But know, that I alone am king of me.
I am as free as nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
From the Roman historian Tacitus’ praise of the barbarians in the first century AD to Rousseau’s Treatise in the eighteenth, the idea of a pure and morally unsullied savage, existing in a state of nature, free from the decadent moral baseness of civilisation, has saturated the western intellect for millennia. Despite our academic pretensions to cold objectivity, we moderns are no less prone to such romantic forgeries; we continue to lament the comfort and success of our civilisation to this day, and have slipped into worshipping the ‘Noble Savages’ of our own continent – the Australian Aboriginals.
The Australian Aboriginal population’s remarkable achievement of surviving on this hostile continent for tens of thousands of years is what Geoffrey Blainey called the ‘Triumph of the Nomads’, and is rightly studied and applauded. Yet, today, a confected, Arcadian image of Aboriginal culture has come to dominate the academies of the nation. This image is the driving force behind millions of dollars in funding for indigenous studies centres, research, courses, colleges and more, and has given rise to a new pseudo-aboriginal culture that carries with it all the pomp and circumstance of a fledgling nation; its own ceremonies, its own cultural values and its own political goals. Yet it is a caricature as false as J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Contrary to modern orthodoxy, this phenomena has not arisen organically out of any coherent continent-wide aboriginal culture (no such culture ever existing, Aboriginal peoples being as diverse as those on any other continent), but is being manufactured to fit the mould of the political pretences of the academies. Through cobbling together the loose strands of their political prejudices, anthropological analyses and illuminated imaginations, academia is busily seeking to build a nation and a culture, within, yet opposed, to our united Australian one.
But just what is this new culture? A common set of bullet-points (those noble objects of academic convenience) which describe the academic consensus is typified by the University of Wollongong’s recent “You Can’t Say That!” speech guide. The guide seeks to “influence change and introduce appropriately consulted language into the space of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander discourse,” and claims that the following ‘set of cultural values’ are held in ‘common among aboriginal peoples’:
- ‘Relationships’ over ‘objects and material possessions.’
- A conception of family that ‘extends beyond the nuclear family’ to ‘the mob’.
- The ‘relatedness’ of ‘everyone and everything’.
- ‘Collectivism’, with ‘group well-being prioritised over the individual’.
- ‘Reciprocity’, or ‘the practice of exchanging things for mutual benefit’.
- Land sacredness and a spiritual ‘sense of belonging’.
- Acceptance; everyone is ‘accepted for their contribution, their strengths and their weaknesses’
- ‘Equality. Every person has a right to be equal’
- And ‘Respect’ for ‘positions’ and ‘responsibilities within kinship groups and communities.’
The observant reader will note how remarkable a coincidence it is that this ‘common culture’ of all ‘aboriginal peoples’ so directly reflects the post-modern, neo-Marxist intellectual background of so much of modern academe. The abolition of the bourgeois family, the collectivised society, spiritual solidarity and acceptance for all, the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’, and, above all, equality; these qualities are the common parlance of the utopian thought of the academy.
Of course, such sentiments are by no means new; Aboriginal Australians have long served as the convenient vessel for such political dreams. Friedrich Engels himself, conducting some armchair anthropology in his Origins of 1884, wrote of the sexually liberated and thoroughly non-bourgeois ‘simple moral grandeur’ of the Australian aboriginals, and ended his observations by quoting Lewis Henry Morgan’s belief that society will eventually achieve a ‘higher plain’ as a ‘revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentiles [aboriginals]’.
This society of liberty, equality and fraternity is, of course, a fabrication. As Watkin Tench, Marine Officer of the First Fleet, observed in 1788, “[the Aboriginal culture around Sydney Cove] is strictly a system of Equality, attended with only one inconvenience — the strong triumph over the weak… the women are in all respects treated with savage barbarity… they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks, and every other mark of brutality. When an Indian is provoked by a woman, he either spears her, or knocks her down on the spot: on this occasion he always strikes on the head, using indiscriminately a hatchet, a club, or any other weapon, which may chance to be in his hand. The heads of the women are always consequently seen In the state which I found that of Gooreedeeana”.
The limits of historical Aboriginal ‘acceptance’ and ‘equality’ are well recorded; though custom varied greatly across the continent, the practice of regular warfare, raiding, porous borders, brutality and the abandonment of the unwanted, elderly and infirm are well recorded as the oftimes necessary prerogative of a nevertheless highly successful hunter-gatherer society.
Historical facts like these, though, have not prevented the utopian dream of an Ancient Australian Aboriginal Arcadia from washing soothingly over the guilt-furnished imaginations of the academies. This is because the aim of the confection is not to reflect past truths, but to dream for the future. The object of this is twofold; to propose a state of nature as a positive alternative culture to ours, free from the oppressive host of cis-white-patriachal-heternormative-bourgeois morals, and to denigrate and discredit that bourgeois Australian society, which has for so long obstinately united the continent under a lawful, peaceful and prosperous culture.
The most recent example of this can be observed, in turn, at Melbourne University, where, as part of the 2019 Garma Festival, Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell announced the foundation of a $6 million global indigenous knowledge institute, describing it as “a gathering place for Aboriginal knowledge in all its forms… [to] respect, celebrate and become a magnet for knowledge of other Indigenous First Nations people from around the world.”
The thought behind the institution is clear; uniting the completely disparate cultures of the Inuit, the Sioux and the Sami with the Australian Aboriginal has only one utility; their mutual use in our western intellectual self-flagellation. Other than this, the Eskimo and the Australian Aboriginal share nothing except their arbitrary native status. The act of uniting them in a single ‘knowledge institute’ is akin to combining a study of Swedes with a dissertation on the Djiboutians, and demonstrates the explicitly political nature of such rapidly multiplying institutions, including their proposed ‘Bush University‘ in Arnhem Land.
The academies are now entirely awash with such initiatives. Due to the length of their isolation and relative freedom from the ‘corrupting’ influence of our technology, the Australian Aboriginals continue to be used to demonstrate the wickedness of our society and the arcadian peace extant in a state of nature.
Those pious academics who so utilise them today would do well to observe Watkin Tench’s wish, back in 1788, that “those European philosophers, whose closet speculations exalt a state of nature above a state of civilisation, could survey the phantom, which their heated imaginations have raised: possibly they might then learn, that a state of nature is, of all others, least adapted to promote the happiness of a being, capable of sublime research, and unending ratiocination… and that the more men unite their talents, the more closely the bands of society are drawn; and civilisation advanced, inasmuch is human felicity augmented, and man fitted for his unalienable station in the universe.”
Yet they will not, of course. Advancing our civilisation is not their aim, but rather, to use the words of Leon Trotsky, “to take possession, politically, of the most important elements of the old culture… so as to be able to pave the way for the new culture.”
Illustration: John Glover, Natives on the Ouse River, Wikimedia Commons.
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