Monday, September 10, 2007

Desert Knowledge

I don't think that the certainty and the root causes of cultural extinction—meaning basically extinction of 'ways of life' that are distinctly different from other ways of life, in more than just some insignificant details—as I explained it here are really matters subject to serious dispute. The facts simply don't support any other theory. Wishful or fanciful or agenda-driven thinking might, of course; but I don't believe that's very productive, and it definitely isn't going to help those affected. Actually I think it's outright destructive and causes more harm and suffering than acceptance of the demonstrable truth.

Thing is, however, that what we do with this conclusion is a completely different matter: an issue of personal decision-making; of responsibility-taking; of, if you will, some serious existential choices that define who and what we are as human beings, individually and collectively. By and large the decisions made by the conquering societies, many of them not European or even 'white', have been...well, 'predictable'. The BHB ('Bleeding Heart Brigade') never much helped either, because by and large they're composed mostly of patronizing fervents in permanent reality-denial mode. The remainder mostly falls in one variant of the I'm-compassionate-but-today-I'm-too-busy classifications. And the media just get mileage out of it, because they, as much as the gazillion aid organizations wanting our money, try to gross and 'guilt' us out with pictures and stories of the so-much-less-fortunate-than-us during primetime TV; which mostly has three results a) we mute the sound and try not to look, and b) we're damn glad we're not on that TV screen—and c) we salve our conscience by contributing a few bucks most of which are sucked up into administrative nonsense or used by religioids to spread their questionable creeds together with the aid.

But, as we should know, everything has a price, including the exercise of human kindness. Mind you, there's hope. If even Mother Theresa had her doubts about the religious mummery she was immersed in...well, as I said: there's hope. Maybe.

The problem with pontificating, as I did, upon inexorable laws of human socio-cultural interaction, is that it's all about 'cultures'. And when, as is currently fashionable, the term 'clash of cultures' is waved around—either by those who would see the 'clash' everywhere, or by those who are denying its very existence—what is almost always forgotten is that 'cultures' are always made up of people; and even more, individual people. Cultures aren't buildings and art and music and words, and not even stories. Cultures are, at any given point in time, all those people in whom all these things are incarnated. Or, I guess,in whom they were incarnated, as would be the case where you dig up evidence of some 'culture' that simply doesn't exist anymore.

The modification of cultures—'destruction' is merely an extreme form of 'modification'!—is therefore the modification of the ways of living of human beings: individuals. How they relate to themselves, one another, the society around them and the world in general. In other words, just about everything they do, think, believe and feel. It is intrusive, ranging from subtle to terminally destructive.

A culture almost entirely of the receiving end of 'modification' and with few and ineffectual cultural defense mechanisms, such as is the case with the Australian indigenous cultures, depends on its survival—or survival of at least some and preferably many aspects of what defines it—for the cultures that are modifying it. In Australia that currently means the dominant European or European-derived culture. The key-word is 'dependency': an uncomfortable term which unfortunately is apt and to the point. Dependency of motivation, good-will and, above all, a preparedness to put money and resources where intentions are; preferably without the accompanying patronizing.

I sense that Australia, among all the nations of the world that resemble it insofar as its basic issues of colonial-vs-indigenous-inhabitants are concerned, may have developed at least one mechanism that is more than 'reservation'-like condescension. It is an organization known as Desert Knowledge Australia, and for those interested in such things, click on the image below and have a look at the organization's website.

This doesn't look like a BHB thing, nor does it have the taste of implying continued dependency. The heart of the organization is in Alice Springs, and from what I know the intention is to make the 'precinct', as they call it, into a major source not only for the generation of tourist dollars, but also of the preservation of knowledge about what is loosely called 'desert', and which covers well over 75% of the continent; a place about which Australian indigenous people perforce probably know more than any bunch of white men currently in existence. The kind of stuff Gagudju Bill knew about.

This kind of knowledge is precious on a purely practical level to all Australians and maybe beyond—like is the case with the gazillion bits and pieces of precious things lurking in the jungles of the world that are being destroyed at an ever-increasing rate. And, no, I don't want to sound like an enviro-nazi or a greenie; but things are as they are.

But the knowledge is also precious on a purely personal level to the Australian indigenous people. Because it's in their heads! They actually know stuff that we don't, and knowledge is power and this is not some heebee-jeebie knowledge about stuff that may or may not be true and probably isn't, but this is solid and valuable knowledge about the real world that we all have to live in. Having such knowledge, knowing that one has such knowledge, has the inevitable consequence of a sense of pride developing; of being important; of 'mattering', if you will. And it is precisely that sense, which invariably gets taken away from the cultures on the receiving end of 'modifications'. It's got to do with one's sense of 'value' of self to the world at large—and in this instance the 'self' is the 'cultural self', if you will. There is a parallel in the ways in which individual and collective-cultural pride and esteem is tied up with the value perceived by a wider context: one's 'group' or 'society' for an individual; the cultures or the wider 'world' for a culture.

I think DKA has a very good chance of doing this for indigenous Australians. It hasn't been around for that long and has a long way to go. But it is, I think, better than anything in that area I've heard of as existing anywhere else in the world. To find it in Australia, where ethnic relations have a troubled history—and currently there's a lot of crap being stirred up there—is very encouraging indeed. Maybe there's hope that, in some not-too-far-away-future those loitering, basically without purpose, in the streets of Alice Springs and most other towns in the N.T., will be pulled into this enterprise, and that this will ultimately make their lives, and particularly those of the children, better and more purposeful.

It's not going to save the culture. As I've explained before, nothing can do that. But, within the context of the change that is inevitable and always has been, it may save those elements of the culture that are important. And in order for that to happen, people need hope that things will be better. And they need to realize—and this is maybe the toughest thing of them all—that nobody is right about everything all of the time; and that that includes even revered figures like Gagudju Bill, whose wisdom and perception of the situation of his people's situation, as well as the European settlers' folly, is undeniable; but whose notions about the immutability of human-made law are terribly destructive at the same time.

In order to let go of some of that attachment to the past, people have to see a promise for the future. That may not be a sufficient (if-then) precondition, but it is certainly a necessary (if-and-only-if) one.

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