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February 14th 2013 print

Christopher Akehurst

Expiating white guilt? It’s entirely academic

Those preaching that the bloody guilt of colonialism is visited upon the settlers' descendants demonstrate a remarkable reluctance to act in accordance with their own teachings. There would be a rush to the airport if they did


Here are the words of African-American student and convicted murderer Nkosi Thandiwe, an "anthropology major" at the University of West Georgia, in his trial in Atlanta for shooting dead a white woman and injuring two others:

"I was trying to prove a point that Europeans had colonised the world, and as a result of that, we see a lot of evil today."

His beliefs about white evil, he explained, and his hatred of whites, had been acquired in the course of his studies.


Well, we know all about the gun violence supposedly provoked by television and video games or, in America, according to the liberal media, by the availability of the guns themselves. But by anthropology? Yet it is sadly so, and ought not to be surprising.

Europeans … colonised the world, and as a result of that, we see a lot of evil today. For succinctness and accuracy that summary of what is actually taught in anthropology, history and no doubt other courses in Western universities could not be bettered. It is the fundamental assumption on which the world view of a generation of students is being formed. It is not confined to universities. We saw it here, as we do each year, on Australia Day, a "national day of shame" according to The Age, delivering its annual exhortation to a collective mea culpa:

… the day that marked the theft of a land (terra nullius), the day that marked the theft and abduction of a people, of a culture, the day that initiated the pathways to the Stolen Children and, to our ultimate shame, the deaths in custody. It is a day that stands as a reminder of massacres …

The academic staff at the University of West Georgia who used Nkosi Thandiwe as a tabula rasa on which to imprint their views are no doubt high-minded Obama-voting liberals who pride themselves on their open-mindedness and intelligence. Presumably they are intelligent enough to see that they are the problem they inveigh against in their courses. Their ancestors caused all the trouble, but it is they themselves, accepting as they do the theory of guilt by descent as manifested in sundry apologies for the past, who must now hold themselves responsible for stealing someone else’s country. In the case of Thandiwe’s teachers, it would be the United States, but the logic applies throughout the former colonial world, wherever nations have evolved from white settlement. It certainly applies here, as The Age article makes clear in its reference to theft.

The expiation of theft necessarily implies restitution. If someone is illegally occupying your house it is natural to want them out. It’s no help if they stay in possession, all the while saying how shocking it all is that the legal owner is being deprived of his property while continuing to deprive him of it. That would seem obvious, but the hand-wringers in education and the media just don’t get it.

Why does not just one university lecturer specialising in the history of colonial and imperial exploitation — there are plenty of them here, including New Zealanders who have colonised Australian university departments — set an example by taking the restitution option? Why does he or she not gather up his librarian/philosophy-tutor spouse, withdraw their two kids from a high-achieving inner-suburban high school, hand the keys of their recently refurbished Glebe or North Fitzroy terrace with its twin studies, "kids’ space", Provencal kitchen and wine cellar to a needy Aboriginal family — not of their acquaintance because they wouldn’t know any, but selected for them by "indigenous affairs" bureaucrats — and shake the stolen dust of this country from invader-descended feet? It wouldn’t matter where they go. The important thing is that they clear out. Just go home.

It might be difficult to work out where "home" is, and even more so to get a visa to settle there, particularly in one of the more likely countries of their forebears’ provenance — England, Scotland, Ireland or anywhere else in Europe, or Asia come to that — but that would afford a valuable insight into what it is really like to be dispossessed, instead of just lecturing about it. Surely the joy in their high-minded hearts at liberating themselves from the taint of connivance in the continuing occupation of someone else’s country, that they had helped just that little bit to undo the harm of past centuries, would be compensation enough for the inconvenience of living out of a suitcase.

Perhaps they could go further in expiating their guilt and offer themselves into slavery in the Middle East or Africa. Their reward would be first-hand experience of genuine subjugation, as distinct from the alleged subjugation that the contemporary historical imagination accuses the white races of imposing on Aborigines, African-Americans etc., lecture-room denunciations that have stoked the anger of who knows how many students.

Such was, in essence, the solution recommended a few years ago by a Melbourne clergyman, Canon Peter Adam, who announced that the only thing to do if we are ever to right the wrong of European invasion would be for us descendants of the invaders to repatriate ourselves to wherever our wicked forebears came from (though the canon’s own presence in the departure lounge has not so far been noted).

Why will none of this happen? Why is there not a rush to the airport? One reason is that the guilt professed by the bien-pensant is phoney and a fad. It’s an academic fashion of highly ideological origin — you could loosely define it as "Thus spake Derrida; so said Said" — and it fills a void once occupied by pride in Western achievements. We now affect to despise those achievements and to be ashamed that part of their price was colonial expansion. Teaching younger generations that the nation most of them were born in is an illegitimate and exploitative construct is one way of feeling less guilty. It helps that you can persuade yourself that, by simply drawing attention to past sins, you are doing your bit to atone for them.

We may be certain, though, that no pedlars of white guilt in education or the media will decide that full atonement can only be made through restitution, and that they are therefore required by justice and their own logic to remove themselves from a country in which they have no right to be. Such people may have lost faith in the achievements of our society but they have not renounced their taste for the material comforts those achievements confer.

And amid the manufactured guilt, a pang of guilt sincerely felt would not go amiss — guilt that if your lecture-room theories inspire students to exact vengeance for the evil committed by "Europeans" your own guilt extends to having helped deprive innocent descendants of those Europeans of their lives.

Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus