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Exploitative mythologies used to destroy Aborigines' sense of self

Stereotypes are a dangerous thing when cultural identity is at stake, and the hyping of Aboriginal drinking culture might be seen as a cynical exercise in political control
By Isak Afo 以撒克.阿復

Thursday, Jan 06, 2000,Page 9

In his book Orientalism, the Arab-American scholar Edward Said delivers a spirited critique of Western cultural hegemony and power politics that is itself both ideological and political. He argues that great political, economic and sociocultural differences are seen to exist between East and West, and that this is based on an extraordinary combination of ontological and epistemological reasoning, as well as on geographical factors and conditions of long-term antagonism.

The West's long-standing ambition to lead and restructure the world and its repressive use of a hegemonic discourse to dominate the world stage has resulted in a relationship between East and West akin to that between the dominator and the dominated. Based on this unequal relationship, "orientalism" has become a spurious form of "myth" for Westerners, deriving from ignorance, prejudice and a taste for exotica when facing the complexity of the East and the Third World.

Colonial myth-making

Taking this one step further, the threat of orientalism now lies more in the fact that it has become a form of hegemony which has made the colonized dependent on the knowledge provided by the colonizer, even in their search for their own historical, cultural and personal identity.

In Taiwan, the structure of political parties, the state and the country's ethnic mix combine to form a duplicate of colonial relations. This takes the form of internal repression -- an internal colonialism in fact. In accordance with the strategy of orientalism, and relying on the electronic and print media, the myths of the Other are created and perpetuated. In Taiwan, the myth of the Aboriginal drinking culture (-鮐磳舉怜s?�?�) is presently the most popular and pernicious of these.

The colonial myth-makers have characterized the Aborigines of Taiwan as "inherently lazy," "unproductive," "hooked on booze" and "lawless," or else as "good at singing and dancing" and "natural born athletes." The colonizers meanwhile see themselves as "benevolent and generous," "active and assertive" and "disciplined." The media repeats these stereotypes, with superficial understanding.

This myth has penetrated to the extent that when the news broke several months ago that the Alcohol and Tobacco Monopoly Bureau (菸酒?1/2賣局) had halted production of Red Label Rice Wine (紅�| 怜s), the media went for an exotic angle and came up with the infantile assertion that the drinking culture was the same thing as Aboriginal culture.

When the Aboriginal Harvest Festival tour, organized by the Department of Tourism, commenced in the homeland of the Amis people (阿美族). The first stop was the Harvest Festival in Taitung County. At this event, the government brazenly raised the flag of Aboriginal drinking culture with great fanfare held drinking competitions. To show its "concern" for Aboriginal culture, the Hualien office of the Alcohol and Tobacco Monopoly Bureau provided all kinds of alcoholic beverages free of charge. At the same time, the government expressed its "concern" over the issue of excessive drinking by Aboriginal people. The bureau invited Vice President Lien Chan (3s戰) to exhort Aborigines to drink in moderation and to put an end to their culture of excessive drinking.

The social penetration of the government's myths will ensure that eventually they will be regard as true. And the more distant we become from the original time and place where these myths were created, the more abstract and finely interwoven they become in the social fabric of the colonized people. In the end, it becomes impossible to clean up the mess.

Rejecting roots

When Aboriginal people do succeed in making a move up to a higher social stratum, they have the opportunity and ability to deconstruct -- or detoxify -- the poison in the colonizers' myths. Regrettably, however, these successful Aborigines tend to identify with the values and moral judgments of the colonizer and their myths, drawing closer to them and criticizing the people from which they originated.

In fact, the formation of the Aboriginal drinking culture myth is closely tied to Aboriginal intelligentsia: In order to rationalize their own alcoholic, disorderly behavior, they get all Aboriginal people to recite this stuff after them.

The "drinking myth" has even become a prop for Aborigines to cling to as they go through a crisis in cultural identity.

This corresponds to what social psychologists say: a needy culture enters a generational vicious circle, and corresponding "self-fulfilling prophecies" emerge in the collective subconscious of its members. When reporters in the media conduct their so-called in-depth reports, they rarely fail to notice scenes of Aboriginal people affirming drinking culture as being the same thing as Aboriginal culture. The lazy and faddish nature of reporters prevents them from seeing the power structure of this discourse and taking the next step of seeking out the causes of this phenomenon.

What is bizarre about this is that with the "best intentions" of not destroying Aboriginal drinking culture, the Monopoly Bureau has found a way out of the predicament of having to compete in a globalized market.

And so, Red Label Rice Wine is still being produced, and government and media continue to perform an absurdist comedy of Aboriginal exploitation.

Isak Afo (以撒克.阿復) is convener of the Aboriginal Labor Alliance (-鮐磳螫�3�?u聯盟) and is an Amis tribesman from the Mataian (馬?蚞b) Aboriginal community in Hualien County. This article is reprinted courtesy of the Austronesian News (南島時3�) and was translated by Martin Williams.

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