Monday, December 31, 2007

An Advanced Diploma in Mumbo Jumbo

As part of what's been heralded as 'new Southern Studies', a number of critical texts have been focusing on the unacknowledged inheritance of African values in the American South. These texts have something to offer not such for an understanding of American culture, but for cultures like Australia that have been influenced by the dominant force.

I've just finished Keith Cartwright's Reading Africa Into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 2004). It's a fascinating analysis West African roots. Cartwright covers the Uncle Remus stories, Creole languages, second-sight and Senegambian values. Especially interesting is his analysis of the way literate Muslim slaves were treated. While early in the history of the south, their education was respected and many were freed, in a later more racist time their learning was demeaned. A product of this 'mumbo jumbo', which is still alive as a denigration of African learning. The inscrutable Arabic text became a symbol of primitive mystification:

The question here is what happened when the growing racial ideologies behind American 'Samboism' clashed with the reality of a literate Muslim slave presence in America. The presence of literate, black African Muslims as slaves in American often caused moments of doubt, challenge, and embarrassment to supports of a racial justification of slavery. (p. 160)

Threaded throughout Cartwright's book is a series of Africanisms - words from Senegambian culture that have become part of the American idiom. He ends the book with a call for a recovery of these African roots:

As we work to read Africa and Africanist ideologies into their long-standing core position in American identity, culture, and literature, we are taking a step toward finding historical truth and needful balm for festering, long-ignored wounds. And as we come to respect some of the energies of action channeled through the pharmacopoeia of the Senegalese mocho'o (medicine worker), we make return to the vital work of treating the foundational 'mojo' of transatlantic chattle slavery, a 'mojo' that is (in its ever-rippling causes and effects) a source of the nation's most enduring curses and simultaneously a source of our peculiarly American genius. (p. 229)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Official: Australia is not the 'biggest in the Southern Hemisphere'


Image from recent demonstration to keep North Melbourne football club in Victoria. 

In Australia, we are keen to boast our various claims to be the 'biggest in the Southern Hemisphere.' Googling this phrase in English reveals 3,840 instances on the Internet (by comparison, ‘biggest in the Northern Hemisphere’ is only mentioned 8 times). The subjects of this claim include cultural activities (Scottish Highland Festival, temple and casino), sports (rodeo, triathalon and marathon) and man-made structures (desalination plant, drive-in and telescope).

With the aid of Google, it is possible to test whether Australia’s boast is the most common in the Southern Hemisphere. To search for the equivalent phrase in Spanish produced only 1,530 hits, however the Portuguese had 4,690. A sampling of country references in the three languages, weighted by the frequency of language, reveals the following table of claims in order of percentage frequency:

Brazil 44%
Australia 21%
South Africa 16%
New Zealand 6%
Argentina 4%
Multinationals 4%
Chile 2%
Pacific 2%
Other African 2%


Given the population and economy of Brazil, it is no surprise that it has twice as many claims as Australia. While putting Australia in its place, this table does prompt us to consider Australia as part of a community of nations inhabiting the South. But what do they share in common apart from this aspirationalism?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is there a South for Rudd?

image The first days of the Rudd government have revealed an interesting exclusion. In discussing the appointment of West Australian Stephen Smith as Foreign Minister, Rudd claimed:

This nation doesn't just look east, it looks north and it looks west.

That's three directions. Is there another direction missing?

Then in 12 December, Rudd greeted with the world with a stirring declaration of the new government's commitment to global cooperation over climate change.

As our host, President Yudhoyono, said to me when we met yesterday, there can be no North or South, given the dimensions of this challenge. Together we are custodians of the planet.

It seems an important and inevitable gesture to take a united perspective. And it's a wonderful role for Australia play as a mediator between North and South. But this role can only be successful if Australia is sensitive to the history of the South and its suspicion of the North.

Someone, somewhere, decided that there would be a North and a South. And that North would be above South. It doesn't mean that they can't work together. But can we deny the difference?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Chairman Rudd slays the dragon

IMGP1092-c9950c55-258e-4c40-a301-e56740566f1cThere is definitely a sense of euphoria around Melbourne in the wake of Labor's victory in the polls. But there's also something curious at play in the way China is beginning to loom in Australia's future.

There is a Chinese saying: 'In order to obtain the pearly necklace from the dragon, it is first necessary to find the man to slay the dragon.' Everything is to be done in the correct way and in the correct sequence.

Kevin Rudd has slayed the dragon.

A lifelong Sinophile, Kevin Rudd seems a kind of Anglo-Irish version of a Chinese leader. His victory speech was epic and formalistic - 'this, our great nation'. And he call for fellow MPs to visit homeless shelters has a sound of the cultural revolution about it.

With a nation of such uncertain identity as Australia, it seem to be an easy host for alternative cultural paradigms.

The previous Labor rule under Bob Hawke was characterised by the Scandinavian model. The success of the Accord on which a stable industrial relations was built came from visits to the Volvo factories in Sweden.

So how will Australia now develop under the Chinese model? We've had the battle between cosmopolitanism and parochialism in the dispute between Keating and Howard. Now what will happen to ideological divides?

Will Rudd transcend this with a Confucian respect for hierarchy married with a revolutionary sense of urgency? While it promises an Australia that is more open to the world (not confined by global elites as under Keating), there is the danger that it brooks no argument. Urgency may be used to avoid an acknowledgement of difference, whether ideological or cultural.

We are now on the verge of a bright and glorious future for this, our great nation, under the leadership of our new shiny Prime Minister. Let a thousand laptops bloom.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Nation 'too parochial' to engage - Merewether's lament

The curator of last year's Sydney Biennale Charles Merewether has just taken a job as deputy Director of a $33 billion new cultural district in Abu Dhabi. He leaves embittered by the response to his biennale:

Merewether says he is disappointed by "the lack of residue, the lack of ongoing discussion" it instigated.

"We may have failed to distinguish issues that could be discussed in an ongoing manner. I had hoped, for instance, that the work from the Middle East might have raised issues about what is going on there, culturally and artistically. Likewise with work from the Balkans. But in the end, it had no traction. It was if it were all just a passing event, a fashion.
Nation 'too parochial' to engage | The Australian

The problem is not that Merewether's was too radical for Australia, it was too predictable. The biennale colluded with a seeming noble interest of western liberals in the plight of those in transitional zones, such as the Middle East or the Balkans. But such an interest presumes a pity for those who are unable to enjoy the benefits of the west. There is nothing in this art that conveys the validity of the culture from whence it arises. It is simply there to attract our victimist gaze. The biennale thus left its audience feeling just as 'relaxed and comfortable' as it was before. The fact that it included 'difficult' issues like the MIddle East does not mask its globalised position.

For the biennale to be more than fashion, we needed to see something of ourselves as visitors in the picture, to understand our own place in this world. Without that, the world is just 'an amazing place'.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Time to start a Black Party in Australia

While the Australian Minister for Immigration Kevin Andrews made the decision to cut the refugee intake form Africa a few weeks ago, he has come out now to politicise the issue, no doubt with the whiff of an election in the air. The xenophobia card has got the Liberals out of jail before, when the Tampa crisis raised the spectre of Australia being flooded with Middle Eastern refugees.

Now the art of 'double speak' that cutting this intake is designed to protect the immigration program:

A day after conceding that a failure of African migrants to "integrate" into Australian society had prompted the decision, Mr Andrews told journalists in Melbourne he was acting to maintain community confidence in Australia's immigration program.
Andrews releases 'evidence' - National -

Andrews' evidence is vague and repeats the allegations that have been made towards other refugee groups in the past, such as the Vietnamese. Naturally, the opposition have followed their Liberal Lite strategy and backed Andrews on this kind of discrimination.

It's a very sad state of politics where the two major parties feel they have to appeal to the racists and selfish instincts of the population. For Australia to continue as a white fortress is to cut the nation off from the world and to create a false sense of complacency.

Thankfully the church has come out:

Reverend David Pargeter, from the Uniting Church's Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, said: "When a Government minister, on the eve of an election, connects violent action with one particular cultural group, we know we have reached deeply into the darkness of racial politics."
Minister's African dossier renews racial tensions

As the Greens Party promotes the cause of the environment, it would be good to have a political voice that specifically championed an open Australia, that celebrated its multicultural fabric with a generosity and openness that has marked other great nations of immigration. If there was a Black Party, which had a broad platform of cultural dialogue, both in Indigenous and migrant voices, I would certainly support it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Flower power in Melbourne

Today I visited the Tulip Festival in Silvan. Though originally a Dutch festival, it has now a very strong Turkish flavour. The program featured some very impressive performances by local Turkish dancers and performers. Strangely, the day seemed to be attended mostly by Indians. A Dutch festival performed by Turks and watched by Indians -- only in Melbourne!
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Sunday, August 26, 2007

The dark side of Australian politics

With the re-entry of Pauline Hanson into Australian politics, we are seeing the return of the kind of meanness that is determined to protect white privilege. Here she is on ABC radio:

DONNA FIELD: Ms Hanson says she knows a lot of white South Africans who have immigrated to Australia, and they've been subjected to medical tests. But she's concerned the same can't be said for black Africans.

And on queue, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Kevin Andrews issued a press statement that refugee intake from the African region would be reduced to 30 per cent, with a likely further reduction in the future. Let's hope that someone can let some light into the white fortress.

Crikey - Politics - Pauline whistles, Howard jumps. Again

Saturday, August 18, 2007

São Paulo unveiled

Under the control of its mayor Gilberto Kassab, São Paulo has implemented a Lei Cidade Limpa or Clean City Law, which outlaws outdoor advertising. Kassab argues it is part of an anti-pollution campaign:

The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution . . . pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.
Adbusters : The Magazine - #73 Carbon Neutral Culture / São Paulo: A City Without Ads

The advertising ban appears to be popular with the majority of Paulistas, though there are reports of people getting lost without familiar landmarks. The demolition of billboards has revealed strange scenes, such as Bolivian migrant communities. Some companies are responding by painting the outside of their buildings in bold colours reflecting their corporate image. Will this set a trend in the metropolitan centres of the south?

See for yourself in this short film.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The end of the Rudd era

After his historic win against the long-standing John Howard in November 2007, Rudd has counterbalanced the political ledger with four terms at Prime Minister. But like his predecessor, the elusive fifth-term seems beyond his reach.

The Rudd era has seen a number of radical developments. Australia's close relationship with China has been the cause of much consternation, particularly given the country's poor record in carbon emissions and human rights in Africa. Kevin Rudd's support for China's invasion of Taiwan in 2015 has been the subject of growing protest.

The past eleven years have also seen a wholesale change in state politics, as Labor governments have all now succumbed to Liberal victories, leaving the Federal stage as the only remaining bastion of Labor power.

While initially supported as a fresh new leader, Rudd's popularism seems to have worn thin with both media and voters. For many years, his 'focus group' approach has been for long effective in countering Liberal opposition. But Rudd is now perceived as weak and lacking in vision.

Opinion polls in the middle of 2018 show a dramatic surge of support for the Liberal party, under its dynamic new leader Richard Howard, son of the former Prime Minister. Rudd is trying to counter this by a frantic series of new legislation, including Indigenous health support and a ban on old-growth logging in Tasmania. But to the cynical public, this is perceived as a desperate attempt to add vision now the end is nigh.

So what will Richard Howard be like as the new Prime Minister? Many critics see his close ties to the US as playing a major role. The recent election of Jenna Bush to the US Presidency has returned conservatives to power after years in the wilderness during Hillary Clinton's rule. Australia can once again turn to the US as its primary ally. Howard has already promised to boost Australia's already extensive troop commitments in the continuing war in Iraq.

And how long is Howard's reign as Prime Minister likely to last? Time will tell.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Alice wakes up from dreamtime


Alice Springs is the town I've often dreamt about when thinking about settling somewhere far away from the distractions of a big city, where there might be time and space to think and write. In Alice you would not suffer from lack of company. I'd been impressed with the strong community there of artists and vagrants, sometimes 'new age', practically feminist, but resilient and cheerful. And the town is surrounded by Aboriginal communities that exist on a very different calendar to the mechanical time of white cities, reminding us of the relativity of our own particular capitalist order.

But rust never sleeps. There were a number of changes I noticed. First, the very charming Bar Doppio is being sold, with the promise of introducing 'the taste of Melbourne's Brunswick Street'. The local health food store Afghan Traders no longer sells wattle seed bread -- there's no one left who can make it. And they can't get the bush tomatoes. Todd Street mall feels like its been worn flat by the hordes of German and Japanese tourists who have poured through over the decades.

Still, the Beanie Festival is powering on. They took more than $100,000 this year. And tjanpi Aboriginal women's craft program is continuing to produce curious and wonderful work.

Maybe it's not the inexorable tide of global capital. Perhaps it's just the endless game of tag between development and exploitation. I hope so.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Is deracialization the best future for non-indigenous?

Melissa Steyn
In African Studies Review, Thomas Blaser reviews Melissa Steyn's book Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to Be": White Identity in a Changing South Africa. Steyn advocates a future for whites in South Africa that involves transcending concepts of race. Blaser is skeptical:

I agree that deracialization is the objective, but perhaps we will have to settle for a mutual acknowledgment of differences that minimizes conflict. Steyn does not approve of such a multicultural approach to race and ethnic relations, for it leaves the white master narrative untouched. Nonetheless, to shed the skin of white identity and move beyond imaginaries of the Other requires processes that take time. It also is not clear what makes white people adopt the narrative of hybridization.

Thomas Blaser  'Changing South Africa'

So is there an alternative between white supremacy and deracialisation? Perhaps it is worth seeking meanings for whiteness that already exist in indigenous cultures.

'the Third World among us'

The Age editorial We have crossed the Rubicon (30/7/07) rallies readers to the cause of indigenous welfare. The serious health and economic issues aside, this editorial is interesting for the way it uses the label 'third world' as a goad for action.

Whether the reasons were moral or political, Mr Howard has focused attention on the Third World among us.

Some questions:

  • What exactly is it about Aboriginal Australia that is 'third world'?
  • In addressing the 'third world' status, are we also introducing a form of cultural homogenisation?
  • Is there anything about the 'third world' lifestyle that is worth preserving?
  • Is the only destiny of 'third world' to hope one day to be 'first'?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vanity Africa


Glossy magazine Vanity Fair has commissioned U2 singer Bono has the editor of a special issue on Africa. The issue features celebrity photos by Annie Leibowitz, coverage of the Kwani Kenyan literary festival, Bill Clinton's tribute to Nelson Mandela and an essay on genetics by Spencer Wells. It's easy to be cynical about celebrity causes, but it's worth looking at what they have to say.

From Bono's editorial, two points emerge.

First, the message of humanism:

Africa is the proving ground for whether or not we really believe in equality

This Africa is a theatre for the demonstrating values of compassion and efficacy. Bono's editorial is filled with philanthropic brands like RED, DATA, the One Campaign and Edun. He promotes the benefits of corporations to make a difference in the world.

The second is a little more rock'n roll:

We needed help in describing the continent of Africa as an opportunity, as an adventure, not a burden.

After all, this is a glossy magazine, and readers expect to find sources of pleasure not guilt. So there are many photos of Westerners enjoying the exotic scenes that Africa provides.

With these two points, Bono evokes an Africa that we can assist without changing any of our own values. It is an Africa that does not seem to have a voice of its own. It is an Africa that we have little to learn from, other than affirming our own system.

But perhaps that's unfair. Time to read the articles...

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Memo executives: try Paraguay, where the living is easy

From a recent report quoted in The Age about living expenses in different cities. Perhaps it is time to re-start a colony in Paraguay. 

And if you are an Australian and do not want to worry about high housing costs or expensive food, then maybe a few years in Asuncion, Paraguay, is the answer.

That is if your employer has an office in Asuncion, the world's cheapest city, and the capital of the landlocked South American country.

Memo executives: try Paraguay, where the living is easy 

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The first white man

The remarkable story of William Buckley has inspired many different tellings since  his re-appearance in 1835. At the legendary Carlton theatre La Mama, Jan Wositzky has compiled a one-man show that gathers many of these threads together. It's quite a casual performance, conducted on beach sand with sticks as props. He is particularly good at drawing together connections between William Buckley and contemporary Melbourne, such as the reactions of those who now live in sites which Buckley inhabited. While it was a one-man white show, Wositzky focused particularly on the Woirorong language and song, often intoning words such as adamante to give the performance a distinctive linguistic landscape. It felt particularly refreshing to return to the story of Melbourne, particularly before it was transformed into just another 'world class' city.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cueca culture


Back in Chile, I was quite surprised to come across what seemed a revival in popular Chilean culture. In Valparaiso, some students took me too a Guachaca club. Guacha is Chilean slang for an odd sock, referring to a particularly low form of life, abandoned and unwanted. The students proudly ordered a special Guachaca drink called the Tsunami, which was basically a wine spider -- a portion of red wine covered in a mountain of ice cream. Funny how national cultures model themselves often on exactly what strangers might find repulsive, like 'garlic' as the guilty secret of so many European cultures.

The photo above was taken from a special club in Santiago that has cueca evenings. As the national dance of Chile, the cueca is often a subject of embarrassment, signifying kitsch sentimentalism rather than something real and exciting. Well a new generation seem to want to re-appropriate the dance in an urban context and flooded the dance floors of the La Habana Club. The musicians were full of energy -- funny and tuneful. Various cueca legends were called up from the audience to take guest spots.

Watching the dancing -- there was no way an Aussie could stumble into that dance floor -- I noticed how courtly the gestures were. Integral to the dance are the white handkerchiefs that both male and females hold in their hands. There are flourished and dangled enticingly before partners, at times like the way the matador holds his red cloth. The dance is relatively short, but very intense and the bright flashing eyes are constantly engaging each other. Quite unique.

But imagine this in Australia. Could there be a club in the heart of Melbourne where young things secretly gather to enjoy bush dancing and listen to Slim Dusty? Hmmm.

Out of the Woods

DSCF1416.JPGHere are some fresh Austro-Paraguayan faces. There's Florence Wood, Rodrigo Wood, his wife Carmen and son Brian. Rodrigo is a most agreeable Para-Aussie. He invited me to a special annual event hosted by Las Damas de Britanicas. A special curry dinner was cooked for nearly two hundred guests to celebrate those of Anglo-Saxon descent. While there were many English looking faces, certainly their energy on the dance floor seemed more towards the Latin end of the genetic spectrum. By the end of the evening Rodrigo was goading me to join him in some choruses of Waltzing Matilda.

I must say, it felt good to be Australian in this setting. Any sentimentalism about national identity back home (in Australia) seems too easily recruited to political or consumer interests. It's just too easily and ready-made. But on the other side of the world, deep in the heart of South America, Australianness seemed like an exotic flower. Could we even imagine a universal Australianness, appearing in all cultures, emerging with an innocent voice, blinking, happy to see things anew?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud) in Asunción, Paraguay

DSCF1244.jpg The Museo del Barro is a private museum originally established to show contemporary ceramic works from Paraguay. There had been a number of innovations with kilns that enabled more sculptoral works to develop, and the museum was seen as an imporant vehicle for this ceramic work to graduate from the street side sales in towns like Aregua, to a gallery context in the city
DSCF1220.jpg The institution was given a new life by a unique collaboration between three directors, Ticio Escobar (shown to the left), Carlos Columbino and Osvaldo Salerno. They brought together a collection that reflects the unique range of artistic life in Paraguay. This starts with the Hispanic Guarani Baroque originating in the Jesuit missions of the 16th-19th century. The marionette-like figures are designed to be dressed with real clothes. There are strong popular traditions, such as the masks donnned during the fiestas, and rediscovered ritual arts from the different Guarani tribes. A rather conservative craft tradition had led to highly intricate forms, such as the Nanduti, or 'spider web' needlework. Alongside this is a contemporary visual art that has responded strongly to the years of repression under the dictatorship of Stroessner.
DSCF1305.jpg The museum installation is quite beautiful, not just because of the well constructed display cases and lighting, but the way different traditional and modern is mixed together. Contemporary popular versions of saints are combined with quite dramatic figures dating back to the 16th century.
DSCF1297.jpgContemporary exhibitions of popular and contemporary art are shown in rooms adjacent to historical displays DSCF1269.jpgSome intricate work in Paraguayan lace, ñandutí..

DSCF1230.jpgSome popular landscapes in watercolour


Guarani carvings.

Quite uncanny words by Osvaldo Solerno.
Cabichuí, a quite remarkable collection of cartoons depicting the War of the Triple Alliance, when Paraguay took on Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.

Some contemporary popular ceramics from the town of Tribatí.


A shot from the interior courtyard.

Getting to Asunción is not easy, but it is worth it to visit Museo del Barro and then going on to encounter the living traditions on which it is based. Another example of the amazing rich treasury of southern cultures

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Leon Cadogan Foundation today


DSCF1460.jpg It was my great pleasure today to meet with Rogerio Cadogan, the son of the legendary León Cadogan who fought so hard for the rights of indigenous peoples in Paraguay, especially the Aché and the Mbya. Rogerio took me to a park where about 200 Aché had camped in preparation for a demonstration in front of parliament the next day. Next he took me to a community of Mbya camped near a tip quite close to the town of Asunción -- a place called Cerro Poty.

The León Cadogan Foundation is still working hard publishing various materials related to the preservation of indigenous cultures. They are now housed in the Centro Paraguayo de Estudios Sociales.

Sadly, none of León's work has been translated into English, despite his Australian ancestry. That is a project that certainly deserves attention. I tried to get a copy of his most influential complication, Ayvu Rapyta, the story of the Mbya people, but none of the bookshops I found had copies.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Somewhere in Asunción, Paraguay

Paraguayans seem to enjoy feeling nationalistic. Here's a bit of street theatre happening down the main street in Asunsión on Friday night. Seven characters dressed in period costume from the time of the country's independence, though why they are each wearing bibs with the names of the week, I don't know. On asking various locals about this -- even an expert in street theatre -- no one seemed to have any idea who they were. That seems a typical story of Paraguay.

More strange and interesting by the hour.

Asunción, Paraguay 12 May 2007
Sunday Chance of Rain. Overcast. High: 22° C. Wind light. Chance of precipitation 40%.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Getting to know the Latin neighbours

The article 'Getting to know the Latin neighbours' has been uploaded here.

Toubab tales

Here's a new term for non-indigenous, which I learnt from an article in Le Monde.

It's best explained in the website A Toubab Traveller's Tales:

A Toubab is the generic name for a white person in West and Central Africa ..
it is not a derogatory term of address and is more especially used in The Gambia and Senegal.

Depending on which you wish to believe .. the name Toubab has many suggested derivations, amongst which are: A corruption of the Arab word Tabib meaning doctor .. a verb in the Wolof language meaning 'to convert' (the early doctors and missionaries during colonial times, being whites coming from Europe) or the generally preferred .. that it is derived from the two bob (two shilling) coin of pre-decimalisation UK currency when The Gambia was a British Colony

Tabib (doctor) is similar in meaning to the Bantu umlungu (magician).

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Whiteness just isn't what it used to be

The ANC website has been running an interesting series of articles in a series 'White Identity in a Changing SA'. A core text in this analysis is Whiteness just isn't what is used to be.

The narratives in Steyn's book include:

  • Still colonial after all these years
  • This shouldn't happen to a white
  • Don't think white, it's alright
  • A whiter shade of white
  • Under African skies (or white, not quite)
  • Whiteness just ain't what it used to be

Here's a sample of the ANC discussion:

In the introduction of the book, Steyn notes this tendency - "of considerable resistance to talking about race as a social category" - represented, in part, by questions such as "Aren't we beyond this?"

Let us return to the strand, 'Whites are doing it for themselves', in the present narrative. "Perhaps," continues the insurance broker speculatively, "being white affected my life in a positive way, while being black affected many blacks negatively." The insurance broker concludes with the punch line: "White people tend to care more about their surroundings and keeping it clean than blacks do."

The familiar subtext - of a superior culture - underlying the previous narratives, infuses the 'Whites doing for themselves' strand of the 'Don't think white, It's all right' narrative.

Melissa E. Steyn Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used to Be: White Identity in a Changing South Africa (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001) read

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The day I met an Australian

This week, it was my great pleasure to make the acquaintance of Reinaldo Mongelos, the new consul for Paraguay in Melbourne. Melbourne has around 45 Paraguayans, but there are many more in Sydney and around Griffith in NSW. Señor Mongelos is a builder and has been consul in an honorary capacity for many years. He is also an amateur ceramicist and a keen advocate of crafts, particularly from Guarani. With Señor Mongelos is Señor Christian Wood, a fourth generation Australian, descended from the original utopian settlers who came to Paraguay from Sydney in the late 19th century. Christian's grandfather Donald found in the horrible Chaco war against Bolivia. His father Alcides is a lawyer in Incarnación who tried to 'return' to Australia, but found that he missed Paraguay too much. Christian is following his father's footsteps and studying law at Melbourne University.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What if?

I recently reviewed the volume What if: Australia as it Might have Been for ABC Radio National Book Show. You can find the 'full' transcript, here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Australians are hard to digest

John Gimlette's At The Tomb of The Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay is the most recent book on Paraguay that I have consumed. At first I thought it was sensationalist, but I am very impressed with this scholarship. The Paraguay that emerges from his book is a country that has been the subject of utopian fantasies from all corners of the earth -- usually with tragic results.

I learnt from this book about León Cadogan, descended from Australian settlers, who became an expert on Guaraní culture. Less appetising, was Gimlette's portait of Aussie descendents such as Bruce Murray, who seem unable to warm to the Latin ways. Even the Japanese proved more adaptable.

My encounter with Murray should not have troubled me as much as it did. Father Feehan had warned me: 'People here don't have the warmth of other Paraguayans. There is not that sense of belonging.' I thought about this as I made my way back through the square. It was planted with silky oaks, brought from Australia with the first settlers. There was a plaque to the villagers who'd perished in the war against Bolivia: Drakeford, Jones, King, Shepperson and Douglas Kennedy. Dying for Paraguay was, I supposed, only part of belonging to it. The Australians had obviously proved rather harder to digest than the Japanese.

John Gimlette At The Tomb of The Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay New York: Vintage, 2003, p. 228

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Black week

This has not been a good week for tolerance. Not that there has been any overt violence against others, like in the Cronulla riots, but that material has been gathered to make it more difficult for people who are different from the mainstream, particularly in colour.

The Sudanese man Hakeem Hakeem was sentenced to 24 years this week for serious offences against three women. This has prompted the Federal government minister Kevin Andrews to consider limiting intake from the Horn of Africa. I was in the court when Hakeem was sentenced and met his father, who attends the same Catholic Church as my father. Hakeem's crimes do seem heinious and inexcusable, but he has a punishment to fit that. With the little I know of the family, I can merely guess what a shock it is to move from the chaos of civil war in Sudan to the eerily quiet security of Melbourne. You would hope that as a community we could see their problems as our problems, rather than an alien infiltration.

Then there was the Geoff Clark case. And last night I saw Fox Studios Last King of Africa, which reinforces every prejudice you might have about black African men. It's not that it is inaccurate in its portrayal about Idi Amin, but that it leaves with the audience with virtually no knowledge of the culture of Uganda, it only confirms the suspicion that white people have to be wary of their black neighbours.

A saving grace was finishing the novel by André Brink, which tells the story of a Khoi San man who converts and tries to become a missionary. His mentor, the Reverend James Reed, writes about the experience of coming to grips with Africa:

How old and remote Europe seemed from here: old, and remote, and -- yes -- beautiful, but inexorably sinking, drowning, fading into futility and pastness. Where here, in the midst of these sounds of menace and violence and lurking death, here was something different, a timelessness, an awareness of futurity, a still untamed, unpredictable, savage energy, a passion unquenched and unquenchable, a force that might destroy people and lives, but which was life itself, a physical reality, a closeness, an urgency, a rare and unspeakable presence of wonderment and joy.
André Brink Praying Mantis London: Secker & Warburg, 2005, p. 140

Yes, let's not forget the 'wonderment and joy'...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A tale of two utopias

This summer I've had the opportunity of learning about two seemingly contrary stories of collective aspiration. The Australian colony in Paraguay was a botched socialist project espousing equality of men, except for those who weren't white. On the other had, the freedom struggle in South Africa was an inspiring struggle for equality of men, which resulted in a workable nation state that provides a place for all colours.

DSCF0523.jpgThe leader William Lane combined his desire for worker's justice with a strong moral commitment to 'straightness', which included teetotalism and racial purity. It was interesting to read that after the failure of the colony in Paraguay, Lane went on to become editor of the New Zealand Herald, where he became a critic of unionism and advocate of imperialism, speaking often of 'We British...' There seem to be many reasons for the failure of the utopian quality, but a large measure of blame seems to lie with Lane whose self-pity left him unable to respond to the problems of others.

Gavin Souter writes about the racism in New Australia:


'...the assumption that Anglo-Saxons were inherently superior to Hispano-Indians was as much a part of the colony's creed as teetotalism, a principle which had also been made explicit in the New Australia articles of association, but was now an unwritten law. The racial attitudes the colonists had brought with them from Australia were revealed by some of the facetious advertisements in Evening Notes: 'Boycott the Chinkie and save yourselves from the Yellow Agony by buying your vegetables from white gardener -- John Wilson'; 'Baxter's shoes - Nigger tickler clogs.'… this was not gracious, for on the whole Cosme fared well in its deadlings with the Government of Paraguay.'
Gavin Souter A Peculiar People: The Australians In Paraguay Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968


By contrast, the lives of Walter and Albertina Sisulu demonstrated enormous courage and fortitude. The scenes at the Rivonia trial in 1963 were extraordinary, as men like Walter and Mandela were getting ready to spend an indefinite period in Robben Island, and their wives Albertina and Winnie virtual widowhood. At the time, it seemed like the apartheid regime so lacked legitimacy that it was bound to crumble. To think that it would take another thirty years to finally end.

A recent book by their daughter-in-law Elinor artlessly balances dramas on the main political stage with the small domestic scenes that hold life togther. Here's an interesting practice that developed late in the struggle:


'The Sisulu family observed a 'Black Christmas' at the end of 1985. This was the practice, began after the 1976 uprising, of eschewing the luxuries associated with Christmas and keeping expenditure to a bare minimum. Black South Africans felt that they had nothing to celebrate and saw no reason to swell the coffers of white-owned businesses. By 1985, there was almost a total observation of 'Black Christmas' in black communities around the country. Some white also observed this practice…'
Elinor Sisulu Walter & Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime London: Abacus, 2003 (orig. 2002), p. 430

I realise that this kind of comparison is in danger of being judged an expression of self-loathing typical of liberal elite in Australia. Rather than settling into a fixed position about Australia as a 'white fortress', I prefer to see its history as a challenge for the future. Lane's experiment provides us today with the challenge of establishing a relationship with the Guaraní that he disregarded. It was interesting to meet with Ticio Escobar, the director of Paraguay's Museo del Barro (Museum of Mud), which houses work of the Hispanic-Guaraní Baroque. He had never heard of Nuevo Australia. Here perhaps is an opportunity to restore the conversation, and bring something of the Paraguayan culture to Australia.

The example of South Africa shows that 'our roots aren't our leaves'. The failures of the past point us to the potential successes of the future.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Eat the Bustard!

An article in New Matilda argues that Australians are missing the opportunity to use its own resources -- choosing to farm the American turkey and chicken rather than its own indigenous bustard.

Given the palatability of the bird, why did Australians begin to lose interest in bustards and refocus instead on importing American turkeys - yet another introduced species that could potentially harm Australia? Why didn't they build an industry around sustainably harvesting, and in the process conserving, a valued Australian bird? Our guess is that native foods were increasingly seen as 'poor man's tucker' and as such were gradually removed from Australian cookbooks.
The contrast between the current status of the bustard and the chicken in Australia is stark: the former is struggling to survive and in decline, the latter is the continent's most numerous bird. Indeed, the chicken is now thought to be the world's most numerous bird, all eight billion of them.

Bob Beale and Michael Archer are co-authors of Going Native: Living in the Australian Environment (Hodder Headline)
Bob Beale and Michael Archer 'Sustainability: Eat the Bustard!' New Matilda (22/11/2006)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Pommie Balandas

An article in the UK Telegraph by Richard Madden promotes the Gama Festival for English tourists. He positions it as an event for Balanda:

Garma is Australia's leading cultural exchange event, attended by about 1,200 tribal members from 20 clan groups of the local Yolngu people and about 800 Balanda - non-aboriginal "white fellas" like me.

In particular, he praises the festival as an experience of reconciliation. Yunupingu's position seems similar to the South African value of Ubuntu.

"We will walk side by side with each other, even with our worst enemy," Mandawuy Yunupingu had proclaimed on the first morning of Garma. Five days later, on the final night, as I watched him lead his band Yothu Yindi in front of an ecstatic crowd, it was hard not to become wrapped up in the spirit of optimism and reconciliation that Garma creates.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Euraustralians Unite

A recently replayed program on ABC Radio National features Xavier Herbert's letter to his publisher 'Inky' Stephenson, when he argues for the rights of the 'Euraustralians', those non-indigenous or half-breed settlers who cannot be called 'real Australians' because they lack Aboriginal identity, but belong here more than the 'pommies'. Hindsight - 24 September 2006 - In Capricornia Country: the Legend of Xavier Herbert

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I've just finished Hélène Clastres The Land-Without-Evil (trans. Jacqueline Grenez Brovender) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995 (orig. 1975). As an account of the Guaraní and Tupí cultures, it seems very conceptual, reflecting the Parisian critique of commodification. But there are many very interesting asides that suggest alternative narratives for first contact. It appears that the Guaraní have a belief in the Land-Without-Evil (yvy marä ey), which is a distant place to the east, across vast waters, where humans can achieve immortality. Their history has been marked by prophets (karai) who have led tribes to find this land, always with disastrous consequences. When they encountered Jesuit priests, they found in the Christian story of the hereafter a version of their own utopianism, but kept a convenient distance from this world. They adopted these priests as their new prophets. Well, that's one story.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Being Paraguayan

I'm reading a few books about the Guaraní in Paraguay. Barbara Ganson's The Guaraní Under Spanish Rule In The Río De La Plata (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2003) is a plainly written book. The subject is fascinating, but her narrative fails to inspire. I am particularly interested in tracing the exchanges between the Jesuits and Guaraní that led to mutual cultural influence. Ganson is mostly dependent on written records, so she tends to extrapolate from the official dialogue of the time (including some canny if quite obsequious Guaraní letters to Spanish rulers). What interests me particularly is the Hispanic-Guaraní Baroque that developed in the Jesuit missions during the 17c and 18c. What frames all this is on stunning contemporary fact about Paraguay:
According to the 1992 census, 49 percent of the population of Paraguay spoke Guaraní and Spanish, 39.3 percent were monolingual Guaraní speakers, and 6.4 percent spoke only Spanish… Paraguay has the distinction of being the only country in the Western hemisphere where a native language is more widely spoken than a European one…. Today, less than 1-3 percent of the population in Paraguay is considered 'Indian'. (Ganson, 2003, p.185)
Imagine that in Australia. With roughly similar proportion of indigenous people in our population, yet was all spoke Aboriginal languages. Perhaps the 'tyranny of distance' was not that we were too far away from Europe, but not isolated enough. More to follow.