Why Russell Marks’ Tent Embassy Riot Comments Were Wrong

Russell Marks’ column in yesterday’s Sydney Morning Herald on the tent embassy riot was an interesting read, albeit logically flawed and error-laden. First, his argument:

Marks argued that while Abbott was technically right to observe that indigenous affairs have moved on from the land title debates of the embassy’s founding, there are still many issues which deserve indigenous activism. The average indigenous life expectancy is seventeen years lower than the national norm, while poverty, alcoholism, abuse and unemployment ravage aboriginal communities.

That’s what Marks got right. What Marks got wrong was this paragraph.

What was wrong with what Abbott said? It was his assumption that he, as an non-indigenous man, could rightfully or usefully express an opinion on the way indigenous people conduct their politics of reform, protest and resistance. And it was that Abbott expressed such an opinion on a day many indigenous people mourn as commemorating a colonial invasion. If non-indigenous Australians are to truly “work on our own racisms”, then we (my own ancestry is European) must not only acknowledge the problem, but we must also acknowledge indigenous people’s rights to determine their own strategies in response to the problem.

Marks’ error is two-fold. First that it is “paternalistic” for a white person to venture an opinion on indigenous politics and second that the real problems facing indigenous Australians are the white fellas’ fault.

Let’s dispose of the second fallacy first. What are the very real problems facing indigenous Australians, to which they must formulate their own strategies? Marks himself lists the massive health problems: substance abuse, diabetes, cancer as well as life and death situations like child and teenage suicides and deaths in custody. The indigenous life expectancy is seventeen years shorter than the national average.

These are health problems. These are not caused by white people. White people do not cause indigenous people to contract cancer, or diabetes, or force them to commit suicide, or make them drink too much. Therefore it is illogical to imply that white Australians have willingly allowed the health crisis to persist because we are racist. The problem is not white people and the problem is not fixed by getting white Australia a conscience.

Now for the first fallacy- the charge of paternalism. It is not paternalism to have a negative opinion of the Tent Embassy. Nobody accuses Abbott of a “I know what’s best for you” attitude when he holds a negative opinion of a white activist or a Labor government. Nor would it be paternalistic for an aboriginal to express an opinion on Tony Abbott, as I notice many of the rioters ventured to do. Criticism is a product of a free society. It’s not paternalistic to say what you think would be another’s best course. It’s politics.

Here Marks’ two fallacies turn on himself with a vengeance. Marks’ own opinion on indigenous affairs is paternalistic because it absolves aboriginal people of choice and responsibility. Remember Marks maintains that the major problems for indigenous people are all white Australia’s fault and therefore white Australia’s responsibility to resolve.

Aboriginal people are as human as you or I. As responsible beings, their life is theirs to improve. It is our responsibility, as fellow citizens and fellow humans, to help them improve their lives, especially when (as in cases of suicide and abuse) they might not be able to do it on their own strength.

But Marks’ attitude scuttles all of that. He absolves indigenous people of all responsibility for their own lives, therefore insinuating that they’re somehow not capable of living their own lives, or improving them. That’s paternalism, that’s racism and that’s wrong.

Some of the problems that aboriginal people face are of their own making, and some are out of their control. But the longer we assume that they have no ability or responsibility to care for their own lives, the longer we are paternalistic and the longer we will search in vain for a solution.


Bloated Capitalism and Sick Justice

Some have traced the following incident in China down to a “seriously ill society” and others to the communistic government. It is neither. What happened, happened because of what’s wrong with the human condition, not because of the condition of the Chinese society.

What happened was that a two-year old Chinese girl was hit by a truck in a market in southern China. Eighteen people, including another vehicle (which also ran over the girl) passed the crushed toddler without stopping to help or save her. They literally decided to look the other way, walking within metres of the dying girl’s body.

This has sparked outrage among Chinese netizens, some commenting,

“This society is seriously ill. Even cats and dogs shouldn’t be treated so heartlessly.”

And another:

“Really, what is up with our society? I saw this and my heart went cold. Everyone needs to do some soul searching about ending this kind of indifference.”

These worthy netizens are right. But they are only right in a shallow way. It’s not just that the Chinese society is sick. It’s that it’s sick in a certain type of way.

It’s sick with those two revered traditions of the westernised world; justice, and capitalism.

I say justice because in China, litigation has become so bad that the Ministry of Health warned last September to not rush to the aid of injured elderly people, because the risk of being sued for what happened to them is too high.

Now litigation is about fighting for your rights and seeing that those who contravene them are punished. The left has often fought for the rights of the downtrodden and the oppressed. So litigation is a good thing, and probably owes more to the left of politics than the right.

In our eagerness to protect our rights, we demand that every time our rights are trespassed somebody be punished, fined and hauled before the court, because somebody must be responsible for the contravention of my rights,

even if the person we sue is not responsible. This is wrong. If we want rights, we must have responsibilities. We must realise that if we are grownups, then we are responsible for our own lives and mature enough to handle the cruelty of fate. My tragedies can be tragic without being someone else’s responsibility.

Secondly, I say capitalism caused this Chinese travesty. One of the drivers who ran over the girl with his vehicle claimed that he did not stop because,

“If she’s dead, I may pay only about 20,000 yuan ($3200), but if she’s injured it may cost me hundreds of thousands of yuan.”

Capitalism is a good economic system (as China proves) but when it starts to determine moral right and wrong, then we have a social disaster. In capitalism, what makes money is good, what threatens the bottom line is bad. Helping people risks a court fine, so it risks losing money without profit. By the dictates of capitalist morality, saving that’s girl’s life was not worth hundreds of thousands of yuan. When we serve Mammon, we do not love Man. You cannot serve two masters.

So what’s “seriously sick” is not some phenomenon in communistic or heartless China. What is seriously sick is the Western success story. We have gone too far.  The freedom to make money and the right to stand up for ourselves are wonderful things, but they are wonderful limited things. As concepts operating in a framework that we are human beings, responsible for our own lives and being human, are beyond any price, they are wonderful.

But when they are our moral guidelines, then society becomes nasty, brutish and cruel. Just like this.