Bruce Pascoe, Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe (Image: Private Media)

Well, that escalated quickly.

Monday, your correspondent had a story about the success and contestation of Dark Emu. I focused on two things: first, that Professor Peter Sutton and Dr Keryn Walshe, both experts in their fields, had fairly convincingly (certainly with great documented detail) argued that Bruce Pascoe had overextended evidence of various growing practices — from seeding to firestick burning — by pre-1788 Aboriginal people into systemic “incipient agriculture”.

Secondly, that Pascoe had reintroduced notions of cultural progress and worth by way of material production into ideas of Aboriginal society, blunting notions of the radical difference between “kinship-spiritual” societies and ours. 

The second point stands as it is. But in the whaling on Bruce, my point — that to the non-specialist, Sutton and Walshe appear to have refuted Pascoe’s grander claims — might be lost. Pascoe may have a spear or two left in his clutch yet, and some matters may not be settled. But they have a lotta lotta evidence against. Some have described their tone as cold, although I think it’s pretty neutral. I don’t think they set out to demolish Pascoe, but to put sharp limits on what can be assumed from the accepted evidence he uses, and re-assert the absolute autonomy of pre-1788 Aboriginal society.

The second point is crucial, and that is why Pascoe, who is unquestionably a person of the left, has got pushback from those also on the left. Insisting on the radically different nature of “kinship-spiritual/hunter-gatherer” society to the sort of society that arrived on 1788 is important because, well, it’s true.

The oral record and study of thousands of such societies is univocal on this — these societies differ immensely in their content, but in their general form they are much more like each other than they are like societies with agriculture, social classes and small states, which began to emerge about 5000 BCE.

Truth is the ultimate motive for this debate but downstream from that is the politics — and the attack on Aboriginal culture from the right. And on Bruce Pascoe. Vigourous debate is one thing, but the obsessive hatred to which Pascoe has been subjected from the Quadrant spite slum and its ilk is of extraordinary volume and bile, and that needs to be said.

Pascoe, I’m, sure can take the flak from these beaten-down pissants, but it’s pretty extraordinary. Dip into Quadrant to have a look if you like. I’m pretty sure you won’t subscribe. The bitter envy such white people feel for Aboriginal culture — Anglo white culture having been destroyed by commodification — is transferred to Pascoe, a relentlessly productive writer, editor and publisher.

The right are incapable of writing about anything they love, Bolt being the rule-proving exception; sadly, his artistic forays show that (a) he really likes opera and art, and (b) he is very stupid. Their stance is one of perpetual envy. They not only hate Pascoe, they can’t quite get over their hatred of him. Pascoe’s good faith needs to be asserted against this, even as debate is joined over his conclusions.

This matters because the ideas of what Aboriginal society was and is plays a role in how it will be shaped and reshaped by a dominant settler state. But it can’t simply, wholly do it by fiat, as it might have in any time up to the 1960s.

Millions of Australians are interested in what happens to Indigenous society. The right believe that white European society is inherently superior to any Indigenous society in any condition. They want to turn the current, serious, problems of regional and remote Indigenous societies into inherent faults, which they believe run back before white arrival. Whites are just bystanders at such failing, this version alleges.

The right reject Pascoe’s conclusions but share his ideas about what sort of things should be applauded. It’s a game Aboriginal people can’t win. We know what lies at the end of it: not merely assimilation, but dissolution. Quadrant editor and former commentator (and now charities Torquemada) Gary Johns has been explicit about this in the past, arguing that small communities in WA and the NT should be abolished by the state and drawn into larger communities.

By portraying pre-1788 societies as effectively “waiting” for whites, such dissolutionists can construct pre-1788 society as radically lacking. Without a strong notion that pre-1788 society was filled with meaning, purpose and process — but of a fundamentally different character — the claim for contemporary regional/remote society as a modern/traditional hybrid, which should have specific modes of sovereignty and governance, fails also.

These separate and specific social arrangements can only be anchored in the truth of the distinctive nature of pre-1788 Aboriginal culture, and its modified continuity today. One must be attentive to unconvincing arguments, however well meant, that wear away the base for such autonomy. 

Like it or not, such culture wars are politics. Indeed, they are more “politics” than the narrow economic arrangements that passed for politics in much of the century. Who owns the steel industry is a technical question compared to questions like what marriage should be, whether kinship social forms can be preserved in new ways, if borders are moral, and so on.

Those are the real biggies, emerging out of the 1960s to make the capitalism v socialism battle look like a managers’ debate (which it pretty much was). Many old hands in the liberal centre can’t understand this — or why their political parties, and audiences are shrinking to insignificance.

Politics is all around, for anyone who cares to look. It demands truth-telling, but also an identification of the real bad actors in any scenario. Which, in this case, almost certainly is the sleazy Murdoch clientelist right, and not Bruce Pascoe. Firestick burning — in politics, as in country — is liable to get out of control.