ABSTRACT

Raimond Gaita’s contributions to public debate in Australia first became well known through some 50 columns he wrote for Quadrant magazine, from 1990 while Robert Manne was its editor until Manne quit that position in November 1997. There were increasingly strident complaints from some Quadrant readers about the difficulty and obscurity of his writings. Most of the early murmurings claimed not to object to what Gaita was saying (how could they, since the complaint was that it was incomprehensible?) but focused solely on matters of style. It was all too hard. Paradoxically, however, the complaints became angrier and more focused

when Gaita began to write a number of eminently accessible columns, on the moral significance of white Australians’ treatment of Aborigines. His claims were controversial, but he was far more often denounced and derided than confronted. And strangely, the same people who had complained that they couldn’t understand him, now complained even more loudly when they imagined they could. Indeed they seemed more offended by his clarity than his obscurity. The hostility was remarkable. Less was heard about style. It was now the

content that was objectionable; perhaps it had always been so. But although many of the attacks were crudely political, not all the discomfort was. For Gaita is a difficult and disturbing writer. His thinking is relentlessly serious, complex and intense. It also goes deep. Each of those elements might give cause for discomfort, or at least a headache. Moreover some of the confusion was almost certainly real, and in a way a tribute to his thought, if not always to his ability fully to convey it in an essay. He is a larger thinker than is easily fitted into that form. His thought is rich, systematic and interconnected. It stems from thought-through commitments on serious matters over a broad range. Exposure only to particular examples of it directed to particular problems, without the intellectual ground within which they figure, can be perplexing. Deployed on their own, it is not always clear where words and phrases which have been forged and tempered elsewhere come from, what gives them the particular weight and significance that Gaita attributes to them and what their implications are. Lay readers who encountered him for the first time episodically, in articles

on one issue of public controversy or another, might imagine that Gaita’s thought was a series of one-off responses to the provocations of these particular

issues, united perhaps by attitude and style, rather than by deeper connection. Particularly in the disputatious, but rarely argumentative, public culture of Australia, if your response was different, that was as far as you needed to go. You had him branded: friend or foe. What is missed and trivialized in such (very common) sorts of responses

is the extent to which Gaita had come to these skirmishes well provisioned. He had, as it were, assembled his troops in Good and Evil (2004) and others of his philosophical works, well before they were sent off on these particular public expeditions, and not even for that purpose. Or to use another, marginally less lame, metaphor, his is a rather powerful stream of thought. Its tributaries go in many directions, and adapt to different and particular circumstances. You can follow them without knowing their origin, there are still many things to learn, and there are always novelties along the way; it is a running stream, after all, not a stagnant pool. But to understand the source and depth of it all, it helps to read his public writings in the light of his academic ones. You still may not accept his conclusions, but you will have at least a deeper understanding of what you are rejecting or, perhaps, missing. In the next section, I outline some elements of Gaita’s account of moral

understanding, which he later brings to discussions of Aboriginal-white relations. Then I discuss one legal case, Mabo (1992), on which Gaita has written. I conclude by reflecting on the significance he attributes to this case, and the significance of what he attributes to it. Neither that case nor native title, the issue it treats, is the only or even pre-eminent source of the moral perturbations that have recurred over the history of white settlement in Australia. However, there is something foundational about the issues they raise which warrants special attention. Polemics in this country have often concerned more obviously spectacular

parts of that encounter, such as whether there have been massacres, how many, and why; what were the motives for removal of children from their Aboriginal parents; whether it makes sense, either conceptually or morally, to speak of genocide in relation to our shared history. Debates on these matters have often, and fittingly, carried a high moral charge, and Gaita has participated in several of them. But lying in the background, unnoticed or seen as just a dispute over property, is what can be argued to be the basis of all of the rest – denial of Aboriginal connection to their lands. In a real sense, it seems to me that everything else flows from this, or is implied by it. Whether I am right about that or not, it is important enough.