On October 25, 2000, central Sydney’s traffic stood still for hours, for the first time since the Olympiad. Inside the late-Victorian Town Hall, approximately 2,000 pilgrims witnessed the Aboriginal faith’s latest canonization: the state funeral of Charles Perkins, who had died on October 18 after 29 years of daily medical dependence on the “whitefella” culture he so despised—which, in his case, took the form of a kidney transplant.

Huge banners bearing Perkins’ portrait were scattered among the mourners, who included gold medallist Cathy Freeman. Those familiar with North Korean crowd scenes at the height of Kim Il-Sung’s reign experienced a profound shock of recognition, lessened only by the indigenous smoke-dancing.

With one voice, local headline writers called Perkins “Australia’s Martin Luther King.” (In an even crazier appeal to political correctness, TV networks warned Aboriginal viewers to cease watching if they might be offended, “for cultural reasons,” by the idea of Perkins’ name and photo being broadcast!) To New South Wales’ Premier Bob Carr, Perkins warranted plaudits for his courage in the “relatively lonely cause” of Aboriginal rights. “Australia,” New South Wales Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Spigelman said, “is a better and fairer place because of him.” Geoff Clark of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (recently questioned by police in connection with four counts of rape) exhibited more originality Of Perkins’ decades-old and taxpayer-funded appetite for acquiring some of Sydney’s most expensive real estate—notably a $1.25-million mansion in the modish suburb of Newtown—Clark declared, “I think Charlie was a great businessman.”

Every newspaper in Australia’s capital cities reprinted—and, when rebuked by readers, failed to correct—the lie that Perkins was Australia’s first Aborigine to graduate from an Australian campus. (The first acknowledged full-blood Aboriginal was actually Margaret Valadian in 1966. Yet part-blood Aborigines had been graduating for decades; Australia had so little legal sanction against Aboriginal achievement that it produced internationally touring Aboriginal cricket teams as far back as the 1860’s.)

Largely forgotten amid all the hoopla were Perkins’ April 3, 2000, BBC interview urging indigenous peoples to disrupt the Olympics, and Perkins’ general inability to work with others. His entire adult life was full of clashes with fellow bureaucrats. Perkins’ passing, whatever else it does, should make us ponder Voltaire’s dictum; “To the living we owe charity; to the dead we owe truth.” We do Perkins’s memory no service by coating it in sanctimonious treacle that only nourishes the gag reflex.

Tabloid disinformation notwithstanding, Perkins’ closest American counterpart was not, in fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. (however similar the two men’s approaches to academic “scholarship” might have been), but Adam Clayton Powell, whom he resembled in both his virtues and his vices. Like Powell, Perkins could, on occasion, smile and joke, if only to disarm newsmen. (“I like whites, married one,” he said, assuring Sydney Morning Herald columnist Mike Carlton of his freedom from vulgar racial prejudice.) That he could call his memoirs A Bastard Like Me indicates a certain impatience with humbug—an impatience markedly absent from the attitude of younger Aboriginal apparatchiks, whose inability to communicate in anything resembling decent English is, perhaps, our sole protection against their power. At a deeper level, nonetheless, the gulf separating Perkins and his successors is a distinction without a difference. On the slogans that matter—equating white Australia with Nazi Germany; incessantly demanding that John Howard, prime minister since 1996, publicly apologize for his predecessors’ alleged sins in Aboriginal children’s schooling; decrying the obscene evil of anyone even attempting to reduce the welfare dependence of Aboriginal communities—Perkins had no quarrel with today’s indigenous nomenklatura.

A native of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, Perkins was born in 1936 to unwed parents of different Aboriginal tribes—and, therefore, was doomed to banishment (if not worse), had he remained in his original surroundings. (In its sheer obsession with purity of bloodlines, traditional Aboriginal society could learn little from the Third Reich.) An Anglican hostel oversaw his upbringing; in retrospect, he saw this act of charity as part of a “genocidal” conspiracy—which nonetheless equipped Perkins with the skills to play soccer at a first-grade level.

In an era when visiting Britain was completely beyond the means of all but a minuscule minority of Australians, Perkins enjoyed the luxury of not only visiting the United Kingdom but being paid to live there before he had turned 21. (He played for the British soccer team Everton; after returning to Australia, he played for Adelaide’s Croatia Club.) When he finally received his arts degree from Sydney University—at the age of 30—he became the front-page hero of every newspaper in the land.

By then, he had begun devoting his main energies to activism. In 1965, he kidnapped a Fijian girl to keep her from being deported. He ostentatiously described his bus trips to the Outback as “Freedom Rides,” though they had no loftier purpose than the exercise of his freedom to get drunk at white-dominated hotels. (Medgar Evers might have considered Perkins’ notions of “redneck bigotry” somewhat dilettantish.) Finally, he obtained a researcher’s post at the Federal Office of Aboriginal Affairs, his main power base for the rest of his career. In this role, he publicly castigated members of the Gough Whitlam Cabinet—most notably, his own department’s minister at the time, Sen. James Cavanagh. When Perkins’ superiors lost patience with his penchant for disappearing from his desk to join anti-white protests on the front lawn of Canberra’s Parliament House, they inflicted on him the most severe possible reproof: a year’s leave with full pay. Despite his 1974 description of Australia’s anti-Labor parties (then in opposition) as pernicious racists, he happily accepted promotion at their hands when they regained government in 1975. His sole punishment for having attributed white-supremacist views to his bosses was to be named assistant secretary of the Aboriginal Affairs Department in 1978. The department’s top job came his way five years later, once Labor had returned to power under Prime Minister Bob Hawke.

Perkins’ contribution to the national bicentenary celebrations in 1988 consisted of hymns of hatred toward Indo-Chinese refugees from Marxist terror. “We’ve brought enough of these people from South-East Asia,” Perkins proclaimed, to the alarm of Hawke’s immigration minister, Gerry Hand, who knew the impossibility of any non-Aboriginal politician’s career surviving a similar outburst. Having compounded his Adam Clayton Powell imitation with investment shell games, Perkins found himself compelled to resign—with his entire pension fund intact. Thereafter, he increasingly resembled yesterday’s man, insofar as anyone can combine that role with receiving 1993’s Aboriginal of the Year award and an honorary doctorate from his alma mater. John Howard, whom Perkins called “the worst Prime Minister this country has ever had,” declared him a “Living National Treasure.”

Perkins’ death leaves Aboriginal affairs precisely where he found them—and the statistics are grim. The average life expectancy of full-blooded Aboriginal males remains almost two decades shorter than that of white males (54 years as opposed to 73). The infant-mortality rate is almost three times the corresponding Caucasian figure. Of course, Perkins founded his whole policy on the avoidance of serious issues of Aboriginal health—especially Aboriginal alcoholic poisoning—in favor of advocating what he learned to call “empowerment.” To be fair to Perkins, he could not have done otherwise: Although the Warsaw Pact countries discarded socialism’s accoutrements 12 years back, no such purgation ever occurred in Australia. The idea that bureaucratic tyrants have a monopoly not just on virtue, but on competence, could no more be challenged by Charles Perkins (or by those who subsidized him) than polluted water can be questioned by a fish. In allowing the likes of Perkins to dwell in their driveling bliss of nanny-statism (“where,” as Kipling once observed, “all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins”) white Australia is indeed as morally culpable as Perkins said it was.