ABORIGINES - GENOCIDE
No element of the
History Wars sparks a more heated response than the charge that the
mistreatment of Aborigines amounts to genocide. The ranks of the deniers
are replete with the usual suspects from Winshuttle up. They twist the
charge away from “Did we commit genocide?” towards “Are we like
the Nazis?” Because the answer to the latter must be ‘No’, they
acquit us of the former.
That deceit lets them
proclaim that there is “no sensible comparison” between the
settlement of Australia and Nazi Germany.
The matter has just
gone global again with the publication of an article in the
Israeli-based scholarly journal, History
and Memory. Australian-born US-based academic Neil Levi takes “No
sensible comparison” as the title for his exploration of the place of
the Holocaust in debates over the Stolen Generation.
is as nuanced as it is novel. He does not rehearse the case for
genocide. Instead, he penetrates the national psyche by scrutinising
“[t]he fetishised image of the Nazi genocide” that “dominates the
thinking of Inga Clendinnen, a prominent liberal historian whose
rejection of the idea that what happened in Australia can be regarded as
‘genocide’ possesses a quasi-canonical status in contemporary
debates.” Her views have “the aura of reasonableness, political
disinterest and scholarly objectivity.”
Levi shows how
Clendinnen invokes intellectual sophistication only in order to dismiss
it. Instead of constituting an “appeal to the rational faculties, to
judgement and intellect”, her refutation is neither persuasive as
argument nor a set of evaluative criteria for judgment. Instead, she is
in thrall to a vision. She conjures up Hollywood images of violence when
she should be analysing her own concepts and evidence.
The difficulty that
Clendinnen has in applying “genocide” to Australia is thus a
secondary part of Levi’s critique. Rather, he contends that the hole
in the heart of her position derives from the ease with which she
displaces that possibility with pictures of Auschwitz.
Levi ponders the
disjuncture between Clendinnen’s knowledge of Nazi genocide and this
intuitive response to the crimes against Aborigines. Confronted by that
inner conflict, “the appropriate response of a critical
intellectual”, he writes, “is surely first of all to ask why sixty
years of separating children from their families fails to conjure up
protects herself from asking whether her inability to make room in her
mind’s eye for the local crimes is symptomatic of a blinkered
historical vision that she shares with John Howard.