William J. Lines’ Romancing the Primitive: The Myth of the Ecological Aborigine (2023) is a worthy successor to Roger Sandall’s Culture Cult (2001). Both books account for the idealisation of pre-modern tribalism and the veneration of indigeneity in the West as a revolt by the civilised against civilisation. The harsher truths of tribal life – superstition, misogyny, brutality, hardship, inter-tribal violence and even cannibalism – are all edited out of the dreamy fantasy about the past promoted by who might be described as bohemian-socialists. The late Roger Sandall is no longer around to make sense of the downward spiral we entered some time ago. William J. Lines, thankfully, is more than up to the task to continue the narrative.
Sandall, as is the case with Lines, identified Rousseau (1712-78) as a key figure in a home-grown insurgency against Western civilisation. The provincial Rousseau felt the rejection of his social superiors deeply. As a consequence, he decided that sophisticated Parisians were false and perverse, while the mythical “Noble Savage” was natural and dignified. Ressentiment, added Sandall, also informed the views of German philosopher and critic Herder (1744-1803). Many speak of Herder’s passion for “cultures” as an indication of the man’s open-mindedness and affection for humanity but not Sandall, who adroitly draws the portrait of a small-town boy intimidated by the erudition of French philosophes. Herder’s contention that every last primitive clan had “its own irreplaceable contribution to make to the progress of the human race” was less a celebration of diversity than a tribal dagger aimed at the heart of civilisation.
Though Lines has things to say about Rousseau, he also looks back to Diogenes and Tacitus to explain the root cause of primitivism, the proposition that the people in primitive societies possess a morality and an ethics superior to any urban value system. The philosopher Diogenes (c. 412 BC-323BC), for instance, waged a one-man war against the conventions of Athens: “The original bohemian, was walking proof of primitivism…Making a virtue of poverty, he begged for a living and became notorious for his philosophical stunts, such as carrying a lamp during the day claiming to be looking for an honest man.” Diogenes inverted all the conventions of Athens – he scorned family, property and reputation, even “urinating on people who insulted him, defecating in the theatre, and masturbating in public”. Why? Because civilisation – that it is to say, the Athenian value system – was “regressive, foolish, pretentious, vain, and artificial” and, in every conceivable way, prevented people from living “a natural life, a life of equality, austerity, and ease”.
The historian Tacitus, admittedly a little more erudite than the incorrigible Diogenes, was also a primitivist of sorts, only the target of his rancour was not Athens but Rome. In Britani, for instance, Tacitus satirises the artificiality and corruption of Romans by praising the admirable qualities of the bold and brave tribesmen of Briton. Tacitus repeats the trick in Germania by contrasting the virtues of the Germanic clans with the moral degeneracy of Romans. Even more worthy than the Germanic villagers, apparently, were the Germanic nomads, “happier than those who groan over field labour” and “sweat over house building”. These untamed spirits were truly free: “They care for no one, man or god, and have gained the ultimate release: they have no needs, not even for prayer.” Tacitus, needless to say, never set foot in Briton or Germania: all his imaginings about the Britons and Germanic tribesmen were just that – imaginings. The purpose of his primitivist polemic was not to provide a genuine portrait of far-way peoples, but to score points against his political adversaries at home. In short, Tacitus sought to assume the mantel of moral superiority amongst his Roman contemporaries – something to bear in mind as we address the fantasies of three of the most influential Australian primitivists of our time: Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe and Peter Sutton. Bluntly put, the respective works of all three are not so much about Aboriginal Australians as the delusions of Gammage, Pascoe and Sutton themselves.
Lines demolishes Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aboriginals Made Australia (2012) in a chapter titled “The Biggest Misstate on Earth”. Gammage’s “absurd and ridiculous” proposition is précised as follows: “Through their use of fire, Aborigines made the Australian landscape – entirely – from Tasmania to Cape York, from Byron Bay to Shark Bay.” Lines, who has some pedigree as a conservationist, employs genuine scientific analysis to argue that the arrival of Aboriginals some 50,000 or so years ago did not herald an increase in fires on the continent and that climate has always had the greatest impact on fires in Australia. Moreover, fires have never been an unmitigated blessing in our sunburnt land given the lethal destruction of fauna that accompanies them, both before and after 1776. Although Gammage makes all kinds of claims for the benefits of repeated fires, such as “Gliders and possums like frequent fire”, the facts point in a different direction: “[W]estern ringtail possums are more abundant in forests that remain unburnt for 20 years.” In 2017, Aboriginal rangers and the Tasmanian Fire Service collaborated to burn out large parts of remote Cape Barren Island to help “regenerate our land”, land that had survived well enough for thousands of years without human intercession. The madness of such an enterprise no doubt eludes primitivists like Gammage who believe “burning demonstrated not only management and preservation of the bush but Aboriginal superiority.”
Paradoxically, perhaps, Lines shows more admiration for the out-and-out charlatan Bruce Pascoe – “actor, showman, and trickster” – than accredited academics such as Bill Gammage and Peter Sutton. The chapter on Pascoe is titled “The Hapless Hoaxer”. Uncle Bruce, declares Lines, is an out-and-out hoaxer for claiming that pre-contact Australia was not one of “hapless” hunter-gathers but “a sophisticated society, cultivating crops, building houses, laying out towns, and designing and constructing dams, aqueducts, and canals”. The truth of this narrative was “successfully suppressed” by Captain Cook onwards until 2018 when Pascoe’s Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture was published. Here is a conspiracy theory that surely puts ones about 9/11, the Apollo Moon landings, the JFK assassination, Diana’s death et al in the shade. The grim humour to be found in Pascoe’s hoax is the uncritical praise heaped upon Dark Emu by Australia’s credulous commentariat, from Annabel Crabb to Peter Fitzsimons. The unfunny aspect of Dark Emu is that it was turned into Young Dark Emu – a Truer History and taught in primary schools throughout our land as fact rather than fantasy.
For years, as Lines observes, nobody could question the authenticity of Pascoe’s narrative without being attacked as “racist”. Pascoe, gifted with the sagacity of self-selected indigeneity, had seen through the lies of white colonialism/supremacy and discovered that pre-contact Aboriginals were not wretched nomads after all. One problem with this, however, is that by 2018 the bohemian-socialists who filled the hallowed halls of Australian academia, no longer equated palaeoliths with wretchedness or a lower stage of human development à la Karl Marx. Was not Pascoe borrowing from a Western construct to defend traditional Aboriginality from a Euro-centric critique? By 2018, secondary school textbooks had been making the point for some time that the palaeolithic epoch constituted a healthier life-style than the overcrowded neolithic one. Nevertheless, here was Pascoe arguing that an agricultural revolution in pre-contact Australia elevated the status and achievements of the Aboriginal people. It seemed a little contradictory and embarrassing – and yet criticising Bruce Pascoe became verboten in polite middle-class PC society. What right did anyone have to challenge an Aboriginal truth-teller fulminating against “Whitey”?
Belatedly, the left-wing anthropologists Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s published Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate (2021). Progressives now had permission to acknowledge that Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu might be something of a scam. Lines cites this passage from Sutton and Walshe’s book:
[Dark Emu is] littered with unsourced material. It is poorly researched. It distorts and exaggerates many old sources. It selects evidence to suit the author’s opinions, and it ignores large bodies of information that do not support the author’s opinions. It contains a large number of factual errors.
Nevertheless, Sutton and Walshe feel the need to condemn conservatives who unmasked Pascoe before they did. Thus, Peter O’Brien’s Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu (2019) is dismissed as “a pugnacious polemical assessment”. Only left-wing academics, apparently, are beyond the sordidness of grievance politics.
Except, as Lines contends, progressive academics are not beyond reproach, not least activist-academics such as Sutton: “Incredibly, he and Walshe boast of scientific rigour and skepticism. Skepticism, however, contradicts Sutton’s scramble to be an Aboriginal champion.” Only by being perceived as a champion of the Aboriginal “cause” – which is to say, the primitivist case for the eminence of hunter-gatherers – could the commentariat have accommodated Sutton’s takedown of Pascoe’s Dark Emu. Kellie Pollard, for instance, is quoted on the blurb for Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? acclaiming Sutton and Walshe’s book as one that will give pride to “every young Aboriginal person in Australia”. The problem with such praise for an investigation claiming to be scientifically rigorous and skeptical is twofold. Firstly, we know – and so the authors must have known – the conclusion at which they would arrive before commencing their “scientific” enquiry. The fix was in. As Lines remarks, Sutton and Walshe do not begin to prove the superiority of palaeolithic existence and to maintain their primitivist hypothesis must resort, for instance, to omitting hard evidence of inter-tribal violence. Contrariwise, there is likely no genuinely independent inquiry that would “shift” Sutton’s “conviction of the superior merits of Aboriginal society”.
Few wrote more insightfully about the abandonment of scientific principles in anthropology than Roger Sandall. The institutionalisation of bohemia, wrote Sandall in Culture Cult, received an extraordinary boost with Frank Boas’s opening of Colombia University’s anthropology department in the 1920’s to the “would-be writers” Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. This new notion of anthropology – “heavily didactic semi-fiction” – went on to shape much of our contemporary world, not least academia. As Sandall summarised: “Cultures are good: civilisation is bad.” Those six words tell you all you need to know about the moral judgement we have inherited from Rousseau, Herder and Mead. Peter Sutton, no less than Bill Gammage and Bruce Pascoe, inaccurately counterpoises the benevolence of the “complex and spiritually rich” Aboriginal world with the rapaciousness of the West: “…the British Empire [was] the greatest kleptocracy in the history of world”. In doing so, Sutton “exploits history to make judgements about the past that advance current political agendas.”
The second problem with the blurb on the cover of Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? is that it’s an exemplar of New Racism. The idea that Sutton and Walshe’s opus will give pride to “every young Aboriginal person in Australia” is to treat Aboriginal people as a single monolithic entity. The same prejudice – “the illegitimate notion of race” as Lines puts it – informed the proponents of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. It turned out that there were both radical and conservative Aboriginals who opposed the Voice for the same mix of reasons that a decisive majority of Australians voted ‘No’ at the October 14 referendum – Aboriginal people, like their non-Indigenous compatriots, are individuals with a diverse range of opinions. The unelected powerbrokers slated to run the Voice to Parliament would have been more a voice for themselves than a political representation of Aboriginal people as whole. Why? Because claiming to speak on behalf of an ethnic group in its entirety is not only racist but a delusion. Writes Lines: “Unity only exists in the fantasy land of identity politics that divides society into ‘indigenous’ and ‘non-indigenous’”. Aboriginals, such as Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and Warren Mundine, then, are not identity traitors for refusing to back the Voice – but fellow Australians with an Aboriginal heritage prepared to speak their minds. Freedom of speech, we might note, is not commonly recognised as a feature of traditional tribal life; it is, rather, a legacy of what Sutton decries as “the greatest kleptocracy in the history of the world”. To whatever extent the British empire was a felonious operation, it surely left more at the scene of the crime than it took.
Romanticising humanity’s primitive past is not only about adopting a morally superior position in order to garner superior privileges as per Diogenes. No less than James Cook, as he sailed along the eastern coast of New Holland, was genuinely affected by primitivist conceptions about traditional Aboriginal life despite, or perhaps because of, experiencing few encounters with the locals. Paradoxically, Cook – a pre-eminent emissary of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment – believed he “had found a model of human excellence and happiness, a prelapsarian world of contentment and bliss”. Joseph Banks was of a similar mind about the unspoilt and innocent world of Aboriginal people: “Thus live these I had almost said happy people, content with little, nay almost nothing…From them appears how small are the wants of human nature, which we Europeans have increased to an excess…” The imaginings of Cook and Banks, asserts Lines, were not novel. Rousseau had already popularised the primitivist fancy that civilisation “caused all society’s ills” and “stole one’s true and authentic innocence”.
Civilisation, which is the creation of city-dwellers, is actually unnatural. In that sense, at least, the primitivists are not wrong. Masses of people, almost all of them strangers to each other, are required to obey rules that are mostly not of their making, rules that are literally “bourgeois” in their emphasis on property rights, public propriety and hygiene, commerce, personal sovereignty and so on ad infinitum. There are advantages to such rules even if it means we live, as conservative philosopher Roger Scruton outlines in the Uses of Pessimism (2010), a life of “compromise and half measures”. However, if we accommodate ourselves to these bourgeois mores, Scruton argues, we need not submit to the despotism of a feudal or theological overlord or, going further back in history, tribal chief. Still, there are drawbacks to an existence based on “compromise and half measures”, not the least being Yeats’s famous lines: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Conservatives muddle along, keeping mostly to themselves, while the fanatics amongst us, primitivists in this case, are full of “passionate intensity”.
Lines, in the chapter titled “Guilt Downunder”, approaches the nub of a perennial problem: “Humans create civilisation to protect themselves from unhappiness, yet civilisation becomes their largest source of unhappiness.” Because the post-tribal world comes with its own man-made or “unnatural” strictures, the primitivist can chose to believe that pre-modern tribalism was more “natural”. The reality? Tribal life was tyrannical if contrasted with the “compromise and half measures” of Western-style modernity. It existed in a kind of permanent emergency mode in which submission to the tribal leader was non-negotiable – unless you were bold enough to kill him or be killed in a lethal winner-takes all confrontation. And if you were a woman you just watched from the misogynistic sidelines and kept your opinions to yourself. None of this is to deny that the West has been responsible for many historical wrongs, including environmental degradation, and yet the way forward for humanity is surely not primitivism and a return to our nomadic tribal past. Even the fate of the world’s megafauna, seen off by our palaeolithic ancestors (including Australian Aboriginals), makes a mockery of the notion that “back-to-nature” neo-tribalism might be a panacea for our “corrupt” and “degenerate” civilisation.
Primitivism, in the opinion of Lines, has not only haunted Western civilisation since the days of Ancient Athens but will always be with us. The author cites Sigmund Freud’s “unconsoling” Civilisation and its Discontents (1930) to make the point. On the eve of Nazism’s triumph in Germany, Freud fretted that the “irrevocable ill-will” in every human heart which civilisation “partly curbed” would not always be the case: “Reconciliation of nature and society was impossible … Freud’s doubts about the success of restraining dark impulses proved prescient.” Freud was right to worry that the German people were on the precipice of committing acts of unprecedented barbarism. However, this was not because they were imbued with too much “civilisation” but, on the contrary, too little of it. Adolf Hitler, “full of passionate intensity”, was hellbent on upending “the compromise and half measures” of Weimar Germany. The Nazis and their fellow travellers, it tuns out, were aficionados of Tacitus’s primitivist primer Germania. So many of them, from the eugenist Hans F K Günther to the philosopher Martin Heidegger, contrasted the Tacitean “rootedness” and “organic-ness” of the Germanic tribes with the inauthenticity of modernity in their monomaniacal worship of race, blood and soil.
Australia’s “educated classes”, asserts Lines, have lost their faith in the virtues of Western civilisation. Trapped in a zero-sum paradigm, social justice warriors view the past as a “purely moral drama of villains and victimhood” and have, accordingly, “idealised Aboriginal life beyond recognition”. We have come a long way from the liberalism of Watkin Tench (1758-1833) who served as captain of the RN marines in Sydney’s infancy. His book, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson (1793), covered the first four years of British settlement in New South Wales. Though fully acquainted with the works of Rousseau, he was neither a primitivist nor a Utopian of any description – but he was an astute observer of the world about him: “…Trench admired but not romanticised the people who became known as Aborigines. He did not see their lives as a lesson for civilisation.” For instance, his assessment of the character of Aboriginal Bennelong, whose “powers of mind were far above mediocrity”, portrays an individuality and complexity that makes Rousseau’s portrait of the “Noble Savage” a mere caricature. A linguist and fascinating conversationalist, Bennelong enjoyed spending time in the bush but was also a frequent guest in the Governor’s residence. Aboriginal women, Tench recounted, could be all things – “curious, fickle, loyal, tender, supercilious, and display disinterested urbanity.” They were, in other words, individuals. The one thing they shared, however, was the “brutal violence” meted out by their menfolk. Tench wrote of Aboriginal women being beaten about the head by tribal men using “a hatchet, a club or any other weapon which may chance to be in his hand”. These women, Tench believed, deserved the protection of Christian/Western/universal rights, along with the full bounty of civilisation, and not the cruelty of tribal practices.
Pointedly, this is the very same theme Jacinta Nampijinpa Price has been pursuing over two centuries later. Her conservative politics were informed by the mistreatment of women and children within dysfunctional Aboriginal families throughout outback Australia, Alice Springs the epicentre of this epidemic. As a consequence, she has been an advocate of traditional Western law and order as a way of safeguarding Aboriginal women and children from abuse, prioritising the sanctity and welfare of actual Aboriginal people over the primitivist fantasies of progressive Westerners. This passage Romancing the Primitive reminds us of who, in the end, are the real victims of modern-day segregation:
Unfortunately, celebrating and preserving traditional ways of life cannot recreate the dreamworld of the ancestral utopia. Primitivists perpetuate a twilight world, keeping minorities outside the full benefits of civilisation even longer, the recipients of condescension, false compassion, and the racism of low expectations.