Sunday, 17 February 2008

Four reactions to an apology

I guess even people outside Australia have noticed that on Wednesday the federal parliament passed a motion of apology to the nation's aboriginal people, in particular the so-called Stolen Generations: victims of policies of removal of aboriginal children from their families. Of almost equal symbolic importance was the speech by the new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in support of the motion.

There has been a lot of talk on this during the week and in a sense I do not have much to add to it. But by chance it's my duty to offer prayers this morning, on behalf of the 10:00 AM congregation at my church, and so I have to reach some kind of publicly useful position on the week's business. On the one hand, this is dark history that (as the PM says) cries out for recognition and redress. On the other, it is a fearful thing to inject irrelevant polemic into a public prayer, and so I've been trying to understand to what extent this apology really is controversial. As a way of thinking through this, here are a couple of (very different) reactions I think should be rejected; and one, equally critical, that I think should be treated with respect. (Skip to the end if you want to get to the positive bit!!)

(1) Easiest to dismiss is Miranda Devine's statement in the Herald that the PM was fanning the flames of the "culture wars". Coming from a serial arsonist, this really was a bit much ... and if Ms Devine truly thinks (as she says) that Mr Rudd is taking up the approach of former prime minister Paul Keating, then her memory is worse than mine, or her imagination more powerful. I fully admit to having enjoyed Mr Keating's use of aboriginal rights and history as a cudgel to beat his political opponents: at the time, I also thought it was clever politics, a way of bringing the Labor Party in line to support land rights (after the initiative of the High Court) that it might otherwise have held at arms length. In retrospect he was wrong, and so was I. That polemical approach sowed the wind, and we then reaped the whirlwind for eleven-and-a-half long years: reaction that could point to what it reacted against, accuse it of partisan ideology and impracticality ... and be at least partly right.

So there, Ms Devine: I was wrong; so was Paul Keating, at least in this respect. As for the Labor Party, it is currently led by a dentist (figuratively speaking), a bureaucrat, a plain and uninspiring speaker (although his litany-inspired speech yesterday was, for him, unusually good) ... the kind of man who can say without irony that he is excited by establishing evidence-based policies. I take that as a token that the ALP is also willing, in this matter at least, to move on. Perhaps you could try it yourself. I understand that newspapers thrive on controversy, and on "debate" between "opposed" positions, and thus there's a kind of premium on taking a contrary view. But come on: this is important.

(2) Criticism instead from the left, and (as it were) from above, comes from a guest-post by Scott Stephens at Faith and Theology: The apology and the moral significance of guilt, accusing the PM and Parliament of tokenism and empty spectacle and (his words) enlisting aboriginal people "to take part in a kind of emotional pornography for the benefit of thousands of white Australian viewers".

I find this kind of purism --- this apology does not go far enough, so it is worse than useless --- infuriating. One could take issue with the details of the argument: for example, if it's intention that matters, as Mr Stephens Kants, doesn't that count against the approach of Paul Keating? (Mr Stephens faults the PM's language for not being as robust as PK's storied Redfern Speech: "we took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life … we committed the murders … " and so on.) As mentioned, I loved the Redfern Speech and I love PK, but the man can barely open his mouth without at least incidentally swiping at his enemies, Redfern not excepted: surely this is intentional at some level, and thereby compromises the action? Or if one's vice has become so ingrained that it proceeds without any higher-level volition, is it thereby innocent? (Hint: The Christian answer to that question is "no".)

But such arguments are incidental: I just cannot see the merit in trying and convicting the Prime Minister of compromise, of judging the limits of achievable consensus --- of being a politician. This is not news. Nor is it criticism. It is self-indulgence.

And yet ... Mr Stephens is held in regard by at least some other people I respect, and I have learned from experience to be careful of dismissing someone where this is true. There's also something a bit suspicious in a scientist accusing a theologian of contrariety and self-indulgence: because I would say that, wouldn't I? Maybe my reaction against this sort of posturing is part of some Two Cultures problem, however I have, as Mr Darcy would say, not yet learnt to condemn it.

(3) Both Ms Devine and Mr Stephens appeal for support to Noel Pearson, the aboriginal leader whose fierce independence of previous debate has won him enormous authority in the wider Australian community. Read his reflections the night before the apology, and also shortly after the election last year, and you will see why. In fact, one could profitably skip the Devine and Stephens articles and read Pearson alone: the substantial points against the current bien-pensant consensus are all there, but they are set in the midst of an argument that is actually about the problem of dealing with this history, and the present, in political terms, rather than using the apology as a tool in some other dispute.

Mr Pearson is in two minds about the apology, and seems to feel no need to condense his views into a easily-repeated "reaction". I will honour that restraint by simply saying: read what he has to say.

(4) As for me, I have no plan to repeat the apology later this morning: that would be presumptuous and unnecessary. But I do want to use it as a starting point, or (perhaps better) as background: for how can one ignore it this week? And when will we get a topic more fitting for reflection during Lent? "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?", asks the hymn. The answer to the question is "Yes", but it is not a simple yes by any means, and some of the issues are the same.

At Good Friday services at the Lutheran church in Geneva --- it doubles as a kind of chaplaincy to visiting English-speakers, and (a little perversely) as a British Commonwealth get-together --- a striking hymn was sung in the nineties, adapted from a Zulu (and Xhosa?) protest song. It was powerfully used to invite reflection on the crucifixion, and on all human sin, especially sins committed in company: the simple chorus will stay with me all my life.

Senzenina --- What have we done? What have we done? What have we done?


steph said...

I found you through Faith and Theology. It made me livid (a word I don't think I've never used): Scott Stephen's post on the otherwise sane weblog of Ben Myers. Scott seemed so Holier than thou ... and I missed his superior solution. Your PM delivered an election promise in the form of an apology and outlined plans for a commission. That is, the apology represents only a beginning of things to come. My barrister sibling works closely with indigenous people in the Nth.T. and all those with him are expressing how welcome is the PM's speech. As for the suggestion (by a commenting reader) that the speech lacked a plea for forgiveness? That's outrageous! The crimes committed against the indigenous Australians are unforgivable. They must be paid for with the healing process in all forms. IMO the negative reaction in that post was a bitter rant (as is this comment!) when he could have embraced the speech and helped to shape a hopeful future.

What did Scott actually propose? Perhaps the emptying of Australia (and NZ and the Pacific Islands) of all non indigenous people - not a bad idea. I'm sure he meant well. I share his guilt - I'm first generation Kiwi with Irish descent and South Pacific in-laws but that doesn't absolve me of the guilt - and I believe that Kevin Rudd has plans for us to help build new futures together. Be hopeful. Roll up our sleeves.

Thank you for letting me spill my rant.

Do I hit publish or let this go?

Bruce Yabsley said...

Hi Steph: thanks for visiting.

Do I hit publish or let this go?

One does need to vent sometimes.

Your question as to what alternative critics would propose is a good one. The apology was a practical piece of political work, and should be judged accordingly: in the circumstances I thought it did reasonably well, and it seems to have given us the opportunity to make a new beginning on other issues in aboriginal communities (and the wider community). Good. Let's get to work on those other things while we can.

steph said...

Thank you for your response and your appreciation of my desire to expel my frustrations. I agree with you absolutely - we can embrace a new beginning with lots of work now to do. I look forward to a brighter future.

Jonathan said...

Thanks, Bruce, for pointing to Pearson's comments.

When I heard Rudd's speech, I did feel a hint of the "emotional pornography" that Stephens refers to. I briefly tried to express what seemed wrong, without being able to put my finger on it. I don't think the whole thing was corrupted, but do think that we as non-Indigenous Australians, and those representing the nation in which we are the majority, should come to these issues with more humility. Maybe not saying more, like Keating, but saying less.

Bruce Yabsley said...

That's fair enough. I think there is a real concern here, but it's one that should be expressed as a reservation, not as a railing criticism.