Sunday, March 7, 2010

Australians: The Observer Speaks

Via The Englishman I was pointed to this article in the Observer, which is a long, ignorant stream of nonsense about Australian aborigines. It's really not worth reading. Among other things, he asks this question, which led me to leave the following comment, and I thought it was worth making into a post.

It's difficult to believe that anything can pass down unchanged, though, for a thousand generations. Is that really possible?

No, it isn't.

These stories, fascinating as they undoubtedly are, are no more a description of anything real than the book of Genesis or the Works and Days or the Mahabharata. Over a very few generations the stories change out of all recognition, at least with regard to any useful details. They serve a religious function, justifying certain behaviours and outlawing others; an identifying function, giving people a sense of themselves and their history and importance; an entertainment function, the evenings can be very long and tedious there; a political function, giving a natural and unanswerable rightness to the customs of the group, which is very useful to those who want to control it.

Every change in the leadership, every battle won or lost, every time a part of the group fought with another and left to make it's own way, every migration, every alteration of the accepted circumstance, needs a new set of foundation myths, which some- call them shamans, call them politicians- will be happy to provide. No, these stories, myths, customs, laws etc have not survived intact through 1,000 generations.

I know it's a bit much to expect a journalist to consult someone who knows something about the subject before writing an article, but a bit of input from an anthropologist would have stopped him making an idiot of himself. Or, indeed, a bit of thought.

There have been humans in Australia for at least 40,000 years, that much is true, but linguistic and other evidence suggests very strongly that for much of that time they were concentrated in the northwest, close to the coast. A thousand generations ago the ancestors of 'John', who, despite being an adult Australian educated by missionaries speaks English like a Hollywood Indian of the 1950's (not the only example of casual racism in the article), certainly did not live anywhere near Alice Springs. It is highly unlikely that anyone did.

Why does he think that 'no other humans can claim this'? As I have said, 'John''s tribe can't claim it anyway, but people have lived in East Africa since there have been people, and in Southern Africa for far longer than they have lived in Australia.

Better told, it would have made a good story, but no more than that. There is nothing it can tell us.


Vincent said...

I don't understand what provoked you into a diatribe against this journalist, or indeed journalists in general, I mean they are too easy a target for your talents ...

But, leaving that aside (please!) I'm mainly interested in your main point, as to whether stories can pass through the generations unchanged; or to be more precise, do oral traditions and oral literature live up to their reputation of having been passed down word for word?

It's a vast topic, I guess, about which I know a smattering here and there, not enough to venture an opinion: a little about the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, the Old Testament, the presumption that written language was invented by accountants (or perhaps book-keepers) in Mesopotamia.

How do we know anything about oral traditions, except through oral traditions? That's the paradox.

As for your other point, that a journalist should perhaps check with someone who knows something about the subject before submitting his article: again I don't know if there are rules about this. If we take at one end the newspapers, which publish news, it's "news" if someone says something. The more sensationalist and less responsible newspapers are prepared to base their front headlines and supporting articles on one person's say-so. If they had to check that say-so on some authoritarian source, newspapers as we know them would not exist, and we would have nothing but peer-reviewed learned journals.

As I see it, the Press have little if any moral, ethical, academic or any other standards other than circulation and the maintenance of self-created brand-image. But they do reflect as in a glass darkly some distorted view of what some people say and think; and in specialised cases even tell us about real events.

CIngram said...

It was really a comment I left on another blog, in answer to a blogger who seemed to want to know. It got so long I thought I'd post it here as well, but, as you say, and as I really should know , it is foolish to expect anything better from journalists.

The purpose of journalists is indeed to sell newspapers by telling stories; gossip, anecdote, derivative tales and the reinforcement of prejudice are all good for that purpose, whereas truth and importance are not. Self-importance, however is another matter, and they can't admit that their trade is refreshingly capitalist, and so they invent a position for themselves as defenders of the last barricade of truth and freedom against tyranny.

There I go again.

I resolve to attack more worthy targets in future.

As to your question about the reliability of oral tradition, I very much doubt I know enough to offer an opinion myself, but that isn't going to stop me trying. I'll try to post something on the subject this week, when I`ve had a chance to do some proper research.