Moving the Genocide Debate beyond the History Wars *

By Moses, A. Dirk | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Moving the Genocide Debate beyond the History Wars *


Moses, A. Dirk, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

The predictable polarisation of the "History Wars" has framed the scholarly and public discussion of genocide in Australian history. On the one hand, conservatives such as the former Prime Minister John Howard and writer Keith Windschuttle, as well as liberals like historian Inga Clendinnen, have complained of excessive talk about genocide and "Holocaust" in the national past. Clendinnen objected to the linking of the Holocaust of European Jewry with the Stolen Generations of Indigenous children by an "activist Lefi", while Windschuttle lamented the "view that Australian history amounted to a long trail of Aboriginal blood that ended in a cesspit of massacres and genocide". (1) Making plain the Howard government's interest in shaping national memory, the Prime Minister leapt to defend Windschuttle and Geoffrey Blainey from "the posses of political correctness" and "the fangs of the left" who he thought "regard Australian history as little more than a litany of sexism, racism and class warfare". (2)

On the other hand, many other liberals and leftists thought that Howard, Windschuttle and their ilk engaged in the pernicious "denial" of both frontier violence and the Stolen Generations, the two dimensions of genocide in Australia. (3) Conservatives naturally bristled at such a suggestion. "Once he [Windschuttle] exposed the doyens of Australian history [...] for telling fibs about so-called massacres, he copped abuse as the equivalent of a Holocaust denier", declaimed columnist Janet Albrechtsen, echoing Frederick Toben of the Adelaide Institute, who wrote that "denier" is a "shut up" word used by Marxists to discredit their opponents. (4)

It is not difficult to understand why discussing genocide in Australian history is so controversial. Originating in international law, the concept of genocide implies a moral judgment. To conclude that Australia's past contains genocidal aspects or "moments" may seem to criminalize it. (5) What is more, because most non-specialists equate genocide with the Holocaust of European Jewry, the debate is often simultaneously about whether such a Holocaust occurred here. These features make genocide central to the "history wars", themselves a battlefront in the broader "culture wars" waged more by media commentators than by academics. And yet, the role of historians in particular has become a central issue in these disputes because some newspaper editors and columnists have convinced themselves that vaguely defined cultural values are being traduced in the history curricula of schools and universities. These institutions, in thrall to postmodern relativism, The Australian worried, are corrupting the youth of Australia: "for too long Australian history [...] has been used as an excuse to indoctrinate students in politically correct fads rather than give them a solid grounding in the factual and narrative history of their nation". (6)

More than the national past is at stake. For the editors of The Australian, the fate of western civilization hangs in the balance. They accused the "publicly funded intelligentsia" of "woolly-mindedness" and lacking a "moral compass" for not signing up to the so-called "war on terror". "Having long ago substituted 'critique' for reason, and even after everything that has happened during the past 3 1/2 years", the newspaper's editors wrote in 2005, "the intellectuals cannot grasp that the West and its democratic values are under attack from an insidious new fascism." (7)

In reply, some of these intellectuals felt that a real danger to Australian democracy was the former federal government and its media supporters, which sought to enforce public conformity to official policy by demonising dissent, incarcerating asylum seekers and circumscribing civil liberties. At times, the attack on historians' discussion of genocide seemed reminiscent of the Turkish state's persecution of writers who "insulted Turkishness" by daring to mention the terrible fate of the Armenians in 1915. …

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