So, in the end, we were, in fact, to blame … It is always the stronger one who is to blame.

— Dag Hammarskold, Markka

Nothing illustrates the paradox of Noel Pearson better than his latest appearance, a long essay in The Monthly entitled “Betrayal“. This is among other things, a purported confession of “seventeen years of failure” in trying to put together some sort of grand fusion of Indigenous social politics (with the advancing of things like “direct-instruction” education) with a constitutional politics that would advance recognition and structural change in the Australian state. The “betrayal” is Turnbull’s curt refusal to take the Uluru package — recognition/treaty/advisory body — to a referendum, allegedly reneging on a commitment made before he became PM.

It’s pretty excoriating, and self-excoriating in its own way. Pearson does portray himself as having been something of a fool, wasted vast time and energy, made many mistakes. The prose is often awful — “The day after Turnbull’s betrayal, my friend, the doyen of The Australian, Paul Kelly, came down from his mountain at Holt Street with those heavy tablets of stone …” — but it will be celebrated as genius. The Pearson paradox will kick in: denouncing himself as having got it all wrong, he’ll be feted all the more by his devoted supporters.

Pearson’s approach to Indigenous advancement and liberation deserves a longer treatment, but the gist is this: from the mid ’90s onwards, he attacked any and all politics of symbolism, the left for promoting victimhood, and advocated a strong focus on “taking responsibility” through full-time work, highly structured education approaches, and so on. He advocated a mixed modern-traditional society; but it sounded as if this child of a Lutheran mission believed that complex remote societies would become little Frankfurts-on-Cape-York, with trad culture in the arvo, and that kids would love the dour, industrial direct-instruction education system.

“Betrayal” suggests that recognition, treaty and a first peoples body were Pearson’s intentions all along. Well good to know that now. Because at the time it seemed that after 10 years of undermining cultural and symbolic politics, he was turning around and diving deep into it. Suddenly, he was out the front of it, with a big “R” on his T-shirt, leading the charge for a big recognition deal, that Turnbull agreed to, then welched on. By then, top-end Bavarianisation had not occurred, and the most visible result of direct instruction was three kids so pissed off with it, they carjacked their principal with a machete (shows initiative and project management skills). Then the big recognition deal disappeared. The political survival calculus of a prime minister leading a coalition of a liberal propertarian party and a rural white party trumped his earlier effusiveness. Betrayal? More like “fool me twice …”

So what went wrong in this dual failure? Well, everything really. Pearson was picked up too quickly, by two sets of people: white left-liberals, who wanted an MLK figure, and the right, who duchessed him. Pearson had some political skills, lacked others: a resistance to the flattery of power, a degree of cool scepticism. He lacked knowledge in key areas: a genuine grounding in social theory and critical anthropology, which would have produced a different strategy. His arrogance went well beyond youth: “I am full of regrets … About the mistakes I made. Litanies of them. They can’t all be offset against other people’s mistakes … ” 

Goodo, but there were people, black and white, pointing out these mistakes, in real time, for years and years, and with two clear and simple arguments: Indigenous societies are not modern, Western societies in embryo, waiting to follow the same trajectory; and movements cannot be built, are in fact demobilised, by endless lobbying for the big deal. Both are arguments from the left intellectual traditions he rejected, or simply did not know well enough. Trouble is, the essay suggests he still hasn’t understood that superficial formulae lead to these results:

“The radical centre is still the place to hunt. What I have learned is that only those with power can take the country to the radical centre. Activists on the outside can advocate for the brilliant centre but only those who command the structures of power can cause the tectonic shifts.

“My critique of progressive thinking still holds. The leftist confusion of ends and means still remains. We share the end of social justice, but the means by which that justice is secured is still the subject of dispute.”

That’s drivel, Noel. It’s just plenary session-powerpoint-Qantas-lounge-free-popcorn-drivel that you use to cover the gaps in your knowledge and analysis. Stop doing it.

The same goes for his enablers/admirers. They needed in one young man a figure who would assuage the guilt of living in a white settler society, where the killing never stopped. Will they now recognise that the essay’s title is turned partly towards them? Or will its admirable rawness be aestheticised, its lessons unlearnt, other voices unsought out of a remnant moral vanity? Pearson’s enablers are, after all, the stronger ones, and that, above all, would count as a failure of recognition.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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