It strikes me as odd that prominent left-wing academic, anthropologist Dr Peter Sutton’s critique of the ABC’s documentary The Dark Emu Story should appear in The Australian, rather than say, his more logical milieu, The Age and SMH. After all, The Australian is owned by News Corp, the same company that shelters “right-wing shock jocks” such as Andrew Bolt, who, naturally, gets a serve in the article.
Might I theorise that Sutton wanted to use his article to, primarily, bag Their ABC. He knew that, at The Australian, he’d get free rein to exercise his right to free speech, but probably not so much at The Age. His other target is Dr Marcia Langton, that darling of the Left and current outspoken champion of the Voice. She too could expect a degree of protection from Fairfax. And Sutton does, indeed, get a lot of support in the comments thread. Ironic, when you think about it, that he should find succour among the Murdoch-informed philistines whose company, one gathers from his drive-by slagging of Bolt, he would normally shun.
Sutton claims he was sand-bagged and I’ve no doubt he was. In my earlier article on this topic I expressed a degree of sympathy the aggrieved anthropologist. I noted that Pascoe had actually, and inadvertently, endorsed Sutton’s notion of “spiritual propagation” and, in doing so, put egg all over Langton’s face, as she has dismissed it as the “ooga booga school of anthropology”. And, I notice that Langton has accused him of ‘lacking collegiality’. That’s the same crime of which Peter Ridd was accused. Sutton had better watch his back.
But getting back to the ABC and the documentary’s producers, Blackfella Films, what really got Sutton’s goat was being linked with “racists” such as Bolt:
Worst of all the film depicts us as racists by association with right-wing shock jocks. … One of the many film moments shot – but not included in the end result – was my firm disassociation from Andrew Bolt. I am against his personal attacks, including those on Pascoe. … In a low insult, the film links Walshe and myself to right wing shock jocks and racists. We are in fact both lifetime anti-racists, a fact hidden from viewers.
I think he’s drawing rather a long bow here. The fact that Andrew Bolt features in the film – primarily calling out Pascoe’s fake aboriginality – does not, of itself, imply or suggest an association with Sutton. He condemns the film as unbalanced but, as I see it, would prefer other critics of Dark Emu to remain silent, including myself and Roger Karge from Dark Emu Exposed, so that no ‘opprobrium by association’ should attach to him. Can leftist publications only be criticized by like-minded critics? Does being conservative our observations less valid? And just by the way, does anyone imagine that, in the highly unlikely event a article of mine or excerpt from my Bitter Harvest were to be accepted and published in The Age, I could get away with describing an employee of Fairfax as, say, a Marxist nut-job?
From an anthropological point of view, Sutton’s and Walshe’s book, Farmers or Hunter Gatherers – the Dark Emu Debate, is a good and comprehensive critique. But it ignores at least half of the content of Dark Emu – that half which I cover in my book Bitter Harvest. In his book Sutton takes me to task for failing to consult any mainstream anthropologists or archaeologists while instead concentrating on those sources that Pascoe cites. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that I am not an anthropologist, and I was not seeking to prove that Aborigines were hunter/gatherers. All I set out to do was to prove that Pascoe had failed to establish that they were not. This, in all modesty, I believe I did in spades by checking all his sources. I didn’t need to check any others.
Sutton dismisses my book, Bitter Harvest, as a ‘pugnacious polemical assessment’, which, indeed it is. Dark Emu itself is a polemic, as Sutton concedes:
The answer for Langton’s excessive display in this film may lie in the fact that Pascoe’s book is, among other things, an anti-racist tract. For many, the political morality story is what counts, even if normal standards of evidence have been disrespected and abandoned during its composition. Walshe and I apparently made the mistake of questioning an antiracist tract that was marred by factual errors.
Merriam-Webster defines a tract as ‘a pamphlet or leaflet of political or religious propaganda’. Does Sutton believe that propaganda is always truthful? Does he believe every claim of racism levelled at settlers? Does Sutton think the only truth which should prevail is that which lies within his area of expertise, and that outside that realm anything is fair game as long as it furthers the racism narrative? Does he think that, if only the anthropological story could be cleaned up, Dark Emu would be a valuable addition to our body of learning?
Even we nominated racists of the “far right” can concede that racism existed (as it does today in all societies – white, black and brown) and atrocities occurred, but should we just accept claims when we know they are demonstrably false. Dark Emu abounds with them. Here is another example – admittedly a minor one – concerning Edwardian author and sometime explorer Ernest Favenc:
Ernest Favenc, an explorer who took violent exception to the existence of the Aboriginal people, wrote a novel in which they were not the ‘real’ occupiers of the soil prior to European arrival, but were preceded by a superior ancient civilisation. In The Secret of the Australian Desert, this lost race is destroyed by a volcano, leaving the possession of the Australian continent to the Europeans. So, in one sweep, Aboriginal ownership is obliterated, any suspicious looking structures are explained, and the continent falls bloodlessly into European ownership. This was his dream.
So, let’s have a look at the novel (the full text linked in the quote above). I imagine that not many of Pascoe’s readers would have bothered to read it, but I have. To begin with, Pascoe’s accusation that Favenc took ‘violent exception to the existence of the Aboriginal people’ is not supported by any evidence whatsoever that I can find. One wonders what form this ‘violent exception’ took. Is Pascoe accusing the author of endorsing mass murder? I suspect not. He’s simply looking to create an emotional backdrop to the complete mischaracterisation of Favenc’s novel.
The synopsis that Pascoe provides does not indicate the time in which the action occurs, but it gives the impression that when the ancient civilisation is wiped out, the land is unoccupied, leaving terra nullius for the Europeans to walk in and take over. The synopsis is contradictory because Pascoe suggests that the ancient civilisation preceded the Aborigines, which makes his whole thesis nonsensical. Either the Aborigines were here when the Europeans arrived, or they were not.
The Secret of the Australian Desert is an adventure story inspired by the mystery of Ludwig Leichhardt and his party’s disappearance. In the preface, Favenc writes:
Although the interior of the continent of Australia is singularly deficient in the more picturesque elements of romance, it was, for nearly two thirds of a century, a most attractive lure to men of adventurous character.
Oxley, Sturt, Mitchell, Kennedy and Stuart have left deathless names in the rolls of Australian explorers but the unknown fate of Ludwig Leichhardt has always centred most of the romance of the story about his memory.
He goes on to speculate about Leichhardt’s route and then resumes:
Another riddle I have introduced points to the possible early occupation of Australia by an ancient and partly civilised race. In 1838, Lieutenant, now Sir George, Grey, when on an expedition in north-west Australia, discovered some remark-able paintings in a cave on the Glenelg River, evidently not the work of the present inhabitants … Although the dress and accessories plainly prove that these paintings were not the work of the Australian Aborigines, the locality, strange to say, has not been again investigated. I have taken the liberty of transplanting the cave paintings from the north-west coast to the interior, and also changing the names of some of the members of Leichhardt’s party.
The idea that paintings markedly different from the normal artistic style of Aborigines might have some other source was not unreasonable for the time and certainly was not racially based. It simply arose from the fact that across the entire Australian continent no other Aborigines painted like that.
Briefly, the plot of The Secret of the Australian Desert concerns the adventures of three white pastoralists and an Aboriginal worker, Billy, who set off from a station in the north of South Australia in search of a ‘burning mountain’ of local Aboriginal legend. Eventually, they come across a hostile tribe of cannibalistic natives called the Warlattas, who terrorise the local tribes and who have captured one of the survivors of Leichhardt’s party, presumed to be one Murphy. These natives attempt to capture our heroes but are thwarted when the cave in which they conduct their rituals collapses during an earthquake and many of the Warlattas perish. Our heroes recover the journal of one of Leichhardt’s party, Stuart, which tells that he and Murphy had been living with a friendly tribe to the west until Murphy was captured by the Warlattas. They travel to the encampment of this tribe, in search of Stuart or his remains, and explore a cave where they discover some metal artefacts that point to occupation, some time in the past, by a group of non-Aborigines, possibly of Malay origin. Despite further brushes with the Warlattas, happily they survive.
There is no suggestion, anywhere in the story, that Favenc (right) envisaged that a superior race once dominated the continent and that this, somehow, invalidated any Aboriginal right to be here. The lost race in this case was hardly ‘superior’, in that it conducted human sacrifice and, presumably, was also cannibalistic. The treatment of the ‘lost race’ in The Secret of the Australian Desert – the discovery of paintings and artefacts – occupies just 15 pages of a 223-page novel. This is just a ripping yarn, in the tradition of its time. The specious nonsense spouted here by Pascoe bears as much relationship to scholarship as chalk does to cheese.
As I conceded earlier, this accusation of racism doesn’t rank high in the panoply of atrocities of which Australian society stands accused. I included it because it’s typical of many such claims – obscure, difficult to refute, and easy to accept – that abound in Dark Emu. Here a couple more examples.
Pascoe claimed that:
When Thomas Mitchell reported to Governor Bourke that his party had killed seven hostile Aborigines ‘Bourke ordered that the reference be deleted from the Gazette’.
That is true. What Pascoe fails to mention is that Bourke ordered an enquiry, the findings of which were critical of Mitchell and were published in the Gazette.
He claims that settler Hugh Murray, at Colac,
stole a net of [galaxis] in his first hours in the country. He described its delicious flesh, but in the following years he celebrated his fortune by rallying his neighbours to rid the earth of the original owners of the river system in which it bred.
Pascoe provides no evidence to support this claim. I have read what little exists of Murray’s writings and they suggest a peaceable man, who says ‘After about two years our acquaintance became more friendly and they began to be employed on our stations’.
Pascoe claims that, in recent years, a squad of WA Police used their pistols to brass-up a sacred site in the Kimberly, in order to ‘thwart the authority of uppity blacks’. Ever the liar, Pascoe provides only hearsay evidence from a secondary source for this clearly fabricated story.
Taken together, and there are many more of them, they paint an entirely bogus picture of the views of white Australia, then and now.
Dark Emu is certainly a tract. It is not an anti-racist tract. It is an anti-white tract. The intent of Dark Emu is less about making Aborigines, and Australians in general, proud of indigenous achievements than it is about establishing a basis for some form of Aboriginal sovereignty and, in the process, softening up Australians to go along with this absurd proposition by steeping the nation and its history in shame.
When I wrote Bitter Harvest in 2019, I naively thought that would be the stake and garlic to see off Dark Emu – and good riddance. Not a bit of it. If you can believe Pascoe’ cheer squad, sales have more than doubled since then. In my view, most conservative critics of Dark Emu have missed the main game. In fighting this war on the anthropological front, they have bought the dummy (excuse the mixed metaphor).
The Pascoe fans, particularly the ABC with The Dark Emu Story, have turned the technical demolition of his fabrications into nothing more than an academic squabble between two schools of anthropological thought. I’m guessing that most Dark Emu readers won’t care much either way about that. What they will lap up are stories of colonial and white atrocities and racism, which will allow them to wallow in that virtuous and delicious feeling of white guilt – vicariously, of course.
That’s why Bitter Harvest, of which I’m sure there are a few copies left, was pugnaciously polemical. Unfortunately, the job’s not over yet.