The latest round in News Limited’s all-out assault on Aboriginal academic Larissa Behrendt — namely, an excerpt from an article by Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle, disputing Behrendt’s version of her family history, and casting some passing aspersions on her academic career — puts a new perspective on the half-dozen articles that have gone before.

Windschuttle’s long inquiry into Behrendt’s family’s background is ultimately irrelevant to the positions she occupies. There is only one argument of apparent substance and that is that there was a complaint about the awarding to Behrendt of a scholarship to Harvard. According to Behrendt (who wasn’t contacted by Windschuttle when the article was written), the “complaint” consisted of a letter of protest from an unsuccessful applicant.

There was no official process, and no case to answer. Windschuttle portrays her Harvard degree as one in Aboriginal studies, because that sounds less compelling than a Harvard doctorate of law.

As always with Windschuttle, there is more than a little that is odd, such as his personal memory of Behrendt’s father, and also her mentor Bobbi Sykes, and recounting examples of their far leftism — also irrelevant, unless politics is hereditary.

Odd also because Windschuttle knew them through a shared belief in a far-left strategy for Aboriginal Australia — indeed in Nation Review in 1977, while advocating the use of a Chilean Marxist media studies textbook, he had noted that Aborigines and poor whites would band together in revolution “soon, when the oil runs out”.

But as the article is going in the forthcoming issue of Quadrant, it must have been ready for some time. Was the story about Behrendt’s tweet about Bess Price, and the subsequent half-dozen stories, reverse-engineered as a lead-up to Windschuttle’s piece? Or was it happenstance that Quadrant was also performing a hatchet job of little content on the most visible opponent of their ideas about Aboriginal futures?

The Quadrant story is weak; the stories leading up to it were less than weak — a bad-taste tweet, an equivocal review of Behrendt’s employer (UTS) that does not mention Behrendt by name, and as we demonstrated yesterday, a manufactured beat-up of a falling-out at the National Indigenous Times, turned into a scandal through hearsay and obvious misconstruction.

Yet, what is most remarkable in all of this is how tangled and self-contradictory the right’s attack on Behrendt had become, in terms of its own arguments about Aborigines. Having spent years arguing for no special consideration for “cultural excuses”, and for indigenous people to be regarded as equal, they could only get Behrendt by marshalling every tired notion of “elder respect” to make it something more than it was.

After all, for all the shrieking about “offensive, inner-city depravity” of joking about a political opponent being worse than horse love, it is obvious to most readers that it is nothing more than the sort of bad-taste joke you make watching TV. Miranda Devine, who shrieked louder than most, proved it when her tweet about someone still “rogering gerbils” came to the surface.

If accusations of beast love is this hideous, blah blah blah, then we owe the entire nation of New Zealand a written apology.

So, the only way to play it as a truly offensive text was to re-import notions of cultural respect, beyond the standard equality we assume of citizens in a public space. Marcia Langton was on hand to do this, noting that she had never seen such a display of disrespect to an elder figure in all her, etc, etc.

Yet, wasn’t this the sort of “culture cult” crap the right warned us about? Instead of being two free citizens in an equal space, Price and Behrendt were to be bound and judged by co-tribal rules. Chris Kenny’s bizarrely overblown piece completed it, turning the tweet into a full-bore Dreaming myth “… even as Price spoke [on Q&A] a tweet was winging its way …” Ah! Pointing the tweet. Do not try to understand, white people. It is secret News Ltd business.

What is most self-defeating about this is that the right has always claimed that as far as Aboriginal futures go, they are engaged in a battle of ideas, and that what they most hate is any idea of specialness. In The Drum, Michael Brull called them on this, pointing to the political agenda behind the campaign against Behrendt. One thought at this point that people who do have a political argument to make, such as Gary Johns, would try to play don the mock-horror over a tweet. Not so. In a reply to Brull, Johns noted:

“Larissa Behrendt and every other Aboriginal ‘leader’ should take a look in the mirror some day in order to reflect on their personal journey. How did they come to be wealthy, healthy, long-lived and well-educated? Did they choose the path they champion? Did they stay on their ‘country’, fight for the spoils of land rights, hold onto ‘language’ and not learn to read and write English, live a remnant culture, behave badly?”

So, effectively, far from advancing a notion of colour-blind equality, Johns is getting back into the authenticity game. He is not accusing Behrendt or any other urban Aboriginal with a professional post of pretending that they come from remote areas (because they haven’t done so) — he is assailing them for speaking at all. By this bizarre logic, the three groups of people who can speak about Aboriginal futures are: 1) whites, 2) urban blacks who agree with them, and 3) remote Aborigines. Those from group 3) who then criticise the intervention, the Basics card or anything else can then be held to be in thrall to an urban Aboriginal elite.

The authenticity game has a lot of twists and turns. Bess Price was taken up as the authentic voice of Yuendumu, even though many people from that community are on record as saying that she neither speaks for them (she lives in Alice Springs, running a consultancy established on contracts with the Howard government) nor gives a balanced picture of Yuendumu. That’s between her and Yuendumu but she has a perfect right to say whatever she likes about anything.

Taken under the wing of the right after Behrendt’s tweet, she was patronised, condescended to and infantilised as someone apparently incapable of taking an insult and giving one in return. In Chris Kenny’s article she had “come all the way from Alice Springs to tell her story …” Well, she’s a consultant. She probably did it on her frequent flyer miles and had a panini in the Qantas lounge. She didn’t arrive by mule.

Indeed, the whole Behrendt pile-on generated some very strange alliances and agendas. Take Patricia Karvelas, the Oz journalist who focused on the tweet in the first place, and then ran the three follow-up stories, until we showed how they were being written, at which point she moved on. Her background is from those that Miranda “Joseph Gerbil” Devine would call the “inner city depraved”.

As a student politician in the late ’90s, she was a leader of the radical feminist group called “The Collective”, which took over NOWSA, the Network of Australian Women Students from the Marxist left. Let GreenLeft Weekly take up the story of the 1999 conference the Collective dominated:

“Underlying the conflict at this year’s NOWSA were two main strategies: one represented by the Collective (dominated by Patricia Karvelas, Jiselle Hanna and Charmaine Clarke) … Collective members had tried to impose [a] perspective on the conference by excluding transgender women from the collective, arguing that it is necessary to be a lesbian in order to be a feminist, that s-x work should be criminalised and that NOWSA was plagued by “racism” … During one of the plenary sessions, the audience was asked to sit in racially segregated areas: Anglo background people divided from non-Anglo background people … A Collective member then read a statement which attacked conference participants as “racist” for disagreeing with Aboriginal speakers … The NOWSA collective imposed a quota system at the conference which stipulated that 50% of all speakers had to have NESB or indigenous backgrounds. Although the collective was successful in promoting the experiences of NESB and indigenous women, the quota system was criticised for being tokenistic.

Rather than women being asked to speak because of their political opinions or activism, they were asked to speak because their skin colour helped to fill the quota. As well, the quota system was used to prevent opponents of the NOWSA collective’s political perspective from speaking.”

Write about what you know, as they say. The full article is even funnier. What’s interesting for political coroners about this position — in which it was the Marxists asserting a universalist position, while separatist feminism was busy assessing who had the right to speak — is how easily it flips over into the right’s condescending culture cultism. A decade later, Karvelas is still determining who’s black and who isn’t.

Why this desperate resort to “authenticity” and the culture cult? Well, despite all their bluster, their campaign on Aboriginal futures is not going as well as it could. Whatever the attempts to portray those for and against intervention, assimilation, etc, as a rural/urban, saltofearth/elite, sepia/black split, it maps onto no such division. Indigenous people from every background can be found on both sides.

Furthermore, rural and remote Aborigines show irritating signs of conforming to neither ideological camp, some wanting the extra policing, etc, of the intervention without the other things the Howard (and then Labor) governments tried to jam into it — principally the conversion of communal lands to private ownership.

Furthermore, all the evidence from areas where aggressive alternative strategies are being tried, shows little long-term gain — things such as school truancy go down (when money goes up), and bubbles up again when special programmes depart. Most of all, there is the possibility that the intervention has done very little at all for overall levels of violence and alcohol dysfunction, save for moving it around.

But most of all, what the right is trying to cover up is the division that has opened up in its ranks between those, black and white, who are cultural “synthesists” — such as Pearson, Noel, and Pearson, Christopher — advocating a combination of aggressive modernisation and traditional cultural transmission, and those — such as Johns and Windschuttle — who are “dissolutionists”, arguing that Aboriginal culture, and the remote communities in which it is based, should be actively dissolved, and European culture asserted as superior by its very nature.

In recent years, the dissolutionists have become more emboldened, as the programs from people such as Noel Pearson have failed to deliver big results. Indeed, as one can see in back issues of Windschuttle’s Quadrant, the language veers towards the obscenely disdainful.

The late Peter Howson — the medal in whose name Bess Price was awarded by the Bennelong Society — argued in that magazine that traditional Aboriginal culture was “the culture of the concentration camp”; he was at least honestly expressing the real and irrational hatred — one in many cases borne of cultural envy by a denuded postmodern white non-culture — that many purported white saviours of Aboriginal Australia hold in their hearts.

They are infuriated by the refusal of Aborigines to fill the role of extra in a drama of Western self-assertion, and their fury is reserved most for those who won’t sit on one side or other of the room; who are Aboriginal but urban, represent the poor but also have their own lives. Inevitably they tear down the very role models they seek to point to, and patronise those far from the urban centres as “authentic”. It doesn’t make a blind bit of sense. But it doesn’t need to, in service to political ends , at the heart of the nation.

Peter Fray

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