Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Aboriginal Nimbys

I read this a few weeks ago (here, in the National Geographic), and I think it is worth a few observations from left field.

It is interesting in its assumptions,  both journalistic and anthropological. It starts off with, in fact it mostly consists of, a series of anecdotic little details, probably largely invented, about the lives of the people Michael Finkel was talking to and about. This is what journalists do, they call it human interest and learn it the first day on the job. The fact that a supposed science article is not tabloid journalism is rather lost on this chap, who probably isn't a scientist anyway. He's just a writer, he doesn't seem to have any other relevant background. He has some curiosity, which is something, but too many preconceptions and not enough ability to observe.

What is described is presented uncritically, as good, virtuous, a model for the rest of us. But if you set aside the casual racism which treats Aborigines, in the category of those who live differently and take their traditions more seriously than we do, as simple but exotic animals, and actually see them as people, they come across, as transmitted to us by Michael Finkel, as selfish and arrogant.

They do not live in harmony with nature. That is a silly idea peddled by hippies and believed by the ignorant. Primitive peoples live at the mercy of nature, and survive, to the extent that they do, by holding it off as long as possible. They live as they do because they can't live better.

The  village described is a dictatorship in which the tyrant is an old woman. Her right to arbitrarily control what happens and  what people can do is accepted not only by the villagers but also by those outside, who should know better. They appear to do no work, but live from other people's efforts, for which they show no gratitude. They have, they demand, that other people provide electricity for them, but they will not allow mining in their area. No planning process, no quid pro quo. Just the ukase of the matriarch. Classic nimbyism. They demand that others work for them and provide them with things, but it must be other people's land that is spoilt to provide it. And apparently this makes them virtuous. The writer has not thought this through.


Vincent said...

I’m struggling to understand your point here, CI. Is your criticism directed at the writer, or the people he writes about? To me the piece has exactly the same tone as every other National Geographic article I’ve read since 1949.

As far as I could see, virtue, or lack of same, was not touched upon. The writer did his job. The people he describes continue to live their life, with or without visits from National Geographic, doing what everyone everywhere ought to do: make the most of what they’ve got. Ever since the white men came along, Aboriginal ways have been affected. Terrible things have been done. White man’s guilt can never be assuaged, Aborigines make the most of that. The historical wrongs cannot be put right. The current wrongs can’t easily be put right. It’s not a perfect world. Let us rejoice at small mercies, let us celebrate those who make the best of things, and be grateful to those who write about them, even in the cloying NatGeog style.

The matriarch rules because weakness has need of strength. Call her dictator and tyrant if you must, but she is their accepted leader. Don’t expect democratic elections. Her strict “no alcohol” rule has a very sensible basis, given what alcohol has done to destroy Aboriginal self-respect and respect from others, elsewhere in Australia.

I found the tone of your piece instantly recognizable as the kind of rightwingery I encountered on a forum I joined for a while called http://forum.theodoredalrymple.org/ It wasn’t till someone started a thread entitled “Nelson Mandela's Failed Legacy” that I sussed it out: the pleasure of being outraged at popular sentiment other than rightwing. So when Mandela dies, they are outraged at his alleged deification. I deleted all my posts. The place now seems to me a kind of hell.

“The writer has not thought this through”. Maybe. There is a lot of thinking through to be done, about a lot of things.

Mark Wadsworth said...

Excellent post! Somebody had to say it.

Maybe a typo here though:

"... by they will not allow mining in their area."

CIngram said...


You say that the journalist has done his job, and he has; that's part of the problem. He has told a story well, which is what he is paid for. And I like well-told stories. But it is a story, put together from some observations, some experiences, and built up into a picture that is not necessarily a reflection of the truth. Perhaps I expect too much of the National Geographic, but they shouldn't just be normal journalists, should they?

My criticism, in any case, is anthroplogical. (I am broadly of the political right, but these are not political criticisms.) These people are not treated as people, but as objects (by the writer). I read a lot of anthropological texts and you learn to tell the difference. It is easy to make the mistake that because a particular group behaves in a certain way, different from our own, that they have something to teach us. Perhaps they do, but most of us would not, in fact, want to live that way, and only a few people can live like that because even the low standard of living they have depends entirely on there being a mcuh wealthier society around them to provide that living.

ALthough we are told that the matriarch is very keen on education, there is no evidence that anyone is really educated, as the only jobs mentioned are fishing for turtles and doing casual labour in the nearby townns. Do they have doctors? Can they treat their own sick? I very much doubt it, and the romantics who dream of a simpler life (I yearn at times for my imaginary Ashram) tends not to think of what will happen if they become ill or have an accident.

The matriarch may well be right to ban alcohol in the group's territory, but why does she have the authority to do so? It is accepted or resented by the people subject to her? They will no doubt have their own ideas about these things, especially the young. In the case of other societies, we would expect an article at least to question that authority.

The main point of the post was contained in the title. The group wants more of the comforts of modern life, but at the expense of others. (And yes, so do I, of course, but we usually criticize people who expect others to do what they themselves will not). They, or their immediate ancestors, were undoubtedly shabbily treated. Does that make it just that those now living should make reparation? Perhaps it does. A lot of people seem to think so. But that's another argument, and one I'm not competent to explore.

It’s not a perfect world. Let us rejoice at small mercies, let us celebrate those who make the best of things, and be grateful to those who write about them...

That is a sentiment I can entirely agree with, especially on a day like today, which I have always found especially unlifting.


Typo corrected, thanks. Part of my work consists of translating and proof-reading academic papers for publication, usually in journals with very high standards of accuracy. Why I can do that, but can't write a simply blog post without error I do not know.

Merry Christmas to you both, and to all those who drop by this little log cabin in the wooded hills surrounding the greater blogosphere.

Brett Hetherington said...

Yes, that National Geog. article is certainly lacking a lot. The author writes a sentence (early in the article) that runs “I look over the side of the dinghy and see a great shadow in the water.” This is simply aping indigenous pseudo-spirituality and after that it was hard to take him very seriously.

Certainly, very few Aboriginals are still hunter-gatherers but the mentality remains, as the author notes: “A hallmark of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is immediate consumption; as soon as food is procured, it’s promptly shared and devoured .” This has now transformed into a modern outlook where Aborigines in rural areas believe that they should be provided for, at minimal effort, which, as you say, is

As a former-Australian I have seen what alcohol and other addictive drugs has done to the lives of many native Australians. I don't believe that addiction is purely a choice. There is always a strong element of personal weakness in any addict but there is also a societal factor involved.

The closest thing to the near-taboo conversation topic of social class for the average English person is the subject of Aborigines in Australia, especially for progressive people, and there is usually a sense of collective guilt about it (even though this makes little sense, logically.)

I have taught Aboriginal children and a friend who is Aboriginal. His name is Eric Willmot and he is a great example of what someone from his very rough and typically unproductive background can actually do. He became the head of the education department in the Australian Capital Territory (ie. Canberra) and also went on to be a published author, a successful inventor and a very good father and husband. [http://www.answers.com/topic/eric-willmot]

There have been some other inspiring Aboriginals, especially in a range of sports, but I was a big supporter of Noel Pearson, who, as an articulate high-profile lawyer, would have made the perfect first (appointed) President of an Australian Republic (which is long overdue now.)

Anyone who has ever read Robert Hughes' starkly brilliant history “The Fatal Shore” knows that Aborigines were treated in hideous, brutal (and sometimes humane) ways. It is ridiculous to say that native tribes were peaceful and in harmony with nature, as you point out, but because I do “see them as people, and not just simple exotic creatures” I also recognise that their traditional beliefs have held them back, just as Christian superstitions have done. I hope that Aboriginal languages do survive but also see that if Aborigines do not get better at helping themselves (and wider society has a role in that) many will continue to often be poor, uneducated and live in dire circumstances.

CIngram said...


Thanks for the personal view on this.

Education is an important part of what looks to me like a problem with this. As a teacher, especially at the school where I work part time (the Academy I run has a different kind of social structure), I see many children who simply don't know how to make anything of the opportunities they are being offered, nor of what they can expect if they do or don't take them.

It is a 'concertado' school, which you will understand, but for the benefit of other readers, that means it is privately run (by the Salesians) but partly publicly funded. It is a model which works very well, in our case.

The young people described in the article may not have any greater aspiration than fishing for turtles and living in something near poverty, but the pressures they are under from both inside and outside the tribe do not allow them to form that aspiration or live any other live. They are expected to be (picturesquely) poor and they expect themselves to be that way.

I see large numbers of children who do not acquire any kind of useful education because we are unable to explain to them why they need it. Some are rebellious and do not look ahead to see what happens to people like them (you want to shout at them that the young people who were like them five years ago are now cleaning the toilets in MacDonalds, or begging their parents for some money to go out, because they chose to have nothing to offer anyone). Some don't listen, until it's far too late.

Others, many, many others, simply don't realize that they can do much more. They are offered an education which they don't know what to do with, and they don't expect to do anything very different from what their parents do.

The young people from the tribe described in the article are constrained by their families, by their own limited experience, and by the rulers within and beyond their communities, to have no greater expectations than those they are permitted to have, That is a great shame.

In short, I have seen many younsters miss opportunities because they never realized they had them. I wish this were more widely understood, because even within the education system, it mostly isn't.