Lately, with all the hullabaloo around the Voice and the other silly and dangerous ideas endlessly thrown around by our elites, who seem to be suffering a prolonged attack of the vapours, I’ve been feeling some sympathy for Aborigines. Not for the usual reasons, mind. This has little to do with disingenuous sentiments about country or colonialism or culture or whatever magic word presently moves the withered heart of the patricidal activist, nor even because they get endlessly shifted this way and that as symbols and totems to bend the public mood. Instead, I see in what happened to them the same process that is presently befalling us. They, like primitive peoples everywhere, were overmatched by material and ideational forces that broke apart how they lived, and whether they embraced this or had it imposed upon them is academic, really. Nobody who has had a taste of indoor plumbing or enjoyed living under a roof can easily return to hunting kangaroos barefoot, or drinking from rivers patrolled by saltwater crocodiles.
This essay appears in our Voice online-only edition.
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There’s a reason the ancestors of us cold-weather types built walls, and prepared frantically for winter; nature is only a friendly companion to the bushwalker who returns home to her modern conveniences. For most of prehistory, nature was our fallen vengeful sister, not our bountiful mother. Some never overcame her, while others flattered themselves that they had. As Daisy Bates put it long ago, “The Australian native can withstand all the reverses of nature, fiendish droughts and sweeping floods, horrors of thirst and enforced starvation—but he cannot withstand civilisation.”
It is not civilisation, per se, that serves as an accurate epigraph for what we now enjoy, in the postmodern West. Our state of affairs more closely resembles an anti-civilisational moment, one that wears the clothes of what came before it whilst utilising very different means to pursue oppositional ends, capped off by the absence of any clear thinking whatever. Whether the present shape modernity enjoys is the product of direct intention by careful architects, or the inevitable metastasising outgrowth of unchecked utopian optimism, can be debated fiercely. I will let the determinists and their opponents have that discussion somewhere else.
The sad trail of native groups cast beneath the long shadow of modernity, unable to accommodate themselves to civilisation, is a well-travelled, well-mapped path. It has become an article of faith to the right-thinking postmodern, who regards the fate of these peoples as damning evidence against what came before him, and helps justify his eternal adolescent rebellion against the civilisation that gave him everything. Nobody has improved on a response to these sentiments since the late John Hirst, in his essay “How Sorry Can We Be”, in Sense and Nonsense in Australian History (2005), though compared to today, the 2000s seem an era of intellectual consensus and civility. Hirst himself wrote for the Quarterly Essay in 2005; it is impossible to imagine a similarly-oriented commentator being invited to today. We’ve divided into battle lines, in part over whether our nation is worth anything, though this notion is not entirely novel. Looking back a little earlier, Hirst finds Rudyard Kipling, and allows him to make his point for him: “A man might just as well accuse his father of a taste in fornication (citing his own birth as an instance) as a white man mourn over his land’s savagery in the past.”
Part of the attempt to create a new Australian identity, to atone for the land’s prior real-or-imagined savagery—something those architects are so desperate to do—has been an attempt to salvage the indigenous experience and form it into something that can be used as a springboard for the notion of an Australia detached from European roots. Culturally, these attempts range from the controversial to the ludicrous, from Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu to the gallery displays lately put forth by the National Museum in Canberra.
The latter was best represented by the Endeavour Voyage exhibition put on a couple of years ago. The exhibition was full of artefacts from Captain Cook’s day on the one hand, and a bizarre attempt at cultural equivalence on the other, crowbarring invented Aboriginal history into a spot of parallel importance. Virtually everything on display had been fabricated in the last few years, or appeared in the form of “oral recollections” that are really just contemporary notions of First Contact, as the historically illiterate might dress them. Myth-making is I suppose the business of nation-states, if you believe the likes of Benedict Anderson, but this felt so artificial, so forced and jarring, that I could not help but view it as an own goal. Who could not, having seen the portraits and instruments taken from the Endeavour and, comparing them to the sticks presented as the native equivalent, walk away without being convinced that one is far superior to the other? It would seem that any effort to polish such a thing might be defeated by the essence of its opposite, and yet, at the end of the gallery, were the not-so-subtle notes left on a wall by visitors. “BLM”, “Reconciliation Now”, and so on, were stuck on paddle-pop sticks along a wall. Most concerning were the “I’M SORRY” notes scribbled in children’s handwriting, as though the complexities of the age of sail could be reduced to comic-book villain format, digestible for that generation. To deal such psychological wounds to children is reprehensible, though of course, to people for whom the ends are everything, they are but grist.
Encapsulating the whole affair was a bizarre newspaper clipping, set in 1970s London, where the city was being invaded by Aborigines mounted on goannas and flying saucers. Ahh, I thought, so revenge fantasies are what we are dealing with. So much for reconciliation: it was always about who wears the boot, and who presents the throat. Nobody’s ancestors were perfect, but few peoples have treated defeated foes with such dignity as the European race—to Christianise, civilise and uplift the savage peoples of the world—and nobody has reaped a more wretched harvest as a result. I’m in a Kipling mood: why not one of his best?
Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly!) towards the light:–
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”
But this is to suppose the time we live in is accustomed to nuance and literary finesse and measured thought, rather than one in which our galleries and museums have become depositories of a base and wretched ideology that hates anything with height on behalf of that which crawls on the ground. It is the spirit of the mob, of the sans-culottes, of those who would burn the mahogany library, who hate beauty and truth and anything that stretches skyward. What a hill to die on the West has chosen.
Forgive me: I can get worked up. There is much more to say on this nasty sort of cultural equivalence, and the odious purposes to which it is put, but this ought to suffice to demonstrate that the forces that move against us are fervent and true-believing, if ill-equipped in terms of their weapons, and also their governing ethos. Take comfort in their absurdity, even if it doesn’t render them any less dangerous, at least in the immediate term.
At the heart of this desire to undermine Australia’s historic identity, and replace it with what might be best described as simultaneously a premodern and postmodern version, is the thinking that all the structures of human life are, well, structures. That’s why they call tearing it down deconstruction, and it’s not limited to literature; progressive elites like to imagine themselves as builders or demolishers, depending on their mood, as though redesigning a society is little different from redesigning a bathroom in an investment property. It’s helped along by the navel-gazing that characterised twentieth-century philosophy, especially that coming out of Europe, where everything once considered concrete was reduced to mere phenomenological experience with no noumena of its own. Much of our trouble, from the Endeavour Voyage exhibit to the Voice, has its root in this category error, spurred on by a great deal of overreach when it comes to the limitations of human will here on Earth.
I hope it is not uncontroversial to claim that nations, or at least national sentiment separated from political formulations, do indeed enjoy a corporeal existence. This is because they are produced by what is natural, proximate, and renewed daily; in other words, they are the products of the habits of life that all of us enjoy, expressed through routine and language, things we share together, and a past that binds us. These are not planned inventions any more than the English language is a planned invention. Our language, like our national consciousness, came about through a long process; in our case, one imported from the motherland, though generating features of its own with time. People who claim that nationhood is a peculiarly modern phenomenon are stupid; who can read about Greece or Rome in ancient times without seeing it there? They generally mean the nation-state, which is a different beast, an attempt to join that natural sentiment to a definite political conception. I am not here concerned with the nation-state, though the forces that act to undermine the concept of the nation will certainly do the nation-state no favours in turn.
Outside of philosophy and literary criticism, it was the 1983 book The Invention of Tradition by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger that helped cement these ideas into the study of history. That both of these men had little love for the West ought to need no great elaboration. You too would be keen to prove nations are mere inventions, if you’re a thoroughgoing internationalist, because then you can uninvent them, and invent something else in turn. One notion the book popularised was that the adoption of tartan as a clan motif among highland Scots was, in fact, a recent invention: therefore, the entire concept of Scottish nationhood was, as the internet would say, debunked. It’s about as convincing as the tongue-in-cheek atheist who thinks he’s finally defeated all religious thinkers everywhere when he starts talking about the Flying Spaghetti Monster. See! I can invent things too!
A neurotic and not-too-bright progressive elite would cleave to these ideas, because they’re operating under the modernist conceit that everything ought to be subject to them, that nothing should exist without their consent. It’s why progressives get so upset when you explain a vision of the world that is oppositional to theirs. They don’t see any difference between the way the world is, and the way they wish it to be. They often view the two things as the same thing, because they are prescriptive thinkers. When you propound a vision of the world that you yourself might not entirely like—the tragic version of the world, as some call it—they respond by assuming you are pleased by that vision, and wish for it to come to pass, as though such a thing is within your power, rather than your merely aiming to report reality accurately.
But the natural and the proximate stick, and the unnatural and the distant don’t, unless you are shovelling coal into the oven of progress at a phenomenal and exhausting rate. Just as Esperanto didn’t quite take off, it’s difficult to imagine “g’day mate” going the journey, at least not just yet, though not all the signs are encouraging. Of the two versions of internationalist identity that dominated the twentieth century, one is almost dead: the communist one. Oh, it’s shifted clothes, and now talks about climate and refugees and so on in place of the global proletariat, but it’s the same people with the same agendas, merely couched in liberal language, out of respect for effectiveness. The other version is that of a mass global consumer culture, that would turn everyone into a brain-dead economic unit, if such a thing was possible. That the Adorno-driven Left was half-right about this stuff should bring you some comfort. It means they aren’t total idiots. If they were total idiots, then our almost complete cultural defeat at their hands would be even more embarrassing.
This latter form of internationalism, unfortunately, looks to be more successful than its twentieth-century ancestor. Globohomo, the online Right calls it. It represents the closest thing we have to a global culture, one united by commercial consumer products, which is why you’ll sometimes see a rebel fighter in the Congo wearing a shirt with Steve Irwin’s face on it. Where local, national culture is not robust—where it has been annihilated by the forces we’ll get to in a minute—then the internationalist versions arrive to fill the gap, like vultures to a corpse. No healthy country, nor healthy person, goes communist.
And all this smug talk of how culture and nationhood are invented, or do not exist at all, is completely forgotten the minute we’re talking about indigenous culture, which was so obviously invented right in front of our eyes. If you Google “inventing indigenous culture”, you’ll receive a list of Aboriginal inventions and inventors. If you do the same for “inventing Australian culture”, you’ll receive a catalogue of all the tropes I’ve touched on above. Sometimes you are lucky enough to see the capturing of a particular zeitgeist in a single artefact. In my case, it was in a suit of indigenous body armour on display as part of the Endeavour Voyage exhibition. The cuirass, which looked quite peculiar, was noted to have been constructed with synthetic materials by an artist in the last couple of years, and the plaque beneath indicated it was an “imagining” of how such a thing might have looked. Why was it in a museum at all? Synthetic inventions, indeed.
One of the best books I read about Aborigines was the aptly named Aborigines of the Canberra Region, published in 1984. It’s impossible to get now; a copy goes for upwards of a few hundred dollars. It was a straightforward historical take on how the tribal peoples of the area survived, and much of it was fascinating. One could admire their sort of tenacity, as Daisy Bates noted, especially in our age of air-conditioning. Everything to admire about this culture, in unsentimental terms, was present in this book. There was no need to turn it into something it wasn’t, but alas, the genuine article was discarded in favour of that synthetic armour on display at the Endeavour Voyage expedition.
Such an obvious and frankly insulting bait-and-switch should have been immediately evident to everyone. But a great deal of sympathy exists for Aborigines, and you’d have to be heartless not to share some of it. This has allowed us to allow them a built culture, invented in part by academics and the art world, because otherwise all they’re left with is that of underclass Australia. I’ve read my Dalrymple. If you’ve spent some time up north, you know how bad it can get. Whether we blame those indigenous communities, ourselves, or lay it somewhere in the middle, only an absolutely cold-blooded individual could feel nothing, especially for the children who suffer at the hands of their own people.
The juxtaposition of feelings on the matter was illustrated by a recent article in the ABC that talked about how the Northern Territory community of Wadeye burned itself to the ground in 2022. Five per cent of the adult population are in prison; 125 houses had been torched, according to the Northern Territory government. The article ended on an optimistic note, that “culture” was being restored, that this sort of violence was in the past. I am not convinced. What sort of a society watches this sort of thing happen within its sovereign territory, and then responds with rosy sentiments? A gutless and morally exhausted one, certainly. We do no favours to our fellow sons of Adam by excusing their sins, any more than we do in excusing our own; we treat them as something less than full human beings. A culture invented by latter-day Rousseaus in urban centres and exported back to these remote places has made them only more volatile, as there is nothing one likes more, regardless of the melanin content of one’s skin, than to know nothing is really one’s fault.
These progressive re-imaginers would like you to suppose that your own historic culture is entirely invented, and thus has no value, but indigenous culture is the longest-running example of the thing on Earth, entirely genuine, rooted in the red sands of the outback. The truth is almost exactly the opposite. For those of us who just want to rub along, it’s all fun and games until that synthetic culture decides it wants a hand in running the show, or you have to make ridiculously florid statements before boring meetings, or observe how it warps into a pseudo-religion for an ostensibly irreligious age. Then you might think things have gone a little far, and you’d be right. It’s what a couple of decades of deciding we don’t need to think deeply, that the culture war is merely a distraction from economics, or that it doesn’t need fighting in the wake of Cold War victory—that all the big questions have been settled—has done for conservatives.
What wiped out those indigenous cultures—the real versions, not the latter-day synthetic re-imaginings, that are kept alive through constant ideational effort and financial expenditure—was the imposition of modes of life that utterly annihilated the local, the routine, the proximate. In places, this was done deliberately; in others, it was an outgrowth of the collision of worlds that could never coexist for long. A favourite novel of mine is Black Robe by Brian Moore, where towards the end, the Algonquin tribesmen who lead the titular character to the Huron mission make comment on what has happened to their people: “But we accepted their gifts! We have come to need them. This is our undoing—and it will be our ending.”
We have accepted certain gifts, too, without thinking a great deal about them. These gifts were not the products of an external culture far more sophisticated than our own, one that could produce muskets, beads or fire water. Rather, these gifts were the products of our own culture, come unmoored from its base premises, and drawn like a chariot behind those twin engines of modernity: globalisation and technological advancement. These gifts, regarded irresponsibly by those who ought to have known better, were the promise of vast amounts of power to those who would redesign and reorganise society, and a great many tools to self-actualise for ordinary individuals, who no longer need nor want to discover who they are in the traditions and customs of a people. Young people especially are badly lost in the mirror-maze that is the twenty-first century’s epistemological equivalent of the printing press, finding and redefining themselves wherever they please online. A less healthy thing is difficult to imagine, and all our talk of “mental health” and social media has less to do with deficient dopamine receptors and more to do with the fact that the phenomenological worlds inhabited by many are artificial, remote, far-removed constructions that flicker across screens. This postmodern Western person, whose entire externalisation is very often a carefully crafted and individualised act of rebellion against the natural and the proximate, is a pitiable formulation. It brings to mind the drunken tribesman outside the mission, who in an earlier time would have been a respected hunter or warrior amongst his tribe.
Again, what we call nations are extensions of the familiar and the daily stretched over geographic, chronological and cultural lines, nestled in things rooted in common experience, things that act on the empirical senses as much as the rational mind. This holds today, even in the face of increasing refraction as we fill our countries with strangers, coupled with the rabid individualism allowed us by technology that cleaves us away from communal activities, or even communal feeling at all. There is something joyful about running into a broad Australian accent overseas; for most of us travelling, our nationality is the second thing we’ll denote ourselves by, after our name. Most of all, the nation is made possible by shared language, but if you listen carefully to many of our teenagers, they now sport strangely American-sounding accents, and not the pleasing Mid-Atlantic type. Perhaps “g’day mate” is less resilient than we thought.
Waxing sentimental and nostalgic about those blue remembered hills is a preoccupation the Left is quick to accuse the Right of having, even as they are far more egregious offenders, especially when it comes to the Dreamtime. Nonetheless, while we might mourn the loss of certain warm and comforting things—the larrikinism that seems dead in today’s Australia, and those memories of our youth that constitute the land of lost content—there are more tangible casualties that have accumulated along the way.
The fruits of this relentless deconstruction are everywhere to see, in collapsing families, in substance abuse, in the mass-adoption of the language of psychotherapy, and in the endless wandering into what amounts to modern reservations. Transient places like Canberra, where everybody is just passing through, are canaries in the coalmine for what a wholly unrooted polis would be. A forthright individual conception of oneself might be manageable for some, those who like Cicero see a garden and a library as being everything, but what is good for the goose does not appear to be good for the gander. Instead, we are confronted by scatty and ludicrous malformed people, who have no wholesome collective identity to which they can anchor themselves. Rather, they cleave to consumer choices on the one hand, or bland and meaningless pseudo-moral prognostications on the other, usually spelled out on Twitter biographies in terms of what they support. They are busily engaged in creating their own loved Egyptian night. It is all so very exhausting; this, above all else, is what depresses me about the postmodern world we’ve stumbled into.
It seems we must concede that to a point the likes of Hobsbawm and Ranger were right, that you can uninvent a national culture, even if they had less of a hand in it than they might have liked; and the irony is that the internationalist vultures that have arrived to feast are less communist and more neoliberal in character. The end result is much the same for us, who are suffering the fate of latter-day Aborigines, watching as our modes of life wither away beneath the onslaught of new ways of being, made possible by trinkets and baubles and the rush of restless feet.
The worst part of modernity is feeling robbed of a home, of the particular, of a place where yesterday was much like tomorrow will be, with special and unique features. Others have their homes, but this is yours, and what we are letting happen to ourselves is precisely the crime many condemn our ancestors for committing. The man without a home, or with a home swept out from under him, is a lost and contemptible thing. He lives beneath a conquerors’ yoke or chases the ashes all his days.
Christopher Joliffe contributed the article “Why I Will Not Acknowledge Country” in the March issue.