Australian politics, society & culture

Here I Stand

Noel Pearson’s "Up from the Mission"

Peter Sutton

Medium length read2000 words
 
June 2009
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Noel Pearson’s "Up from the Mission"

Most Australians probably know Noel Pearson in just one or two of his aspects: as the regional leader, lawyer and activist from Cape York Peninsula, or as the national media commentator on Indigenous policy and politics. But his complexities, his gifts and possibly his flaws are Shakespearian in range. Most of the gifts and complexities can be found in Up from the Mission: Selected Writings (Black Inc., 400pp; $34.95), where many of his previously ephemeral essays and speeches have been collected in one place. They are now done literary justice.

The topical sweep and clarity of argument in these essays are impressive, but their impact hits you first through the sonorous, graceful, sinewy, pugilistic prose. The complacent or inattentive reader is frequently ambushed. One sentence begins: "Before I chloroform you with what are now largely truisms ..." In another, the Howard government is diagnosed with "Tourette's syndrome on some ideological questions". Most of the "intellectual and cultural surf in our country originates in currents emanating from the United States"; the Australian cultural wars are a shallow copy of those in America, but "time-delayed, like an international phone-call". The Right "launched a relentless blitz on an intellectually hapless Left, [which was] vulnerably bloated by the excesses of political correctness". Pearson is a great hater as well as a great wordsmith. The combination can be surgical.

The language of the essays sways from persuasion to laceration and back again. By turns tragic and comedic, Pearson's voice can swing from Lear to Puck. His thought, too, oscillates between intensely balanced, sweetly reasonable meditations and terrible routs in which no prisoners are taken. Either way, these writings have required valour and wisdom - not just cleverness or scholastic angel-counting or moral high-grounding, and certainly not self-pity. Pearson has little more than contempt for those who make a political industry out of victimhood. On the other hand, he is capable of crying "Oh, my poor people!" This made me think of Golgotha, and Alan Paton.

Unlike many modern political commentators, Pearson does not see social and political ethics as the principal measure of one's fibre, cut loose from the inward self. For Pearson, the person, not the position, is still the seat of worth. The American quest to improve black American lives has foundered on a "de-linking [of] social justice and individual responsibility": "social morality has become more important than individual morality."

Pearson also implies that the worthiness of any political position or social program is not grounded in the first place on questions of power distribution, or of race relations, or of class distinctions, but on the sanctity of the wellbeing of the vulnerable, the sanctity of social order and the sanctity of participation as against isolation and withdrawal. This must have enormous appeal to those who are tired of the over-privileged claims of cultural politics, and who mourn the displacement of mutual regard by legislation.

This does not mean that Pearson is not a hardened player in the tournament games of government, industry, Indigenous quangos, community politics and personal relationships. One of his brothers once told me he'd been thrown down a flight of stairs by Pearson while they were staying together in Sydney. The intent of the story was to make sure Brother Noelie was not foolishly underestimated. I believed him.

Pearson has always been distinguished from so many of the Australian army of public critics by one other thing: he almost always has a positive alternative program to suggest and, often, to implement. Right from the start of his Cape York Land Council, which he founded in 1990, this constructiveness at a local level has been one of Pearson's hallmarks. He is also a prodigiously hard worker. Behind these essays on matters of principle are years of slog on the frontline of practice. This gives a tempered-steel edge to his attacks on the failures of Australia's intellectual elites - both the entrenched and the arriviste - in the recent history of Indigenous affairs.

Reading these short works in the sequence they have been assigned makes it clear that Pearson is a master of the essay as a literary form. Structure, message, style and emotional colour are so well blended that it usually doesn't matter if the subject is not to the reader's liking, or if the event has passed. The book is in this respect a serious contribution to Australian letters. Only the jurisprudential chapters on native title are out of place in tone and intended audience; but they can be skipped without loss, and it is good they are on the record.

Here Pearson is first an Australian writer, a national intellectual of public affairs and of history. The other layers of his identity - his family, language group and local community, and his regional and state ties - are all present, but seldom dominate. Instead, the fundamental thing that reverberates most in Pearson's political philosophy is his passionate defence of national cohesion and moral coherence. Indigenous peoplehood plays a role - but as one of many layers of identity, rather than as a basis for balkanisation or disengagement.

Pearson worries about the future of Australia as a nation-state, and about the integrity of the social fabric. He sees that the pursuit of identity politics can risk structural and social division. He does not say so, but I suspect one of his other passions - his belief in the rule of law - is at work here. The health of the rule of law depends on the health of the national social body, and thus on moral cohesion. Mere obedience to statutes, whether willing, grudging or fearful, is not enough. Pearson's position is that there is no real freedom without order. "[I]f political circumstances became such that one was forced to prioritise, I would place social order ahead of land rights."

Pearson is also a student of political theory, a talented guitarist and singer, a Lutheran, an orator of brilliance, a gifted linguist, a scholar both of the jurisprudence of land ownership and of Cape York anthropology, of American political history and Hope Vale Mission history, a lover of cricket and rugby, of the common law, and of Earl Grey tea. His prose reflects his lifelong love affairs with language and with English literature. He has been translating Shakespeare's Richard III into his community language, Guugu Yimithirr, and is qualified to anoint some translations of the New Testament into Cape York Aboriginal languages as "magisterial". John Milton makes more than one appearance in this book. Pearson is not a cultural bigot. He is an admirer of Bill Cosby as well as of Bill Stanner. He is also an admirer of his mentor Paul Keating. He is not an admirer of Kevin Rudd.

Pearson is a man with a vast sense of humour, but he has also been known to be so choleric and vitriolic as to melt the phone wires. The scatological (maybe, like his Lutheranism, a Germanic bequest) often finds its way into his fusillades. His oratorical powers are perhaps rooted in his two oldest influences: the rich oral narrative tradition so pronounced in traditional Cape York, and the pulpits of Martin Luther's followers. The transcript of a speech he made at Hope Vale in 2007 records a classic Pearson performance. Here he is the hard man as eloquent orator, the tough-love uncle - the mugay - facing down his people's anger after telling the nation the truth about their ghetto.

Pearson's values, as revealed in these writings, are definite, clear and integrated with his politics and his social programs. We are allowed to see the morality behind these values, but not the spirituality. Central is the ideal of personal decency, the need for positive social norms, and the irreducible value of the wellbeing of children. On the Northern Territory intervention, Pearson writes, "This is not a moral panic. The abuse is real ... the fate of the children is the bottom line." He predicts that, increasingly, Aboriginal-affairs policy will become "a barometer for political decency" in Australia. Personal and public decency are inseparable.

What clearly distinguishes Pearson's position on Indigenous questions is his refusal to allow idealism and pragmatism to be placed in mutual opposition. Closely related to this is his refusal to allow modernisation and Indigenous rights to be portrayed as incompatible. Attending to practicalities without steering by the stars of ideals leads to bad policy and bad ethics. To follow the urgings of neo-conservatives would be to tread a Sonderweg, a path that will lead the nation astray. On the other hand, "In the social-policy areas, leftist opinion is our main opponent."

Conscious that his position may be misconstrued as a compromise, a middle-of-the-road exercise in appeasement or even cravenness, Pearson instead defines it as "the radical centre". This is radicalness in the older sense of deep-rootedness - not the position of those living on the far-flung outskirts, left or right, of ideology-land. The radical centre is achieved when pragmatism and idealism are brought into titanic struggle and reach their point of highest tension. There is something Mosaic about this path through the seas. Pearson would make a troubled but historically apt president, if we ever get there.

This wrestling with dichotomies is typical of Pearson's thought. His intellectual arsenal is full of dialectically related terms, all of them in tension, some of them in opposition: race and class; social morality and individual morality; recognising Indigenous peoplehood and achieving social integration; freedom and order; structure and behaviour; money and culture; cohesion and division. Pearson has made a career of resolving, or at least grasping, dialectical tensions.

Pearson's writing about his own family history and his community's history enriches this book. This is more than local colour; Pearson's first degree was in history, with honours. His grasp of the historical context of the present is rare. Without a sense of his historical thinking, it is impossible to understand how Pearson ticks. His "historical empathy" means that he escapes the present-focused shallowness of so much Australian writing about the past.

Having known and worked with some of the older people he mentions, such as Bob Flinders and Roger Hart, having spent occasional time at Hope Vale from 1974 (when Pearson was nine) until the 1990s, and having worked closely with Pearson in the 1990s, it is clear to me that his mission background is a hugely significant part of his development. Hope Vale's history makes it unique among the ex-missions of Cape York. Its distinct social and cultural character is immediately apparent to a visitor of any experience. While much of this might have come from the deep past, much also comes from the Lutheran mission experience. The Hope Vale missionaries seem to have wrestled with people's souls and gotten into their minds and under their skin more than most. It is hard to prove, but I also suspect they transferred a love of the will, a Germanic moral sternness and stiff-necked determination, at least to the elite of their charges, along with the Christianity, the education, the medicine and the control.

But all this is not enough to explain Pearson himself, even when his high-quality Brisbane boarding-school education is also taken into account. The fact is there is no one else even vaguely like Pearson in the world from which he sprang. This book is overwhelming evidence of that.

Peter Sutton

Peter Sutton is an anthropologist and linguist at the University of Adelaide and South Australian Museum, and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. His books include The Politics of Suffering.
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