November 30, 2009
In studies of aboriginal policy in Canada, comparisons are often made with Australia. Although it is an area that I have not studied extensively, the publication of Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry led me to communicate with a number of researchers, writers and scholars in Australia – most notably, Joseph Lane, Bill Kerr, Kerry Craig Miller, Roger Sandall, and Peter Sutton. Sandall and Sutton, in fact, have both published very interesting and insightful books in this decade. Sandall wrote The Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays in 2001 (http://www.rogersandall.com), where he offered a scathing critique of the current romanticization of primitiveness. Sutton, an anthropologist and former native land rights advocate, recently published The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the Liberal consensus (2009). In this book Sutton questions the “liberation politics” focus that began in the 1970s, and documents how policies promoting aboriginal political autonomy have resulted in a decline in health, education and safety in aboriginal communities (www.amazon.ca/Politics-Suffering-Indigenous…/dp/0522856365).
While interacting with these commentators, I became aware of of the works of Noel Pearson. Pearson, an aboriginal lawyer and activist from North Queensland, has been writing about Australian aboriginal issues for over 20 years. He recently published Up From the Mission: Selected Writings (www.bookoffers.com.au/up-from-the-mission-selected-writings-noel-pearson/) and contributed a substantial piece to Quarterly Essay (Issue 35, 2009), entitled “Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (www.quarterlyessay.com), which I have in my possession.
Pearson’s essay, “Radical Hope”, has much to recommend it. It sheds new light on some of the nonsense that is being perpetuated under the guise of “cultural appropriateness”. Pearson notes how these assertions often “became an alibi for anti-intellectualism, substandard educational programs and ultimately an excuse for poor achievement” (p. 59). He also is critical of the attempts to foster “self-esteem” through racial pride without cultivating the necessary academic mastery and effort (pp. 85-87). Most important is his criticism of the work of Paulo Freire (of Pedagogy of the Oppressed fame), which Pearson maintains has “added to the perpetuation of oppression by diverting education away from what the oppressed really needed” – the teaching of fundamentals that makes genuine critique possible (pp. 80-81). Particularly relevant to understanding the current crisis in aboriginal policy are Pearson’s insights that draw upon the work the late Maria Lane. Lane argues that there is an upper strata of aboriginal people who are “usually professionals and established graduates, in permanent employment in government and academia, sending their children to private schools, thoroughly immersed in the Open Society but often seeing themselves as spokespersons and champions of, building their secure careers on the backs of, and gaining their kudos from, the Embedded [welfare] Population” (cited in Pearson, p. 98). Much more work needs to be done in investigating the interaction of this strata with the Aboriginal Industry, which is presumably connected to the “ideology-producers in the academies, and the ideology-upholders in educational bureaucracies” mentioned by Pearson (p. 92).
Where the essay fails is its inability to recognize the cultural developmental gap that exists between tribal societies (still influenced by hunting and gathering and/or horticultural modes of production) and modernity. This makes it difficult for Pearson to analyze the difficulties of many of the cultural preservation strategies that he proposes. Pearson advocates for the preservation of aboriginal languages and indefinite perpetuation of remote Australian communities, even maintaining that the aboriginal relationship to the land is “spiritual” (p. 72). He argues, for example, that government should fund the teaching of aboriginal languages and that their “low numbers of speakers, the absence of a literary tradition, the lack of a terminology to describe modern realities, [and] declining transmission” is not an obstacle to them “becoming a language for a first-world modern society” (p. 70). But, as is pointed out in Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry, these languages, because they evolved in a hunting and gathering/horticultural context, do not have the concepts to facilitate communication in a much more advanced economic and social system (see pp. 201-212). Besides, because these languages were pre-literate and not formally taught, most of the people involved in indigenous language “revitalization” are non-aboriginal linguists who benefit from maintaining aboriginal isolation from the mainstream (so they can obtain contracts to teach these languages).
This is not to deny aboriginal people the right to hold their beliefs and practice their culture to the extent that it is emotionally satisfying (and consistent with universal human rights codes). But this is a different matter than governments funding and promoting the continuation of native spirituality and pre-literate languages. These elements are not conductive to facilitating aboriginal participation in a modern society and economy. Many aspects, like animistic “world views”, actually inhibit participation by encouraging irrational beliefs that directly conflict with the teaching of scientific theories such as evolution by natural selection.
Sutton’s book, unlike Pearson’s piece in Quarterly Essay, does acknowledge the developmental gap between tribal societies and modern cultures (although he does not put it in exactly these words). He notes a number of cultural aspects associated with aboriginal peoples’ hunting and gathering tribal societies that are incompatible with their full participation in modern society. Some of the problems include unhygienic practices (due to a lack of cultural experience with sedentarism), difficulties in controlling violent outbursts and property damage, and, most importantly, what Sutton calls a lack of “emotional mobility” (the capacity to feel comfortable in environments where one is interacting with strangers). Sutton realizes that these problems, due to the rapid transition from tribalism to civilization, will need to be discussed openly if aboriginal deprivation and dysfunction are to be addressed.
What needs to be investigated are the various attempts to integrate groups with primitive cultural characteristics into more developed societies. One success story is the case of Cuba. After the Cuban revolution, there were many problems in trying to improve the educational levels and heath conditions of the peasantry. By sending hundreds of thousands of teachers and doctors into the countryside, dramatic improvements were made in literacy and health conditions. This was done, not by transferring billions of dollars to various aboriginal organizations, which is what has occurred in Canada, and presumably Australia. Because these funds are siphoned off by non-aboriginal lawyers and consultants instead of being provided to educational and health services, the terrible problems in aboriginal communities remain.