Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

A Tale of Two Myths

Gymnastics can be verbal.


The origin and tenacity of long-held Australian myths is a fascinating study.

To name a few of the more well-known, Ned Kelly, (as the Australian Robin Hood), Lassiter's Reef, Drop Bears, and the Inland Sea - they abound and persist.

The ANZAC myth is one of the most enduring, and the Dark Emu narrative the most controversial.

The first of these has been around for a very long time and the second is a recent phenomenon.

I've personally been guilty of exploiting one of these myths. To my eternal shame, I used the Drop Bear narrative on a Sydney-based soldier when we were at Shoalwater Bay in November 1969. He had never spent time in Central Queensland and swallowed the story whole, avoiding setting up sleeping space directly under large trees.

For a short time, it was funny, but we were sternly told to desist by our platoon sergeant when he sussed out what was going on.

The ANZAC Myth (rugged volunteer soldiers fighting for king and country when we were under threat) persists, but it was a very poor fit with our Vietnam experience. Somehow the contradiction between that historical construct and the fact of conscripting twenty-year-olds to fight in peacetime on foreign soil spilled through to the keeper.

The "primitive savage" narrative which describes the indigenous inhabitants of the country at the time of colonisation as useless and incompetent nomadic hunters and gatherers, also persists but has been challenged recently by Bruce Pascoe.

Now, let's get this clear. I'm not challenging either of these two narratives. Rather, I'm looking at the reaction when they are challenged.

In the case of the first, when I challenged the "every National Serviceman who went to Vietnam" narrative (an integral part of the ANZAC myth when applied to Vietnam) I was first ignored, but eventually, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the fact of history was grudgingly ceded, but not until there had been a great deal of ducking and weaving.

Some of that ducking and weaving was epic. 

There were those who maintained that young men, who had their birthdates drawn in the National Service ballot were somehow "volunteers" because they went along with a posting to Vietnam.

Others were convinced that anybody who didn't join the CMF to avoid the possibility of operational service was also a "volunteer".

The logical gymnastics involved would have made Nadia Com─âneci look like a rank amateur.

In reference to Dark Emu, the reaction to Pascoe's thesis has been epic.

How dare the notion of the noble, but incompetent savage be challenged? Pascoe's work was condemned by shock jocks, culture warriors, and serious politicians who suddenly assumed the anthropological mantle. 

I've read Pascoe's book and found it engaging and interesting, but I believe he has crossed a bridge too far with many of his assumptions. Having said that, the elevation of the issue in the public consciousness has probably done the study of indigenous history a good turn, and schools all over the country are including a discussion of the issue in curricula.

Pascoe, in the meantime, is laughing all the way to the bank. 

Contrasting the reaction to the busting of two myths has revealed a great deal about us as Australians. There are two basic lessons.

The first is - be prepared to be savagely attacked if you have the temerity to put a challenge forward to a myth that has become institutionalised.

The second is - the facts of history will always play second fiddle to long-held prejudices and bigotry.

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