itself over with quite the alacrity that you can see any day of the week in Alice Springs after 10.00 pm. It has a population of around 20,000 non indigenes, 5000 indigenes in town, plus around another 10,000 in surrounding areas, and boasted 1432 reported assaults in 2009. It makes Kings Cross on a really bad Saturday night with 213 reported assaults in 2011, look like the virtuous centre of civilization. Even disreputable Wagga, with a population of 70,000, ‘only’ does around 800 assaults a year; twice as many people and half as many assaults as Alice.
And it would be a fair Alice bet that because so much of the indigenous population lives in out of town encampments, an awful lot of the crime would never get reported to the police.
One gets something of a sense of just how much violence there is in those places by having a look at the assault hospitalization rate. If you are an indigenous girl in The Northern Territory, the chances are you can look forward to not just being given a few bruises by the everlovin’ man, but a few ‘well deserved’ hospital visits. In a News.com report 10.6.13, Dr Howard Bath, the Northern Territory's Children's Commissioner said the most recent statistics from the NT's five major government hospitals showed that in 2010 the number of non-indigenous females hospitalised for assault was 0.3 for every thousand women in the population. The rate for indigenous females was 24.1 per thousand, or 80 times the rate. "In numbers, that was 27 non-indigenous females being admitted, compared with 842 indigenous women being treated for assault”.
An out of control consumer economy smashes up societies and cultures of all descriptions, but those who come last in that race to the bottom started with a bit cultural fat to slow them down. So what is now happening to indigenous society is merely a bellwether for what is coming for the rest of us in the next generational lap.
To make the legal myth of traditional land ownership even vaguely stick, it has to be based on notions of a ‘lifestyle and culture’ that were no longer viable the minute farmers and graziers moved in with a much more powerful suite of ‘lifestyle and culture’, which rendered that of the former obsolete not just by a century or two, but by orders of many millenia.
It is as absurd as if ancient aristocratic families in Britain demanded their land back because it had been illegitimately confiscated from them by punitive death duties. And now they are poor things living in genteel poverty who need our help! Where are the traditions of yesteryear with all their romantic Downton Abbey noblesse oblige and forelock tugging? Where has the respect gone for families that can trace their noble lineage nearly a thousand years? It is so sad it almost makes one want to cry.
It is as absurd as Jews claiming modern Palestine because they assert that ‘their’ imagined tribal God ‘gave’ it to them three thousand years ago and it is their ‘manifest divine destiny’ to claim it back! Imagine the kind of mayhem that would follow if every group that had ever lost its land came back to reclaim its own, because some god or land spirit had ‘given’ it to them. Palestinians are connoisseurs of this genre. The Romans kicked out the ancestors of their Jewish antagonists in 72 AD and there are their descendants, back at last. That could only be the product of the kind of cultural megalomania that comes with being a very specially Chosen People! Nuts!
The fact of a continuous presence on the Australian continent for 60,000 years, with last 10,000 of that getting a completely fortuitous holiday from change that was happening everywhere else, does not a land claim make. Sentimentality is no basis of ownership. The reality is that you only own what you can defend against someone who would take it from you. A very long tenure just makes the wrench of losing it that much harder, but no harder than it was for the peasants of the British Isles, who in the 1780s were being ejected from land their families had tenant farmed since long before the writing of the Doomsday Book, in 1087.
The fact is that none of us have more than a temporary license over whatever we hold, and that applies as much to indigenous groups as it does to aristocrats, as Jews, as pre-industrial tenant farmers, as it does to the rest of us.
The Japanese would have removed the European tenure of its system of land ownership if they had invaded Australian in 1942-3 and that would have been that; cancelled, just like that of their predecessors. Demands for restitution of land would have been met by firing squads. The only option for ethnic Europeans would have been to become as Japanese as possible, work very hard to win their trust and confidence, and gradually improve their status off the bottom rung of the Japanese ladder, even if it took a century or two.
But beyond the politics of imperialist ‘aggression’, were the British (and any other competing imperial wannabees) supposed to declare the Australian continent an inviolable anthropological museum? I don't think so. Who would enforce its continental boundaries? If the British had made such a unilateral declaration, they would have had to have left at least a squadron of the Royal Navy to keep the French and the Dutch out, wouldn't they? Who was going to pay for that, even in the totally implausible event that anyone would have ever considered it? Who would have advocated such a move when industrialism was increasingly mandating that food and raw materials supply would have to be globalized, and threatened with Malthusian collapse if it didn’t?
Finding Australia was manna from heaven and the biggest continental prize since the Portuguese and the Spanish floated into the Americas at the very beginning of the modern era. To suggest that anyone even faintly in possession of their reason and instincts was going to pass up the Australian economic opportunity, when Cook’s charts and ship’s log arrived on the desks of his superiors in the Admiralty in 1771, is frankly ludicrous; the stuff of Monty Python Downunder!
Australian indigenes were 'fortunate' that only one power took control of the Australian land mass. They could have been caught up in the inter-colonial warfare that went on between the British and the French in North America, in the ten years before Cook surveyed the east coast. It was a tough experience for the much more sophisticated North American indigenous populations, but it would probably have decimated parts of aboriginal Australia.
And finally, let us not forget that the indigenous Rip Van Winkles were bound to be roused from their slumbers one day by somebody. They could have got the Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and God help them, the Maori from over The Ditch.
Anyone wanting to gas on about genocide needs to consider what the Maori would have done. Check out the Moriori of the Chatham Islands, about 400 km from the New Zealand coast. In 1835, a Maori war party arrived, and they really didn't muck around with the unresisting locals.
They immediately and systematically massacred the Moriori who were surplus to requirements and enslaved the survivors in a prisoner of war regime very reminiscent of the Japanese Imperial Army, just over a century later, as the horrified New Zealand colonial authorities found out eventually, when they rescued the pitiful remnant Moriori population from their captors' brutal clutches, after 27 really terrible years.
The Japanese knew all about Genocide and practiced it relentlessly wherever the Imperial armies went. If they had come to sunny Australia, I doubt very much whether there would have been an indigenous population left alive inside a year. If people didn't jump to it fast enough and to their satisfaction, they might thrash them mercilessly the first time, if they didn't feel like making an example of them and summarily shooting them, or worse.
The Japanese Imperial Army didn't have any truck with humanitarian nonsense. Japanese officers and NCOs could knock one of their own men unconscious for the most minor infraction, so you can imagine what they did to others who were imperial bottom feeders.
Liberal humanitarians have got away with inflating negatives in our history by fudging the occasional massacre into systematic genocide, shamelessly conflating race with ethnicity and/or culture, fudging racism with any negative construction of indigenous behavior/culture, and signally failing to differentiate the neo-Nazi aryanist/exclusionist assumptions and practices of South Africa's apartheid and similar in the Southern US states until the 1960s, and Australian assimilationism.
Nor did they give the wretched nineteenth century new order colonial apparatchiks and missionaries any credit for their vain attempts to produce some kind of route out of the hole that indigenous society was helping dig for itself, that would historically maroon much of it to this very day. It has been all too easy to criticise them after the event, nail them as wicked oppressors and characterize their indigenous interlocutors as helpless victims who couldn’t possibly be responsible for anything or helped themselves positively in any way.
If there had been a few more Unaipons and Nicols’s, it would have made a huge difference. It doesn’t take many to create a community of achievement that succors and cultivates its internal creativity, the force of its ideas and its capacity to influence others around it. The world must have sometimes felt like a very lonely place for those men.
In particular, this ideological group has given no credit to European colonial society for trying to take community responsibility for mixed race children, who were after all at least half (and with the passing of time, increasingly more than half) European genetic product, i.e., the product of European fathers. It requires a certain degree of really credulous ideological gobbledithink to conclude that this was ‘child stealing’ or ethnic ‘genocide’.
Indigenous people are very fond of talking about ‘community’. Just because individual European fathers were irresponsible and unconscionable rascals who refused to take responsibility for their children to indigenous women, didn’t mean that their ‘community’ should. If communities have responsibilities, why shouldn’t European ones exercise their responsibilities in such matters?
Why should it be assumed that it would be responsible or humane for these children to be left inside maternal families whose culture and communities were on their knees, living a hovel lifestyle with a death rate to match, denying them even the chance of a modern education, very likely struggling with a few bush ‘Dickensian’ issues of their own and in all probability dooming them to the same miserable condition and lack of progress as their indigenous relatives, generation after generation?
And if we were dealing with an unmarried European mother of that period who was living in those sorts of conditions and offering that kind of future to her child, there would have been no question as to taking the child off her.
If that assessment of indigenous society, which would have been widely held as the nineteenth century wore on, was not a plausible basis for issuing proceedings for a custody battle and winning it hands down, I’ll go he.
Living in a society that pays young women to have children out of wedlock by serially disappearing fathers, so that they can build themselves a little welfare ‘empire’ for their successors to inherit, does blur the issue a bit these days, but in the nineteenth century it just wasn’t considered OK. To pretend otherwise and fantasize that indigenous women were some kind of special case, is pure malarkey.
The fact that this policy and program of inter-ethnic recovery failed miserably was only knowable with the masterly knowledge of hindsight and begs the question as to what would have happened to the children if they had stayed with their mother’s family. Research into comparative outcomes between those who were removed from indigenous communities to be brought up by the paternal community and those who were not, showed equally unflattering results all round.
Nobody was prepared to make the necessary sacrifices to ensure the beginnings of a modernizing trend happening, whether from the indigenous side or that of the New Order. One side was unprepared to make the emotional/political kind of commitment that the significant sections of Maori society were making over The Ditch, against exactly the same burden of assimilationist anglophilism, to move into the modern world. And The New Order had reached the point of such indifference to indigenous affairs, it wasn’t prepared to adequately fund and supervise a very demanding piece of untried social engineering. So the project became risky, failure prone and in the end, as discreditable as leaving half European children to rot out in indigenous camps.
I have seen a modern indigenous humpy settlement just out of Roebourne, Western Australia. I wouldn’t leave a dog there, let alone a human child. And I have stayed in a Djakarta kampong with a Muslim family who were at least as poor or poorer than any indigenous person in Australia They struggled so hard to keep their children fed, clean, safe and educated in the ways of the Qur’an.
Over the ditch, the idea of compulsory Maori child removal wouldn’t have even crossed the minds of Pakeha administrators. Aside from the fact that the Maori would have collectively responded extremely poorly to any such a thing, their society was widely regarded as a responsible agency, albeit not very cooperative in becoming anglicized.
I personally know of a white woman whose father was a Pakeha gangster, who as a child in the late 50s, fled her Christchurch home and sat outside a Maori village compound for a week, until they reluctantly took her in. They lived in well kept longhouses, were well organized, caring of the children and the discipline was strict enough that even young men did what they were told by the matriarchs, or they got a whack over the ear. She was an emotional Maori, a Maori Christian and enormously in their debt for having given her her life back. And part of her payback was founding and running one of the few successful cold turkey drug rehab programs in Melbourne of the early ‘70s.
It is some measure of how narrowed our historical dialogue has become that is necessary to have this conversation here and not inside our universities. It is deeply regrettable that it was left to the Institute of Public Affairs to challenge the skewed version of history coming out of places like the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, that produced the child ‘theft’ report, ‘Bringing Them Home’, for they are just as partisan as their antagonists. In the debates following that report, we were treated to the equally dubious spectacles of ‘black arm band’ vs ‘white blindfold’ historical caricatures.
The shame of it was that if the IPA had been slightly less polemical and obviously intent on just defending the migrant settler regime from its grottier underside, they would in my view have easily won the battle for a more robustly disinterested narrative; one that settled for a more balanced picture of no longer just a single inter-ethnic divide, but one between a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic modern world, and indigenous peoples still mired in their reluctance to join it.
Guilt, uncritical empathizing and victim/oppressor ‘analysis’ doesn’t solve anything as an informant of current policy, nor does it as a predictor of prospects for future success. It merely averts the collective gaze from the awful reality that parts of indigenous society are now in a worse mess than they were thirty to forty years ago, when liberal humanists took control of managing indigenous policy.
History’s judgment on the ‘Bringing them home’ report will measured against ‘The Little Children Are Sacred’ report, that raises the question of what on earth indigenous children were ‘brought home’ to. Nobody is coming out smelling sweetly from the imbroglio that has been the story of inter-ethnic relations between indigenous peoples and the interlopers who overran them.
There are some signs that a very modest number of indigenous people are really starting to kick some goals, but they are painfully few and very recent. The first indigenous graduate to get a degree at Cambridge was in 2013 (well done Lilly Brown) only 162 years after the first Afro-American managed it with the support of his slave abolitionist church in New York and the church of England; the very same denomination trying futilely to educate indigenous Australians during the same period.
The small collection of indigenous achievement firsts is a hopeful sign, but seeing indigenous people take their place in our society like any other ethnic group is a long way off. When you take out the sporting, art, film/media, drama, dance and music cultural components and look at the business, professions, administration and intellectual/academic sectors requiring entrepreneurial and educational skill, indigenous achievements have been thin on the ground and mostly only in the last twenty plus years. And in some ‘communities’, not only has social governance fallen to pieces, but so has the education output. Something really tangible has to change if we are to expect something better from that quarter.
No amount of money or policy is going to change that until the indigenous community as a whole starts to admit it has a problem that is now largely of its own making and starts to energetically address it on its own. Nobody can do this for them. Only when the large majority of it decide to become citizens of the modern world in the unreserved sense that we all have to, will that constituency be able to make its way in it successfully.
The fact that an outsider like myself has to say the terrible truth is a reminder that still, hardly anyone inside indigenous society has either the courage or the perspective to say the blazingly obvious and start having the brutally blunt conversation that some indigenous communities so desperately need to have.
All the sorries in the world aren’t going to do anything tangible to help and leave the false impression that extracting almost nothing from the new order and the opportunities it offers to all comers, regardless of ethnicity and social origin, was everyone else's fault. After over two hundred years of exposure to the modern period, large sections of the indigenous community have hardly got a cracker to show for it except a rucksack full of negativity and bad attitude.
Throwing welfare money at the problem just maintains the status quo.
Wringing our hands at the ridiculous imprisonment rate and terrible health and educational status of indigenous people, as if the rest of us are to blame, merely absolves law breakers, the self indulgent, the ignorant and the lazy from responsibility for their poor behavior and the rotten moral, hygiene, eating and general health and exercise habits they’ve been taught and grown up with. There seems to be no end in sight and no one prepared to bite the bullet to put a stop to it.
And yes, confronting that from within would be very tough, because there is an enormous collective investment in corruption and failure in parts of the indigenous community that also poultices a great deal of very long standing pain and loss; a well nursed and fondled, yet extremely sensitive to touch suppurating boil, that will make a very ugly and traumatic mess when someone lances it. Anyone who tries doing this risks violence or even martyrdom. There isn’t an easy option on this. People are going to have to go in boots and all to kick arse as hard as they try to save souls, as they try to redeem communities.
None of this means that anyone should abandon their culture. This is a multi-cultural society where everybody’s culture has value, but it is time to admit that there is no way back to the hunter gatherer world indigenous society has had to leave behind. All the rest of us have had to let go of the past repeatedly in our family histories. Some of the new refugee migrants from Africa who have lived in near Iron Age villages in countries where the modern world hardly extends beyond the capital city and some of the bigger regional towns, are having to do it as we speak.
Asylum seekers risk their lives and spend years in closed camps in isolated and uncomfortable places to get into this opportunity rich first world society. On the whole, these new migrants are making a better fist of it than indigenous Australians, despite some very distressingly violent history of their own, that puts indigenous sufferings into some sort of perspective. And if they can do it, well what is the matter with our indigenous brothers and sisters? The time has come for a migration of attitude from wallowing in defeat to taking a punt on a vision of a better future.
I wait in hope that one day perhaps an indigenous Baden-Powell will start a black scout movement that takes little urban milk sops and teaches them how to live completely off their own resources in the bush, without any modern tools. It would be a visionary project for over affluent year 9 layabouts and preserve and spread something of the indigenous knowledge base across the rest of society. But that would require a really ambitious and well managed indigenous team of entrepreneurial educator leaders, who could carry it off and get the punters coming back for more. I am not holding my breath.
The biggest favour that indigenous Australians can do for themselves in their quest to become history’s winners instead of its losers, is to politely ask the bleeding heart liberals to get lost and go and find someone or something else to slobber over. Then they can get on with the real business of ruthlessly disciplining those in the community who keep kicking own goals, desolating all hope of getting ahead and letting down those who are beginning to escape the loser trajectory. Then they can get on with the real business of rebuilding hope, trust, virtue, sacrifice, constancy and responsible agency. And if that means seeing the emergence of some aggressively pugnacious indigenous Muslim fundamentalists in remote settlements, that might be an excellent start.
Islam is not a leading edge of modernity, but it is part of its mix that is a good deal less than 60,000 years out of date. And if it can rouse parts of indigenous society out of its torpor and the moral slough that it has fallen into, I might not like the religious radicalism, still regard its theological claims as fanciful nonsense and be deeply suspicious of its sexual politics, but it would get my support nonetheless. It is a great deal better than the awful crap that is going down now.
A bit of Muslim ‘discipline’ in the forecourt of the local mosque might be just what it takes for some people ‘to see the light’. Human rightsie squeamishness is not part of the Muslim Way (The Prophet Be Thanked). And when the kids have to go to the madrasa school, the curriculum might be a little narrow, but by The Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) they will actually learn something of value and remember it all their lives, which is a lot more than can be said for what passes for secular education in indigenous communities at the moment, where the ‘graduates’ walk out virtually without skills of any kind, let alone values worth a crumpet.
And if they do learn science and maths with the same disciplined focus that they learn the Qur’an, just a few more of them might end up as not only models of just and thoughtful behaviour, hard work, honesty and dedication to their work skills, but we would see them distributed across our community in places of respect, authority and social and economic standing. Why bloody not?! Why can’t we have an indigenous general as our Governor-General or President one day, perhaps swearing allegiance on a Qur’an? Anything wrong with her doing that?
Just spare me the crummy excuses and the rubbish that says it’s too hard because the poor thing indigenous people are all too racist ‘disadvantaged’. Bollocks they are. All round the world, formerly colonial and semi-colonial peoples have roused themselves into modernization in sometimes very difficult circumstances made much harder than it should have been by their former colonial masters. They aren’t whingeing. They are just getting on with it.
It is time indigenous people did the same, not in dribs and drabs, but as a community, where success isn’t an escape story from failure, so much as a reflection of its collective will, broad expectations of its children and the demands it places on itself.
My doctor and dentist are both Sri Lankans. I would like to think that one day they might be indigenous and that their older children in their final year at school will get as upset as Chinese ones, who although they did well in the year 12 exams, didn’t do as well as their peers. Why not? Look, I will settle for an indigenous electrician or plumber….
No irony could be more delicious than the picture of an indigenous mullah thumping his sermon lectern and saying a few choice words about how the rest of us ought to behave and what a bunch of derelicts we have become. And of course, he would be dead right, and I, sadly, will likely be long dead....I would so savour that scene because I would know that that benighted group had started to make its run, and do something in and for the world, whether that world liked it or not.
That is what it means to be the master of your fate, rather than its victim.
And what this fanciful indigenous mullah would be saying is that all of us are potentially at risk from the malign, third rate and derelict values that a half arsed libertarian progressivism has bequeathed all of us. Indigenous society has been the first to be laid waste by its apparently benign license, because its cultural defences were already weakened before the lamentable impacts became obvious. It is a terrible warning to the rest of us that our defences are crumbling too, and for the same reasons.
The evisceration of the existential centre by the deregulatory forces of markets, the marketing of this into civil society and the legitimization of that process by commandeering the voices of the Enlightenment, means that the next generation of parents will be almost as immature as its children, incapable of mentoring them, much worse, become a risk to them and turn much of that upcoming next generation into trash. The little children will not be sacred anymore.
That furious imaginary indigenous cleric will be demanding that we clean up our act, or else, war.
We are ineluctably being dragged into an epoch end game where everyone is playing for keeps and the shape of things to come for several millenia. Bluff is going to be called, no one is going to be indulged and the libertarian ‘progressivists’ will be treated with the derision and contempt they so richly deserve