Is Aboriginal culture worth saving?

Christopher Pearson gives a good survey below of the two main Australian approaches to Aboriginal welfare: The assimilationist and the multicultural. Both approaches have had a thorough workout and both are generally regarded as having failed in the past. So the debate seems to me a sterile one. A new and less judgmental approach is needed.

One fallacy that seems common is to regard Aborigines as living in poverty. That is not at all true. Aborigines get quite a lot of money from various welfare payments, particularly if they have children. But the state in which they live remains troubling to the donor community.

Like many conservatives, I see welfare payments as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I think that Aborigines should simply be left alone to live as they please. But the money should stop so that they can find their own solutions to their own problems. Soup kitchens or the like should be set up to ensure that they do not starve but that is all. With the money cut off, the incentive to work towards their own betterment in their own way would be greater

As well as the poverty fallacy, another huge fallacy is that Aboriginal problems are cultural. The largest part of the Aboriginal difference is in fact inborn. They have brilliant mental skills in some respects (they observe without effort minutiae that escape white men and have amazing visual memory -- skills much needed in their original state as hunter gatherers) but very poor mental skills (generalized problem-solving ability or IQ) for dealing with the demands of white culture. So whatever Aborigines arrive at of their own volition will always be different from the ideals of white society. And we should accept that. It's futile to do otherwise.

REGULAR readers of this newspaper will be familiar with the work of Gary Johns. He was Paul Keating's special minister of state during the native title negotiations, a convener of the Bennelong Society and a columnist with considerable insight into indigenous issues.

I received an advance copy of his new book, Aboriginal Self-Determination: The Whiteman's Dream (ConnorCourt), from which The Australian will be running excerpts next week. The book covers a lot of ground and I can't do it justice in a single column.

Instead I want to concentrate on Johns's approach to Aboriginal culture, compared with that of Noel Pearson. It seems to me the cutting edge of the debate on indigenous policy, now that the defenders of Coombsian policy have all but abandoned the field.

In common with most members of the Bennelong Society, Johns is unsentimental about what he sees, at best, as a serviceable culture for the Stone Age.

"There is a gap between modern and pre-modern societies, once called civilised and uncivilised. Denying its existence and the considerable efforts required on the part of individuals to bridge it has been very harmful." He asks: "What are Aborigines fighting for, what is there to preserve? Each step to preserve culture is a step away from the innovation that commenced 200 years ago.

"What survives of Aboriginal Australia is nothing like 200 years ago, so what culture is it, and whose is it? The 'it' is a dream, a fantasy that something special remains, or has evolved, worthy of reclaiming. But what has actually evolved is ruin and despair. The 'it' belongs only to those who could not adapt to change."

Johns says of Pearson that his goal "seems to be to integrate Aborigines into the modern economy, but to use and preserve culture where possible. His principle means to achieve the goal is to stabilise communities and families by re-missionising his people.

"In this regard, the [Queensland Family Responsibilities Commission] is like a mobile mission, dispensing justice and passing judgment on behaviour and imposing penalties on incomes. By contrast, 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 an excuse for bad behaviour."

In a Quarterly Essay entitled Radical Hope, Pearson has outlined a very ambitious program to educate a rising generation able to deal comfortably with modernity and as fully apprised of its own languages and culture as possible.

He predicts it will involve an extended school day, with kids taught the mainstream curriculum and the demanding "high" forms of their tribal languages rather than "kindergarten" versions.

Perhaps the most engaging element in Pearson's project is his frequent invocation of the example of the Jews, with their genius for maintaining language and culture. He says: "Their ancient commitment to education and high learning is of course fundamental to their success."

As well, he thinks: "They offer some lessons about how a culturally distinct people might hold their own and succeed in a world that is often without pity. First, there are lessons in the way they deal with the past.

"They have never forgotten history and they never allow anybody else to forget history; they fight staunchly in defence of the truths of history, but they never make their history a burden for the future. They have worked out how to deal with the past without cultivating and nurturing victimhood among themselves . . . Secondly, there are lessons in the way they deal with racism.

"They staunchly defend themselves against racism, but avoid making racism their problem. Properly understood, racism should be the problem of the racialists, not the burden of those against whom it is directed."

Pearson has a more than merely rhetorical point when he cites the Jewish triumph of cultural transmission in the face of persecution and against the odds. However, part of the genius of the monotheistic Jews has been to remain adaptive to modernity, to reach often very sophisticated accommodations with their communities and to hang on to both their religion and its ethos.

Judaism has proved to be very versatile in some respects and remarkably unbending in others, but can the same be said for any Aboriginal culture?

I'm reluctantly inclined to the conclusion that the answer is negative. However, that doesn't mean the prescription in Radical Hope doesn't deserve serious funding and moral support. Plainly, Pearson has to work with the cultural materials to hand and it makes sense for him to accentuate the positive. If a significant proportion of Aboriginal youth on Cape York were to become accomplished speakers of local languages and well-schooled in the stories, songs and ceremonies of their ancestors, they'd be much better off than their counterparts anywhere else.

They'd also be in the position to make individual, informed decisions about the extent that they wanted to buy in to their culture and traditional religion; surely something Johns wouldn't begrudge them, provided they also had a solid grounding in the current curriculum as well.

In the 1960s, leading American sociologists tended to the pessimistic view that Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy couldn't hope to survive for long their adherents' encounters with modernity.

Nonetheless the evidence suggests that these days substantial numbers of the young are unscathed by the ravages of rampant secularism and seem to draw great strength from an attachment to traditional religion and observing its customs.

Ought white intellectuals, who as a class have for so long been besotted with their own fantasy versions of traditional Aboriginal religions and customs, deny young Aborigines access to local versions of the numinous experience?


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