More and more people will discover the Aborigine in themselves in the hope of something-for-nothing, even if in the end their only reward is the moral satisfaction of having been among the oppressed. Such is the lure of privilege that it turns minus into plus
One of the first things to strike me after my instalment in a flat at McMahon’s Point in Sydney was that the local birds squawked, screeched or screamed rather than sang as they do in Europe. On the other hand they were far more vibrant in the colour of their plumage than their European counterparts. It was as if Nature had been reluctant to bestow all avian gifts on a single fauna; at any rate the parakeets and cockatoos signalled my personal continental shift. For some reason I had not noticed this, at any rate to nothing like the same extent, on my previous visits to Australia.
I was surprised also that the air in my street in Sydney was suffused with the scent of flowers, something one hardly expects any more in the country, let alone in a city. And many of the flowers, too, seemed more flamboyant, of larger bloom, than in Europe, as if they too were proclaiming Australia to be the Lucky Country.
It has often seemed to me that Donald Horne’s famous thesis about the luck of the country is mistaken in many ways and on many levels:
Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.
What is one supposed to do with luck? Abjure it? Dissipate its gifts in order not to benefit from it? The world is full of countries that have done so. How often does one read of the seeming paradox of a country being rich in resources but mired in poverty or political disorder? With its luck, Australia could have been Argentina, Brazil or Venezuela. With the right political culture and economic policies, after all, it is possible to produce a shortage of salt water in mid-Pacific.
In the light of this, is it so very second-rate to have created one of the most prosperous countries in the world in which most of the population can live long spans of reasonable contentment? By what standard of first-rateness is the second-rateness of Australia to be judged? Renaissance Florence? Periclean Athens? Where in the world has the majority of the population ever been first-rate? Is inadvertence really the explanation of Australian success, and does a degree of practical wisdom not altogether universal in human history really have nothing to do with it? This is absurd.
And is lack of curiosity really a precondition of being taken by surprise by events? Surely the relationship between curiosity and clairvoyance is very different from what is being suggested here. A man who is never surprised is unlikely to have his curiosity aroused: nor is prudence only, or even mainly, a matter of preparing for the foreseen. Except in matters such as astronomy the well-informed are not very much better at predicting events than the ignorant, though they may be better at explaining them after they have happened. There were many first-rate economists in the world who did not foresee the crash of 2008; and how many Sovietologists, to a man distinguished for their erudition, were surprised by the collapse—not necessarily final—of the Soviet Union?
It is as easy to foresee catastrophes that never happen as to fail to foresee those that do, of course. It is for this reason that I refrain from foreseeing the consequences of the political correctness that seemed to me to have made such strides in Australia since I last visited. Even before I arrived, while I was still in Abu Dhabi airport, ripples of Australian political correctness reached me. There was an item on the inescapable television screen about the new correct description, henceforth to be used for preference in universities, of how the Europeans arrived, namely by invasion: as, for example, “in 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland”. Australia was not settled or colonised: it was, in effect, expropriated illegitimately from its original owners.
What’s in a word? Quite a lot sometimes, given the emotional charge that words so often bear. At two public events in Australia, the first a performance of Turandot on Sydney Harbour, the second at an Anzac Day ceremony in Mosman, I heard the now ritual incantation of recognition that the land on which the events were about to take place was first inhabited by Aborigines. I felt a little like an atheist sitting through grace before a meal, too polite to interrupt and wondering how many of those present actually were believers. The slight sense of embarrassment was soon over, however, once the main business of the event started, and the incantation could be safely put to the back of the mind.
As I looked at the bourgeois audience on Sydney Harbour—much better-dressed, incidentally, than their equivalents in Europe or America, shabby-chic not yet having become quite so dominant a fashion in Australia as elsewhere, which proves that the country is still culturally behind the times—I wondered what went through their minds as the incantation was pronounced. That one day they might have to vacate their valuable real estate, or pay rent to people claiming to be descendants of the original occupants? Stranger things have certainly happened, however solid and secure the present situation may appear to be. As Marx said in another context, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …” Ideas have the power to do that.
If political correctness comes, can demands for privileges be far behind? Something for nothing is, after all, the deepest desire of many, if not all, of us: indeed, the predominant ideology of our time might be called something-for-nothingism, possession without payment.
As it happens, while on a brief visit to Melbourne, I met someone whom I had known briefly on the island of Nauru a third of a century earlier. I had lunch with her and other old Nauru hands from the days when the island was not economically dependent upon being a holding camp for would-be refugees to Australia (the Nauru Regional Processing Centre is a wonderfully Orwellian name for it). Indeed, in that halcyon time the island was one of the richest places in the world: but it was also the reductio ad absurdum of something-for-nothingism.
It had acceded suddenly to great wealth, having gained control of its great resource, phosphate rock. But the results of this good fortune, which owed little to the efforts of the population as a whole, had not been entirely happy. Nothing in the past had prepared it for its sudden wealth and a life of leisure; and the island, only a few miles round in the immensity of the ocean, offered few possibilities of constructive enjoyment. The consequences were dire: with little more to do than eat, drink and be merry, much of the population became enormously fat and diabetic. A highly distinguished Australian medical researcher, Professor Paul Zimmet, whom I met on a couple of occasions, investigated the epidemic of diabetes, which at the time, through ignorance and lack of imagination, I thought was a medical curiosity. In fact, Professor Zimmet was investigating the medical future of the world.
At any rate, Nauru was a living laboratory to disprove an over-simplified statistical association between wealth and longevity, and my visits there were perhaps the first time that it occurred to me that subventions were not the complete answer to problems of poverty and could bring problems of their own. The wealth of Nauru has since been dissipated by, among other means, the folie de grandeur of Air Nauru, an airline that was the brain-, or emotion-, child of the island’s first president, Hammer DeRoburt, upon one of whose Boeing jet airliners I once flew nearly 5000 miles, from Nauru to Singapore, as the sole passenger. What is gained without effort is seldom husbanded wisely (though, of course, this does not mean that the reverse is true).
The story of Nauru is not as uninstructive for Australia as its distant location, both geographical and social, might suggest. Of course, subventions in Australia will never quite reach the level per capita of phosphate royalties that were reached in Nauru, so there will be no Château d’Yquem in the supermarkets as there was in Nauru’s supermarket when I was there, to satisfy in one bottle the local population’s desire for both sweetness and alcohol. However, the subventions hardly require such high levels to sap the will to activity of any group of human beings; you don’t have to go to Nauru to see the effect. If my understanding of the situation is correct, the isolated Aboriginal communities of Australia exhibit the same, or worse, effects of subvention.
Of course, the subventions were instituted with the best of intentions under the prime ministership of the late Gough Whitlam, but it is amazing how quickly in the modern world good intentions get translated into career opportunities. How long intentions can still be considered good once the harmful effects of their implementation become evident is a matter for moral philosophers of psychological bent to decide; but the general line seems to be that if subventions don’t work, then larger subventions won’t work even better—better, that is, from the point of view of those administering them.
The compulsory political correctness before the performance of Turandot on Sydney Harbour can serve only to inflame the struggle over subventions. No concession, no “compensation”, will ever be enough, of course: the appetite grows on what it feeds on, especially when it is profitable. More and more people will discover the Aborigine in themselves in the hope of something-for-nothing (Man’s eternal quest), even if in the end their only reward is the moral satisfaction of having been among the oppressed. I believe that this is already happening, with people claiming to be Aboriginal because one ancestor in sixty-four was Aboriginal. Such is the lure of privilege that it turns minus into plus: so that now in Australia there is developing the mirror image of the deeply derogatory Southern white saying, a drop of tar, all nigger.
It is not only in Australia, I need hardly add, that a sense of personal worth is increasingly sought in the membership, real or imagined, of a group that suffers oppression, also real or imagined. When you add all the supposedly oppressed minorities, they are a majority of the population. It is perfectly possible for the majority of a population to be oppressed, and there have been many societies in which the majority was oppressed; one cannot help but suspect, however, that there is a morbid thirst abroad in many Western societies to feel oppressed, discriminated against or picked on, in order that the dissatisfactions consequent upon human existence should be attributed to external social or political forces, the better to absolve oneself from responsibility for one’s own misfortunes.
Not long ago, a hospital in which I had worked issued its staff a form in which they were asked (so that we, the hospital administration, can continue to pay you properly) to state, by means of a multiple-choice questionnaire, their religion, sexual orientation, and their race. No one felt secure enough in his job to protest at this gross intrusion; the choice of sexual orientation, limited to six, was by no means exhaustive; but people were told that their race was what they felt themselves to be, with no objective correlative being necessary. Here was subtle encouragement to the staff to join a minority and to feel what perhaps it had never felt before, members of disadvantaged minorities, the better to overlook their daily harassment by the hospital management that distributed the questionnaire: harassment which, though corrupting, real and unpleasant, could hardly be compared with historical examples, recent and distant, of oppression.
Perhaps (someone could say) I have a North Shore view of life: for staying on the North Shore of Sydney, especially at someone else’s expense, one certainly has the impression that all is right with the world, a matter of boutiques and a different cuisine every night. Of course I know that all is never right with the world, that under the surface or farther away there are terrible tragedies and all kinds of human wickedness to be found. To quote Milton:
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same …?
As a doctor, I have made a special study of the way in which the mind makes a hell for itself because it finds everywhere else so tedious and unexciting. And to counter any tendency to euphoria that catching the ferry from Milson’s Point to Circular Quay every day might have induced, I went out into the Western Suburbs in the company of two of the excellent staff of the Centre for Independent Studies, at whose invitation I had come to Australia.
Even the best of suburbs depress me; they manage somehow to combine the disadvantages of rural isolation with those of living in town. But the Western Suburbs of Sydney have an oppressive effect, at least on me; they go on for miles, scores of miles, it seems after a time that they will never end; or, to change the metaphor, they have a purgatorial quality, suspended between poverty and wealth. It cannot be said that modern domestic architecture has much charm to recommend it anywhere in the world: for all our technological brio, we are unable to build a charming house. Furthermore, our houses do not age, they deteriorate; if the Western Suburbs were to last a thousand years, which thanks to patently shoddy building methods they will not, they will acquire no charm or even much antiquarian interest, except for specialists in the period (if there are any). To adapt Churchill slightly, if the Western Suburbs and their architecture last for a thousand years, no one will ever say of them, This was their finest house.
In fact I was in search of the worst suburbs, not the best, in order to compare them, superficially, with what were once called the slums, but are now called the inner cities, of Britain, where I made the better part of my career. From the point of view of physical comfort, the suburbs were better, for Australia is richer than Britain. But that does not mean that there was no squalor or degradation on show, for poverty is not the same as squalor or degradation.
The front gardens were strewn with the detritus of modern life, or a certain way of modern life: broken fridges and other whitegoods, the type of sofa on which a dog has just given birth to six puppies, headless dolls and piles of plastic chairs. It speaks not of penury exactly, nor of wealth, but of a superfluity of endlessly replaceable, dispiritingly ugly mass-produced objects which are never valued for themselves.
Unbeknown to me at the time, I was in Macquarie Fields, scene of the riots in 2005. Of course, by French or British standards, these were but minor disturbances, hardly worthy of notice; and the fact is that Australian suburbia is not, by its geography, propitious to riots of any scale. I stopped at a tree whose trunk was tied round with dirty faded plastic flowers and a couple of small, faded, slightly soggy teddy bears, grey with age and impregnated with dust and pollution.
I knew at once what this meant: a youth or youths had crashed into the tree and been killed. It is precisely the same in Britain, and has become a tradition in the last two decades. The message cards accompanying the plastic flowers would say something like, “Love n miss ya for ever, goodnight Daz”—Daz being short for Darren, and the goodnight wish being the nearest any modern young person can come to religious sentiment.
A woman pushing a supermarket trolley approached me, accompanied by two male adolescents of only medium-reassuring appearance.
“Excuse me,” I said, “what happened here?”
“Two people were killed here ten years ago,” she said, without slowing her walk for an instant. Her manner reminded me of the people I spoke to in the banlieues of Paris, whose hostility I could understand: it was clear to them, as it was to this woman, that I was not of this place, nor of this way of life—that I was slumming it. Australia is a class society, and the class divide is certainly not between urban and rural. I do not find this surprising, anomalous or even reprehensible: on the contrary, it would take a certain immaturity to be horrified by it.
The two people, aged seventeen and nineteen, who had been killed crashing into the tree, had died in 2005, and the flowers and teddy bears (already more than a year old) were to mark the tenth anniversary of their deaths. This was unusual; I deduced they could not have been ordinary deaths.
They were not. The two were riding in a stolen car driven by a friend and were being chased at high speed by the police. The car crashed into the tree and the two were killed. A false rumour was put about that the police had deliberately rammed the car, and the rioting, the happy union of criminality and self-righteousness, took off. The fact that the deaths were memorialised ten years later suggested to me that at least some of the population of the area still believed the false rumour, or at least thought the boys were within their rights to ride in a stolen vehicle and should have been left to do so quite undisturbed by the police. And this in turn suggests a non-bourgeois conception of property rights and an inchoate resentment of the current order of things.
But art interests me as much as crime, and I was able to combine the two interests in the purchase in the Queensland Art Gallery of a handsome book, Elegance in Exile: Portrait Drawings from Colonial Australia by Joanna Gilmour, published by the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. I have always liked Australian art, in all its phases from colonial beginnings to Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan, and the earliest colonial representations of the landscape, flora and fauna of the continent seem to me to have a moving freshness even though, or perhaps because, they do not rise to the status of great art. To criticise all artistic endeavour from the standpoint of masterpieces is a form of puritanical snobbery; apart from anything else, the existence of masterpieces is dependent, in more ways than one, on the simultaneous existence of lesser works.
The text of the book was pleasingly and surprisingly free of cant, considering that it was published as recently as 2012. The account both of the artists and their sitters was straightforward and informative. Men like Richard Read, Charles Rodius, Thomas Bock and Thomas Griffiths Wainewright were transported to Van Diemen’s Land for crimes of forgery (Read and Wainewright), theft (Rodius) and procurement of abortion (Bock). Their sitters often had hard, dramatic or tragic lives, for example Elizabeth Isabella Broughton, who was painted by Read when she was eight years old. She was the daughter of an ex-convict and was two years old when she sailed for England; her ship put in to New Zealand to collect timber and was attacked by Maori, she being one of only three survivors, not including her mother. She was rescued by a ship bound for Lima, where she was looked after for a year before being returned to Australia. She survived, prospered (having had no counselling), and died aged eighty-three.
Her fate was very different from that of Lachlan Macquarie junior, aged four, painted by Read. The Governor’s only child, he was cosseted and spoiled, given every advantage (if being spoiled is an advantage) and died a young alcoholic, injured fatally at the age of thirty-one by falling down the stairs in a drunken state.
Considering the shortness of the texts, there is a surprising amount of substance for reflection in this book. Early Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales are now indissolubly associated in our minds with ferocious and often mindless official brutality, and yet these four artists (and others like them) depicted a colony striving for, and seemingly achieving, refinement within a comparatively few years of settlement. It was not that the artists were unaware of brutality, or even failed to depict it. Thomas Bock’s post-mortem pencil drawings of Alexander Pearce, for example, after he had been hanged in 1824, suggest that Bock was not unacquainted with the deepest-dyed darkness. Pearce had escaped with seven other convicts from their barbarous captivity. Nearing starvation, the escapees drew lots to be killed and eaten by the others. Pearce was the only survivor of this lottery, but when recaptured his story was not believed. However, he escaped once more in the company of another convict, Thomas Cox, whom he killed and dismembered, and this time there was proof of murder and Pearce was executed. Bock’s drawings of the executed head of Pearce are unsensational and sensitive but also unsentimental.
The portraits by Rodius and Bock of Aborigines will—or at any rate ought to—surprise anyone with a Manichaean view of history. I freely admit that I was surprised by them, even though I am not a believer in any kind of Manichaean historiography. The portraits were not anthropological, those of tribesmen illustrating exotic or barbarous customs whose existence might justify a mission civilisatrice. On the contrary, they were portraits of individual human beings, with their own distinct character, exhibited without condescension. If anything, they revealed an intense and concentrated intelligence, that of people trying to understand or fathom the world. There was no hint that they were drawn with a sense of superiority. But I am aware of how fragile such a judgment taken from pictorial evidence is. Once, in an extremely well-curated exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery of the portrayal of blacks in nineteenth-century British art, I read, one under the other, comments by black women in the comment book at the exit to the exhibition:
I am thankful to God I have lived to see this exhibition that shows black people in all their beauty.
This exhibition is an insult to black people.
The most moving and beautiful of the portraits of Aborigines was that of Mathinna by Thomas Bock. She was an Aboriginal girl who lived with Sir John and Lady Franklin when Sir John was governor of Van Diemen’s Land, and was educated alongside their daughter. Aged seven in 1842, she is depicted wearing a crimson dress that contrasts beautifully with her own dark skin. She sits three quarters on to the viewer, most of her in an oval frame as in a cameo, only the bottom of her dress and her bare feet lying outside it. Her large, intelligent eyes seem to examine the onlooker penetratingly; though young, she would not be easily fooled. But there is a melancholy in her expression: is it a precocious awareness of the tragic fate of her people, the Tasmanian Aborigines, or of the inherent tragic dimension of human life? At any rate, her own fate was tragic, for it could hardly continue as propitiously as it began: her short life ended alcoholically in Oyster Cove, a former convict station then used as a residence for remaining Tasmanian Aborigines.
An Australian businessman in his seventies said to me (and I certainly had not expected it) that the Aborigine problem would prove to be Australia’s national Achilles heel. I was unsure how seriously to take this. Countries have certainly torn themselves apart over less; but they have also survived conflict over much more. Was my interlocutor a prophet, a seer, or a Jeremiah crying in the permanently Lucky Country? I incline to the latter view.
Anthony Daniels visited Australia in April as the Centre for Independent Studies 2016 Scholar-in-Residence. His latest book is Migration, Multiculturalism and its Metaphors: Selected Essays (Connor Court), published under his nom de plume, Theodore Dalrymple.