Saturday, April 16, 2011

Saturday Morning Musings - Aboriginal identity

This Saturday began very badly because of computer problems that stopped me doing just about anything! Grrr, and I had a fair bit to say!

I seem to be in a cranky, irritable, mood at the moment. The computer crash did not help.

I woke up this morning still  stewing over the issues raised in The Australian's Aboriginal broadside. I was trying to work out how best to present the issues. Then I could do nothing because of the computer. 

When I write, I always have my small group of regular readers in mind. Beyond them, I do get the occasional link - usually 3-4 per month - drawing traffic to specific posts. I also gain traffic from other's tweets and facebook posts. This is quite patchy. Sometimes when I labour over a serious post that I really care about  I feel like the person who threw a dinner party and nobody came!

Over eighty per cent of my traffic comes from web searches, and here I am very conscious of my responsibilities as a blogger. Those searches pick up posts across my blogs and the years that I have been blogging. I cannot go back and edit or update every past post. However, I can be aware when I write that I am writing for a future audience, that I have obligations to that audience.   

This may sound egotistical. Perhaps it is. But it helps me because it provides a balance and perspective in my writing.

The issues raised by the Australian and especially in the editorial are complicated. They are important in their own right, and because they fit into a campaign that the paper is running across a number of dimensions. 

I am not unsympathetic to all aspects of that campaign. Like the paper, I believe that the dominance that has been achieved by certain "soft" left views is quite dangerous. I have put soft in inverted commas because I find that the practical application of those views is far from soft. It is just as bigoted, as certain of its own ineffable rightness, as the other side.  

Unlike the paper, I also believe that neoliberalism as expressed by the paper, its correspondents and some other commentators is well past its use by date. I was and am sympathetic to elements of that view. I find, for example, that I nod more reading Catallaxy posts than I do reading Lavartus Prodeo. Yet neoliberalism has, to my mind, been an abject failure.

Now at this point I am, arguably, just as guilty as the Australian. Certainly I have managed a shot at the left and right of Australian politics, thus introducing a distortion into discussion. I did so with intent, for one of the problems in discussion is the way in which ideology and values is imposed upon debate. It is a constant case of black and white, either or.

I don't know about you, but I find the whole discussion constantly confusing.

I am told that the Aborigines must be recognised in the constitution, but which Aborigines? I am told that Aborigines should not be taught in their own language at primary school, but then all primary school children should be given access to an Aboriginal language. I am told that the British settlers were responsible for genocide, but then they were not. I am told that the the only real Aborigines live in Northern Australia, but then I walk down the Mall in Armidale and see people who do appear to be Aboriginal.

I am told that action needs to be taken to be taken to fix problems in certain Aboriginal communities, then I am told that this breaches racial discrimination provisions and consequently can't be done or, alternatively, that it can only be done if applied to all Australians. I am told that the NT intervention was a good thing or, perhaps, a very bad thing.

I am told that we must bridge the gap, but really what gap and between which groups? I am told that Aboriginal deaths in custody were a disgrace, but then someone else says that proportionately they were no worse than those holding in the rest of the prison community. I am told of the stolen generation, but then the Australian Government has to issue an apology to all the stolen generations regardless of race.

I am told that the paternalistic policies of the Aboriginal Protection and Welfare Board in NSW were bad, that assimilation as expressed was a very bad thing, and then I see current Government policies actually following down the same path. Only the word wrap has changed. 

I won't go on, although I could for some time. We have just created a mess that makes it almost impossible for the ordinary person to sort through the confusion. The thing I find most unpleasant at a personal level is that we seem to have created an environment that is so conflicted, so partisan, so value laden, that it requires constant attention not just to what is said, but the way of saying it.

I find this especially unpleasant in my historical writing. It is actually quite hard to research and write when everything I say may be taken and used in current discussion and, worse, may hurt Aboriginal people who have come to believe a particular thing. Worse still, my research may actually have a tangible effect. What happens, for example, If my conclusions can be used to invalidate a land rights claim? 

This is not abstract stuff. As a person, I don't like confrontation. I can manage it when required in a professional sense, although its far harder when its just me, Jim, the person, dealing with a personal issue.

Last July in Armidale I was actually quite nervous when delivering a paper on New England's Aboriginal languages to a group that included local Aborigines.

Armidale's Aboriginal community is split. There were actually divisions over who should deliver the welcome to country for me. Language is central to identity. Language distribution central to claims over country. Jen, my Aboriginal mentoree who was present by happenstance, said that I should not worry and she was right. Yet I was concerned.

I remain concerned. One of the things that I am trying to do in my writing is to bring Aboriginal New England alive. Yet when it comes to the detail, that country is not necessarily the same as that often presented. This can strike at the heart of the most important thing, the identification that specific Aboriginal people have formed with the country that they have come to call their own.

Country is important to Aboriginal people in a way that many urban Australians don't understand, although many country Australians do. It's not just the relationship to land found in traditional Aboriginal societies. It's also the desire among a disrupted people, disrupted in family and culture, to link back to a place that they can think of as uniquely theirs.             

Now bringing all this back to my opening points about the audience for this blog.

I don't think that its presently possible to have a sensible discussion on Aboriginal issues: there are too many conflicting values, too many fixed views on both sides, too many divides.

My recent posts are an attempt to contribute to current discussion, to clarify. Yet to the degree that those posts have value, the greatest value lies in the way that future readers may be attracted and absorb some of the arguments over time.

In the meantime, I come back to the advice of a long standing consulting colleague, Tim Russell, who developed the Microskills communication program. In difficult situations, part of the best approach is often to give information, give information, give information. I will try to continue to do that.       


Denis Wright said...

Jim - hello - haven't seen you in 30 years. Next you're going to tell me you either live here in Armidale these days or are a frequent visitor!
In any case, you are looking disgracefully distinguished and healthy.
As to your musings on Aboriginal identity, you state the problems and paradoxes well. I don't think there's been much progress, if any, towards coming to terms with fundamental issues because of the deep seated prejudices and negativity within the communities that have grown rather than decreased for reasons you probably know more about than I. It is quite probable that we view things through our windows on this matter differently. So what?
Just keep blogging on things that interest you and post a link on Twitter to your blog when you've added something. People will come. I have discovered this with mine. Had it not been for Twitter I would never have known of the existence of this blog.

Anonymous said...

Completely off topic, but Jim's blog is nominated in the People's Choice section of the Best Australian Blogs competition.

He probably won't mention it, so I thought I should. You can get to the voting page from the following link:

Takes about 2 minutes, which I think is a small price to pay for the effort Jim puts into his work.

So come on all you readers - GET VOTING!


Jim Belshaw said...

Hello, Denis. Nice to hear from you after all this time, but not nice to read about your illness from your blog.

Pleased to see that you are now following me on Twitter. Thanks, I suspect to PB since we both follow him!

I am still living in Sydney. Sadly I don't visit Armidale as much as I should or would like. I was there at the start of April to deliver a paper at UNE, but that was my first visit since the previous July, again to delver a paper.

Keep the writing up. I look forwrad to seeing you in Armidale at some point.