Manne's Generation: White Nation Responses to the Stolen Generation ReportKay Schaffer
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IV: Incommensurable shame
Putting aside for a minute the status of the testimony for the victims and their families, the emergence of indigenous testimony into direct public discourse raised issues of national shame for white Australians that "haunted" the nation. "Haunting" is one of the most often reiterated responses to the testimony within the white community. Let us accept for a minute the proposition that 'the Australian nation' (discursively, culturally and institutionally constituted as "white") has been both haunted by the Stolen Generations issue and shamed by the revelations of the Inquiry, that ghosts of the past now inhabit the nation, and that some of us at least would like to hide from the evidence before our eyes.
This white shame, and the consequent desire to hide from evidence, evinces not an absence in our history but what Derrida might call a "spectral presence", a presence in the present (Derrida 1994) enfolded into the legacy of the national past. The specter takes many forms, the present haunting made more salient by the partial and tentative legitimacy given to the voices of indigenous peoples through their testimonies taken before the Inquiry. If shaming involves an approbation before the imagined gaze of the other, those others whose gaze shames the white nation now include not only the gaze of the international community, and that reflected back on to the nationally-aligned self through internalised values, ethos and ideologies of nationhood, but also (and perhaps for the first time) the gaze of indigenous Australians, made palpably present through the testimonies contained within the Bringing Them Home report.
The shame experienced and recounted by the victims, however, is an altogether different phenomenon from the shame experienced by white respondents to testimonies of oppression. For indigenous Australians, shame comes from becoming a mere object for another, rendered inarticulate, constantly under surveillance, yet never acknowledged, being discounted, ignored, and trivialised by people in authority, reduced in their daily lives to an abjected or an objectified status, seducing them to a kind of non-existence. Their shame was not only effected by the gaze of their oppressors and the internalisation of values that structured their difference as inferiority but also, and significantly, through the practices of non-recognition by the dominant Australian community that shamed them in to silence. It is the need for recognition, and beyond recognition, the need for a witnessing of the full humanity of indigenous people that is the challenge of the present moment. The self that was othered can never be restored. Still, an indigenous subjectivity can be reconstituted in the present through the ethical response-ability of non-indigenous Australians in the present. The need for witnessing now, not the test of truth in relation to a past, is the response ability required for reconciliation.
V: Different takes on the genocide question
One of the most controversial and contested dimensions of the HREOC report, was the charge made by Commissioner Sir Ron Wilson, that the forced separation of Aboriginal children from their families constituted a form of "genocide". Shocking though this assertion seemed to the larger "white" Australian public, it is one that Aboriginal people and their supporters, with full knowledge of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), have argued and committed to print on a number of occasions. Some of those who witnessed the trauma of removal in the past did try to speak of the atrocity at the time with reference to the United Nations human rights covenants. For example, as early as 1949, a Northern Territory Patrol Officer, sickened and repulsed by the forced removal of children at the camps, expressed his outrage to his superior, the government secretary Leyden. Leyden, moved by the Patrol Officer's descriptions of forced removals, wrote to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs charging the government with violations of human rights for these 'outrageous' government practices (Fraser, 2000). The Minister, however, was not moved. He upheld the removal policies, acceding to his government's positioning of indigenous people as objects without agency, capable of being dominated, controlled, and manipulated by the State.
As urban-based indigenous people began to assert political agency on the national scene through the formation of new political organisations in the 1960s, they too charged the government with human rights abuses amounting to genocide. For example, soon after the foundation of the National Tribal Council in Brisbane in 1969, the organisation issued its manifesto on "cultural pluralism". The manifesto calls for programs to educate Aboriginal people about their own past, traditions, languages and cultural practices. In other words, to enable them to recover a stolen identity. The document called assimilation a failed policy "which amounts to cultural genocide" (National Tribal Council 1969). In another domain, Kevin Gilbert, in his introduction to the Indigenous anthology, Inside Black Australia (Gilbert 1988), also employed the term genocide to describe Australia's policies of forced removal and their devastating effects on Aboriginal culture (pp. 5-6). These were Aboriginal speakers, knowingly invoking international human rights covenants to which their nation was a signatory, and yet their voices carried no authority in 1969, and little more in 1988.
In the Bringing them Home report both the context and the carriage of the voice changed, shifting from the marginalised position of indigenous speakers, who had previously been rendered objects before the law, to the dominant authoritative voice of a high profile Queen's Council and President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, whose affirmation of the victims' testimonies opened up the possibility for them to become legitimate subjects with social agency within the law. But this shift in social and political status, this enabling of at least a tentative social agency, requires the recognition and affirmation of the testimonies within the broader social spaces of the nation that has not been forthcoming as yet. That is the unfinished task before us. And that requires a working through of the ghosts of the past.
It was Sir Ron Wilson's charge of 'genocide' that shocked many white Australians into reactive positions of resistance, a forgetting of the past, a 'shutting down.' When Manne searches for explanations for this backlash he locates three elements:
1) the need for conservative stalwarts and their supporters to maintain dominant race and class positions and privileges,
2) a fear of their exposure of ancestral involvements with past practices of oppression and,
3) more broadly, a fear of diminution in the reputation of the self and the nation
(Manne, 2001, 57,71-4,77).
The conservative resistance that defines and amplifies a monologic national debate produces a culture of antagonism. Resistance effectively shuts down national processes of reconciliation. It maintains unequal power relations in which indigenous people continue to be regarded as objects before the law and are denied active agency within it. As long as the nation refuses to bear responsibility for the past, and to deny that the effects of the past are part and parcel of the present, then indigenous people within the nation continue to be reduced to the status of other.
Melissa Lucashenko refers to the different status of indigenous and non-indigenous speakers in her response to Manne's essay in the recent issue of Overland (Lucashenko 2001, 15). The chosen title of her response, "More Migaloo Words," indirectly acknowledges the exclusive nature of the "national" debate in which indigenous people are positioned as onlookers. Nonetheless, she affirms Manne's reading of the meaning of the term genocide as consonant with indigenous understandings of the effect of assimilationist policies in nation's past. Her emphasis, however, remains with the legacy of that past on the present. Every denial by the Howard government or its conservative supporters, re-victimizes stolen generation survivors and their families who are alive today. This conservative resistance, which denies the possibility for mutual reciprocity, produces a culture of antagonism that revisits, repeats, prolongs and intensifies the ongoing trauma for indigenous Australians. For them, the national trauma re-enacted by the publication of the Bringing Them Home report is not addressed by attention to the inaccuracies of an historical record. For them, it is about the need to listen, to enable the restitution of indigenous voices, presence, status and subjectivity in the nation in the present. In this climate of ongoing antagonism, however, there can be no reconciliation.
Manne addresses that culture of antagonism through his incisive rebuttal. His approach is both necessary and essential to confront and counteract the extremist claims and inaccuracies. His chosen mode of address, however that of a racially sensitive and sympathetic white Australian speaking back to conservative white Australians, nonetheless has several other, less fortunate, effects. It maintains the debate in hegemonic terms of the dominant white culture at odds with itself and, although Manne acknowledges the ongoing legacies of the past, his rebuttal maintains an historical focus on the rights and wrongs of the past.
IV: Conclusion: Rethinking our National Inheritance
In thinking through these issues of national legacies of shame I was drawn to a treatise by Derrida in Specters of Marx. Here, by revisiting Hamlet and confronting again the ghost of Hamlet's father that announces the rot at the heart of the nation of Denmark, Derrida reflects upon the difficulties of dealing with one's inheritance of the ghosts or specters of the past. Our inheritance, he reminds us, is never singular, but plural. He writes:
Let us consider first of all, the radical and necessary heterogeneity of an inheritance. . . An inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. Its presumed unity, if there is one, can consist only in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing. 'One must' means one must filter, sift, criticize, one must sort out several different possibles that inhabit the same injunction. And inhabit it in a contradictory fashion around a secret. If the readability of a legacy were given, natural, transparent, univocal, if it did not call for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have anything to inherit from it. . . . The injunction itself (it always says 'choose and decide from among what you inherit') can only be one by dividing itself, tearing itself apart, differing/ deferring itself, by speaking at the same time several times-and in several voices (Derrida 1994, p. 16).
Those who oppose the Bringing Them Home report would rather maintain a unified legacy, a given history and tradition, hermetically sealed off in the past. They refuse to acknowledge the secret, the unreadable, unspoken ghosts and trace their markings in the present. As more voices enter the national debate, contesting its boundaries, they remind us of the fluid nature of the nation, one which is now (indeed has always been) unfixed, fluid, divergent and in process. These divergent voices bring with them the possibility for reaffirmations of a disseminated nation and its legacies if we choose to listen and respond 'otherwise'.
Kay Schaffer, Associate Professor, Department of Social Inquiry, Adelaide University. Her publications include: Women and the Bush (Cambridge, 1988), In the Wake of First Contact: The Eliza Fraser Stories (Cambridge, 1996), co-edited: Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Mrs. Fraser's Shipwreck (Cassell, 1998), Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader (Rutgers, 1998), and The Olympics at the Millenium: Power, Politics and the Games (Rutgers, 2000). This essay was funded by the Literature Fund of the Australia Council.
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ReferencesIn Australian Humanities Review,see also
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Gilbert, K., Ed. (1988). Inside Black Australia: An Anthology of Aboriginal Poetry. Ringwood, Penguin Books.
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Lucashenko, M. (2001). "More Migaloo Words?: Three Responses to Robert Manne's 'In Denial'." Overland 163(Win): 15-16.
Manne, R. (2001). "In Denial: The Stolen Generations and the Right." The Australian Quarterly Essay 1(1): 1-113.
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Nietzsche, F. (1967). "Guilt", "Bad Conscience", and the Like. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York, Random House: 95-126.
Wilson, S. R. (1997). Bringing them Home: National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. Canberra, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission: 689.
- Fiona Paisley's Race and Remembrance: Contesting Aboriginal Child Removal in the Inter-War Years
- Henry Reynolds's After Mabo, What About Aboriginal Sovereignty? and The Stolen Children Their Stories: an afterword
- John Frow's A Politics of Stolen Time
- Carmel Bird's The Stolen Children Their Stories
- Sue Stanton's Time for Truth: Speaking the Unspeakable Genocide and Apartheid in the 'Lucky' Country
- Re-membering and taking up an ethics of listening: a response to loss and the maternal in "the stolen children" by Brigitta Olubas and Lisa Greenwell
- Those two little words by Beth Spencer
- and Cracking Up by Hannah Fink
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