Eric Abetz, Invasion and narcissistic monologue

by roadsideservice

Recently there has been a bit of an kerfuffle over the Sydney City Council using the pretty innocuous term “invasion” to describe the point in time when armed men in uniform claimed the “Australian” mainland for an alien sovereign.  “They came in” said the Deputy Mayor in explanation, “and did not leave”.

It is, of course, about contested memories. How is it that we remember the gross injustice that was the British Empire? How do we remember the horror of violence and displacement? What could the effects of swapping one set of euphemisms – “discovery” and “settlement” – for another – “invasion” and “theft”?

Paul Morris, from the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, told the Daily Tele:

We were invaded, it is the truth and shouldn’t be watered down. We wouldn’t expect Jewish people to accept a watered-down version of the Holocaust and, if you ask American Indians, they wouldn’t want the truth of their history watered down, so why should we?

Morris is marking a claim to memory and language that is very simple: call a spade a spade.

Opposition Liberal Leader in the Senate Eric Abetz couldn’t help himself:

The comparison of white settlement to the Holocaust, reportedly attributed to the head of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council, is offensive and trivialises and makes light of the unmitigated evil of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was pursued as a result of a genocide ideology.

The closest that Morris comes to comparing Australia to the Holocaust is to say that injustices should be remembered fully and frankly, on the terms of the victims. Within the monologue that Senator Abetz sets up, Abetz know the history of the imperial treatment of Kooris better than Kooris themselves.

Abetz sets out to deny the wholesale, systematic as well as the mundane manifestations of the violence that is inevitable in an ideology of expanding Empire.  He also tries to claim a hypocricy by attempting to (bear with me) claim that Native Title – the weakest form of land title there is in Australia – could not exist if there was an invasion because “white settlement” was not intended to be a conquest. Or something. I’m sure this makes sense to  Abetz. Meanwhile, no one is claiming there was a conquest.

Abetz rounds off his press release with another swipe for the culture warriors:

White settlement, albeit in today’s terms, in a clumsy manner sought to give rights to the indigenous people which saw white men executed for the murder of indigenous people [sic].

Abetz refers here to the Myall Creek Massacre (1838), the one (and only) time in Australian history that this actually happened. The “rights” given to Aboriginal people in this instance was the right not to be murdered. It is this, Senator Abetz assures us, that should be sealed in our social memory. Such a “right” was not much use for the victims of Myall Creek. That some men were hanged for their crimes at Myall Creek proved entirely insufficient for the culture of violence and deep ambivalence towards Indigenous people. The Coniston Massacre nearly a hundred years later (1928), for instance, in which up to 170 Warlpiri people were killed saw no white person charged.

Another dimension to this, and an aspect that might go some way in explaining Senator Abetz’ rush to defend Holocaust memory is Abetz’ own proximity to the violence of the Holocaust. The Sunday Herald Sun reported in 2008:

A SENIOR Liberal Senator has revealed his family link to a Nazi war criminal.

Eric Abetz, the Opposition’s Deputy Leader in the Senate, yesterday confirmed his great uncle was Otto Abetz, a high-ranking SS officer who sent tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths.

Otto Abetz served as Hitler’s ambassador to France from September 1940 until 1944, during World War II, and was close to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.

Otto Abetz was convicted in a French court for war crimes, including the deportation of French Jews to death camps. He also looted Jewish art worth millions of dollars.

Yesterday Senator Abetz – who came to Australia from Germany as a toddler in 1961 – confirmed Otto was a relative.

“The fact of the matter is, I never met my grandfather’s brother, Otto Abetz. He died the same year that I was born,” he said.

Abetz is, of course, not responsible for the actions, long before he was born, of his great-uncle. So too he is at obvious pains to preserve the memory of the Holocaust from attempts at trivialising the memory of it. For some time however, until people started asking questions, Senator Abetz was silent about this because of course it is embarrassing, shameful and and full of half-understood tensions. And this is before we even talk about responsibility. I feel like – despite his defense of holocaust memory – Abetz has tried to maintain his own monologue, he has controlled the script, he put in place harm-minimisation strategies, he did his best to save face.

And I think there is some kind of parallel going on here (which of course is not about Abetz at all) with the role and potential of embarrassing, tension ridden, and shameful things in dialogue. Abetz’s invocation of both Native Title (as a good thing) and the Holocaust might be seen as the ways in which ‘monological narrative scoops up others on its own terms and within its own understanding’. Deborah Bird Rose, who I love to bits, has written a bit about this (via such Jewish thinkers as Arendt, Levinas and Fackenheim). She writes that the

consequence of unmaking narcissistic singularity is that we embrace noisy and unruly processes capable of finding dialogue with other people and with the world itself. In doing so we shake our capacity for connections loose from the bondage of monologue…Pluarity poses seriously disjunctive moment for individuals, and for states. Pluarity is an ethical direction but by no means is it a paradox-free or conflict free zone.

The ethical alternative to monologue is dialogue. And this dialogue is not the Paltonic or Socratic dialogue, which Arendt (1970) describes as a ‘silent dialogue between me and myself’. It is a speficially a form of dialogue that requires difference. It seeks relationships across otherness without seeking to erase difference. Emil Fackenheim (1994:129) draws on the work of Franz Rosenzweig to articulate to main precepts for structuring the ground for ethical dialogue. The first is that dialogue is open, and thus that the outcome is not known in advance. Fackenheim developed this paradigm in this era after the Shoah, asking as have other philosophers, whether any dialogue can again take place between those who have been radically harmed and those who harmed them. Because he develops a form of dialogue that can work across chasms of radical harm, his paradigm is especially appropriate for our settler societies.

Such dialogues could go some way in (but not limited to) memory restoration. They might also go some way in centering the voices of the victims of violence so that injustices are remembered on the terms of the victim.

Rose, DB, (2004) Reports from a wild country: ethics for decolonisation, Sydney