Indigenous author Bruce Pascoe came under attack early this year, with right-wing campaigner Josephine Cashman making a complaint about him to the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton. Dutton referred the complaint to the Australian Federal Police (AFP), who have since dismissed it.
Cashman’s e-mail to Dutton claimed that Pascoe faked his Aboriginal heritage for profit, and called for an ‘Aboriginal register’ to verify who is and is not Aboriginal.
Her proposals have backfired on her. She’s since been sacked from her unelected role on the government’s Indigenous advisory group. The idea of an Aboriginal register reminded people of a long, racist history of such registries. Cashman’s attack on Pascoe also caused outrage, as a lot of Aboriginal people have been attacked for not being ‘Aboriginal enough’.
In 2011, right-wing columnist Andrew Bolt was found guilty under the Race Discrimination Act for similar attacks. Bolt claimed that light-skinned Indigenous people – which includes many people raised Indigenous, with Indigenous parents – only claim to be Aboriginal for personal gain. He maliciously attacked the moral character of a group of people because of their skin colour.
Bolt claimed his free speech was violated, but this ‘speech’ was nothing but bullying. Racism causes real harm, and justifies exploitation and violence – people are right to fight for protection from it.
Cashman’s claims were made to hurt Pascoe’s reputation. Bruce Pascoe is the author of Dark Emu, a book which disputes many myths about Indigenous culture. Dark Emu argues that Aboriginal people made extensive use of the land before Europeans arrived, building permanent structures and raising crops.
The book is popular because it exposed many people to historical facts that were previously only discussed among historians, archaeologists, and Indigenous communities themselves.
Aboriginal culture is falsely painted as un-sophisticated by right-wing commentators. The same people downplay the genocide that allowed capitalism to be established in Australia. Their motive is to promote the myth of a bloodless national history. Part of that myth is the idea that European agriculture somehow gave them a superior right to occupy the land. Dark Emu undermines that idea.
The book is not perfect, but it has played a good role by raising people’s understanding of Aboriginal history. Its downside is, ironically, that it accepts some conservative ideas about Indigenous people, including arguing for Indigenous capitalism.
Pascoe came under attack by Cashman because he wrote this book, and not simply because he presents himself as Aboriginal. Both on Twitter and in interviews, Cashman’s comments about Pascoe’s identity and her anger at his book are all mixed in together.
Yuin elder Pastor Ossie Cruse spoke to the Sunday Age about the attack on Pascoe, saying: “I don’t think anybody needs that, what’s the gain in it, particularly a person who has really had a hard life and found out they were of Aboriginal descent.”
Whether or not you agree with Pascoe identifying as Aboriginal, it’s a fact that he was never dishonest about his heritage, and is acknowledged and vouched for by Yuin lore men. The basis for someone being part of an Aboriginal community depends on the cultural protocols of that community. Cashman’s suggestions that the government should decide who is and isn’t Aboriginal, or that Pascoe’s identity has any effect on the factual claims in Dark Emu, are indefensible.
Right-wing commentators claim to care about the truth, but their goal is to lie about history to make capitalism look bloodless. They weave a myth that our history is united, peaceful, and marked only by progress.
They are happy to use a kind of ‘identity politics’ to find new ways to discredit their opponents. This is an easier path for them than actually engaging on the facts.
This is all because they defend a precarious system, ruled by a tiny minority at the expense of all working people. Workers will always outnumber capitalists, and are the source of society’s wealth. Workers could end capitalism peacefully, if democratically organized. Capitalists need to throw the wool over people’s eyes to stop this from happening.
It’s necessary for people like Bolt and Cashman to lie about history, because this is how they write the myths of capitalism. Playing games with people’s identities is also crucial to them, whether they are turning people against each other with bigotry, or slandering opponents for having the ‘wrong’ identity. To have a society without bigotry, where the truth matters, we need to end class society and build a socialist world.
By David Elliott