Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Date: October 13, 1994 21:03

18:37 Alice Springs, Northern Territory :: 12 OCT 94

A tourist brochure advertising 4WD tours of the Simpson Desert:


Follow the legendary Old Ghan tracks out into the desert along routes pioneered by the Afghan cameleers before the turn of the century. You'll get an insight into the incredible hardship endured by the explorers, construction workers, missionaries, miners and pioneer pastoralists as they struggled to open up this inhospitable land.

Prejudice takes refuge in ignorance and the strength and vitality of the former proportional is to the profundity of the latter. Few argue that, and it would be foolish to argue with those who would. (The best advice I've ever received: Never argue with a fool -- the audience can't tell the difference.) But we will all argue over the converse wording. If a prejudiced person is ignorant, is an ignorant person prejudiced? That is, must ignorance precede prejudice? Is prejudice simply an act of ignorance?

If we answer "yes" to these queries, then we're all in trouble. We must accept our ignorance and that our actions are based on our inarguably incomplete and often incorrect knowledge. Further, when we fail to see the ignorance in the brochure excerpt above and act upon it as if its content portrays reality then we participate in a most subtle and insidious form of prejudice. One that is taught to us in all our textbooks as well as our film, television and publishing. The women's movement understands this form well, and battles it still.

I'm referring to exclusive point of view. As individuals raised in 'Western Societies' we have been, as Rogers & Hammerstein put it, "carefully taught." Our collective metaphysical reality itself is the product of a socialization process, one that systematically excludes not just other culture's points of view, but the simple fact of their existence.

So go back and read that passage again and remind yourself that Aboriginal cultures inhabited Australia's Simpson desert 40 or 50 thousand years ago.

10:52 Alice Springs, Northern Territory :: 13 OCT 94

Here, I'll repeat it just to make it easy...


Follow the legendary Old Ghan tracks out into the desert along routes pioneered by the Afghan cameleers before the turn of the century. You'll get an insight into the incredible hardship endured by the explorers, construction workers, missionaries, miners and pioneer pastoralists as they struggled to open up this inhospitable land.

Here are some realities: Any local Aboriginal could have shown the Afghan cameleers the way through the desert. Indeed, they probably did and the cameleers simply took the credit. Many of the hardships were self-imposed by Westerners trying to force the land to operate by its standards rather than adapt their way of life to the prevailing conditions. Further, the endured hardships hardly equal those they perpetrated upon the original inhabitants. Finally, the land was already "open" and the locals found it hospitable enough.

The Aboriginal cultures are the world's oldest. These cultures have continued largely in the same form for between 40 and 50 thousand years. This means these cultures existed as they do now before the Chinese, the Romans, the Classical Greeks and the Egyptians. This longevity includes their artistic expressions which represent the world's longest continuous artistic traditions.

On the other hand, history in Australian schools begins with Captain Cook and Botany Bay, after American Independence. With the arrival of Europeans, the Aboriginal people came into historical existence but only as a mass of savages impeding the "opening up" of an "inhospitable land." To these savages the newcomers brought civilization through missionaries and government programs intended to absorb the Aboriginal people into the Western cultural context, afterall, given the choice it's clear no one would choose to live like savages. Wherever that failed there was always war, often resulting in genocide. Where once 400 distinct Aboriginal languages and cultures thrived in Australia there are now well under 100. Not content to simply exclude the history, ignore the knowledge, and claim as their own work the accomplishments of Aborigines, the invaders set out to end the Aboriginal culture altogether.

Ask an average Australian what they think of returning land to Aboriginal custodianship and you will get this reply, "Well, what are they going to do with it?" That is, Aborigines generally won't mine, irrigate or graze land since these practices oppose their hunter/gatherer custodial tradition. Aboriginal cultures never exploit the land, they look after it. It's a responsibility handed down from generation to generation. So my response to these Australians, "I don't know...maybe live on it?"

Since an industrialized, capitalistic culture like ours operates under the premises of progress, growth, private property, individuality and the exploitation and consumption of resources we have a difficult time understanding a way of life which concentrates on continuity, equilibrium, communal property, social order and a custodial nurturing relationship with the land. Really, the two cultures represent diametrically opposed world views; my response never satisfies the Australian.

The Judeo/Christian metaphysics, and the Classical Greekphilosophy it is so compatible with, places man at the center of the existential Universe with God at his right shoulder saying, "all this is yours to rule." The opals, gold, uranium and iron in the earth are mankind's property to be unearthed and exploited. Where the path of a river or its flood plain are inconvenient, man re-engineers nature to control water's course. Where rain does not fall, man summons water from deep in the earth or channels it from distant rivers and lakes. In these synthetic oases we grow and nurture where nature fails to provide. The Old Testament's order to "go forth and propagate" necessitates all this activity and growth. Growth, progress and expansion represent our mandate.

The relationship of lord and realm is completely alien to hunter/gatherer societies which view humanity's existence within nature as participatory. Mankind is no more or less essential to the natural order than kangaroos, dingos and termites. The social structures of the culture maintain equilibrium in the society's population and its food gathering methods maintain a similar harmony in its usage of the lands' resources.

I'm not saying the Judeo/Christian way of life is entirely bankrupt but only recently did we begin to seriously consider the fate of the natural order that our expansions displace and our exploitations often destroy. My understanding of Aboriginal culture suggests that they perceive themselves as custodians of the land. That is, they must not only see that their activities do not perturb the often delicate natural equilibrium, but they must also intervene when other forces threaten the balance. Their mandate is to maintain the land as it has existed for thousands of years.

The gap in these two ways of life seems unbridgeable. I'm completely unsurprised when people argue against my "live on it" response, pointing out that "we need those resources." The implication seems to be that since resources are there for man's exploitation, they must be exploited. The Aborigines waste these resources by refusing to harvest them. This attitude is not so very different from the one that resulted in the original dispossession of Aborigines from their land: the Aboriginal way of life leads to an unworthy usage of the land that must be civilized, "opened up".

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --