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Friday intellectual spot 2

Not all that intellectual today, but two items of interest from the recent Arts & Letters Daily selections.

The first I immediately thought was another reactionary rant on its subject, but closer examination shows it is better than that. I was put off by the A&L’s intro:

Literacy, the most empowering achievement of our civilization, is to be replaced by a vague and ill-defined screen savvy. All in the name of progress… more»

Much better than that would lead you to expect. You can read the whole thing in PDF here.

The second is from The Atlantic Monthly: The End of White America? by Hua Hsu.

"Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”

He is Tom Buchanan, a character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a book that nearly everyone who passes through the American education system is compelled to read at least once. Although Gatsby doesn’t gloss as a book on racial anxiety—it’s too busy exploring a different set of anxieties entirely—Buchanan was hardly alone in feeling besieged. The book by “this man Goddard” had a real-world analogue: Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, published in 1920, five years before Gatsby. Nine decades later, Stoddard’s polemic remains oddly engrossing. He refers to World War I as the “White Civil War” and laments the “cycle of ruin” that may result if the “white world” continues its infighting. The book features a series of foldout maps depicting the distribution of “color” throughout the world and warns, “Colored migration is a universal peril, menacing every part of the white world.”

As briefs for racial supremacy go, The Rising Tide of Color is eerily serene. Its tone is scholarly and gentlemanly, its hatred rationalized and, in Buchanan’s term, “scientific.” And the book was hardly a fringe phenomenon. It was published by Scribner, also Fitzgerald’s publisher, and Stoddard, who received a doctorate in history from Harvard, was a member of many professional academic associations. It was precisely the kind of book that a 1920s man of Buchanan’s profile—wealthy, Ivy League–educated, at once pretentious and intellectually insecure—might have been expected to bring up in casual conversation.

As white men of comfort and privilege living in an age of limited social mobility, of course, Stoddard and the Buchanans in his audience had nothing literal to fear. Their sense of dread hovered somewhere above the concerns of everyday life. It was linked less to any immediate danger to their class’s political and cultural power than to the perceived fraying of the fixed, monolithic identity of whiteness that sewed together the fortunes of the fair-skinned.

From the hysteria over Eastern European immigration to the vibrant cultural miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, it is easy to see how this imagined worldwide white kinship might have seemed imperiled in the 1920s. There’s no better example of the era’s insecurities than the 1923 Supreme Court case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, in which an Indian American veteran of World War I sought to become a naturalized citizen by proving that he was Caucasian. The Court considered new anthropological studies that expanded the definition of the Caucasian race to include Indians, and the justices even agreed that traces of “Aryan blood” coursed through Thind’s body. But these technicalities availed him little. The Court determined that Thind was not white “in accordance with the understanding of the common man” and therefore could be excluded from the “statutory category” of whiteness. Put another way: Thind was white, in that he was Caucasian and even Aryan. But he was not white in the way Stoddard or Buchanan were white.

The ’20s debate over the definition of whiteness—a legal category? a commonsense understanding? a worldwide civilization?—took place in a society gripped by an acute sense of racial paranoia, and it is easy to regard these episodes as evidence of how far we have come. But consider that these anxieties surfaced when whiteness was synonymous with the American mainstream, when threats to its status were largely imaginary. What happens once this is no longer the case—when the fears of Lothrop Stoddard and Tom Buchanan are realized, and white people actually become an American minority? ….

Do make sure you read on. It becomes even more interesting, and it is very relevant to our thinking here in Australia, despite its US emphasis, and to our own past. In fact I’ve PDFed it too: Hua Hsu article. Of course there are major differences between the US and Australian experiences, but there is common ground in some of the thinking Hua Hsu alludes to.

Putting both articles together, you might say a 21st century Tom Buchanan would be running an ultra-Right blog! 😉

The relevance to our own past? See earlier entries here: That hypothetical Year 10 lesson on “White Australia” and Updating that hypothetical Year 10 lesson on "White Australia". My contention would be that in the context of the time, given what was “normal” thinking in much of the Anglophone world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it would have been very surprising if Australia hadn’t had a “White Australia Policy”. We don’t have to agonise about it, because we have moved on since then. Sadly, not everyone has moved on, as we know, but generally speaking there has been a lot of progress, especially here in Australia.

It doesn’t hurt our international reputation though to be frank about our own past, while equally assertive about the progress that has been made; I’d go further and claim it is very desirable so to do, setting an excellent example to others less honest about their chequered pasts. That’s why I don’t accept Keith Windschuttle’s special pleading on the subject. Our White Australia Policy was indisputably racist, whatever else it may have been – protective of labour, concerned with Empire and with internal social cohesion, inspired by distance and vulnerability, and so on – all part of the mix too. But it is really not surprising that racist thinking shaped much of the rhetoric at the time.

Jim Belshaw and I have thrashed this one out several times in the past, as visiting those two posts will show. 🙂

 

Friday intellectual spot 1

Here you will see some real thought because I have not written what I post in these spots. Sometimes I will harvest something from the Arts & Letters Daily, which is very good even if it favours the Right somewhat, but it does seek a degree of balance and almost always offers at least one post per day that is worth a look. 3 Quarks Daily is also an excellent source, but I have that in my Google Reader picks. The poems on 3 Quarks Daily are especially good. They always feature in my Google Reader.

Today it’s from New Yorker.

…This rejection of inwardness, so constant in Arendt’s work, from “Rahel Varnhagen” on, is the key to what is most valuable in her legacy, and also what is most questionable. No one has argued more forcefully than Arendt that to deprive human beings of their public, political identity is to deprive them of their humanity—and not just metaphorically. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” she points out that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews was to make them stateless, in the knowledge that people with no stake in a political community have no claim on the protection of its laws.

This is the insight that makes Arendt a thinker for our time, when failed states have again and again become the settings for mass murder. She reveals with remorseless logic why emotional appeals to “human rights” or “the international community” so often prove impotent in the face of a humanitarian crisis. “The Rights of Man, after all, had been defined as ‘inalienable’ because they were supposed to be independent of all governments,” she writes in “Origins,” “but it turned out that the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.” This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and what is happening now in Darfur. Genocide is a political problem, Arendt insists, and it can be solved only politically.

Yet the supreme value that Arendt places on individual pride and aristocratic distance, on intellect and excellence, also sharply restricts the human understanding that must be the basis for any confrontation with political evil, especially the evil of the Holocaust. Too much of life and too many kinds of people are excluded from Arendt’s sympathy, which she could freely give only to those as strong as she was. If, as she wrote, “it is the desire to excel which makes men love the world,” then our love for the world actually makes it harder for us to love the people who inhabit it. This is the dilemma that runs through all Arendt’s writing, demonstrating that what she observed about Marx is true of her as well: “Such fundamental and flagrant contradictions rarely occur in second-rate writers; in the work of the great authors they lead into the very center of their work.”

 
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Posted by on January 9, 2009 in faith and philosophy, Holocaust, human rights, humanity, intellectual spot, magazines, politics, writers

 

2009 book notes: 1

jan06 The current Surry Hills Library crop has thrown up two excellent novels (Best Reads of 2009), one just short of that but still very good, and one ordinary novel with a good plot line.

Cormac Millar, The Grounds (Penguin 2006/7) – crime fiction ***** Best Read of 2009

This is just delightful in every way: witty, stylish, intelligent, and a good story as well. It’s up there with the best in crime fiction, social satire, and sheer enjoyment. The author is clearly conservative, but then this has never been unusual in satire. Among the targets are the sacred cows of university “reform” and international eduspeak and corporate jargon.

‘…My new system is going to let the academics do their work, and give us all something to celebrate going forward.’

The contagious phrase ‘going forward’, used at the end of a sentence, denoted a positive mental attitude and was obligatory in all statements and interviews given by managerially minded persons.

See: Cormac Millar’s Home Page and Book Review: The Grounds by Cormac Millar. That reviewer wouldn’t know good writing if it bit her on the bum; what she deplores I revelled in!

Jose Luis de Juan, This Breathing World (Arcadia 2007; first published in Spanish in 1999) – crime fiction, pomo to the hilt **** Best Read of 2009

Imagine a scribe/amanuensis in post-Augustan Rome channelling Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. You can’t? You will if you read this. Yes, it’s all a bit Borges, but it is very cleverly done and there’s much lovely writing. The other setting is Harvard University in the 1960s where crimes committed in Ancient Rome seem to be resurfacing. Plays with your head, it does. Intertextuality on steroids. It is also very gay and quite amoral. So be warned. Personally I loved it, and learned along the way a lot about how authorship and writing were seen in Rome.

See: This Breathing World, where The Guardian reviewer likes it rather less than I did.

Magdalen Nabb, Vita Nuova (Soho 2008) – crime fiction **** Best Read of 2009

Synopsis (from the publisher): Daniela is a quiet single mother studying for a doctorate in chemistry. She rarely goes out, so her murder in her bedroom at the family’s new villa seems inexplicable. It is true that her mother, who appears to be an alcoholic; her younger sister, who has had mental problems; and her father, who has made his money running nightclubs and is probably involved in the international sex trade, are not your average home-loving Italian nuclear family, but what can she have done to be singled out for slaughter? And why has the prosecutor asked specifically for Marshal Guarnaccia to head the investigation?

I took that from Vita Nuova by Magdalen Nabb (Mystery Book Review). Very strong on characterisation and spirit of place, yet I was a little disappointed. That’s not to say it does not merit the “best read” tag.

Published posthumously. English-born Nabb died in Florence in 2007 aged 60.

See: International Noir Fiction: The last Magdalen Nabb.

Aline Templeton, Lying Dead (Hodder 2008/hb 2007) – crime fiction ***

OK, the writing is very ordinary, even at times pedestrian. The plot takes ages to take off, but once it does it is really very well executed.

See: Interview with Aline Templeton.

Quadrant: a footnote

While I have not always slammed everything that appears in John Howard’s favourite mag Quadrant, as searches here and here will show, I am underwhelmed by it in its various post-Robert Manne manifestations. Even so, there are good articles there from time to time, and some good stuff in the literary area. But I have spat at the mag more often than not in recent years: for example — How Martin Krygier ambushed the Quadranters…; Three magazines and an amazing AIDS story… (“You will all be overjoyed to discover that HIV does not cause AIDS. Lord Malcolm will be especially pleased, I should think, as this means he isn’t really sick at all and must have been in hospital all those times for work experience, or a vacation, and all that pain he suffers must just be imaginitis… I look forward to ‘Why the Earth is Flat’ in some future Quadrant; I think we have already had articles on why climate change is a left-wing fantasy…); Vilifying Australia – The perverse ideology of our adversary culture :: Keith Windschuttle (“Windschuttle is to the study or History what the Visigoths were to Ancient Rome. He is the hired assassin of the Culture Wars.”) A bit strong that last one, perhaps, but it rolls off the tongue well.

Now we have a story I first saw on Arthur’s blog: Keith Windschuttle has Sokal on his face. The second link takes you to the original Crikey post:

Margaret Simons writes:

Keith Windschuttle, the editor of the conservative magazine Quadrant, has been taken in by a hoax intended to show that he will print outrageous propositions.

This month’s edition of Quadrant contains a hoax article purporting to be by “Sharon Gould”, a Brisbane based New York biotechnologist.

But in the tradition of Ern Malley – the famous literary hoax perpetrated by Quadrant’s first editor, James McAuley – the Sharon Gould persona is entirely fictitious and the article is studded with false science, logical leaps, outrageous claims and a mixture of genuine and bogus footnotes.

(Bloody ads on Crikey!)

The Sydney Morning Herald has David Marr on the matter:

The hoax was beautifully done. Provoked by Quadrant’s embrace of global warming sceptics, the unidentified hoaxer concocted the article early last year and sent it to Windschuttle. The aim was to "employ some of Quadrant’s sleight-of-hand reasoning devices to argue something ludicrous", the hoaxer later wrote. "Something like the importance of putting human genes into food crops to save civilisation from its own ills, and how this sort of science shouldn’t be scrutinised by the media because, you know, it’s empirical."

Skeptic Lawyer comes in on the defence team with Quadrant Demidenkoed. That is all. I think she misses the point and I commented rather tartly on my Google Reader: “Given the crap Quadrant has published on things like HIV in the recent past, it deserved all it got. The magazine has been unmasked as ‘new political correctness’ rather than serious intellectual enquiry.”  This note expands on that.

I was a Quadrant subscriber in the late 1960s.

Update

On Quadrant see Club Troppo: Who is Sharon Gould?

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, Fiction, magazines, reading, weirdness

 

From Surry Hills Library: Griffith Review Winter 2008 – Cities on the Edge

This excellent magazine has much of interest:

For the first time in history most people in the world now live in cities. This is an enormous change of profound importance. The sheer pressure of numbers will test the old adage, that cities are the heart of civilisation. Many already teeter on the brink of chaos.

Climate change is the great new challenge confronting cities and the billions of people who live in them. The lead essay by outstanding urban planner Brendan Gleeson examines this and other stress points and suggests solutions to make cities better places to live and work. His expansive essay sets the big agenda for a new generation of thinking about the increasingly complex nexus with Nature. Making cities more liveable, more sustainable and more fun is one of the great new global tasks.

The human, cultural and environmental implications of the global drift to cities are evoked in moving essays by outstanding writers including Margaret Simons, Robyn Davidson, Sally Breen, Nadia Wheatley and Creed O’Hanlon. Award-winning short fiction offers an intimate feel for city life.

Highly-functioning cities are inspiring places – they allow creativity to blossom, cultures to flourish and communities to thrive. Getting this mix right is crucial to a viable future for Cities on the Edge.

Other writers include:
James Woodford, Peter Meredith, John Kinsella, Wendy Steele, Kate Fitzpatrick, JT Glazebrook, Gabrielle Gwyther, Adam Aitken, Marcus Westbury, Chris Womersley, Hamish Townsend, Brett Caldwell, Tony Barrell, Jorge Sotirios. Poems by Gregory Day and Geoffrey Lehmann. Photo essay by John Wright.

James Woodford’s article on archaeology in the Sydney area, especially on city building sites, resonated with my own recent “Looking for Jacob” series on Ninglun’s Specials, except that Woodford was looking for Weerong. Where? To quote First Fleeter Watkin Tench:

1st. January, 1789. To-day being new-year’s-day, most of the officers were invited to the governor’s table: Manly dined heartily on fish and roasted pork; he was seated on a chest near a window, out of which, when he had done eating, he would have thrown his plate, had he not been prevented: during dinner-time a band of music played in an adjoining apartment; and after the cloth was removed, one of the company sang in a very soft and superior style; but the powers of melody were lost on Manly, which disappointed our expectations, as he had before shown pleasure and readiness in imitating our tunes. Stretched out on his chest, and putting his hat under his head, he fell asleep.

To convince his countrymen that he had received no injury from us, the governor took him in a boat down the harbour, that they might see and converse with him: when the boat arrived, and lay at a little distance from the beach, several Indians who had retired at her approach, on seeing Manly, returned: he was greatly affected, and shed tears. At length they began to converse. Our ignorance of the language prevented us from knowing much of what passed; it was, however, easily understood that his friends asked him why he did not jump overboard, and rejoin them. He only sighed, and pointed to the fetter on his leg, by which he was bound.

In going down the harbour he had described the names by which they distinguish its numerous creeks and headlands: he was now often heard to repeat that of ‘Weerong’ (Sydney Cove), which was doubtless to inform his countrymen of the place of his captivity; and perhaps invite them to rescue him. By this time his gloom was chased away, and he parted from his friends without testifying reluctance. His vivacity and good humour continued all the evening, and produced so good an effect on his appetite, that he ate for supper two kangaroo rats, each of the size of a moderate rabbit, and in addition not less than three pounds of fish.

Woodford’s essay refers at length to the work of The Australian Museum’s Val Attenbrow – and see too an ABC Book Talk transcript from 2005.

Val Attenbrow was awarded the inaugural John Mulvaney Book Award by the Australian Archaeological Society for Sydney’s Aboriginal Past. A guide to Aboriginal sites in the Sydney region, the book brings together the archaeological and historical records to produce a detailed account of the way of life of the original inhabitants before and during the early decades of British colonisation…

Jill Kitson: What does the archaeological evidence (apart from what you’ve just told us) tell us about the local Aborigines’ way of life before 1788?
Val Attenbrow: I guess it tells us many different things. From my own research I’ve focused mainly on subsistence and the material culture, and I guess it can tell us the range of foods that they ate there, the fact that, around Sydney Harbour anyway, they focused their fishing on getting schnapper, but they also had a wide range of other fish species including brim and tarwhine and flathead and flounder. And that, as well as the fish around the harbour, they also ate a lot of land animals—wallabies, kangaroos, possums, bettongs and reptiles. So it provides us a lot of information about what they ate.
Unfortunately plant remains don’t survive much so we don’t know much about those things from the archaeological record, but the other things that we can find are…and again, wooden objects and tools made from organic materials don’t survive. Mainly we get the stone which would have been the blade or the point component of a composite tool. These days there are a lot more techniques available and we can look at the edge of these objects and see what sort of materials are adhering to them, and from these we can sometimes find evidence for the types of plants that might have been processed, and therefore used in their tools and weapons, or maybe foods that were eaten.
Jill Kitson: How ancient…I mean, what does the archaeological evidence tell us about the length of time this way of life had been proceeding in the Sydney region?
Val Attenbrow: I guess the earliest evidence we’ve got for occupation for Sydney is about 20,000 years in the Blue Mountains, but to my mind, obviously it went back a lot earlier from evidence in other parts of Australia and we just haven’t found that evidence in Sydney, but over that time period we can see that the stone artefacts changed, and particularly as you come down to the more recent periods where organic material survive, we get shell fishhooks coming into the record, about 900 years ago. These shell fishhooks were used principally by the women—or only by the women fishing from canoes—and that suggests that their focus in the foods they were getting might have changed, that things might have changed in the structure of the way men and women interacted in their food-gathering, their strategies changed. So from these small artefacts we can tell quite a bit that was going on in the changes in life…

Jill Kitson: You do talk about the conflicts that occurred and, of course, the spearing of Phillip at Manly in September 1790, and then when Pemulwuy, who we now think of as a resistance fighter, spearing the gamekeeper, McIntyre…that he is leading the resistance against the taking-over of the lands. But nevertheless, there is this curious rubbing along together as well, isn’t there? There’s the friendship between Phillip and Bennelong who was captured and who didn’t remain captured for all that long, who obviously had a very easy relationship with Phillip and even went to Britain with him and stayed there for three years. And I was intrigued to see that Pemulwuy returned for the big initiation ceremony at Farm Cove in February 1795. So what does this tell us about relations as time goes on?
Val Attenbrow: I found it quite complex, and initially difficult to work out what was going on…I still don’t know what was going on in that respect…but initially when I started looking at the journals, my initial interest was in finding out about the foods they ate and the materials they used and those sides of life, and the relationships between the British and the Aboriginal people were less of an interest. But then as I started to write the book they became much more pertinent, and trying to work out whether there was any change over time, which there obviously was, but there was still these differences that were…obviously different people had differing opinions…but as the frontier of the British settlement moved out, so the conflicts moved out as well. So that the people around Sydney Cove had no other way but to accept what was going on there, so the conflicts stopped there, but out in the Hawkesbury where settlement was increasing, there Aboriginal people were still trying to fight for their land. So all the time there was seeming peace in one area but conflict and aggression in another area, from both sides.
Jill Kitson: And these efforts that took place all over empires, whichever European country was trying to establish…it was the effort to try and Europeanise the indigenous people. This happened in NSW but failed, as it failed in most other places.
Val Attenbrow: Yes, there was obviously a firm belief on the part of the British or the Europeans that their way of life was to be emulated, to be taught to other people, and that the countries they were colonising, the people there had to be shown their way of life and to adopt it. But thankfully enough, people have remembered things and still retain their beliefs and have knowledge of them, and therefore, yes, we now have got quite a vibrant Aboriginal community in Sydney who come from all parts of Australia, but also come from the Sydney region as well…that there are still people here whose descendancy goes back to those pre-contact times.

On that last point, see Family stories 4 — A Guringai Family Story — Warren Whitfield for one example.

See also Indigenous Australia, an education feature from The Australian Museum site.

Terrey_Hills_public

From Wiki Commons

To quote Woodford: “Sydneysiders have their equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids or the Lascaux Caves, only we don’t look or understand what we’re seeing when we do.” Sydney is the “rock art capital of the world.” There are around 4,500 registered Aboriginal sites in the Sydney area.

According to Woodford’s article, Sydney before the coming of the Europeans supported up to 8,000 people.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, book reviews, Indigenous Australians, magazines

 

A blog is not a book, or random thoughts on important topics

Yes, I had trouble with thinking up a name for what is floating in my head at the moment! Some blogs, as we know, have become books — Riverbend, Stuff White People Like, Salam Pax — but the truth is blogging is evanescent, personal, and in miniature compared with proper books. So important topics tend to be aired in the spirit of good pub conversation, with the proviso that quite a few blogs also closely resemble bad pub conversation. We all know about opinionated drunks…

Not that this blog or any of the blogs I regularly read are in that last category, of course.

Speaking of conversations

My coaching session with J last Monday was the last of the year and became a good conversation — well, I confess to picking his brain rather, but it was still good, and he seemed to enjoy it. Being fifty years younger than I am, and of Mainland Chinese background, though educated entirely in Australia, his perspectives are in many ways quite different from my own. I tutor him in English, but on the other hand he has, he tells me, actually read and understood Stephen Hawkings’ A Brief History of Time — a year or two ago! — while I confessed to having read the first few pages and put it back on the shelf, like most people I know. Now there are all kinds of things in this anecdote about our assumptions about reading…

J is interested then in Astrophysics. He doesn’t propose to study History, Geography or even Economics in his senior years. I will probably be on hand to help him survive English, though he isn’t doing too badly. I picked his brain on the subject of dark energy, and how our cosmology has altered so much since 1998. To him this is unremarkable…

He is interested in philosophy, but hasn’t encountered much at school to feed that, he says. This of course is my selling point for senior English! He is also a good musician.

His rejection of the social sciences/history is of course partly personal, but I probed a bit about what if anything had turned him off. Now you mustn’t generalise when you read this, but he may have been killed by good intentions. Answer: too much Australian content! Indeed too much Indigenous Australian content, presented in too repetitious a manner ever since primary school, and focussing too much on the Stolen Generation.* He didn’t deny there were interesting stories there, but it does seem, from his experience, to have entered the world of background mantras rather than being a topic of living interest.

Repeat: don’t generalise too much from this.

When I found myself dealing with the topic in a senior English class in 1997-8 it was all a revelation, and all fresh, and worked because we connected it to a number of living people as well as literary and film texts. I also made a point of accepting opinions from students that were far from PC, but not without making sure I offered stories that challenged the stereotypes behind those opinions. The result was a sharing among us that really did change some attitudes. It hadn’t hardened into a course quite, as we were all finding out new things… (A ghost of that class still lives.)

Jim and Galarrwuy

Jim Belshaw recently gave advance notice of some conversations that may soon appear on his blog. I am looking forward to the outcome. You will note the title though: "Advance Notice – failures in Aboriginal policy." Well, we would have to agree there have been failures. And successes, which (reading between the lines) may also feature in those future posts.

When I browsed the December 2008 – January 2009 Monthly Magazine — where there are many excellent articles — I was drawn to Tradition, Truth & Tomorrow by Galarrwuy Yunupingu.

I was born in 1948 at Gunyangara, a beach on a beautiful headland near what is now known as Nhulunbuy, in east Arnhem Land. My father was Mungurrawuy Yunupingu, of the Gumatj clan, and my mother, Makurrngu, was of the Galpu clan. My parents gave me the name Galarrwuy, which means ‘the area on the horizon where the sea merges with the sky’. As I grew older my father would call me Djingarra, which means ‘crystal clear’. My elder sisters still call me this special name.

My father’s father was Nikunu. His totem was a sacred rock, an unbreakable rock – Yunupingu – a name that my grandfather gave to his son, Mungurrawuy, who passed it to all his children. My totem is fire, rock and the saltwater crocodile. The crocodile – baru – is a flame of fire: the mouth, the teeth and the jaw are the fire and its jaw is death. It is always burning, and through it I have energy, power – strength.

My land is that of the Gumatj clan nation, which is carefully defined, with boundaries and borders set out in the maps of our minds and, today, on djurra, or paper. We have our own laws, repeated in ceremonial song cycles and known to all members of our clan nation. Sung into our ears as babies, disciplined into our bodies through dance and movement – we have learnt and inherited the knowledge of our fathers and mothers. We live on our land, with our laws, speaking our language, sharing our beliefs and living our lives bound together with the other great clan nations of the Gove Peninsula: Rirritjingu, Djapu, Wanguri, Djalwong, Mangalili, Malarrpa, Marrakulu, Dartiwuy, Naymil, Gumatj, Galpu, Djumbarrpiynu, Dhudi-Djapu…

It’s a wonderful reflection, this piece.

Two Australians so close in age, Jim and Galarrwuy. Much binds them, and us, together in community, yet much also speaks of many Australias. We have each our own. And yet…

Today, almost 30 years after my father passed away, I still hold his clapsticks and I am the leader of my clan – with other senior family members I am the keeper and teacher of our song cycles, our ceremonies, our laws and our future. I care for and protect my clan. But I have not mastered the future. I find that I now spend my days worrying about how I can protect the present from the future. I feel the future moving in on the Yolngu world, the Gumatj world, like an inevitable tide, except every year the tide rises further, moving up on us, threatening to drown us under the water, unable to rise again. The water sands under our feet shift and move so often – the land to which we can reach out is often distant, unknown.

I look around me at the Yolngu world. I worry about the lives of the little ones that I see around me, including my own children – my youngest daughter is barely eight years old. I have more than a dozen grandchildren. I look back now on a lifetime of effort and I see that we have not moved very far at all. For all the talk, all the policy, all the events, all the media spectaculars and fine speeches, the gala dinners, what has been achieved? I have maintained the traditions, kept the law, performed my role – yet the Yolngu world is in crisis; we have stood still. I look around me and I feel the powerlessness of all our leaders. All around me are do-gooders and no-hopers – can I say this? Whitefellas. Balanda. They all seem to be one and the same sometimes: talking, talking, talking – smothering us – but with no vision to guide them; holding all the power, all the money, all the knowledge for what to do and how to work the white world. Only on the ceremonial ground do our leaders still lead – everywhere else we are simply paid lip service. Or bound up in red tape.

And the ‘gap’ that politicians now talk of grows larger as we speak, as I talk: as the next session of parliament starts or as the next speech is given by the next politician, the gap gets wider. I don’t think anyone except the few of us who have lived our lives in the Aboriginal world understand this task that is called ‘closing the gap’.

There is no one in power who has the experience to know these things. There is not one federal politician who has any idea about the enormity of the task. And how could they? Who in the senior levels of the commonwealth public service has lived through these things?…

I offer this with respect, both for Jim and for Galarrwuy.

And leave you to your own thoughts…

* Here is what J did in Year 9 (PDF).

 

New to read – local and national

Beginning local, the new South Sydney Herald is now available.

This month’s issue contains stories about a local activist helping a refugee family to reunite; the worrying state of public housing  (we’ll maintain a focus on this issue); Deborah Mailman’s directorial debut (in Redfern); an interview with new Minister for Redfern-Waterloo, Kristina Keneally; new councillors’ first impressions of life on Council; Mental Health Week events; the Pemulwuy Project … and more. There’s also details about the Big Bike Love and International Bicycle Film Festivals, as well as the Newtown Festival; reviews of Burn After Reading and Body of Lies; Eve Gibson talks with members of Dead Letter Chorus about their new album; Anna Christie offers advice on growing vegies in the city; Amanda Robb meets local author, Kathy Golski; and Miriam Pepper (Project Green Church at Maroubra Junction Uniting Church) reflects on the life of St Clare of Assisi in the context of climate change and the financial crisis.

Nationally, The Monthly is out. A couple of highlights:

"Before he became the Labor leader, I held in my mind three wildly contradictory images of Kevin Rudd. In the first – derived from the scurrilous portrait in The Latham Diaries – Rudd was a media-obsessed, vaultingly ambitious, duplicitous opportunist. In the second – based mainly on my observation of his near-successful attempt to prove that the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, was lying when he claimed he knew nothing about the bribes paid by the Australian Wheat Board to Saddam Hussein – Rudd was an outstanding parliamentary performer: focused, diligent, courteous but remorseless, quick-witted and intelligent. In the third – which was based on his Dietrich Bonhoeffer article – Rudd was a true believer in Christian social justice, a politician who identified not with power but with the powerless, who believed that the impending catastrophe of climate change was the overwhelming challenge of our age, who had given his life to politics to try to make the world a better place."

In "What is Rudd’s Agenda?", Robert Manne takes a close look at the Rudd government as it approaches its first anniversary. What, he asks, is its relation to the "philosophic and policy disposition of its predecessor"? Has Australia "begun significantly to change" since Labor took office? What did Rudd promise, and what has he failed to deliver?

"Rudd is committed in the international sphere to … what he invariably calls, in language borrowed from the standard Australian foreign-policy textbooks, ‘creative middle-power diplomacy’. Here Rudd is at his most ambitious or, as some might think, grandiose. It was no accident that Rudd was very keen to address the UN General Assembly; that he is keen to make Australia a player in the diplomacy leading up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change; that he has signalled for the first time an Australian interest in the international struggle to combat extreme poverty within a generation; and that he has tried to inject Australia into the current international negotiations over the financial markets’ meltdown. Rudd aspires to be the architect of a new Asia-Pacific Community – a somewhat amorphous regional entity comprising all the major Asia-Pacific powers, from the US through China to Russia, where the habits of peaceful co-operation, conversation and good-neighbourliness will somehow be learnt."

*

"The United States seems even more divided than it did two years ago: divided by race, religion, class and ideology; by ‘issues’ only partly real and partly media confection. It is as if one large slice of the population does not recognise the other slice, or sees in the other, not the faces of their fellow Americans, but their most terrible enemies. That Friday night in the hotel bar, as the stock market plunged into the unknown and John McCain felt the abyss opening beneath his feet, fear and hatred were palpable and you could have been forgiven for thinking that Doris Kearns Goodwin was right to compare the recent Republican rallies to Germany in the ’30s. "

In the Monthly Comment, Don Watson reports from New Orleans on the American election. In an area still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, he finds the concerns of the locals do not necessarily accord with those of either presidential candidate, or the mainstream media.

"People looking for another reason why so many Americans have more use for religion than for politics might begin by listening to a good preacher, and then to the average modern politician. While they’re at it, they might ask where the bullshit is deepest and truth hardest to recognise – in religion or a presidential election. And then there’s the more practical reason: to quote one taxi driver, representative of the millions without health insurance, ‘As if I could afford it! God is my health insurance.’"

*

In "The Conflict Business", Peter Hartcher offers an astute examination of the history and role of Australian political books, from Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy to Latham’s dirt-dishing and the recent Costello Memoirs, and beyond. 

"Costello’s version will not go uncontested. Howard plans to write his account next year. Tony Abbott is writing not a memoir but a manifesto, under the working title ‘Conservatism After Howard’ … Abbott’s publication promises to make the manifesto-style book as important for conservative politics as it is for the progressive side. This would be no big deal in the US, where John McCain has five books to his name and Barack Obama two. But in Australia, it would be a serious intensification of the intellectual effort that goes into political campaigning. This is a happy development. For the key figures on both sides of politics to canvass ideas for our political future, rather than just settle scores from their political pasts, offers the prospect of a leadership class that is better prepared and a voting public that is better informed."

I’ll give you The South Sydney Herald; The Monthly you will have to buy, though there are quite a few free articles in the archive there.

* November 2008 South Sydney Herald (PDF 2.5 MB)

 
Comments Off on New to read – local and national

Posted by on November 4, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, curriculum, Kevin Rudd, local, magazines, media watch, reading, South Sydney Uniting Church, Surry Hills

 

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Catching up on the October "Monthly" and a couple of other items

Marcellous has already referred to one of the items in the October Monthly, the thinking person’s Quadrant. 😉 It is a good issue, and you can read it all online for $40 a year, or buy it from the newsagent here in Australia.

October2008

Click for details.

Meanwhile at no cost to us the Arts & Letters Daily — despite a tendency to over-represent right-wing or neocon views? — has offered some excellent things as usual over the past week. For example:

  1. Stephen Hawking, The final frontier.
  2. Christopher Shea, Against Intuition though I distrust excesses of empiricism myself, on the grounds that much that really is relevant is often ruled out. Call that literary training, perhaps. Neatness is not all…
  3. The American Future: A History by Simon Schama – The Sunday Times review. A book I would like to read!
  4. Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads by “Agnostic” on Gene Expression. While reactionaries would be drawn to this, the article is not as reactionary as it sounds. It is a neat bit of textual statistics, demonstrating a decline over recent years of some of the more turgid “theoretical” writing — or at least of certain buzz words — by statistically analysing the frequencies of certain expressions in a corpus of academic writing over a ten year period. For example, the occurrence of “social construction” looks like this:

     socialcon
  5. Ha Jin, The Censor in the Mirror. Interesting to me as M’s older sister, a journalist and literary critic/editor in Shanghai, once fell foul of the conditions Ha Jin describes.

Censorship in China is a powerful field of force; it affects anyone who gets close to it. Four years ago, I signed five book contracts with a Shanghai publisher who planned to bring out four volumes of my fiction and a collection of my poems. The editor in charge of the project told me that he couldn’t possibly consider publishing two of my novels, The Crazed and War Trash, owing to the sensitive subject matter. The former touches on the Tiananmen tragedy, and the latter deals with the Korean War. I was supposed to select the poems and translate them into Chinese for the volume of poetry. As I began thinking about what poems to include, I couldn’t help but censor myself, knowing intuitively which ones might not get through the censorship. It was disheartening to realize I would have to exclude the stronger poems if the volume could ever see print in China.

As a result, I couldn’t embark on the translation wholeheartedly. To date, I haven’t translated a single poem, though the deadline was May 2005. The publisher publicly announced time and again that these five books would come out soon, sometime in late 2005, according to the contracts. But that spring, the first in the series, my collection of short stories, Under the Red Flag, was sent to the Shanghai censorship office—the Bureau of Press and Publications—and the book was shot down. So the whole project was stonewalled. A year later, I heard that the publisher had decided to abandon the project. In the meantime, numerous official newspapers spread the word that my books had no market value in China.

The office that Chinese writers, artists, and journalists dread and hate most is the Chinese Communist Party’s Propaganda Department. In addition to its propaganda work within the party, this department, through its numerous bureaus, also supervises the country’s newspapers, publishing houses, radio and TV stations, movie industry, and the Internet. Except for the Military Commission, no department in the Party Central Committee wields more power than this office, which forms the core of the party’s leadership. Its absolute authority had gone unchallenged in the past, though even the Communists themselves understand the sinister role it has played. Luo Ruiqing, who was the first to head the Propaganda Department after the Communists came to power, once admitted: “To let the media serve politics means to tell lies, to deceive the above and delude the below, to defile public opinions, and to create nonsensical news.”…

Just a sample of quite a few good articles.