The Noble Savage Ultimatum

27 Feb 2016

There was much uproar when Dennis Jensen recently evoked the centuries old ideal of the Noble Savage, mostly because he used a term so outdated and racist that most of us aren’t really all that familiar with it, we just know that it is outdated and racist.

The Noble Savage Ultimatum

There was much uproar when Dennis Jensen recently evoked the centuries old ideal of the Noble Savage, mostly because he used a term so outdated and racist that most of us aren’t really all that familiar with it, we just know that it is outdated and racist.

Jensen however is standing by it and says that, in the context of his speech, it was perfectly appropriate usage.

In a sense, he is right. He wanted to evoke the concept of the Noble Savage in his ultimatum to Aboriginal people living in remote communities and what better way to evoke it than to name it?

The problem however, is not solely with his poor choice of words, but the ideas those words they represent…

So, inappropriate choices of language aside, what is his ultimatum?

In essence what he was arguing was that Aboriginal people in WA living in remote communities are free to choose a life completely removed from Western Civilisation (The Noble Savage), but if they do they must forgo any support from the Australian Government.

It is an irrational and inaccurate framing of extremes to justify the government’s continual failure to provide basic services, and deny the right to social, cultural and economic opportunities for these communities.

It’s tantamount to a more academic sounding version of “If you want to go and live like a savage in the bush, then go for it, but don’t expect any support or assistance from ‘the white man’ if you do.”

People in these communities, however, are generally not arguing for a complete and utter return to a traditional pre-invasion life completely removed from electricity, the idea of Western schooling, hospitals, employment, etc. They are just arguing that they have a right to remain on their homelands and still have access to basic services, infrastructure and social, cultural and economic opportunities.

Jensen’s argument might have made more sense in a pre-20th Century mindset. How could we possible provide food for less than triple the price the rest of Australia pays? How can we give access to health, employment or education in places so far away? It’s not as though we have anything other than horses and buggies to do it, and that trip would take days, sometimes weeks to happen! *cough*

It’s not as though Australia has generated countless of billions of dollars from the lands of Aboriginal peoples across Australia, it’s not as though Australia has ever provided basic services, infrastructure and social, cultural and economic opportunities for any other community that could otherwise be perceived to not be instantly economically self sufficient. *cough* As we know, for example, the entire city of Canberra is paid for entirely out of politicians wages, and their lifestyle choices are made completely at their own expense, and have never been known to cost the taxpayer a cent. *cough*

It is effectively arguing that Aboriginal people living in remote communities can either choose to abandon their culture and their homelands and move into cities, or they can piss off and live like ‘noble savages’.

It is an argument that a politician simply could not make about any Australians other than Aboriginal people, and perhaps a handful of hippy communities in the 60s and 70s.

Imagine that same argument being used against any remote white community to justify denying them access to water and power, to schooling for their kids, to healthcare, to participation in Australian culture and society in any form?

Or is Jensen actually arguing that Aboriginal people have the right to assert their Sovereignty and declare their own States so long as they do it without funding from the Australian government? Would that allow them the right to deny mining companies access to their countries? Or alternatively to negotiate directly with mining companies on their own terms, and to have no reason to pay the Australian government any taxes on any agreements? Would it force the Australian government to enter into treaties with these communities to negotiate on equal and just terms? The short answer there is: Nope. He definitely isn’t arguing that.

Instead, what he is doing is creating an unrealistic and inherently racist ultimatum for Aboriginal people that they wouldn’t actually let Aboriginal people do anyway if they suddenly turned around and said, “Okay, you’ve got a deal!”

So, if the ultimatum isn’t actually an offer, then what is it?

What I took from it is nothing more than a shallow argument designed to appeal to those who share similar beliefs about the unfair advantages that Aboriginal people get, and the standard racist internet troll arguments of ‘Why don’t you go live bush without all the wonderful things that white people gave you then?

So sure, Jensen probably could have found a way to make this argument without using the ‘Noble Savage’ reference, but no matter how you say it, *cough* “Lifestyle choices” *cough* that is some pretty racist racism right there.

The same can be said for his argument that calling for the end to all Indigenous specific policies and programs is actually super-anti-racist: Australia is a post-racial meritocracy where only the most qualified person ‘gets the job’, there is no need for any form of affirmative action programs or policies. After all, we are all Australians and should all be treated equally!

This completely ignores the obvious realities of ongoing institutional racism and basis itself around an imaginary Australian Utopia where the effects of racism and colonisation magically stopped sometime around 1967, and usually goes further back to argue that all of the genocidal and racist policies and practices of the past weren’t actually that bad, or never really happened in the first place (Eg the instance that the Stolen Generations was only ever about ‘saving kids’ instead of playing its part in dispossession of lands and the control and regulation of people as part of the inevitable ‘breeding out’ of Aboriginal peoples, with the added bonus of providing free labour for the ‘settlers’.)

It also ignores the significance of Indigenous rights, the rights of Indigenous peoples as described within the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Australia voted against in 2007 along with Canada, New Zealand, and America.

And that leads us to some interesting additional considerations. Not only do Aboriginal people living in remote communities have the same basic rights as any other Australians living anywhere else, they have rights as Indigenous peoples.

Rights like those in Article 10: Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.

Or Article 7:

  1. Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.
  2. Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.

Or Article 15:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the dignity and diversity of their cultures, traditions, histories and aspirations which shall be appropriately reflected in education and public information.
  2. States shall take effective measures, in consultation and cooperation with the indigenous peoples concerned, to combat prejudice and eliminate discrimination and to promote tolerance, understanding and good relations among indigenous peoples and all other segments of society.

I could keep going, but you get the gist. (If you want to keep going and read all 46 Articles then you definitely should: click here for some Indigenous rights goodness.

Dennis wasn’t making a Noble Savage Ultimatum, he doesn’t even have the authority to do so. He was framing the argument away from the rights of Indigenous peoples as Australian citizens, and their specific rights as Indigenous peoples.

The arguments around community closures will continue, and it is important that those of us who stand in solidarity with #SOSBLAKAUSTRALIA and others who have called for these communities not to be closed, that we speak out against the racist rhetoric, and help get the rights of Aboriginal peoples back on the agenda.

NB: Sorry for the lack of articles lately, as you could probably tell from all my coughing in that article I’ve been a bit under the weather lately.

NB2: The Noble Savage Ultimatum would’ve made a much more interesting movie title than The Bourne Ultimatum… and knowing Hollywood it probably still would’ve had Matt Damon in the lead role.

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