INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
The folly of Australia's public intellectuals
, February 28, 2015
In 2004 Germaine Greer, formerly professor in the department of English literature and comparative studies at the University of Warwick, published a work titled, Whitefella Jump Up!
This said Australia should adopt Aboriginal language, customs and religions and revert to a hunter-gatherer society, although it would be hard on the kangaroos, lizards, dugongs and the last rare small mammals to be chased for food by 23 million people, however inept at tracking, spear-throwing and desert-survival these might be.
A leading academic theologian, Dr Peter Adams, principal of Ridley College, the main Anglican theological college in Victoria, demanded that “all non-Aboriginal Australians [that is, 97.5 per cent of the population] should be prepared to leave the country if the indigenous people want that”, and that such artefacts of civilisation as houses, churches, colleges, parks, courts, hospitals and roads were no more than stolen property.
Another Australian academic, Robert Manne, an associate professor of political science — voted the country’s most influential public intellectual in a newspaper poll — said of the allegedly “enchanted world” of pre-European Australian Aborigines: “Anthropologists discovered not an Edenic but an enchanted world, in the technical sense of the sociologist Max Weber. They discovered an intricate social order in which, through the kinship structure, every human being had a precise and acknowledged place.”
A society in which “every human being had a precise and acknowledged place” was one of the things Hitler attempted to achieve. It sounds an excellent recipe for stagnation and universal unfreedom, like the insectoid Selenites of H.G. Wells’s The First Men on the Moon; the alphas, betas, gammas and epsilons of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; or the inner party, outer party and proles of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We know Aboriginal society — sometimes called a “gerontocracy tempered by anarchy” — was frequently homicidal and accorded no rights to women and children, while adolescent males who in tribal life failed a series of progressively harder initiation-tests were regarded as non-people and dealt with accordingly.
I have already mentioned that the possibility of upward and downward social mobility appears necessary for progress.
Mr Manne continued his description of “a world that was filled with economic purpose, leavened with playfulness, joy and humour, soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual, pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning”.
Is this academic and noted “public intellectual” actually saying that a way of life “soaked in sorcery” was desirable? What can one do but throw back against this, across 25 centuries, the words of Xenophanes:
The gods did not reveal,
from the beginning,
All things to us,
but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn
and know things better.
Prominent in Manne’s lengthy list of hatreds is the idea or argument that Western life is “better” than Aboriginal life, and the notion that the best realistic solution to the problems of Aboriginal life is that they be assimilated. He categorically denounces the policy of assimilation as a failure, associated with the despised (by him) Liberal politician Sir Paul Hasluck.
In Manne’s writings, no figures are given of the number of Aborigines and part-Aborigines who have successfully completed a Western education and secured employment. These people, once they are successful, tend to become uninteresting and “drop off the radar”.
While Manne offers little or nothing in the way of positive prescriptions, he appears, as the quotation above indicates, to laud the tribal lifestyle, and denies Hobbes’s description of life in the “state of Nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. This, be it remembered, is the writing of a tenured academic in a department of politics, holder of one of the cushiest jobs in the Western world.
The idyllic nature of Aboriginal existence is questioned by obvious mathematics, apart from the fact that practically all Aborigines reject many or all aspects of tribal life for Western technology when a choice is offered them.
Aborigines inhabited the continent of Australia for 40,000 years or more. They had only the most primitive methods of birth-control and practically no natural enemies. They were at the undisputed top of the food-chain, and were not at risk from predators like African lions, leopards, hippos and hyenas. They developed great hunting and gathering skills.
Yet by the time of European settlement they numbered less — probably much less — than a million: estimates vary from about 100,000 to about 750,000. The precise figure does not matter to make the point. This population could only have been so limited by an enormously high death-rate.
While we do not know the exact number of Aborigines in Australia at the time of white settlement, we can guess that the population was small, not only because a hunter-gatherer life imposes a very low limit on the number of people the land will support, but also because few bones or other Aboriginal remains were found once settlement got under way and large areas around Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere — the most fertile and well-watered parts of the continent — began to be cleared.
Professor Geoffrey Partington has written on various fallacies used to explain Aboriginal school-children’s academic backwardness: “A typical euphemism is that the curricula of schools that Aboriginal children attend are irrelevant to their true needs and that the teaching methods are alien to their Aboriginal identities. Here are the words of two supposed experts.”
Michael Christie claimed: “All Western notions of quantity — of more or less, or numbers, mathematics and positivistic thinking — are not only quite irrelevant to the Aboriginal world, but contrary to it…. A world view in which land, spirit beings, people and trees are all somehow unified does not lend itself to scientific analysis.”
Stephen Harris held that Western science must remain alien to Aborigines as long as they were educated in traditional methods, because it is “directed at controlling nature”, whereas “in contrast Aborigines try mostly to leave the environment alone, and fit in with what is happening in nature”.
He warned that “aspects of Western education such as what we call ‘critical thinking’ perhaps should not be taught as a universally good way to think”, since this might result in “unwittingly widening any generation gap and undermining Aboriginal ways of thinking and problem-solving”.
Harris asserted: “Aborigines do not encourage young people to ask why things happen — they are expected to believe the religious history of how they happened…. If Aboriginal people learn a lot about industrial scientific questioning and start asking for proof for things believed inside their culture, then Aboriginal world view is undermined.”
One Aboriginal teacher with whom another specialist in indigenous education, R.G. Smith, worked, refused to use a computer because it was “Balanda stuff” (Balander being a corruption of “Hollander”), and another woman colleague scorned a “rather sophisticated new telescope” acquired by the school, because “she wanted to teach her children Aboriginal science, not Balanda astronomy”.
R.G. Smith lamented that mainstream education “in its formalising and timetabling of educational processes, its preoccupation with literacy and largely mainstream concepts and skills, repudiates much of the current Aboriginal world”. Out with literary, numeracy and science that do not feature much in “the current Aboriginal world”!
Very few indigenous people will ever become physicians, airline pilots, plumbers, electricians and mechanics without an early introduction to modern knowledge.
The brutal treatment of women in Aboriginal tribal life horrified even the hard and savagely-disciplined convicts and marines of the first settlement at Sydney. One young marine officer (later General), Watkin Tench, wrote: “[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.”
Tench also ridiculed the Rousseauean concept of the Noble Savage, remarking: “I wished that those European philosophers, whose closet speculations exalt a state of nature above a state of civilisation, could survey this phantom, which their heated imaginations have raised. Possibly they might then learn, that a state of nature is, of all others, less adapted to promote [human happiness].”
This is despite the fact that there can also be a strong element of humour and self-awareness in Aboriginal culture. The violence and apparent callousness of tribal life was, before being apparently exacerbated by government policies, forced on them by their non-technological existence.
Policies of integrating Aborigines into the general community or equipping them to survive in the modern world have been damned as being, among other things, “assimilationism”, like some kind of totalitarian ideology.
Conservative columnist Andrew Bolt remarked of Manne’s enthusiasm: “How could our top intellectual so praise a society in which the strong ruled the weak, infanticide was common, death-rates by warfare horrific, life expectancy low and bashing of women — as measured by the fractured skulls since found — astonishingly high?”
Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer. This article is an extract from his book, Fragile Flame: The Uniqueness and Vulnerability of Scientific and Technological Civilization (2013), which includes endnotes and references, and is available from News Weekly Books.