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Suffer the little children: the burden of culture

By Lorenzo

A description of what confronted a Commonwealth officer in the Northern Territory during the Pacific War (1941-5), when thousands of service personnel passed through the Northern Territory:

… once you introduced a European or Asian father any child of that liaison had any rights as an Aboriginal extinguished at birth. They were not classed as Aboriginal people by the Aborigines …

… the Aboriginal midwives were well aware of the problems that could exist through a woman have a half cast[e] child and in this respect particularly in the Centre where Aboriginal children were born over a hole in the ground where a fire had been lit and when the child was born green leaves were thrown on the first so the child was smoked at birth. Also if the child was of light colour the Aboriginal midwives just grabbed a handful of ashes out of the fire and placed it over the nose and mouth of the child so that the child didn’t live. The child was then taken away from the camp area and buried 99% of the time under a small ant hill. This was just levered up with a yam stick and the body placed underneath and then put back in place and the area swept so that no one could tell where it was or anything else.

The author apparently made two attempts to give evidence to Sir Ronald Wilson’s Bring Them Home enquiry, and was both times refused. (Like the report’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Sir Ronald later publicly admitted that was a mistake.)

While the narrative of celebrity achievement is a universal exception, as an Older and Wiser friend of mine has pointed out, there are two permitted narratives about indigenous Australians among what Judith Brett calls ‘the moral middle class’: victims or Noble Savages. Which narrative does the above fit? And if neither, why is there anything morally righteous about writing those nameless, culturally euthanized children out of history?

Fetishising indigenous cultures is not remotely the same as understanding them. And, without understanding, what is moral judgement worth? Indeed, what is moral about wilful blindness?

Forager constraints
Hunter-gatherer desert cultures have to deal with an enormously constricting environment. There has to be a brutal pragmatism about such cultures if those who live according to their precepts are going to survive from generation to generation; let alone for thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of years.

Hunter-gatherer—that is foraging—cultures have to control fertility: a control which has to all the more strict the more constraining the surrounding environment is. Children are burdens, having to be carried and fed, to be taken on with due care.

A process whereby young girls are married to older men, and their widows are married to young men, transfers knowledge between the generations, commits the younger to support the older, and keeps fertility rates down. It is functional in an environment where not being functional means starvation.

Strictly controlling who can marry whom provides genetic protection, embeds children in a protective network and binds folk together in known patterns. Cultural selection when the non-functional means starvation selects brutally for what works.

Mixed parentage children had no place and no place means an unsupportable burden. The rules that led to the above behaviour make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging. Twins, for example, would be culled for the same reason.

Of course, even in the 1940s, those constraints no longer operated. But the culture had not yet shifted. It did later; once non-Aboriginal partners were seen as not-forbidden, instead of not-permitted, mixed-parentage children became much more acceptable.

The culture fetish
But this is where the fetishising of culture comes in. Cultural practices and outlooks that make perfect sense under the constraints of desert foraging make none at all in a society of industrial (or even post-industrial) prosperity. If the welfare of indigenous Australians is the measure, then their cultures must change. If fetishising them as noble savages with morally pristine cultures is what folk are about, then dysfunction is an embarrassing reality which indigenous Australians-as-victims can be invoked to hide from.

What does such dysfunction involve? Poverty, unemployment, suicide, violence, child abuse, spouse abuse, lower life expectancies; all at rates which would be unacceptable if it happened to folk who were not on display as noble savages and moral mascots.

Indeed, it is hard to think of any group who more fulfil Thomas Sowell’s notion of moral mascots than indigenous Australians restricted to the narratives of victims or noble savages. Which is where being historically honest about matters such as the stolen generation is the real test. For, if you are not interested in the facts of the case, then you are not interesting in helping actual people in actual situations; merely in being seen to be compassionate about imagined people.

Grappling with culture
In analysis, culture is the last refuge of the analytically bereft. Unless, that is, you are prepared to break down culture into things more analytically tractable—such as trust, networks, communication costs, attitudes to time and framings.

Economist Deepak Lal recommends (pdf) adapting ecologists’ view of culture as being a way of adapting to an environment by learning. Humans as beings-with-culture as a species that:

learns new ways of surviving in the new environment and then fixes them by social custom. These social customs form the culture of the relevant group, which are transmitted to new members of the group (mainly children) who do not then have to invent these ‘new’ ways de novo for themselves.

As Lal points out, such regularised behaviour fits in with economists’ notion of equilibrium, particularly when defined by economist Frank Hahn as one where:

self-seeking agents learn nothing new so their behaviour is routinized. [Equilibrium] represents an adaptation by agents to the economic environment in which the economy “generates messages which do not cause agents to change the theories which they hold or the policies which they pursue”.

Changes in the surrounding environment will lead to changes in the agent’s theories and/or behaviour.

Lal distinguishes between material and cosmological beliefs of particular cultures:

The former relate to ways of making a living and concerns beliefs about the material world, in particular about the economy. The latter are related to understanding the world around us and mankind’s place in it which determine how people view their lives—its purpose, meaning and relationship to others.

The evidence is material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones and the latter are deeply influenced by which language group one belongs to—languages coming with deeply embedded framings of people, action and the world.

The shift from foraging to farming involves great shifts in human behaviour and framings. Farming involves a completely different attitude to time; foraging is a here-and-now matter with effectively no capacity to store, so little need to associate sustenance with forward planning. Farming is all about forward planning. Foraging is about common activity, where sharing is an imperative. Farming is separated production with subsequent exchange where delineating and enforcing rightful control over almost every aspect of economic production is crucial.

Farming shifts conflict management from the “tit for tat” and “just split off” of foraging culture to managing repeated interactions between people who are anchored by their land; a management that typically involves more extensive and constraining internalised moral codes and far more extensive property rights with formalised and binding dispute resolution. Farming societies have dramatically lower rates of violence than foraging cultures.

The situation of mixed-parentage children described above led to conflict between indigenous women over children:

particularly when these women were fighting over children the women fought with yam sticks which usually about a meter or 3 ft to 4 ft made out of a very heavy wooden stick and they would fight by having one smack at each other while the other held up the yam stick. This of course led to a number of smashed and broken fingers. The mothers were then in a situation that they couldn’t cope with their children. They were then looked after usually by some of the relatives until the women could cope again. This didn’t always happen as in later years when this did happen quite often the mother would come to the person in charge of the settlement and ask them to look after the child for her until she could handle it herself.

While trial-by-combat is hardly unknown in farming societies, it was usually highly formalised. Family households were also much more autonomous in their internal workings yet had a wider range of exchange interactions, which both narrowed the range of conflict and increased the benefit from formalised dispute resolution.

These are profoundly different perspectives. (Economist Robin Hanson has blogged about the foraging/farming differences.) As the former Commonwealth officer said of children taken to boarding school in Darwin:

There was no problems with the children while we were travelling to Darwin. They all looked on it as an outing, a picnic, whatever you like. The trauma for these children started when the discipline of a boarding school was imposed on them not having been used to any discipline whatsoever prior to this, this became extremely hard.

Can foraging notions of time management, property, sharing, and conflict operate successfully in a modern economy? The short answer is no.

So, what incentives operate to shift to outlooks far more functional in the modern world? Remembering that we are thousands of years and many generations separated from foraging framings. If one is of Atlantic littoral European descent, one is the product of cultures that have long since adjusted to the foraging-farming transition and then gone through the Commercial Revolution of the C15th-C18th and the Industrial Revolution of the C18th-C20th. Our ancestors went through the traumas of adaptation. We are the fortunate heirs thereof.

So fortunate, that we forget we are heirs of such transitions. Culture becomes a “taste sensation”, menu items from a cosmopolitan smorgasbord. Cultural sensitivity becomes a marker of virtue; other people’s cultural authenticity a vicarious pleasure. Attitudes of 100, 50, sometimes 30 years ago, in our own culture are utterly unacceptable, but fetishised indigenous cultures have the thrill of millennial authenticity.

It is an attitude full of cultural sensitivity and completely lacking in cultural seriousness.  Culture separated from consequences. But what is hunter-gatherer culture when gathering is collecting sit-down money and hunting is spearing a grant to be doled out to cronies? A life of lies and pointlessness, robbed of the regular achievements of purposeful activity. A recipe for social collapse; for battered wives, raped children, alcoholic homicide and petrol-sniffing despair.

Noel Pearson is absolutely correct. Indigenous Australians need to participate in a real economy. But, to do that, their cultures must change. It is long past time when indulging a fetish for vicarious cultural authenticity bought on the bodies of battered and violated women and children is allowed to pass itself off as anything other than abuse of the vulnerable for the satisfaction of the privileged.


  1. Tim Mulligan
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I cannot find the word “multiculturalism” in this piece.

  2. Posted April 19, 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    It’s not used in Australia to refer to Aborigines, not because of any political correctness issues, but rather because immigration (a huge and near unqualified success) and Aboriginal policy (a huge and near unqualified failure) are seen (rightly) as completely separate.

    Much better to pin the tail on silly ideas like ‘the Noble Savage’.

  3. Tim Mulligan
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    My point was obscure. In my judgment this piece is a critique of multiculturalism, or at least a departure from it. It does not acknowledge that all cultures are morally equal.

  4. kvd
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    This is a thoroughly excellent piece Lorenzo. Have not read elsewhere such a concise overview of the differences between foraging and farming. While I think on it further, I would just like to put up a marker for the point that while it’s quicker to talk of ‘a culture’ there are ‘many cultures’.

    Doesn’t change your conclusion, but there possibly can’t be a one size fits all approach to change – and I think that this is a significant weakness in past dealings.

  5. Mel
    Posted April 19, 2012 at 9:41 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, what is the source for your “Commonwealth officer” quote?

  6. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    M@7 Unpublished memoir piece privately circulated. I am not aware of it being publicly available, though it might be somewhere.

  7. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    TM@1,4 Multiculturalism is a different issue. For a start, most migrants in Oz are from cultures well past the foraging-farming transition.

    As for ‘all cultures are equal’, what does that mean? Modern WEIRD culture (Western, Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) would not be functional as desert foragers. At a basic level, culture is about functioning in an environment. If the environment changes, culture needs to.

  8. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink

    If the environment changes, culture needs to.

    Imagining this process tends to be left in the hands of creative writers, particularly science fiction authors, too. I have always been very taken by Stephen King’s The Stand for its envisaging of the process, but Heinlein, Atwood, Orwell and now Suzanne Collins all do variations on the same theme: change the country, change the culture, in smaller or greater ways.

  9. Mel
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    I really wish there was a definitive book on pre-colonial indigenous society as I’m fascinated to know what it was really like.

  10. Jacques Chester
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    This ties to a book I’m reading at the moment — War and Peace and War by Peter Turchin. He talks about the rise of imperial nations out of conditions of friction between culturally alien neighbours. What’s occurring is a recognisably similar process of cultural selection.

  11. kvd
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo I’m thinking what if tomorrow morning we woke up to find our present culture overwhelmed by, say, a predatory near north neighbour. And what say in 200-odd years our ‘present culture’ was just a tiny remnant in a population of 1-200 million strict observers of a fanatical faith-based culture?

    You are suggesting our ‘remnant cultural descendants’ would need to change their culture, and adopt the then ascendant culture. I guess I’m asking: is there no higher consideration more worthy (in any sense) than just ‘fitting in with what is dominant’?

  12. kvd
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    (Trying to get with the new!) I guess I’d tweet something like:

    So are you saying that fitting in is the preferred cultural outcome?

  13. Jonathan D
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    kvd, I think he’s saying that the cultures, majority or minority, would need to fit in with whatever structure of propsperity resulted from the clash of cultures. However, I too felt that something was missed in thinking of a change in environment without acknowledging that it’s a change strongly tied to culture in itself.

  14. Posted April 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    M@11 I doubt there is one, because there was significant differences between indigenous cultures in Australia. Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies paints a pretty grim picture of Tasmanian society, for example.

  15. Posted April 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    JC@12: I was quite taken with Turchin.

  16. Posted April 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    kvd@13: I believe the Jews are an answer to your question.

    My point is not about responding to conquest, my point is about not having profoundly dysfunctional communities because your patterns of life do not connect with basic levels of purposive activity in a modern society.

    It is true that public policy has been destructive, but a major reason why it has been destructive is that it has been treating indigenous culture as if it has no consequences and needs to be preserved by a form of “ring fencing” as if we were creating human zoos.

    The other major reason it has been destructive has been failures of communication, but that itself is a product of cultural distance. (I give an example of such communication failure here.)

  17. kvd
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    L@18 the Jews have been around since the year dot, forced to integrate to survive for 2++ thousand years. With great respect for both them and yourself, that is just not an equivalent to the rapid culture shock encountered by many indigenous populations, around in the world, over the past few hundred years.

    I don’t wish to, and don’t ascribe to the ‘guilt’ approach, but it must be said that it’s disingenuous to call cultures which survived unaided for (tens of) thousands of years ‘dysfunctional’ because they don’t ‘connect with basic levels of purposive activity in a modern society’. Why not let’s just be honest and call them “losers”.

    I am not disagreeing with your analysis; more just conscious that whenever the Golden Rule is quoted, it is in the comfortable knowledge that the ‘others’ referred to is not ‘us’. That said, I will go read your link with great interest.

  18. Larry
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Mel, you might want to try Geoffrey Blainey’s “Triumph of the Nomads”, it also has a very useful list of references as it is foot noted properly being a genuine piece of scholasticism.

  19. Mel
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink


    “M@11 I doubt there is one, because there were significant differences between indigenous cultures in Australia.”

    I doubt there is one too, but for a different reason, everybody who writes on the topic is pushing a cause of one type or another.

  20. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    kvd@19 Indigenous cultures were generally highly functional when foraging. But that is no longer a viable option. Nor a preferred one: Aboriginal Australians persistently showed a preference for farmed food.

    Also, I think you underestimate what a shock the Assyrian conquest, the Babylonian captivity, the Roman dispersals, the expulsions from Iberia, etc were at the time. There was also a selection for cultural traits that could deal with the vicissitudes of insecure, minority existence.

  21. Posted April 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    The Roman ‘landing like a tonne of bricks’ on the Jews that people often don’t know about was Hadrian’s response to the Bar Kochba revolt (135 AD). Everyone’s heard of Masada and the destruction of the Temple in the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 AD), but that ‘put down’ was far more benign than Hadrian’s later effort. It is better known simply because we have vivid and beautifully written accounts from both sides (Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius). Crucially:

    1. At no point did a Roman military commander ‘fly the dragon’ first time around; that order was given with real relish under Hadrian. Repeatedly.

    2. The second put down crushed the life out of important aspects of Jewish monotheism. The Romans had long hated the Jewish practice of killing apostates and adulterous women and had tried to stop them, both by law and through ‘soft power’, and had also sought to undermine Jewish attempts to expand their territorial claims (this sounds weird, I know, but the Jews were once a wannabe conquering monotheism, like Islam and Christianity were later). This meant that during the revolt, huge numbers of Jewish religious leaders were simply slaughtered on Roman orders, their bodies defiled (the Romans were fond of the wrapping in pig skin trick, like the British did later with Muslim rebels in the Sudan).

    3. The bulk of the Jewish population was driven out of Judaea, with almost unimaginable ferocity. This is the origin of the Jewish ‘diaspora’. There have been attempts to argue that this process wasn’t as thoroughgoing as the Romans intended it to be, but the evidence is equivocal on this point. There were certainly a helluva lot more Jews outside Judaea than inside it after Hadrian’s efforts.

    4. Jerusalem was razed and a Roman city built on the site (called Aelia Capitolina after Hadrian’s wife’s family). There was a temple to Jupiter built on the Temple Mount, and a temple to Venus (now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) complete with sacred prostitutes. The Romans really went to town with ‘here’s paganism in yer eye’.

    5. Hadrian successfully ended killing women for adultery (mainly by hanging anyone who did it beside the Temple of Roma, very Lord Napier) and killings for apostasy. He also tried to ban circumcision, and there was a horribly Nazi-like ‘drop your daks’ period directed at Jewish boys when Roman troops attempted to enforce this order.

    6. It is worth noting that part of Hadrian’s gripe with Jews was their homophobia (Hadrian was bisexual and a philhellene). It is a story I like to tell monotheists, because it is a salutary reminder that their ‘position’ on TEH GAY is by no means a cultural universal, and that there have been gay-friendly civilisations in the past who have been happy to abuse their power in much the same way as monotheists do now, which is a good reason not to abuse power. You may finish up on the wrong side of said abuse.

    7. There is a serious argument to be made that one of the reasons Jews were so passive in the face of medieval and later persecutions was their experience of Hadrian’s destructiveness. He left them psychically scarred.

    Martin Goodman’s ‘Rome and Jerusalem: the Ancient Clash of Civilisations’ has lots of detail on this. Well worth a read, although it’s a very long book.

  22. kvd
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    L@22 the last nomads made their first contact with our advanced society in the 1980′s – that is, 30 years ago. Applying your potted Jewish history to our indigenous populations, I’d politely suggest that they are presently only at your first shock point. Hardly had much time to ‘select for cultural traits’ don’t you think?

    SL that is totally fascinating stuff! Thank you.

  23. Posted April 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    kvd@25: My point is not that they should have “got over it by now”. My point is that accepting that a process of change is involved is the only way forward. Trying to freeze what survives in some sort of institutional aspic is merely a recipe for continuing disaster.

  24. kvd
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    So fitting in is the most (only?) practical way forward. See my 13,14 above. I agree, but I also think it would be depressing to be on the wrong side of that.

  25. Larry
    Posted April 20, 2012 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    kvd@27, better to be depressed than dead, which is what happens. Look at just how dysfunctional Australian Aborigines and Native Americans become culturally when they attempt to stay outside the dominant invading culture. However, when they assimilate while still keeping elements of their cultural traditions they get along fine.

  26. Posted April 21, 2012 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    When I compare the evolved custom of Aboriginal pastoral workers in the early 20th century with the current malaise particularly in the NT, I think our good intentions have backfired.

    As I understand it, the local people were encouraged to stay on property, on their own country, in their own communities. The able bodied members of the community were encouraged to work using their undoubted skills of affinity with the bush and animals and their skills of tracking and landcare. The community was paid rather than the individual and this was predominantly with tucker and provisions rather than cash.

    With the advent of equal pay to all workers, there was no need to keep the community on country, indeed, it became urgent to evict them or wages would have to be found for everybody. Workers lost the respect that they had previously held in their communities and the skills ceased to be handed on to the young. As I see it, we are responsible for the lack of hope and the despair and the substance abuse because of this.

    There was a difference between Aboriginal and white stockmen and a reason for the disparity in wages. The station was not expected to house and feed the white ringers’ wider community.

  27. Posted April 21, 2012 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    kvd@27: I don’t know that “fitting in” is exactly what the Jews have done. Adaption is not the same as complete assimilation.

  28. Posted April 21, 2012 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    H2@29: The story is more complicated than that, in that Aborigines were by no means always well treated on the stations. The real problem with the stockmen award case was not equal pay for equal work, it was the insistence that full-time work was the only permitted model of employment. (Unions always prefer that, because it is the easiest to union organise.) One that had absolutely no resonance in indigenous cultures at all.

    But, with that caveat, you are basically correct.

  29. Posted April 21, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I agree with your

    in that Aborigines were by no means always well treated on the stations

    I wasn’t trying to say the system was one of wine and roses. I was comparing it to the disaster that led to the intervention.
    I am also sure that if the pastoral system was a step towards a ‘farming’ culture, the changes that happened since have been steps away.

  30. John BENNETT
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo, I request permission to use your original material for posting on a blog called PNG Attitude. PNG Attitude discuuss contemporary issues in PNG and the relationship with Australia. I live and work in Papua New Guinea. The material you wrote has some parallels for PNG. It will be fully attributed. John BENNETT.

  31. John H.
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink


    Great post. Thanks. Oddly enough I had started a post on my blog addressing this issue but keep getting stuck on the “what to do” question. My approach is different from yours, I’m invoking a range of neurological and endocrine studies to illustrate how the developmental environment for aborigines in remote settlements virtually guarantees a very high rate of behavioral disorders, particularly given recent findings demonstrating how frontal lobe functions can be severely impacted by inappropriate environments and how the stress response axis is potentially irreversibly “tuned” in such a way to promote ongoing behavioral and cognitive deterioration.

    This is an extremely difficult problem because a generational causation set has been established. At present I see no way of solving this dilemma so I may well not finish my post!

  32. Posted April 21, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    H2@32: Quite so.

    JB@34: That would be fine.

    JH@32: Thanks. Successfully framing the question is a necessary step in any deliberated response to a problem. Not coming up with a solution is not a reason not to attempt to appropriately frame the question–so, finish your post!

  33. John H.
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Here’s the rub for me Lorenzo. Like yourself I perceive that many of “sacred” themes in the aboriginal debate are actually the problem. For eg, the idea that aboriginal teenagers should embrace both their own culture and ours is ridiculous. Living in remote communities may enable them to appreciate aboriginal culture, though I think not, but the isolation and lack of exposure to the world at large impels teenagers to feel somewhat trapped in that remote community because they don’t have sufficient experience of dealing with our culture. This probem is extremely exacerbated by a neuro-developmental environment that that discourages behavioral diversity.

    That is one issue, I was kept awake for a few hours last night just thinking about that. But consider the dilemma: if people like you and me go out saying such things: RACIST! Never mind that we make sense, we’re still RACIST! So we have to take on the ranters, we have to demonstrate that their approach is fundamentally a huge part of the problem.

    Good luck Lorenzo!

  34. kvd
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    JH@37 I’ve read nothing above by either Lorenzo or yourself which could even remotely be interpreted as racist by anyone of goodwill, with even a small amount of common sense.

    And if you’re stuck on the ‘what to do’ bit, well all that means is that you are like the rest of us: willing, able, bewildered – but hopeful. Maybe the way forward is via individual effort, one person at a time, rather than top down imposed solutions? Who knows – but I do admire schemes for health and training that seem to come out of the efforts of individuals who simply care enough to try.

  35. kvd
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    May as well lay my complete bleeding heart on the table. I was watching a film yesterday about the rise and fall and rise of one of the dotcom heroes, during which he found himself on a beach in Mexico talking to a solitary fisherman. (I’m sure it’s been done better many times, but the dialog went something like this:)

    You should get a net.
    -Why would I want a net? I catch what I need.
    You could sell the surplus, maybe buy a boat, catch even more fish.
    -What does that achieve?
    You could make enough money so you could retire, and maybe afford to stand on this beach, catching fish.

    I just think there’s an element of that in any discussion of this ‘what to do’ situation.

  36. Old woman of the nor
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    A great post, Lorenzo. Objectivity is hard to find and also squashed by the fear of the ‘racist’ tag that accompanies any attempt to try to think through the cultural divide problem. I agree that the removal of the Aborigines from their own ‘land’ on the properties was the beginning of their downfall. I agree – the workers were in that transition stage between structured work and the hunter-gatherer method in an industry that was also at the beginning of farming. These chaps understood what was going on. Unfortunately the political ideology of the time was against it, despite the politicians being warned about the results of their rulings. They ignored the warning because they had no concept except that of the ‘noble savage’ who had to be corralled into what you truthfully called a ‘human zoo’.

  37. John H.
    Posted April 21, 2012 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    JH@37 I’ve read nothing above by either Lorenzo or yourself which could even remotely be interpreted as racist by anyone of goodwill, with even a small amount of common sense.

    Thanks KVD. Yeah, I thought that about the Andrew Bolt case. I don’t like Bolt but like many Australians I was dismayed by that outcome. Bolt may have been a dumbass in writing that piece but I don’t see any evidence he is a racist. In fact I think it absurd to charge racism on the grounds of one set of statements; with obvious exceptions. Racism is, or should be, about sustained patterns of behavior. After all, we all go overboard on occasion. If we’re denied that catharsis we might all go insane. :D

  38. Posted April 22, 2012 at 3:56 am | Permalink

    Yes, John H – what kvd said. There has never been a hint of racism from you or Lorenzo, and we would never have invited Lorenzo to be an admin if we thought that were the case. LE was in B’nai Brith for a while and I’ve been in long term relationships with three men who are not the same race as me (including one Aboriginal). I think we’re good at spotting racism should it rear its ugly head.

    That said, like you I had problems with the Bolt ruling, partly because it confers an extra ground of suit on (some) people on the basis of race and also starts paddling in the muddy waters of group rights, about which I have very grave doubts. I’m also familiar with baseless accusations of racism and strongly suspect that many of the people who bandy the word about so freely need to use the dictionary and find out what it actually means.

  39. TerjeP
    Posted April 22, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Multiculturalism only works where there is a common culture. By which I mean there must be some shared core values and beliefs and an acceptance that these particular values and beliefs are what matters most. Amoung those core beliefs must be a degree of tolerance for differences. This ought to be self evident but in my view often gets lost in the assimilation versus multiculturalism debates.

    The three things I think the modern world desparately needs:-

    i) A common culture – The closest thing we currently have is called modernity
    ii) A common language – it’s English but not as common as would be ideal
    iii) A common currency – we use the US dollar but it’s an unfortunate compromise

    All three are about communicating and transacting and reducing the associated costs within each respective realm.

  40. TerjeP
    Posted April 22, 2012 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    p.s. Bob Brown would say we also need a common government but I wouldn’t agree.

  41. Posted April 23, 2012 at 4:11 am | Permalink


    A common currency – we use the US dollar but it’s an unfortunate compromise

    And the Euro, the Eurozone’s common currency, how is that working out for them?

  42. Adrien
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Bolt may have been a dumbass in writing that piece but I don’t see any evidence he is a racist.

    Yet there are many that see Bolt’s alleged racism as self-evident. In the days when I was on his blog I often got that uncomfortable feeling I get when I sense true animosity. He’s very slick about it; there’s nothing explicitly, definitely racist. But if he doesn’t have a thing about the originies then he spends an awful lot of time slandering them. And he constantly muddies the water and raises shackles making reasoned discourse impossible.

    For example:

    I think multiculturalism should be distinguished from cultural relativism.

    Mr Bolt persistently and deliberately conflates these two. Multiculturalism equals moral relativism in his view; they are the same. Because of him there would be an immediate prejudice against the vital facts in this post.

    For, if you are not interested in the facts of the case, then you are not interesting in helping actual people in actual situations; merely in being seen to be compassionate about imagined people.


  43. Adrien
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – In analysis, culture is the last refuge of the analytically bereft.

    Yes, and in culture, analysis is the refuge of those who can’t create. This is a truism. Academics and critics quite often lack that lateral nous and thus often fail to understand the most basic things about this or that cultural artifact. I mention this because of your list of the analytically tractable. Culture obviously cannot be reduced to these things. Yet that list of items is essential for a functioning society.

    This essay expresses very well the relationship between economy and spirituality. This is largely ignored by most of us including and most especially these fetishists. What it leaves out is that our own culture has been in a spin dive since the industrial revolution. So these people are trying to cope with everything that’s happened since the first Agrarian Revolution and we’ve been trying to cope with our machines and our tiny pebble status. Lots of people do this by fetishing the tribal, re-acquiring it etc. If you’ve got a tattoo or a body piercing you’ve gone a bit native. Lots of people are aware of the plight of many indigenous people, few of us know what we’re talking about. And economics is not exactly something with which one acquires a thorough familiarity these days. People like Andrew Bolt don’t help because he simply alienates anyone who cares.

    Still doubtless the ability to function in the modern economy is essential to ending this national disgrace. And doubtless “foraging notions of time management, property, sharing, and conflict” don’t help any more than Bolt. Perhaps aspects of indigenous culture are a problem, however culture is organic and adapts and, considering history, I’d be hesitant to go into direct war with their culture. They’re sick of listening to us.

  44. Mel
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Judging by the way Jo Nova, Jen Marohasy, Rafe, Sinclair, Sammy J and Stevie Kates deferentially cite Andrew Bolt at least 3 or 4 times each week, it would almost be accurate to describe Australian Libertarianism as a mere footnote to the Bolta ;)

  45. TerjeP
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – I don’t see the problem in Europe as being linked to the use of a common currency. The problem has been an implied pooling of credit risk by governments, one which has been now demonstrated by several rescue measures. It is this which led to reckless lending practices (or permitted reckless borrowing practices depending on your point of view). However this is a product of a partial political union not a currency union. In any case the euro model is hardly the only one for achieving a common currency. For much of history gold was the common currency of the world. Clearly there were lots of currencies in the gold standard era but I advocated for a common currency not a single currency.

  46. Posted April 23, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    A@49 Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I am, however, sure that “going to war” with their cultures would massively counterproductive. The point is about being honest that improvement requires change, but thinking we can successfully impose change is … well, an idea that has been tried lots and hasn’t that worked well? But we cannot insulate from change either.

    TP@51 You seem to be suggesting something like Keynes/Schumacher’s bancor idea. Personally, I am comfortable with floating exchange rates.

    The lack of a clear lender of last resort was a problem, but the ECB letting NGDP crash (i.e. not having money supply keep up with money demand) is the more proximate cause of the problems.

  47. TerjeP
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    The Bancor idea wasn’t too bad except it relies on a central authority. It’s economically good but institutionally fragile.

    We’ve done the NGDP discussion previously and we don’t agree.

  48. John H.
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps aspects of indigenous culture are a problem, however culture is organic and adapts and, considering history, I’d be hesitant to go into direct war with their culture. They’re sick of listening to us.

    The culture issue creates all manner of attacks against those who suggest Aborigines need to be more realistic about the limitations of their culture in the modern world. I’ve been trying to explore the problem from a neuro-developmental perspective because that sidesteps the culture questions. The culture questions are important but are also too easily manipulated by vested interests. Once you buy into the culture style arguments they win because it is their turf.

    I don’t know what prompted Lorenzo to write about the Aboriginal question. With me it was reports about a big spike in suicide rates that came out last week when only 2 months ago I read a similiar report about Aboriginal girls. So I looked up some data. It’s freakin incredible, I have data to hand showing sexually transmitted dieases are up to 40 times higher in Aboriginal teenagers than the general population. That alone is a freakin’ disaster so I won’t horrify you with health stats.

    Put bluntly, I don’t even understand why people need to identify themselves with the larger culture, with wearing some uniform (they walked in line… ). Maybe I’m just the odd one out but I don’t think so, I think most people are like me they in that we define ourselves by our behavior not by some identity tag. Appellations are simply conceptual conveniences, we can identify things with names but names are just symbols yet people get so caught up with this identity stuff. Just enjoy the day and stop the navel gazing.

  49. Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    JH@54 I went to a talk by a former Victorian magistrate who had worked in the Northern Territory in the 1950s, though I have long had an interest in indigenous issues.

    The stats are diabolically bad and the neuro-development “way in” well worth pursuing, for the reasons you say.

  50. John H.
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink


    The stats are diabolically bad and the neuro-development “way in” well worth pursuing, for the reasons you say.

    I suspected that which is why when the intervention started they went looking at STDs as a proxy for sexual abuse.

    At circa 2.00 am last night I did manage to find an approach that reduces the whole issue down to a single question: which is more important — preserving Aboriginal culture or creating an environment which allows Aboriginal children the possibility of being the best they can. Inspired by Lorenzo’s title: Suffer the little children.

    I’m still not sure I can finish my post because it is now growing into a monograph.

    Some recent material:

    In 2009, the highest age-specific gonorrhoea notification rate in WA occurred in the 15-19 year old age group for Aboriginal people living in the Kimberley region (10,069 per 100,000 population), which was 45 times the overall age-specific rate for all 15-19 year olds in WA (222 per 100,000 population) [13]. Rates were also high for Aboriginal people in the 20-24 age group in the Kimberly region (8,930 per 100,000) and 20-24 age group in the Pilbara region (8,369 per 100,000). Aboriginal children aged 10-14 years were notified with a gonorrhoea infection (458 per 100,000 population) compared to nil notifications for non-Aboriginal children in the same age group.

    News item last week.

    Mr Umbagai says he has lost count of attempted suicides. A document obtained by Fairfax reveals that in a four-month period from July last year, 18 females and 22 males were admitted to the Derby hospital, for self-harm, attempted hanging, overdosing and suicidal thoughts. Most cases involved indigenous people and excessive alcohol consumption. The number of young Aboriginal people taking their own lives may be higher as some deaths, such as a recent road fatality, have been classified as accidental.

  51. kvd
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    JH@57 those rates per 100,000 are quite shocking, both in total and in comparison to the overall WA rates. Taking your 15-19 and 20-24 together I make that roughly 9,500 per 100,000 Aboriginal people (15-24) living in the Kimberley region.

    But I want to note that Wikipedia states the total population of the Kimberley as about 41,000 – of which about 33% identify as indigenous. And the age groups I combined as 15-24 make up about 15% of the total population.

    Therefore, getting back to absolute numbers, I’d guess there are about (41,000*33%*0.15=) 2,050 individuals, suffering at the rate of 9500 per 100,000 which makes 195 individual cases in the age group 15-24

    Now, all of the above is to say that accepting that a rate of 9500 per 100,000 is a) shocking, and b) 45 times greater than the wider population, it is difficult to jump from that to the “preserving aboriginal culture OR creating an environment etc…” proposition.

    The other thing is, your marker is an introduced disease, quite possibly aided and abetted in some instances by the transient, or fly in fly out worker populations. (Not arguing, just providing a another perspective)

  52. Adrien
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo – The point is about being honest that improvement requires change, but thinking we can successfully impose change is … well, an idea that has been tried lots and hasn’t that worked well?

    Change happens best when those who seek it start with themselves and not with others, yes? There is, I’m sure, a plethora of discourse about Tradition v Modernity amongst the indigenous people of this country. On the paler side of the citizenry there’s been a plethora of policy. None of which has worked well. Instead of dismissing the entirety of ‘Aboriginal culture’ (of which there are many) as the illusions born of the economically backward, it’s perhaps simply better to convince them of the importance of acquiring certain attributes and competences (like literacy) in order to compete. Competing is something all living creatures understand.

    But we cannot insulate from change either.

    Try telling that either to the Leader of the Opposition or your average reactionary tribal elder, Aboriginal or otherwise.

    John – reduces the whole issue down to a single question: which is more important: preserving aboriginal culture or creating an environment which allows aboriginal children the possibility of being the best they can.

    It seems to me this repeats the mistakes of the past. We are boiling the issue down to a single question. The question changes but the boiling remains the same. The cultures of various indigenous tribes conflict with modernity and its products, like human rights or the market value of labour, at certain points. But culture is a conglomerate of various things and it is not necessary to jettison the whole lot. Nor is it productive to speak of doing so. The reaction is likely to be reminiscent of the prime minister’s last Australia Day.

  53. Posted April 24, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Permalink


    Instead of dismissing the entirety of ‘Aboriginal culture’ (of which there are many) as the illusions born of the economically backward, it’s perhaps simply better to convince them of the importance of acquiring certain attributes and competences (like literacy) in order to compete. Competing is something all living creatures understand.

    Talking of a single Aboriginal “culture” is one of my pet hates: fetishising at its most ignorant. You may notice I kept referring to “cultures“.

    Change does not have to mean abandonment, it means accepting a process of adaptation. There are aspects of our contemporary Western culture(s) which one can reasonably trace back to the development of nomadic cultures in the Russian steppes thousands of years ago.

    Apart from that, I agree.

  54. Mel
    Posted April 24, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I think it was always Larva Plod’s argument that there was no exceptional violence/alcohol/sex abuse or any other type of problem in indigenous communities and anyone who said otherwise was probably racist. That’s another reason why I’m glad to see the back of them. The denialist left is no better than the denialist right.

  55. John H.
    Posted April 25, 2012 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    The other thing is, your marker is an introduced disease, quite possibly aided and abetted in some instances by the transient, or fly in fly out worker populations. (Not arguing, just providing a another perspective)

    I have considered other aspects of that thanks Mel but had not considered your point. the points I raised are with respect to lack of popn exposure to these pathogens until 200 years ago so immunity against these pathogens is weaker than in our ancestral popns, plus aborigines *appear* to demonstrate impaired immunity, a result of psycho-cultural and nutritional factors, and the relatively closed natures of these communities means vector transmission may be very difficult to address, and hygiene issues(without germ theory hygiene don’t make such sense).

    What these STD rates suggest though, if not demand, is that aboriginal communities must adopt sexual mores that are much more rigid than the general popn. If they don’t do this the vectors will never be removed. As the AIDS crisis demonstrated, and in Australia we did a remarkably good job in tackling that issue, in the presence of such pathogens only sweeping changes in personal sexual behavior will address the problem.

    The STDs are only one set of health stats, the other health stats are often equally shocking.

    What continually surprises me is that even though it is consistently proclaimed that aborigines have experienced very long genetic separations from the global human population, we should then expect their genotypes to reflect that heritage and knowing the genotypes could be very useful in helping aborigines address the multitude of health challenges. Sadly though, last time I checked, it was rather difficult to find genetic analyses of aborigines. That is a big information gap that needs to be addressed and stuff the politics of it. This is about health, not some 19th century European elitist campaign to be rid of the aborigines. Genes matter!

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