History Wars

Postmodernism in Aboriginal History – Part 1

The Return of Postmodernism in Aboriginal History – Part 1

[First published in Quadrant, April 2006]

More specifically, Windschuttle has not provided any evidence for his imputation that academic historians have compared the British colonisation of this country to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews or caused others to make such a comparison. This is a figment of his imagination.

Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, 2005, p 95

No Australian historian contends there was an Australian holocaust.

Dirk Moses, The Australian, January 13 2003

For the foreseeable future, the fate of reconciliation will also rest on recognition of the severe historical impact the various dimensions of colonisation have had upon Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders — what can and should be called a holocaust given the scale of loss and the trauma that has been suffered.

Bain Attwood, in Michelle Grattan ed., Reconciliation, 2000, p 258

* * *

I don’t want to call it genocidal, but I’m not going to tidy it up either.

Cassandra Pybus on the Tasmanian Aborigines, Sunday, Channel 9, May 25 2003

In the early nineteenth century, the Aboriginal people of Tasmania were all but wiped out, I mean it was one of the clearest cases of genocide that we know of and recognised as such at the time.

Cassandra Pybus, Four Corners, ABC-TV, August 26 2002

* * *

Falsely accusing Australian historians of exaggerating claims of genocide and Holocaust in Australia in order to paint them as ideologically-driven is now common among history warriors.

Dirk Moses, Online Opinion, 11 April 2005

Australia had many genocides, perhaps more than any other country.

Dirk Moses, Journal of Genocide Research, 2000, p 93

* * *

In my opinion, genocide is neither a necessary nor a useful concept for the task of understanding the nature of the white colonisation of this country.

Bain Attwood, Telling the Truth about Aboriginal History, 2005, p 92

the concept of genocide, I am suggesting, might still be useful to us in the historical task of imagining and so understanding the past of our forbears (and therefore, in time, it might have beneficial political outcomes).

Bain Attwood, Aboriginal History, 2001, p 171 [his emphasis]

How to explain such contortions: short-term memory loss? incapacity to recognise self-contradiction? willful dishonesty to deflect criticism? a postmodernist ploy that allows words to mean whatever their users choose? all of the above?

For a while, it looked like the History Wars might have left postmodernism dead and buried. The debate over Aboriginal history has been largely conducted in the popular press and non-academic magazines, on television and in public debates in lecture theatres, arts festivals and trades halls. In such environments, it is difficult for postmodernist academics to get the hearing they would like.

Without going into all its permutations, postmodernism supports a relativist concept of truth, which claims different cultures and ethnicities have their own, equally valid versions of truth. Even though some of them might be quite incompatible with, or even contradict other truths, each culture is entitled to be confident of its own convictions.

This approach might go down well in the limited world of the academic seminar but it cuts little ice when it surfaces in open debate. In public, especially in the media or in an auditorium, those who argue for the relativism of truth, or for a multiplicity of truths, or any other dissembling variant, find audiences resistant to their counter-intuitive arguments and arcane language. Moreover, these arguments are easily ridiculed by opponents. Hence, in public, endorsing postmodernism is not a clever tactic.

This is why some of the higher profile players in the Aboriginal history debate have been at pains to emphasise they want nothing to do with it.

Robert Manne’s anthology Whitewash, the attempted counter-attack to my Fabrication of Aboriginal History, contains an article by Greg Lehman of the University of Tasmania, who supports the cultural relativist position. Truth, Lehman says, is “a result of social negotiation, agreement achieved by participants in a particular conversation”. Aborigines have their own truths, which are different to white man’s truths, says this person who calls himself an Aborigine but admits, without blushing, to an ancestry one sixty-fourth Aboriginal and sixty-three sixty-fourths European.

Although he commissioned Lehman’s piece, Manne now wants to dissociate himself from it, especially after the damaging criticism of Lehman by John Dawson in Washout. With his customary charm, Manne in Australian Book Review calls Dawson’s analysis “an ignorant and bilious anti-postmodernist rant”, but he is nonetheless at pains to emphasise how conventionally empirical his own collection is: “With the exception of Greg Lehmann,” Manne ticks off Dawson, “the authors assembled in Whitewash are completely, almost stubbornly, traditional.”

In The History Wars, Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark also defend an empirical methodology. They don’t want anyone to think the current academic establishment houses political ideologues who can’t be trusted. Only opponents like me write “strident polemics”. Academic historians, Macintyre assures his readers, insist on scrupulous scholarship:

First-year undergraduates are instructed in the rules of evidence: go back to the original source, report it accurately, document it fully. The same principles apply in advanced research, where the higher degree candidate is expected to provide exhaustive documentation and always verify it.

Similarly, Henry Reynolds defends empirical history from postmodern intellectuals and cultural relativists. In 2000, he wrote a paper criticising “the circling theoreticians” who regard academic history as epistemologically flawed. He supports traditional methodology, endorsing it as both scholarly impeccable and politically utilitarian. If truth is relativised, Reynolds argues, the victims and protestors of historical injustice are deprived of their last and often best weapon, “that of telling what really happened”.

Internationally, the theoretical Left now either politely dismisses postmodernism or attacks it openly. Anthony Appiah and Arif Dirlik call postmodernist authors “a comprador intelligentsia” and “the intelligentsia of global capitalism”. But even radicals like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, whose big seller Empire (2000) argues that postmodernism’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism are well-meaning though ineffectual, still spurn its epistemological critique. Hardt and Negri echo Reynolds in arguing for the political utility of truth:

the concept of truth is not fluid or unstable — on the contrary! The truth is that this general ordered the torture and assassination of that union leader, and this colonel led the massacre of that village. Making public such truths is an exemplary Enlightenment project of modernist politics, and the critique of it in these contexts could only serve to aid the mystificatory and repressive powers of the regime under attack.

Even someone as insensitive as Dirk Moses can tell which way this wind is blowing. In June 2002, in a debate at the University of New South Wales over postmodernism in history, Moses was on the positive side (with Joy Damousi and Stephen Garton), while I was on the negative team (with Richard Evans and Behan McCullagh). Three years later, Moses has changed tack.

In Australian Book Review last November, writing about a new postmodernist combatant in the History Wars, Bain Attwood’s Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Moses too was concerned about its impact on the public:

Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History is a missed opportunity to educate a wide readership about the nature and importance of empirical research. In its habitual invocation and lengthy, deferential quotation of (overwhelmingly male) ‘authorities’, and the deployment of vague yet seemingly profound statements that lay readers won’t understand, the book evinces a characteristically provincial combination of anxiety and overconfidence that does not answer the questions historians and the general public are asking about the research methods and public use of history.

The big problem in this debate for orthodox left-wing historians who rely on traditional empirical methods is the lack of evidence to give them a winning hand. Despite my opponents’ claims to the contrary, the first volume of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was an exhaustive study of all the relevant evidence on the frontier of Van Diemen’s Land.

That evidence does not support claims of either genocide or frontier warfare in the colony. None of my critics have been able to come up with anything credible to show I am wrong. They are reduced to pinning their faith on speculation: the assumption of a frontier full of “unrecorded killings”.

It was quickly apparent that Whitewash had failed to deliver its promised killer blow. It’s most extensive article by James Boyce, on whom editor Manne pinned so much hope, claimed I had overlooked a number of crucial private diaries and unofficial documents which told a story different to mine.

Yet, as John Dawson pointed out in Washout, no previous writer about the Aborigines in Van Diemen’s Land had found the sources listed by Boyce contained anything worth reporting, not even Boyce himself in his own history of the Tasmanian Aborigines and the Anglican Church.

In Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Bain Attwood agrees this is true. “Boyce is unable to demonstrate that this work would have provided factual evidence of settler killings of Aborigines.”

This is why the debate became so acrimonious. Without the historical evidence in their favour, my opponents have been largely reduced to two tactics: character assassination and language games.

In going down this road, they have adopted methods that are more characteristic of the postmodernism they claim to reject than of traditional empirical debate where issues are largely decided on the facts, and where ad hominem abuse is the tactic of losers.

Postmodernism, however, makes all cultural perspectives legitimate, so no debate can ever be resolved and rival sides are largely reduced to analysing their opponents’ political or psychological motives which, in effect, means calling one another names.

Either that, or playing language games. The latter tactic has a number of variants but often involves changing the common meaning of words to give them a special “academic” meaning that is less vulnerable to criticism.

For example, the common usage of the term “holocaust” in a historical context inextricably links it to the fate of the Jews in Germany. But when an academic historian depicts events in Australia as a holocaust, he can try to deflect accusations of over-dramatisation by claiming his own usage does not invoke the Nazi comparison. This is not an imaginary example. Bain Attwood made just such a case in a letter to The Australian on December 10-11 2005.

In this article, I want to show how the two postmodernist tactics of language games and character assassination have been deployed in this debate. I also want to point out some problems with Attwood’s newest attempt to introduce a full-blown methodology of postmodernist cultural relativism to Aboriginal history.

Genocide and the Nazi comparison

Unless they have taken a course in Australian history, most people find it hard to believe that the comparatively benign and largely harmonious society they know as modern Australia harbors a dark, murderous past. While the use of the term genocide by Ronald Wilson’s 1997 “stolen generations” report went down well with the anti-Howard intellectual Left, among the wider community, as Inga Clendinnen correctly observed, the accusation was a political disaster.

“When I see the word genocide,” Clendinnen wrote in 2001, “I still see Gypsies and Jews being herded into trains, into pits, into ravines … I see deliberate murder.” The use of this term to describe welfare policies for mixed-race children in the mid-twentieth century lacked credibility with most Australians and confirmed the popular suspicion that academic and Aboriginal activists were exploiting the past for self-serving political and monetary gains.

When The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was published in December 2002, the authors I criticised dug in, sticking to their original story. Lyndall Ryan publicly repeated her claim in The Aboriginal Tasmanians that her subjects had suffered “a conscious policy of genocide”. But there were other critics who realised they might not win a public debate with a concept so difficult to sell.

So Bain Attwood, followed quickly by Dirk Moses, devised a novel approach. In articles written for the press, they denied there was an academic orthodoxy about large-scale violence in the Australian colonies. Instead, they tried to discredit me for beating up the issue. In The Australian in January 2003, Attwood charged:

Windschuttle similarly argues that I am one of “the supporters of the genocide thesis”. Like many of the inflammatory claims Windschuttle makes about contemporary academic historical practice, he provides no evidence for this. I have never argued that any of the Australian colonies pursued a policy of genocide on the frontier.

A few days later, Moses chipped in: “Windschuttle has misrepresented specialist academic historian’s work and failed to back up with evidence his claims regarding the historiography of genocide.”

Respectable scholars, Attwood said, never deployed the term genocide in the way I claimed. He writes in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History that by the early 1990s new research had moderated the account of the frontier produced by earlier, more radical historians. “A new consensus had emerged in academic historiography: much confrontation and conflict had occurred between Aborigines and settlers, but a fair amount of sharing and accommodation had also taken place.”

I am simply repeating the same conclusion, he says, but claiming it as my own discovery, while at the same time damning historians for a position they do not hold. In the press he declared:

This is no expose, as he and his supporters claim. It’s just old news from a tabloid historian. Only those ignorant of the academic historiography — or unwilling to go and read it — could believe otherwise.

Attwood must have held his breath when he wrote this, hoping that if he brazened it out, readers would take him at his word. But anyone who does check the academic literature will quickly find what he said was transparently untrue.

The quotations that start this article show Attwood himself arguing in 2000 that, rather than a process of sharing and accommodation, the colonisation of Australia was a holocaust for Aboriginal people. And in 2001 he wrote that the concept of genocide could not only be useful for understanding Australia ‘s past, it could also be politically expedient.

Attwood is by no means the only academic historian to have endorsed the genocide thesis in the last five years. His Aboriginal History article in 2001 was one of ten commissioned for a special “genocide” edition of that academic journal, edited by Ann Curthoys and John Docker.

In their introduction, Curthoys and Docker argued that European colonialism was an even more intrinsically genocidal process than that of Nazi Germany. Using evidence put forward by the American academic Ward Churchill, Curthoys and Docker argue that England was the most “overtly genocidal” of the European colonial powers.

Moreover, they assert, “settler-colonies around the world established during European expansion post-1492 in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Argentina are not only potentially but inherently genocidal.” [their emphasis]

Indeed, in September 2002, just four months before Attwood was assuring readers of The Australian that there was little academic advocacy of genocide in Australia, Curthoys and Docker were interviewed in Australian Humanities Review about the journal they edited.

So we felt pleased that relating genocide to settler-colonialism was what our contributors were doing in Aboriginal History … for me the debate has not been so much about the ‘uniqueness’ of the Holocaust, though I am aware of that debate, as about finding a way to understand Australian settlement history in a way that places it carefully within a larger history of colonisation and genocidal desire and practice.

In a more recent anthology, Genocide and Settler Society, Dirk Moses takes a similar line. Genocide is something inherent or built into settler societies like Australia. Moses writes:

I am not suggesting that the entirety of Australian history can be reduced to genocide. (No one suggests that studying the Holocaust reduces German history to Nazi genocide.) But neither is it possible to regard the country’s genocidal moments in the manner of an industrial accident. They are not contingencies, attributable to misguided or wicked men, but intrinsic to the deep structure of settler society.

In other words, instead of academics playing down the level of violence and avoiding talk of genocide, the opposite is the case. Their most recent contributions to this debate want to inflate rather than minimise the notion. They want us to believe that genocide is not just a contingent fact about Australian history, but an intrinsic one. Whatever the empirical evidence might or might not reveal, genocide is therefore true by definition.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Attwood’s writings show him plainly a member of the same camp. In his 2001 article in Aboriginal History, Attwood applies the term genocide to the stolen children debate. He says “to consider seriously the question of genocide in relation to the removal of Aboriginal children, we can only do so by exploring the broader historical circumstances in which it occurred.”

He goes on to endorse what he calls “an important essay” written in 1987 by Tony Barta of La Trobe University: “he [Barta] urges an approach to genocide that replaces the conceptual emphasis upon intention (or purpose, motive, policy or planning), particularly those of individuals but also of the state, with one that focuses upon ‘sets of relationships’ in any given society.”

Attwood then presents an analysis (page 170) describing the relationships that held sway in Australia and were manifest in Aboriginal children’s policy for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. After this passage he asks whether it is helpful to consider this as genocide. His conclusion is that, despite Inga Clendinnen’s verdict that the charge has been a political disaster, “the concept of genocide, I am suggesting, might still be useful to us in the historical task of imagining and so understanding the past of our forbears (and therefore, in time, might have beneficial political outcomes)”.

What Attwood is supporting here is an approach to genocide that is a radical expansion of its original meaning.

Like murder, genocide was originally regarded as a crime of intent. The inadvertent killing of members of an ethnic group, by disease or as a by-product of warfare with other objectives, was not defined as genocide. In common usage, that still holds true. The United Nations Convention on Genocide itself insists on demonstrable intent.

The article by Tony Barta which Attwood admires is quite explicit about its aims. In colonial Australia, the critical issue in defining genocide was not the government’s intention towards the Aborigines but, according to Barta, the relations between black and white involved in the appropriation of land. This meant that in Australia “implicitly rather than explicitly, in ways which were inevitable rather than intentional, it is a relationship of genocide”.

Hence Barta and Attwood want to change the original concept so that they can use their own historical interpretations — their own versions of the prevailing “sets of relationships” in the past — to apply the label genocide to historical events not previously regarded as such.

Thus genocide would become a finding no longer subject to the fairly clear test of the policies, motives and objectives of its perpetrators. It would be defined into existence by academic historians who themselves determine what sets of relationships are appropriate. All of this is cynically designed to produce “beneficial political outcomes”.

Hence, Attwood’s genocide denialism is duplicitous. For the purposes of public debate in the press he pretends to reject the genocide thesis, but in the confines of the academic literature he is one of its most radical interpreters.

The same duplicity is on display in Attwood’s discussion of Lyndall Ryan’s statement that the Tasmanian Aborigines had suffered “a conscious policy of genocide”. She wrote this in the first edition of Aboriginal Tasmanians in 1981 and left it intact in her 1996 revised edition. Her statement contradicts Attwood’s claims about an academic consensus against frontier genocide.

His response is to claim that Ryan wasn’t referring to the conflict in colonial Van Diemen’s Land, but to post-World War II assimilation policies which, he says, amounted to “cultural genocide”. He accuses me of taking her words out of context and misleading readers.

Two comments are in order here. First, the proposition that assimilation equals genocide, and the entirely dubious category of cultural genocide itself, are two of the predictable outcomes when left-wing historians get to define the “sets of relationships” involved.

Second, contrary to Attwood’s claim, most people who read Ryan’s phrase in context — they are the last four words of her book’s historical chapters — will see she is not just referring to the recent past but is summarising her overall case about colonial Van Diemen’s Land.

Anyway, Ryan herself has now twice confirmed publicly my interpretation of her words. In The Australian (December 17, 2002) she acknowledged her book “asserts that the Tasmanian Aborigines did indeed constitute a threat to British settlers, that the Black War was a ‘conscious policy of genocide’, though not in the end a successful one, as the Aborigines survived.”

Poor Attwood can’t accept that Ryan knows what she means better than he does. He says of this response that it was “evident to those familiar with Ryan’s Aboriginal Tasmanians that she had now formulated an argument she had not made in that 1981 study”. Yet in the Channel Nine program Sunday in May 2003, Ryan reasserted her case:

LYNDALL RYAN: I think if you go back to the sources and to the dispatches that Governor Arthur was writing back to England, he, himself, is aware that the government was, in the end, carrying out what I think Governor Arthur called the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines. He didn’t want it to happen, but he could see that was what the outcome of his policy was.

HELEN DALLEY: So you call that genocide because you’re saying there was some political intent to exterminate them?

LYNDALL RYAN: The policy was — the outcome of the policy was that. The numbers of settlers being killed are increasing, so he’s got to do something about it. So eventually the Governor, the government, does institute policies which must end in the deaths of the Aborigines. Governor Arthur realised there were not a lot of Aborigines left and he was concerned that it would end up with them all being killed, and that’s largely, in the end, what happened.

Both Ryan’s television interview and her newspaper article flatly contradict Attwood’s assertions about her views in Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History.

Attwood is similarly deceptive about my discussion of Henry Reynolds’s position on genocide in Tasmania. According to Attwood’s book, I fail to realize or refuse to acknowledge that Reynolds denies the colonial government intended to exterminate the Aborigines.

Yet I say twice in Fabrication and once in a conference paper published in the book Frontier Conflict, edited by Attwood himself, that although Reynolds accused the Tasmanian settlers of wanting to exterminate the Aborigines, he acquitted their government of genocide. Indeed, on page 296 of Fabrication I quote the very same sentence to that effect from Reynolds’s book, Fate of a Free People, which Attwood reproduces himself. Anyone who follows this debate closely will see that Attwood can’t be trusted to put my case honestly.

The same audacity is on display when both Attwood and Moses deny my contention that Australian academics make exaggerated claims about genocide. Their tactic is to say that the people I quote are not real historians and that academics are not responsible for what journalists and others write.

In Telling the Truth About Aboriginal History, Attwood accuses me of repeatedly conflating popular and academic writers on the subject. This was a claim he originally made in The Australian in 2003:

Likewise, among academic historians there is no “orthodox interpretation that a policy of genocide existed in colonial Tasmania,” as one journalist has claimed. This is a fallacy peddled by Windschuttle, who confuses specialist academic scholarship in the sub-discipline of Aboriginal history with the writings of non-specialist historians, journalists and other writers.

Similarly, Moses argues in Genocide and Settler Society:

Journalists and popular writers made use of this ‘revisionist’ scholarship for moral-political purposes … they occasionally made wild analogies with Nazi genocide … Scholars, by contrast, have been very circumspect, occasionally drawing some links or parallels between German and Australia [sic] history, but without crudely equating the two cases.

But I have demonstrated, chapter and verse, that the most influential journalists and other popular writers in this field have taken their information direct from academic sources. In Quadrant, September 2000, I showed that the facts behind journalist Phillip Knightley’s infamous comparison between the Australian colonies and Nazi Germany came straight from the Oxford Companion to Australian History and the writings of Henry Reynolds. Art critic Robert Hughes’s internationally notorious statement that Tasmania housed “the only true genocide in English colonial history” derives from the work of three Australian academics: Lloyd Robson, Rhys Jones and Lyndall Ryan.

Moreover, despite Attwood’s claims of a consensus among historians in the early 1990s about a comparatively non-violent colonial frontier, there are many academic historians — as well as himself — who still insist colonial Australia was a site of genocide.

In 2001 Raymond Evans of the University of Queensland and Bill Thorpe of Flinders University used the journal Overland to argue against my “massacre myth” series in Quadrant the year before. Their verdict on colonial history was, yes, it was genocide but, no, it was not an Australian Holocaust because the state did not sanction the bloodshed.

In 2005 David Day of La Trobe University, in his book Conquest: A New History of the Modern World, said that although Governor Arthur did not approve, “he could not prevent the genocide that unfolded across the island as its fertile valleys were taken up for farming”. The principal source Day quotes for this conclusion is Reynolds’s book about Tasmania, Fate of a Free People.

An article in a book edited by Attwood himself repeats the same finding. In Frontier Conflict, Ann Curthoys draws the following conclusion about colonial Tasmania: “Genocide had taken place, but it had not been complete.”

Other academics employed in political science and cultural studies have used both primary and secondary historical sources to advance the genocide thesis about Australia. Alison Palmer of the University of East London in 2000 wrote Colonial Genocide, indicting Queensland of the crime. In Genocide in Australia in 1999, Colin Tatz of Macquarie University accused Australia of having committed not one but four kinds of genocide against the Aborigines: deliberate killing, stealing children, controlled breeding, and the policy of protection.

Despite the denials by Attwood and Moses, academic historians have made overt and direct comparisons between Australia and Nazi Germany. Indeed, it is one of the most common comparisons made in this debate. For instance, Tony Barta wrote in the journal Aboriginal History in 2001:

Here is the plainest link between German and Australian incitements to genocide. The threat of the Other was not in any particular action, or even in any particular vice. Their vice was in being as they were; their being was their vice. Therefore their being had to be eradicated, as one eradicates a pest. In Australia, the frontier encounters of the nineteenth century and (rather less openly) in the first decades of the twentieth, eradication meant starving, shooting, poisoning, and simply observing the spread of disease. In Germany, it could mean starving, shooting and poisoning (often with the pretext of preventing the spread of disease) before the arrival of total war in the mid-twentieth century. In both countries the discourse of genocide enabled the majority of the population in whose name the genocide was being carried out to ignore the implications or to acquiesce.

It is hard to imagine how more direct a historical comparison could be. Similarly, here is Andrew Markus of Monash University, writing in the same edition of the same journal:

Australian and German governments envisaged a time when the state would be free of the despised racial ‘other’. The basis of policy was the definition of Aboriginal and Jewish people in pseudo-racial terms, in terms of the ‘race’ of grandparents and in both cases categories of mixed descent (half-caste, quarter-caste, quadroon, Mischlinge of the first and second degrees) were established in law, with significant legal consequences.

In an article published in 2002 entitled “Conceptual blockages and definitional dilemmas in the ‘racial century’: genocides of indigenous peoples and the Holocaust”, none other than Dirk Moses agued that “colonial genocides”, including that of Australia, were part of a single process of accelerating violence that began in the European colonies and culminated in the program to exterminate the Jews in the 1940s. Moses writes:

The proposition I should like to advance is that the hundred years roughly following 1850 can be conceptualised as the “racial century” whose most basic feature was competition between rival projects of nation-building and “people-making” (that is, fashioning of ethnically homogenous populations domestically) that culminated in the Holocaust of European Jewry and other racial minorities in the 1940s. Such an approach links the genocides that occurred in the European colonies with the intra-European population politics of the inter-war and war years.

In Aboriginal History, 2001, Anna Haebich of Griffith University compares the Australian public’s attitudes towards Aborigines to the German civilians who Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler’s Willing Executioners accuses of complicity in the Holocaust. Haebich writes:

Like the concentration camps in Germany, the [ Carrolup, WA ] settlement became part of the local landscape, linked to the town through its reliance on the service of police, doctors, employers and businesses and the townspeople’s prurient interest in the events there…

This list would be remiss if it did not include a contribution from Attwood himself. As noted above, he protested in The Australian last December that when he had written in 2000 that the Aborigines had suffered a “holocaust” he was not equating that with the Jewish Holocaust. Alas, Attwood was not being open with the newspaper’s readers. In the original article, published in Michelle Grattan’s compilation Reconciliation, he says the Aboriginal holocaust was the kind that demands reparation [his emphasis]. Chiding Australia ‘s insensitivity to this obligation, he sarcastically observes: “Isn’t it odd that this term is seldom heard here yet is commonly used in the context of the German state and the Jewish Holocaust?”

So, when Attwood says academic historians do not compare Australian colonisation to Nazi Germany, the last thing he is doing is telling the truth about Aboriginal history. Indeed, not only do these historians make the comparison directly and often, some actually believe that, of the two, Australia is the more morally culpable.

What sort of ethical universe do the people who write like this inhabit? As I noted earlier, the assertion by Ann Curthoys and John Docker that Australia was more intrinsically genocidal than Nazi Germany was based on an analysis of British colonialism by Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. Churchill is also treated as a citable authority by three separate authors in Dirk Moses’s anthology Genocide and Settler Society. Moses reverently describes Churchill as “a Native American activist and scholar.”

Their confidence in this person is revealing. In early 2005 Churchill briefly became America ‘s most reviled university teacher for declaring that those who died in New York ‘s World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 had deserved their fate. Churchill wrote:

If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

At the same time, Churchill, who Curthoys and Docker also describe as a “Native American historian”, was exposed by real American Indians as a fake. The American Indian Grand Governing Council said “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and … has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.”

More importantly, a University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published academic articles.

That the work of such a moral bankrupt and scholarly charlatan could be paraded as weighty commentary by the editors of Australia ‘s leading journal in Aboriginal history is a good indication of what an intellectual shambles this subject has become.

The Return of Postmodernism in Aboriginal History – Part 2 is here…


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