Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Author: Marcia Langton
Editor’s note: In 2008 Marcia Langton, one of the most prominent Aboriginal voices in Australia, drew on some of Baudrillard’s ideas to articulate the struggle for Aboriginal justice. We repost it here as an example of political struggle that uses Baudrillard for inspiration. [Rex Butler]
Jean Baudrillard generated international controversy when he described in his essay War Porn the way images from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other “consensual and televisual” violence were used in the aftermath to September 11, 2001. Strong words – perversity, vileness – sparked in his brief, acute analysis: ” The worst is that it all becomes a parody of violence, a parody of the war itself, pornography becoming the ultimate form of the abjection of war which is unable to be simply war, to be simply about killing, and instead turns itself into a grotesque, infantile reality show, in a desperate simulacrum of power. These scenes are the illustration of a power without aim, without purpose, without a plausible enemy and in total impunity. It is only capable of inflicting gratuitous humiliation” (Baudrillard, 2005).
This made me think about the everyday suffering of Aboriginal children and women, the men who assault and abuse them, and the use of this suffering as a kind of visual and intellectual pornography in Australian media and public debates. The very public debate about child abuse is like Baudrillard’s war porn. It has parodied the horrible suffering of Aboriginal people. The crisis in Aboriginal society is a public spectacle, played out in a vast reality show through the media, parliaments, public service and the Aboriginal world. This obscene and pornographic spectacle shifts attention away from everyday lived crisis that many Aboriginal people endure: or do not, dying as they do at excessive rates.
This spectacle is not a new phenomenon in Australian public life, but the debate about indigenous affairs has reached a new crescendo, fuelled by the accelerated and uncensored expose of the extent of Aboriginal child abuse. Shocking accounts of brutal sexual assault and murder — including reports by Children’s Court magistrate Sue Gordon in Western Australia, Alice Springs crown prosecutor Nanette Rogers, and journalists Nicolas Rothwell and Tony Koch (both of The Australian) and Suzanne Smith – have become almost routine. The 2007 Northern Territory inquiry and report Little Children are Sacred, by Rex Wild QC and Pat Anderson, was the tipping point.
More than a century of policy experimentation with Aboriginal people climaxed when the Howard federal government sent a special police taskforce, troops and emergency medical staff into the NT. On August 7, 2007, it passed more than 500 pages of legislation: special measures that subvert the authority of the NT in the most extraordinary federal takeover in Australia’s history. In some critical respects, the outcome of this renewed debate is what many have been recommending for decades: protective interventions to prevent the abuse, rape and assault of Aboriginal women and children, and decisive action against the perpetrators.
The federal legislation and emergency taskforce were a slap in the face for the NT Government, then led by Clare Martin. It was a bracing vote of no confidence in her Government’s capacity to deal with the crisis, and the responsibilities for which Territory governments had received generous commonwealth funding for decades. Indeed, the redistribution of these funds to the privileged white electorates that kept Martin’s Government in power became evident when data from a special project by the Council of Australian Governments at Wadeye revealed how NT governments had failed to use commonwealth funds for their intended purposes: “Far less is spent on (Aboriginal Territorians) per head than is spent on the average Territorian”. The education deficit was acute: for every dollar spent on each Territory school child, 47cents was spent on each Aboriginal child at Wadeye. “To those most in need, the least is provided,” the study concluded.
Although the NT Government receives special funding to improve the lot of its disadvantaged population, it was the commonwealth rather than the Territory government that became the villain in the public debate about the emergency intervention. There is a cynical view afoot that the intervention was a political ploy – to grab land, support mining companies and kick black heads – dressed up as concern for children. Conspiracy theories abounded; most were ridiculous.
Those who did not see the intervention coming were deluding themselves. It was the inevitable outcome of the many failures of policy and the flawed federal-state division of responsibilities for Aboriginal Australians. It was a product of the failure of NT governments for a quarter of a century to adequately invest the funds they received to eliminate the disadvantages of their citizens in education, health and basic services. It was made worse by general incompetence in Darwin: the public service, non-government sector (including some Aboriginal organizations) and the dead hand of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission all presided over increasingly horrible conditions in Aboriginal communities.
The combined effect of the righteous media campaign for action and the emergency intervention has been a metaphorical dagger, sunk deep into the heart of the powerful, wrong-headed Aboriginal male ideology that has prevailed in indigenous affairs policies and practices for decades. My hope is that, as the evidence mounts of the need for a radical new approach, the shibboleths of the old Left, who need perpetual victims for their analysis to work, will also be dismantled.
Rogers had been the crown prosecutor in Alice Springs for more than 12 years, committed to social justice issues since her days as a young solicitor in Redfern. In 2006, her patience with the criminal justice system in the Territory and its capacity to deal with child victims of violence and rape and abuse snapped. Her comments on May 15, 2006, were reported globally. The BBC news led with the story: “Abuse rife at Aboriginal camps – horrific levels of sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, including the rape of a baby”. The media blitz following Rogers’s heartfelt speech was a blow to self-satisfied participants on both sides of the debate: the romantic defenders of Aboriginal self-determination and the uncivil deniers of the right of Aboriginal people to co-exist with settler society.
Rothwell summed up the reality that many had ignored, dismissed or denied: “Domestic violence and sexual assaults against women and children define the boundaries of human experience in many of the larger and more troubled bush communities – and these dreadful plagues are constantly reported, yet no action ensues”.
In June 2006, the ABC’s Smith began reporting the evidence that the Aboriginal community at Mutitjulu, near Uluru, was being terrorized by a “predatory pedophile” who traded petrol for sex with young girls, while “other men in the community, many with convictions for violent crime, made it difficult for people to expose the sexual violence, the drug trade and the petrol trafficking”.
When Tony Jones introduced Rogers to a national audience, he twice warned the viewers of Late line that her accounts of violence were extremely graphic. “Why do you think there’s been such a long silence about this particular issue in central Australia?” he asked. Rogers replied with a triple volley: “I think there are a number of reasons for that. The first is that violence is entrenched in a lot of aspects of Aboriginal society here. Second, Aboriginal people choose not to take responsibility for their own actions. Third, Aboriginal society is very punitive, so that if a report is made or a statement is made implicating an offender then that potential witness is subject to harassment, intimidation and sometimes physical assault if the offender gets into trouble because of that report.”
The federal Aboriginal affairs minister at the time, Mal Brough, was still hesitant. He had told the ABC: “Australians may not be ready to hear about children being raped.” Jones asked Rogers whether she disagreed. “Yes, I do. I feel very strongly that everybody needs to know about it”. She detailed the traumas and horrors and focused on several cases: a four-year-old girl drowned while being raped by a teenager who had been sniffing petrol; two very young children, including a seven-month-old baby, sexually assaulted by adult men while their mothers were elsewhere drinking alcohol. Both children needed surgery for their injuries. Another baby was stabbed twice by a man attempting to kill her mother.
Miranda Devine, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald, asked: “Why did Tony Jones feel the need to ask Rogers, ‘Are you worried that the information itself may be abused by tabloids and racists even, shock jocks – the sort of people who will take information like this and exploit it?’ Are there really people so morally confused that they see opposition to the rape of babies as a shock-jock phenomenon?”
The question Devine should have asked was, “Are there really Aboriginal people so morally confused that they see the rape of babies as normal and not warranting any intervention?” I am sad to report that the answer to that question is yes. There are such people, and it is them – rather than sniveling racists or the shock jocks who exploit Aboriginal misery for fame – who undermine attempts to prevent the rape of Aboriginal children and other crimes against our most vulnerable citizens.
While writing this essay, I appealed to the newly elected Rudd Government to continue the emergency intervention and maintain the strategies most likely to stop the horrors that plague Aboriginal communities. In response I was pilloried by Aboriginal people, who responded with letters to the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald with sentimental, blame-shifting nonsense. These were later posted on the web page of Women for Wik, a group of high-profile women supporting what they say are Aboriginal rights and who seem, despite extraordinary levels of education and achievement in public life, to be misinformed and misled about the nature of the crisis.
Then on December 10, 2007, another heart-breaking tragedy was reported by Koch: the rape of a 10-year-old Wik girl in Aurukun by three adult and six juvenile Wik males that was treated by the Queensland criminal justice system as barely a cause for concern. District Court Judge Sarah Bradley expressed utter contempt for the girl and basic norms of humanity when she imposed 12-month probation orders and failed to record a conviction against any of the nine who had pleaded guilty. After all that has been said about the far too many cases like this that end up before the courts, and many, many more that are never reported, it was almost more than I could bear to read Bradley’s sickening statements that this child “probably agreed” to have sex with them. Several of the nine are from Aurukun itself, where anti-social behaviour, which varies from day to day only in its intensity and detrimental outcomes, is called “riots”.
If the dysfunctional behaviour was merely riots, rather than murder, rape, incest, assault, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse and gambling, then there would be no justification for the recommendations over the years to end welfare payments without conditions and government funding without positive outcomes. It is justifiable to conclude that an apartheid regime has been created wherever Aboriginal communities are quarantined by remoteness, welfare dependence, a racist criminal justice system and government officials who entrench this expensive social pathology with dysfunctional policies.
The most disgusting of these is judicial leniency in sentencing Aboriginal murderers and rapists. This rewards serial rapists and murderers. Instead of jail sentences that would apply to anyone else, they are freed, often after a laughable lecture, or sent to a prison where living conditions are often better than in the communities from which they come. They are released into the communities where their crimes were committed, and recidivism takes on a special meaning: the younger sisters or cousins of their original victims are the next in line to be raped.
I have two questions for the Women for Wik (and the cowardly men who hide behind their skirts): what suggestions do you have that could prevent incidents like this that took place in the heart of Wik country? And, will you cease using the name of the once proud Wik people, who now endure a vicious, violent and miserable existence?
It seems almost axiomatic to most Australians that Aborigines should be marginalized: poor, sick and forever on the verge of extinction. At the heart of this idea is a belief in the inevitability of our incapability, the acceptance of our “descent into hell”. This is part of the cultural and political wrong-headedness that dominates thinking about the role of Aboriginal property rights and economic behaviour in the transition from settler colonialism to modernity.
In this mindset, the potential of an economically empowered, free-thinking, free-speaking Aborigine has been set to one side because it is more interesting to play with the warm, cuddly, cultural Aborigine, the one who is so demoralized that the only available role is as a passive player. The dominance of the “reconciliation and justice” rhetoric in the Australian discourse on Aboriginal issues is a part of this.
The first Australians are seeking relief from poverty and economic exclusion. Yet, in the past three decades, rational thinking and sound theory (such as development economics), to address the needs of indigenous societies, have been side-tracked into the intellectual dead-end of the culture wars. This has had very little to do with Aboriginal people but everything to do with white settlers positioning themselves around the central problem of their country: can a settler nation be honourable? Can history be recruited to the cause of Australian nationalism without reaching agreement with its first peoples? Paradoxically, even while Aboriginal misery dominates the national media frenzy – the perpetual Aboriginal reality show – the first peoples exist as virtual beings without power or efficacy in the national Zeitgeist. Political characters played by so-called Aboriginal leaders pull the levers that draw settler Australians to them in a co-dependent relationship.
The rhetoric of reconciliation is a powerful drawing card, like the bearded woman at the old sideshow. It is a seductive, pornographic idea, designed for punters accustomed to viewing Aborigines as freaks. It almost allows “the native” some agency and a future. I say almost because, in the end, “the native” is not allowed out of the show, forever condemned to perform to attract crowds.
The debate that has surrounded the emergency intervention has been instructive. It has exposed this co-dependency. It has also revealed a more disturbing, less well-understood fault line in the Aboriginal world. The co-dependents in the relationship seek to speak for the abused, the suffering, the ill, the dying and those desperately in need who have been left alone to descend into a living hell while those far removed conduct a discourse on rights and culture. The bodies that have piled up over the past 30 years have become irrelevant, except where they serve the purposes of the “culture war”. But the bodies of real people continue to pile up, human lives broken on the wheel of suffering. How much longer will this abuse of Aboriginal people be tolerated?
Victims of all countries, do not let vengeance erase the horror of the massacre (Baudrillard, 2003:2)
About the Author
Marcia Langton is the Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at Melbourne University. She is also the Chair of the Cape York Institute for Leadership and Policy and co-editor of Settling with Indigenous People (Federation Press, 2006).
This is an edited extract from her Trapped in the Aboriginal Reality Show (Griffith Review, Edition 19, (ABC Books, www.griffithreview.com).
Jean Baudrillard (2003). Cool Memmories IV. New York: Verso [this passage was added by the editor of IJBS].
Jean Baudrillard (2005). “War Porn” (Translated by Paul Taylor). International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (On the Internet), Volume 2, Number 1 (January).