In Australia self-congratulation seems to be the order of 2001. Recent commemorations of the first sitting of Federal Parliament made much of the idea that our nation-state was founded without war. While the administrative fact of federation was achieved without battle between the states, the other matter of settlement — the colonial germ from which Australia sprouted — was played down. As recent historical work investigating the frontier period has shown, this nation has its share of blood in the soil. In this year of memorialising and honouring there might also be a chance to question. What can we make of a nation that can revel in the defeat at Gallipoli but which is still able to gloss over its most terrible and far-reaching victory — the invasion of this land and the dispossession of its inhabitants? Perhaps this partly repressed past remains irreconciled because it is not our past at all — it lives in the present. The attack continues via other means.
Concluding In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right, Robert Manne situates the ‘debate’ over the stolen generations as part of what he calls ‘a larger culture war — over the meaning of Aboriginal dispossession’. His incisive analytical work in the essay is bound together by military metaphor: the ‘campaign’ to undermine Bringing Them Home; the ‘troops’ drawn from the Institute of Public Affairs and Quadrant; and at the core, ‘General’ P.P. McGuinness. Manne points to the way this Right-company pictured its key battle as that for ‘the moral balance of power’ in Australia.
As they see it, a ‘sorry industry’ set up by white intellectuals lives off indigenous suffering, exploits guilt and deprives the bulk of non-elite white Australia of their own national history. Aside from sniping at those ‘black arm-band intellectuals’, the lines were drawn for the public denigration of the stolen generations, specious denial of frontier massacres and racist circumscriptions of Aboriginal culture in general. This tilt at the moral balance pushed toward the kind of arrogance of the ‘civilising mission’ — something we heard echoed by the Minister for Reconciliation in his comments about the invention of the wheel. It seems that when Australia federated it did not supersede all its colonial ways. It is from exactly this colonial mode of thinking that some have been attempting, for the last thirty years, to extricate Australia.
In his account of the stolen generations and its deniers, Manne has targetted two strands of Australian colonialism. One is the history of a state-practised assimilation and the other is its current ideological defence. If the transformation of government activity in Aboriginal communities came in the 1970s with policies of self-determination, then the broader social shift was certainly not complete. Today, persistent assimilationism re-emerges and presents itself as the answer to social problems in Aboriginal communities. The continuing suffering of those who were separated from their families and land is not the only colonial manifestation in the present. There is a broader cultural attack going on against every aspect of Aboriginal life, and we can find it in the daily papers.
Take recent reports in the Australian on social problems such as domestic violence in Aboriginal society. Nicolas Rothwell has proudly announced that a series of articles heralds ‘the demise of a generation’s worth of presuppositions and certainties’ in regard to the relations between indigenous and settler Australia. The project was initiated with a pair of articles in the Weekend Australian (14–15 April, 2001). One, by Paul Toohey, was about violence against Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory; the other, by Rothwell himself, outlined a new book by Roger Sandall, The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays. Rothwell, in a manoeuvre perfected by those commentators who complain of being stifled by ‘political correctness’ (usually from within their column in some major daily paper), declares: ‘Once, almost nothing in this area could be easily discussed; suddenly almost everything seems to be on the table’. This new dawn and its sudden freedom of expression, sadly, revealed some quite old ideas. In regard to Toohey’s article, Marcia Langton’s critique is probably sufficient. Langton points to the limitations of narrowly racialised representations, indicating that there are a variety of ways of being an Aboriginal woman. She provides the example of herself, or Cathy Freeman, or any number of others. Without denying the existence of problems within communities, Langton points to the way Toohey, under the guise of an unflinching reportage, calls up images from as long ago as the frontier days: Aboriginal society is bound within victimhood and violence. But there does seem to be a new camouflage spread over this ageing position. Toohey writes: ‘Genuine culture is doing battle with a culture of convenience, whereby tribal law and alcohol have become ugly friends’. There is no parallel analysis of white communities with similar levels of alcohol problems or unemployment. Such an investigation might have established the degree to which these problems visit all communities of the excluded, regardless of colour. Instead, there is a jump to the unsubstantiated conclusion that attempts to preserve aspects of traditional life are to blame. Race becomes the only explanatory category, prior to gender or class or even history. This suggests a philosophical debt to, among others, Roger Sandall.
Sandall’s book appears to be an intellectual supply-line for assimilation’s rear-guard action. The main point is Sandall’s critique of what he has termed the ‘culture cult’. This is what he sees as the valorisation of indigenous cultural authenticity and autonomy at the cost of material infrastructural development. This debilitating delusion is apparently the prevailing legacy of Nugget Coombs and the cause of all social problems in Aboriginal communities. This blinkered glorification of tribal life is a convenient straw-target for Sandall — a product of his imagination, rather than Coombs’. But with it in place, Sandall is able to offer his own solution: policy makers and the general public should shake off this bad case of noble savage fixation and settle back into a pre-1970s assimilationism governed by the ‘law of historical advance’ or ‘creative destruction’.
The envisaged disappearance of Aboriginal people, or at least of their culture, is another story as old as Australia. It was wished into being with the legal fiction of terra nullius. Now a version of this strand of thinking is again being rehearsed in Sandall’s claims about the rigidity of Aboriginal culture and its likely surrender to ‘historical advance’. Happily, colonial dreams don’t always come true, even if they do continue to weigh on the brain of the nation.
There is a need to dismantle Sandall’s argument piece-by-piece, to resist this new claim on ‘the moral balance of power’. One key point can be addressed here: the false dichotomy between ‘the tribal world’ and ‘modernity’. Sandall maintains that there is a ‘Big Ditch’ between these two social categories — a gulf that the tradition-fetish obscures. He claims that this ‘romantic primitivism’ leaves Aboriginality stranded on the wrong side of the development gap. For Sandall, Aboriginal communities are fixed in a passive pre-modernity any way you look at it. They are either artificially preserved by being locked into ‘ethnographic zoos’ or they are swallowed by the modernising tide.What presents itself as a critique of the policy of self-determination is, in fact, a position that strips Aboriginal people of any individual agency, any cultural resources, any political will. Sandall’s vision allows no negotiation across the ‘ditch’ from the Aboriginal side, only volleys of ‘creative destruction’ launched from the citadel of a white modernity. Is this Australia today? What of the massed movement of Reconciliation? What of examples of co-operation in land usage within Native Title? If his critique of self-determination targets its perceived romanticism, Sandall’s alternative is no way out, it is in the thrall of his own illusory picture of the docile native.
This version of Australian modernity seems more intimately and necessarily linked to its pre-modern Other than Sandall is prepared, or perhaps able, to admit. It might well be time to debate what self-determination actually means. However, a way through to a nation that is truly beyond its colonial past will only be cleared when ‘the meaning of Aboriginal dispossession’ is no longer a terrain for the continued re-enactment of an old culture war.