Would the real racists please stand up?

Update (March 12) : Boris ‘Worse-than-Fidel-Castro’ Frankel has written a reply to Russell ‘I-♥-Rio-Tinto’ Skelton with the Communist-sounding title Mining does not offer the answer to indigenous woes. Like hundreds of my comrades in the environmental movement, I remain absolutely livid that Langton betrayed her Trotskyite roots by stating not all miners were villainous exploiters of indigenous people.

Update (March 7, 2013) : Fairfax journalist Russell Skelton has gone into bat for Langton, arguing that critics — “the unreconstructed few standing to the left of Fidel Castro” are stoopid. “According to her critics, Langton’s sins are many: She failed to declare in her lectures that mining companies helped fund her research into the politics of poverty and plenty in the Pilbara; and that she betrayed her Trotskyite roots by stating not all miners were villainous exploiters of indigenous people.” This is pretty cool, actually, as I’m unaware of anyone besides myself [?] drawing attention to Langton’s brief membership of the Communist League (along with her comrade Peter Robb, author of a bio in The Monthly in April 2011) — and then only with tongue planted firmly in cheek. For more infos on the Communist League: Sydney: 1st Flr, 3/281-287 Beamish St., Campsie, NSW 2194 / Mailing address: P.O. Box 164, Campsie, NSW 2194. Tel: (02) 9718 9698 / E-mail: [email protected].

Marcia Langton sparks academic spat over charges of ‘racism’
Andrew Crook
February 27, 2013

Indigenous academic Marcia Langton has again accused a prominent rival of “racism”, using an internal university mailing list to sledge a critic of her controversial ABC Boyer Lectures.

Transcripts of a closed Australian Anthropological Society debate — obtained by Crikey — reveal a heated exchange between Langton and her academic peers over an article by Professor Boris Frankel published in the latest Arena Magazine, “Opportunity Lost”. It is Langton’s third public accusation of racism in the last three months, a serious charge in the modern academy.

In Arena, Frankel, an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote of his disappointment over Langton’s “simplistic narrative of goodies and baddies based on an equally simplistic political geography”, noting Langton’s characterisation of the Left as new racists who wanted to keep keep Indigenous people uneducated and living in poverty. He argued the ABC, by failing to broadcast a Boyer rebuttal, had failed to adhere to the “balance” obligations of its charter.

But Langton’s riposte published last week on the AASnet mailing list says Frankel’s critique could not be taken seriously because he is “racist”:

“History will judge Frankel’s attack on me as dubious, questionable critique with no evidence to support his outrageous claims … like some of you, Frankel believes that it is legitimate to say anything at all, even with no evidence, about me. The racism is obvious and, as I said, I will respond fully in due course.”

In her fourth Boyer broadcast on ABC Radio National in December, Langton accused climate change commissioner and prominent environmentalist Tim Flannery of harbouring “racist” thoughts because he suggested indigenous communities weren’t capable of protecting nature.

And earlier this week she assailed two prominent critics — journalism academic and New Matilda contributing editor Wendy Bacon and former ABC investigative journalist Wendy Carlisle — of failing to grasp the “invisibility of racism” because they had not “hounded” other Boyer lecturers over conflicts of interest. The bitter exchange occurred after Crikey drew attention to the fact both Langton and the ABC had failed to disclose tens of thousands of dollars in research cash provided by resources giants, including Rio Tinto and Woodside, that she later singled out as indigenous employment champions.

Professor Jon Altman, the ARC Australian Professorial Fellow at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University, told AASnet name-calling was being employed as a means of silencing dissent.

“While I do not agree with everything in Boris’ essay … my view is that it constitutes robust critical review. I also followed with interest the AASNet debate on the first Boyer lecture and spotted nothing ‘racist’ there. These views constitute disagreement, not racism! … Such labelling should not be condoned, even with polite silence, in an ‘open society’.”

University of Sydney anthropology lecturer Thiago Oppermann was also having none of it: “It’s characteristic that ML’s [Langton’s] defenders should cry about her being mauled in the press, when what we have here is a single negative review in a tiny publication [Arena], whilst she just gave the Boyer lectures, supposedly a thing of prestige and wide reach…

“And of course, having a single argument raised against one’s views in the marginal press is Stalinist censorship. We are allowed to have ‘diversity’ in anthropology so long as nobody ever steps on anyone’s toes, it seems. Let 100 flowers bloom, all of them pulled by a mysterious heliotropism towards our glorious mineral-driven future …”

Professor Andrew Lattas of the Department of Social Anthropology at Norway’s University of Bergen said the frenzied reaction was “just the usual nonsense that I have come to expect along with the personal accusation of Stalinism by email when you challenge arguments”.

He defended the questioning over conflicts and disclosure: “There is nothing scurrilous in the criticism of Marcia Langton and noting her alignment with the mining lobby, they are long overdue. Asking for disclosure of how her research is funded by mining companies is certainly proper.

“They generalise the problem, making the medium the problem — well this is not going to work, it is just fudging.”

“It is not surprising that the criticisms are coming from outside of anthropology whilst the defence is coming from the usual crowd in Australian Aboriginal anthropology. Embarrassed by having strongly defended her and now not able or willing to respond to the substantial criticisms of her in any direct way, they resort to mourning the loss of meaning and objectivity in a post-modern world of mass communication. They generalise the problem, making the medium the problem — well this is not going to work, it is just fudging.”

Langton received some cautious support from Professor Diane Austin-Broos from the University of Sydney, who says while Frankel might not be guilty of racism he failed to produce sufficient evidence.

“Rather than ‘racist’, Frankel’s contribution exhibits a new type of comment in scholarly journals that I call ‘death by opinion piece’,” she told colleagues. “The so-called review is not grounded in citations from the relevant criticised text and relies on general political assumptions to bolster its argument. Moreover, the empirical stuff that grounds a real exchange of views is most often missing.”

But Dr Stephen Johnson, a South Australian-based On Country planning consultant, formerly of the University of Queensland’s Heritage Unit, said it was Langton who resorted to kneejerk accusations whenever she cops criticism.

“As just about anyone who has worked with or in close proximity to the professor will attest — and even those who have simply followed various debates from afar — Marcia Langton appears free to deploy at will the argumentative and rhetorical device taught and learned in a Western philosophical/academic tradition, but when challenged in kind will invariably resort to accusations of racism, often couched in terms of ‘what would a whitefella know?'”

Late last year Langton sarcastically referred to herself as a “nig nog” in response to a tweet from prominent industrial relations barrister Josh Bornstein, who said he was sick of her abuse and invective.

Meanwhile, the full extent of the mining industry’s financial support for Langton’s research — undisclosed in her Boyer Lectures — is becoming clearer. Rio Tinto has contributed two major cash tranches in last six years to the Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project at which Langton is a chief investigator.

Another funder of Langton’s research is the Marnda Mia Central Negotiating Committee — a local company that negotiates with Rio on behalf of the indigenous community. As this 2007 press release shows, Marnda Mia was the recipient of $2 million in funding from Rio Tinto Iron Ore at its inception. A year later, Langton and co-researcher Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh allegedly produced an internal report for Rio and ran seminars for the indigenous community in the Pilbara with whom Rio Tinto was negotiating (Crikey asked O’Faircheallaigh, Langton and Rio for clarification on this and other matters — Rio declined, O’Faircheallaigh and Langton didn’t respond).

Another mining behemoth plugged by Langton in her Boyer lectures was Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metals, which Langton lauded for helping to create “the largest Australian indigenous industrial workforce ever”. But most listeners would have been unaware of Langton’s position on the steering committee for the Australian Employment Covenant, founded and co-funded by Forrest.

There was also no mention in the Boyers of Fortescue’s pitched battle with the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation over negotiating rights for the Solomon Hub and the Firetail mine, which has since been resolved in Yindjibarndi’s favour by the Federal Court.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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3 Responses to Would the real racists please stand up?

  1. @ndy says:

    Awesomesauce. Langton is an ex-Trot, apparently, having been a member of the Communist League back in the ’70s. On another spotterly note, the CL were invited to have a stall at last year’s Anarchist Bookfair.


    Gary McLennan (August 2, 2009) writes:

    I am currently working my way very carefully thru Peter Sutton’s The Politics of Suffering (Melbourne Uni Press, 2009). Sutton is an anthropologist with a history of long term involvement with Indigenous Australians. He is a linguist as well speaking three of the Cape York languages. His book is subtitled ‘Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus'[.] It is in fact a polemic against liberal views which emphasize the importance of Aboriginal Culture and the right to self determination of Aboriginal Australians. The book has been endorsed by far rightist Christopher Pearson (The Australian, July 18-19, Inquirer, p.26) as ‘the yardstick by which most recent critiques of indigenous affairs policy and what comes out on the subject over the next decade will be judged’. In her preface, the Aboriginal Activist Professor Marcia Langton claims Sutton’s book is ‘one of the more important works in the Australian Indigenous field in the last quarter of a century’ (cited in Sutton, p.vi).

    I was [in] the Communist League with Marcia a life time ago and I also have a clear memory of her getting up to lecture Margaret Mead on surplus value when the latter appeared on an ABC discussion show sometime in 1976. Langton is now alas part of the new Indigenous Right along with her friend Noel Pearson.

    I do intend doing a full seminar paper on The Politics of Suffering, in the mean time there is a useful critique of some aspects of Sutton’s work at http://newmatilda.com/2009/07/16/what-liberal-consensus. In this post however I want to broach a topic that has been intriguing me for sometime and … that is historical narratives and how to critique them. Basically and oversimply, I think we can approach narratives along the old Kantian pathways of the good, the true and the beautiful; that is we can ask whether the narrative is true (The Cognitive), how moral is it (The Ethical), and how it is composed (The Aesthetic). The trick it seems to me is to be aware of the need to tread all three pathways and also to be aware of which pathway one is on at any particular time.

    There are then two narratives at the heart of Sutton’s work. They also have two crucial dates. The first of these is 1978, when the missionaries were told to pack up and leave the Aboriginal settlements and the latter were supposed to come under self-determining community councils. This was for Sutton the “road to hell”.

    The moves to get rid of the missionaries and to enshrine self-determination were guided by what Sutton terms the “liberal consensus” which in turn was underpinned by a progressive cultural relativism which valued traditional Aboriginal culture highly. There was also in this move, according to Sutton, an implied rejection of “modernity”. The latter is a concept which Sutton does not see the need to theorize in any way. There is for him and Langton too, only one possible modernity and it is also the best of all possible worlds. Indeed Langton, in her preface, goes so far as to say “much of the tragedy, misery and death has been “caused”, and I use this [term] here in a common, imprecise way, by the inability of so many contemporaries of Professor Sutton to imagine Aboriginal life with all the normal trappings of modernity” (p.vi).

    What is true about this narrative? Well the condition of Indigenous Australia has recently been documented in a government report and it is not good at all and seems to be getting worse if anything (Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage, 2009). So that much of the narrative is true. Especially in the remote communities many indigenous Australians seem to be living in hell. However it is when we come to the cause of all this that the untruth of the narrative appears most starkly. To begin with as Altman (2009) points out there is no “liberal consensus”. From 1996-2007 Aboriginal Affairs were run by the very conservative Howard Government, whose actions and policies were certainly not overdetermined by any commitment to a rights agenda. Indeed the very first action of the Howard Government was to cut $470 million dollars from the [budget] allocated to Aboriginal affairs.

    There is no mention of this in Sutton’s narrative. Rather he aims his polemic at those aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture which he believes have contributed to the present disastrous situation. Thus there are long passages (pp.87-107) on violence in traditional Aboriginal culture as well as sections on child rearing practices such as “crueling’ where the child is treated roughly or deprived of food in order to provoke the child’s anger (pp.111-112) or where the child’s anger [?] especially that of “boys against women” (pp.113-4). It is here that Sutton wants us to look for the causes of Indigenous disadvantage rather than to “dispossession, dislocation, separation, exclusion from services, inadequate services and the tyranny of distance”.

    It will not I am sure have escaped my comrades that Sutton’s narrative bears an uncanny resemblance to the Lewis-Huntington/narrative/thesis of the “Clash of Civilizations” as the motor force for the current world disorder (Huntington, 1993). In both cases the narratives serve to justify colonial intervention. In saying this I have I believe laid the [ground] for a moral critique of Sutton’s work. I do not doubt his concern and genuine sorrow
    at the suffering of his Aboriginal friends. However the logic of his rejection of self-determination and also of his critique of tradition and his romantic idealised view of modernity is that Indigenous Australia should once more be subjected to White Authoritarianism and indeed Sutton is a supporter of the Howard intervention in 2007 into the Northern Territory (see Sutton p.8). Sutton will not come right out and say it but clearly he is here an assimilationist…

  2. Shockadelic says:

    Criticism/dissent provokes knee-jerk accusation of “racism”.
    What else is new?

  3. Pingback: Marcia Langton ~versus~ the unreconstructed few standing to the left of Fidel Castro & Co. | slackbastard

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