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 Sympathy for the Savage 

April 29, 2004 
I’ve been dipping into a marvelous book, The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding, by Robert Hughes, who is best known as a brilliant art critic. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.I can only admire his style and learning; at the same time, there is a peculiar and off-putting quality about his writing, often typical of liberals.

The early history of Australia begins around 1770, when the English discovered it. They found the native Aborigines, who had been there for thousands of years but who had no recorded history. The Abos, as they are often called, were what some of us might call primitive.

They were nomads, skilled hunters and fishers, without agriculture. In fact they were pretty much without clothing or shelter; as Hughes tells it, they didn’t even build huts, but moved from cave to cave. They had little property or social hierarchy, except that the women were entirely at the disposal of the men, who might lend them to friends or guests without asking their consent. The women were also offered to enemies, who might avert war by having intercourse with them (or commence war by refusing them). The ladies had no say in this; if they didn’t obey the men, they risked severe beating or death.

Unwanted Abo babies — unwanted by the men, that is — were aborted or, if born alive, had their heads smashed with rocks. Deformed babies were always killed. Nor were the Abos unduly sentimental about old folks, who, when they could no longer keep up with the tribe’s migrations, were simply left to die.

Bathing, Hughes relates, was unknown to the Abos. This was acutely noticeable to the English newcomers, mainly convicts, who, being the dregs of English society, weren’t much on hygiene themselves, but who nevertheless found the natives’ fishlike odor overpowering. Even after long, hard months at sea, the Englishmen found the naked Abo women somewhat unalluring at close range.

The Abo men threw spears with deadly accuracy and, when unfriendly, were fierce warriors. All in all, circumstances were distinctly unpropitious for interracial harmony, which failed to blossom. The Abos and the English regarded each other, on the whole, with contempt and hatred.

[Breaker quote: The strange alienation of the liberal]Mind you, I’m taking Hughes’s word for all this. I knew next to nothing about the Abos — and little more about the wretched poor of eighteenth-century England — before opening his book. Both groups evidently fell pretty far short of modern civilized standards.

What makes the book especially fascinating is the author’s attitude. Hughes’s sympathies are not with his own ancestors, but with the Abos. He strongly disapproves of the English, whom he anachronistically accuses of “racism,” but not of the natives, who, as the foregoing suggests, weren’t exactly bleeding-heart liberals themselves.

By Hughes’s account, the Abos were well adapted to life in Australia; it was their home. But most of the English were there involuntarily, thanks to England’s severe penal code, under which children could be exiled for trivial offenses (petty theft, for example); and for them survival in this strange land was an incredibly bitter struggle, even apart from hostile natives.

Two more alien races can hardly be imagined; neither had sought this bizarre encounter. But Hughes’s indignation is reserved entirely for the English. He prefers the outright savage, whom he forgives everything (even infanticide), to the imperfectly civilized, whom he forgives nothing.

True, there is much to deplore on the English side, and there is pathos in the fate of the Abos — especially later, when they were wantonly exterminated in the name of progress. But there is also something inhumanly priggish about a narrator of this tragic story who assumes the role of arbitrary judge, unnaturally aloof from one side and endlessly indulgent toward the other.

Sometimes civilized men commit savage crimes; but savages commit them as a matter of course. This is no reason to belittle the difference between civilization and savagery. It’s a reason to keep trying to improve civilization.

Sympathy for the alien can be noble, if it presupposes sympathy for one’s own. But as Robert Frost said, a liberal is one who won’t take his own side in a fight. “Nothing human is alien to me,” as the Roman said; but too many liberals seem alienated from the civilization to which they owe their being.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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