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How Dark is Your Emu? By Brian Simpson

     I was sent this link down the food chain, having a little archaeological knowledge, from Ken who sends out dozens of emails with juicy bits of info, the original email coming in from I don’t know, and was too lazy to ask, but, good on you anyway, get the word out. The book by Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture (2014/2018), puts the case that Australian Aboriginal culture was not exclusively a hunter and gatherer society, but had agriculture, and well, a civilisation a bit like a kind of Wakanda (Black Panther movie)! This all goes with a modern narrative about their sophisticated spiritualism and cosmological beliefs.

     There is a site “Dark Emu Exposed”:   which undertakes a step-by-step critique of the Aboriginal agriculture claim. The entries are detailed and well argued, and anyone interested in this topic should have a look. As well, a few days ago there was this in the national rag:

“If indigenous author Bruce Pascoe is correct, most of what we were taught of how Aboriginals lived prior to the arrival of Europeans was based on a combination of ignorance, omissions and lies. In his landmark book Dark Emu, Pascoe claims indigenous Australians were not hunter-gatherers but were sophisticated in the ways of food production, aquaculture, and land management. They were not nomads but lived in large towns in permanent dwellings. Their civilisation was, he wrote last year, “one that invented bread, society, language and the ability to live as 350 neighbouring nations without land war, not without rancour … but without a lust for land and power, without religious war, without slaves, without poverty but with a profound sense of responsibility for the health of Mother Earth for more than 120,000 years.” According to him they also invented democracy and government. The book won the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and has sold over 100,000 copies. The ABC and Screen Australia have provided funding for a documentary series written by Pascoe. According to the head of ABC Indigenous, Kelrick Martin, the book “offers a revelatory context for future generations of Australians and ABC Indigenous is proud to work alongside Bruce Pascoe … to correct these stereotypes.” A children’s version, “Young Dark Emu: A Truer Much of Dark Emu’s positive reception has to do with Pascoe’s masterful presentation skills, for he is naturally telegenic. Showing a knack for reading his audience, he can be avuncular, affable, disarming, reserved, and even melancholic. He is articulate, an orator, persuasive and endearing. Complementing this is his disdain for modernity and his claim that we can control climate change by using the techniques of the “old people”, as he refers to them, thus “calming the bush down”.

He has admirers aplenty. Such is their effusiveness, you could say Pascoe is the Tom Jones of historians. To his detractors, he is a revisionist and fantasist. Writing for the Weekend Australian Magazine in May this year, journalist Richard Guilliatt observed “many academic experts also believe Dark Emu romanticises pre-contact indigenous society as an Eden of harmony and pacifism, when in fact it was often a brutally tough survivalist way of life”. But as Guilliatt also noted, there is a reluctance in academia to make public these criticisms given the author’s popularity and aboriginality. If you think that is too much of a stretch, remember that this year the University of NSW’s science faculty distributed guidelines to lecturers, warning them that it was “inappropriate” to specify an estimate of when the first human migration to Australia occurred. Instead, staff were told it was “more appropriate” to say Aboriginals have been here “since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”, as this “reflects the beliefs of many Indigenous Australians that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land’’. That a science faculty would resort to this is ridiculous. While some studies estimate that Aboriginals have been here for as long as 65,000 years, the conservative estimate is 50,000 years ago. You would think then that any public figure who claimed it took place 120,000 years ago would be asked to justify that estimate. Yet I know of at least three occasions this year when Pascoe has repeated that claim when interviewed by an ABC presenter, none of whom even so much as sought clarification.

The ABC’s political correspondent, Andrew Probyn wrote this month that Dark Emu “demolish(es) the myth that Australia at the time of white settlement was a wilderness occupied by merely hunter gatherers”. ABC presenter Wendy Harmer referred to Pascoe as an “oracle”, and chief political writer Annabel Crabb tweeted admiringly regarding Dark Emu: “I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much from one slim volume”. Another ABC presenter, Benjamin Law, said “reading it should be a prerequisite to non-Indigenous citizenship”. Just this month RN Drive host Patricia Karvelas concluded an interview with Pascoe with a fawning endorsement of the book, urging listeners to buy it. “Just do it now,” she stated. If scholarly authenticity in the fields of history and anthropology were determined by the number of “oohs” and “aahs” uttered into an ABC microphone, Dark Emu would be nothing short of magisterial. In reality, such recognition is properly realised only through sources that are both primary and verifiable. Even then, the mere inclusion of this material is nothing more than window dressing if the analysis and conclusions are far removed from those sources. The “feel-good” factor should never be a criterion in such evaluations. Those giving accolades to Pascoe seem oblivious to the many instances, particularly on the website Dark Emu Exposed, where readers have highlighted stark inconsistencies regarding what appears in his claims and what is outlined in the respective primary source. Peter O’Brien, a Quadrant magazine contributor and retired military officer, has written a book “Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu” highlighting what he claims are Pascoe’s omissions, mischaracterisations, and distortions.

The stoush has been described as a resumption of the history wars, a term I think unhelpful, for it leads to much distraction in fruitlessly arguing solely about the motives of historians. If anything, and for once I am not being facetious, the modern historian’s role is in one way analogous to that of today’s comedian. Both professions now operate according to the woke expectation that practitioners must always “punch up”, never down. A historian can be sure of at least a favourable reception, as in Pascoe’s case, if he or she promotes and defends the wretched at the expense of a so-called privileged demographic. To do the reverse, however, is taboo. Many of you will remember the furore that erupted in 2002 following the release of historian and now Quadrant editor-in-chief Keith Windschuttle’s book “The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1847”. Taking issue with many historians, Windschuttle disputed the theory that indigenous Tasmanians were the subject of genocide, arguing they had succumbed largely through introduced diseases. He also dismissed the romantic theory that the original inhabitants had engaged in “guerrilla warfare” against Europeans, stating their attacks were motivated by a desire for tea, sugar and flour. To question the narrative was unforgivable, but what made it worse in the eyes of leftist academics was that Windschuttle both exposed and embarrassed many a historian by forensically analysing their footnotes. What he demonstrated was both revelatory and disconcerting. Historians had inflated the figures of killings, misquoted colonial administrators to give the appearance of malevolent intent towards Aboriginals, and even listed as sources local newspapers that had not yet existed at the time of the historical incidents in question. The response from the historical establishment was both defensive and risible. As reported by The Australian’s Ean Higgins in 2004, the Australian Historical Association even discussed enacting a code of ethics to prevent historians from criticising their peers’ integrity in public. One academic described his astonishment at the “pack mentality” of his fellow historians. “It was like ‘let’s get a group of people together to ambush Windschuttle’,” he stated.”

     Nothing surprises me about the universities and intellectual “debate” in Australia today. There is also the critique by Peter O’Brien Bitter Harvest: The Illusion of Aboriginal Agriculture in Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, and much on the net showing the ideological implications of the work:

     Just in case your Left-wing neighbour comes over for a “chat.”



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Tuesday, 07 July 2020
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