Emptiness
October 8, 2012 12:57 AM   Subscribe

Australian national identity. "Liam Pieper reflects on the shielding that has led to Australian peoples' perpetual ignorance of our true history."

"Australians simply have an abysmal sense of history. And without it, with the wilful elision of the past and its present day consequences, the nation has a gnawing hole in its centre. There is an emptiness in the heart of this country. Terra Nullius remains in perpetuity, in the ignorance of the intelligentsia and in the pale, revisionist, self-congratulatory history."
posted by paleyellowwithorange (99 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh, good, another chance to feel bad for stuff we didn't do.

Australians simply have an abysmal sense of history.

To be fair, we only have 200-odd years of history, and most of it isn't very interesting.

Terra Nullius remains in perpetuity, in the ignorance of the intelligentsia

Since Terra Nullius has been overturned at law, not sure of the point here.

I did not think this was a terribly good article, and am I sure Liam Pieper enjoyed wearing his hairshirt. That said, I did not know about the trackers who went off to fight in the Boer War and were not allowed back in. But it's only 50 people in total, some of whom were probably killed in the threatre of war. It's an unsurprising historical footnote at best.
posted by Mezentian at 1:32 AM on October 8, 2012


While it is undoubtebly a good thing for the author to be ashamed at their ignorance of how the country was founded, their attempt to blame society at large rather than accept personal fault is woeful.

In Australia, the debate over the historiography of colonialism is known as the History Wars. This debate has been running for a very long time; presumably another aspect of Australian history of which the author is ignorant.
posted by kithrater at 1:36 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was curious about the brief remark he made that traditionally only men play the didgeridoo, not something I'd ever heard before. Google gave me this page which suggests it's a myth, anyone know more about that?
posted by mannequito at 1:49 AM on October 8, 2012


I can only give you anecdata, mannequito... I was never allowed to have a go of the didgeridoo in my indigenous education classes at school in the '80s, for that reason. That always pissed me off because I was a baby brass player at the time and was sure I'd be the best grade five didgeridoo player.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 1:52 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


To be fair, we only have 200-odd years of history, and most of it isn't very interesting.

Incorrect. We have 40 000+ years of history. And I think you've illustrated the main point of that article very nicely, thanks.
posted by Jilder at 2:01 AM on October 8, 2012 [90 favorites]


What bubble has this author been living in?

I went to high School in Australia in the 90s and I learnt quite a lot about the horrific genocide of the Australian aboriginal population. From the systematic attempt to kill every aboriginal in Tasmania to the squatter style retribution deaths after 'poaching' of sheep.

And in recent years there the debate over a prime-ministerial "Sorry" statement was all over the media with wide ranging discussions over the background. Also films like Rabbit Proof Fence and other media have brought to the broader consciousness more of the true history.

How the author has insulated against all this i'm not sure. (unless he / she is like 60 or 70...) The only people I know who are more ignorant about this are the older generations who either were not told - or actually didn't care.
posted by mary8nne at 2:12 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is it any surprise that a nation initially founded as a penal colony isn't particularly eager to contemplate its past beyond Gallipolli?
posted by Skeptic at 2:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


"To be fair, we only have 200-odd years of history, and most of it isn't very interesting."

It is awfully easy for someone perched atop others to be bored with their plight and unconcerned with how they got there, but it is an entirely different thing for those with the asshole on top of them and the boot on their face to feel the same way.

You know, I'm almost beginning to miss LiB in these threads.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Blasdelb, bravo. Jilder too.

Happy Columbus Day everyone! Now off to see the Genocide Parade.

(Actually, going to go protest with a group of Native students. Fuck Christopher Columbus. And the ship he rode in on. Too many Americans think he invented history too.)
posted by spitbull at 2:33 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Jilder said it MUCH more politely than I was tempted to. And it's ridiculous to assert that it's somehow a personal failing to be suckered by the vehemently vocal side of our culture that insists that somehow it isn't actually important that people died, people were wiped out, that there are living people who remember not being citizens of the land their ancestors lived in for longer than the white colonisers remembered culturally.

If you think a few classes touching on genocide, Rabbit Proof Fence and Rudd's apology make up for wilful cultural blindness that ignores the reality of the Indigenous experience.

Indigenous Australians are still in existence. Their culture is not dead, their lifestyle is not dead, they are not dead. The cultural mythology of a dead culture contributes, exactly as the article describes, to the idea that it's a distant thing. Fuck that. Fuck that for a game of tin soldiers. People alive now remember being taken from their families because they passed for white better than their siblings. That is not distant, that is not a history lesson, but with the romantic gore of how Australian History is taught, you'd be forgiven for thinking it is.

It isn't an intellectual ignorance the article describes, but an emotional one. It isn't about how many were killed, or how many died, or were refused repatriation, but how immediate that really and truly is for Indigenous culture.

We get stories here on the blue, on the green, about family and history and the way things echo down from our ancestors. The old adage about cutting the end off the roast. When you're indigenous, when you're descended from the Stolen Generation, the fractures are culture-wide and each and every day society hammers at them with the microaggressions, with this cultural ignorance that says "Hey, I totally know about the Rabbit Proof Fence, I'm not racist" as if that matters. Or that it was for your own good. Or hey, didn't the First Settlers commit genocide on you people anyway?

If your history lesson is steeped in the mythology of Indigenous culture as a dead one, just how accurate is it going to be? Just how does that get reconciled with the reality of contemporary Indigenous culture?

If you're white, it doesn't have to.
posted by geek anachronism at 2:33 AM on October 8, 2012 [18 favorites]


Is it any surprise that a nation initially founded as a penal colony isn't particularly eager to contemplate its past beyond Gallipolli?

Hey, I know you probably mean this as a joke or something, but as an Australian, I just have to point out that - for me - snide references to Australia's convict heritage from non-Australians are pretty much an instant cosign that a) The person talking knows nothing about Australia, Australianess, or Australians and b) they could very well be an idiot.

Seriously. There are lots things in Australia's history that are an indelible and pervasive part of contemporary Australian identity. "Convicts", on the other hand, are a very, very very orthogonal, ethereal, part, and I get so frigging tired of having this conversation with ignorant foreigners over and over again.
posted by smoke at 2:38 AM on October 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


Indigenous Australians are still in existence. Their culture is not dead, their lifestyle is not dead, they are not dead. The cultural mythology of a dead culture contributes, exactly as the article describes, to the idea that it's a distant thing.

Indeed, I think that is something that still needs to be addressed. A lot of people I talk to are surprised when I mention that most of Australia's Aboriginal people live in Sydney - and I think it's part of that dead culture myth you describe; in that it's difficult for many Australians to envisage Aboriginal life and culture outside some kind of cliched, stone-age vision of life in Arnhem Land, or Howard's horror stories of remote communities riddled with alcoholism, abuse, incest etc (this is not to downplay or minimise the issues in remote communities).

Of course, there is so much more diversity and complexity to Aborginal lives and cultures than that - some of it is not so different to the 'typical' Australian experience, some of it is very different indeed. If I was aboriginal I would be beyond angry I think, and just into exhausted at how my people and culture are portrayed to and thus understood by most Australians.
posted by smoke at 2:44 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


it's ridiculous to assert that it's somehow a personal failing

It's a personal failing to write a piece about how "Australians simply have an abysmal sense of history" while demonstrating an abysmal understanding of the history of that topic. I look forward to the day when the author gets around to reading Marx and proceeds to enlighten us on how the capitalists have been screwing the workers all along.
posted by kithrater at 2:49 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Skeptic has a bit of a point, too. A lot of post-settlement history is really, really interesting - it's just not shit you can teach to kids with any ease.

I mean take the history of the Lady Julianna. It was treated as a brothel, more or less from the get-go, turning quite a trade at ports on route to Australia. While many of the women aboard were prostitutes, one is left wondering just how much they wanted to continue "working". Furthermore the men of the ship had free run, and many took "shipwives" over the length of the voyage.

Once it actually landed in Sydney, what is described as an "orgy" broke out. Given that there was a total loss of control by colonial authorities, again, one is left wondering how much agency the women in question had. We're basically talking about a founding gang rape here.

How do you teach that sort of thing to school kids? I only found out about it a few years back, as an adult. Likewise the Castle Hill Uprisings, which in a lot of ways mirrored the Irish Troubles and brought a lot of race and class issues of the old world out to the colonies. Or the slaughter of the Chinese on the Victorian gold fields? How do you tell kids about that? That's when many are forming their images of Australian history, and so much of it is steeped in racialized violence. I can understand finding it hard to teach that in Australian schools. Ditto the White Australia policy, something that left a profound mark on our national makeup. How do you teach that to a room of third and fourth generation migrant kids?

It often seems like there's very little to Australian history, because if you cut out the dark, bitter parts, as a prison colony founded on stolen land, there's really not that much left. So we're left learning about the invention of the Hills Hoist and the Victa and that's about the run of it.

smoke: I would argue strongly that the mechanisms of our formation as a prison colony then a nation has had a profound impact on our society and the way we characterize our history, and I argue that as an Australian. The myth of an egalitarian country is hot on the heel of the denial that for the formative years we were ruled not by kings but by jailwardens and military police. There has always been a very firm line between the ruling classes and the ruled, once once formed in chains and then later by money and class.
posted by Jilder at 2:52 AM on October 8, 2012 [17 favorites]


More broadly I think that's a very weak, self-hating piece. Pieper offers no proof of his central thesis - that Australia and South Africa actively shared and advised each other on racial policies and systems.

He makes no mention about what education and outreach from Aborginals into broader Australian culture there is now, and how this might vary from state to state.

He blithely states "facts" - that women shouldn't play the didgeridoo - that are extremely contentious, far from settled, and certainly not universally held amongst Aboriginals.

He also shits all over the incredibly detailed and broad scholarship conducted by a large number of historians - Aboriginal and otherwise - to document, elucidate and shine a light on these topics, and the subsequent efforts of public servants, govt departments and many others to both disseminate and act on this information.

In short, I really feel like - fundamental points right or no - it's a very weak piece that offers no insight except on the most debased personal level, extrapolating a simplistic conclusion to encompass an incredibly complex, nuanced, multifarious issue, and in so doing generating more heat than light. All too typical of Meanjin, imho.
posted by smoke at 2:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [6 favorites]


What bubble has this author been living in?

Indeed. The stolen generations were one of the big stories of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I'm guessing from his Twitter photo that Pieper is 20-something, so maybe he missed it as a kid; but he should know not to ascribe to the whole population his own ignorance of current affairs before he was paying attention.

I'm old enough that I didn't get taught what I should have been in school (and am glad to hear it's more prominent now), but older Australians lived through the Bicentenary and the long debate about Australian history that it provoked. John Howard's dismissal of "the 'black armband' view of our history" was a reaction to that very debate. Ignorance about colonial crimes in any Australian over 35 isn't innocent, it's downright wilful.

The worrying implication of Pieper's piece is that a decade of whitewashing under Howard made ignorance seem okay again, and a whole new generation needs to hear it all again. Prescription: one dose of Henry Reynolds.
posted by rory at 2:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


A rotten, hollow carapace, lit from within by a warm candle glow of self-satisfaction, smiling out to the rest of the world, who can see us as we really are: a parody of a nation, an empty shell with a rictus grin, a jack-o-lantern.

Blimey.
posted by Segundus at 2:59 AM on October 8, 2012


The myth of an egalitarian country is hot on the heel of the denial that for the formative years we were ruled not by kings but by jailwardens and military police.

We will have to agree to disagree then, I think. Our understanding with regard to formative are just too incompatible.
posted by smoke at 2:59 AM on October 8, 2012


There are lots things in Australia's history that are an indelible and pervasive part of contemporary Australian identity. "Convicts", on the other hand, are a very, very very orthogonal, ethereal, part

Hold on, smoke. Maybe in your part of Oz; if you're from South Australia or Victoria, then free settlers or the Gold Rush would be a much bigger part of the story, sure. But if you're from Sydney or Brisbane or especially where I'm from, Tasmania, the convict legacy is an indelible part of the history of your place. Tasmanians used to talk about the "stain" of convict ancestry right up to the 1960s.
posted by rory at 3:06 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


I agree with Jilder's deeper point about relative cultural visibility, however Mezentian is technically correct: "history" requires coherent record. Humanity as an entire species has maybe 10,000 years of history at the maximum in a couple of sparse geographical areas, and in most places we barely have 5,000 years. Before that it's the domain of archaeology.

AFAIK the Australian Aboriginal culture(s) that existed at the time of first contact with an external seagoing culture (whether that be Indonesians, Chinese, Dutch or English doesn't matter a lot in this context) did not have any kind of written record. However within a span of 40,000+ years they had more than enough time to develop the concept of written records, and lose all physical existence and the meaning of them, and develop another method, and lose all that, over and over again dozens of times. They could have built whole cities of wood, and these could have rotted away. They could have farmed, and overfarmed, and lost to extinction, animal and plant species that are now completely unknown. We don't know, because there is no history to tell us, and archaeology can only give us inferences from surviving artefacts, bones, etc.

My point, and why I'm making the history/archaeology distinction, is that we, and "we" specifically includes modern Australian Aboriginals, don't know what they did in that 40,000 years. We haven't got the vaguest idea. 40,000 years is roughly 2,000 human generations. The limit of possibility here is what couldn't have happened: they couldn't have mined metal or cut and erected stone structures of a kind capable of surviving X,000 years, less than X,000 years ago.

We very strongly suspect that they hunted dozens to hundreds of animal species to extinction, as every other kind of human and near-human has done, and the victims of that include all of the near-humans who were too far off to interbreed with us. That "special bond with the land" trope is purely a cultural phenomenon and a lot of it is projection of white historians' admiration for hunting methods that actually worked in the near-complete absence of farmable animals and plants, to the point where these methods could sustain the lives of scattered bands of nomad hunter-gatherers. It's just humans being humans. Adapt or die. Overhunting indicates overpopulation. We're all doing that right now.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:06 AM on October 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


The worrying implication of Pieper's piece is that a decade of whitewashing under Howard made ignorance seem okay again, and a whole new generation needs to hear it all again.

That's kind of what I'm getting from that piece too. I would have liked to hear more about the South African link - and I'll be doing my own research on that once I get home from work. Menzetian's opinion that we've only got 200 years of it and it's boring is also a sentiment I've heard from younger relatives, so I think that may be the bit to chip through.

smoke: I can handle that. I'm mostly of the opinion that after Phillip we were controlled by thugs, drunks and madmen for a long enough period that we're still dealing with the fallout. There was an awful lot of cronyism right through the first fifty odd years of settlement that sort of set the tone for me. But then, I'm a latecomer to any sort of serious scholarship regarding Australia's foundation and am still working my way through it all.
posted by Jilder at 3:07 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


There was an awful lot of cronyism right through the first fifty odd years of settlement that sort of set the tone for me.

Contemporaneously though, this cronyism was everywhere else in the whole world. Bloodline inheritance of administrative position was still common. Because they are so ubiquitous and unquestioned in our society, we tend to forget how new and rare (and how fragile) systems of merit selection and popular election of administrative officials actually are.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:14 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dale's a pretty cool guy (the academic referenced in the story of the Indigenous trackers not being allowed home). I work in the same School he does. If it matters, yes, he does identify as Indigenous.
posted by b33j at 3:20 AM on October 8, 2012


A lot of people I talk to are surprised when I mention that most of Australia's Aboriginal people live in Sydney

I would be surprised, possibly because it is not true ;). However, the underlying sentiment, that a majority of Indigenous people live in urban and regional areas, is certainly true. I definitely agree that this particular canard, that living in remote and very remote areas is the Indigenous thing to do, is a particularly pervasive myth that influences a lot of things.
posted by kithrater at 3:43 AM on October 8, 2012


Sorry I meant that in the context of NSW, should have not said Australia.
posted by smoke at 3:51 AM on October 8, 2012


As a white guy who grew up in Tasmania (I mean my dad is half Indian but I have blue eyes and a mostly white complexion), I have to say that the black line is much more of a significant cultural white elephant.

I guess it isn't a competition, this was also really messed up but I'm a bit tipsy and we're displaying the skeletons in our closets so hey ho. Tasmanian Aboriginals don't even get a footnote even though they were a completely different people. They fought back when mainland Aboriginals tried to make peace.
posted by gronkpan at 4:00 AM on October 8, 2012


Or the slaughter of the Chinese on the Victorian gold fields? How do you tell kids about that?

I went to high school in New South Wales between 2000 and 2005, and we actually were taught about this. Australian history education, as it currently stands, doesn't shy away from the unpleasant parts of our history.

That's what surprised me about this piece. The author doesn't seem much older than me, yet he's surprised by things that I clearly remember learning in mandatory history classes.

Except the story about the Native Police Officers, that was a surprise.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 4:05 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I really did not get that he did not know, more that the actuality of the massacres, the atrocities, the inhumanity, was lost in the culture around the learning. He says, after the bit about the boomerang class:
My understanding of Aboriginal history was a nebulous gumbo, one that I’d absorbed through osmosis: a vague conglomeration of shades and ideas, of corroboree and Gallipoli; bushrangers and cricketers. I had an obscure understanding of genocide, of missions and massacres, but it felt like long ago to me.

That vague understanding tends to be it. Schools get a Digger in to talk about the war, but not a descendant of the Stolen Generation to talk about Indigenous rights (usually). The contemporary lived experience of Indigenous Australians is glossed over, too political, too raw, too hard. Lets just talk about how they died, in nice gory yet sanitised terms. Make it removed enough that we can pretend our history started 200 years ago and our culture has nothing to do with theirs. That this all happened to someone else, a long time ago, and is history rather than recent enough in some cases as to have living memory. And certainly recent enough to have serious repercussions in lived experience.

The Native Police Officers are a classic example: hearing about not being a citizen in your own country for the crime of your race is distant, barely emotional, totally a history lesson because when you're learning about that you're generally pretty hazy on this whole citizen thing. Wondering what the fuck those poor bastards did cut adrift is a little bit more real. Wondering what their families did, what their descendants did, and how they still cope with that wound means it isn't history, it is experience. Knowing that there's a child, a grandchild, a descendant out there whose loved one was never allowed to return home, even after going to war? Trying to reconcile that with the bleating inanity of "trying to make us feel guilty for something we can't change"? That's the sting, that's the vicious kick out of the compacency inherent in our national narrative about Indigenous heritage.
posted by geek anachronism at 4:22 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


To be fair, we only have 200-odd years of history, and most of it isn't very interesting.

After 20 years you'd think I'd have learned that dry sarcasm doesn't relay well on the Internet. But no. Obviously not.

I don't know what education is like in Australia now, but when I did history in the 1980s the Aboriginal experience almost completely glossed over, and I survived the Bicentennial. You picked up bits and pieces for post-Colonialism (which I do think most of teachable history probably exists as we know it), but it doesn't compare to what I experienced in non-Australian education systems.

And the view of the "black problem" is still widespread and widely held.
posted by Mezentian at 4:34 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Deliberately choosing ignorance because you know you'll feel guilty if you learn about something is like...man.
posted by DU at 4:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously. There are lots things in Australia's history that are an indelible and pervasive part of contemporary Australian identity. "Convicts", on the other hand, are a very, very very orthogonal, ethereal, part, and I get so frigging tired of having this conversation with ignorant foreigners over and over again.

This is precisely why I enjoy pointing it out to ozzies at every opportunity. They are universally unable to be sufficiently self-aware that their pushback against being labeled descendants of convicts is confirmation of its unique cultural significance. Your insistence that this is a slur by "ignorant foreigners" is just classic. I have never in my life heard anyone other than ozzies refer to "ignorant foreigners."

Ozzies have a horrible case of what the Japanese call "shimaguni konjou," literally "island-country mentality," more loosely translated as "insularity." It is an odd sort of nationalism based on isolationism and a vaguely racist insistence on cultural homogeneity. It exhibits itself when ozzies say ridiculous things about you-couldn't-possibly-understand-you're-not-an-ozzie. It is a method of confirming their nationalistic identity by an "us vs. them" mentality. This is a horrible way a nation imprisons itself inside its cultural identity. The penal colonies were closed long ago, and the doors unlocked and opened. You can walk out of prison any time you choose. And yet you choose not to.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:59 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


They are universally unable to be sufficiently self-aware that their pushback against being labeled descendants of convicts is confirmation of its unique cultural significance.

I was almost with you. You raised some fair points. Then I remembered the typical response one gets when one tells an American that their national identity is shaped by the Puritans.

Don't mention the war!
posted by Jimbob at 5:03 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]



This is precisely why I enjoy pointing it out to ozzies at every opportunity.


I love the way Americans think they can take a jab at Australian culture when they haven't even faced their own problems. Native Americans barely get a voice in the racial/cultural discussion over there, let alone a face.

Maybe once you've dealt with the whole slavery thing you can consider the whole invasion of a native people's land thing. Just throwing that one out there.
posted by gronkpan at 5:09 AM on October 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


> This is precisely why I enjoy pointing it out to ozzies at every opportunity.

It's 'Aussies', not 'ozzies'.
posted by hot soup girl at 5:10 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


Oh please. The only reason there were convicts in Australia at all is because the Poms weren't able to send them to America any more after the revolution. We're all bloody convicts.
posted by chiquitita at 5:15 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The weird thing about non-Australians making passive aggressive references to our convict heritage is that it's almost always indicative of a purely superficial (at best) knowledge of Australian culture. Such comments are usually followed by jokes about riding kangaroos to school and that old classic, "That's not a knife!".
posted by hot soup girl at 5:17 AM on October 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


[charlie don't surf, you seem to be trying to start a fight here. If so, please step away from the thread. If not, make an effort to participate in a way that doesn't look exactly like trolling.]
posted by taz at 5:20 AM on October 8, 2012


> I went to high school in New South Wales between 2000 and 2005, and we actually were taught about this. Australian history education, as it currently stands, doesn't shy away from the unpleasant parts of our history.

That's great to hear. I remember doing a semester of Australian history around 1989, and the Aboriginal experience was almost completely glossed over. I was also surprised a few years ago when there was debate in the media about Australia Day and how kids are now taught it's not necessarily a day to celebrate. Tthat definitely wasn't the case in my day, though I do remember the Bicentennial protests and discussions that Mezentian mentions.

A small yay for small progress.
posted by Georgina at 5:23 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is precisely why I enjoy pointing it out to ozzies at every opportunity.

I bet you're a blast at parties!

To pretend that smugly calling Australians "descendants of convicts" represents some great insight is, frankly, stupid. For one thing, it misses the historical point. It's the reaction against the "stain" that originally fuelled much of the surprisingly conservative mindset prevalent in much of Australia. For another, it's factually untrue. Most Australians are descendants of recent immigrants, or are recent immigrants themselves.

People aren't offended by your 'slur'. They're irritated by your smugness and your incredibly shallow understanding of a complex issue. Have you done any serious reading on the history or culture of the country? Your repeated misspelling of a common slang term suggests not.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 5:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [9 favorites]


(And in case you take my reaction to indicate 'lack of self-awareness', I'm not Australian.)
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 5:28 AM on October 8, 2012


"They are universally unable to be sufficiently self-aware that their pushback against being labeled descendants of convicts is confirmation of its unique cultural significance."

Here we go again... so very boring.
posted by a non e mouse at 5:28 AM on October 8, 2012


Which 'you' exactly, Charlie? It's true and undeniable that white settlement started in Australia because of transportation of convicts from England. My family, however, came over well after then as free settlers and that's many generations ago now. My nephew and niece are Aborigines on their mother's side - if you met them, would you give them the same lecture?

As for this particular article, it strikes me mostly as the reaction of someone who has had the shades lifted from their eyes. History is the ultimate eye-opener. Sometimes people are gobsmacked and overwhelmed when confronted with just how awful humans can be to each other based on (in retrospect) the flimsiest of reasons. This is not confined to any particular country, culture or religion.

The thing we need to teach ourselves and future generations is that although humans have been this revolting in the past (and give examples of past horror) it doesn't need to continue (with examples why). Incredibly wonderful things have come to pass in recent history, such as a mass rejection of racism, sexism and most recently homophobia, but it's just not realistic to expect that all prejudice will be wiped out.

It is important that things aren't white-washed. History, and the accessibility of it, should always be unfettered. Not judging everyone based on a single viewpoint is a good start to making life better.
posted by h00py at 5:36 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


I don't see the point of mentioning the convicts because many of them were victims of a ridiculously harsh and arbitrary legal system in their home countries. They were victims as well, and about half of them were murdered through neglect on the sea voyage before they ever set foot on Australian soil.

But yeah, who doesn't know about most of this? It's been so publicly discussed that I've seen the news stories even here in Europe, and as a result I know something of how Tasmania's native population was massacred, and what happened to native bands that attempted to resist or even merely evade colonial slavery, and the attempt to steal children and wipe out indigenous cultures and languages by modern governments which should've known better. Maybe there's still some willful wrongheaded ignorance, but can anyone claim not to know anything about what happened in 2012?
posted by 1adam12 at 5:37 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Highly recommended to anyone interested in the politics of multiculturalism and national identity in Australia: Elizabeth Povinelli, The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism.
posted by spitbull at 5:45 AM on October 8, 2012


Is there a Internet Law that any discussion of Australia, or Australian history, will ultimately reference convicts?

Because there should be.
posted by Mezentian at 5:45 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's 'Aussies', not 'ozzies'.

A popular pastime of Aussies
Is splashing about in their cossies
At beaches and pools.
Improvident fools!
Bare skin is a godsend for mozzies.
posted by rory at 5:47 AM on October 8, 2012 [8 favorites]


I seem to have stepped into it with my "penal colony" comment.

Well, it was meant jokingly, but the reactions appear to confirm that I actually had a point. Transportation was neither ethereal nor orthogonal to Australia's history. Over 80 years, more than 150,000 people were transported across the globe to Australia, many of them on fairly flimsy grounds. That's quite a lot of people, and they formed the core of white (and some non-white) settlement. It was also a very significant influx compared with the Aboriginal Australian population at the time.

The thing to keep in mind is that transportation was a blemish on the British Empire, not Australia. Forcibly moving thousands of your own citizens to the other side of the globe is rather despicable. On the other hand, the way in which those "undesirables" managed nevertheless to create the foundations of a prosperous society is quite impressive. That makes the irked Australian reaction to convict jokes by foreigners all the more puzzling. You guys should be proud of that. You should be answering:

"Yeah, right, a few of our ancestors were dumped here because of alleged petty thefts, "indecency", or having the gall to protest oppression in Ireland. They then went and built a better country, one people from around the world have voluntarily flocked to until today. And it is us who should be ashamed?"
posted by Skeptic at 5:52 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


Why are the original inhabitants of Australia still not referred to as simply 'Australians'?

Is it because the identity, and dominance, of the 'new' or 'non-native' Australian settlers would be undermined?

Seems like racism is still inherent in every post?
posted by BadMiker at 5:54 AM on October 8, 2012


I think that while most, if not all, Australians know what happened to the Aboriginals, and about Australia's racist past, they don't realise how recent it is, and how severe the impact has been. If I am not in a generous mood, I would say alot just don't care.

My father told me in the early 90's that the issues Aboriginals face is Australia's largest social problem, and I still think that argument is valid today.

My children learnt at the age of 5 in school about the stolen generation, which was only a couple of years ago, which has led to lots of interesting conversations with them.

I am someone who gets annoyed with the ra-ra-ra of Nationalism that exerts itself at times down under, so an honest and factual account of history is a good thing, and I appreciated this article, I didn't know about the trackers and drawing comparisons with South Africa was interesting.
posted by Bluepenguin05 at 5:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


So as an American, I see how many people can fault our mass-naivete regarding pre-Colonial inhabitants. However I see this more of a problem with the Colonial system than I do with one country or the other. Specifically the English Colonial system, although my minor in history is only enough to provide speculation as opposed to hard facts.

It seems as though the Scots (and to a lesser extent, Irish) also shared a similar lack of historical knowledge regarding their pre-English history. All four of these territories were at one point in time used as penal colonies, all four have significant histories involving what is essentially war against a local population which were left out of the English history books for a large period of time.

Again, I'm not terribly certain if this is a direct effect of the English Colonial system, or just the colonial system in general, where the history of an entire region is essentially swept under the rug when the colonialists arrived. As shameful as it is, I cannot personally accept responsibility for how 'my' history was taught to me. I can only accept that even modern history as a whole is still largely forensic in nature, and is still missing a large number of details that we as a global population should be open and sympathetic to.

With that being said, it's fair to assume that many people are stupid and naive simply because they've been taught by people who were stupid and naive, but only because they too were taught by people who were stupid and naive. It's not exactly an easy cycle to break.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:08 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


> The thing to keep in mind is that transportation was a blemish on the British Empire, not Australia. Forcibly moving thousands of your own citizens to the other side of the globe is rather despicable. On the other hand, the way in which those "undesirables" managed nevertheless to create the foundations of a prosperous society is quite impressive.

Yes, that is the view of pretty much all the Australians with whom I've ever discussed transportation. FWIW, my impression—as both an Australian who's lived in Australia for 30+ years, and as an ex-pat with 6+ years observing my culture from the outside—is that Australians are proud, or at least have feelings of affection for, our convict past. The most negative feeling I've heard expressed has been pity for those who, as the saying goes, were transported for 'stealing a loaf of bread'. Many modern Australians feel shame for aspects of their nation's history, but the convict heritage isn't part of that.

> That makes the irked Australian reaction to convict jokes by foreigners all the more puzzling.

Yeah, it's not puzzling. It's irksome because it's a) an indication that the 'foreigner' doesn't know anything else about Australia, and b) a really boring joke that we've already heard about seven hundred times before (not even exaggerating).

If you're able to come up with a genuinely funny and culturally relevant joke about transportation (good luck making it relevant), I promise I will laugh at it.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:09 AM on October 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


Jimbob: Then I remembered the typical response one gets when one tells an American that their national identity is shaped by the Puritans.

When you hear Todd Akin speaking, in some ways, you're hearing an echo of the Puritans.
posted by Malor at 6:15 AM on October 8, 2012


Blue_Villain:
I am incredulous at your conflation of Australia, America, Scotland and Ireland. Your massive generalisation, not to mention complete telescoping of history is ignorant, incorrect and offensive.

I'd suggest that the solution to the problem that "many people are stupid and naive simply because they've been taught by people who were stupid and naive" is an inquiring mind which is open to learning. You'd do well to break your own cycle; stop spouting ill-informed opinion and study some more.
posted by BadMiker at 6:24 AM on October 8, 2012


Yes, Aussies don't like convict (or baby-eating dingo) jokes. Brits don't like bad teeth jokes. Americans don't like gun jokes. Stereotypers gonna stereotype, bad/ignorant self-declared comedians gonna make bad/ignorant jokes. Film at 11.

Anyway. Even if the prose of the link was a little heavy-handed, it was interesting and definitely something I had not heard about. I'm always shocked when I learn things like this about my own country (the US), such as racist policies against Asian immigrants, or even things like discrimination against Irish immigrants, that were completely ignored during my education in favor of our fervent and noisy guilt over slavery and the black civil rights movement. I think there's a tendency, as a majority demographic, to pay a lot of lip service to things that are "easy" to retroactively condemn and apologize for -- like the Stolen Generation in Australia, or slavery in the US -- in order to cover for ongoing embarrassment about other parts of history or ongoing cultural conflicts. That's a shame, and the effects of those ignored bits of history and conflict end up perpetuating a lot of ongoing prejudice against those groups. Sort of a racial equivalent of "But we passed laws saying you can't discriminate on the basis of sex, any inequality now is there because it's your fault, why can't you shut up about it, Feminazi?"
posted by olinerd at 6:30 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


@BadMiker: I'm not exactly sure what more you need, and it is this sort of unrealistic mindset that is part of the problem. I claimed both that it was not detail-specific and that it was just a theory, but apparently we're all supposed to be omnipotent beings in your mind.

I can't stick up for what somebody's ancestors did. I can't stick up for what somebody else believes. Hell, there are people out there that still dispute the validity of the moon landing, so why is it hard to believe that some people have a hard time with the concept that what we have been taught for generations might not be correct, or even the whole picture.

It's hard to let go of what you've been taught for years, and the only solution is to teach things differently. Getting mad at people and calling them names is not really a solution to anything.
posted by Blue_Villain at 6:31 AM on October 8, 2012


Not being Australian, I can't comment on the specific Australian aspects of the article, but I can only say that even when there's an ongoing and decade-long national debate about the shadiest aspects of own's country's history, people who think themselves well-educated on those topics can be actually ignorant. That was certainly my case: I only started to "get" European colonisation after I helped my wife complete her PhD about certain colonial topics. I ended up reading not only books and scientific papers but also archives and unfiltered first-hand testimonies. Basically, what I knew before that was merely the simplified movie version. When Peiper says "Australians simply have an abysmal sense of history", I think that he talks for most countries. Actual history is hard and much more unforgiving than the instrumentalised narratives we learn in school, even when they're critical of the past.
posted by elgilito at 6:43 AM on October 8, 2012 [5 favorites]


On the other hand, the way in which those "undesirables" managed nevertheless to create the foundations of a prosperous society is quite impressive. That makes the irked Australian reaction to convict jokes by foreigners all the more puzzling. You guys should be proud of that.

Ah, now it gets interesting.

Many Australians are proud of it nowadays. Attitudes shifted in the 1970s and 1980s, and it became quite popular to search for convicts in your family tree. Robert Hughes had a nice aside in The Fatal Shore that the descendants of the convicts had created one of the most law-abiding nations on earth, the ultimate disproof that criminality is genetic.

As you point out, people weren't transported for the worst imaginable crimes - those were punished by death. The people the British sent over were the riff-raff and the Irish.

But when Americans make innocent observations about Australia's convict past, they're blundering into fraught territory, because Australians have had over a century of another country reminding them that they're all convicts, and from that country it implies something quite different: it's code for "riff-raff and/or Irish".

As someone living in that other country right now, I still detect it at times, even though it may seem odd that the attitude persists when so many British are keen to emigrate to Australia. The crucial point is that it isn't the British upper classes who want to emigrate. So coded comments about convicts are still remarkably useful for putting everyone in their proper place, Aussies and riff-raff and even the Irish, even in 2012.
posted by rory at 6:46 AM on October 8, 2012 [10 favorites]


aeschenkarnos: "I agree with Jilder's deeper point about relative cultural visibility, however Mezentian is technically correct: "history" requires coherent record.

...

My point, and why I'm making the history/archaeology distinction, is that we, and "we" specifically includes modern Australian Aboriginals, don't know what they did in that 40,000 years. We haven't got the vaguest idea. 40,000 years is roughly 2,000 human generations. The limit of possibility here is what couldn't have happened: they couldn't have mined metal or cut and erected stone structures of a kind capable of surviving X,000 years, less than X,000 years ago.
"

I've just spent the last week editing a report about the archaeological evidence, over the course of a couple dozen millennia, for indigenous occupation and activity in one small part of Western Australia, so I think I'm well-placed on this one to say: what a load of crap.
Rather than writing an cohesive essay about it all, let's go with bullet points. So, no, you're wrong. We do have the vaguest idea of what prehistoric Australians were doing, and even though I don't know your background I think it's safe to say you don't have the vaguest idea about the archaeology of prehistoric Australia. There's a very coherent record of change, stasis, adaptation, and life, and part of the cultural warfare and dispossession committed against indigenous Australians is the dismissal of their ties with their past, both oral and, now, written. We're working to change that, but attitudes like yours -- in which you sweep aside 50,000 years of history and life because you haven't read the literature and you aren't familiar with the tangible history that still remains of those ancient times -- aren't helping things.
posted by barnacles at 6:46 AM on October 8, 2012 [63 favorites]


It seems as though the Scots (and to a lesser extent, Irish) also shared a similar lack of historical knowledge regarding their pre-English history. All four of these territories were at one point in time used as penal colonies, all four have significant histories involving what is essentially war against a local population which were left out of the English history books for a large period of time.
I'm here just to say that English people have a deep lack of knowledge about their own history too. It's not to do with one national group hiding the history of another, but elites shaping history to their own benefit. English schoolchildren learn far more about the Romans than they do the English Civil War. You want to guess why that is?
posted by Jehan at 6:57 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


I previously suggested that racism is inherent in the language we use, the culture we inherit and the very ways we think. An individual has to accept this responsibility; feeling guilty about it is not a solution, it's not even a valid response; what is required is an attempt to recognise the issue and to engage within a solution.

The statement "...modern history as a whole is still largely forensic in nature, and is still missing a large number of details that we as a global population should be open and sympathetic to" expresses such a superior, colonial attitude that it takes my breath away. The ideas that there is such a thing as 'history as a whole' or that there is a concept of a 'global population' are fundamentally colonial. It'd from this kind of stance that the conflation of such incredibly different cultures as Scottish, Irish, American and Australian makes sense.

This kind of fundamental lack of self awareness completely undermines any point you are trying to make regarding the identification of a colonial mindset.

I think barnacles post illustrates the point; lack of knowledge on a subject, or in that case even a perceived lack of information on a subject simply indicates ignorance. Any opinions expressed in such a case are likely to be wrong. It seems to be a human condition though that opinions hate a vacuum; less understanding: more opinion.
posted by BadMiker at 7:01 AM on October 8, 2012


English people have a deep lack of knowledge about their own history too.
Thus the concept of the naive teaching the naive.

@BadMiker: Perhaps "history as a whole" was a poor choice in terminology. Might you settle for "things how they actually happened as opposed to how they have been documented as happening"?

It still seems like you're caught up on being angry at people for not knowing their own history. And my point is that due to many different factors it's not easy to know what actually happened objectively.
posted by Blue_Villain at 7:09 AM on October 8, 2012


barnacles, fantastic comment. Yeah, the idea that the written record of the past (let's be generous) 2000 or so years is somehow and obviously total and objective is one of those wrong-end-of-the-telescope forms of Eurocentric thought and literate bias.
posted by spitbull at 7:12 AM on October 8, 2012


English schoolchildren learn far more about the Romans than they do the English Civil War. You want to guess why that is?

When I was at school it went: Romans>Battle of Hastings>War of the Roses>Tudors>WWI&II.

Wonder why that is?
posted by Summer at 7:13 AM on October 8, 2012


And as someone who works in Native America, let me point out that a lot of problems stem from the use of othering language and imagery. The problem with disrespecting the historical truth about indigenous people, in particular, is not only that they are "still here." They are also now your fellow *citizens,* and that means you have obligations to them under civil society -- that grand colonial construction itself -- to do things like, oh, honor treaties and respect prior tenancy claims.

This is why genocide -- slow or fast, biological or cultural -- is the preferred solution of the settler state. Assimilate the indigenous into your national identity but erase the historical identities of the actual indigenes. All over the world this happened and is still happening. Bind people to place, temporality, language, and "tradition" in order to prove their authentic indigeneity and then the mere fact that they show up in your city demanding legal recognition of legitimate claims to sovereignty under the laws to which you are mutually privy as fellow citizens of a single sovereign nation (catch 22!) is proof they aren't really the same people who got screwed over in the past.

Not to mention the small matter of historical trauma induced by violence, racism, theft, and the rapid destruction of cultures. Settler colonial states don't just owe indigenous people "back" what was stolen (an impossibility except at the margins anyway), but some new solution that makes up for the *way* it was taken. And again, this is not because you should feel sorry for indigenous peoples as history's losers, but because you should recognize them as your fellow citizens (at least if you are American or Australian) against whom, in your name and mine, the state continues policies that are rooted in the genocidal project of colonialism.

This is not really or only about what we teach children. But that's a good place to start changing the way we frame the whole set of issues.
posted by spitbull at 7:22 AM on October 8, 2012 [12 favorites]


It is interesting that this post is titled "Australian national identity" when the article doesn't mention this. Perhaps Australians do have shimaguni konjo and think they need a homogenous national identity. Anecdotally, none of the Americans I know think in terms of national identity. They see the incredible variety in their country and realize they don't have much in common with most of them.
posted by bhnyc at 7:23 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to see that some people believe that the existence of fact somehow requires 100% knowledge of fact for 100% of some demographic.

I get that I'm sounding like I'm justifying the offensive position here. But I am desperately trying to identify how much I'm supposed to know on the subject, and what time frame I'm supposed to have learned it. Especially considering that this movement towards historical enlightenment has really only increased in the very recent past.

Where is the line that separates being "obtuse and insulting" from "knows the objective truth"? Certainly there are varying degrees where an individual can admit both that things happened that were objectively inhumane and that as an individual they are not well versed in everything that happened.

But somehow I also get the feeling that the fact that some of us are not as enlightened as others are is somehow insulting to those that are more enlightened. And that the enlightened ones feel that it's okay to bash those that are less enlightened than them.

Which, ironically enough, is the exact mindset that caused this whole problem in the first place.
posted by Blue_Villain at 7:34 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, good, another chance to feel bad for stuff we didn't do.

You're still benefiting from that stuff you didn't do.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:44 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, good, another chance to feel bad for stuff we didn't do.

You're still benefiting from that stuff you didn't do.


We're still doing it.
posted by de at 7:46 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


The 'First Australians' tv series, from a couple of years ago, was a rather excellent attempt to address some of the knowledge deficit. IMDB / Amazon: dvd (non-USA) / book.
posted by peacay at 7:48 AM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]


We're still doing it.

That too.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:51 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


After 20 years you'd think I'd have learned that dry sarcasm doesn't relay well on the Internet. But no. Obviously not.

If your 'sarcasm' is completely indistinguishable in content, phrasing and tone from what is said every day on the internet by the wilfully ignorant and worse, then of course not. The only way that's ever going to succeed as sarcasm is if you're speaking to intimates who know you far too well to take it at face value, or if you say it as part of a longer discourse that makes your accurate position clear. Neither of those things are evident here. Even now i reread your first comment and see no reason why someone coming to it cold on the Intarwebs should take it for sarcasm. So if it really was, then to put it mildly, you're doing it wrong.
posted by George_Spiggott at 8:16 AM on October 8, 2012


barnacles, fantastic comment. Yeah, the idea that the written record of the past (let's be generous) 2000 or so years is somehow and obviously total and objective is one of those wrong-end-of-the-telescope forms of Eurocentric thought and literate bias.

The use of "Eurocentric" here is itself Eurocentric. You're right about the literate bias, but that is common to all societies with long traditions of literacy including those of the Middle East, India, and China. It should hardly be surprising that settled agricultural societies with writing have focussed on history based on large fixed settlements and written records. If someone from a non-literate society wanted to study us, they would seek out our oral history for the same reason that we seek out their written history.

It's also worth noting just how recent archaeology is as a science. The near-past grows by only a century every hundred years, but over the last two-hundred years our distant-past has grown by millennia. A few hundred years ago, nobody really knew the answer to a question like "how long has Jerusalem been inhabited" and that includes the inhabitants of Jerusalem! If something wasn't explicitly mentioned in an ancient chronicle (and realistically, one known to the reader and in a language he could understand) then it simply wasn't known. Written history was all that they had to go on.

In the case of a city like Jerusalem this leads to things like the traditional route for Christ's walk to the cross being totally wrong. When the Byzantine empress built churches and shrines along that route, she was a 1000 years closer to the events than we are, but in a way we are the ones who are closer because we have a very good idea of what the city looked like in the first century CE and she didn't have a clue.
posted by atrazine at 8:27 AM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]


'After the Ice' is a fantastic book. Full title; "After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 - 5000 BC"; or 15,000 years of history you knew nothing about.

In this context the chapter on central Australian history is particularly relevant. Every chapter has a subheading giving it's timeline; eg
"33. A lost world revealed. Tasmanian Hunter-gatherers, 20,000 - 6,000 BC".

For the 'Australian' chapter;
"35. Across the Arid Zone. Hunter-gatherer adaptations to the Central Australian Desert. 30,000BC - AD1966"

30,000 years of unbroken culture/history. Incredible. He also suggests that Australian oral history records ancient climate change and now-extinct megafauna.
posted by BadMiker at 8:42 AM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bravo to barnacles for so clearly stating the distortions that lie under the "history begins 200 years ago" thought train (and accepting Mezentian's claim of sarcasm). 50,00 years of Australian (or shall we say Sahulian, since human history there operates at a geological scale), during which the proud folk of the British Isles saw their own ancestors chased out of their homeland by ice, at least once, while ancestral cultures in Australia just got on with the business of building some of the longest continuous cultural traditions and deepest connections to land, ever.

I'm interested in this as an archaeologist because the little corner of the world I work in also sees very long term oral histories. We know this not just because we respect the First Nation, but, because there are such clear connections between the Nation's origin stories -- Raven-Walking in a Time of Transformation, making the world as it appears today -- and the emerging archaeological and paleo-environmental evidence. This puts the start of their oral history at over 13,000 years ago. (Self link to an old blog post). I mean, think about it: specific knowledge about the state of the environment transmitted through 130 centuries. It blows your mind, and makes the bleats about 200 years of this or that ring so fucking hollow - or even the amazement in some quarters that the written-down Homeric poems could have a basis in historical fact after what -- a thousand years of oral transmission? Child's play.

Barnacles' comment also made me nod in appreciation for how this can happen -- young members of the indigenous group are often singled out to be historians. This happens out here as well. Nowadays, these kids get sent to universities to learn the ways of History-the-discipline, and Anthropology-the-discipline. Why? Precisely so they are equipped to counter the deep structural distortions in those more privileged, text-based ways of knowing the world - which arise when settler society comes to the treaty table. Know thine enemy. I had a student in my class last year who casually mentioned he was the trainee historian for his Nation -- as an undergraduate he'd already started going (as an undergraduate) to big Anthropology conferences, giving papers pushing back on the interpretation of Franz Boas, who did the principal Anthropological work in his territory a hundred years ago. He addressed these from the point of his own knowledge of his culture. Anyway, he is being trained to respect and transmit the histories of his Nation and in his own way he is a direct descendent of the unbroken chain of 13,000 years of history-telling I'm referring to -- and he is a 25 year old guy walking the urban streets of the here-and-now, not some photograph of the "last historian" from, say, 1850.

Anyway, a bit off-topic, but on this Canadian day of "thanksgiving" it's not a bad idea to think globally about the colonial basis of our shared British Empire roots, and what a tiny sliver of the historical pie those represent.
posted by Rumple at 9:28 AM on October 8, 2012 [7 favorites]


barnacles posted: What you're thinking of as our unassailable "historical record" is the result of careful historical scholarship and archaeological investigations.

This seems to support Liam Pieper's essay. We get to think we know "what happened" when we don't, so the conclusions we draw are necessarily skewed. (The savages did nothing with the land, they have no history, and their passing was an inevitable result of the spread of civilization and enlightenment.) Daily lives, not the deeds of generals and kings are the meat of history. It seems important to notice the casual daily acts of the individual that drive continuity in a culture, not just the forces that destroy them.

Columbus Day is a good day to have this discussion. The hard part is working out a few buzzwords and catchphrases to use on the bumpersticker. Well, that's the hard part for me, the white guy. If I were a bit more brownish, I might have some anger issues to work through. Ignorance is a deadly blessing, so we could try not to hate one another for not wanting to shuck it off and look at how it really happened.
posted by mule98J at 9:52 AM on October 8, 2012


The use of "Eurocentric" here is itself Eurocentric

No not really, and I'll be happy to debate this (as the author of the standard article on "orality" in the most widely cited linguistics encyclopedia). But simply my reference is to "Eurocentric" colonialism. That is not to deny that other civilizations developed writing (along with other aspects of the division of labor made possible by agriculture and the possibility of food surpluses it brought). Other civilizations with writing were also colonial powers or imperial powers in their day as well. But the modern authority of writing as the tool of colonial administration and dominance stems directly from the European colonial project. I was writing quite precisely.

Have a look at Baumann and Briggs' *Voices of Modernity* for the crispest history of what I'm talking about here. As a linguistic anthropologist I am well aware of the history of writing.
posted by spitbull at 10:06 AM on October 8, 2012


No not really, and I'll be happy to debate this (as the author of the standard article on "orality" in the most widely cited linguistics encyclopedia). But simply my reference is to "Eurocentric" colonialism. That is not to deny that other civilizations developed writing (along with other aspects of the division of labor made possible by agriculture and the possibility of food surpluses it brought). Other civilizations with writing were also colonial powers or imperial powers in their day as well. But the modern authority of writing as the tool of colonial administration and dominance stems directly from the European colonial project. I was writing quite precisely.

Have a look at Baumann and Briggs' *Voices of Modernity* for the crispest history of what I'm talking about here. As a linguistic anthropologist I am well aware of the history of writing.


Well, I'll defer to your expertise. Is the privileging of the written over the oral very different in Chinese culture than it is in modern era European cultures?
posted by atrazine at 10:58 AM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow... just, wow. This article is basically like an entire rifle-clip's worth of guilt-bullets to use against anybody from Australia. I am favoriting it to arm myself because I know that someday in the future... maybe now, or maybe ten years down the road, but someday - some poor hapless Australian will make the mistake of ignorantly criticizing something about my own society and hold it up for comparison with his own. And when that day comes, I will smile sweetly, narrow my eyes, and say "Oh really? Well perhaps we could discuss Australian society in more detail then..."

And on that glorious day, my friends, there shall be a conversation-shaming that will make grown men tremble and weep.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 12:01 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


Barnacles, I have no problem with the assertions that we don't have a lot of written history anywhere in the world, that it is heavily biased and that it doesn't contain a lot of detail about 'ordinary' (in a dramatic sense) lives. I do have a definite problem with the idea that oral history ought to be given greater credibilty than written history in any context. 600 years' worth of correlation is an extraordinary length of time for oral history to persist and I note that your example includes genealogy of ruling families and land ownership, and these would have had importance, legal weight if you like, to the contemporaries of each oral historian throughout the process.

Again 600 years is an extraordinary depth of data and I have serious doubts that this feat could be replicated anywhere except in a society which has only just, in living memory, picked up literacy. You specifically said "because no-one in the village was keen on memorizing the information" and I would suggest that there are sound reasons for their reluctance. It is not that they are feckless and disrespectful of the traditions out of spite and stupidity, though I would expect some of the oral historians may be tempted to frame it as such: it is a simple fact that literacy renders the technique obsolete. Technologies compete and the less effective die off, and ony the historians and archaeologists, professional and amateur, remain interested in "dead" technologies. This will happen to our own skills as well of course.

Our own cultural bias and experiential context comes from being members of a culture that has had literacy for thousands of years and as such, very broadly speaking, treats memorization very differently from a culture that has no written record to refer to. Assuming that a human society has a separate "memorizer caste" who are trained from a very early age to recite verbatim the verbatim recitations of elder members, and they correct each other towards consensus constantly, and they culturally value extreme accuracy to a point exceeding, for example, the dedication of madrassas students to memorizing the Koran (which may be the upper limit of wide-scale dedication to exacting memorization of large texts among extant cultures): without reference texts how much would the content of that material change? How good, when it is of the utmost cultural significance, when your very lives depend on it, can humans theoretically get, at "playing the telephone game"? Even 99.9% accuracy per generation over 1000 generations would give a noticable degradation. Mutual mishearing of homophones (the Lady Mondegreen effect) would do more than that.

That particular phrase "telephone game" probably comes across as dismissive to you and you already seem to have your hackles up at me. It is a dismissive idiomatic framing. I ask you to consider unemotionally why it might be the case that in a literate culture, verbal records are disparaged, and there are many and varied idiomatic markers for such disparagement. "He said, she said". "Fact-checking". I am referring to the relative weight of veracity put, by all cultures who have access to both options, on written versus verbal records.

I'm not a historian or archaeologist, just a reasonably widely read amateur, however I would be very interested to know of any human culture past or present that has had literacy, and yet has privileged oral history above it in terms of accuracy, legal weight, or anything analogous. Even the earliest forms of literacy, tally marks and "receipt stones" and so forth, existed specifically as a pragmatic response to the inaccuracy of human memory. If everyone remembered how much of a resource everyone had, it would not have been necessary to record it. By inference, the fact that it was recorded implies that not everyone remembered it all.

I just wanted to acknowledge your point about the ubiquity of tools, signs of large earthworks, etc. i have comments to make but not the time to make them right now. I do not know the specifics of advances in archaeology and it has been some time since I looked at where we've gotten to with this, and I apologise for that. Obviously it is less vague than I had thought it to be.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:10 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's interesting to see that some people believe that the existence of fact somehow requires 100% knowledge of fact for 100% of some demographic.

I think the problem is in making sure that the institutional knowledge of a society reflects the current best efforts of the relevant experts, rather than being subject to the ignorant or self-interested parties. It is a broader problem than mere history: think of the debates about creationism in parts of the world, where radical religious elements are attempting to take control in defining institutional knowledge to their favour. And, of course, the ability to defend institutional-knowledge-as expert-consensus is made much easier when a large majority of people are aware of the expert consensus.

Which might just mean you need to repeat the institutional knowledge loudly, and often. Which in turn can lead to a backlash as the privileged, who are strangely sensitive to the historical path that led to their privilege, seek to have those unseemly reminders quashed in favour of more flattering versions of the past.
posted by kithrater at 2:52 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]


This article is basically like an entire rifle-clip's worth of guilt-bullets to use against anybody from Australia.

Not, it's not. It's poorly researched ignorant blathering. Find better weapons. They exist.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:27 PM on October 8, 2012


Fascinating thread!

I've been reading Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking with Einstein" these last few days. Early in the book, he talks about the "loci method" of creating memories and mentions that Aboriginal people as well as Native Americans used such methods for retaining oral histories across generations, and that the loss of their ownership and subsequent "development" of their lands has led to a tragic loss of their oral histories as well. The relevant quote is discussed here.

I don't know if Joshua Foer is a good enough scholar to make such an assertion about Aboriginal Australians, but if true, it is a catastrophe indeed.
posted by vidur at 5:26 PM on October 8, 2012


Happy Columbus Day everyone! Now off to see the Genocide Parade.

Howard Zinn’s “Columbus and Western Civilization”
posted by homunculus at 7:00 PM on October 8, 2012


A message I received via Jessamyn - there's nothing personal in it and it seems that the poster just hasn't yet ponied up their $5 to join MeFi properly, so I'll post it here for comment:

Meanwhile, I just read aeschenkarnos's question at http://www.metafilter.com/120660/Emptiness#4608329 , "however I would be very interested to know of any human culture past or present that has had literacy, and yet has privileged oral history above it in terms of accuracy, legal weight, or anything analogous", and realized that I know an answer. Is it OK if I send you the reference to that answer for you to pass along to aeschenkarnos?
___

The references are in Icelanders in the Viking Age : The People of the Sagas by William R. Short.

From chapter 3, "Government and Law":

..."The law council (lögretta), consisting of the goðar and their advisors, chose a law-speaker (lögsögumasðr) who was responsible for preserving and clarifying the legal tradition. In the years before a written culture developed in Iceland, the law-speaker literally spoke the law, reciting out loud one-third of the laws at each annual meeting of the Alþing. Over the course of his three-year term, the law-speaker recited the entire law code. The law code contained oaths and other formulae composed with rhythmic elements and alliterative patterns, making the laws easier to remember. The law-speaker could be called upon to clarify points of law at any time during the Alþing session.The law-speaker was the only official who received a regular payment for his governmental service..."

From chapter 10, "Art and Leisure":

"...RUNIC WRITING

"Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the runic alphabet was widely known in Scandinavia, and evidence suggests that literacy was wide-spread. Highly public memorial stones with runic inscriptions are found in many Viking lands, notably Sweden. Why erect them if most of the population couldn’t read them?

"More evidence for literacy comes from writing tablets showing traces of runic writing, which are found, not in trading towns, but in remote Scandinavian farms. The tablets consisted of a wooden frame with raised borders that held wax. Runic characters were inscribed into the wax with a sharp iron stylus.

"Tally sticks with runic writing are found in trading centers, meant to be attached to merchandise. Everyday objects are found inscribed with the owner’s name and other short messages.

"Additionally, saga evidence suggests literacy was common. In an episode related in Morkinskinna, the saga author found it not the least bit remarkable that a poor unnamed Icelander was able to read a runic inscription carved into a buried treasure chest.

"POETRY

"Despite the widespread knowledge of runic writing, Scandinavian culture was almost entirely oral prior to the arrival of Christianity. The longest surviving runic inscriptions are about the length of a stanza of poetry. The Norse people had all the tools in place for creating longer written works, but for unknown reasons, they chose not to. Instead, important thoughts were remembered through poetry, which was transmitted orally..."
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:48 AM on October 9, 2012


To comment on the anonymous person's message: It seems to me that the situation described is not so much privileging the oral history above the written, but that the capacity to perform oral history was a badge of office of the lawspeaker, and his speech was privileged above the writing of the public. As noted in the first paragraph the legal tradition developed before the writing system did, and presumably the lawspeakers themselves learned the law code at least partially from written material.

It seems from this brief description to be a strong cultural value that the law should be recitable and memorizeable by an educated member of the community, and that contemporary folk should be obliged to retain and adhere to the same law that was developed prior to the writing system. (Somewhat like the social position of the US Constitution in the USA, but potentially more resistant to amendment.)

It's certainly a good counterpoint to my point, but I'd hesitate to consider it a refutation; the question remains whether veneration of oral history over written history was generalized in that culture, beyond this particular "text".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 1:57 AM on October 9, 2012


I don't know if you read the entire post, but it goes on to clarify that the longest text is roughly a stanza of poetry. Also: "The Norse people had all the tools in place for creating longer written works, but for unknown reasons, they chose not to. Instead, important thoughts were remembered through poetry, which was transmitted orally..."
posted by jamincan at 3:52 AM on October 9, 2012


I've just spent the last week editing a report about the archaeological evidence, over the course of a couple dozen millennia, for indigenous occupation and activity in one small part of Western Australia, so I think I'm well-placed on this one to say: what a load of crap.

I feel I have just been "schooled", as the kids say.
posted by Mezentian at 3:52 AM on October 9, 2012


As a 90's high school kid I learnt about the Myall Creek Massacre at about 14 or 15 or so.

And in terms of Australian 'identity' I can tell you that 15 years of my father, and his father, arguing over exactly which numerated fleet our ancestors came from was a bit of a wash. Not too mention that my family also has much more recent immigrants into this story, via way of Scandinavian Baltic people, and Irish protestants who pretended to be Scots, because the Irish weren't well regarded.




But the real story here is that the indigenous Australians were varied, barnacles I hope you can flesh this out some more maybe of that's not asking too much, but there were distinct cultural groups. It's a vast land, and surviving in it would need various adaptive responses.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 4:07 AM on October 9, 2012


Sorry that didn't come out right, my point was that there are multiple groups of indigenous Australians. With different cultures.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 4:12 AM on October 9, 2012


The languages of Australia map can help to comprehend diversity of cultures that Australia was/is home to. There was trade across the country and there have been stashes of goods discovered that contain items from Victoria to the far North kept together.
posted by asok at 4:33 AM on October 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


re. "whether veneration of oral history over written history was generalized in that culture."

I think this is missing the point. How can you compare the validity of oral vs. written records? The two are completely different and the values inherent in each venerate very different ways of viewing the world.

Of course oral history is mutable and inaccurate compared to written record. Does this make it any less 'valid'? Writing is also an imprecise and subjective medium. I suspect peoples with an oral history are more capable of adapting to different conditions, living in a more fluid world. Once you start writing things down then, sure, bigger social structures become more practical but thinking that this is an unqualified good thing leads to kingdoms, to empires, to, ultimately, cultural colonialism.

Historic records are only one part of 'ownership' of a land, or value of a culture. Doesnt Australian culture have massive value as a very unique, geographically specific, long (LONG!) established culture? The people, the land, the culture; all interlinked. I can see how this link between people and land threatens and undermines any colonial mindset. I just hope that the Australian culture can be continued, and can adapt to its new situation.

For a thread which starts with an exploration of such a miserable & grim past, this line shows that the future may be something amazing: "I had a student in my class last year who casually mentioned he was the trainee historian for his Nation."
Thanks Rumples.
posted by BadMiker at 5:35 AM on October 9, 2012


Can anyone parse this sentence for me?
Or that in 1966, decades after segregation was abolished in the States, an amendment to the Australian constitution passed during the 1967 referendum that deliberately stripped Aboriginal Australians of their constitutional citizenship.
Here's the Wikipedia article on the 1967 referendum, according to which Australian Aborigines have been citizens for as long as Australian citizenship has existed: since 1949. I don't know enough constitutional law to know whether that's true, but I strongly suspect the authors of the article are more likely to be correct than Mr Can't-Put-A-Sentence-Together.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:57 AM on October 9, 2012


Politically centre-left and, if not a great student, then at least a frequent one, I’d spent almost a decade studying humanities, and this was all new to me. Throughout my schooling, the only time I can recall ever being taught anything about Aboriginal Australian history was in the third grade, when a kindly hippie visited my primary school, took us out to the oval, and taught us how to throw a boomerang.
Can I just say, what utter utter bollocks? Has this person really been to school in the last several decades? I mean, he's pretending to know less about aboriginal culture and heritage than my seven year old son. Truly. What a load of utter tripe. He is, plainly and simply, a liar.


Interesting observation about this thread, all you aussies seem to be coming at it from an anglo-celtic POV. I wonder if you were post-war southern europeans, how you would respond?
posted by wilful at 6:01 AM on October 9, 2012


Joe in Australia, the point of the 1967 referendum was the exact OPPOSITE of what is claimed - it was to improve the situation for aboriginal australians. And yes, they already had citizenship, and no, they did not lose it then (or can someone tell me when it was given back?).
posted by wilful at 6:04 AM on October 9, 2012


I wonder if you were post-war southern europeans, how you would respond?

My family was too busy spending the cold war holding bakesales and selling homemade liquor to raise money to send back to 'the old country', for what I assume were entirely legitimate purposes, to be concerned with any convict shame/pride their anglo neighbours may have been feeling.

Can anyone parse this sentence for me?

I tried and failed to understand what the author was trying to say there. The best I came up with is that he's trying to tie in the 1967 amendment to the 2007 suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act somehow?
posted by kithrater at 6:10 AM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Interesting observation about this thread, all you aussies seem to be coming at it from an anglo-celtic POV. I wonder if you were post-war southern europeans, how you would respond?

Well, I'm a third generation Australian, with grandparents from Romania and Germany.
posted by hot soup girl at 6:11 AM on October 9, 2012


I think you'll find that Australia is a lot more diverse than you imagine, and that you simply cannot presume that a random Australian you haven't met is Anglo-Celtic, or Hibernian, or Nordic, or whatever.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:22 AM on October 9, 2012


>I think you'll find that Australia is a lot more diverse than you imagine

Not really mate.
posted by wilful at 3:00 PM on October 9, 2012


Interesting observation about this thread, all you aussies seem to be coming at it from an anglo-celtic POV. I wonder if you were post-war southern europeans, how you would respond?

I'm neither, and an immigrant. My response is that the author of this article is an ignorant fool who couldn't be bothered to do the barest skerrick of research, and projects his profound ignorance onto the entire country. I am well aware of Australia's bloody colonial history, and I didn't even grow up here.

Re diversity, over 20% of the Australian population were born overseas:

"The scale of immigration to Australia in the last forty years has been enormous, accounting for about half of our population growth. Table 1.3 shows that a remarkably high proportion of Australians are overseas born.

Today well over 20% of Australians were born in another country, of whom more than half came to Australia from non-English speaking countries in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America. Combined with their Australian-born children, they constitute 40% of the population."

posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:55 PM on October 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


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