The Tragedy Behind the Intervention

The eponymous protagonist of Sophocles’ drama Antigone has long defined the essence of the “tragic” for me. Her home city of Thebes was riven by a war of brother against brother who personified the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by slaying one another outside the city’s gates. At the opening of the play, the new king, Creon, has declared that one brother, Eteocles, will be given a hero’s funeral; the other, Polyneices, is to be left out to rot and to be consumed by dogs. No one is to give Polyneices the proper rites of burial, under pain of death.

Their sister Antigone is thus put in an untenable position. She is caught between two moral imperatives that are mutually contradictory. Obedience to civil law compels her to leave Polyneices unburied. Obedience to sacred law demands that she give comfort to the soul of the dead through proper burial. And yet she must choose one or the other; there is no middle ground. And whatever action she takes, whichever law she chooses to honor, she will simultaneously dishonor and betray the other law. If she obeys the gods, she will disobey Creon and die. If she obeys Creon, she will dishonor the gods and bring ruin upon her city. In order to fulfill one obligation she must renounce the other.

In his classic 1954 monograph, Renunciation as a Tragic Focus: a study of five plays, Eugene Falk describes this enforced renunciation as the essential principle that defines tragedy. Two high-positive values are arrayed against one another, and the protagonist, forced to choose one, necessarily destroys the other. 

On this anniversary weekend, marking one year since the Howard Government announced the Intervention in Aboriginal communities throughout the Northern Territory, a pair of articles have appeared in The Australian: one explicitly invokes the tragic, while the other unwittingly evokes the tragedy that lies behind the Intervention.

Of all that I have read about the Intervention in the last few days, nothing compares with Nicholas Rothwell’s lucid, extensive “No Question of Turning Back” (The Australian, June 21, 2008) for a critical analysis of what has happened and of the future directions being mapped out by the Rudd government.

Rothwell has always been sympathetic to the aim of relieving the suffering that has become endemic in remote Aboriginal communities, and has been outspoken on the need for drastic correctives. More than two years ago now, and more than a year before Brough’s “48 hours” of planning for the Intervention, Rothwell had this to say:

It is time for the unthinkable to be put on the agenda. One logical course of action would be for the federal Government to declare a state of emergency in many of the communities and ghetto camps of the centre and the entire north, and to employ the army or a civic service volunteer corps to provide viable settlements with proper facilities and to impose a system of benign social control. This is an unpalatable prescription for those who fancy the ideals of Aboriginal self-determination. It is hard to imagine a more disturbing alternative, except the one that exists today (“Cry of the Innocent,” The Australian, May 20, 2006).

Of course, the Howard-Brough plan wasn’t exactly what Rothwell envisioned, although in his reporting he has often supported its ends and sometimes its means. Now Rothwell has done a superb job of distilling the bureaucratic complexities of the emergency response, this “human engineering on a grand scale.” In this piece he admirably outlines not simply what Brough attempted, but more importantly for today, illuminates the changes Jenny Macklin has wrought to the Broughian program. Finally, he looks to what lies ahead under her leadership.

Rothwell provides a lengthy exposition of the current state of affairs, and in what follows I will here only selectively highlight a few of the topics he covers. 

The Intervention under Rudd and Macklin continues to build on Noel Pearson’s agenda to reform social welfare. It wants to emplace mechanisms to guard against corruption in the administration of government support for Aboriginal affairs, address the complexities of native title, and rework the distribution of mining royalties for the long-term benefits of Aboriginal owners. There is a new experiment underway on Groote Eylandt, for example, to divert royalties towards programs that facilitate and support initiatives in education, alcohol management, and tourism.

Overall, Rothwell focuses on the successes of both the Brough and the Macklin programs, and he offers an encouraging view of the present moment while acknowledging that there remains a multiplicity of viewpoints, often contradictory, about those successes and the means by which they can be achieved. If he ignores the downside of this human engineering–the overt racism that is entrenched in the entire spectacle of social engineering for Aboriginal people, the discredited social Darwinism that remains a living, breathing monster beneath the political landscape–I will not complain. His mission here is not to curse the darkness but to show where a few candles have begun to radiate a flicker of hope.

But it is because he remains silent about this racism and social Darwinism that I can not accept his final assessment. He may well be correct in his evaluation of the Labor response as somehow marred by its ” calm, and constructive” speeches that betray a “managerial” approach lacking in “moral outrage.” But to say that Brough had “the grace to see a tragedy” in the remote Northern Territory ennobles a government that does not deserve the distinction. Even if you grant Brough the passion and sincerity that has sometimes been ascribed to him, both his assessment of the problem and the solutions he proposed missed the essentially Sophoclean dilemma that faces the Indigenous people who attempt to govern their lives, to whatever degree, by their own Law. Brough never saw the tragedy at the heart of Aboriginal communities.

To illustrate one aspect of that dilemma, let me turn to Natasha Robinson’s June 21 contribution to The Australian’s review of the Intervention, “Secrets in the Shadows.”Robinson’s piece represents the worst sort of demonizing journalism, an exemplar of the insensitivity and lack of comprehension that justifies the indignities and privations of the emergency response by painting Indigenous people as violent savages, unconstrained by any sense of decency or real law. They deserve the Intervention, she argues, because they are incapable of civilizing themselves.

The chief locus of her argument resides in the recent troubles between Papunya and Mt Liebig, following the unexplained death of a 14-year old boy after a footy match and focusing on the specter of payback that is now haunting the two communities. She interprets this system of “vigilante justice” as representative of a mind set that leads inevitably to sexual abuse of all sorts (not just of children but of women in general) and to the shielding of perpetrators from a true justice that can only come from the dispassionate hands of white law.

Robinson is so caught up in her disgust with the primitive as she defines it that she become blind to the implications of her own reasoning. While claiming that “payback” shields whistleblowers and perpetuates the cycle of violence in Aboriginal communities she can not hear her own arguments clearly. 

The prosecution of sexual abuse cases is tortuously slow; few child sex abuse cases reach the stage where charges can be laid. Even when cases do get to court and are proven, the victims are not safe. A woman who was sexually assaulted in her home in Hermannsburg was attacked following the perpetrator’s jury conviction this year, forcing her to flee her community with her two children.

Substitute the name of another town for “Hermannsburg.” Is this not a story we have heard over and over again from those who operate shelters for battered women around the world? And yet Robinson goes on to claim that “Complicating the picture is the ongoing tendency of traditional Aborigines to rely on customary law in punishing perpetrators of sexual abuse or any other crime.”

Senior Papunya man Sammy Butcher says that despite changes to territory law that make customary punishment illegal, spearings and other forms of traditional payback are still common. Asked if such punishment was more effective in child abuse cases than reporting to police, Butcher says customary punishment is the first priority of many traditional senior men. “We’ve got to do that first and then go to the police,” he says. “The police can deal with it afterwards.”

Butcher, of course, is no ignorant primitive. He is the onetime lead guitarist and composer with the Warumpi Band, a man who now struggles to protect the youth of Papunya. He employs his experience of the whitefella world to manage a music studio in the community that offers direction and purposeful activity to the town’s youth; he has helped to lead the successful fight against petrol-sniffing in Papunya. At the same time, his remarks as quoted by Robinson demonstrate his commitment to traditional law.

And it is here that I want to return to my opening illustration, to demonstrate how tragedy strikes in remote Australia in a Sophoclean manner and how men like Butcher are caught in the trap of dual allegiance. There is the law that governs “customary punishment” and there is the white man’s law that has decreed such justice unlawful. Like Antigone, the traditional senior men must obey their sacred law and face the consequences of a Creonic retribution, or they must adapt to the imposed systems of justice and in so doing, continue to destroy the basis of their indigenous social order.

The quandary over payback is just a single example. The responsibility to walytja–kin, family, relationship–that leads to overcrowding in homes and communities stands in opposition to the dictates of housing authorities, and sometimes to the advice of health professionals from the medical establishment. The tradition of juvenile autonomy and the demands of the Australian education system stand in unreconciled opposition.

Unlike Antigone, those who opt to follow the dictates of their own law are not given swift death in return. Instead they are left to die one slow piece at a time, until choice, that central element of Sophoclean tragedy, is removed from them, until will is drowned in alcohol, until obligations are abandoned and respect for walytja is lost along with self-respect. 

That so many people–including the former Minister–cannot recognize this stressful, lacerating trap that Aboriginal people inhabit, this choice of options which inevitably leads to the destruction of one or another of a pair of conflicting, high-positive values, is not in itself a tragedy. But it is a damned sorry state of affairs, and one that continues to contribute to the real Aboriginal tragedy. Until Indigenous people can make choices that do not force them to renounce their essential identities, no amount of social engineering will resolve the dilemmas they face.


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