Culture wars bores

Friday, 9 January 2009 

Baz Luhrmann directs films.

Some of them are quite good. Yet despite their entertainment value, you wouldn’t necessarily use them as a primary source of sociological research for your thesis paper on, say, Hierarchical discourse in professional dancing academies 1987 – 1993.

Apparently Professor Greer does. She criticises Baz’s latest effort, Australia, because it fails to correctly portray life in the Northern Territory in 1939. She notes inaccuracies and anachronisms such as the hero’s use of an ‘Oral B’ toothbrush. Making a fuss over anachronisms in a film that makes a pointed joke about recognising a 2004 cover of Somewhere over the Rainbow shows she doesn’t really get Luhrmann’s films – but leave that for the moment. Let’s focus on her main attack on the film, its portrayal of indigenous people.

Greer took her crusade against the film further when she attacked Nicole Kidman for playing a didgeridoo on German TV. Now it might seem strange to use a work of fiction like Australia (a sort of Moulin Rouge meets Gone With the Wind) and a screen actress playing up on a German chat show to make a point about indigenous affairs. It is not as though there is a shortage of things to talk about in the real world.

For example, we are only eighteen months from a child abuse panic where indigenous men were being accused of fiddling with their kids en masse, and some of the things said about them were pretty savage. One commentator wasn’t at all surprised by the accusations because “the suffering of Aboriginal women and children at the hands of their deranged menfolk has been going on all Howard’s life”.

It could be said that this quote by Greer (for it is she) has been ripped out of context as it came from an article opposing the intervention. The trouble is that by focusing on the supposed pathology of what was going on inside the communities, she lays the ground for it. It is a trap she got caught up in an interview on Lateline back in August promoting her essay On Rage, which took her claims about the degeneracy of indigenous men even further by claiming that they were not only destroying themselves but their communities with it. But after hyping up the extreme violence from indigenous men to those close to them, she ended up having to concede the intervention was necessary after all:

LEIGH SALES: …what other option did the women have? They couldn’t go to the men for help because those men were the perpetrators of the violence. What else could they have done other than ask for government and ask for outside assistance?

PROFESSOR GERMAINE GREER: Well it’s also true that there are other men in the community who are managing and there are male elders in the community who are managing. Well, I do see that it was a recourse in emergency here.

Conceding a need for a ‘recourse’ was the same trap that others who opposed the intervention, but also conceded that there was a child abuse epidemic, found themselves in. This included those who wanted to maintain the land rights system that the intervention over-rode. By conceding such a thing could happen under that system, they undermined its validity. Greer’s difference is to try and wriggle out of it by claiming that the problem was that land rights wasn’t being enforced rigorously enough, but portraying indigenous male behaviour as even more barbaric while she did so.

The tangles Greer’s gets caught up in because of her focus on indigenous behavioural problems suggests that maybe the reason Greer makes a fuss over Baz Luhrmann’s film is to use it to make a point that doesn’t really stand up on its own. In effect she seems to be demanding that a zany film director and a screen actress do what she can’t – make a coherent political point.

Using history or culture as a proxy for a weak political argument is a defining feature of the history/culture ‘wars’. It was why, as the left and right declined during the Keating and Howard years, history and culture wars sprung up like weeds across the landscape and ‘warriors’ like Gerard Henderson could earn a living making a fuss about the most obscure subjects.

Of course then there is the most enduring cultural war in Australian politics, the row over indigenous culture. The right dismissed it to impose their own values that they could never bring into practice and the left celebrated cultural difference to make a virtue of the failure of the project of equality.

But things change. The terms of the debate about indigenous culture have been altered. It is this subtle change that Greer missed in her criticism of Australia. For at the root at what she doesn’t like about the film is not its fidelity to historical fact. She only raises it to underpin her real complaint of the film, its celebration of the apology. The film is designed to “promote the current government policy of reconciliation” which she says is “the process by which Australians of all shades forgive and forget the outrages of the past and become one happy nation”.

But she is out of date. Forgetting the past would more accurately describe the 1970s and 1980s when forcible removal of children was stopped but little reference was ever made of it. It had dropped out of the political lexicon because it upset the land rights compromise at that time agreed by both parties. It was only when that compromise started to unravel that the stolen generations became an issue, nearly a quarter of a century after it had been stopped.

At the heart of the land rights compromise was an informal ‘two state’ solution in which neither could properly recognise the other. As the political class lost its mission in the 1990s Keating tried to bring reconciliation of both into a new political project but failed. Howard rode the vacuum on the lack of a solution and in the end broke the compromise for good with the intervention. By their agreement with its premise, the land rights lobby were fatally compromised but Howard had nothing to put in its place. It was left to the Mandarin to wind it up and lay the blame for the whole policy failure where it always belonged, at the feet of the political class.

Greer comes from that political tradition that for the last few decades have been sticking their fingers into every cultural discussion to play out an argument they have already lost. With that political tradition at an end, maybe now we can watch a film during the summer holidays without being caught up in an ideological struggle. Pass the popcorn.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 9 January 2009.

Filed under The Australian state

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7 responses to “Culture wars bores”

  1. fred on 9th January 2009 5:30 pm

    Well this puts me between a rock and a hard place.
    I haven’t seen the film and probably will not, I generally like what Germaine writes, I find her able to make valid political points most cogently and I have come here to the Shrike because I respect the stance taken here on indigenous affairs.
    Yet, sadly, there is an apparent disconnect between two writers who, at least to me are broadly on the same wavelength. That is they both deplore the exploitation and abuse of the indigenous people past and present, and its disturbing portrayal in our media and by our pollies, both lots although one clearly worse than the other [I regarded Nelson’s apology speech as absolutely shameful].
    Oh dear, I’ll have to have a longer think and come back after dinner.
    Can I have 2 bob each way?

  2. fred on 9th January 2009 6:57 pm

    Well dinner is over I’ve had half a think at least, I read your links, at least superficially, and I think you have some very valid points. Not least the appallingly inappropriate ‘anger management’ and self-responsibility’ lines spread by those who will not see child abuse in general and to whatever degree [possibly lesser] that it applies to indigenous communities, as missing the point entirely.
    The point being that such abuse, and related issues, DV for one, are endemic and structural to all sections of Australian society, that anger management and its friends are are never answers to such issues, judt bandaids for those who wish to wash their hands of the issues and ignore that they continue to pop up all over the place because the essence of the problem, societal in cause, not individual, has not been tackled.

    Or at least thats my take on what you are saying.

    Mind you I don’t entirely agree that such lines are confined only to indigenous men.
    There are many anger/man type courses that are run by agencies and after violent and abusive men of all types have attended them the problem has been assumed to have been solved.
    Not so of course.
    The problem is we, that is the powers that be in oz society, are still in a state of denial about CSA/DV et al, as a structural endemic set of problems. We have found it easier for racist reasons to admit it with respect to indigenous people bur incapable of doing so for the general community.
    Until we admit the obvious children and women will continue to be abused and no amount of ‘self responsibility/anger management’ promotion will make more than an iota of difference.
    Louise Armstrong has expressed mock surprise in one of her books that since she played a part in ‘outing’ CSA as a social isssue yonks ago she has seen the growth of a therapy industry which serves little purpose other than to assuage a few consciences, provide lucrative income for some and serve the appearance of doing ‘something’.
    Which is not true or even close to it.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 9th January 2009 8:12 pm

    On the child abuse issue itself, my thoughts were set out at the time the intervention was announced that I was concerned about the weakness of evidence backing the claims in the Wild Report. Given, as I understand it, that the subsequent thousands of medical checks appear to have still not shown any evidence of a child abuse epidemic, that concern seems justified.

    I think Greer has had some good points in the past, whether on feminism or the treatment of indigenous people. But her political approach, I think, has always suffered from an excessive focus on personal behaviour. That weakness fully came out in her response to the intervention, which I think was disastrous.

    The broader point I wanted to make was against this practice of demanding that films be politically responsible. I did actually see the film after initially not wanting to. I thought given the themes, it would be ponderous. But it wasn’t, it was very much in Luhrmann’s genre, visually stunning, off-beat and sentimental. I think it was the light-hearted treatment of this topic that drove critics like Greer up the wall. I enjoyed it, though I’m no film critic.

  4. Ricc on 9th January 2009 9:10 pm

    When I was at Uni, we had an Aboriginal activist (female, for the record) come and speak. One thing she said stuck in my mind – she said if you had to live the lives some of her community had to live, you would be driven to drink. To make the pain go away.

    I certainly agree with TPS, if personal responsibility is the theme then let’s get started, all sections of society.

    The social problems in Victoria’s Moe for example, are described in the same terms (child abuse epidemic)but never is the fact that 99% of the people are WHITE ever mentioned.

    Comes back to the old hierarchy. If you are WHITE you are AUSTRALIAN or NORMAL, but if you are ABORIGINAL then that fact needs to be pointed out continuously, as if that was the single determinant.

    As for was it dog whistle politics, may Mal Brough didn’t see it as one, but his boss at the time was feeling around in his hat, looking for the rabbit.

    My final thought. The tories are quick to tell us we are all Australians, Aboriginal politics is divisive etc etc, yet are the first to remind us on the tabloid banners and the talkback of which races people are when crimes etc occur.

    TPS, I’d love to see a post on what you think the new political discourse will be, now the old one has run its course.

  5. Subi Steve on 9th January 2009 11:39 pm

    TPS, love your work on the basis of many years reading. I’m curious as to the source of the “One commentator wasn’t at all surprised by the accusations because “the suffering of Aboriginal women and children at the hands of their deranged menfolk has been going on all Howard’s life”.” line. I’m sure this detail will help me to understand where the writer’s sympathies lie.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 9th January 2009 11:41 pm

    It was Greer in the article linked below the comment.

  7. Subi Steve on 10th January 2009 12:03 am

    Oh thank goodness! Present company excepted, while I enjoy La Greer’s ability to garner the attention of Australia’s media with her off-the-cuff rants, I’m glad this crap line didn’t come from someone whose opinion I might take seriously.

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