I read an interview once in which Napoleon Chagnon was asked what the Yanomamo thought of him–why did they think he had come to live with them?
“To learn how to be human,” he replied.
I didn’t read Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die because I have any hope of helping the Yolngu people, (I don’t live in Australia, for starters) but in hopes of learning something universal. People like to play the blame game–it’s all whites’ fault, it’s all Aborigines’ fault–but there are broken communities and dying people everywhere, and understanding one community may give us insight into the others.
For example, US life expectancy has been declining:
A baby born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, which is down from 78.7 the year before, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.
The last three years represent the longest consecutive decline in the American lifespan at birth since the period between 1915 and 1918, which included World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic, events that killed many millions worldwide.
Declining? In the developed world?
While there’s no single cause for the decline in the U.S., a report by the CDC highlights three factors contributing to the decline:
Not to mention heart disease, stroke, and all of the usual suspects.
Most causes of death can be divided roughly into the diseases of poverty (infection, malnutrition, parasites, etc,) and the diseases of abundance (heart attacks, strokes, type 2 diabetes, etc). In developing countries, people tend to die of the former; in developed countries, the latter. There are a few exceptions–Costa Ricans enjoy good health because they have beaten back the diseases of poverty without becoming rich enough to die of obesity; Japan enjoys high standards of living, but has retained enough of its traditional eating habits to also not develop too many modern diseases (so far).
The poor of many developed countries, however, often don’t get to enjoy much of the wealth, but still get hammered with the diseases. This is true in Australia and the US, and is the cause of much consternation–the average Aborigine or poor white would probably be healthier if they moved to poor country like Costa Rica and ate like the locals.
When Trudgen first moved to Arnhem Land (the traditional Yolngu area) in the 70s, the situation wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible. People were going to school, graduating, and getting jobs. Communities had elders and hope for the future.
He left for eight years, then returned in the 80s to find a community that had been destroyed, with skyrocketing unemployment, hopelessness, drug use, disease, and death:
So my return to work with the Yolngu after eight years away was marked by the stark reality of what had become “normal” life in Arnhem Land. The people were dying at a horrific rate, more than five times the national average. And they were dying of disease that they had not seen before, disease that were considered to be those of affluent society: heart attack, strokes, diabetes, cancer.
What went wrong?
Trudgen points out that the variety of normal explanations offered for the abysmal state of Aboriginal communities in the 80s don’t make sense in light of their relatively good condition a mere decade before. People didn’t suddenly get dumb, lazy, or violent. Rather:
… I discovered that the communities in Arnhem Land had changed. The people’s freedom to direct their own lives had been almost completely eroded.
How do people end up out of control of their own lives? The author discusses several things affecting the Yolngu in particular.
The biggest of these is language–English is not their first language, and for some not even their 4th or 5th. (According to Wikipedia, even today, most Yolngu do not speak English as their first language.) Trudgen explains that since Yolngu is a small, obscure language, at least as of when he was writing, no English-to-Yolngu dictionaries existed to help speakers look up the meaning of unfamiliar words like “tumor” or “mortgage.” (And this was before the widespread adoption of the internet.)
Imagine trying to conduct your affairs when every interaction with someone more powerful than yourself, from the bureaucrats at the DMV to the doctors at the hospital, was conducted in a language you didn’t speak very well, without the benefit of a dictionary or a translator. Trudgen writes that the Aborigines would actually like to learn how to protect their health, avoid dying from cancer and heart disease, etc, but the information on how to do these things doesn’t exist in their language. (He reminds us that it took a couple hundred years for the knowledge of things like “germs” to travel from scientists to regular people in our culture, and we all speak the same language.)
Both in Arnhem Land and without, people often overestimate how much other people know. For example, in a case Trudgen facilitated as a translator, a doctor thought his patient understood his explanation that due to diabetes, only 2% of his kidneys were functioning, but the patient didn’t actually understand enough English to make sense of the diagnosis–not to mention, as the author points out, that Yolngu culture doesn’t have the concept of “percents.” After translation, the man (who’d been seeing doctors for his kidneys for years without understanding what they were saying) finally understood and started treating his problems.
Those of us outside of Yolngu Land don’t have quite this level of difficulty interacting with medical professionals, but language still influences our lives in many ways. We have high and low class accents and dialects, not to mention an absurd quantity of verbal signaling and flexing, like sharing one’s pronouns in a presidential debate.
People everywhere also suffer from the condition of knowing a lot less than others assume they know. Every survey of common knowledge shocks us, yet again, with how dumb the common man is–and then we forget that we have ever seen such a survey and are equally shocked all over again when the next one comes out. (I think about this a lot while teaching.)
I think most people tend to remember information if they either use it regularly (like the code I use for formatting these posts) or if it’s valued/used in their culture (I know about the Kardashians despite never having tried to learn about them simply because people talk about them all of the time). If people talked about quantum physics the way we talk about superheroes, a lot more people would have posters of Niels Bohr.
For the Yolngu, there’s a problem that a lot of information simply isn’t available in their language. They were literally stone-age hunter-gatherers less than a century ago and are trying to catch up on a couple thousand years of learning. For us, the difficulty is more of access–I have a couple of relatives who are doctors, so if someone in my family gets sick, I call a relative first for advice before heading to the more expensive options. But if you don’t have any doctors among your friends/family, then you don’t have this option.
There are probably a lot of cases where people are stymied because they don’t know how to even begin to solve their problems.
Trudgen wants to solve this problem by having much more extensive language training for everyone in the area, white and Yolngu, and also by extending educational programs to the adults, so that the entire culture can be infused with knowledge.
After language difficulties, the other biggest impediment to living the good life, in Trudgen’s view, is… the welfare state:
Welfare and the dependency it creates is the worst form of violence. It has created a living hell.
Before the arrival of the white people, he notes, Aborigines survived perfectly fine on their own. The locals fished, hunted, gathered, and probably did some yam-based horticulture. They farmed pearls and traded them with Macassans from modern-day Indonesia for rice, and traded with tribes in the interior of Australia for other products. They even had their own legal system, similar to many of the others we have read about. Their lives were simple, yes. Their huts were not very tall, and they certainly didn’t have cellphones or penicillin, but they ran their own lives and those who made it out of infancy survived just fine.
Today, their lives are dominated at every turn by government institutions, welfare included. Children were once educated by their parents and the tribe at large. Now they are educated by white teachers at government run schools. People used to hunt and gather their own food, now they buy food at the supermarket with their welfare cheques. A man once built his own house; now such a house would be demolished because it doesn’t meet the building code requirements. Even Aborigine men trained as skilled housebuilders have been replaced by white builders, because the state decided that it needed to build houses faster.
Every program designed to “help” the Yolngu risks taking away yet one more piece of their sovereignty and ability to run their own lives. Trudgen complains of plans to build preschools in the area–to quote roughly, “they say the schools will be staffed with local Yolngu, but Yolngu don’t have the right credentials to qualify for such jobs. In a few years, Yolngu mothers will have even been pushed out of the role of caring for their own little children. What purpose will they have left in life?”
I just checked, and 88% of indigenous Australian children are now enrolled in preschool.
Or as the author puts it:
In fact, every attempt to solve the [malnutrition] problem with outside ideas has sent the malnutrition rates higher. Welfare-type programs simply send the people into greater depths of dependency, which increases feelings of confusion and hopelessness. Old people as well as children are not being cared for.
During 1999 the children received a free breakfast at the school and some people were talking about giving them free lunches as well. So now the government feeds the people’s children, as well as build their houses and provides all levels of welfare for them. What is there left for them to do but go ff and drink kava or gamble?
… where the people have lost control, the men are dead or dying.
Incidentally, here is an article on loneliness in American suburbia.
Everything here is compounded by the habit of modern governments to make everything illegal; complicated; or require three permits, two environmental impact studies, and 17 licenses before you can break ground. As Joel Salatin pens, “Everything I want to do is Illegal.”
Aborigines used to build their own houses, and whether they were good or not, they lived in them. (In fact, all groups of people are competent at building their own shelters.)
Then government came and declared that these houses were no good, they weren’t up to code, and the Aborigines had to be trained to build houses the white way. So the Aborigines learned, and began building “modern” houses.
Whether they were good at it or not, they had jobs and people had houses.
Then the government decided that the Aborigine builders weren’t building houses fast enough, so they brought in the army and threw up a bunch of pre-fab houses.
Now the taxpayers pay for whites to go to Yolngu land and build houses for the Aborigines. The aborigines who used to build the houses are out of a job and on welfare, while the money for the houses goes into the pockets of outsiders.
Yes, the houses get built faster, but it’s hard to say that this is “better” than just letting the locals build their own houses.
The same process has happened in other industries. Even trash collection in Yolngu areas is now done by newcomers. At every turn, it seems, the Yolngu are either pushed out of jobs because they weren’t as fast or efficient or had the right certificates and credentials, or because they just didn’t speak enough English.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes, Harlem
The story of the fishing industry was also and adventure in bad decision-making.
Originally, simplifying a bit for the sake of time, each fisherman (or perhaps a small group of fishermen) had his own boat, and caught as many fish as he wanted and sold the rest to a fishing organization run by the local mission. This was clear and straightforward: men owned their own catches and could do what they wanted with them. The area was a net exporter of fish and the locals made a decent living.
Then the government decided the mission system was no good, and turned everything over to “communal councils.” This was a great big mess.
Trudgen points out that the councils aren’t consistent with existing Yolngu laws/governing norms. They already had elders and governing bodies which the government didn’t recognize, so the government effectively created an illegitimate government and set it in conflict with the existing one, in the name of democracy, with shades of every failed attempt to impose democracy on a foreign country.
The councils didn’t work because 1. they didn’t have real authority, and 2. communism always fails.
In this case, the council decided to get a loan to “develop” the fishing industry, but before they could get a loan, the bank sent out an efficiency expert who looked at all of the little boats and declared that it would be much more efficient if they just used one big boat.
So the council bought a big boat and burned the little boats in the middle of the night so no one could use them anymore.
Now “ownership” of the boat was all confused. Men were not clearly working to catch their own fish on their own boat, they were part of a big crew on a big boat with a boss. The boss had to be someone with the correct licenses and whatnot to be allowed to run a big boat, and of course he had to pay his employees, which probably gets you into Australian tax law, liability law, insurance law, etc. In short, the boss wasn’t a local Yolngu because the Yolngu didn’t have the right credentials to run the boat, so the fishermen now had to work for an outsider, and it was no longer clear which part of their catch was “theirs” and which part was the boss’s.
The fishing industry quickly fell apart and the area became a net importer of fish.
These councils set up by the government to run local affairs failed repeatedly, much to the distress of the locals–but Trudgen notes that collectivism didn’t work for the USSR, either.
One constant impression I got from the book is that multiculturalism is hard. Even without language issues, people from different cultures have different ideas about what it means to be respectful, polite, honest, or timely. Different ideas about what causes disease, or whether Coca Cola ads are a trustworthy source of nutrition advice. (If they aren’t, then why does the government allow them to be on the air?)
Which gets me to one of my recurrent themes, which Trudgen touches on: society lies. All the time. Those of us who know society lies and all of the rules and meta-rules surrounding the lying are reasonably well equipped to deal with it, but those of us who don’t know the rules usually get screwed by them.
As Wesley Yang puts it in The Souls of Yellow Folk:
“Someone told me not long after I moved to New York that in order to succeed, you have to understand which rules you’re supposed to break. If you break the wrong rules, you’re finished. And so the easiest thing to do is follow all the rules. But then you consign yourself to a lower status. The real trick is understanding what rules are not meant for you.”
The idea of a kind of rule-governed rule-breaking–where the rule book was unwritten but passed along in an innate cultural sense–is perhaps the best explanation I have heard of how the Bamboo Ceiling functions in practice.
It’s not just Asians. Poor people, rural people, nerds, outsiders in general know only the explicitly taught rules, not the rules about breaking rules–and suffer for it.
And I think society lies in part because it serves the powerful. People lie about their age, their looks, their intelligence, how they got ahead and how they think you should apply for a job. Coca Cola lies about the healthiness of its product because it wants to sell more Coke, and the Aborigines believe it because they have very little experience with foods that taste good but aren’t good for you. Out in nature, in the traditional Aboriginal diet, sweet foods like fruits and berries were always good for you.
And these little lies are usually portrayed as “in your best interest,” but I’m far from convinced that they are.
People have been talking about UBI lately, at least the Yang Gang types. And I like Yang, at least as presidential candidates go. But we should be careful about whether more welfare is really the panacea we think it is.
The Yolngu have welfare already, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. At least, it doesn’t seem to make them happy. My conclusion from reading the book obviously isn’t that the Yolngu need more welfare or more programs. It’s that they need control over their own lives and communities. For that, they need something like Amish–a system of internal organization sufficient to feed themselves, deal with the outside world, and get it to back off.
Of course, I don’t know if that would actually work for the Yolngu in particular, but the Amish seem a reasonable model for solving many of modernity’s current problems.