Bouncing around YouTube in boredom, I stumbled upon a documentary about Aboriginal Australians. I thought it was going to be about their cultural history, but instead, much to my shock and dismay, it focused on what is known as the Northern Territory National Emergency Response, or commonly referred to as “the intervention.” I would transparently refer to it as racist skullduggery. It can be summed up this way: In 2007, based on some incredibly flimsy and shallow evidence, the Australian government claimed that alcoholism and child abuse were rampant amongst the indigenous communities of the Northern Territory so it intervened by banning alcohol and pornography to the government assisted communities of aborigines.
This branches out into so many different concerns. First and foremost, I have no idea how a Western allied nation can pass a law that targets a specific ethnic group in the year 2007. A sneaky provision thrown in that removes the need for a permit to enter aboriginal land seems like the real motivation behind the whole deal as it escapes me how that addresses any of the problems at hand. It also dips into American parallel feelings toward welfare, race, and poverty. But when I continued to explore the history of Australia and read up on imperialist first contact with the native peoples, I was reminded of another concept that I have touched on a few times in this column: participation.
For a long time after I saw it, that one scene in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line hung around in my head and heart like an echo that wouldn’t decay; the scene where Private Doll contemplates “this great evil.” I don’t find it ironic at all that the movie features the Melanesian natives too, sort of in the background, this ghost of a former human existence. How can we wrap our minds around this great evil? Private Doll asks, “How did it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from?” Can we call it division?
I probably would. I suppose we could assuage our sense of disbelief by citing cultural milieu and ignorance, but I do not understand how any nation could have ever rationalized imperialism. It seems so ironically barbaric, ironic because they set out to free the world of so-called barbarism. When the British came to Australia, they came upon a culture of a 60,000-year unbroken lineage. It was a culture that survived, and I guess that could mean both the people and the traditions. It was a culture that participated with the earth. Only a people removed from the participation with their own survival could not be awestruck and humbled by this remarkable feat, could not think there was something to be learned and preserved, something hallowed.
And America was no different, and in spite of our founding fathers and their noble (ill-practiced) ideology, maybe we never truly shook the imperialist mindset. Certainly the case can be made for this easily with the idea of multinational corporations globalizing their dominance and sucking up resources and what is basically slave labor. But, what if it isn’t just “out there?” Can there be domestic imperialism? Is that the seed and the root? We are removed from our survival in a participatory sense. We are removed from our government in a participatory sense. I just watched Werner Herzog’s Happy People, in which he glorifies the lives of trappers in Russia’s taiga. Again and again, he harps upon the idea that these people live an unmediated, self-reliant, self-determined life. Americans do not. We like to believe we do. Very few amongst us have any direct hand in our own survival. We participate in someone else’s profit way more than we participate in the earth and our own survival. And when we trace all that profit, where do the lines lead? Ever ascending, conglomerate by conglomerate, it lands in the hands of the silent imperialists.
The ultimate irony is also in the fact that we still harbor the resentment toward the Other while we are exploited. Racism is a difficult quandary. The concept of race in and of itself is in fact racist. Race does not exist. Yes, physical and cultural characteristics of peoples exist, but those do not make them Other. There are a number of Hudson River cities that are ethnically different than much of what surrounds it. But what makes the fabric of those cities fundamentally different than what surrounds them? The people that live there? I would say no. It’s the conditions they live in.
This brings us full circle: Why is there alcoholism and abuse in aboriginal communities? The case has been made that it’s true of Native American communities as well. Why is there crime and violence in cities like Poughkeepsie or Newburgh? Why are so many Central Americans eager to cross the U.S. border? The answer has nothing to do with race, but everything to do with poverty. My point is this: As we continue to feed this domestic imperialism, we will find ourselves increasingly in the position of the elusive Other. We will find that nothing separates the people of the world other than imaginary lines drawn by those with the desire to control.