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Marcia Langton sparks academic spat over charges of ‘racism’

Marcia Langton has been accused of ditching serious debate for name-calling. Crikey finds there is much criticism of her approach among academic peers.

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton has again accused a prominent rival of “racism”, using an internal university mailing list to sledge a critic of her controversial ABC Boyer Lectures.

Transcripts of an Australian Anthropological Society debate — obtained by Crikey — reveal a heated exchange between Langton and her academic peers over an article by Professor Boris Frankel published in the latest Arena Magazine, “Opportunity Lost”. It is Langton’s third public accusation of racism in the last three months, a serious charge in the modern academy.

In Arena, Frankel, an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote of his disappointment over Langton’s “simplistic narrative of goodies and baddies based on an equally simplistic political geography”, noting Langton’s characterisation of the Left as new racists who wanted to keep keep Indigenous people uneducated and living in poverty. He argued the ABC, by failing to broadcast a Boyer rebuttal, had failed to adhere to the “balance” obligations of its charter.

But Langton’s riposte published last week on the AASnet mailing list says Frankel’s critique could not be taken seriously because he is “racist”:

History will judge Frankel’s attack on me as dubious, questionable critique with no evidence to support his outrageous claims … like some of you, Frankel believes that it is legitimate to say anything at all, even with no evidence, about me. The racism is obvious and, as I said, I will respond fully in due course.”

In her fourth Boyer broadcast on ABC Radio National in December, Langton accused climate change commissioner and prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery of harbouring “racist” thoughts because he suggested indigenous communities weren’t capable of protecting nature.

And earlier this week she assailed two prominent critics — journalism academic and New Matilda contributing editor Wendy Bacon and former ABC investigative journalist Wendy Carlisle — of failing to grasp the “invisibility of racism” because they had not “hounded” other Boyer lecturers over conflicts of interest. The bitter exchange occurred after Crikey drew attention to the fact both Langton and the ABC had failed to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in research cash provided by resources giants, including Rio Tinto and Woodside, that she later singled out as indigenous employment champions.

Professor Jon Altman, the ARC Australian Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, told AASnet name-calling was being employed as a means of silencing dissent.

While I do not agree with everything in Boris’ essay … my view is that it constitutes robust critical review. I also followed with interest the AASNet debate on the first Boyer lecture and spotted nothing ‘racist’ there. These views constitute disagreement, not racism! … Such labelling should not be condoned, even with polite silence, in an ‘open society’.”

Former University of Sydney anthropology lecturer Thiago Oppermann was also having none of it: “It’s characteristic that ML’s [Langton’s] defenders should cry about her being mauled in the press, when what we have here is a single negative review in a tiny publication [Arena], whilst she just gave the Boyer lectures, supposedly a thing of prestige and wide reach…

And of course, having a single argument raised against one’s views in the marginal press is Stalinist censorship. We are allowed to have ‘diversity’ in anthropology so long as nobody ever steps on anyone’s toes, it seems. Let 100 flowers bloom, all of them pulled by a mysterious heliotropism towards our glorious mineral-driven future …”

Professor Andrew Lattas of the Department of Social Anthropology at Norway’s University of Bergen said the frenzied reaction was “just the usual nonsense that I have come to expect along with the personal accusation of Stalinism by email when you challenge arguments”.

He defended the questioning over conflicts and disclosure: ”There is nothing scurrilous in the criticism of Marcia Langton and noting her alignment with the mining lobby, they are long overdue. Asking for disclosure of how her research is funded by mining companies is certainly proper.

They generalise the problem, making the medium the problem — well this is not going to work, it is just fudging.”

It is not surprising that the criticisms are coming from outside of anthropology whilst the defence is coming from the usual crowd in Australian Aboriginal anthropology. Embarrassed by having strongly defended her and now not able or willing to respond to the substantial criticisms of her in any direct way, they resort to mourning the loss of meaning and objectivity in a post-modern world of mass communication. They generalise the problem, making the medium the problem — well this is not going to work, it is just fudging.”

Langton received some cautious support from Professor Diane Austin-Broos from the University of Sydney, who says while Frankel might not be guilty of racism he failed to produce sufficient evidence.

Rather than ‘racist’, Frankel’s contribution exhibits a new type of comment in scholarly journals that I call ‘death by opinion piece’,” she told colleagues. “The so-called review is not grounded in citations from the relevant criticised text and relies on general political assumptions to bolster its argument. Moreover, the empirical stuff that grounds a real exchange of views is most often missing.”

But Dr Stephen Johnson, a South Australian-based On Country planning consultant, formerly of the University of Queensland’s Heritage Unit, said it was Langton who resorted to kneejerk accusations whenever she cops criticism.

As just about anyone who has worked with or in close proximity to the professor will attest — and even those who have simply followed various debates from afar — Marcia Langton appears free to deploy at will the argumentative and rhetorical device taught and learned in a Western philosophical/academic tradition, but when challenged in kind will invariably resort to accusations of racism, often couched in terms of ‘what would a whitefella know?’”

Late last year Langton sarcastically referred to herself as a “nig nog” in response to a tweet from prominent industrial relations barrister Josh Bornstein, who said he was sick of her abuse and invective.

Meanwhile, the full extent of the mining industry’s financial support for Langton’s research — undisclosed in her Boyer Lectures — is becoming clearer. Rio Tinto has contributed two major cash tranches in last six years to the Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project at which Langton is a chief investigator.

Another funder of Langton’s research is the Marnda Mia Central Negotiating Committee — a local company that negotiates with Rio on behalf of the indigenous community. As this 2007 press release shows, Marnda Mia was the recipient of $2 million in funding from Rio Tinto Iron Ore at its inception. A year later, Langton and co-researcher Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh allegedly produced an internal report for Rio and ran seminars for the indigenous community in the Pilbara with whom Rio Tinto was negotiating (Crikey asked O’Faircheallaigh, Langton and Rio for clarification on this and other matters — Rio declined, O’Faircheallaigh and Langton didn’t respond).

Another mining behemoth plugged by Langton in her Boyer lectures was Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metals, which Langton lauded for helping to create “the largest Australian indigenous industrial workforce ever”. But most listeners would have been unaware of Langton’s position on the steering committee for the Australian Employment Covenant, founded and co-funded by Forrest. There was also no mention in the Boyers of Fortescue’s pitched battle with the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation over negotiating rights for the Solomon Hub and the Firetail mine, which has since been resolved in Yindjibarndi’s favour by the Federal Court.

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  • 1
    j f
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Not sure whether Boris was being racist but he most certainly has missed the point.
    Essentially Langton makes the point that the patronisation of indigenous Australians through race based welfare only serves to perpetuate the notion that aborigines aren’t afforded the same opportunities as non indigenous Australians because they are aboriginal.

  • 2
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Great work Mr Crook and thanx for the follow up.

  • 3
    Bill
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    I first heard Langton on a Q & A a couple of years ago, and she was giving a run-down of the Australian politic. Generally thought at the time the content was a bit lightweight for an academic. Luckily I did not offer a criticism…
    Surely people can critique academics’ work without being accused of racism.

  • 4
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    jf, that is total nonsense. The problem is not that they are not afforded the same rights as everyone else when it comes to mining it is because unlike anyone else they are forced to give up their own land to mining companies to get even the most basic of services that the rest of us take for granted.

    Langton is happy it seems for land rights to be spurned if some mining spiv. wants the land and thinks it is OK to be paid by the mining companies to spruik the lies.

    How many people in other parts of the country have their land taken for mining in exchange for a school or hospital that they should have anyway?

  • 5
    Helen Lee
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    Two important points of clarification about the the email list discussed in this article: firstly, it is not “an internal university mailing list” and secondly, the debate was not “a closed Australian Anthropological Society debate”. The email list is AASnet and it is an open list. Membership of AASnet is not restricted to members of the Australian Anthropological Society or even to anthropologists, nor does the AAS Executive have any role in moderating the discussion. The opinions expressed are always those of the individuals concerned – not of AAS as an organisation.
    Helen Lee (current President of AAS)

  • 6
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    The idea that racism is a serious charge is being undermined by repeated mis-use of the word, mostly by urban elites and academics.

    After a torrid few decades of adjustment across the western world to recognise abuses in the past and to redress them, we get this continual stream of accusations of racism from people about others whose main sin is to express a different view.

    After working so hard to recognise it, we are devaluing it for petty point scoring.

  • 7
    David Coles
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Not to bring this matter to the light. Now that would have been racist.

  • 8
    SBH
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    would that be the spectacularly unsuccessful Australian Employment Covenant? The one that never got within a bulls roar of its 50 thousand jobs, changed the definition of ‘jobs’ and fudged that target?

  • 9
    Christopher Nagle
    Posted Thursday, 28 February 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    The notion of ‘racism’ has become so imprecise and used so egregiously as an ideological smear, that it has over time been degraded into a third rate cliche.

    Racism’ has become synonymous with any sort of inter-ethnic criticism. This has the effect of turning its prospective critical objects into ‘sacred sites’ and contributes to a culture of silence and impunity.

    Racism’ has become a way of ideologically crying wolf.

  • 10
    Mr. Sandfly
    Posted Friday, 1 March 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Seems like the the Greens and the Left know their days are numbered, so now they are going to attack anyone speaking out - read, the truth - about their schemes that have remote Aboriginal people paying the price for the crimes against nature committed by other parts of Australia more densely populated. These schemes which stop Aboriginal advancement in remote areas, and keep them dependent on welfare.

    Most of these white academics who are “fed up” with being accused of racism don’t think they are being racist. Read, denial.

  • 11
    rhonda kelly
    Posted Sunday, 3 March 2013 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Great article…as a left leaning Aboriginal woman I am often embarrassed by her public comments. ML should fess up and admit that she is an apologist for the mining industry. After all how can you take any academic seriously who supports Twiggy Forrest’s bully boy tactics against the Yindjibarndi people. In terms of the Boyer Lecture it appears there was a conflict of interest and a full disclosure regarding her ties with the mining industry should have been made. Raising this as an issue wasn’t racist, au contraire it was appropriate and valid.

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