Culture war bores collide

Tuesday, 4 October 2011 

Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance.

Judge Mordecai Bromberg’s ruling on the Bolt case

OK, let’s be a bit blunt. Andrew Bolt is a bit of a bore. Take the issue he is best known for, climate change. There are some reasonable criticisms to be made about the way this issue is handled in the public sphere – probably best summed up by the nasty little tactic of calling someone at odds with the scientific consensus a “denier”, as used to be used for those who deny the existence of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is a historical fact – no discussion is required. While past climate change is also a historical fact, predicting the future changes in climate and its relationship to human activity is a complex and critical area of investigation that given its importance, cannot have enough discussion and investigation. As for any scientific investigation, this will inevitably include challenges to consensus and dissent.

But that dissent must be informed. Bolt’s problem is that instead of sticking to how the media handles this, something he may know something about, he instead gets into the scientific debate itself, where he has nothing to add at all. His attitude was summed up in the notorious “East Bum Crack University” exchange with Annabel Crabb where he claimed that “at least he studied something about it”. Big deal. Not enough, of course, to have anything to contribute to a complex scientific debate.

But in reality, like the left, for Bolt the science and providing the best conditions for scientific debate to occur is secondary to the political. Just as the left treat climate change as a faux anti-capitalist attack, so the right join in conducting an ersatz political exchange and bugger the consequences that has for the scientific research on this important issue.

Bolt belongs to that group of self-styled right-wing “shock jocks” where the political significance comes less from what they actually say, than the reaction it gets from the left. That’s why he tends to write in order to shock and outrage than inform. It is also why he makes the classic mistake of these lot – overreach, from thinking that his notoriety comes from the power of what he says rather than the excessive sensitivities of a defensive left that react to him. He might even believe it when the left says that he is a major influence on society. So we have the tedious Bolt Report, which for Bolt is as the Convoy of No Confidence was for Alan Jones, a flop that shows their social influence is grossly exaggerated.

A need to get a reaction and a resulting half-arsed attitude to the facts has also, of course, defined his approach on the issue that got him slapped down in court last week. But while the reaction coming from both left and right about the impact this may have on free speech might make a fine point in the abstract, it misses the real issue that lies behind this decision.

The first point to get clear is that the Bolt case was not about racism either, as claimed by those who have dismissed concerns about free speech – at least not as it is normally discussed. As Holmes argued in a piece last week, there was nothing in Bolt’s articles that could remotely be called racial hatred, nor indeed was there anything that could be taken as derogatory about indigenous peoples per se. What the articles did was to attack and mock the plaintiffs’ claims to a racial identity rather than the identity itself.

What the judge made clear was that nevertheless attacking the legitimacy of racial identification taken up by a group of people was tantamount, as far as the law is concerned, to being derogatory about the racial grouping itself. This might be seen as a significant broadening of the meaning of racism, but in reality it is very much in the spirit of the Act.

At the heart of the indigenous political question is the challenge it poses to the identity of the Australian state. Historically, especially for a relatively wealthy and successful country like Australia, that identity has been relatively weak. One sure sign is that the right, which would normally look to derive authority from it, has instead looked elsewhere, to Britain or the US. Another sign is that foreign flag in the corner of Australia’s that just can’t seem to be shrugged off. Indeed, a distinct feature of Australian politics is that it has normally been the left that has been the most closely associated with Australian nationalism. If what is supposed to be the most progressive section of politics is the most nationalistic, then it doesn’t spell good news for indigenous people.

And it hasn’t. For most of the last century, that conflict between the identity of the Australian state was managed by the thorough exclusion of the indigenous people from it, supported by a consensus from both sides of politics. This exclusion occurred both politically and legally in the census, voting, citizenship and basic rights and physically through the geographical separation of indigenous communities and the denial of freedom of movement and settlement (with aborigines even banned, for example, from living in central Perth until 1948). Probably the most miserable example of that policy of racial separation, of course, was the forced removal of children with mixed racial background. Even states that as colonies had given rights to indigenous people, such as South Australia, which included indigenous men and women in universal franchise in 1894, saw those rights eroded formally and informally on joining the Commonwealth project in 1901.

Changes to this situation started to really come together under the post-Menzies Coalition government in the 1960s. Across the world, there was increasing pressure to tone down overtly racial policies, partly from domestic pressure, but much of the momentum was coming from the need to respond and manage the increasing confidence of national liberation movements, especially in South East Asia. So we saw the coincident decolonising of the remaining European Empires, the de-segregation in the US South and the need to reorganise the overtly racial aspects of Australian policy both externally through the White Australia policy and domestically with the treatment of indigenous peoples. For those countries such as Rhodesia and South Africa where overtly racial policies remained in place, the major powers, at least publicly, began to increasingly distance themselves from them in the international community.

The critical event for indigenous policy was, of course, the 1967 referendum. The significance of this is often misinterpreted. It is widely assumed, for example, that it gave aborigines the vote. It didn’t, they already had it, with Queensland being the last state to give it two years before. Nor even, technically, was it about removing discrimination. Indeed the main purpose of the referendum was to centralise indigenous policy to Canberra, by giving the federal government special powers to make racially based laws pertaining to indigenous people. This was something that had previously been under the jurisdiction of the states to accommodate their differing approaches to the question on Federation. Full voting equality did not happen until 1984 when voting was made compulsory for indigenous people as well (although still not fully applied as the turnout in Lingiari will show).

But it was by centralising of powers over indigenous affairs that a new framework could be established with what was started by the Coalition being picked up by Whitlam and later by Fraser. Remaining formal restrictions were removed, the forced removal of children ceased and compulsory segregation replaced by an informal separation under the concept of ‘land rights’.

The tendency to overstate the benefits of the 1967 Referendum has flowed through to a tendency to overstate the benefits of what happened after. Obviously the ending of some of the nastier legacies of the previous period such as forced separation of children from their parents was welcomed. However, the reforms were more a compromise than a sweeping away of the past. This was especially in the concept of land rights. Partly this was in the very limited character of the ‘rights’. When dirt poured by Whitlam slipped through Vincent Lingiari’s fingers, it was more symbolic than perhaps intended.

But it was also important to note that this amounted to more a compromise within the old framework of racial separation rather than its abolition. This is why for example, that even though forced separation of children was stopped in 1973, it was not formally acknowledged until the Bringing Them Home report a quarter of century later and another decade after that before the government apologised. When Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating listened to Rudd make his speech in February 2008, they were listening to an apology that none of them thought to make during their time in office.

The maintenance of the concept of racial separation embodied in land rights was to partly accommodate the wishes of indigenous communities that given the firm political consensus saw any other route as difficult, but also to manage the challenge the indigenous question posed to the Australian state. Separation on racial lines has remained integral to how indigenous affairs are treated, no matter how unfashionable such racial separation may be elsewhere in the world. Politically one way this was dealt in Australia with was through the celebration of cultural identity and diversity. Both respect of cultural and racial identity was enforced in mainstream public debate through the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

Like any compromise, there was a contradiction, with the pointy end being around land rights. The maintenance of such a right was separate from that of the rest of the country, yet still managed under the unified Australian state. This contradiction came out under the Mabo case, and later with Wik, with the ending of the concept of terra nullis raising a question over the basis of property since the founding of the Australian state. The political response was to divert such questions away from the courts and through tribunals, while further reducing any criticisms of the terms of this compromise through reinforcing the concept of separate cultural identity by beefing up the punitive aspects of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Culture is nice. But in the case of indigenous culture it has a racial aspect that makes it treated like few other cultural discussions. Mitsuko Uchida playing the music of a dead white European male like Mozart poses no problems at all, but a Caucasian creating recognisably indigenous art is something else. Under the benign surface of cultural identity is a racial undertone that creates problems.

The merging of cultural and racial identity was traditionally most strongly pushed by the right. This is not surprising as it is deeply conservative. It not only argues that there cannot be such a thing as a universal outlook, but locks the destiny of peoples into a cultural baggage of the past, both antithetical to the concept of human emancipation. It was an outlook strongly held by supporters of the British Empire and its civilising mission to less enlightened cultures.

The obvious response to this would be that there is a world of difference between a view of culture that is based on superiority and a celebration of cultural diversity based on respect. But such respect always has something phoney about it, as in as much there is an element of choice obviously anybody would always adopt a culture on the basis of it being superior. When this is about just culture, it becomes a matter of taste, when it is combined with race something else happens.

But just how phoney this ‘respect’ was in the case of indigenous peoples came out in June 2007, when the Labor government in the Northern Territory published a report claiming widespread sexual abuse of children in indigenous communities. If such mind-boggling claims had been made in Western Sydney, there would obviously be demands for proof. Yet the claims were widely accepted at the time despite the lack of such proof (nor indeed did any arise from the tens of thousands of medical checks that followed).

People bang on about Bolt making racists accusations, but get this racial slur: indigenous parents (especially men) were the type of people that would not only allow this to happen on a systematic scale but even participate in it – and this claim came from the left, not the right. The basis of this acceptance was that in the case of indigenous communities, clearly different cultural standards apply. Even so-called friends of these communities would defend them by saying that the problem was poor housing and cramped conditions, as though any parent could possibly comprehend how this could be an excuse for the sexual abuse of children.

The intervention marked a key turning point in indigenous affairs with the convergence of two trends opposed to features of the compromise. The first was Howard, who represented that part of the Australian political class that, especially since Mabo and Wik, viewed the compromise as having gone too far and looked to restore the integrity of the political class by rolling it back. The second was Rudd representing a move to de-politicise the compromise and indigenous affairs even further and reduce to it to a technocrat issue as a means of reducing any conflict with the identity of the state.

The common antagonism to the compromise was why they came to together on the intervention, the differing reasons was why they parted ways on the apology. Howard saw the apology as further down the road to a relativist compromise, which in the hands of Keating and the Labor leaders who followed it was. But Rudd differed from the Labor tradition by turning it from something we are all supposed to apologise for to one that was firmly landed at the feet of a political class to which he saw himself as not belonging.

Rudd’s apology speech was the high point of the technocrat summer and we are unlikely to see such an attempt to excoriate the political class be repeated, while the intervention itself has turned into a mess of bureaucratic squabbling.

What we are left with is the political dregs of the compromise. Bolt representing the farcical end of the Howard brigade who wants to roll it back. Probably the Liberals, by the sound of it may want to roll it back when they get in, but are likely to maintain its main features.

The indigenous activists who took Bolt to court have protected their own racial identity, as though racial lines are confused in a country where even the most cursory glance at standard of living factors like health, income, and mortality would reveal the racial divide. The victory may have alleviated their feelings, but all it has done for anyone else is confirm a strategy that has been disastrous so far. But then it’s not their fault, racial/cultural separation, or whatever you want to call it, remains embedded in the centre of our body politic.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 4 October 2011.

Filed under The Australian state

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55 responses to “Culture war bores collide”

  1. Charles on 12th November 2011 8:58 pm

    How are we going to feed 7 billion people?

    How do we deal with a financial system that uses nothing more than buying and selling to suck money out of the system until the system doesn’t work no more.

    What is the USA going to do now that it has blown up to much stuff instead of educating it’s people.

    These are serious questions that will be solved or not, politically.

    Neither has anything to do with who owns the means of production or the state of union bashing. The left and right thing is over.

    It is not where politics is at.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 13th November 2011 5:20 am

    So where is it at? Surely, not the process-obsessed “Occupy” movement?

  3. charles on 21st November 2011 8:07 pm

    “So where is it at? Surely, not the process-obsessed “Occupy” movement?”

    No, a non event if ever there was one.

    But we do have a prime minister that has got a carbon trading scheme started (from here it can be moved as international events unfold). We will get a super profit tax, it will be used to put money into super (savings for us all). We have got plain packaging of cigarettes. We will get a broadband network based on fiber (yes it may be as useful and and finally as wasteful as railroads) but it will happen. Break fees charged by banks have been banned.

    All these things have happened and you wank on about left and right, about governments having no purpose, and your latest post, a long article about a presidential side show. You ares stuck in the 80’s mate. At least you about 10 years ahead of Abbott, who doesn’t seem to be able to get out of the 70’s.

    Your meme is little different to the rest of the press; even now; they to don’t seemed to have twigged; this is a reforming progressive government.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 22nd November 2011 11:00 am

    They need supporters like you right now, keep the faith!

  5. Riccardo on 23rd November 2011 2:01 pm

    Presumably the Right proposed this because they can mobilise their ‘grass roots’ better than the Left. Or is it the ‘pragmatic’ Right realising the game is up and they are exhausted.

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