In the course of my years I have periodically set myself to difficult reading assignments. At the age of seventeen, I determined to read Ulysses. Twenty years later, after numerous aborted attempts, I completed all seven volumes of Proust, followed closely by the twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Now, another twenty years on, I have read my way through to the end of Gary Johns’s Aboriginal Self-Determination: the whiteman’s dream (Connor Court, 2011), all three hundred miserable pages.
It is a work of appalling stupidity, prejudice, and ignorance. Not to mention occasional misdirection. This last quality can be glimpsed without even cracking the pages of the book: all you need do is check the back cover.
The front cover is bad enough: a half-naked Aboriginal man in full sit-down (that is, welfare) posture, in a circle of interrogation-style light masquerading as an Aboriginal flag atop a legend that informs us that the book has a forward by Bess Nungarrayi Price. Flip the book over and you’ll see that Bess Price holds place of honor atop the cover, her portrait, comments, and biography preceding Johns’s as though she were the primary author. In the seven paragraphs she contributes to this book, she sounds many of the themes that Johns will explore and ends by saying “I don’t agree with everything that Gary Johns says,” which I would characterize as an understatement given that apart from the fact that contemporary Aboriginal people are living in crisis, I can’t see that they agree about anything. But Johns is happy to make use of her, just as the Bennelong Society of which he is President happily co-opts the name of the first Aboriginal man whose destruction at the hands of the colonizers is carefully and extensively documented in the historical record.
Johns could have spared us all a great deal of misery had he just cut to the chase and presented his thesis up front, instead of waiting until the final page.
People of Aboriginal descent live as free as any other Australian; free to pursue whatever life they desire within the broad bounds of Australian law. That is the long accepted settlement, the deal, although never sanctified by a formal document; it is nevertheless the reality, and a very decent one.
If I were an Aborigine I would take the deal and encourage all of my people to accept the long run integration into the open and modern and free Australian society. It does not get better than this. The false hope of the ‘other’ world where the noble savage roamed is dead and buried, and for good reason (p. 302).
I won’t even begin to pick apart those paragraphs and their blinkered view of affairs. Let me instead just add contempt to my list of appalling qualities that this book offers in abundance.
Aboriginal Self-Determination is an apologia for the Intervention and the policies of John Howard and Mal Brough, policies that Johns characterizes as imbued with military virtues, including “no meetings, no permits, no obligations, and no engagement – the things that strangle resolve”(p. 193). It is a condemnation of what Johns understands as the policies of self-determination that were so roundly denounced in the months after June 2007. And yet it is oddly critical of governments in general (not just the Whitlamites and their followers). Governments are one of the two villains repeatedly pilloried in this book as contributing to the crisis in Aboriginal lives today. The other of course, are the Aborigines themselves, who have been duped and misled by bleeding-heart liberals, but who are fundamentally at the root of their own problems through their misguided adherence to culture. Governments merely compound the mistake by encouraging Aborigines to cling to the dead and buried myths.
Ethnographically speaking, Johns’s views on culture are fascinating. For one thing, he doesn’t appear to think that white men have one. Throughout the book, all references to culture apply almost exclusively to Aboriginal culture, which he repeatedly refers to and defines as “bad behavior.” If he occasionally broadens this definition, he takes it to involve “celebrations,” a shorthand that comprises singing, dancing, and occasionally painting. Otherwise, culture is simply violence, ignorance, laziness, nepotism, and other maladaptive “bad behavior.”
Although he never seems to be aware it, in truth, Johns does have an implicit definition of the whiteman’s culture: it is equivalent to classical economics. It is individualism in pursuit of material gain. It is “science” and “technology” and “money.” But Johns can’t recognize his definition of culture because to him culture is merely an appendage, a set of private practices and personal actions, not a particular way of reasoning, thinking, and coming to terms with the world. Like the fish who has yet to discover water, Johns cannot admit that his worldview is one among many or that any group of people might possess a coherent, internally logical, and valid structure of thought that differs from his own. Instead he notes that “the Bennelong Society view is pessimistic about the efficacy of ‘culture’, which it regards as often antipathetic to the open society, or illegal, or simply as excuse for bad behavior” (p. 50).
After an introductory critique of identity politics, which Johns views as a liberal redefinition of race designed to exalt romanticized bad behavior, he launches his investigation with the oddly named third chapter, “The Defensibility of Aboriginal Culture.” In true Orwellian newspeak, this is really all about the indefensibility of Aboriginal culture, and his discussion here is almost completely devoted to violence in Aboriginal society. Referring to a study by Paul Memmott, et al. (Violence in Indigenous Communities: Report to Crime Prevention Branch of the Attorney-General’s Department, 2001), Johns locates the source of all Aboriginal violence in “jealousy, payment of debts, and payback” and goes on to note that Memmott fails to acknowledge that “jealousy and payback are frowned upon in all civilised societies” (p. 108). That presumably leaves Muslims, and Sicilians, and American rednecks, and in fact, everyone but the guardians of Victorian British progressive capitalist values among the unwashed and unimproved.
The law and order problems that follow from all this bad behavior must be left to the enlightened authority of Australian justice to deal with. This is so because, as Johns tells us, “In any Aboriginal group, whether defined on the basis of land or kin, there is no central authority to deal with infringements of law” (p. 130). Of course, a mere ten pages later, when explaining away the problem of deaths in custody, Johns takes an entirely opposition position on customary law (though he maintains its inefficacy).
The reason too many Aborigines are gaoled is that too many commit crimes. If the solution to the problem is not to gaol so many Aborigines for the crimes they commit, Aborigines would rightly conclude that breaking the law is not wrong, thus causing confusion, which in cultural terms is unfortunate because Aboriginal culture was quite exacting in crime and punishment (pp. 139-40).
The real tragedy of the Deaths in Custody Inquiry for Johns is that it led directly to the Stolen Generations Inquiry. Both of these investigations shared the unfortunate misdirection of putting white morality rather than black morality under scrutiny, with devastating results for Aboriginal people.
The bias in current practices against foster care and the intensely ideological desire to have Aboriginal children stay with their families is causing death and mayhem (p. 153, my emphasis).
What began as an apparently innocent exercise in seeking answers to deaths in custody in 1991 ended with a major exercise to take the moral high ground against the integrity of Australian laws and society (p. 160).
The Inquiry model as a legal process should be overturned in favour of a scientific approach. Measures should be tested, not opined. These children cannot read and write; most end up in goal, the root cause of Deaths in Custody. It is the end of the road for people not because they are stolen but because they are ignorant (p. 191).
If these paragraphs represent a scientific approach, then please spare me mere opinion. But then Johns consistently holds up Queensland magistrates and the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission as clear-sighted exemplars of Australian justice. And of course, if you search the index for “Doomadgee” you will be directed to references to the town, and not the man whose life and family have been destroyed by the forces of law and justice. Violence is endemic to Aboriginal culture, but on the subjects of whiteman’s violence towards Aboriginal people, Johns remains a deaf-mute.
Similarly, land rights have failed Aboriginal people on many accounts, primarily for encouraging them to sit down on their land and accept handouts from governments and mining companies while doing nothing themselves to generate wealth. At times, Johns blames land rights for Aboriginal violence and dysfunction because it has resulted in the gathering together in land-based communities of clans that have a history of enmity. And yet following in the logic of the Intervention, the solution to economic failure in remote Aboriginal Australia is to force migration away from outstations and homelands into “growth towns” where the problem of warring tribes does not seem to promise more violence for Johns. Such forced migrations are deemed essential “to consolidate Aboriginal settlement for the ease of providing services,” and to establish law and order and ensure school attendance (p. 254).
And yet there is a serpent in the view of paradise. “Underlying much of the desire to protect and preserve culture was the fear that Aborigines would drift into town” (p. 251). But if the government is wise enough to abandon such protections of Aboriginal culture in favor of economic advancement, Johns believes that the problems can be solved. “So long as provision is made to help people to adapt, the long-held fear of problems caused by Aborigines ‘coming to town; can be allayed (p. 281). If this doesn’t qualify as magical thinking, at least it gives a whole new meaning to the concept of “voodoo economics.”
In the end, for Johns, it is all about economics. The Australian taxpayer, or Australian churches, or the Australian mining industry, should not, can not, and must not be called upon any longer to subsidize the bad behavior of Aboriginal people. It’s as simple as that. There was no economy in terra nullius; economy only arrived with what Johns describes as the “dominant culture.” (The only reference Johns ever makes to whiteman’s culture is such: the dominant culture, which sounds like an unpleasant euphemism for the notion that might makes right.) It’s a marvelously simple strategy, as quoted above: “no meetings, no permits, no obligations, and no engagement” (p. 193). The message to Aborigines is clear: adapt or die.
Which brings me back, in conclusion, to Bess Nungurrayi Price and her forward to this abominable little book in which she writes this:
I don’t agree with everything that Gary Johns says in this book, but he is honest and believe in what he says. I am happy to write this foreword and to encourage and praise him for the contribution he is making to the debate we need to have (p. 4)
Maybe. Maybe not. What is certain in my unscientific opinion is that Johns has indeed made a contribution to the debate: he has exposed the hollowness and the inconsistencies of the Bennelong Society’s arguments about Aborigines.