Monday, February 18, 2008

what happens after sorry?

I agree with David Burchell: Fuzzy feelings won't save anyone (read the whole thing)
As any student of the history of Christianity knows, conscience, guilt, atonement and forgiveness can be double-edged emotional swords. The person who gives also receives. Bestowing an apology on another can cause us a perverse kind of pleasure: the pleasure of feeling better about ourselves as apologisers.

Perhaps that's why so many of the people whose hearts were raised to the skies in sorrow managed at the same time to be so mean-spirited towards the hapless but basically well-intentioned Brendan Nelson. They were distancing themselves from the other Australians out there, those less virtuous than themselves.

So seductive was the call of the moment that otherwise hard-nosed journalists (such as The 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien) seemed determined to adopt an aura not unlike that of Mother Teresa.

Now it's true that many commentators, as well as the PM himself, have striven almost ostentatiously to avoid any impression of losing hold of their faculties.

So we've heard a great deal about the apology being the easy part, and how the hard part of the job is yet to begin. And Kevin Rudd has announced some decidedly bold benchmarks for attacking indigenous mortality rates, school attendance figures and housing availability.

And yet these gestures, I confess, serve only to stoke my anxiety. To be blunt, I worry whether a PM who seems increasingly to be cast as the deliverer of Aboriginal Australia will muster the strength of character to be hated (vociferously hated, perhaps) by many Australians - white and black alike - for making the kinds of unpopular decisions that are surely required.

Benchmarks are hardly a novelty in Aboriginal policy. Similarly stern aims to close the gap between the two nations have been invoked by every PM since Robert Menzies.

Yet too often they have become ritual words, uttered without any tangible effect. No bread has turned into flesh; no wine has become blood. Indeed, so far as can be told from the publicly available figures, on some key indicators the gap has probably widened.

To be frank, while I would dearly love to believe in them, I have no idea right now how the PM intends to turn his benchmarks into working reality.
Can Kevin Rudd make a tough decison, one that might make him unpopular? I doubt it. Can the problems of indigenous Australia be solved without tough decisions? Most definitely not.


Anonymous said...

Hi Bill. I can't say I'm that familiar with this issue, as I'm in the U.S., though I have followed your posts on indigeonous issues, and can relate in some ways because in our country we have perrenial political discourses on poor minorities and how to raise them out of poverty. The solutions put forward sound similar to the "balms" you describe being put forward for the aboriginies.

I've observed that sometimes politicians here campaign passionately on things they'd like to accomplish, in hopes that they can cull together a political coalition that can actually get it done. I think it's a vain hope. Typically things don't really get done here unless there's either a well-financed and organized interest group involved, or there's a large grassroots movement driven by common grievances. We tend not to deal with tough problems until a crisis erupts. For example, we didn't really get on the stick about dealing with Islamic extremism until 9/11/01 happened, even though we were warned for years about it by experts on the subject.

There's a movie that was made in the U.S. in the 1980s I thought you might like, called "Stand And Deliver". It's based on a true story of a Latino engineer who comes to work at a public school as a math teacher in a predominantly Latino community, in the U.S., that is economically poor, and had poor teacher/student performance for years. He decides to try to give a gift to his students while he's there, of teaching them Calculus over the summer, so they can take the AP entrance exam, get into college, and train to be engineers, so they can get good jobs when they graduate. He runs into resistance, primarily from the very community he is trying to help. Parents tell their daughters, "Boys won't like you if you're smart." Staff at the school tell the teacher, "Don't give those kids false hope." There's a charge of institutional racism in the movie, but I always got a sense that it was more of a suspicion, out of frustration. It ends happily, despite the obstacles. It drives home the message that it's not just about school funding. You are depriving your students of a future if you don't have high expectations of them.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

I liked Stand and Deliver so much that I bought a copy of the video.

The real life teacher was Jaime Escalante. There is a nice account of his life , with references to the film, on wikipedia