Marcia Langton responds to Alexis Wright’s Breaking Taboos

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Alexis raises at least one important point: Aboriginal writing, scholarship, research are all taking on the feel of Holocaust Studies. We write to understand, we read to understand, we carry out research to try to understand the terrible, inexplicable past.

Some of us have lived through it, are living through it. It is not an exercise in historiography alone, and therefore presents problems beyond that of traditional historiography.

Andrew Markus once dismissed our naive, simple attempts to make this statement at the Bicentennial History Conference. He argued that we could not argue that what had happened to us was worse than what had happened to the Jews. I don’t think any of us understood what he said, the import of what he said — either in relation to the Holocaust as an enormous crime, or his own need for this tragedy to stand alone, to be incomparable.

But still there is something. This insistent falling towards that place that so many Jews write about. The disgust at the pornographic and trivialising revisions, the new historiography lauded by the New Right, the accusations of cannibalism, infanticide and the litany of charges made against Jews and the “Elders of Zion” in medieval pamphlets, repeated in the hateful diatribes against Aborigines; these recent incursions by those who do not want what happened to us and our ancestors remembered into “history”, make me wonder whether we are not shuffling along the same road as Primo Levi and others like him.

I think so. I think it is a mistake and we urgently need to clear this up. Crimes of such enormity are not comparable in some essential ways, surely. Can’t we say what these are? I am sure that at least one of them is that there are always original and special taboos. The taboo on permitting any decency towards Aboriginal people in Australia has a different psychological trajectory and historical origin from the taboo on permitting full citizenship and humanity to Jews.

Another is that while some of us Aborigines cannot find the words, there is an army of respectable, reliable, properly qualified wordsmiths who write about this corpse that is still lying in the middle of the room. Yet still there are these nagging “similarities”, if I could call them that. And still there are some differences: too many of my comrades suicide, but none is a Primo Levi. David Irving has not been allowed to enter Australia, but the nation harbours, and valorises, vipers who say at least as much as he did.

Deputy Prime Minister the Hon. Tim Fischer accused the Land Councils of harbouring “blood sucking vampires” in his one quotable contribution to the recent election campaign. I wonder if he has ever heard of the term “displacement”?

Marcia Langton is the Ranger Professor of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies at the University of the Northern Territory. See also in AHR, Langton’s essay: How Aboriginal Religion Has Become an Administrable Subject.

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