Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Colonising Moment

History considers cause and effect, or so it seems. It collects the antecedent events, actions, ideologies, social and economic conditions, belief systems and so on to explain a historical moment. Public understandings of history follow this pattern. History is understood to be about knowing what happened in the past, or maybe even about understanding what happened in the past. The professional traditions of ‘historical objectivity’ though, leave historical moments dead, in the past. We tend to publicly forget that history is actually alive and an actor in the present.

The colonising moment is an example of this. Present public versions of the histories of European colonisation may no longer only offer a benign myth focussing the heroism of the settlers, but even these new narratives serve to locate colonisation in a detached past.

Paul D'Amato's story on America's thanksgiving pulls together history and present and begins to unravel the consequences of this great public historical myth. D'Amato explaination of the story of an Indian named Squanto teaching the European 'pilgrims' to palnt corn and saving them from starvation is useful to readers like me, an outsiderwith no knowledge. His account of what is missing from the story, however, sounds very familiar from my Australian perspective:

"What we aren't told is that Squanto learned English because he had been abducted and made a slave in Europe some years before, and the place where he taught the new settlers to plant corn was the village he had grown up in, Patuxet, now depopulated by the impact of European diseases."

D'Amoto's goes beyond simply correcting the omissions of this defining American story noting that "the first Thanksgiving was not the end of the story. The Indians very quickly discovered they had little to celebrate" he tells the story of ongoing oppression and resistance that goes on today. The public history of Thanksgiving is silent on this part of the story.

This article reveals much about two moments of colonisation. One located 400 years ago with the establishment of a settlement at Plymouth, and one located in the present with the annual celebration of this great American public myth.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Media, History and Truth

This morning I read an excellent comparative review of Nick Davies', Flat Earth News, (2008) and David Edwards' and David Cromwell's, Newspeak in the 21st Century, (2009) by Johnathon Cook, a free lance journalist based in Israel. While both books analyse the failures of corporate media, Cook's review argues persuasively in favour of Edward's and Cromwell's explanations for the failure building on Chomsky's 'propoganda model of media control. Chomsky et al argue that the failure of mainstream media to provide a diversity of ideas and opinions is structural and systematic. The media, they argue, presents a particular world view not through the direct exercise of power or any greta conspiracies but simply by “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors' and working journalists' internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness". In this model, the media's role is not to present the truth but to promote the interests of the powerful corporations that dominate our society.

In exploring this model, Cook develops the idea of the "climate of assumptions" that is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations around a discussion of the media coverage of the Iraq war and of climate change. In the case of Iraq, for example, it is argued that any media crticism 'is almost entirely restricted to the [UK] government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it."

While still thinking about this climate of assumptions I read the Centre of Indepenent Studies recent report Revisiting Indigenous Education. This is a report I disagree with on many grounds but it is the way it works within another climate of assumptions that I want to explore. Among the 'findings' (assumptions) of this report is the simple statement that '[s]tudents must meet NAPLAN English literacy standards to be able to work and participate in society' (p. 10).

The need for English literacy and the need to be able to work and participate in society are uncontested assumptions underpinning all public debate around Aboriginal affairs and certainly many Aboriginal people do want these things. On the other hand there are many Aboriginal people who want no part of Australian society whcih raises a critical question that is simply not able to be asked in the mainstream media: do Aboriginal people, particularly those in remote communities, have a right to financial and other support from the Australian state if they have no wish to participate in the Australian nation?

From within the assumptions of Australian society the clear answer is no. I would like to suggest that this may be due to a 'propoganda model of public history control.' The main form of public history control in Australia has been silence as pointed out by Stanner forty years ago and more recently by John Pilger when accepting the Sydney Peace prize whcih can be seen as video or read as transcript. It is a silence I am reminded of when students in my Indigenous Studies classes ask aloud why they were not taught the history of Australian colinization at school. It is a silence that must be broken before we consider recomendations from the Centre for Independent Studies to close schools in remote community and force Aboriginal people even further off their country so that they might 'participate in society.'

There are now many histories available that tell the sorry story of the Australian fronteir and Tony Roberts' article in the November 2009 edition of The Monthly tells the story of the Gulf Country in the Northern Territory in the late ninteeth century in great detail. Most disturbingly it demonstrates the active involvement of the government in far removed Adelaide in actions that today would be described as crimes against humanity and in their day were capital crimes by their own laws. The story is of an entirely successful society brutally removed from their country so that new commers could graze cattle without interference. The history that follows includes what amounts to slavery, social exclusion, further removal from country, the breaking up of families and one of the highest incarceration rates in the world (something still going on, although this story is from Western Australia). At the same time the Australian state has reaped huge mineral and agricutural wealth from the land taken by force.

I am not advocating anything on behalf of the Aboriginal communties of the Northern Territory; it is not for me to speak on their behalf. I am questioning the media and public policy assumption that participation in Australian society is a desirable thing. An alternative might be for the Australian state to pay full reparations and compensation for past wrongs and to withdraw from the territory. It is an alternative, however, that is simply not imaginable from within the public climate of assumptions about the nature of Australian history.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Universe has dreamed us up

Systems theory has us moving away from the human/nature duality and thinking that humanity is actually a part of nature. This seems a case of western science catching up with indigenous knowledge.

Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Ilya Prigogine, whose work was in self-organising systems away from thermodynamic equilibrium, argued in his 1997 book that the determinism of Darwin, Einstein was problematic in light of more recent understandings of of irreversibility and instability. Essentially he is questioning if it is possible to explain the world in simple chains of cause and effect. In doing so he is questioning one of the basic underpinnings of modernity.

Indigenous knowledge systems offer ways of developing inter-subjective relationships with the ecological systems that humanity is part of. Such understandings may become vital as we move into a world with a climate system unstable for the first time in the history of western civilisation.

Aboriginal Australian knowledge systems hold that humanity was 'dreamed up' along with and as part of the landscape.