Season of the Witch

“When I look over my shoulder, what do you think I see?” asked Donovan.  “Some other cat looking over his shoulder at me.”  If not the season of the witch, it is the season of the Intervention, as last week’s post announced.  The government has affirmed its faith in the Emergency Response once more, and columnists are bristling across the Australian media, looking over their shoulders at those on the other side of the op-ed divide.  I hadn’t thought to take up the topic again this week, but an opinion piece on the ABC Unleashed site has made me think twice.  I will try to be brief.

aboriginal-flagEarlier this week Bob Durnan published a scathing attack on scathing attacks on the Intervention (“Flight from reality on Indigenous issues,” Unleashed, June 8, 2011).  Durnan is described on the ABC site as “a long-term Aboriginal rights activist and community development practitioner in remote Aboriginal Australia.”  He has worked in Alice Springs for more than three decades, helping to establish the Tangentyere Council and Alice town camp leases since the late 1970s.  He owns a Territorian’s well-developed mistrust of Southern liberals and has buckets of scorn to pour upon them.  He calls them the “Shushers,” although I’m not exactly sure why:

Prominent amongst the Shushers are several sub-groups: some tediously dogmatic socialist fragments; the moralistic section of the Greens, distinguishable by their emotive sloganeering about the Intervention; Foucauldian oppositionists (a determined band of anti-governmentalists, who recite obscure theoretical mantras); and the white Rastafarians, who about this time of year are heading north on their annual pilgrimage to jamboree in the warm Arafura sun (Durnan, “Flight from reality“).

His column is specifically an attack on a list of eleven demands called Rebuilding from the Ground Up – an alternative to the Northern Territory Intervention that has been promulgated from the Jumbunna Indigenous House of at the University of Technology Sydney and endorsed by several groups opposed to the NTER.  I won’t debate the merits of either side’s arguments here, for we have (quite literally) heard them all before.  My sympathies lie more with Jumbunna’s perspectives than with Durnan’s; I’ll make that admission and move on.  As I said, we’ve all heard it all before.

What prompted me to respond today was more the tone of Durnan’s piece.  The paragraph I quoted above is representative of his mockery, derision, and impatience, and his opponents have often been free with the same qualities in their assessments of the Intervention’s apologists.

In last week’s post I made the argument for listening to Indigenous voices in the debates about the efficacy of the Intervention.  Many, maybe most, have serious quarrels with government policy; there are others who support some of the goals and the measures that have been taken to provide better sustenance, education, and housing.

But if most of the public debate that takes place in the media is between whitefellas, then I can only wish that the debate could be more civil and undertaken with an eye towards compromise.  The situation, if you’ll pardon the expression, isn’t black and white, and staking out extreme positions seems only to harden the respective stances at opposite ends of the spectrum and to demonize the opposing point of view.  And can we please stop blaming the blackfellas?  Yes, alcoholism is rife, violence is frightening, health statistics are shocking.  But can we find a way to talk about these issues with understanding rather than vituperation?

Having made that plea for moderation, let me now put forth what is undoubtedly an immoderate proposal, one that feels a little like science fiction, perhaps partakes of satire, and will probably outrage some readers.  I do this with the full awareness that, as an American citizen of the late 20th and early 21st century, I should probably just stash my slingshot somewhere safe and retreat behind the walls of my glass house in silence.

But contemplate for a moment this science-fiction scenario I’ve constructed of what the world might be like in twenty or thirty years (with apologies to all the political sensibilities I will offend along the way) …

…after the secession of Western Australia has weakened coastal defenses again to the point that China’s bid to take over Australia has been successful.  The Americans are no help this time around, having by the middle of the 21st century both learned the limits of their ability to intervene and to influence the outcomes of conflicts far from their shores.  The decline of American economic power would have made such an attempt to rescue Australia quixotic, anyway.

China’s needs for the richness of Australia’s raw materials had been long accepted by the world at large as undeniable by that point in time, and their economic might by 2040 made the question of who controls them academic.  Population pressures once again made the export of cheap labor to Australia desirable and even necessary, as the mere 20 million native (or shall we call them indigenous?) immigrants who populated the country over the course of 200 years could not effectively supply the labor that China needed.

Chinese capitalism retained a strong socialist understory.  Private property, democratic governance, and religious tolerance: all these are expendables.  Australia’s economy was broken and subsumed by the Chinese appetite for iron and uranium.   The Boomerang coast has been depopulated, the Pilbara lies under a pall that even the monsoons cannot blow away, and farther south and east the land, never easily accessible, is a radioactive waste land, an international dumping ground.  King William’s ineffectual pleas to honor the traditions of the Commonwealth only highlight the total collapse of Anglo-Australian culture.

As I tried to develop the fantasia, I was overwhelmed by the sense of its improbability. I struggled with finding words for the far-fetched, I squirmed at the imputations of greed and hostility and indifference that lurk behind every sentence I found so difficult to write.

And what I learned from this exercise is that, after all these years of immersion in the study of Aboriginal society and its relation to the larger nation-state, I still find it impossible to really understand what it feels like to be Indigenous in Australia today.  To construct the quality of being subsumed by a culture whose values are so alien as to be unrecognizable, whose morals are so divergent as to appear non-existent.  Empathy is elusive, insubstantial, unimaginable.  But this excursion into the unimaginable still seems to be a valuable one and very much to the heart of the dialogue that ought to be taking place around Indigenous affairs today.  What must we do to stand in another’s place and see the world from that different perspective?  Until we can accomplish that monstrous feat of imagination, all our discourse is likely to be doomed.  In the meantime, perhaps the best we can hope for is civility.

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