by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2007)
Seemingly arcane historical disputes can often cast a powerful light on the state of our collective soul. It is for that reason that I like to read books on obscure subjects: they are often more illuminating than books that at first sight are more immediately relevant to our current situation. For, as Emily Dickinson put it, success in indirection lies.
In 2002, the Australian free-lance historian and journalist, Keith Windschuttle, published a book that created a controversy that has still not died down. Entitled ‘The Fabrication of Aboriginal History,’ it sets out to destroy the idea that there had been a genocide of Tasmanian aborigines carried out by the early European settlers of the island.
For about the previous quarter century, it was more or less an historical orthodoxy that there had been such a genocide. Robert Hughes accepted the idea in his best-selling history of early
Windschuttle argued in his book that they had fabricated much of their evidence, and that, contrary to what they claimed, there had been no deliberate policy on the part of the colonial authorities or the local population either to extirpate or kill very large numbers of aborigines. He showed that the historians’ reading of the obscure source materials was either misleading or mendacious.
He sifted the material very carefully and found that there was evidence for the killing of 120 Tasmanian aborigines, either by settlers or by the military and police. Although this does not sound many, in relation to the population of Tasmanian aborigines it was a lot. It is the equivalent in the
However, a similar number of settlers were killed by aborigines, and perhaps it is not so very surprising that there was conflict between people of such widely different conceptions of life as the aborigines and the early British settlers. But conflict is not genocide, which entails a plan deliberately to rid the world of a certain population. There was no genocide in
After the book was published, there were furious challenges to Windschuttle. Slurs were cast upon him: he was, for example, the Australian equivalent of the holocaust deniers. A book of essays in refutation of his point of view was published; a refutation of the refutation was also published. He appeared all round the country in debates with some of his detractors. As far as I understand it, the massed ranks of the professional historians were unable seriously to dent his argument. A few small errors (which he acknowledged) were found in his book, but not such as to undermine his thesis; in any case, they were very minor by comparison with the wholesale errors of his opponents. He had been much more scrupulous than they.
What struck me at the time about the controversy was the evident fact that a large and influential part of the Australian academy and intelligentsia actually wanted there to have been a genocide. They reacted to Windschuttle’s book like a child who has had a toy snatched from its hand by its elder sibling. You would have thought that a man who discovered that his country had not been founded, as had previously been thought and taught, on genocide would be treated as a national hero. On the contrary, he was held up to execration.
Why should this be? Here I confess that I am entering the world of the ad hominem. I will not be able to prove my assertions beyond reasonable doubt, and other interpretations are possible. However, when it comes to questions of human motivation, it is difficult altogether to avoid the ad hominem.
It is, of course, possible, that the professors and the intelligentsia were so convinced that there had been a genocide, and believed that the evidence that it had taken place so overwhelming, that any person who denied it must have been an extremely bad man. On the other hand, if the evidence was so overwhelming, they should have been able easily to produce sufficient of it in public to convince someone like me (and many others). This they have not done, and so one must conclude that, at the very least, the historical question is an open one. And if the question is still an open one, the fury directed at Windschuttle was quite disproportionate.
I think the explanation lies elsewhere.
This is not to say that everyone in
The fact is, however, that political reforms in
This is a disagreeable thing, particularly for an intelligentsia, which is deprived by it of a providential role for itself. What does an intelligentsia do when a country is already as satisfactory in its political arrangements and social institutions as any country has ever been? Intelligentsias do not like the kind of small problems that day to day existence inevitably throws up, such as termites in the woodwork or conflict at work over desk-space: they like to get their intellectual teeth into weightier, meatier problems.
What could be a weightier problem than a prosperous, fortunate country that was founded upon genocide? Clearly, if it was so founded, an intelligentsia is urgently needed to help it emerge from the dark moral labyrinth in which it exists, hitherto blindly. For only an intelligentsia is sufficiently used to thinking in abstractions to be qualified to act as guide to the nation.
Of course, an intelligentsia needs allies, for it is rarely strong enough by itself to dominate and control a society, and oddly enough the genocide
Where there has been genocide, it is only right that there should be apology and, more importantly, reparation. In the case of the aborigines, this can only be restoration of the land to them as a collectivity. Indeed, it has been suggested that half the territory of the
These aborigines live indistinguishably from their non-aboriginal neighbours. They speak no language other than English; they do not forage in the bush for food; they have the same jobs and are under no social disability, perhaps because they are also physically indistinguishable from non-aborigines. In fact they are descended to a much greater extent from the perpetrators and beneficiaries of the alleged genocide than from the victims of it. It would therefore be difficult to think of a more obvious attempted fraud perpetrated on a political entity than the claim by Tasmanian ‘aborigines’ to ancestral lands.
Actually, Tasmanian historiography of the genocide school has parallels elsewhere. I remember when I lived for a time in
Why was it not mentioned? Because the author wanted to present the current, supposedly lamentable state of
The same is true in
That has changed quite a lot recently, but still intellectuals in
It is hardly surprising, then, that when someone came along and challenged the version of history on which their new-found importance in society was to be based, they threw their dolly out of the pram, as the prison wardens in the prison in which I worked used to put it to describe the actions of a prisoner who had lost his temper. The dispute was not just a matter of the interpretation of the contents of old newspapers in
A conflict over the veracity of footnotes was thus also a conflict also over the proper place of intellectuals in modern society. And Windschuttle was vastly more often right about the footnotes than he was wrong. This was quite unforgivable of him.
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