Sunday, September 02, 2007

A World with More of Less

Perhaps one of the most lasting impressions from our trip to the N.T. were two sunsets we watched—in the inevitable company of a bunch of other tourists—from a large rock plat across the wetlands west of Ubirr, an ancient focus of Australian indigenous people's culture and a place where many a rock and crevasse still carries the marks of old, as well as more recent, drawings.

The place has a strange peaceful air about it. As one of the rangers described it: something of the feeling you get when going visiting a beloved and kind grandmother. I can relate to that, for I have memories of such a place.

We traversed a lot of country and came upon the traditions of many different Aboriginal tribes. Even within Kakadu National Park itself there are at least two, with one of them obviously the larger and more dominant, as evidenced by the way in which they had built up whatever tourist operations they had established; the size of them; the equipment they used; the places they had constructed; how they interfaced and appeared to cope with the world and the realities of European-derived-people-dominated Australia; and so on.

Going south, there was always evidence of yet another tribe or 'people', all of whom urged the passersby to listen to their 'stories' and their relation to the place where they lived—and they all, it seemed to me, appeared to believe that their story was the most important to tell and to have you listen to. And indeed, there is nothing wrong with that. All peoples do, big or small. Every nation thinks it's the most important thing on the face of the planet. Hence 'national anthems', which almost always are lyrical and musical abominations, and which have about the same relationship to 'poetry' and 'music' that, say, Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead has to novels. You can take that statement any way you want.

Come to New Zealand and the various tribes of Maori urge you to do the same—consider them and their traditions, in preference over those of their neighbors; though they're more coy about it—though they are more aware, if only through the more confined geography and the politics of this nation, of the fact that, though their tribes may retain their traditional divisions and parochialisms, leading to significant internecine strife even now, they also have an overarching identity of sorts. But I get the impressions that someone calling themselves 'Maori'—by law and social benefit structure they are entitled to that provided they're at least 1/32 of Maori descent; and just think about that for a moment!—is by far more 'Maori', as opposed to a member of his particular sub-tribe, than an Australian Aboriginal is.

What became clear to me—more clear than it had already been, I guess—was that there is no way, no way at all, and that there has never been any way, at any time in history, that cultures coming into contact with other cultures can survive as what they were before that contact. This isn't a function of a lack of 'goodwill' on the side of the dominant culture(s)—though a lack of goodwill is certainly always present, even though that statement is misleading and simplistic, because the question is always 'goodwill toward whom?', for that's a critical qualification—nor is it some basic flaw in human nature that's related to 'original sin' or some crap like that. What it is all about is...well, it's like the physics and chemistry of all 'society'. I would go so far as to assert that even if we were to meet aliens from some distant planet, and if those aliens were to have anything resembling the individual-social hierarchy endemic to human societies—and how could they not; since it's built into the very fabric of the physical universe?—they would be subject to these same laws, no matter who they are, where they are, how they came into existence and what their developmental history may be.

The laws that express themselves into the contacts between human societies, in all contacts, resemble those one might find in thermodynamics—e.g. hot and cold body in contact through a thermoconductive interface will always exchange energy and ultimately temperature-equilibriate—or in chemistry—e.g. osmosis. There is no way around them. Societies in contact with other societies will change. Those who resist the change will be more thoroughly destroyed than those who don't.

If we're looking for the essence and root cause for why most 'Aboriginal' societies—meaning 'tribes' in this instance, because said tribes are so heterogeneous and disconnected, mostly simply by historical contingency—are not only doomed, but will indeed be more entirely destroyed than, on the whole, indigenous cultures in other places, can be found in, inter alia, this little bit of poetry, penned by the late 'Gagudju Bill', an elder of considerable significance and influence; a member of a tribal configuration that I'd count, judging from their attitude and business acumen, to be among the more adaptable of the tribes of the northern N.T. region.

Law never change, always stay same.
Maybe it hard, but proper one for all people.
Not like white European law, always changing.
If you don't like it, you can change.
Aboriginal law never change.
Old people tell us, 'You got to keep it.'
It always stays.

Gagudju Man, by Bill Neidjie, Gecko Books

These words speak by themselves, expressing at the same time the yearning for constancy and predictability and yet tragically urging his people to basically go down in flames—for if they followed his advice they would.

And, as I sat there, with my wife, plus a gazillion tourists, waiting for the sun to settle into the trees beyond the wetlands, in the humid warmth of a Kakadu dusk, of our second evening in that place...

...the sad and inevitable tragedy of it all was rather on my mind. For these people's refuge and place of reverence was overrun by tourists, including ourselves, trying maybe, depending on one's disposition, to capture something that connects 'us' to 'them'—for that place does have magic about it, whatever 'magic' happens to be—and their paintings have to be fenced off and the place is closed off at night and the people sitting there, watching, belong to cultures that have, in one way or another, embraced that things known as 'change'—which Gagudju Bill doesn't just reject, but the essence of which he and most of his people, and possibly many of the visitors, actually didn't and doesn't even begin to understand. For the laws that societies make are never 'eternal' or unchanging or even fundamental laws; just like, as the Tao Te Ching explains, the 'Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao'. These laws are just 'contingent laws', and there are rules lying at far deeper levels that determine what kinds of 'laws of society' will be made and what kinds of laws of society are even possible. And any society/tribe/culture/religion thinking differently is and always will be ultimately doomed.

Having said all that, by the way, I must tell you that some of Gagudju Bill's people are aware of what constitutes survival, and they appear to be equally aware of how much they can take with them into the changed world, and what part of said world they should use so that some of what they were will not be forgotten. The same goes for the tribes that operate the Guluyambi cruises on the East Alligator river, though the Gagudju definitely run a much larger and lucrative operation in the Yellow Waters area. But for each of these 'survival' examples, there are far too many, mainly in the center, around Alice Springs, where that kind of go-get-them attitude is replaced by acceptance—in many places, one might say with some justification, because things are very different there—of the paternalistic rule and usually well-meaning but too-often condescending 'care' by the Federal Australian government; and usually with people who think they have loads of goodwill, but whose paternalism and cultural arrogance, all in the guise of 'care, remind me of that of religious missionaries. It's still culturecide, and there's nothing that can be done about it. The road to hell is paved with goodwill.

For a people who understand 'change' far less than even your average western dimwit, this spells utterly unavoidable doom and complete cultural annihilation. Whatever's left in the end will be pictures and a few stories and that'll be that. And this isn't because the 'white man' is bad or something. It's because things are as they are, and because people by and large are afraid of change more than anything else.

Contrast this with a culture based on 'change'—even though, let's face it, on an individual level, the members of said culture are just as leery of it as those of many others.

I'm speaking, of course, about China, whose philosophical tradition embraces 'change'. What may be the oldest 'book' of philosophy still in existence, the I Ching—a close relative of the Tao Te Ching—is all about 'change' and how it is the one constant and how to deal with and manage it, on an individual as well as a social scale. The I Ching is actually used as a tool for divination, meaning as an instrument to help cope with change through either predicting events or outcomes of particular courses of individual and collective action, and so on.

Note that I said 'is used' rather than 'was used'. I know, you're thinking that the modern 'rational'—whatever that means— political leader would be above divinatory practices in terms of what he decides and especially if said decisions are of major significance. But think again. The I Ching is deeply embedded in Chinese tradition, as well as the traditions of other nations and cultures in that area of the world. Consider the flag of South Korea...

and that of the former Empire of Vietnam...

To think that the book has lost its power and influence, as most people in the West, and especially businessmen and politicians, or so I would guess, tend to do, is to make a profound mistake of judgment.

But my main point here is that cultures who base much of their thinking on an embracing of 'change' are far more likely to persist in the long term. And, let's face it, China, as a culture and a nation, and despite many changes over the millennia, has persisted with amazing tenacity. One of the reasons why their support in the effort to defeat the medievalism of certain religioid cultures is not only important but critical to staving off the advance of these decrepit, but ultimately sclerotic systems.

And here, to finish off, something not from Australia. Of course there are lots of very nasty spiders in Oz, but this lot—of not necessarily 'nasty' creepy-crawlies—isn't among them.

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