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Neither This Nor That

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 06/10/2021 - 5:00am in

We view the concept of “compromise” from all sorts of oblique angles.

Crossword clues and bullying: the almighty power of the Australian pro-Israel lobby

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 03/10/2021 - 3:57am in

The influence of Colin Rubenstein and his lobby group does not just limit what mainstream media outlets dare publish, it forces self-censorship on editors and journalists alike, writes John Lyons in his latest book.

In 2019, Fairfax’s Sydney and Melbourne mastheads made a grievous error. In the daily crossword section, the answer to the clue “Holy land” turned out not be six letters staring with an I, as some would expect, but nine: Palestine. So affronted was the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) that it demanded an investigation.

Fairfax acceded, blamed it on an external contractor and apologised to Colin Rubenstein, executive director of the AIJAC.

This is just one of many examples that John Lyons uses in his book, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment, to illustrate the power of a lobby group so influential it can force changes to government policy, hound journalists out of their job and pressure the ABC board to justify the appointment of foreign correspondents.

“…there are only three people who can tell the editors of The Australian what they can or can’t use: Rupert Murdoch, Lachlan Murdoch and Colin Rubenstein.”

John Lyons

Lyons is an experienced journalist. Currently the head of investigative journalism at the ABC, his 40 years in the media includes being editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, Middle East correspondent for The Australian and winning one of his three Walkley Awards for “Stone Cold Justice”, a Four Corners episode which exposed the Israel military courts’ human rights abuses.

His previous book Balcony over Jerusalem covered his six years of witnessing the tragedies and contradictions of a region that has had more armed conflict than any other since World War II.

In Dateline Jerusalem (at 85 pages it’s more of an essay, a quick read, but a good read), Lyons focuses entirely on the Israel-Palestine conflict and specifically how Israel seeks to control the narrative for the Australian audience.

He makes the point several times that the press in Israel is much more overtly critical of the policies of its government than the Australian press is, including how the regular flare-ups in the West Bank is covered.

To the AIJAC it’s a war of words, controlling how and what is said.

For example, Rubenstein and his fellow lobbyists are particularly sensitive about using the word “occupation” in reference to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian Territories. But as the lieutenant colonel responsible for Israel’s army operations in the occupied territories quips:

“If this is not occupied then the media has missed one of the biggest stories of our time, (Israel’s) withdrawal from the West Bank!”

LC Eliezer Toledano, Israel Army

The pro-Israel lobby has even developed a special dictionary. The Global Language Dictionary was funded by The Israel Project to “guide politicians and journalists on the language to use to win support for settlement expansion.”

Just using the word Palestine can get a journalist in trouble. Jennine Khalik, a Palestinian Australian and former journalist at The Australian recounts in the book how she was yelled at by a sub-editor for referring to a refugee and singer as coming from Palestine:

“PALESTINE DOES NOT EXIST … Palestine is NOT a place … What kind of journalist are you, using the word Palestine?”

For Khalik, this was the last straw. She left the paper shortly after, following what had been a concerted campaign by the pro-Israel lobby, including diplomats from the Israel embassy questioning her editors about the appointment of “a Palestinian activist”.

In another example of the tactics used to control the narrative, Lyons refers to a story told by former The Age editor, Andrew Holden, where Rubenstein and Mark Leibler — lawyer and well known leader of the Jewish business community — marched into his office and complained loudly about the paper’s coverage of the 2014 Gaza war.

“Anyone who thinks that such a display by an esteemed member of the Australian community doesn’t have a chilling effect is kidding themselves. I have seen its effect in the years since in hesitancy on the part of editors and trepidation about any story which may show Israel in a negative light.”

John Lyons

Lyons himself has, of course, also been subjected to threats and intimidation over the years for his reporting on Israel and Palestine. Like almost everyone else who dares criticise the Israeli government, he has been called an anti-Semite, but also a “Goebbels” and “a Hamas smelly used tampon”.

It is a tactic used persistently and consistently by those agitating for the rights and the might of Israel at the expense of everything else, including the truth.

“I think the aim is to make journalists and editors decide that, even if they have a legitimate story that may criticise Israel it is simply not worth running, as it will cause more trouble than it’s worth.”

John Lyons

As a result, most Australians don’t know much about the plight of the Palestinian people. They don’t know about the 101 permits that Palestinians need to obtain from Israel be able to work and live in what they believe is their own land. They don’t know that Palestinians don’t enjoy free speech, freedom of movement or equality before the law.

In April 2021, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released its landmark report “A Threshold Crossed: Israel Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution”. It was largely ignored by mainstream media in Australia. “Including by my own organisation, the ABC,” says Lyon.

Abusive Israeli policies constitute crimes of apartheid, persecution

The pro-Israel lobby is so effective it has achieved the ultimate aim of information suppression – self-censorship.

Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment is now available from Monash University Publishing.

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Review: The shock, horror and rage of Mark Willacy’s Rogue Forces

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 26/09/2021 - 3:42am in



Respected journalist Mark Willacy’s Rogue Forces is imperative reading for its detonating exposé of Australian SAS war crimes in Afghanistan and the systematic cover-ups at varying levels of the Australian Defence Force operations.

Willacy’s window on war crimes is narrow, focusing on three Special Air Service (SAS) members of Squadron 3; Soldier A, Soldier B and Soldier C who are accused of murdering innocent Afghan farmers in 2012.

It makes one wonder about the breadth of horrors that would inevitably be disclosed if ALL the Australian and Allied windows were flung open on the 20-year invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

Awash with shock, horror, disgust, rage, as with his Four Corners documentary, Killing Field, the potency of Rogue Forces is Willacy’s skill in giving readers a vicarious presence as fellow eyewitnesses to the thuggish gung-ho component in the elitist SAS.

Willacy brings us face-to-face with participants; the deviant killers, their fearful complicit colleagues, the moral injury and inner agony of whistleblowers and we experience the intense immediacy of the patrols, the psychopathic racist atrocities, the premeditated cover ups and the forever shattered lives of the Afghan victims and their grieving families.

On reading, my initial impression of the tribal SAS culture was that of the rescued bully boys of Golding’s Lord of the Flies now grown up and prime candidates for the SAS.

“The rhetoric has always been that you are looking for similar features to a psychopath,” says a psychologist who was involved in screening Special Forces candidates.

Soldiers A, B and C are not fictional, but real bullies and killers who are variously described by their colleagues as “unhinged, psychopath, rogue, toxic, monster, thugs, sadist, mad, animal, bully, egotistical sociopath, shoot’ em up boys”.

It is helpful to know the nature of the psychopath; about 1–2 per cent of the population, psychopaths are born genetically without a conscience, empathy and remorse and with an underlying aggression that may become violent. Sociopaths however are not born but evolve from trauma.

The SAS deviants ride high on the heroic SAS reputation and hubris wrapped in impunity and the boys-own myths of Arthur’s Excalibur and the Knights Templar Crusaders who savagely served the Holy Roman Empire’s murderous expansion into the Middle East, an exemplar for the present US Military Empire.

“This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” George W Bush said.

Rogue Forces is not an easy read. By page 13, I was in shock and in tears and it got worse as the cold-blooded war crimes and cover-ups stockpiled.

The war crimes include the summary executions of unarmed, wounded, and disabled Afghan men and boys, the ritual of blooding that coerced the first kill of rookie soldiers, a kill count that was indifferent to innocence, the desecration of the bodies of the Afghan dead, the appalling racism and brutal beatings, the massacre at the tractor job, the planting of guns, grenades, radios and battle-bras on murdered innocent farmers (fathers, sons, brothers, friends).

Don’t for a moment think such dishonourable behaviour is about a few bad apples.

War crimes are inherent to and hidden away throughout ANZAC history; note the same Australian racism, drunkenness, the bloodlust, the brutal atrocites, indiscriminate violence, desecration of the dead, the looting, property destruction, the military cover ups by soldiers and officers, the formal compensation (admission of guilt) to survivor families of the Sarafand Massacre 103 years ago; an ANZAC brutality never displayed in the National War Memorial.

The cover-ups

Let’s be clear there’s nothing noble about a “code of silence” which is a synonym for covering up crimes. The Rogue Forces cover ups, from the killing fields to Australian Defence Force headquarters spawned the impunity for ongoing barbarism.

On the field it was common knowledge that the mandatory photos of the kills were falsified by planting weapons on the innocent dead to look like combatants. These were added to fabricated reports “to justify lethal force”. There was a “running joke” that since 2010 the “Magic Makarov”, a Russian pistol, “appeared in photographs all over Afghanistan”. Post-operation debriefings called hotwash ensured the everyone was on board with the cover up.

It was common knowledge that crimes were prevented from leaking in the Special Operations Task Force; Christine, after reporting a potential war crime, was ordered to delete the evidence from the database and this order wasn’t a one-off from higher up.

It was common knowledge that inquiries looking into Afghan complaints were actually implicated in cover-ups: “We reported these things… the perpetrators were not punished, they were decorated.”

Back in Australia, Willacy’s Freedom of Information requests were denied.

The Brereton Inquiry (an internal trust-me military inquiry) actually exonerated the brass of “direct responsibility”. Yet even MP Andrew Hastie, a former SAS officer, challenged the leadership’s ignorance of war crimes. Ultimately Brereton’s dismissal of leadership accountability was lose-lose for the brass; if they didn’t know then they are grossly incompetent and should be dismissed.

The code of silence

For me, the ultimate merit of Rogue Forces is Willacy’s going beyond the crimes to explore complicity in the code of silence and its high personal cost to decent soldiers.

Willacy points out the reasons why decent fellow soldiers remained silent. There was  herd compliance based on a loyalty to the SAS that overrode the Geneva Conventions, fear of isolation, losing a valued career, and justified fear based on psychopathic intimidation;

“I genuinely believed that if they’d have had the opportunity if we’d raised certain things, that they had the capability — they’d already proven it — to put a bullet in the back of your head and just turn around and say it was the Taliban.”

Further for consideration is the code’s endemic social programming; Australia has an anti-dibber-dobbing culture. Children learn it at school, and all of us are familiar with the code: “Everyone hates a dobber or squealer, or rat, rat fink, sneak, snitch, traitor.”

The code is rife; it’s in the military, the police (deaths in custody), the government, the churches, the banks, the media, sport, education (Tudge censoring our Black history), and among victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Ergo, perversely this code protects the bullies and multiplies their victims while perversely whistleblowers suffer e.g. Jeff Moss, Peter Fox, David McBride, Julian Assange, Witness K and Bernard Collaery who face social ostracism, lose careers, endure financial loss, death threats and are persecuted by governments to deter future whistleblowers.

Integrity regained

Despite the profusion of depravity, from the ignoble darkness Willacy salvages the human soul — the repository of and the verve of our conscience, compassion, and morality and its insistent pressure on us to do the right thing.

“I could have and should have done more. Speaking up may have minimised or prevented more unnecessary and unlawful deaths. I hold responsibility for my silence and inaction.”

Willacy probes among his whistleblowers the effects of moral injury that their silence inflicts; PTSD, sleeplessness, nightmares, excessive boozing, “a deep well of shame”, “unquenchable guilt”, rage, grief, agonising memories, violence, pointlessness, feeling compromised, loss of trust in self and others, self harm, attempted suicide, self-alienation — “not the person I thought I was”, “I couldn’t look at myself anymore”.

By having reached a point “where the truth is more important” than self-interest, each of the whistleblowers are freed from the code’s in-built fears to testify to the truth that it was an unjust war, that the SAS violence was worse than the Taliban, “and see that we were the guys in there murdering and invading and not there to do something honourable”.

This is the point of courage, truth and integrity regained.

And we too must hold fast to our responsibility to speaking out and to act.

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Australia’s refugee cruelty exposed by one man’s daring escape

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 24/09/2021 - 5:09pm in


reviews, refugees

Escape from Manus, by Jaivet Ealom, is an incredible story of determination, cunning and sheer luck that tears apart the Coalition’s lies about refugees. It is a book you can’t put down—sharp and clear on the politics of Australia’s refugee cruelty.

It’s a book you will want to give to friends and family this Xmas and one I suspect that will eventually be made into a film.

The book starts with Ealom’s persecution as an ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar/Burma, where Rohingya are not recognised as citizens. He falsified documents to study at Dagon University in Yangon/Rangoon but without a national ID he could not graduate. He was taken on illegally as an industrial chemist intern but when that ended he had nowhere to go.

Meanwhile the regime had launched mass slaughter of Rohingya in the Arakan province, which saw his parents flee to the jungle. In danger, he is put in touch with Khaled, a Rohingya man who has fled to Jakarta, Indonesia, where a passport is not needed for travel. Ealom seeks to join him. He writes: “I took the first step. And just like that, I became a refugee.”

Ealom explains why the slur of “economic migrants” is so mistaken. “I had never met an economic migrant in detention. Most detainees had abandoned careers and all their worldly possessions, and fled rather than face imprisonment or death. By trying to reach Australia they were looking at life at a much lower socio-economic level than they had once known. That’s the opposite of an economic migrant.”

He also describes the pressures that lead refugees to flee Indonesia by boat. “Refugees were forbidden from studying, working or even opening a bank account in Indonesia—on pain of imprisonment … a few years after I left Indonesia, representatives from the UNHCR [the United Nations body with responsibility for refugee welfare] declared that refugees there, particularly single men, would be lucky to be resettled in two decades, if ever.”

Devil’s bargain

Ealom’s view of the UNHCR “as a paragon of justice and goodness” began to change in Indonesia. He points out the weakness of the UNHCR. “In each country where it operated it was essentially made to do a devil’s bargain. The choice was to take direction from the national government and its immigration policies or to take its people saving business elsewhere.”

Worse still is Australia’s long reach as a regional bully. Ealom shows how Australia funded a new passport system in the Solomon Islands in order to toughen regional borders. Australia also influenced Fiji to deny another Manus escapee, Loghman Sawari, the ability to make a legal claim for asylum, instead deporting him to PNG where he was placed in Bomana prison for daring to escape.

After almost drowning on one attempt to come to Australia by boat, Ealom makes it to Christmas Island. On his way he writes of his thinking about Australia: “A civilised country, with good people, What could go wrong?”

What could go wrong indeed. Ealom finds himself on the wrong side of former Labor PM Kevin Rudd’s 19 July 2013 announcement that “unauthorised maritime arrivals” would never be resettled in Australia. He is imprisoned first on Christmas Island then on Manus Island in PNG.

He writes of Christmas Island detention centre as “a summer camp imagined by machine with an unlimited bank account and little in the way of human compassion”.

“So much of this place was planned and deliberate. Architects had drawn up the blueprints, engineers had built the buildings, consultants had determined the staffing levels, and hired the workers. First world stuff. Yet when it came to the basic task of allowing us to use the pay phone: chaos … this was a callous stupidity that almost felt deliberate.”

He is given a wristband that says “EML 019”, his boat ID. “I didn’t know the wristband particularly mattered. It was made from itchy fabric, the kind you cut off after going to a live event. Now it was proving a durable irritant. The insistence of using letters and numbers instead of names was a classic ploy I should have recognised by now. In Burma I was forced to have my picture taken with a number plate and to call myself Bengali. Here I was EML 019.”

After arriving on Manus, a PNG government official reads the new arrivals a speech. “You were transferred here to be processed under Papua New Guinea law, by Papua New Guinea officials, to be resettled in Papua New Guinea if your claim to asylum is judge to be valid.” Ealom writes: “He ended his speech by declaring ‘you will never set foot in Australia’ … At a stroke he had given the game away. The line, if not the entire speech had been scripted by someone in the Australian government.”

Ealom points to similar Australian government advertising that states: “NO WAY: YOU WILL NOT MAKE AUSTRALIA HOME” and writes: “The irony of this approach, from a country that had been built on an invasion—a hostile takeover by sea, by white settlers forcing themselves on an unwilling Aboriginal population—was lost on the politicians.”

Rotten food

Ealom exposes the horrors on the PNG island of Manus, from the use of DDT (banned worldwide) but regularly sprayed through the detention centre, to constantly rotten food, overflowing toilets that force the men to wade through raw sewage, and the ban on mobiles to hide what was actually going on.

He demolishes then Immigration Minister and now Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s lies over the attacks on refugees that killed Reza Barati. When Morrison says: “I can guarantee their [refugees’] safety when they remain in the centre and act cooperatively with those trying to provide them support and accommodation,” Ealom writes that this was: “A pronouncement that deftly omitted the fact that those who were caring for us were also the ones who were killing us.”

He continues: “Most of the time, from what I had witnessed, people and the way they behaved were products of the power structures in which they operated. For the first time it seemed that an individual shared a unique portion of the blame. Scott Morrison appeared to relish the task of delivering his harsh and punishing policies.”

After a remarkable and daunting series of trials and tribulations, Ealom eventually makes it to Canada, where he receives very different treatment. A Canadian judge backs Ealom’s account, writing in a formal judgement: “You were held there for almost four years. During this time at Manus the conditions were intolerable, there was poor food, you were forced to sleep in shipping containers that were unbearably hot.”

Ealom damns Australia’s approach. “The government spent billions—billions—refining its merciless tactics, which were then repackaged and sold to the Australian taxpayers as plain common sense, packaged with a layer of false advertising about the urgent need to secure borders and save theoretical lives at sea.

“Meanwhile real lives were being destroyed. Refugees were locked up without charge, rebranded as transferees, their names swapped for numbers, as they were dumped in a third country to be terrorised indefinitely. How was that different from what was taking place under other dictatorial regimes?”

Escape from Manus graphically documents Australia’s refugee cruelty, which tragically continues today. Well over 200 refugees remain on PNG and Nauru, and around 70 Medevac refugees are still locked up in Australia after more than eight years.

The refugee movement has made many gains, but there is much more to change. As vaccination rates increase and Australia opens up, we will need more people in the streets to demand welcome, freedom and permanency for refugees.

By Chris Breen

Escape from Manus by Jaivet Ealom
Penguin, $34.99

The post Australia’s refugee cruelty exposed by one man’s daring escape appeared first on Solidarity Online.

Said of the Sixties

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 21/09/2021 - 2:05am in


Politics, reviews

Although Brennan’s book prioritizes Said’s English-department dramas, his longstanding anti-militarism is arguably at least as interesting a thread to follow, and one that seems destined to stay interesting longer.

Answers to Trump questions about attacking China and Iran

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 19/09/2021 - 3:53am in



The question of who would tell Trump the truth when needed and who would stop him if he tried to go to war with anyone became increasingly urgent as his presidency unfolded. On the matter of war, we now know the answer.

The Washington Post has published key excerpts from a book to be published next week: Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa. They are compelling and credible reading.

They provide an answer to the question on Trump and going to war. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, the most senior US military officer, took action against a possible disastrous directive from Trump.

So deep was his concern about Trump’s state of mind and intentions that he twice called his Chinese counterpart General Li Zuocheng to assure him that the US was not preparing to attack China and if that changed, and orders were in fact being implemented for such an attack, he would let Li know “ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise”.

It was not just China. Trump had also talked about attacking Iran which led Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, to express alarm that, “we are going to lash out for his ego”.

Clearly, Milley was aware of the profound importance which attaches to the chain of command, from the president, as commander-in-chief, then downwards through the military.

He checked with others his estimation of Trump’s state of mind and intentions — for example with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He and Pelosi agreed that Trump was “crazy” and according to a transcript obtained by Woodward and Costa, Pelosi had demanded to know from Milley “what precautions are available to prevent an unstable president from initiating military hostilities or from accessing the launch codes and ordering a nuclear strike”. Milley asserted that there were “a lot of checks in the system”.

That assertion, while hopefully true, sits uncomfortably alongside the reverence held in the US system for the office of the presidency and the chain of command.

The situation Milley believed the nation and the system faced, was excruciating, but he took it on and, sought support from other senior officers, presumably the joint chiefs. According to the authors, he obtained from them an oath that any order by the president on the launching of nuclear weapons would not be actioned, if Milley was not also involved.

An aspect of Woodward and Costa’s report which is highly relevant to the future, is the view held by Haspel, and others, that the events at the Capitol on January 6 constituted an attempted coup and that the movement and motives it involved, are not over.

That movement which, inter alia, continues daily to insist that the presidential election was stolen from Trump, remains numerically large and has captured the Republican party. The party’s sharpest focus, during this year, in the 30 States where it controls the legislature, is to pass laws restricting voting. Trump had made clear his belief that the more people who could vote, the harder it would be for Republicans to win.

Trump has already declared Milley’s action in calling his Chinese counterpart treason. Some Republican representatives have spoken of the clear abrogation of the chain of command that took place and the “crime” of passing classified information to China.

Milley would have had quite a wrestle with all of this. Interestingly, his awareness of Trump’s capacity to act unconstitutionally was underlined when Trump tried to have him and the military attack US citizens protesting on Black Lives Matter. Milley was bitter about that and apologised publicly for having been in Lafayette Square with Trump on that day.

It is unlikely that history will conclude that he needs to apologise for his two phone calls to Beijing.

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The Professional-Managerial Novel

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 11/09/2021 - 1:00am in

Pretending that all workers are the same obscures rather than clarifies the reality of class.

Why Lecture?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 01/09/2021 - 5:00am in



It’s easy to see how lectures got a bad rap. We have all been subjected to someone who abused the privilege of an audience. 

Misreading Dark Emu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/08/2021 - 3:14am in


Politics, reviews

Criticisms of the book Dark Emu and its author, Bruce Pascoe, continue to appear, and to become more puzzling. It is as if the overwhelming popularity of Pascoe and his message have disturbed comfortable convictions about Australian history shared across a wide segment of Australian society.

Many seem to have accepted that Pascoe has been proven to be quite wrong, particularly with the publication of Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe’s book Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate, which assured us that Aborigines were hunter-gatherers and had no ambitions to become farmers.

Is the implication that we need no longer be concerned about their subsequent history? But that history, as created by the settlers, is the major topic of Bruce Pascoe’s book.

I want to show that the detailed, disparaging interpretation of Dark Emu in Peter Sutton’s chapters in Farmers or Hunter-gatherers is seriously misleading. (Keryn Walshe’s archaeology is less relevant here.) The anthropologist’s irritated corrections of some careless referencing and reckless claims made in a popular, non-academic text ignore Pascoe’s themes, arguments and intentions.

Dark Emu is not about whether Aborigines were agriculturalists or hunter-gatherers, but about how they were seen by explorers, settlers and other observers. Pascoe is challenging popular beliefs about Aborigines. His modest aim, he said, “is to give rise to a possibility of an alternative view of precolonial Australia.” The public recognised this message as a valuable corrective to public and political misconceptions. Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? shows almost no interest in popular knowledge or public sentiment. Thus, the disagreement is less about the status of hunter-gatherers than about “who is to be master” of Australia’s colonial history.

Full disclosure: Like Peter Sutton I began the profound experience of anthropological fieldwork with a remote Aboriginal community in the 1970s. My original research in southern Arnhem Land explored Rembarrnga women’s traditional lives. Subsequently the cultural interface and race relations became the focus of my ethnographic work.

Sutton’s fieldwork gave him a deep understanding and abiding fondness for those Wik people he calls the Old People and their “classical culture.” His meticulous research into their languages and traditional lives attracts respect. But Dark Emu is not about an allegedly static precolonial past. It is about Australia’s history.

Catching fish a lazy way

Sutton subjects Dark Emu to repetitive micro-analysis, but he ignores the book’s main theme, which is made clear when Pascoe quotes a young settler’s observations in 1897 in his introduction:

a black would sit near the [weir] opening and just behind him a tough stick about ten feet long was stuck in the ground with the thick end down. To the thin end of this rod was attached a line with a noose at the other end; a wooden peg was fixed under the water at the opening in the fence to which this noose was caught, and when the fish made a dart to go through the opening he was caught by the gills, his force undid the loop from the peg, and the spring of the stick threw the fish over the head of the black, who would then in a most lazy manner reach back his hand, undo the fish, and set the loop again around the peg.

Despite this ingenious system, the settler concluded:

I have often heard of the indolence of the blacks and soon came to the conclusion after watching a blackfellow catch a fish in such a lazy way, that what I had heard was perfectly true.

Sutton turns the argument around by repeatedly accusing Pascoe of reviving “the old Eurocentric view held by the British conquerors of Aboriginal society.” But when was Eurocentrism discarded? It is true that anthropologists of the twentieth century were dedicated to understanding and respecting Aboriginal traditions and often admired the complexities of kinship, ritual, religion and the economic system. But such work, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced public images of a static society — in the singular — with ancient practices that intrigued intellectuals, but would inevitably give way before modernity. That inevitability is affirmed by the anthropologist’s emphasis on contented hunter-gatherers, thus relieving us all of the colonial guilt that Pascoe’s book evokes in some readers.

Old facts

Sutton focuses repetitively on “the facts.” “Evidence” would be a better term to decribe detailed knowledge of traditional societies and their marked variation across Australia. None of us has direct experience of precolonial societies, so some humility would be appropriate when claiming knowledge of them. Social facts require interpretation and attract debate, for instance about how assumptions shape even the most scientific observers’ interpretations, and how specific terms carry value judgments. Foraging and farming are not only descriptive terms; together they carry a commonsense meaning of progress through time.

I am also fond of facts and there are many facts about Wik history that tell of a century of bloodshed, land theft and interference throughout Cape York before Sutton arrived there in 1970. Sutton lived with people who, he claims, “in many cases had been born and raised beyond the reach of the British Empire.” His companions must have been very old indeed to have escaped the influence of settlers who arrived in Cape York in the ninteeenth century with the protection from the Queensland state apparatus.

Sutton’s professional work as an expert witness in Native Title cases might explain his respect for facts over interpretation. Native Title courts, operating under the Native Title Act, are tasked with identifying traditional owners of particular country. The process is adversarial, so there is little room for considering the ambiguity of the alien concept of “property,” or taking account of changing circumstances, let alone of shared responsibility for an area between the moieties — mother’s country and fathers’ country.

The one thing the Native Title process has in common with traditional Aboriginal practices of dispute resolution is the considerable time involved. In Arnhem Land, I saw Aboriginal people resolving major disputes through slow, careful dialogue. Each speaker sought common ground and avoided causing offence to rivals with the aim of avoiding violence. The process was not adversarial but based on negotiation.

Sutton is incorrect when accusing Pascoe of denigrating Aborigines as “mere hunter-gatherers.” This is careless reading: Pascoe was quoting others’ use of that term, emphasising the pervasive belittling of the natives in early observers’ texts. Such belittling is still with us. The common term is racism.

The past is not the history

Studying the past is not the same as studying history. Sutton claims access to an authentic, unchanged native tradition, but he leaves us ignorant of how the Old People related to white explorers, land-hungry settlers, missionaries and miners and their beliefs about “savages.” Missionaries enticed Wik people to become sedentary, but when a massive bauxite deposit was discovered under the mission houses at Mapoon the people were forcibly moved and their houses burned down. Sutton may admire the Old People but, surprisingly, his work lacks any interest in living, changing, adapting and resistant Aboriginal societies — let alone our colonising forebears that labelled Aborigines “mere hapless wanderers.”

Sutton has not always ignored the Aboriginal present. He was an activist in Queensland in the 1980s, actively promoting recognition of Aboriginal culture and land rights. But his 2009 book The Politics of Suffering was his anguished response to the violence among contemporary Wik people. Sutton held the liberal policies of cultural recognition responsible and endorsed the Howard government’s 2007 Northern Territory Intervention. As fellow anthropologist Basil Sansom observed: “Sutton now argues that Aboriginal culture (Australia-wide) is bad [and] should not be conceded space to flourish.” It is only the Old People’s culture that Sutton admires, and we know what happens to old people.

Affluent foragers

Social evolutionism was upended by anthropologists when they recognised that the agricultural revolution was the “worst revolution in human history.” The American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously named foragers “the Original Affluent Society” because they had limited needs and abundant leisure. Humans had lived thus across the whole globe for millennia before agriculturalists developed major food surpluses, storage and denser populations. There followed cities and slaves, poverty and affluence, inequality and injustice — a downward spiral for humanity.

Anthropology students were taught the superiority of hunter-gatherer societies, but Sutton must know that primitivist thought remains alive today in popular imagery and convictions despite the work of anthropologists like Stanley Diamond. Admiration for hunter-gatherer societies is often derided as romantic primitivism, even by some anthropologists.

Pascoe shows how easy and convenient it was for settlers to share the conviction that Aborigines had not developed into modern humans and that a natural evolutionary process meant they had to give way to advanced Europeans. And that idea has not been eradicated. A further, repeated emphasis in Pascoe’s book is how settlers’ farming practices destroyed what Aborigines had preserved. Pascoe — along with most people — sees agriculture as a “development” from a simpler economy and in this he affirms that the continent was inhabited by dynamic societies. Such a view is more in line with scholarly knowledge of the deep human past than is Sutton’s emphasis on the Wik’s stasis. Social change may have been imperceptible for long periods, but human societies are living entities, not static or self-satisfied as the “Old People” appear in Sutton’s work.

Admiration for Pascoe’s book stems from its “profound challenge to conventional thinking about Aboriginal life on this continent” (Marcia Langton) and a critique of Australia’s “underlying supremicism” (Penny Wong). Sutton says primitive imagery of Aborigines is “a colonial-era fiction long expunged from Australian law.” But the Native Title Act was only passed in 1993 against powerful resistance and two centuries of primitivist and racist assumptions. Aboriginal ownership is still vigorously contested, moreover, and Sutton’s professional life as a Native Title anthropologist depends on that contestation.

Social archaeology

Anthropologists are often confused with archaeologists who study the evidence of human societies before written records emerged. Contemporary anthropology retains its focus on cultural specificities and variations, with the practice of ethnographic fieldwork ensuring that the discipline has a contemporary focus on living cultural histories and responses to changing conditions, rather than merely the past.

Perhaps Pascoe’s popularity has annoyed some, but I am more troubled that a classical anthropological text such as Farmers or Hunter-Gatherers? presents Aborigines as the Old People who belong indisputably to Australia’s past. Because it ignores living social history, Peter Sutton’s work can reasonably be defined as social archaeology. Sutton may have missed the work of the anthropologist Eric Wolf, who in 1982 urged social anthropologists to move beyond images of timeless, unchanging native societies and attend to post-colonial histories that are in urgent need of documentation.

By failing to address Bruce Pascoe’s historical themes, Sutton appears to be tilting at windmills. He may be right in seeing Dark Emu as a challenge to work that confines its attention to old Aboriginal people with long memories in remote places. But tilting at the windmill of contemporary popular, public and political thought doesn’t enhance the reputation of our discipline. It is the Native Title Act’s emphasis on Aboriginal traditions that keeps social archaeology alive in Australia and diverts interest from the varied ways Aborigines once lived and have since adapted, responded, resisted and perhaps most importantly thought about the culture that now dominates the continent. It is not Sutton, but Pascoe who encourages such progressive thought.

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Review: ‘Human Kind’ by Rutger Bregman

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 15/08/2021 - 3:01am in



What a marvellous book! A powerful refutation of one of the most deeply entrenched and mistaken assumptions built into our taken-for-granted world view that human nature is nasty.

For thousands of years, almost everyone has believed that human nature is nasty, that we are basically selfish, competitive, aggressive and prone to violence, and that civilisation is a “thin veneer” that restrains us but is easily fractured.  Bregman contrasts this Hobbesian view with that of Rousseau, who argued that our original nature was not like this and that it is “civilisation” that is causing the trouble.

The book is a long and detailed examination of lots of evidence on related issues, with 53 pages of mostly scientific references. It is clear and written in an engaging style (although much too long.) It is very convincing. The critiques I found do not dispute the validity of his main arguments.

He begins by demolishing the well known Lord of the Flies book by Golding, which portrays a group of boys stranded on a desert island descending into barbarism. Bregman describes what actually happened when a group of boys were stranded on a Pacific island for many months. They got along just fine, setting up a commune and working together to build shelter and collect food until they were found.  One is still living in Queensland. When they had an argument the rule was for the parties to separate for some time, then come back and shake hands.

Bregman summarises the studies on what happens in disasters such as hurricanes, or accidents when there are no authorities around to impose order.  People typically jump into helping and cooperating to fix things.  It is not the case that when the veneer of civilised order cracks a war of all against all breaks out. There follow four hundred pages of analysis of similar situations and phenomena.

Bregman marvels at the way the negative assumption has dominated thinking for a least two thousand years. “In almost every country most people believe that most other people cant be trusted.” (p. 12.) He puts it in terms of the clash between the Hobbesian ”veneer” view that the state of nature is nasty brutish and short, and thus that civilisation is a fragile shell over it and requires tight top-down rule or order will crumble, and Rousseau who argued that it is civilisation that is the problem, keeping humans “everywhere in chains” and that things were OK in the “state of nature” before civilisation was invented.

Bregman argues that what most characterises the human species is friendliness. “… we are one of the friendliest species in the animal kingdom.” (p. 245.) We like being around others, being on good terms, helping and co-operating. “Humans crave togetherness and interaction.”  (p. 80.) This he says is the major factor in the progress of our species, much more important than competition. Friendlier homo would have been better at communicating and cooperating. “Survival of the friendliest.” Above all, we, and many other animals, enjoy playing with each other. You have heard of Homo Ludens but Bregman calls us Homo Puppy.

Hobbes and the rest of the pessimists think life was problematic until civilisation came along. Bregman goes over the established case that while civilisation has had its merits its coming was a disaster.

Much space is given to the way we humans lived for a very long time as hunter-gatherers. These societies were friendly, not hierarchical or aggressive, providing a high level of freedom for children and women (who were usually able to terminate a partnership and form another as they wished … “serial monogamy”) and “allergic to inequality.” They shared everything and did everything together, in a group rather than as individuals. They had no taxes, bosses, states, religious domination, property or inheritance. Decisions “… were group affairs requiring long deliberation in which everybody got to have their say.” (p. 97.)  One survey of 339 studies concluded that they are “… all but obsessively concerned with being free from the authority of others.” (p. 97.) They had mechanisms for preventing inequality and the rise of powerful individuals, especially the use of shame. The successful hunter would say and be told, that his meat is not much good.  “For hundreds of thousands of years, we had efficient ways of taking down anyone who put on airs.” (p. 101.)

He says they did not make war. In cave paintings from that era “ … there’s not a single depiction of war.” (p. 93.) “How much archaeological evidence is there for early warfare, before the days of farming? … The answer is almost none.”  (p. 93.) Some three thousand skeletons have been found and the analysts “…see no convincing evidence for prehistoric warfare.” 93

But this is not what Pinker claims.  He is famous for claiming that “…we started off nasty” (p. 80) and have been improving since.  Bregman goes into the anthropological literature against this claim. (p. 92.)

So the state of nature seems distinctly not to have been nasty, brutish and short.  Rousseau 1, Hobbs nil. Round two begins.

Then it just about all went wrong. Humans took up farming and Civilisation began. “Rousseau saw the invention of farming as one big fiasco…” (p. 105.) Diet deteriorated markedly and being confined in settlements close to many others and to animals led to poorer health.  More work had to be done. Patriarchy began. Inequality, elites, kings and tyrants began. “The 1% began oppressing the 99%.” (p. 105.) Vindictive vengeful religion began. With property to leave to offspring “… female virginity became an obsession.” It seems debt began; the first evidence of writing we have is of recorded debts.

And it is here that war begins, evident in the first cave paintings of war, and in the kinds of skeleton injuries occurring. “…the first archeological evidence for war suddenly appears 10,000 years ago.” (p. 200.)

But that’s not the worst of it. The “…final catastrophic event so lamented by Rousseau…(was) the birth of the state.” (p. 109.) Bregman concludes, “Civilisation has become synonymous with peace and progress, and wilderness with war and decline. In reality, for most of human existence, it was the other way around.” (p. 112.)

So, Rousseau 2, Hobbes still 0?

But if we’re so friendly, why so much warfare? Bregman’s impressive answer is essentially … because we are so friendly. Again his case is good on evidence. Let’s start with, do soldiers fight wars because they are aggressive and want to kill? It’s pretty clear that in general, they don’t.  After the battle of Gettysburg 17,347 muskets were collected and it was found that 90% were loaded but not fired. (p. 84.) Other similar studies support Collins’ conclusion, “Humans are hard-wired for solidarity; and this is what makes violence so difficult.”

Why then do soldiers fight so hard? He says large studies have found that the answer is not ideology but the strong bonds between the men and the determination not to let comrades down. For example, this stood out in 15,000 pages of transcripts of conversations overheard among German POWs, and also in studies among American soldiers.  (p. 208) Fighting it seems is in fact due to … friendship. “Comaraderie is the weapon that wins wars.” (p. 208.)

Bregman devotes the last half of the book to the ways the Hobbesian assumption leads us to do so many things the wrong way.  “… we continually operate on a mistaken model of human nature.” (p. 251.) It tells us that humans are selfish, vicious, and untrustworthy, and therefore control, repression, correction, and punishment are necessary. He considers the resulting ways we organise corporations schools, prisons etc. Then he provides examples of practices based on contrary assumptions, documenting the stunning achievements when relations are based on friendliness and trust.

Above all the Hobbesian view tells us we need rulers.  We are fallible, perverse and violent animals in need of control from above. How remarkable that a doctrine providing such clear proof of the legitimacy of the ruling class should be so indubitably accepted!

Bregman seems to me to be powerfully correct, (Rousseau wins, OK?) and his analysis has very valuable implications for policy at the personal and social levels.  My concern is that in order to understand the mess the world is in we need to go further than he goes. The basic causal factors in our predicament are not well analysed primarily in terms of our good or bad human nature.  They require attention to be focused on our faulty institutions, systems and culture, and what it is about us that allows them to persist. Without the hunter-gatherer’s levelling mechanisms the few unfriendly and shameless get to the top and run things, including states, to enrich themselves. They are the ones who start the wars.

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