Thursday 22 August 2002

The shame of designer tribalism

In the week that a Nigerian woman was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, Arts & Letters Daily pointed to Raymond Tallis’s review of Roger Sandall’s The Culture Club:

For adherents of what Sandall calls the culture cult, primitive culture is not inferior to modern civilization – it is different and quite likely better. Some commentators of this persuasion call for a radical simplification of modern life based on their notion of the condition of the primitive. Nothwithstanding their own doctrine of incommensurability, they take “a sour view of modernity”, forgetting, Sandall argues, that modern civilization not infrequently “allows changes of government without bloodshed”, as well as “civil rights, economic benefits, religious toleration, and political and artistic freedom”; whereas most traditional cultures “feature domestic repression, economic backwardness, endemic disease, religious fanaticism and severe artistic constraints”.

As if to underline Sandall’s argument, the BBC reported that:

The largely-male crowd in the [Nigerian] courtroom reacted to the judgement of judge Aliyu Abdullahi with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

“We uphold your conviction of death by stoning as prescribed by the Sharia. This judgement will be carried out as soon as your baby is weaned,” the judge said, as Amina cradled her eight-month-old daughter Wasila, reports the French news agency, AFP.

It’s ironic that many of those in the west who (correctly) condemned the court’s verdict happen to be the Designer Tribalists that Sandall accuses of engaging in the “sacralization of cultural difference” which, Tallis notes:

serves as a hypocritical denial, by people who are comfortably remote from its consequences, of the fact that there are cultures that have deeply undesirable aspects. The veneration of closed, tribal, warrior cultures involves a failure to acknowledge the absence in such societies of, among other things, individual rights and freedom of thought, rights that these same romantic primitivists demand for themselves.

Sandall’s ideas touched a chord in me, living as I do in Australia. I was hardly surprised by the final paragraph of the review:

Some of the passion in Sandall’s writing comes from a local issue: his horror at the betrayal of the Australian Aboriginal people by practitioners of romantic primitivism, the intellectuals who rewrote Aboriginal history, enforced bilingual instruction, encouraged a cultural apartheid of “self-determination” and prioritized the preservation of traditional culture over the skills of modern life. This has resulted in vocational disability among Aboriginal people, due in part to a catastrophic decline in literacy, and (to use Ernest Gellner’s words) in “frozen, visible, and offensive inequality”. The result is a diminution of life chances, and condemnation to a marginalized existence of a kind that boutique multiculturalists would not accept for themselves and their own children.

These same romantic primitivists and boutique multiculturalists run the Aboriginal Welfare Industry in Australia, dreaming up billion dollar schemes that have hardly improved Aboriginal health and literacy. While Aboriginal people are ravaged by chronic alcoholism and drug addiction, a herd of white lawyers, intellectuals, and bureaucrats roots deeper into the trough, only occasionally removing their snouts to utter the nonsense that Sandall excoriates.

Noel Pearson, the only Aboriginal leader to condem this cosy arrangement, has been largely ostracized by an Industry that is deeply offended by his speeches and essays. (When someone mentioned Pearson at a meeting I attended, the designer tribalist audience was so outraged that a heckler’s shout of “sell-out” provoked cheers and clapping.)

Why do the chattering classes despise Noel Pearson? Because his trenchant criticism of the system of passive welfare incriminates them. Because in his vision for Aboriginal Australia there would be no jobs for them. Because he shatters their comfortable illusions by talking like this:

The truth is that, at least in the communities that I know in Cape York Peninsula, the real need is for the restoration of social order and the enforcement of law. That is what is needed. You ask the grandmothers and the wives. What happens in communities when the only thing that happens when crimes are committed is the offenders are defended as victims? Is it any wonder that there will soon develop a sense that people should not take responsibility for their actions and social order must take second place to an apparent right to dissolution. Why is all of our progressive thinking ignoring these basic social requirements when it comes to black people? Is it any wonder the statistics have never improved? Would the number of people in prison decrease if we restored social order in our communities in Cape York Peninsula? What societies prosper in the absence of social order?

A rule of thumb in relation to most of the programs and policies that pose as progressive thinking in indigenous affairs, is that if we did the opposite we would have a chance of making progress. This is because the subservience of our intellectual culture to the cause of class prejudice and stratification is so profound and universal. What we believe is forward progress is in fact standing still or actually moving backwards…

I contend that people who want to be progressive today, are in objective fact, regressive in their thinking. This is especially and painfully obvious if you know the situation in the Aboriginal communities of this country. Petrol sniffing is in some places now so endemic that crying infants are silenced with petrol-drenched rags on their faces.

I’ve quoted three paragraphs from Noel Pearson’s Ben Chifley Memorial Lecture two years ago, titled Light on the Hill. I could quote a dozen more. The Australians who most need to read it won’t. It mystifies and infuriates me that they can wring their hands over the injustice done to Amina Lawal in Nigeria whilst acting as willing accomplices in the injustice inflicted on Aboriginal people in Australia.

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Why there were no comments until now about this item, while there were nine comments about your later post about your cat?
I wish more would speak plainly like you about our terrible track record and that we could have a decent debate about this issue without categorising sides as racists or bleeding hearts.

Posted by marius coomans on 23 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

You tell me, Marius. That's the great mystery of comments. Perhaps people are uncomfortable talking about the Aboriginal tragedy. I wondered if it was because I was expressing an unpopular or unfashionable point of view but I don't think it's that -- I get plenty of comments about other controversial issues. I guess some topics just don't capture the audience's imagination.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 23 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This audience member was captured, but couldn't think of much to say other than "happens here too -- e.g. casino gambling."

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 25 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour