Everyone’s favourite guinea pigs

Thursday, 14 August 2008 

Listening to Germaine Greer discuss her essay ‘On Rage’ last night on Lateline, it became clear why it is always so hard these days to follow what she is saying. She desperately gets into contortions trying to make humdrum mainstream views sound radical. Her plan to send indigenous men on what looks like a mass anger management course is doing no more than carrying on the grand old tradition of presenting indigenous affairs as a behavioural problem. Even when she blames their anger on what has been done to them, she contradicts it by saying this destructive anger needs to be dealt with. If the conditions they are living in are still the same, what’s the point?

Greer’s intervention shows that anyone can try out any old crackpot psychological theory on indigenous people and they are given a credible airing in the media, no matter how sweeping or unsubstantiated. Hers is a variant of what are becoming the rather old-fashioned ‘psychology of despair’ theories that were used to make the lurid and unproven claims of the “All Children Are Sacred” report sound credible. Against this we now have the latest more sophisticated version coming from the right of ‘self-responsibility’. This is a strange type of self-responsibility that does not seem to be up to indigenous people themselves whether they exercise it or not. It sounds more like the responsibility a parent gives a child to clean up their room.

Psychological and behavioural theories are fashionable for indigenous affairs because they reflect the intellectual and political class’s lack of confidence that the state can actually do any good. The argument between the left’s victim psychology and the right’s self-responsibility are really dressing up in behavioural jargon the more fundamental question not just whether the state should intervene to improve conditions but whether it can. What is striking about Rudd’s approach to this question is that he has so far largely treated indigenous affairs as a straightforward exercise in service provision, more like a departmental head than a politican worried about the integrity of the state.

It’s just a shame that he has done so on the back of the assumptions of the intervention and so kept in place the welfare restrictions that came from its paternalism. After all, if Greer is so desperate to be controversial she could just ask what so few are asking; why, after a year of monitoring and health checks following the claims of a child abuse epidemic, have they not found any evidence of it?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 14 August 2008.

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