Despair and loss of meaning: Aborigines caught between two worlds

Monday, June 18, 2007

Guy Rundle writes:

You don’t have to go far into Little Children Are Sacred, the report on child abuse in Aboriginal communities, to be shocked and appalled:

“In [settlement name] I saw nothing but what was bad … I used to see boys and girls from ten and twelve years old sleeping together, but didn’t know nothing was wrong … . I saw things between almost children that I can’t describe to you. At the month’s end, when I was beat out, I met with a bloke of fifteen – I was going on twelve – and he persuaded me to take up with him…. I broke some windows to get into prison to get cured … If the girl can’t get money she must steal something, or will be beaten by her bloke when she comes home. I have seen them beaten, often kicked and beaten until they were blind from bloodshot, and their teeth knocked out.”

Who can doubt that Aboriginal society is on the brink of collapse after such testimony?

Erm yes. Except the extract above isn’t from Little Children Are Sacred — it’s from (with a few archaisms removed) Henry Mayhew’s London Labour And The London Poor, his 1851 three-volume report on working-class conditions in the capital of the 19th century.

What does that prove? Well, to put it bluntly, that there’s a lot of self-serving bullshit being said about total cultural collapse etc in the wake of the release of the unctuously titled Little Children Are Sacred.

Everything the report records, Mayhew records a dozen-fold and more. Yet, London is still there. The working class survived, organised themselves and eventually prospered. Exposing hideous suffering is one thing. The veiled racism of despair in much commentary on the report is quite another.

The sad fact is that every people caught between two worlds, two eras, suffer these horrors. The “London poor” were those who had been thrown off rural land in the 18th and 19th centuries, pouring into the cities as factory fodder. They’d lost a way of life and not yet gained a new one.

Aborigines are in the same predicament. So are people in East European cities like Kishinev, Moldova, where the 12-year-old crack whores will pester you all the way from the station to your hotels. Or half a hundred other places across the globe.

Bad enough this is happening, worse that people are pretending it can be solved quickly, or that the report’s release will make any major difference. Thus Nicholas Rothwell, whose work veers between good sense and received wisdom:

“A line has been drawn in troubled sand. A taboo, long and artfully maintained, stands broken. From this day on, no one can say they do not know how deep the nightmare is in remote Aboriginal Australia, or how urgent the need.”

Empty pointless rhetoric. Most people will never hear about it and few will care for more than the space of a news bulletin. Aborigines are 3% of the population, most living far from the Californian hyperspace of white/Asian Australian suburbia. For the latter, anything happening north and west of Broken Hill is another country, and nothing that happens there to people white or black is of much concern, no matter how many bridges are walked over.

What we will get is more squalor p-rnography – thousands of words poured forth detailing this r-pe that beating at this camp this settlement, jaded playwrights and novelists making flying visits to cart away a bit of homegrown horror. The ostensible purpose will be to expose terrible conditions for which we are all etc, the real effect is to make people reading the Saturday papers feel good about their own lives. Catharsis sells, as does an implicit sense of racial superiority.

And then we’ll get the accusations. Here’s Rothwell again:

“The sheer scale of the problem, which seems to speak so strongly of a willed cultural suicide …”

What self-satisfied crap! Yes, whole societies lie down and die – though few ever do completely – but there’s nothing willed about it. It’s a universal despairing human response to loss of cultural meaning and anyone who thinks they’d be immune from it in similar circumstances should think again.

Nevertheless, Rothwell is right (and polite) about the report’s recommendations, which are useless and the sort of thing public servants would come up with – top-down self-surveillance and self-pathologisation, better education etc etc.

But there was no way the report could recommend anything useful. Having made visible the problem in all its appalling detail, its use is at an end.

Saying what Aborigines need to do is easier than anyone white or black making it so, and is not for the likes of me. But as a general rule one can say that afflicted peoples need militant action, both to make change and to restore a sense of purpose. Under that strategy, if liquor stores keep selling to remote communities then burn them down, as Carrie Nation and other militant temperance socialists smashed up 19th century gin shops with axes. If people are involved in child-s-x pr-stitution, chase them out of town. If they’re white, do something rather worse.

That sort of stuff really needs a leadership more in the style of a Mao, a Fanon or a Guevara than is currently on offer. And maybe there are other ways. And I’m a long way from the front line. But to be honest I can’t see anything else giving you much change out of another 40 years

Peter Fray

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