Truth-tellers take charge



The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the LiberalConsensus
By Peter Sutton
Melbourne University Press, 280pp, $34.99

PETER Sutton delivered the public lecture that gives this book its title and its themes in September 2000 before an assembly of professional anthropologists. That was the venue the formidable Bill Stanner used to favour for his most political speeches, invoking as it does the authority of academe while vaulting its narrow walls.
It had been before anthropologists that Stanner floated the ideas that would underpin a transformation in government policies towards Aborigines from the late 1960s, policies that would be sustained, with varying degrees of energy and goodwill, by all governments to the century's end.
They pivoted on the idea of indigenous rights, beginning with land rights but extending to furry references to self-determination, to be achieved alongside reformations in Aboriginal health, education and life opportunities that would bring them, in the space of a generation or two, to a decent equality with their fellow Australians.
Sutton used that same venue in the first year of the new century to argue that the generous-hearted, clumsily applied progressivist program had failed, and its consequences -- consequences unforeseen by everyone, including the leading players -- had been so destructive that many Aboriginal communities, wherever they were and however various their histories, were in terrifying freefall.
The social breakdown had been apparent to insiders from at least the late 80s. During the 90s brave voices, the bravest female and indigenous, had been raised against the grotesque levels of physical and emotional abuse being inflicted on children, on the elderly and, most viciously, on women inside what were then effectively sealed societies.
During that decade shaking reports were researched and presented, while journalists such as Tony Koch struggled to make us pay more than passing attention to viscerally shocking incidents with even more shocking implications. The reports were left to moulder; we would read, click our tongues and get on with our lives. This time we were certainly being told. Why were we so unready to hear?
In part, I think, because some of the most knowledgeable critics kept their knowledge and their criticisms in-house: inside academe, inside administrations, inside the tight, tough world of Aboriginal politics. By the 90s indigenous matters were coming not only pre-politicised but pre-ideologised.
I knew anthropologists who were ready to report to fellow academics the criminal damage inflicted on Aboriginal families by the taking of children over one or two or even three generations, but who refused to go public because they would not hand the fragile people who had become dear to them over for a public mauling. Bad news from the Aboriginal front, and the popular media would bat the usual balloons around for a week, the usual whitefellas would leap for their tubs and a new, aggressive generation of Aboriginal male leaders would declare their strong preference for whitefellas to stay out of indigenous politics and for women, white and black, to keep their mouths permanently shut. And nothing changed. The voices of the few truth speakers were drowned in the general clamour of the culture wars.
Marcia Langton, an early and intrepid truth-teller, has named Sutton's Politics of Suffering lecture as ``the pivotal essay on Aboriginal affairs of the past decade''. It is difficult to track influences, especially in clamourous times, but I think she is right. Academics listened because this was a man they had come to respect over a range of other contexts but who had not spoken politically before.
Sutton had an interesting history. Beginning as a linguist and now an internationally recognised expert on the languages of east and west Cape York, he spent a couple of decades as a wandering scholar, preparing land rights cases for different clans and communities in different places. While delving into family and clan histories he took the opportunity to track the movement of languages, words, trade objects, ritual objects, ceremonies and whatever other human expressions came to his attention (he is a man of daunting intellectual energy and fiercely exact memory).
He played a large part in bringing Aboriginal art to international attention through the staging of the Dreamings exhibition, which toured New York, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Adelaide and Melbourne in the late 80s. He would publish a subtle, sometimes confounding book on Aboriginal conceptualisations of humans' relationship to the natural landscape and the fluorescing difficulties of translating those concepts into the language of an Anglo-Australian law evolved out of a different history and a different universe of meaning.
While he was captivated by the existential elegance of classical Aboriginal civilisation, he refused to fantasise about its restoration (does any Aboriginal person anywhere still live within the system of meanings of their pre-contact ancestors?), focusing instead on the range, variety and ingenuity of Aboriginal accommodations to the coercions and seductions of the colonial regime. He was also deeply involved with Left and indigenous politics in Queensland under the Bjelke-Petersen sultanate, but to that point he had kept politics out of his professional activities.
No longer. I think the reason the rest of us heard was because this lecture not only brushed aside the old discretions and the old ideologised politics but drew its emotional power from a new source: not from anger, not from outrage, but from grief. These were the politics of the heart.
Sutton had just returned from a double funeral at Aurukun, the settlement of Wik people midway down the west coast of Cape York he had first seen in the early 70s, but which over many returns had become a second home, as pragmatically bestowed kin terms transformed into family affection, with its ineradicable warmths, wounds and scars. On that first visit Aurukun, not long emerged from energetic Presbyterian rule, had been a ``liveable and vibrant society''. Now it was utterly changed. The funeral had been for two long-time friends. They had died from ``natural'' causes, if stress, dread and grief are natural, and well before their time in a community which needed every one of its responsible adults.
Sutton began the lecture with an image potent in this country: the field of crosses marking the graves of Australian soldiers at Villers-Bretonneax in France.
One of Sutton's kinsmen lies there: a young man killed before his time in a distant place, for reasons no one can remember. Sutton joined that image of young men abruptly exiled from life and home to another: the meandering field of graves at Aurukun. Most of these dead had died young and violently, by accident, suicide or assault. They lie close to home and kin (plastic flowers heaped on the graves) but they are equally lost to them, and equally mourned.
Sutton tells us how they died with an exactitude that compels our flinching attention:
In my time with the Wik people up to 2001, out of a population of less than 1000, eight people known to me had died by their own hand, two of them women, six of them men. From the same community in the same period, 13 people known to me had been victims of homicide, eight of them women, five of them men. Twelve others had committed homicide, nine of them men, three of them women. Most of these were young people ... and most of the homicides occurred in the home settlement of both assailant and victim ... In almost all cases, assailants and victims were relatives whose families had been linked to each other for generations.
Others had died in car and boating accidents, victims of what seem to outsiders a terrifying disregard for life. Then, of course, there were those grievously premature ``natural'' deaths. And this mayhem, terror and pain in a community of fewer than 1000 people.
While some of the deaths were clearly related to alcohol (there had been only one suicide and one homicide in the community between 1959 and the opening of the wet canteen in 1985) alcohol was not always involved. Nor will the old ``disruptions of colonisation'' argument stick.
The Wik had not suffered displacement or dispossession. They had remained in their own country, using their own languages, among their own kin. They had not had strangers, including traditional enemies, dumped on them, as notoriously happened on Palm Island and too many other settlements; their longest serving mission superintendent, William MacKenzie (1923-1965) had been sufficiently brutal in handling his charges to earn the fury of Donald Thomson, but nonetheless sufficiently respectful of the Wik reading of the world to have himself initiated in strict accordance with Wik rules. (Another of those discoveries we are doomed to make again and again: missionaries defy easy categorisation.)
Yet by 2000, despite this relatively benign history and after 30 years of a progressivist political agenda, this once-vital community was in worse state than settlements with more bitter histories. The agonising question was: why?
Here was a person equipped to answer that question, if it could be answered at all. Honouring the Aboriginal past but refusing to sanctify or sentimentalise remnant traditions, understanding the mind-curdling complexities of family, local, regional and national Aboriginal politics, Sutton was able to distinguish old habits from new ambitions in present actions. He was also ready to expose the politic silences and the covert agendas behind the rhetoric of politicians white and black, progressive and conservative, which had obscured the terrible actualities from the rest of us anxious, earnest, ignorant, usually urban, usually southern outsiders.
Now for a confession apparently obligatory on reviewers. After reading that initial lecture and exploring a small distance into the published work (excluding, I admit, the advanced linguistics) I set about stalking this man Sutton, who has now become a friend. Will that affect your confidence in my assessment?
I also embarked on a ``Reading Sutton'' project. As I proceeded I was increasingly reminded of that old childhood game for wet afternoons, fiddlesticks. A handful of coloured sticks is dropped from a small height to produce a precarious, apparently accidental structure. The player must then track the sticks' complicated interdependencies sufficiently closely to be able to extract stick after stick without bringing the rest of the edifice down. You fetch up with a handful of sticks, and the memory of one pattern of interrelationships among a possible multitude.
Fiddlesticks is an exercise in patience, courage and delicacy of touch, but above all in being able to see what impinges on what in a particular case: in knowing the sticks, and knowing how they might interrelate. Sutton's analyses are like that. We watch, chapter by chapter, as various ``traditional'' elements in present-day Aboriginal culture -- the reflexive loyalty to family, the projection of blame away from the home group on to outsiders, the ready resort to violence in response to insult or injury, the reckless disregard for the consequences of that violence -- come into dangerous play: all of them, as Sutton reminds us, ``necessities of life in a stateless foraging society''; all of them socially toxic in the cheek-by-jowl confines of settlement life.
Another example of sudden illumination, coming not from this book but from the catalogue for an exhibition of the works of the woodcarvers of Aurukun at the Gabrielle Pizzi Gallery in Melbourne in the spring of 2007. Sutton had agreed to supply brief biographies of the artists, and we expect the conventional formula. Instead we are offered biographies from an Aboriginal perspective, setting out the dense cross-cutting relationships with family and country, past and present that these artists, along with their weirdly compelling sculptures, embody -- and this while the younger artists are moving smoothly away from the prescribed sacred towards the untrammelled secular.
We also see something of the self-defining experiences these men carry in their heads, as we are taught to recognise individual histories and the inflexions of individual experience in the objects they make with their hands.
Through carved and painted wood we are being shown a different way of being in theworld.
The Politics of Suffering does not make easy reading. Sutton's prose, like his thought, is rather too acrobatic for that. He is often acerbic, there are no sweet options on offer. He is harsh on the gratifications to be extracted from the liberal-left position: the warming sense of moral superiority, the reliable pleasure of defending people denied agency by being cast as permanent victims. He is especially ferocious against those who would put the pursuit of ``increasingly stratospheric rights and international covenants'' above the care and protection of brutalised children.
As readers of his recent review of Noel Pearson's Up from the Mission in The Monthly will know, he is in broad agreement with the Pearson strategies. Like Pearson, he values the equality of all Australian citizens under the rule of law; like Pearson, and ``after a lifetime of placing the highest value on indigenous languages, land rights, social organisation and the visual arts'', he accepts the necessity of the intervention, entailing as it did the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, to secure Aboriginal children's rights to physical and emotional security. On the same solid ground he supports the Pearson vision of a new generation of Aboriginal children (if the most damaged can be returned to health, a heartbreaking problem of its own) equipped both with the education and the ``emotional mobility'' (Sutton's phrase, Sutton's insight) to pursue their lives in the wider society, and who might then choose, as Pearson has chosen, to orbit back to their home communities and to sustain their Aboriginal identity as the core of their being.
Sutton gives his final chapter over to the issue of reconciliation. He is sceptical, indeed sardonic, regarding the efficacy of the collective symbolic acts of the official reconciliation program. He implies that formal reconciliation is essentially a whitefellas' project, and a romantic one at that: that inside indigenous communities
the more important, visible, daily and emotionally consuming ties and conflicts are not with 19.5 million non-indigenous people, most of whom they will never meet, but with other indigenous families, and neighbourhoods of their own kindred and township and district.
These are the ties that bind, chafe and sometimes strangle. Note that they also directly challenge our notions of the equal distribution of individual rights throughout a community -- though we need to remember that it is commitment to family and kin that has held brutalised families together, and enabled families fractured by outsiders to reconstitute themselves. And we realise yet again that this history, and these people, refuse to be simplified and made conformable to our projects for them.
Sutton believes that durable reconciliation can be achieved only between individuals and through long interaction, such as the partnerships between anthropologists and ``informants'' he describes in the chapter titled Unusual Couples (there are marvellous photographs of these superficially impossibly odd couples). The partnerships began in work and also in inequality of social power but despite, or possibly because of cultural differences and the pleasure of overcoming them, ended in deep mutual affection. His own anxious, loving intimacy with his Aurukun family and friends (again, illuminated by moving photographs) comes out of a similar history of experience shared over time.
The problem with the Sutton solution is that it leaves the rest of us out in the cold. I know few people of Aboriginal descent, and those few I know professionally, as academics or writers or artists or lawyers, not as they are in their home societies among their kin, where the serious emotional action is. I know communities only as an embarrassed tourist drop-in. That is how it is for most of us. So what are we to do?
I think we have to rely on the magical power of literacy to borrow the experience of others, and in solitude to make that experience our own. Here Sutton has another quality I value.
Anthropology is a peculiar trade. There have always been mavericks but traditionally it has required the aloof, clear-eyed investigator (in reality a bumbling stranger desperate for a kindly word) to vanish from the published report, which is presented as objective because of its superbly suprapersonal scholarship. During the past few decades we have seen much less of this eerie erasure of self, but Sutton was something of a pioneer in his readiness to acknowledge, indeed to insist on, the centrality of personal experience in his evaluation of theories, analyses and proposals for change within indigenous societies and for his understanding of the individuals who live within them.
The bedrock of personal experience is what I most value in all reports on human action, especially when the humans being reported on are culturally and therefore imaginatively remote from me. (A recommendation: Yasmine Musharbash's Yuendumu Everday, reviewed in last month's ALR, with its analysis and interpretation flowing outwards from direct experience, is lovely evidence of the health of Australian anthropology.)
If I am to avoid the sweet deceits of empathy -- the projection of my own assumptions and emotional vocabulary on to a people whose past, present and dreams for the future are utterly different from mine -- I must rely on the work of Sutton, Musharbash and others like them, white or indigenous, who will grant me the use of their experience to arrive at some understanding of a world effectively closed to me, and for too long obscured from my sight by the smoke machines of ideology, my own indolence and (most constricting of all) the limits of my own imagination.
What I would most like is to eavesdrop on an Aboriginal anthropologist explaining the non-Aboriginal world to his people, but I doubt that will happen in my time. It seems they think they know us well enough already.
Nonetheless, we have come a long way in the past decade. In retrospect the culture wars look increasingly like a Monty Python affray: metal-clad knights, immune from injury, donging each other in gentlemanly sequence while around their metal ankles the maimed lay bleeding. Now there are truth-tellers everywhere, and we who listen are less illusioned, more troubled, better informed: better able to grasp the great fact of difference, and to be ready, at last, to respect it.