Why Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour

I was halfway through writing this post when I saw an article from Paul Daley in the Guardian which expresses my opinion more eloquently than I could hope for. To understand the Adam Goodes booing, you have to understand Australia’s history. The matter did not begin on a football field, Daley said, but in our attitudes and cultural sensitivity was never White Australia’s strong point. Many prefer not to know the problem.

That was brought home to me in a vox pop on ABC’s Brisbane local radio station yesterday. There was a wide mix of opinions but the one that stood out was the lady who said in an exasperated tone she was sick of the subject and wished it would go away. When pressed to say was the booing “racist” she said flatly no, it wasn’t. Hers is a common view that Australia does not a problem with race and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.

But others do want to talk about it. Some defend the booing forcefully. The “whiny, needy, bullshit” as Guy Rundle called the arguments of convicted racist Andrew Bolt and others is “usurper’s complex”: victim blaming. Those who take power unlawfully must justify their acts – to themselves and others. It was Cecil the Lion’s fault for ruining the life of the man who killed him. So it is Adam Goodes who must change not the people doing the booing.

Like every great player in every team sport, Goodes was always the subject of “special attention” from opposition fans, little to do with his indigenous background. But the sustained booing he gets now dates to last year when as Australian of the Year status he urged people to see John Pilger’s Utopia. Pilger enrages many on the right because he puts himself into the argument. In my view, Utopia is flawed and does not give enough credence to the problems of de-colonisation. But Pilger’s subject matter deserves a voice and Goodes was right to recommend the film’s confronting approach to Australian history. This action enraged the right which attacked Goodes for his recommendation more than Pilger for his film. John Howard’s wish of a people “relaxed and comfortable” about their history could only exist on the premise of not telling the truth about that history.

Yet we would be more comfortable with the real history. While Britain’s intervention came at enormous cost to the indigenous people it is a history that pre-dates racism. The British who arrived in 1788 felt superior to the Australians (likely the Eora felt the same way about the British). However the newcomers preferred to explain the difference on cultural and environmental grounds. Marine Watkin Tench believed British education and enlightened thinking was all that separated them from the “savages” in Botany Bay. There was no innate difference. “Untaught, unaccommodated man is the same in Pall Mall, as in the wilderness of New South Wales,” Tench wrote.

The Creationist view of the 7000-year-old world underpinned the idea Aboriginal people had only recently fallen from grace, and could and should be changed. Governor Lachlan Macquarie took this notion to its logical conclusion and formed Australia’s first mission in 1814 to civilise the native population and “render their Habits more domesticated and industrious”. Macquarie’s Native Institution failed but the idea of missionaries took hold from optimistic clergy who used “Gospel motives” to transform Aboriginal people. They all failed. Indigenous people remained disinterested and suspicious. They stayed only as long as they were fed.

The rise of science and European rage for classifying the world led to a new way of explaining human difference. In his 1775 book The Natural Varieties of Mankind, Johann Blumenbach came up with five races: Caucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American and Malay. Australia Aboriginal people were an awkward fact that did not fit the classifications. By mid 19th century, Caucasian superiority had taken root. Robert Chambers’ Vestiges of Creation (1844) argued the other “races” were vestiges of past forms. Charles Lyell proved the world was far older than 7000 years, rocking the biblical certainty of Adam and Eve. The pseudo-science of phrenology claimed Native Americans and Africans had no ability for civilisation while Darwin, following Lyell, assumed the Australian Aboriginal “variety of man” was becoming extinct when faced with “stronger” forms.

While books were slow to reach Australia’s frontier, the idea of racial inferiority began to supplement and eventually replace the original notion of Aboriginal “savagery”. The publicity around the death of Pallawah woman Trugernanna led to inaccurate reports of the “last Tasmanian” and lent credence to the idea Australia’s native population was doomed. Inferiority and inevitable extinction were convenient crutches to explain the theft of an entire continent and wholesale ethnic cleansing.

Racial superiority was a core philosophy of the new nation of Australia in 1901 and dominated its first half-century. As historian Richard Broome said, it took the abominations of the Nazis for the world to reject notions of race as wrong and unscientific. Hair, eye and skin colour and the shape of facial features are a tiny component of our genetics and have no biological explanatory function. The 1978 UNESCO declaration on race and racial prejudice reminded the world humans are a “single species and are descended from common stock”.

By 1978, racism was on the wane in Australia. It remained strong in country areas, especially with large mixed populations, but government policy was empowering Aboriginal people. By the 1990s, reactionists like Pauline Hanson campaigned against Aboriginal “privilege”. The Nationals found outrage against native title while in the 2000s large populations could be still be painted as full of paedophiles, drug addicts and rapists. Race does not exist any more, but racism remains rife. It must tread carefully but still finds voice in Bolt critiques, Hansonism, “boong” jokes and other forms. Booing is a handy way of publicly being racist while retaining plausible deniability.

Adam Goodes has done Australia a favour by calling it out. Now, as Paul Daley says, Australia must confront the demons of its past and embrace Aboriginal culture. New Zealand’s Waitangi Treaty should be the template. Without a treaty it is hard to imagine the entire cohort of an Australian school doing as a New Zealand school did, and conduct an indigenous war cry to farewell a much-loved indigenous teacher. It will never happen here until we accept the consequences of our history.

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