Former ARM President Greg Barns sallies forth into the History Wars today, but only to bemoan their pointless tedium in a way not dissimilar to most of us in the blogosphere (other than the committed ideologues on either side):
When Melbourne University history department colleagues Geoffrey Blainey and Stuart Macintyre first locked horns in the late 1980s, in response to the former’s controversial views on Asian immigration, it marked the beginning of a decade-and-a-half-long cultural slanging match that seems to have more to do with present government policy and personal feuds than with serious scholarship. …
Paul Keating, Don Watson, Robert Manne, Henry Reynolds and Stuart Macintyre are on one side of the tennis court, and Keith Windschuttle, Geoffrey Blainey, Peter Ryan, David Flint and John Howard on the other. And, as is the case in tennis, while watching veterans play can sometimes be delightful, unfortunately on this occasion the debate seems to have all the appeal of an interminable base-line rally. …
Why is this debate so fierce, so ad hominem and so repetitive? Because control of the high-ground Australian culture allows, at least in some respects, for control of government policy.
Barns somewhat overstates the case for the critical importance of controlling the agenda on weaving a national mythology/identity, but it’s a valid point. Undeniably most of the History Warriors are at least as concerned about influencing public attitudes towards contemporary issues like native title, reconciliation, treaties, approaches to social security and so on as with getting the facts right on what happened in the century following white settlement (or “invasion”, depending on which side of the Wars you’re enlisted in).
Beleaguered Aboriginal historian Lyndall Ryan demonstrated that point most clearly in her initial response to the publication of Windschuttle’s Fabrication …:
“The view of the past proposed by people such as Windschuttle absolves present-day Australians from making amends for the past because, according to them, the Tasmanian Aborigines had no social organisation that gave them a political connection to the land and they virtually destroyed themselves. However, the view of the past that I and many other Australians hold enables Aborigines to claim the return of land and an apology for the removal of their children.”
My own primary concern about the History Wars also relates to their contemporary impact, but involves the impact of the debate on current attitudes and behaviour of indigenous people rather than on the the direction of government policy per se.
Unlike southern cities, consciousness of contemporary indigenous issues is unavoidable when you live in Darwin. Last night we had dinner with an old friend now based in Nhulunbuy, where she works with the NT Education Department as the ESL (English as a Second Language) Co-ordinator for the whole of Arnhemland. Leigh told familiar stories of endemic alcohol abuse, family violence and sexual abuse; whole communities continuously terrorised by gangs of violent young males brain-damaged from years of petrol-sniffing.
In one of those communities the gang is led by one of the former stars of the movie Yolngu Boy, a cinema hit only a couple of years ago. The local youth hero-worship and follow him unquestioningly as he sets an example of destruction of a life full of promise by killing brain cells in search of the apparently seductive allure of petrol-fuelled nirvana. His mother, principal of the local school, blames the balanda (whitefellas). She might be right at least in one sense, but it’s an unhelpful observation.
In fact that attitude encapsulates the problem as I see it, and highlights the malign effect of the entire debate surrounding the History Wars. In contemporary terms it doesn’t matter a jot whether the death toll by violence for Tasmanian Aborigines in the 19th century was 118 (Windschuttle), 188-300 (Willis) or 700 (Ryan’s manifest fabrication). I accept, as any intelligent person of good will who’s studied the question must, that Australia’s history involved great injustice, oppression and dispossession of indigenous people, wholesale death by disease and significant levels of violent killing (though less than claimed by the most extreme “black armband” adherents). I also know from long-standing personal experience that indigenous Australians had an incredibly deep spiritual and proprietary attachment to their land, and that leads me to accept without question that they would certainly have fought the white invader as best they were able given their numbers, limitations of technology and fragmented social organisation, and the almost unimaginably devastating ravages of balanda diseases against which they had no immunity. Windschuttle’s characterisation of Aboriginal resistance as merely “criminal” acts by “primitive” people with no concept of land ownership is wrong, grossly ignorant and hurtful, and in itself merits the contempt with which his book has been greeted.
I think it’s reasonably important for non-Aboriginal Australians to have an understanding of these aspects of our history. However, I think it’s much more important to focus on the impact the debate about that history is having on contemporary Aboriginal society. In large measure, that impact is a pathological “poor bugger me” attitude of hopelessness and victimisation on the part of Aboriginal people, a belief that the Balanda bears sole responsibility for delivering money and salvation for the oppressed Yolngu, while they themselves bear no responsibility at all. The problem is that no government programs (however well-designed), no amount of money and no amount of Balanda goodwill and understanding will make the slightest difference while indigenous Australians fail to provide their children with adequate nutrition or hygiene; fail to send them to school most of the time; subject them to extreme violence and sexual abuse in huge numbers; and destroy themselves with alcohol, marijuana, kava and petrol abuse on an epic scale.
Of course, these behaviours are themselves in part manifestations of white oppression, dispossession and the hopelessness they engender. However, even that mostly isn’t true in Arnhemland, where Aborigines were never dispossessed in any meaningful sense (although they did have to put up with pesky do-gooder christian missionaries for a few decades). The point is that debating past injustices is mostly a counterproductive distraction for Aboriginal people themselves (as opposed to Balanda, for whom understanding it is important). The History Wars’ unintentional effect is to reinforce a pathologically dependent victim psychology among indigenous Australians. Transactional Analysis (about which I blogged recently) has some important insights into this phenomenon:
Many of us can readily identify with the Victim role: someone hasn’t respected an important boundary and we feel discounted, hurt, oppressed, ignored, abused, or taken advantage of. The Victim’s slogan is “poor me!” Sometimes, in search of love or attention, we may actively or passively encourage others to victimize us. Others who are playing either the Persecutor or the Rescuer role need to have a Victim to keep their game going, and they will have little incentive to change their ways voluntarily.
To get off the Victim position, you must change your own behaviour. Focus on clear problem solving. Think about your boundaries and what you need to do to enforce them. Figure out how to get what you need, ask someone to stop doing something hurtful or offensive, ask them to let you figure things out for yourself, or leave (or avoid) a dangerous or toxic situation. Associate with people who are mutually supportive and spend less time with friends or relatives who do not support you. Learn to understand that others do not have the right to define who you are, and that their opinions are simply that. If someone believes you are “bad”, that doesn’t mean you are bad! The clearer you can be about your needs and safe, effective ways to get them met, the sooner you will stop feeling like a Victim.