Saturday, 28 April 2012

Native Title: Triumph and Tragedy

I've just finished the first of three weeks in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, working on a project that at least indirectly relates to Native Title issues.  Of course I've been thinking of the whole Native Title thing and it strikes me that it mixes triumph and tragedy on a grand scale.

Native Title law in Australia is based the famous Mabo Case, in the High Court of Australia in 1989, in which Eddie Mabo (pictured) and other applicants from Murray Island in the Torres Strait claimed they had a form of traditional title to their land which should be recognised under Australian law.

The court had to decide two things.  The first was essentially a question of fact - was there a recognisable system of land ownership in traditional Indigenous Australian societies?  Their answer to this was very clearly yes, and the convenient myth of terra nullius, the empty land the British explorers supposedly found, was finally laid to rest.  This 'native title' was not the same as European forms of land title and did not necessarily involve the same rights and responsibilities, but was based on clear traditions of land ownership stretching back to before European occupation of Australia.

The second question was a more tricky legal one - was the appropriation of this land by the British colonists legal, and hence was the current system of land title in Australia legally tenable given the prior existence of native title?  Not surprisingly, the answer to this was also yes, but the "yes" in this case was more qualified.  The Crown was entitled to appropriate any land it wanted, and to set the terms of compensation.  If in the case of Aboriginal people this compensation consisted of a few blankets and rations of flour, tea and sugar, that was legally fine.  However, the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975 changed this game because after this it was necessary to treat Aboriginal people in the same way that people of other races would be treated, and therefore to compensate them properly.

In a subsequent case, the Wik judgement of 1996, the court found that the same reasoning could be applied in a mainland Australian context, that the granting of a pastoral lease did not necessarily extinguish native title and that it could co-exist with other land uses that did not require exclusive possession.

These judgements created a political storm which led to the creation of the National Native Title Act in 1993 and its amendment following the Wik judgement.  I seem to remember that Commonwealth and State governments, and especially ours here in Queensland, were mainly intent on protecting miners and pastoralists from the hordes of rapacious Aborigines who they expected to appear riding on the back of these judgements to sweep us all into the sea.   

In the end they stopped short of enacting the legislative equivalent of the brutal Native Police squads and ended up with something more like Patsy Durack, the redoubtable Irish patriarch of the Durack family described in his grand-daughter Mary's book Kings in Grass Castles.  Whenever Durack took up a new piece of land he would negotiate a deal with the local Aboriginal people, offering to kill a beast for them at regular intervals if they would refrain from spearing his livestock indiscriminately.  Durack was shocked at the Native Police and protected any Aboriginal person on his property during their murderous raids, but nonetheless he harboured no doubts about his entitlement to the lands he took over.

These judgements, and the legislation they prompted, were a huge leap forward for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  They recognised for the first time that the original Australians had a legitimate stake in the land.  However, they are also clear evidence that law and justice are not the same thing.  At the same time that the High Court limited the further theft of Aboriginal land, it legitimated all the theft that had already taken place. 

The perverse outcome of this decision is that those who have lost the most are entitled to the least compensation.  Aboriginal nations who lived in the most fertile and densely populated areas of Australia can fight fiercely for native title, but when it is granted what will they get?  Nothing more than access to tiny scraps of 'unallocated crown land', rare and generally not much use for anything.  By contrast, people from remote, sparsely populated areas who have had the good fortune to be allowed to keep something of their land and culture are now eligible for compensation, especially if there are minerals under their land.

Of course those whose land is about to be appropriated should be compensated, and it is the triumph of the Native Title regime that it ensures this will happen, even if at the cost of a lot of angst and conflict within Aboriginal communities.  On the flip side, the tragedy is that the case for wider-scale compensation has been all but extinguished along with the finding that the granting of exclusive title under British or Australian law legally extinguishes any form of native title.  The acts of wholesale theft and cultural genocide which form the dark underbelly of Australian history can be safely acknowledged and deplored in the knowledge that it will not cost us a cent.  As long as the thief expresses remorse he will be allowed to keep his booty.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Big Country

So, I'm having a change of scene for a little while.  Can you believe it, someone is paying me to travel to the other side of Australia and talk to people (or rather listen to them) about social issues for three weeks.  So here I am in the beautiful Dampier Peninsula in the far north of Western Australia, where I've never been before.

Of course I'll have to work but since I've signed a confidentiality agreement I can't talk to you about that.  Instead, I just thought I'd mention that Australia is an EXTREMELY BIG PLACE.  In something like eight hours in the air we flew across over 5,000 km of territory.  As I looked out of the window I saw huge swathes of bushland, mountains, desert, coastline, and very occasionally a little sign of human habitation - a long straight road, a town, a distant light.

Of course we so rarely see Australia this way because we are, naturally, always at the places where humans live.  For a city-dweller like me, I am nearly always at the place where thousands of humans live.  Every aspect of the landscape we pass through bears our none too subtle marks.  We always see the world from our own point of view.

Yet from the air we can get a glimpse of this other Australia - the landscape where our marks are light or even non-existent, where we would be lost, swallowed up, to disappear unnoticed. 

If (as seems quite possible) we manage to cause serious damage to this planet by burning fossil fuels and pouring other toxic substances into the atmosphere, it will certainly make a huge difference to the first Australia, the Australia of human habitation, the Australia on which our signature is already writ large and at times in very ugly handwriting.  Most of all it will make a huge difference to us.

On the other hand, I kind of think that this other Australia would be little changed.  Of course some species would suffer while others flourished, but the life of the continent, the colours, the contours, would be very little changed.  We, after all, are so small, and the country is so big.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Evolution is Not Great

Some of my family have been having a heated Facebook argument (as you do) sparked by recent troubles in the support base for Catherine Hamlin's Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia.  Sadly, there appears to be a dispute about the religious affiliations of supporters which is interfering with funding for this important work.  This charity is dear to the hearts of a number of family members and they are shocked.  I don't really understand the dispute and the ABC report of it is not all that enlightening.

Still, my favourite and much-loved atheist relative's instant emotional reaction was to blame the Christian faith for the problem.  Religion poisons everything, as Christopher Hitchens would have said.  Of course Hamlin herself is also a Christian, but what are such details before the power of confirmation bias?

Anyway I know I shouldn't let my caustic wit get the better of me, but here goes.  Our current crop of New Atheists like to view religion as a product of evolution.  Daniel Dennett describes how religion evolved from primitive beginnings in ancestor worship to the elaborate theological systems we have today. He describes these ideas and systems (which he calls "memes") as much like parasites, self-replicating beasties which damage their hosts to ensure their own survival.  He, and even more so his friend Sam Harris, believe that this nasty parasite has now become so dangerous that it is time to eradicate it.

However, they haven't really understood the implications of their findings.  If religion is nothing more than a product of evolution, then it is evolution, not religion, which is to blame for the atrocities and horrors of the world.  How can we blame Islam for the crimes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda?  After all these poor innocent believers were only doing what they evolved to do.  Evolution is to blame.  How can we blame Yahweh for the genocide of the Canaanites if he doesn't even exist?  Clearly we must blame evolution for deluding those poor innocent Hebrews.  Nor must we blame the hideous nationalistic ideology of the Nazis for the Holocaust.  They believed in the ultimate destiny of the Volk because evolution made them that way.

While we're at it I have a few other bones to pick with evolution.  Who can we hold responsible for the massive extinctions of Silurian, Carboniferous, Triassic and Tertiary eras?  Who will take responsibility for the catastrophic loss of millions of species?  Clearly, this is an evolutionary crime of massive proportions.  What had those innocent molluscs and reptiles done to deserve such a hideous fate?

Clearly we have got to the point where evolution is much too dangerous to have around.  Sure, some good things have come out of it, like opposable thumbs and crimson rosellas, but our powers of reason and technology are now at the point where we can produce such things without the need for evolution.  The bad far outweighs the good.  I know lovers of the beauties of Darwin's analysis will mourn, but they will still be free to read the Origin of Species as a work of literature and appreciate its beauty and intricacy.  They will just no longer be permitted to believe it.

I'll be explaining these views in more detail in my forthcoming book The End of Evolution: Science, Terror and the Future of Reason.  Watch out for it in a bookshop near you.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Christians for Israel

I have long been perturbed about the large number of Christians who uncritically support the state of Israel. This concern was strengthened recently when a copy of the latest edition of Israel and Christians Today found its way into my house.

This news magazine is published every two months by an organisation called Christians for Israel. The edition sitting in front of me now is titled Israel and Christians Today Australia and is distributed by the Australian branch of the organisation, but it contains no Australian content and is identical to the international edition of the magazine produced by the head office in the Netherlands.

Christians for Israel was founded in the Netherlands in 1979 and now operates in 15 different countries in Europe, North America, Australasia and Africa. As far as I can work out it is an independent organisation, funded by donations from supporters. Its aims include educating Christians about current issues in Israel and their view of the place of Israel in Biblical prophecy; supporting the state of Israel in public debate and in the politics of their various countries; and supporting practical works to aid Israelis including a large program assisting Jews to "return" to Israel.

The magazine basically contains two types of story. The first is commentary on current events in Israel, mostly by writers within Israel itself and mostly reprinted from other publications . The tone of this commentary is aggressively nationalistic. One article, by a long-term resident of Ramot in northern Jerusalem, bizarrely blames the Palestinians for the infamous dividing wall on the basis of a horrific murder of a Jewish youth by a young man from a neighbouring Palestinian community. Another proclaims "There is no such thing as moderate Islam".  "Bulldozing Jewish history" by Giulio Meotti asserts Israel's claim to the Temple Mount, current site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

"Peace Through Victory", by an American-Israeli teacher of business administration named Steven Plaut, suggests that the only option available to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a full-scale military invasion and occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Plaut says "there has never ever in history been a Palestinian state, and there is no such thing as a Palestinian people".

He goes on: "'Palestinian 'suffering'? If the Palestinians are unhappy with Israeli anti-terror policies...let them stop the terror and desist from murdering Israelis, or let them move to any of the 22 Arab states." Most stunning is this: "The same United States that has understood that there is only a military option for dealing with terror in Iraq and Afghanistan must back up such a return by Israel to pre-Oslo sanity."

There is much more where that came from - xenophobia and Islamophobia combined with a spirited defence of the most extreme forms of Israeli nationalism. By the end I felt physically ill at the unrelenting violence and hatred, coupled with the despair of any possibility of peace.

I get that there are extreme nationalists in Israel and even that they have a legitimate place in the domestic political process, but why are overseas Christians being urged to support them in such a one-sided way? Well, the second stream of articles is written by Christians, both in and outside Israel, and is about Biblical prophecy. These articles champion the view that the re-establishment of an Israeli state is identified in prophecy as a precursor to the Second Coming of Christ. Thus, by speeding and supporting the re-establishment of Israel, Christians are hastening the day of the Lord's return and ushering in the Kingdom of God.

This is not the place to debate those prophecies - suffice to say that the prophetic scheme represented here is highly speculative, and the passages cited are open to quite different interpretations. However, this is not the problem for me. The problem is that these Christians have substituted prophecy for morality. Because the Bible says that Israel will return, Israel is therefore good and its enemies are evil. It follows that they must excuse and whitewash anything Israel does, while vilifying Arabs, Palestinians and the Islamic faith.  In the process the entire corpus of Jesus' and the apostles' ethical teaching can be set aside.

Now I don't want to go to the opposite extreme and whitewash Palestinian terrorism. It is real, and it is terrifying. Much as Steven Plaut wishes otherwise, the Palestinians are uncomfortably real, as is the ongoing process of their dispossession by Jewish immigrants, almost all of whom have arrived since 1948.  Both sides are fighting a war, have been doing so for more than half a century, and are not likely to stop any time soon. Nor is it possible to hold out much hope for Plaut's "final solution" given that his models - the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan - have been spectacularly unsuccessful in stopping terrorist attacks and in Iraq's case sent them spiralling. I seem to remember that the "pre-Oslo sanity" was not especially sane. Hard and risky though it is for both sides, peaceful coexistence and fostering mutual respect between the two peoples is not merely the best solution. It is the only one

Sadly, "Christians for Israel" feeds the spiral of extremism, urging the Israelis and their American backers to more extreme military measures which can only bring out answering extremism from the Palestinians. They do so in the name of biblical prophecy, but it is hard to see how they could possibly be doing it in the name of Jesus.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Chesterton's Orthodoxy

In my reading of various works of apologetics I noticed that quite a few Christian writers refer in approving tones to GK Chesterton's Orthodoxy, so I thought I'd have a read.

Chesterton was one of those archetypal English "men of letters", a high-class journalist who churned out books on a massive range of subjects.  He was a jack of all trades and master of none, an eccentric individual famous as much for who he was as for what he wrote.  Most of his works are rarely read these days, but the Father Brown  mysteries are still popular, as is this little book.  It was published in 1908 when Chesterton was 35, and explains his reasons for converting from agnosticism to orthodox Roman Catholic Christianity.

I find it interesting not only that this book is still read, but that it is beloved of more or less orthodox Protestants like CS Lewis and Philip Yancey, who wrote the foreword to this edition.  It's interesting because Chesterton is quite uncompromisingly Roman and highly critical of various aspects of Protestantism.

Chesterton gives us a mix of spiritual autobiography and apologetics, and in both respects the book is as idiosyncratic as it's author.  He slides from topic to topic and from idea to idea with bewildering speed and the connections are often difficult to follow.  It doesn't help that he is very much embedded in the debates of his time, referring to authors and ideas I have never heard of, or dimly recollect hearing of once.  It also doesn't help that much of the scientific knowledge he alludes to is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  However, science is not at the heart of his apologetic, and he is not attempting to prove that Christianity is "true" in a scientific sense.  Rather, his argument is a philosophical and imaginative one.

As far as I can work out, his central point is that for him, Christian orthodoxy made sense of a number of converging dilemmas brought up by his pre-Christian exploration of social and philosophical issues.  He uses the image of a key which, once turned in the lock, makes all the diverse parts of a mechanism fall into place and begin working.

However, his path to this point is a winding and at times confusing one.  Along the way, he discusses the idea that what is called "rationalism" destroys rationality by removing its basis, leading to something akin to madness.  The madman, he says, is perfectly logical within a very small, self-contained mental world.  Similarly, the atheistic rationalist is perfectly logical, but his world is very small and so much is missing.

One of the things that appears to be missing for Chesterton is the sense he first learned from fairy tales, that things need not be as they are.  Here he makes a distinction between things that are logically necessary (an apple cannot simultaneously be a pear) and things that are simply what we normally observe (an apple tree normally produces apples, but there is no logical reason why it should not produce the odd pear once in a while).  He doesn't mean this in a scientific sense so much as an imaginative one.  Scientific atheism, to him, is imaginative poverty, an inability to see things as they might be.

Which brings him to the heart of his reasoning, his reflections on optimism and pessimism.  For him, the optimist sees that we are progressing inevitably towards a better world or have even arrived at it.  There is therefore no need to strive for betterment - it will happen anyway.  The pessimist sees the world as inevitably doomed or inevitably bad, so there is no point in striving for betterment.  Chesterton therefore rejects both these views in favour of the orthodox view of fall and redemption.  In this framework, God and his followers love the world with a fierce love while at the same time fearlessly criticising its failings and striving to correct them.  It is only within this framework, he says, that true acts of heroism can take place, the greatest of which is Jesus' willingness to sacrifice himself.

I didn't really find myself any the wiser at the end of this book than at the start.  Perhaps this is because it is neither one thing nor the other.  At the point where he could defend his orthodoxy, when there is still a long way for his agument to travel to reach orthodox Christian dogma, he bails out with the statement that he doesn't propose to turn his spiritual autobiography into a work of apologetics.  Yet he also fails to give us a real autobiography, providing instead a chain of reasoning, the links of which are of an extraordinarily complex design. 

In the end I liked many of his ideas, but remained baffled by two things.  Firstly, despite its title this book is strikingly unorthodox, barely addressing any of the key ideas of Christianity.  Secondly, its reasons for belief are highly personal.  Chesterton believed because belief satisfied his imagination.  It provided him with a world view that made sense of his most treasured ideas and desires.

Perhaps there's a lesson in this for us, and I suspect it's the same lesson as that urged on us by Karen Armstrong.  We have allowed scientific rationalism to dominate our culture.  We demand proof.  Yet so many things, including the things that matter most to us, are beyond the very possibility of proof.  It is no accident that renowned atheist Stephen Jay Gould had a love for Handel and Bach, those most religious of composers.  They provided for him an imaginative world which he could never find in the fascinations of evolutionary biology.  So also with Chesterton.  He doesn't convince us to be orthodox, even though he would like to, but he does convince us that there are imaginative riches in the world of religion and that we and our community would be so much the poorer for neglecting them.