Flat White

The Oldest Culture: Epilogue

29 July 2021

4:00 AM

29 July 2021

4:00 AM

The final in a series of articles examining Dark Emu-style claims.

This is the last of a series of articles extracted from my book Bitter Harvest covering fatuous claims about Aboriginal achievement that we hear so much of these days. They covered Astronomy, Mathematics, Science and Engineering.

Much of what I have described in those articles comes from a website titled @IndigenousX. Its home page tells us: 

Like all good things, @IndigenousX was born out of a great idea. Back in early 2012, the national dialogue was characterised by a consistent lack of awareness, understanding and respect for Indigenous people.

Our vision is to create a media landscape where Indigenous people can share their knowledge, opinions and experiences with a wide audience across the world.

It is apparently the brainchild of Luke Pearson who is its founder and CEO. @IndigenousX is supported by The Guardian Australia and is an overtly activist, one might say abusive, forum. Its CEO is a prolific contributor, with articles such as ‘Your National Anthem Sucks, Get Over It’, ‘The White Genocide Theory and Australian Politics’ and ‘Wake Me When Reconciliation Week is Over’. These extracts from the latter will give you a sense of the general tenor of the website: 

Reconciliation isn’t really a word in my vocabulary for most of the year. I’m not out there asking people to reconcile, or trying to be reconciled with anyone, yet every Reconciliation Week many of us are asked to go above and beyond the norm to do extra work in the spirit of Reconciliation.

A quick look at Indigenous Twitter or Facebook this week will show you tales of workplaces expecting Indigenous staff to organise morning teas, bring in Elders or guest speakers (often unpaid), or share a personal story for the enlightenment/ entertainment of their peers.

White Australia is unquestionably the single largest impediment to Indigenous advancement, so in that sense reconciliation makes a compelling argument that if we’re all bestest buddies than [sic] white Australia might not revel quite so enthusiastically at our continued oppression. Judging how many white people are still racist but deny any responsibility for their views, words or actions because they have that one magical Indigenous friend whom they believe absolves them of the very possibility that they could possibly be racist. As since Reconciliation Week usually involves Indigenous people doing extra work, usually unpaid, to appease white people and give them an emotional experience that they can use to alleviate any sense of collective responsibility for improving society while still patting themselves on the back, maybe we can do without it.

‘White Australia might not revel quite so enthusiastically at our continued oppression? If the intent of @IndigenousX is to redress ‘a consistent lack of awareness, understanding and respect for Indigenous people’, Pearson has a very strange way of going about it. After reading that diatribe, my instinct is to not give a fig about understanding or respecting Aboriginal people. 

However much one may quibble with the semantics of Banks, Sambono, Ren and Matthews (whom we met in the earlier articles), these are essentially decent and well-intentioned people doing a useful job of work. It is not clear why they would choose to associate with an obnoxious demagogue like Pearson. 

The suggestion that because Aboriginal culture achieved certain accomplishments, then, because that culture is ‘the oldest in the world’, Aborigines were the first to demonstrate these accomplishments, is a nonsense. The basic premise is false to begin with. 

The idea that Aboriginal culture is the oldest in the world and must therefore be preserved is almost universal. But the first part of that sentiment would hold only if you regard culture as something static and unchanging. On that basis, the ‘oldest culture’ claim might be true. But it is hardly inherently virtuous or praiseworthy. It is no more than an anthropological curiosity.

The Western-based culture that we enjoy in Australia today did not spring from nothing at some arbitrary point in the past. It evolved through various stages from something very similar to what we now regard as Aboriginal culture. It is based upon, but different to, the culture that arrived here in 1788. And no one regrets that progress.

Similarly, the Aboriginal culture that existed in 1788 is no more. There are elements of that culture, such as the Dreaming, traditional music, art and dance etc, which have value and arguably should be retained for those who wish to live by it. But much of traditional culture has already gone and the remnants that are left should only be retained if they are compatible with modern lifestyles and mores. Traditional law is not one of these. Nor is traditional kinship, and the obligations it places on members to look after each other, which is often held up as an exemplar of the communal and caring nature of Aboriginal culture.  

These aspects of traditional culture, which can still be found in many Aboriginal communities in northern Australia, are a major impediment to lifting those communities from their dysfunctional existence. But weaning these communities away from these cultural imperatives – so necessary prior to the pre-colonial lifestyle – is not a trivial matter. For one thing, the continued existence of traditional culture is not a matter of simple intransigence on the part of the people.  It goes to their identity.  However, that is well beyond the remit of this essay.   

I once met an Aboriginal guide in the Purnululu National Park. He was from Hall’s Creek. Chatting to him one morning over breakfast I asked him if he was going home on his days off. His response: ‘When I’ve got money in my pocket I don’t go near that place.’ His view of kinship obligations was decidedly non-traditional. 

In short, the valuable aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture are as alive and well as Aboriginal people wish to keep them and there is no reason why that should not continue. There are no legal impediments in this respect. 

My heritage is largely Irish, from both sides of my family.  When I was younger, I used to love listening to the Irish folk songs of The Dubliners or The Clancy Brothers (still do on certain lubricated occasions), and I could belt out ‘The Rising of the Moon’ with the best of them. But that did not make me a ‘proud’ Irishmen, or even an unashamed one for that matter. My great-grandparents had the foresight or luck to come to Australia, and thereby spared me from becoming caught up in the hatreds and violence that so characterised Irish politics for so long. I can not possibly know what it is like to be Irish. 

However, the gulf between me and the lived experience of real Irishmen, is as a small creek compared to the chasm that exists between those traditional Aboriginal people, struggling to come to terms with modern life, and the urban, educated ‘proud’ Aborigines (most of whom were born into the Western culture) who are the ones driving the divisive narrative that passes for public debate in this country right now.    

Having said that, I freely concede that neither can I know what it is to be an urban Aboriginal and understand the various forms of discrimination that someone like Warren Mundine may have endured. All I can say is that it would behove activists like Lidia Thorpe to exhibit the same grace and, more importantly, the same realism that Mundine displays. It strikes me that the stridency of the claims of racism and discrimination we hear daily from Aboriginal activists has increased in direct proportion to the degree of recognition and acceptance of Indigenous people history and culture that we now, as a society, extend to them. 

Kirsten Banks and many others can ‘sing the songs’ but they do not live the culture that they extol, and therefore they cannot fully understand it, any more than I can. They are playing at being Aboriginal in anything other than a superficial sense. Not a great analogy, but the fact that I love Beethoven and Dvorak, does not make me a composer, or even particularly artistic. 

One of the newly emerged social crimes, according to the woke canon, is cultural appropriation. But it, apparently, like racism, only cuts one way because, in making these fanciful claims about Aboriginal Astronomy and so on, that is exactly what they are doing.  I don’t really care about that. What does concern me, and should concern serious Indigenous scholars, is that it seriously patronizes, indeed infantilizes, Indigenous people. And these claims would have absolutely no resonance with traditional Aboriginal people. 

Finally, may I thank those Spectator Australia readers who have done me the courtesy of commenting on this series of articles.  It is this kind of feedback that keeps us scribblers motivated. 

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