Via The Browser, here’s a morally complicated story about how the Australian government, in an attempt to restore moral order to out-of-control Aboriginal communities, stepped in and took substantial control of their lives. Excerpt:
Four years ago Nanette Rogers, a court prosecutor in Alice Springs, gave an explosive television interview. Her interview lifted the lid on a dark world of violence, sexual abuse and alcoholism in some of the territory’s remote aboriginal communities. She told of two babies being raped. She spoke of a “malaise”, “entrenched violence”, and of aboriginal people being “overwhelmed time and time again by a fresh new tragedy”. Once a public defender, Ms Rogers said she became a prosecutor because she was “sick of acting for violent aboriginal men”.
Her words sparked a chain of events that has divided Australia ever since. In June 2007 the conservative government led by John Howard announced a “Northern Territory Emergency Response”, which became better known as “the intervention”. Legislation that had banned racial discrimination in the territory was suspended, troops were sent in, and alcohol and pornography were prohibited in the “prescribed communities”. Half of every welfare payment due to the communities’ residents became subject to a kind of quarantine, obliging the state to “manage” their income.
Human-rights activists were outraged. They branded Mr Howard’s action a return to the white paternalism that had prevailed in this territory 34 years ago, before aborigines won their battle for land rights. Indigenous people comprise about a quarter of the Northern Territory’s population, compared with 2% in Australia as a whole. To those critics’ dismay, the Labor government headed by Kevin Rudd has continued with the intervention. After almost three years in power, it has yet to fulfil its pledge to reinstate the anti-racial discrimination law (although legislation to do so is now before parliament).
Yet the territory’s hidden horrors reflect a perplexing side of the indigenous Australians’ long struggle for self-determination. Why should violence, as Nanette Rogers maintains, be so entrenched in parts of aboriginal society? Some trace it to the nomadic way of life they led thousands of years before white settlers pushed them off their lands. Others put it down to a burning resentment at that dispossession, and a void filled mainly by booze and drugs. As the intervention reaches its third year this month, Hermannsburg is a good place to start testing its results, especially among those it was designed to rescue: aboriginal women.
Read the whole Economist report. Note especially that the intervention is supported by aboriginal women, who are tired of the alcoholism and abuse at the hands of aborginal men. It is, obviously, a shameful thing, fraught with racial history, for the white government to step in and take away many of the aboriginals’ liberties, including most especially the right to manage their own money. But these settlements are not 18th-century New England towns. They are reportedly cesspits of sexual abuse and substance abuse, where there is no moral authority to prevent the powerful — men — from abusing the weak, i.e., women and children.
In such a situation, what would you have the state do? Look away out of respect for individual rights and autonomy, and perhaps in deference to the whites’ ugly history of abusing and exploiting the aboriginals — abuse that included introducing alcohol to their communities, a drug to which, like many Native peoples, they had special vulnerability? Or would you have had the government step in, recognizing that the community was broken beyond its ability to repair itself, and that the feds had a responsibility to protect the weak from the strong?
The way I’ve framed the issue tells you where I come down: on the side of intervention. Nevertheless, given the racial history here, the intervention is an occasion for shame all around. Something like this is unthinkable in the American constitutional context, so I imagine Australia can get away with it under its own form of governance. Still, the intervention raises interesting questions about the limits of self-governance, and conditions under which it is immoral to respect democracy and certain individual rights. It’s also interesting to contemplate the moral position of white authority in Australia and what its moral duty is to address a devastated cultural situation for aboriginals that previous generations of white authority created. What happens when the only effective intervention, given the harsh realities here, requires dehumanizing the aboriginals by treating them paternalistically? Or is it the case that treating the aboriginals humanely, and atoning for past crimes against them, requires treating them paternalistically?
No easy answers here. Whites are basically stepping in and telling these black communities that they cannot run themselves — and doing so on behalf of black children and black women, who are tired of being mistreated by the drunken men there, and who welcome the state’s intervention. I say the state has to intervene to protect the weak, even if it does so with a conflicted conscience.