This appeared in The Weekend Australian but the text is not available on the internet. I have taken it from the Mission and Justice blog, with minor edits.
Rosemary Neill; 11/7/09; Rosemary Neill is a senior writer on The Weekend Australian and author of White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia
Review - The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus by Peter Sutton; Melbourne University Press (available here)
In 2000, anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton travelled to the remote indigenous community of Aurukun for a double funeral. Sutton had already lost an extraordinary number of Aboriginal friends from this tiny Cape York community to suicide, murder and premature death. For him, that harrowing funeral was one too many. Shortly afterwards, this respected land rights expert delivered a lecture to the Australian Anthropological Society and gave one of the most damning assessments of contemporary indigenous policy on record. Sutton, who had been adopted (in the tribal sense) as a son by a prominent Aurukun man, urged Australians to reconsider “the contrast between progressivist public rhetoric about empowerment and self-determination and the raw evidence of a disastrous failure in major aspects of Australian Aboriginal affairs policy since the early 1970s”. The evidence of failure, he said, was “now frightening”.
That lecture, as impassioned as it was shocking, has evolved into this incisive, timely and tough-minded book. In The Politics of Suffering, Sutton writes about “the reality of massive failure in indigenous affairs policy” with courage and compassion, erudition and a sense of personal outrage and loss.
Sutton has been visiting Aurukun, a former Presbyterian mission of fewer than 1000 residents, since the early 70s. During a period of 28 years, he knew eight Aboriginal men and women from the settlement who committed suicide and 25 who were murdered or committed murder. He describes how Aurukun went from being a “once liveable and vibrant community” in the mid-70s when alcohol was not freely available, to “a disaster zone” by 2000. In his book, he examines the factors that contributed to this calamity.
Among them are cultural factors that pre-date white contact; factors, he argues, that are still considered so ideologically fraught they are intentionally omitted from public discussions of indigenous disadvantage.
Part scalding polemic, part dispassionate study, The Politics of Suffering is animated by three big and important ideas.
- First, it looks at how racially liberal attitudes have, paradoxically, paralleled escalating dysfunction in many remote indigenous communities.
- Second, as its subtitle suggests, the book explores the collapse of the 70s liberal consensus that a rights agenda — from a treaty to a formal reconciliation agreement — would empower the most troubled Aboriginal settlements. Sutton caustically observes: “This unscientific mumbo jumbo beggars belief.”
- Sutton’s third — and most contentious — theme blasts open a little-explored frontier in the contemporary indigenous affairs debate, taking the discussion to a new level of candour and maturity.
He analyses how many seemingly intractable problems indigenous people confront, from low life expectancy to high rates of domestic violence, arise from “a complex joining together” of post-conquest factors and “a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today”.
Through his observations and careful marshalling of historical and anthropological evidence, Sutton demonstrates how traditional approaches to violence, hygiene, sorcery and child-rearing persist in many indigenous communities. He argues that together with recent, destructive impacts such as welfare dependence and substance abuse, these cultural practices often have a detrimental effect on indigenous health, housing and wellbeing.
Yet he discovers that the complex question of culture is still being quarantined from discussions of indigenous disadvantage through what he calls “untruth by omission”. For instance, debates about poor indigenous educational outcomes commonly cite problems such as students’ hearing loss and undernourishment, but neglect to mention truancy, “stupendous as it has so often been”. He concludes: “One of the obstacles to effective debate in the present context is that so many people are still in denial over the need for cultural change.”
Accounts of indigenous domestic violence – usually disregard how violence and fighting were common features of traditional life. Sutton ; notes how colonial observers and anthropologists witnessed high levels of male-on-female , violence “at the earliest moments of external contact”, while analysis of archeological human remains that predated colonisation reveal an unusually high degree of skull injuries among Aboriginal women.
He believes physical aggression is tolerated in many remote communities today, and that modern scourges such as alcoholism exacerbate the problem. He reveals how some indigenous child-rearing practices encourage children, especially boys, to be aggressive. In a practice known as “cruelling”, parents intentionally hurt their kids, including babies, and teach them . to retaliate physically: a behavioural echo, perhaps, of the days when clans were often at war and children needed to protect themselves.
While historical mistreatment and lack of resources contribute to the scandalously poor state of indigenous health, they cannot alone account for the lack of progress, says Sutton. In remote areas, indigenous people often adopt hygiene regimes suited to a semi-nomadic existence but not to settled households. Many remote-area indigenous people also believe most illnesses and deaths are due “to the ill will and sorcery of other people”, a belief that further complicates efforts to boost health.
Rather than confront these issues, Sutton claims that the media, medicos, bureaucrats and activists have ensured that the indigenous housing and health debates succumb to “the disease of politicisation”.
He quotes one article, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2004, that partly blamed the appalling life expectancy gap between black and white Australians on the abolition of the widely discredited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. “That a journal with the historic reputation of The Lancet would stoop to publishing propaganda like this was incredible,” he writes.
The issue of overcrowded housing, Sutton says, is likewise misrepresented in the media as building shortages or evidence of indigenous poverty. But households that have 15 or 20 visitors staying at one time reflect a cultural phenomenon in which houses become a focal point for “demand sharing” by extended family members.
As the indigenous academic Marcia Langton says in her elegant, deeply felt foreword, Sutton’s honesty is “a powerful corrective to the romantic, misinformed fabulations about Aborigines as a special kind of modern ‘noble savage’.” Certainly, his clear-eyed analysis will offer little comfort to those on the Left who have romanticised tribal culture, and those on the Right who insist the answer lies in rapid economic modernisation.
Indeed, he concludes that the evidence “is heavily stacked against” a rose-tinted view that traditional Aboriginal people can quickly and easily change to adopt Western lifestyles.
He believes “deep — rather than superficial — cultural redevelopment is necessary” and that “the cycle of childhood socialisation needs to be regeared” if there is to be radical improvement. However, The Politics of Suffering offers few concrete suggestions as to how this might be achieved.
Sutton is no deep-dyed conservative with an axe to grind against self-determination. Indeed, he tells how he slept with a loaded rifle after being threatened by disgruntled whites for helping to establish a Cape York outstation in the early 70s. He has assisted 50 land rights cases, including the history-making Wik native title claim, as an expert on Aboriginal land ownership. Nevertheless, echoing Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, he explores how, for too long, “a progressive politics (preoccupied with rights) dulled our instincts about the sanctity of indigenous people’s right also to be free from violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption.”
Such issues are now firmly on the public agenda. But Sutton is indignant that “the causation wars” continue: “Even people of apparent sophistication can publicly subscribe to causal accounts that are an insult to the average intelligence. The kids don’t go to school because the teachers are racists … the focus on Indigenous community dysfunction is unfair because child abuse and wife-bashing occur in all communities.”
The Politics of Suffering’s later chapters focus on cultural relativism and relationships between 20th-century anthropologists and their indigenous collaborators. Sutton also reveals why he is a reconciliation sceptic. Lacking the rhetorical ferocity of the earlier chapters, the writing here is sometimes circular and opaque. Nevertheless, for its political incorruptibility and startling insights, for its potent mix of personal observation and scholarly research, The Politics of Suffering is one of the most important contributions made to the indigenous affairs debate in recent years.
It’s possible ideologues will misuse Sutton’s arguments about traditional culture to blame indigenous people for their predicament. But without a fine-grained picture of what is occurring in communities that most Australians will never visit, effective policies cannot be devised.
Moreover, as Sutton contends, the lack of improvement in critical areas no longer allows for complacency about “correct” approaches to the most urgent moral problem confronting this country: how to achieve meaningful justice for our most disadvantaged citizens.
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