A fundamental choice we make when trying to understand societies, cultures or individuals is deciding whether we believe humanity is, at its essence, good or bad - or whether it possesses no innate moral qualities. Unless we proceed from a position of innate badness, and I don’t, then we need to find understandings for harmful behaviour, not prescriptions for how they should change - or how others should force them to change.
Looking at the oldest continuous civilisation in the world, its very longevity would be a pretty good argument for its inherent stability and capacity to provide for its members’ needs. While there is presently much needed discussion about the nature of Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, the tenor of the debate has frequently been hysterical, uninformed and ahistorical, with an assumption that outsiders have a better understanding of both the problems and the solutions involved in contemporary Indigenous life. When I first started reading “Last Drinks - The Impact of the Northern Territory Intervention” by Paul Toohey (Quarterly Essay)(extract PDF 60KB) I got that familiar, sinking feeling. Another angry, confused, condemning white voice.
Four years ago, when I first started living and working in the Territory I suspected that it would be years, if not decades, before non-Indigenous Australia engaged with northern Australian Indigenous people.
Then came Nanette Rogers’ shocking revelations, Mal Brough’s ideological emotionalism and the shock and awe of the Intervention. While participants’ motivations differed, they all contributed to painting a picture of Indigenous people and society as empty vessels filled only with alcohol and indolence, all culture, compassion and humanity gone and forgotten.
Suddenly Indigenous issues were at the heart of the national debate.
But where were Indigenous people? They were the frequent object of our gaze, rarely heard unless they seemed to agree with us, but generally excluded, particularly if their communication style didn’t conform to the demands of Anglo-Australian culture and language.
Accordingly, while urging Indigenous people to join the “mainstream” we unselfconsciously talked about us and them, as if we didn’t really expect them to be participating in the national debate or to be hurt by being treated as outsiders in their own country. Paul Toohey sadly continues this exclusion, arguing, rather bizarrely, that “adapting was never going to be easy - for us, that is, not them. They, on the other hand, learned to run us ragged” (p3 - my emphasis).
There was so much I found wrong-headed or offensive about this piece that I wanted to scream my disagreement. But Toohey is quite difficult to disagree with because he so often disagrees with himself. In one place (p3) he says that Indigenous ties to land go “well beyond any white notion of real estate”, in another (p6) he calls land rights a “luxury”. He acknowledges (p58) that “Aborigines had always been evaluated against white society. Their culture was never assessed according to its own standards - perhaps because we outsiders never understood them” but shows scant interest in understanding or any acknowledgement that his lack of understanding might impede his ability to effectively analyse - instead he angrily revs his rhetorical vehicle “making sure they [wear] more of [his] dust than needed” (p7).
While appearing to blame Indigenous people for the situation they find themselves in, he acknowledges that Ben Pascoe, his “old mate”, has become “increasingly resentful of interfering whites” (p55), to the extent of resigning from a “good job” (p55). What does this mean? Instead of making this dissatisfaction a major theme of the essay, engaging with Indigenous people’s experience and wisdom, it’s left untouched, a tantalisingly unexplored idea in the midst of Toohey’s Conradian journey through the “swill” (p28), the “shithole[s]” (p58), the lazy (p6) Indigenes, “accomplished at seeing things selectively” (p5).
His journey into the Heart of Darkness, unlike Conrad’s, shows very little self-reflection, very little compassion or understanding and negligible historical context. And, again unlike Conrad, who saw the sickness of colonialism as central to an understanding of colonised people’s situation, Toohey appears to align himself with the new political correctness which dismisses such concerns as mere “white guilt”.
Guilt or no guilt, colonialism happened and no amount of looking the other way will change the damage that is has done and continues to do. Colonialism is a fact and we need to understand it if we are to understand Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
Throughout the essay, Toohey quotes Indigenous people, then squanders the opportunity to engage more fully with their viewpoint. For instance, he quotes Peter Danaga as saying “we think ceremony is more important than school” (p55) (unfortunately his ignorance of ceremony is so profound that he thinks that the presence of women and children means a ceremony “wasn’t secret business” (p9)). Perhaps if he’d had a deeper appreciation of ceremony, he’d have realised that it is much more than painting up, dancing and listening to a man “prowling about … in the manner of an evangelist” (p9).